The Great Indian Road Trip – Rajasthan

People think twice about a Rajasthan road trip with a kid in tow, but here is a fellow travel happy mom, Shweta Singhal, showing you how its done with a special recommendation for Suryagarh.

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The plan to visit Jaisalmer has been on the cards for the past 8 years, ever since we moved to NCR. But never happened since it demands more than a long weekend. And with a child who hates car rides and is only open to overnight train rides, it increasingly looked difficult. And then, when the plans finally got in place like a neat stack of cards, I was overjoyed! My husband, R and I were going to do Jodhpur – Jaisalmer – Bikaner by road, while my in-laws with daughter would fly in and out of Jodhpur. Everyone is happy…well, almost.

The pre-planning to get all the 5 suitcases in our SUV required military attention, but it got done. We started off at about 715 am to make the best use of the morning time. Our first stop was directly in Jaipur, where we reached at 1130 am. We had planned to eat at Sharma dhaba, and catching up with a cousin of mine. She informed me, though that no dhaba would be serving lunch at that time. So we ended up at a relative’s house to enjoy a veritable feast for lunch, not a smart idea when about 340 km more needs to be done. We finally left Jaipur at 130 with enough gajak, mathri and kachori packed for the next 7 days! That’s marwari khatirdari for you J

Jaipur – Kishangarh – Beawar – Jodhpur – this route suggested on google maps takes one through excellent roads, even though there are some 7/8 odd places to stop for toll. I wanted to take a coffee break around 5 pm at Chatra Sagar in Pali. But putting pali dam in google maps took us to a private property near chatra sagar, with almost an hour wasted, we turned and continued onto Jodhpur. Pali has to wait for some other day. The evening drive for an hour after sunset (at about 6 pm) was the toughest, with no street lights and oncoming vehicles using high beam. We reached our hotel in Jodhpur, quite exhausted at 7 pm. Shower – dinner – sleep.

After a lazy morning breakfast at the hotel and a second one for local treats at Janta Sweet Home, we picked up parents and daughter from the airport and started onward to Jaisalmer. We weren’t expecting a 4 lane highway like the one from Jaipur to Sikar, but the road to Jaisalmer was worse than expected, with a lot of construction going on in parts. We took a much needed break at about 5 pm at Heritage resorts. They have a nice garden and clean loos. We crossed Jaisalmer town and I got the first view of the Jaisalmer fort. It looked beautiful, all lit up in the evening. Our hotel was 15 kms away from the town towards sand dunes. And much before we reached it, we got our first sight of a fort palace on a hill top. Even if you have visited Jaisalmer before, Suryagarh is reason enough for a re-visit. It is a stunning newly built fort palace hotel.

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<The evening, when Suryagarh pretties itself up with subtle lighting>

K loved Suryagarh. Her favourite part was the morning lavish breakfast spread. The hotel has many pets, all of who come to the courtyard and she delighted in that – petting the baby donkey, seeing the sparrows (non pets!) come to the table and drink water from our glasses, getting close to the resident peacock strutting about and playing with the white masakalis (pigeon-like).

 

We spent the next 2 days leisurely soaking in the desert atmosphere and hospitality there. A visit to Jaisalmer fort is a must. However, what we didn’t anticipate was the strong sun and the heat even in the third week of December. We hired a guide to show us around one of the largest inhabited forts in India.

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<Jaisalmer Fort, the largest inhabited fort in India>

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< The fort has lovely jharokhas with jaali work>

Then we went to Trio for lunch, spicy and decent food. I couldn’t convince everyone to see the patwon ki haveli and we came back to the hotel after the fort visit. The evening cultural program, the leisurely meals in the open courtyard, the endless nooks and corners to read a book, the organic garden behind with rows of neat herbs and other plants – so many ways to relax at Suryagarh that the night and the next day quickly passed by.

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<Sunrise the next morning, just before our cycling trip>

The next morning, we did end up having a small adventure. The hotel does have few unadvertised bikes for guests, and while the staff said they couldn’t be taken out of the hotel premises, the hotel manager was perfectly fine with our request. So, dressed warmly and with 3 small water bottles stuffed in our side pockets (since the bikes have no holder for a bottle), R and I left for a cycling trip. The idea was to do a short trip, not more than 10 – 15 kms. I googled Bada Bag, a picturesque cenotaph and the map gave me couple of options. I selected the closest one and after cycling for 5 kms, landed near a stone quarry. The weather was nippy and it was lovely to see the open wide landscape, with nothing but gigantic windmills dotting all over.

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<cycling across a windfarm>

We asked a local near the quarry and got redirected to Ludarva, another site that showed as about 10 km away. We gamely cycled till there. What we didn’t realise was that the route back to the hotel would be another 25 – 27 km!! Soon, we ran out of water and enthusiasm to cycle. R who is used to cycling was game for this, but the last 5 km was sheer torture for me. We had started our trip at 710 and my watch showed 1010 am, the only thing that kept me going (for the last 5 km) was the thought that the lavish breakfast spread at the hotel would end at 1030!

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<beautiful straight empty roads in most parts, maintained by BRO>

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<Breakfast at Suryagarh in the open courtyard was a sublime experience with this artist playing from one of the balconies>

The last day in Jaisalmer was spent at Damodra Desert camp, an excellent choice to spend the night in the desert. We had an early light lunch at Suryagarh and left for Damodra. We reached the campsite, we were shown into our tents; had some tea / coffee and set off in a jeep towards the dunes. Half an hour later, we were transferred to camels which I loved, so much so, that after getting off everyone on the dunes, I asked the camel guy to take me solo with the camel running. Exhilarating, a bit scary only when the camel decided to run down a dune in full speed!

My daughter, K loved the Thar desert as well. Not every kid (or adult) enjoys a camel ride and K hated it. But no child can resist running up and down the dunes, trying sand boarding and enjoying the dramatic sunset.

 

It’s a great way to spend the evening. We were back at the camp post sunset. All the rolling around in the sand required a bath, which delayed us for the evening cultural program. The camp hostess had mulled some wine in true Christmas spirit and gave it to all the guests. Great way to start the evening. Good food, great cultural show and the most magnificent sky with a canopy of stars that I had seen in a while.

The next morning, post a quick breakfast, we set off back to Jodhpur. A quick lunch at Samsara resorts (much grander than our stop en route to Jaisalmer), and we reached the city around 330 pm. We decided to visit Mehrangarh fort before checking into our hotel. The fort perched on its own hilltop looms majestically and can be seen from almost everywhere in the old city. The entrance gates, the vast expanse within, the artefacts showcased in the palace rooms all make for a stunning experience. But it is quite a walk and we were really tired after the journey from Jaisalmer and the tour of the fort.

Since this was our last night in Jodhpur before going back home the next day via Bikaner, my husband and I wanted to make the most of the night. Dinner was at Pal Haveli rooftop, with stunning views of Mehrangarh fort lit up in the evening. (Another great spot in the old city is the restaurant at Raas, but that was all reserved for in-house guests).

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<view of Mehrangarh Fort from Pal Haveli roof-top restaurant>

Another quick stop at Janta Sweet Home, this time with parents and my daughter, and then we were off to Bikaner.

K loved Rajasthani sweets especially the halwa at Suryagarh and jalebis at Janta sweet home (besides the firangi chocolate pastries). But She found Rajasthani food at restaurants quite spicy. We usually ordered pasta or pizza for her outside the main hotels.

A bit of the earlier day repeat – 4.5 hour car trip to Bikaner city, parking the SUV in the old city then a mad dash in an auto to reach Junagarh Fort before the last entry at 430 pm. We made it! After the crowds at Jaisalmer and Mehrangarh forts, this one seemed almost empty at that hour. Which is a shame – this is one of the most beautiful palaces from inside, with stunning work done on the walls and ceilings in several rooms – anoop mahal, music room etc. We then made our way to the newly opened Narendra Bhawan, a beautiful residence of the last king of Bikaner, now converted into a hotel.

And finally the long journey back to Gurgaon.

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Shweta also shared her Vietnam adventures with us, you can find that here. 

 

 

Off-beat Europe With Kids

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Summer holidays are a time when you don’t know whether you are better off at home or out vacationing, because a trip with kids can become so much about just the kids that it doesn’t feel like a vacation for you at all! If a trip to Disneyland or yet another beach vacation is beginning to sound like the last 3, consider destinations which are equally exciting for you. Here’s a round up of the places we have been to (during the summer vacations), with kids when they were ages 3 months to 4 years, along with what can make it fun for kids…other than beaches and zoos.

Iceland, Greenland (June 2012):
We tripped for about 12 days across the two. Our trip to Iceland was limited to the southern parts – beautiful waterfalls, majestic mountains and moody landscapes, all in unpredictable weather. I guess it is the combination of the last 2 that leads to the the Icelandic people still believing in mystical creatures such as elves and trolls.
We covered the gorgeous Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss and Gulfoss waterfalls, drove around in the Vatnajokull National Park and the Skaftafell National Park, admired the glacier filled waters at Jokulsarlon and watched the breathtaking geysers at Geysir.
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Peachy was about 9 months old, which is a delightful age to travel at, as long as you can provide space for the baby to explore. We carried her around in a sling which she preferred to the pram so the breaks to make her sleep were minimised, she would just dose off anytime and anywhere. It was also a blessing that she was good with long drives as we drove around to almost everywhere.
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A day in Helsinki, Finland, on our way back to Delhi
While there wasn’t anything specific that we planned for Peachy during the holiday, she did appreciate the variety of animals, so we’d stop by at lakes and farms and trooped specifically to Black sand beach next to Reynisfjall to see the Puffin birds.
The grown-up stuff that we were bold enough to put her through, went fairly well. So apart from the drives, we took her on a skidoo ride (yes!) and to the Blue Lagoon for a swim.
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Skidoo ride with the Peach, we break for refuelling! She actually fell asleep on the ride back.
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 A dip in the Blue Lagoon. The changing areas were not very kid friendly, but did have baby chairs to plonk the little one in, while mommy/daddy changed.
The Greenland trip was limited to Illulissat. Illulissat means Icebergs in the local language and it is not difficult to see why. The ice fjord visible from town is a UNESCO world heritage site, filled with calving icebergs from the Eqi glacier 35km away. The Eqi glacier is the largest source of ice bergs in the northern hemisphere and the berg that took down the Titanic is thought to have originated here. We went at the time of light all night and it was amazing to watch the sun cruise along the horizon at, well, night, rather than dip away. The view of the glaciers was absolutely gorgeous, and Peachy enjoyed the long hikes and boat rides.
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You would think I’m cold, but I’m fun!
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The sun at 245am
Norway (September 2013) 
The Scandinavian side of Europe has always fascinated me. It just feels like there is whole different culture and beauty there that the rest of Europe just does not replicate. In that sense, Norway doesn’t disappoint at all. Even after having seen the ethereal glacier dotted landscapes of Iceland and Greenland, Norway was gorgeous. Mostly it was the Aurora Borealis – the northern lights, that took our breath away, but the fjord tours, the crystal clear still lakes and lovely hiking trails make it a worth a visit.
The Northern Lights were easily the biggest highlight, for which we had trooped all the way to Tromso and stayed for 3 nights since one can’t quite be sure of catching them on a particular day. There are tours, though, that chase The Lights right upto the Finnish border. We took one such tour, left at 10pm and went around for about 3 hours to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon. Staring into the Milky Way literally made me feel like i had come face to face with the universe and creation itself. Few other moments can make one feel like that, here is a list of mine.
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The Aurora Borealis
Then there is Flam. It is one of the most beautiful villages I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. With colourful little houses that reminded me of Toy-town (of Noddy fame), Flam is surrounded by the stillest lakes which make for fantastic photographs. We stayed at a little apartment with gorgeous views.

 

We spent a week across Tromso, Flam, Bergen and the Sognefjorden area because the northern lights were our main agenda. But In a week you could cover Oslo, Bergen, the Fjords and if you have more time, add in Tromso, Loforen Islands and the Atlantic road.

Norway, by far, is one of the most child friendly countries to travel to. There is child friendly infrastructure everywhere, the restaurants are more than happy to serve customised food and the food in general – soups and stews are good for young kids too. Even their trains had special compartment called Family Coupe which had a play area for kids, yes in a train!

We were well supported for Peachy at the northern lights tour, with the tour company providing us with additional blankets, a car seat in the bus and they even watched over the sleeping Peach in the bus, while we stepped out to view the lights. She was impressed with the ‘dancing lights’ too once she woke up, but the big shadows of the mountains scared her a little. The other fun things for two year old Peachy included a bike tour while being seated behind M, paddle boating at Flam, the troll statues all around, the Oslo Viking ship museum (largely because there was enough space for her to run around) and the trip to the Polaria at Tromso, where she got to see arctic seals and other exotic sea life.

 

Expensive as the country is, we saved money and had fun cooking in our apartment. The saved money went into shopping for chocolates and cosmetics, which wonderfully enough, were much cheaper than in India.
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That’s our off-beat Europe,  and you can read about Brazil here and Russia here.

The other places closer home are Singapore and Hong Kong, more on them in another post perhaps.

So take your pick of destination for this summer and happy trippin!

The weekend we didn’t getaway

The last few weeks have been crazy. First we were out to Westin Sohna for the weekend with the family, since all of us from 3 different countries were here; then it was Cambodia for the Holi-Good Friday weekend and the third consecutive weekend out at Calcutta to watch the T20 Finals and visit family.
Westin was good! It’s a great place to spend a day or 2 with family, especially if you have young kids. They have added a number of attractions over the years and it’s almost a petting farm now. There are guinea pigs, rabbits, a tortoise, ducks, pheasants, turkeys, roosters, goats, horses and the delightfully large emus. The place is dotted with wooden swings and hammocks. There is an open play area and a kids room which has activities by the hour. For older kids, there are 2 pools and the option of hiring bikes to go around the property. It’s a good option to hop across for just the day as well. Plan to reach by 10 am, pay only for lunch and drive out sometime before sunset.
Cambodia was even better! 3 days whizzed past in a blur of tuk-tuk rides, barefoot temple exploration, the pool and breakfasts of mangoes. The temples are breath-taking and my words don’t do them justice, so here are some pictures.
Calcutta, ah Calcutta! I don’t know how I feel about that city. It’s so different and beautiful and green and old world and yet leaves me feeling melancholy. There is enough written about the match, so no more. Being home is always delightful – catching up with sundry siblings and cousins – mom’s cooking and pampering (which I have started appreciating far more since the arrival of the kids). S thoroughly enjoyed living in a ‘normal house’ with a garden, a terrace, an attic, a dog and no guards. We tried out a new place – Jhaal Farezi, probably the first place in Calcutta that has outdoor seating too. The food was good as was the décor.
So, we aren’t known to stay home for a long weekend, but this time with the Ram Navmi holiday, I’m right here. Three whole days with kids at home frighten me. So I’m glad there is the Krackerjack Kids Carnival on the same weekend. While I haven’t been to one myself so far, it looks like a fun place to spend a day with the kids. There are activities across age groups and the live performances by Chhota Bheem et al. S, the almost 5 year old, as she calls herself, is sure to enjoy the magic shows, art corners and all. Might as well get there on Friday, since it seems the weekend seems to have been quite crowded the last time round. 

Russia – The with-kids travel guide

To think that Russia is all Moscow and St Petersburg isn’t fair to the country. The trans-Siberian railway and Kamchatka ( i have no clue why) have always fascinated me.  But in four days, the two cities give you a good flavour of the glorious years the country has seen. It is also the trip i will fondly remember, as the one that gave my my first published posts outside the blog.

So here is the Russia with kids, in four days. 

And here is what surprised me about the cities.

And this is what to do if you are stranded at the airport in Moscow with the kids because airports can be the most difficult to handle with kids. You have bags to manage, tasks to do and 27 questions to answer, most of which are ‘can I have this/buy that’. But find some cool things to do, and airport runs can become very manageable. So here is the top 3 things to do at Moscow Airport (Vnukovo, Terminal A)

  1. Eat at the My My café. It’s a cute buffet place on the 2nd There is a large cow, a helicopter and a car just outside to give the kids something to do. Multiple seating options allow you to sit with your food facing outside so the kids can be watched
My My cafe
My My cafe
  1. Spot the hanging plane. There is a Transaero Boeing 747 model hanging from the ceiling at the domestic check-in area. Much like the elephant duo at our very own IGI airport, this provides a good 5-7 minute distraction.
  2. Hit the play area. There is one large one with the longest Thomas, the engine, track in 300sqft area. Other things to do include a tent, a kitchen set, assorted toys and dolls complete with a small pram. A TV is also present with nice loungy bean bags. The lady at the counter cleans up the kids’ hands with wipes as one enters and the cost is 300 roubles for half hour.

Brazil for toddlers

So is Brazil kid friendly? No. Brazil is a place you make babies, not take babies. Its a romantic country with the music and the mood, but certainly only the brave-hearted will venture there with a toddler in tow, or the ones who have husbands crazy enough to think it can be done.

First up – Food

The food all over South of South America is difficult. They are fond of their queijo breads which is just cheesy bread, that is the one thing you are guaranteed to get everywhere. So if you are not fine dining all the meals, be prepared to feed a toddler, cheesy bread, hamburger, fries and if you’re lucky, rice and beans (which works well for Indian children at least). We had a tough time with food on the go. The fast food places had just the above and the stadia dd not serve food. At all. The best case scenario is to raid the breakfast table wherever you are. By day 2 we were shamelessly packing boxes of fruit, bread sandwiches and cakes to take along for S for the day. The other option is to buy bread and ham and make your own sandwiches every morning supplemented by fruits on the go (juices are readily available) and generous amounts of chocolate milk.

Recommendations

1. Tupana Lodge in the Amazon Jungle had surprisingly good food. Home cooked meats, salads, and beans with rice – great for all of us. BUT no snacks.

2. Delirio Tropical (salad by the plate) in Rio – great selection of salads and meats along with soups – one good meal assured.

Airports

Again, nothing much to make them kid friendly. The best one was Brazilia and it did not have a play area. Rio, Salvador, Sao Paolo were quite tough, even with the food on offer was limited. Though all of them have elevators every where and are stroller friendly.

What To Do in the City

Sao Paolo – we had just about a day in the city this time, but the best thing to do is book a hotel with a pool. There isn’t much for children to do, unless a mall visit is exciting. You could always visit the zoo though, its not a big deal.

Salvador – ah now we are talking. Beach. That’s it, plan to stay within walking distance of the beach and you’re sorted. Take along some sand toys, beach balls and loads of sunscreen. Pelhorinho is an interesting area and one could spend an afternoon there walking along the cobbled streets admiring the shop windows. BUT, the cobbled hilly roads render a pram useless! We ended up carrying the pram and S separately.

Rio – back to the beach. Area 12 on Copacabana even has a children’s play area and some swings. If you plan to visit The Christ or Sugar Loaf, make the most of your toddler privileges. There are special queues for families with kids which practically cut down waiting time from hours to minutes. There’s also the Santa Teresa tram that runs through the old town – an enjoyable train ride for kids.

Bazilia – er..well the architecture is interesting, you gotta hand it to a city who thinks its an airplane 🙂 For toddlers – there is an evening by the grand fountains near the TV Tower. Its beautiful and has plenty of pigeons.

Amazon Jungle – never thought i’d visit there with a toddler, never. But turns out, it was quite an enjoyable time for S too. More than 1 boat expedition in a day can be too much though.

Public Transport

There is the bus network in most big cities, but the buses have a turnstile entry which makes it difficult to travel with strollers.

Taxis are readily available but very expensive.

Hiring your own car is a viable option, we did so in Brazilia. But you need to think through how much do you really need a car because parking spaces etc can be a pain in the other cities.

So if you do decide to travel to Brazil with a toddler, do it for something worth while like the world cup, otherwise its just a beachy holiday better enjoyed elsewhere.