Canada

Country Counter: 24        

Cities Visited: Toronto, Montreal

Timeframe: October 2018

Have you ever planned a last-minute, impromptu vacation, just because you suddenly had some time off? I had only heard of these things happening to others, when it happened to me. I am currently between jobs, and was lucky enough to negotiate an early release from my previous employer. This gave me enough time off to unwind, visit my parents back home for 2 weeks, and still have time left over for another trip. Not wanting to miss this rare opportunity, I decided to visit Canada. One of my friends from my MBA program, who lives there, has been asking me to do so ever since she visited us in France on an exchange program.

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After a week of rushing to and from the embassy for my last-minute visa, I was off. My trip began in Toronto. I managed to get direct, round trip tickets (Paris-Toronto) for a good deal (€430 – Air Canada). My friend picked me up at Union station, from where we headed off to Oakville, one of its suburbs. As I was on some much-needed time off, I decided to keep it relaxed, and not be in a rush to see a million things in one day. Day 1 included an hour-long, picturesque hike at Rattlesnake point, followed by a walking tour of Hamilton, another suburban town which has gentrified a lot in recent years. In Hamilton, we hit Collective Arts Brewery, a micro-brewery that has gained recognition by merging fine brewing and art submitted by artists.

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When you hit Canada Street, while in Canada! *Strolling through Hamilton*

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Collective Arts Brewing

Halloween is a festival that is celebrated in North America like nowhere else. Preparations begin a month in advance. When my hosts wanted to pick up some pumpkins to decorate their front porch, we headed out to one of the (many) pumpkin farms around the area. Halloween, being the biggest draw for pumpkins, was a busy time. We stopped at Hutcherson’s pumpkin farm. I would have never imagined that picking up pumpkins could be an entire exercise in itself – we went through entire ranges, of different colours, shapes and sizes. One was aptly named the Prizewinner!

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The next day, we set out for Toronto city. We were joined by another good friend of my host. First stop: Kensington market, a pedestrian-only zone lined with shops and street artists. We saw a group of 60 to 70-year olds playing as a band, restaurants selling different delicacies, street performers ranging from solo acts to kids as young as ten (maybe even younger). Post lunch, we headed out towards Scarborough Bluffs. The area, formed as a result of erosion over a number of years, provided for a nice hike, complete with its own ‘beach’ and a washed up boat (which intrigued my friend quite a bit).

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Kensington Market

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Scarborough Bluffs

After spending the weekend in Toronto, I headed out to Montreal. I had always had an impression of Montreal as being a purely French city. I was quite mistaken. Montreal combines the warmth of Canadian people with the charm of an old French city. The 3 days I spent in Montreal turned out to be among the best of this entire year. I would also like to give a shout out to another connection of mine, currently based in Amsterdam, who kept providing me with a list of places to visit and things to do while in Canada. Her advice was especially helpful in Montreal, where I did not know anyone. She did not ask me to write this 😉

One thing that instantly caught my attention was the street art/graffiti. Prior to this, my idea of street art was limited to what I see spray-painted on columns and walls under bridges in Europe, which comprise mostly of slang and slurs.

Even the street on which my hostel was located was entirely decorated to celebrate the LGBT community.

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There was art everywhere, from metro stations to highway restaurants.

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Since I had just 2 full days, I was out and about early in the morning. Although it rained the entire day, I was able to cover a lot of ground, owing to the fact that most tourists chose to stay in or start late due to the rain. I found myself first, and almost alone, at various sites. This gave me the freedom to take my time exploring. My first stop was Parc Jean-Drapeau on Saint Helen’s Island (accessible by metro). The park hosts several attractions, most notably the Biosphere. Designed by Buckminster Fuller, it survived fire and ice, and is now a museum.

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The park has several trails. These pictures below show the trail I took. I was the ONLY one in the park at that time, and it was quite serene. The rain brought out the glow among the trees. Once I turned into a corner, and was greeted by an open space, with lights hanging on trees. They were still switched on, and the entire place looked like a magical forest. I also stumbled upon the Tour de Lévis (Lévis Tower), which promised great views of the park and the city skyline. Unfortunately, it was only open to public on weekends.

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Parc Jean-Drapeau

My friend had suggested two notable eateries: Patati Patata for poutine and Schwartz Deli for smoked meat. Although poutine was available everywhere, this place stood out as being one of the best, as per user reviews. I went there for dinner and it was quite nice. One of the (friendly) members who have been running the place for decades suggested a simple poutine with bacon on top. Delicious! For lunch, I had headed up to Schwartz. Even though it was raining heavily, there was still a queue outside, with the inside packed. It was so packed that when I finally got in, I was made to sit on the only empty chair with a family I didn’t know. The place is still a family-owned business, and they claim that they smoke their meat daily to keep it fresh. I was tempted to order 2 sandwiches, but the person waiting on me suggested I start with one. The results are below. The sandwich was huge, hearty and simply amazing!

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Post lunch, I headed towards Notre Dame cathedral. Nestled between residential buildings, the cathedral was bustling with tourists and performers playing live music. When I walked into the square, all the surrounding noise from traffic simply faded away to soothing violin music and friendly chatter. It was like I had stepped into another world just by crossing the street.

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From there on, if you keep walking north along the water, you reach the old port (Vieux Port) of Montreal. During the walk to the port, I passed by Bon-Secours market. Along with Jean-Talon, these two markets attract a lot of tourists and locals alike for their variety of fresh products, and almost a million varieties of maple syrup 😊

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Walking along the water, I stopped by the old port to get some pictures. The trees were just starting to change colour for fall, and it was a contrast to the dull, grey overcast sky.

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View of the city from the Old Port

Another thing worth mentioning. My hostel, M Montreal, was the best one I’ve ever stayed at (yet). The location was great (right next to central Berri Uqam station), the staff was friendly, the rooms were fully equipped (personal curtains), loads of activities, a rooftop with spa and city views, etc. In short, everything was taken care of to make the occupants feel at home. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed such a hostel experience before, and I’ve stayed at many all over Europe. This experience was even better than the one I had in Los Angeles just a month ago. I would recommend this hostel to everyone, of all age groups. In fact, I might just go to Montreal again just to stay at this hostel 😊

Anyway, back to day 2. The hostel had a group hike on Mont Royal planned as one of its activities. I had read that the Mont (hill) was located inside the city, and therefore, a hike to the summit led to great views of the city itself. I did hike up on day 1 at night, but wasn’t able to see much due to rain and clouds. Even though it was pitch black at night, people were jogging on the hill. Hiking up at night, on a path I could barely see, was one of the most exciting (and a bit scary) experience.

The morning was better, weather-wise. Our group headed out on foot after a short bus ride. We soon got to know each other well, and spent the rest of the day together. It reminded me a bit of my hike to the Hollywood sign last month. There are two paths to go up. One involves a lot of stairs; the other, an incline. However, the hike is suitable for first timers or casual hikers. Once on the summit, there is a chalet, with rooms to stay, restaurant(s) and a café. A platform on the front has a bird’s eye view of Montreal. The skyscrapers are near eye-level, with the city in the background. A picturesque photo spot!

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Viewing platform

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View from the platform

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The hostel hiking group

While our guide headed back to the hostel to cook (that evening was pasta night at the hostel), I suggested that we walk along the hill to the other side, towards Saint Joseph’s Oratory (Oratoire Saint-Joseph). Almost the entire group decided to join me, and we had a lovely time walking, talking and laughing with each other. We spent some time at the oratory before heading back to the free pasta that was waiting for us. Later, we hung out at the hostel bar and, as I was leaving the next day, some of them joined me for breakfast as well.

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Saint Joseph’s Oratory

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I returned to Toronto the next day and had dinner at my friend’s place. It was my last night in Canada and I was quite sad to be leaving the day after. An impromptu trip that had materialised at the last moment turned out to be an experience I will never forget, mostly due to the warm hospitality of my hosts, and people in general. I spent the next morning casually strolling in Toronto (I had an evening flight) as I wanted to take in the last moments in Canada before leaving.

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*With my friends/hosts on my last night in Canada*

Among the places I visited were the Distillery District, which was once one of the largest distilleries in North America, and Saint Lawrence market.

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The Distillery District

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St. Lawrence market

This picture below captures another colourful moment during my stroll. I simply loved how the trees and the buildings contrast the grey skyscrapers behind them.

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After having lunch with my friend, I decided to check off something that I had been planning to do since I had arrived. I’ve always had this weird fascination of capturing skylines of different cities around the world through my lens. I had seen a picture of Toronto’s skyline on the Internet before the trip, and I wanted to capture a similar one. But I had no idea from where it was taken. My friend suggested that I take the ferry to Hanlan’s Point on Toronto Islands. There are 3 drop off points, and ferries run every 15 minutes. With just 2 hours left before I had to take the train to the airport, I decided to risk it. In short – ran to the ferry station, booked the next ferry, reached Hanlan’s point, explored the islands a bit, and returned with loads of pictures. I had what I wanted.

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I now have a 10-year tourist visa for Canada, and rest assured, I will be visiting again. My Canadian hosts said that the west coast is more beautiful. ‘til the next time, Canada! You’ve been amazing.

Adi

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The United States of America (West Coast)

Country Counter: 23        

Cities Visited: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas

Timeframe: August 2018

Ah, the US! Who amongst us hasn’t had “the American Dream” in some point in their lives. I’ve always been a fan of Hollywood. So much so, that I pushed my parents to visit the US for our first international trip. We instead went for England. Anyway, come 2009, when Barack Obama had just been historically sworn in as POTUS, we finally decided to visit. My family and I received 10-year visitor visas, giving us ample time for multiple visits. However, I will share the story of my first trip to the US (East Coast) in a future blog post. My sister moved to the US last year but my parents couldn’t accompany her, as my father had major health issues. Our aforementioned 10-year visa also terminates this (10 years passed by like it was yesterday), and I hadn’t been anywhere this year (first trip of 2018, can you believe it?). Hence, we decided to take a family trip to the West Coast of the US. This is that story.

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First, let me say that I fell in love with the weather in and around San Francisco. With the bay nearby, it was around 12-18 degrees (Celsius) in August, which was a relief from the heat in Europe for me, and from the heat of Delhi for my parents. From the start, everyone, from people who had visited before to our cab driver, warned us to avoid certain streets and be mindful of the homelessness problem. I had also read numerous articles on how the real estate market in San Francisco was literally not affordable for most of the working population in the area, so all these added warnings started to worry us. However, on ground, the picture was different. Yes, there were homeless people (which country doesn’t have them), but they did not pose any problem at all, and didn’t fail to distract us from the beauty of the city. Walking around the bay, watching people celebrate, everyone with a smile on their face – we felt welcome. And that is something I do not usually say for every place I’ve been.

The highlight of the city was, of course, the Golden Gate bridge. Made popular by countless movies, the bridge is a delight to witness. San Francisco’s resident fog, named Karl lovingly, constantly lingered over the bridge, so it was difficult to get that bright, sunny shot. However, even engulfed with fog, the bridge was marvellous. I drove back at night to get a shot with the lights on. Clearly marked walking and hiking paths were laid out everywhere, for those who wished to walk around the area while catching a glimpse of the wonderful bridge.

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We booked a city tour, which took us around town and saved us from walking all over the hilly roads. I was constantly seeking to visit all the sites made popular by Hollywood – Twin Peaks, Alamo Square’s Painted Ladies, Lombard street (known as the steepest street in the world, which it isn’t) etc. Twin Peaks was windy but worth the short drive up the hill. On a clear day, you get amazing views of the city. I took this picture (below) while the view was blocked by Karl, but still managed to capture it. The Painted Ladies, made famous by the now-decades-old show Full House, brought back fond memories of TV from my childhood. The best part of the whole experience was that, being a city located on a hilly terrain, if you drive just a bit in any direction, you reach a spot with great views of downtown, like this one.

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Another short, but memorable, drive we took was to the Muir woods, home to some of the world’s tallest trees. The place itself is so tranquil and well maintained that, not only do you feel dwarfed (and somewhat humbled) by the sheer size of the trees, but the area also instills peace while you are walking through it. There are multiple hiking paths inside the woods area, which are easy enough for beginners (like my mother) to cover within half an hour.

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The only thing I regret is not being able to visit Yosemite National Park. The day we landed, the place caught fire and was closed for all tourism purposes. The fire was brought under control only after 4 weeks, and I read that California is facing its worst year of forest fires. May God be with the people there. It pains me to see such historic and beautiful places getting damaged.

After four days in SF, we drove down to Los Angeles. Finally, my dream came true! I have dreamt of visiting Hollywood since I was 6 years old.

While browsing hostels, I stumbled upon one whose location seemed, at first glance, to be incorrect. It was right ON the Walk of Fame, and next to the studio where Jimmy Kimmel Live is shot. I’m a big fan of the show, plus, being right on the Walk of Fame seemed to be too good a chance to give up. After confirming the location, I booked a full dorm room with 4 beds (very convenient for a family). While I won’t make this whole post about the hostel, let me just say that everything about the Hollywood Walk of Fame hostel was great – location, helpfulness of the staff, ambience, etc.

For sightseeing in Los Angeles, we booked a day tour with one of the operators based outside the Chinese Theatre. Note: I usually never discredit anyone, but DO NOT book with operators next to the Chinese Theatre. Not only was it more expensive than alternative, but similar, deals on offer, the tour operator was not at all knowledgeable, and we did not hit any of the spots that were promised on the tour. By the end, I was chatting up with other groups on the bus, who said they felt cheated as well.

The city itself is like any other metropolis, with the downtown area having its share of beautifully designed buildings. However, I realised that staying in Hollywood, on the Walk of Fame, is not exactly staying in the city. Hollywood is on the outskirts, and it takes a 25-minute train ride to reach the centre. But this did not bog us down because there is plenty of action packed near the Hollywood area, including THREE major studios with tours – Universal, Warner Brothers and Paramount.

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We spent one full day at Universal. While I haven’t been to Disneyland in the US, I have been to the one in France. I had imagined the experience would be quite similar, as they are all movie studio-based theme parks. Boy was I wrong. Honestly, I cannot stop gushing about Universal Studios to anyone who asks (Disneyland Paris pales in comparison). Universal is well worth its ticket price of $110 or so. One of the major highlights of the trip, and not just for me. Even my parents, who have limited interest in Hollywood, seemed to enjoy every ride. The famous Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Transformers: The Ride, Jurassic Park: The Ride – all were amazing. It was great to see my parents light up with smiles after, what is essentially, a roller coaster ride. Even the seemingly “humble” studio tour – where you just sit on a bus with a hundred people and drive through various movie sets – was awesome (includes the famous King Kong 360 3D, the world’s largest 3D set, designed by Peter Jackson himself). A must-visit for all if passing by Los Angeles. Remember to keep a full day aside for this, as the waiting times for rides can be long, especially if you go in the summer like we did.

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On the 7th day of our trip, I started to get a bit annoyed. This was Los Angeles after all, one of my dream cities, and I just wanted to have a day to myself. Luckily, my family understood. So, on Friday, my sister hired a car and took my parents to see some beaches she wanted to visit, and try out some of the local celebrity ice cream – Ghiradelli (delicious).

My day alone turned out to be one of the happiest days of the trip, and of this year – unforgettable! I’ve been longing to write this bit down since I returned. I started off by heading into the lobby to see what kind of activity was planned for the day. Another good reason to stay in a (good) hostel – they always have weekly activities. I had been planning to hike up to the Hollywood, and luckily, the activity that morning was a hike to the sign. The lobby was filled with young people travelling in small groups or individually. Everyone was quite friendly. I met a small group of people who were ready to hike to the top of the sign – the guide was only going to lead us to the first viewing platform, which is BELOW the sign. It is a flat area quite close to the sign, which is on Mount Lee (not Mount Hollywood, as people imagine). He told us that once we reached there, he will give us directions to those who are willing to go up to the sign itself. Excited, we all set out.

A 20-minute walk from the hostel brought us to the bus stop which takes you to the starting point of the hike. The time spent walking, and on the bus ride, was a good way of getting to know your fellow hikers. Once we set off, the view along the entire way amazed me. The hills were packed with beautiful houses and mansions, which, by the look of it, could only belong to ultra-rich individuals. The guide told me that the average price of a house here was well over $10 million. But the view of the valley and downtown LA is to die for.

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We reached the first point in about 35-40 minutes, including two 5-minute breaks. The hike was a moderate climb, although first timers would find some parts a bit tricky. Once we all finished taking pictures here, I again floated the idea of us going to the sign itself. Almost everyone backed out, either due to tiredness or other arrangements. Luckily, the group of 5 I met at the hostel agreed. Another tricky part here is getting on the right track. Before visiting, I had read that the main trail was closed in July 2017, as the residents complained about “too many” tourists. They took it a step further (and this is the part that appalled me a bit) by asking (paying?) Google to give FALSE DIRECTIONS on the Google Maps App. Initially, I had a hard time believing this myself, but as I talked to people from there, they confirmed that this was true indeed. What losers!

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Luckily, our guide gave us the right directions. They did come in handy as this next part of the trail is quite a climb, the path is dusty with the occasional rattlesnakes, and the scorching LA heat is unbearable for a long hike. If you plan to attempt this, make sure you bring at least 2-3 bottles of water with you. People to keep you company are a great advantage as well.

When people ask me how was the trip, was it everything that you imagined it would be, I say LA was good. But this hike was the best (yet)! Once you reach the top, sweating and dehydrated, the killer view is worth the arduous journey. This picture below captures it all. That is a genuine smile on my face, not one that we fake for pictures. Do you see the sheer amount of happiness on my face, with the Hollywood sign and Los Angeles behind me? 😊

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Welcome to Hollywood, baby!

The day ended quite well. We met some more people on our way down, on the bus and back at the hostel. The evening was spent playing pool and grabbing the local brews. We were longing for a beer after that hike. We even made a short trip back up to the Griffith Observatory, which doubles up as a cool science museum. Don’t miss their Tesla Coil, and go outside and wander around for the best night time views of the city lit up.

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We checked out the next day and headed towards Las Vegas. We decided to spend only the weekend, as the city doesn’t have many “tourist” spots (unless you have a gambling problem). On our way, we stopped for an hour at the Hoover Dam. Again, made famous by featuring in many Hollywood films, the dam itself is an engineering marvel. Just walking along the bridge, with the huge installations towering above you, is a sight to behold. The dam, originally built to hold the “wild” Colorado river, is somehow, also beautiful enough to attract millions of tourists every year.

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We reached Las Vegas around 3 PM. It is a four-and-a-half-hour drive from Los Angeles (traffic and halts included) through completely barren but beautiful landscape, including deserted valleys and small towns. We booked the Shalimar Hotel, another great choice. I would highly recommend this hotel if you are looking for a good price-comfort-privacy-staff friendliness package. Admittedly, even though there isn’t much to see and do in Las Vegas, keep the evening aside to just casually stroll through their world famous “strip.” The strip, a few kilometres long, is buzzing with activity till late night. It was also the most lit up street I’ve ever seen. Tall buildings, housing expensive hotels and casinos, lit up brilliantly with a myriad of colours and animations. Yes, they have their own Eiffel Tower, Disneyland, Manhattan and the like.

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For those wanting to catch the famous Welcome to Las Vegas sign, head to the other end of the strip towards the Mandalay Bay hotel, and you’ll arrive into an enclosed area. I was surprised by the planning that went into this area around the sign – it has its own parking lot, and by lanes to drive in and out for photo stops. If you plan on renting a car, you can easily slide into the lot, park for as long as you want, take pictures with the sign, and drive out just as easily as you drove in.

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The next day, we decided to just “touch” the edge of the Grand Canyon. Our holidays were limited, owing to my sister’s PhD schedule, which she had to return to soon, and my work schedule back in Paris. While we wanted to spend more time at the Canyon, we could only squeeze in one day. However, we decided to go for it, as it is not very likely that all of us would be visiting the Eastern US coast again anytime soon.

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The West Rim of the Canyon (the West and the South are the most accessible from Las Vegas) has a new attraction – the great Skywalk. I had read about its opening, and the accolades that came with it – highest in the Northern Hemisphere, can hold the weight of 72 jets etc. While it’s all good advertising, do not plan to go there thinking you’ll find it empty like the pictures you see on the Internet. For spending more time, the visitor centre has other attractions as well, including a helicopter ride of the Canyon (which my parents experienced and said was great), a visit to the tribal habitations of the area (the land belongs to the Native Americans) and other, heritage related locations.

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The only thing that was a bit disappointing was that you are not allowed to take anything with you on the bridge – not even your phone or camera. If you want your picture taken, you must wait in a slow-moving line, and pay the company’s representatives to take pictures for you. A bit of on-the-nose capitalism, I thought. Driving all this way just for a short walk on the bridge, without any pictures to capture the moment.

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We drove back the same night to Las Vegas and hopped on a bus to San Francisco. We spent another day in SF. Our initial plan was to visit Yosemite if it had reopened. Unfortunately, the fire was more difficult to control than was previously estimated.

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All in all, a great trip. California had always been on my radar, and now I can happily cross it off my list.

Hope your summer went great as well.

Until next time,

Adi

2017, a good year for travel

Cities Visited: Stuttgart, Brussels, Zurich, Lauterbrunnen, Lyon

Timeframe: September to December 2017

This was originally supposed to be an end of the year post, but no matter. Here’s wishing everyone who is reading this a very happy new year, filled with success and good health.

I usually write about a country in every post, but the second half of 2017 went by in a whirlwind. I didn’t have time to explore a new place, so I tried to fulfill long time visit commitments made to my friends. The year started pretty good, especially with Ireland in April. September saw me embark on my first trip for work to Stuttgart, where I decided to extend the one-day client visit into a weekend opportunity.

When I asked around about the things to do/see/eat, everyone gave me a mellow response. “Stuttgart? Why?”, “It’s just an old manufacturing city” and the like. When I arrived, the first thing that struck me was how it was (relatively) difficult to ask for directions in English. Being a German city, I assumed everybody, more or less, would speak a bit of English, but I was slightly frustrated at the train and metro stations. I even tried to find a French speaker, which is improving daily, but to no avail. After finally figuring out which platform and train to take, I reached my destination. I stayed near the main university campus, on the outskirts of town. The area was really peaceful and had an unmatched view (behind the student residences). My AirBnB host was kind enough to wait for me even though I reached late.

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I had already marked all the sights to visit on my map. However, upon reaching the city centre, a pleasant surprise awaited me. That weekend was the first of the Cannstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart’s answer to Munich’s beer festival, and the second largest. I had been planning to visit Munich during Oktoberfest, but something or the other always kept coming up, so this was quite the lucky stroke. The area was not as crowded as you’d expect, and had plenty of options to do, eat and drink, alcohol or otherwise. It was originally meant to be for families. However, with the popularity of Oktoberfest, they installed beer tents to attract part of that crowd. The atmosphere was vibrant, with people singing and dancing all around. There are, of course, no empty places or tables to sit at, unless reserved in advance.

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Being a car enthusiast, and being in the cradle of the automobile industry, and being in the city to meet an automotive client, my next stop was surely the car museums: Porsche and Mercedes Benz. Both would satisfy any car fan’s ultimate dream. Exclusive models, vintage cars, and new age technologies were merged into perfect symphony. The Mercedes Benz museum was quite well designed. The lobby had an elevator which takes people to the top floor to start the tour. The elevator looked like something straight out of a futuristic spaceship, and made zero noise, even with tons of people inside.

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After Stuttgart, I decided to hop off to Brussels for a weekend. I had been to city previously, but had always been with family and on a strict itinerary. So when my friend from Lyon asked me to come over, I took the bus from Paris after work and reached on Friday night. We spent the next two days just casually walking around with no plan. Brussels is as walkable as Paris, but being smaller, it is highly convenient as well. We ran into a shop that sells holiday and party-themed trinkets, where we all bought fake hair for Halloween parties. We discovered a great Irish pub, where we kept coming back. We, evidently, ran into a museum-cum-gift shop dedicated entirely to Tin Tin. To top it all, my AirBnB was one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. The host was a chef and an artist. The entire house reminded me of those quirky but deceptively intriguing and fascinating apartments artists own in movies based in Europe.

In November, my best friend from school, who now lives in Switzerland, reminded me of my commitment to him as well. And so I was off again. Since the place where he lives, a nice, tiny village called Lauterbrunnen, was not directly accessible (from anywhere), I had to arrive in Zurich first. I again took this opportunity and kept one day extra at hand to explore the city. Keeping aside the fact that it is one of the most expensive cities in the world, the place is wonderful. The people are wonderful. The atmosphere is great. And the best part was, I could check out the entire city within 2-3 hours, on foot!

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On my second day, I checked out of my hostel early in the morning and took the guided tour to Jungfrau(joch). This has, arguably, been the highlight of my 2017. I remember studying about Europe and Jungfrau in our geography lessons in school, back in the late 90s. Ever since then, Jungfrau has been on my bucket list. The price of the tour (around 200 Euros) was a bit steep, but I can assure you, as have many others in their reviews on their website, that the tour is definitely worth it. It is a comfortably paced tour with ample time at each destination, and is a must visit if you are visiting Eastern Switzerland. It also helped that our group was very open, friendly, chatty, and our guide, Valerie, was great. I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to so many people in a month in France, as I did on that day in Zurich.

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The tour passes via Sachlen Tunnel, one of the longest in Switzerland and Lungern, the geographical centre of Europe. It was November so the weather was not exactly kind, but I’ve always found such settings more alluring. One of the stretches on the road was particularly memorable. Imagine a route packed with fog and laden with snow from the previous night. Then, all of a sudden, the sun comes out and pierces through the fog, while reflecting on the half melted snow. It was truly magical, and yes, I know I did not do a very good job of describing it. It was one of those “you had to be there to see it” moments.

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On our way down, I got off at Lauterbrunnen and did not head back to Zurich with the others. My friend and his wife picked me up from the station. My first impression was of a cosy, ski village nestled in a valley. The nearest main station is Interlaken, where most of the jobs are located as well. This brings all the dwellers from above down the valley to work, and back up in the evening. A deal filled with stunning scenery I wouldn’t mind having someday.

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On our first day, we went tobogganing down from Wengen. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on snow (I don’t ski). While it took some time to get a hang of the steering and the braking, I emerged out as quite the professional! The path starts from the top where you have the entire North Face, including Eiger and Jungfrau, in your background.

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As with every ski station, there are always a few local bars where everyone from the community meets in the evening. The bar was right next to my friend’s place, AND it had a waterfall in the backyard. I mean, can you imagine a more perfect setting than having a waterfall right in your backyard?

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This just makes me want to pack up everything and head over there!

Finally, in December, I headed back to my second-home, Lyon, for a weekend. While in Brussels, my friend and I had decided to organise a small networking session amongst different MBA cohorts. We were expecting a small turnout, but received an overwhelming response. This involved a lot of planning from a distance, as neither of us stays in Lyon anymore. All in all, the event went without hiccups, and gave me another chance to drop by in Lyon before saying goodbye to 2017.

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I hope this year brings the same spirit of adventure, opportunities and ambience for me, and I wish you all the same as well.

Thank you for stopping by.

Adi

Australia

Country Counter: 22        

Cities Visited: Sydney, Melbourne

Timeframe: June 2007

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Over the past few months, I’ve tried to pick up my writing. I realise the longer I wait, the more I tend to forget details about trips taken a decade ago. At that time, we could not afford a digital camera and carried our bulky old Canon everywhere, with a few film rolls. Each roll could capture around 36 photos, so we did not have the liberty to click wildly and then sort out the good ones. Each photo had to be ‘planned’, and we had developed this habit of checking the ‘remaining counter’ after every snap. With the advancement of camera technology coupled with its exponential reduction of cost, it is hard to imagine how life was just ten years ago.

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The last time I went home, I tried to dig up as many of these (expensive) printed photos. I couldn’t wait much longer as most of them were either shedding colour or form in some way, and the rest were lost somewhere along the way. It made me really sad (and feel careless), and this tremendous loss is why I won’t be able to write a full post on Nepal (2005) and Thailand (2007, on our way to Australia). I still managed to salvage a few from our Australia and USA trip in time, but they weren’t enough to complete the picture. Among a lot of discussion and reminiscing, I was able to piece the memory blocks and recall most of our journey through this amazing country.

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Our first stop was Sydney, where we spent around 3 days. We were on foot mostly, exploring public squares like The Rocks and The Domain, visiting iconic landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, and exploring wildlife in the zoo. Visit the Sydney Tower for excellent views of the city and Bondi Beach for the chilled-out life (but you knew that already).

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Sydney Tower

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St. Mary’s Cathedral from the tower

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View from the Sydney Tower

We took the one-day tour to the Blue Mountains, carefully arranged to include small groups for a better experience. We travelled in a small van with our guide, who was quite the fellow indeed. This is something I want to mention here. I’ve been around different groups of people around the world, and everyone has their unique sense of humour. I found that apart from being generally relaxed, which Australians are known for, everyone almost invariably has a great sense of humour. And the good type, mind you, much like the Irish.

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With our guide

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The Blue Mountains

During the entire trip, the guide kept us entertained with quips like ‘did you know, that the Blue Mountains are neither blue nor mountains?’ and ‘I advise you not to get too close to the edge, but if you do fall over, make sure to enjoy the view.’ The Blue Mountains were fascinating to say the least, and no one died. We checked out the famed ‘Three Sisters’ rock formation, who were turned into stone in order to protect them, according to an old legend. There are hiking trails which bring you close to the rocks but were not part of this tour. Another highlight was the Scenic World railway tour, which is a MUST do, just for the thrill. It is the steepest incline railway in the world, and the ‘open’ cars have only seat-belts. My mother and sister were in the first cabin, and as the coach starts descending, you can almost feel that you’ll fall off your seat and plunge into the valley (that does not happen, of course). Absolutely thrilling!

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Scenic World railway with the Three Sisters in the background

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The Three Sisters

We headed out to Melbourne next, via Canberra. My dad has this enviable gift of finding contacts wherever we fly to. As soon as we reached, a man came to pick us up and invited us to his home. We later found out that he is one of the most successful businessmen in the city, having arrived in Melbourne with his father years ago and gradually rising to where he is right now. His success, however, had not changed his demeanour one bit, and he remained as humble as one could possibly be. He provided us with a great accommodation and an unforgettable gastronomic tour around the city, and our families became good friends. He passed away a few years ago, much to our shock and surprise (he was younger than my father), and we will never forget his hospitality and our friendship.

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One of the first things that struck me was how clean the city was – not a speck anywhere. It was an unbelievable sight to our sore eyes – coming from India and this being only our second international destination. Don’t get me wrong, things have improved back home now, but at that time we were just glad to see a nation collectively deciding not to litter and preserve their cities, something which many nations are still struggling to achieve.

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Spotless!

Tons of things to do and see. From the hustle bustle of Queen Victoria market, to St. Kilda’s beach, the Shrine of Remembrance – a war memorial for WWI, a walk along the Yarra river at the Yarra Bend Park and the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the 1853 birthplace of Test cricket (I’m from India, remember). A drive along the Great Ocean Road is recommended for all visitors, and so is the Melbourne Museum for its fascinating displays (I couldn’t find our pictures of the exhibits, unfortunately).

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The Shrine of Remembrance

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Ceremonial Avenue, looking towards the city of Melbourne from the shrine

There were two main highlights of our stay in Melbourne. The first was the century-old Puffing Billy steam train ride through the Dandenong Ranges. The windows were large enough to allow people to sit through them with their legs dangling outside and enjoy the view. The tour also includes a stop at the Healesville Wildlife Sanctuary, where you can get up close and personal with over 200 species of animals, including everyone’s favourite – Koala Bears.

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Puffing Billy

The second was a day trip to Phillip Island to watch penguins. Honestly, when was the last time you witnessed penguins in their natural habitat? The tour begins with a stop at Warrook’s Cattle Farm (now called Warrook Station Farm, according to their website). This family owned farm has a wide variety of animals on the estate and you can go ahead and feed them if you like – other options include milking cows and watching a sheep-shearing operation. I distinctively remember I took a magnificent picture (according to my camera capabilities) of a lonely tree standing in a vast open stretch, and a broken cart beside it. The entire scene setup was something straight out of an epic romance novel. Unfortunately, after searching for hours, I could not find it. It is ironic how, when I captured the scene a decade ago, I wanted to show it to the world, and now, when I have started documenting, that is the picture I couldn’t recover.

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Warrook’s Cattle Farm

After having lunch at the farm, we head on to the Koala Conservation Center, where you can see Koalas (again) in their natural habitat. Keep in mind though – they might look cute and cuddly, but do not ‘over-disturb’ them, or they will attack. Next, we headed out, in time, to Phillip Island. It is imperative for tour groups to be on time, as a lot of operators run parallel, and the entry to the island is closed after 6 pm. Apparently, some of the tours got delayed during the week because people just couldn’t get enough of the Koalas – oh, the obsession!

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At the island, you pass through an information center and enter into a special viewing platform, where crowds gather from all the tours. As the light dims, penguins can be seen walking along the beach to their nests. Hordes and hordes of small penguins, all marching happily, much to the joy of the humans. It is one sight which you cannot find in the middle latitudes. Thanks to Australia, we don’t need to cross the Arctic circle to view these gentle creatures in their natural habitat.

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Phillip Island

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We stayed in Melbourne for almost two weeks, mostly hanging out with our generous hosts. On our way back, we had to endure one of the most testing experiences we have ever faced in an airport. More on that later.

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With our hosts and their friends

A lot has changed since that summer of ’07. A recent web search displayed a lot more places to see and things to do. Let’s hope I get that chance of visiting again, and this time, I’ll make sure not to skip the Ayer’s Rock!

Adi

Republic of Ireland

Country Counter: 21          

Cities Visited: Dublin, Glendalough, Kilkenny

Timeframe: April 2017

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit Ireland. Having read and heard so much about it, I kept waiting for the perfect time to book my trip. As far as timing goes, it’s never perfect, is it? On some days, prices would be too high, visa issues, sometimes I’d be more focused on securing a job, and once I had a job, taking a few days off had to be accommodated to work schedules. So this April, after finally realising that my visa is going to expire soon and I’ve accumulated enough leaves from work, I decided I had to check this off of my list.

The tales are true. Ireland, especially Dublin, has that rare combination of relaxed and energetic vibes most small and big towns haven’t achieved yet. I also found that the Irish sense of humour is different from English one. It has the same undertones, but you feel that no one is really looking down on you.

My planning started in February, with Ryanair to the rescue again. I also discovered that everything is relatively inexpensive if you book it online. For example, the Guinness Storehouse experience will cost you €14 if you book online instead of the usual €20 at the venue. Direct buses to and from the airport are €10 for a return journey, valid for three months. The Cliffs of Moher tour conducted by Paddywagon Tours is €40 online (instead of €45 at their office) etc.

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I chose to stay at the Paddy’s Palace. Not only is the location great in spite of not being at the very centre of the city, but everything is also easily accessible by foot. I enjoyed walking along the river Liffey from one end of the city to the other, covering all the main attractions, and not taking more than an hour to do so. The hostel was clean, well-maintained and included free (simple) breakfast. The only thing I felt was a bit annoying was the Wi-Fi coverage, which was only present in the main lobby and not in the rooms. That meant that after a long day of walking and sightseeing, we’d have to physically come down and sit in the lobby to get anything done on our phones/laptops.

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There is much to see and do around Dublin. I spent time in the Kilmainham Gaol (€4 guided tours), Irish Museum of Modern Art (free entry), and the Guinness Storehouse (of course). The experience made me fall in love with my favourite drink even more. Next, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, the adjacent Dublinia and Dublin Castle. The Spire of Dublin is a must visit. I had to skip some spots like Malahide Castle, St. Stephen’s Green, Phoenix Park and the Wellington monument due to lack of time (see you next time, Old Jameson’s Distillery). The Temple Bar area (and the bar itself) has a lively atmosphere, although the place is over-priced in my opinion. For better deals on drinks, head over to the area around Trinity College, and maybe even drop in to see the library (think Harry Potter movies).

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One of my main reasons to visit Ireland was to check out the majestic Cliffs of Moher. The picturesque coast looming high above the ground is just a magical place. The Atlantic Ocean presents itself like a vast, never-ending body of water. The weather there can be quite fickle and changes in an instant. I continuously kept checking the weather on my phone before finally deciding to book the tour for a Friday and hoping we’d have some sunshine. Trust me, you do not want to drive across the country and experience fog and rain there.

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I booked the one-day Paddywagon tour to the Cliffs of Moher. The pickup point was Paddy’s Palace which meant I could sleep a bit longer in the morning. The tour was worth every dime. We had a really engaging driver/guide, who knew his country’s history well and kept us entertained throughout. We had mini-stops at the Dunguaire Castle, which is rumoured to have the power to bring back your virginity (why would I want that when it took me so long to lose it), followed by a drive along the Wild Atlantic Way and the Burren (a landscape filled with limestone rocks for as far as the eye can see). We stopped at Doolin for lunch, which is the nearest town to the Cliffs.

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Post lunch, we headed out to the cliffs and we couldn’t believe our luck. We had the BEST weather possible! It was like the clouds had cleared out on our arrival, as our guide pointed out. Bright and sunny weather meant amazing pictures and a lovely hike along the steeps edges. The Cliffs were jaw-dropping and one of the best places I’ve ever visited. We had one and half hours at our disposal, which it seems was the case for every tour operator present there, in order to avoid over-crowding. We stopped by the Bunratty Castle for half an hour before heading back to Dublin. The only suggestion I have for Paddywagon Tours is to perhaps try and shave off 5 to 10 minutes from other stops, especially Bunratty Castle, and allocate more time at the Cliffs, to the extent possible. Having a one and a half hour stop at the main attraction on a 12-hour trip seems hardly fair.

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On our way back, we passed by (but did not stop) a village where ex-President Barack Obama has some roots. The entire area is filled with signs, probably to get tourist buses to stop. The song The Fields of Athenry, that was playing on our way back, and almost everywhere in Dublin, is a must-hear for everyone. Sad and melodious at the same time, it recounts the dark past of Ireland and transports the listener to another world.

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Booking a room at Paddy’s Palace turned out to be a bigger delight than I had imagined. Apart from the amenities and highlights I mentioned above, customers also get a free tour to Glendalough and Wicklow when they book a stay for more than 2 nights. We set out on a Saturday, with non-stop rain and I was thanking my stars I was able to see the Cliffs properly. The stop at Glendalough was for an hour and a half, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the scenery and go for a hike. Next, we passed by the Wicklow Gap, Turlogh reservoir and the bridge which was the setting for the movie P. S. I Love you. Around lunch time, we arrived at Kilkenny, the medieval capital of Ireland and known for Kilkenny the beer. The small town is filled with remnants like cobblestone roads and the Norman Castle dating back to the 1100s.

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I saw a lot of connections between Ireland and the United States. Airports have pre-clearance options, immigration options are more relaxed and almost everything in the States can trace its roots back here, including Obama as I mentioned above. For example, we passed through Hollywood, which sure enough, was the inspiration for the industry that we all know now. An Irishman who left the country during harsh times on a coffin ship survived his trip and made his way to the West Coast, where he renamed the place Hollywood, in memory of the village he left behind. The hills even have their own Hollywood sign perched at the top.

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It is a shame that I have to get a visa every six months to return to Ireland (and Scotland). The trip left such an impact on me that I’d definitely visit again, and maybe even visit the same places again, now that I know who, what and where. Talking to the people, listening about their hardships and oppression in the past and how they’ve rebuilt themselves made me feel proud walking among them.

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May you be in heaven half an hour before the Devil knows you’re dead.’ – Irish blessing

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Once again, thank you for stopping by, and Sláinte!

Adi

Scotland and England

Country Counter: 19, 20          

Cities Visited: Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Windermere

Timeframe: December 2016

My first trip abroad was to London in 2005. I don’t know why my dad specifically wanted to visit the UK first – maybe it was some colonial attachment he felt. I was always rooting for the USA, but it’d have to wait for another 4 years. So, a bit grudgingly, I agreed to visit England. I don’t remember minute details of the trip though, as it took place more than 10 years ago and a lot has happened since then.

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Buckingham Palace (2005)

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However, there are some things I can recall clearly. For example, we had our first brush with racism on the Tube, moments after we landed in Heathrow. Being too young at that time, the incident left a lasting impression on me as I asked why were we subjected to that. We had just arrived in the country (which had colonised ours for 150 years) and hadn’t done or said anything to anyone. I strongly believe that incident would’ve played out differently if I was the person I am today.

Not to dwell too much on the past and the negative, I remember some of our firsts as well. We tried KFC for the first time in London. I’m not sure, but I think the brand hadn’t reached the Indian shores by then, or hadn’t really taken off. We stayed at the Grange Wellington Hotel, a brief walk from Victoria Terminus and the Big Ben. There was a cricket ground right in front of us, which was a bit in-your-face. Our room had the most ideal location in the hotel, with an extended balcony large enough for two to sit and enjoy a warm cup of coffee as it rained. We visited Windsor Castle on a day trip and took our time outside the Buckingham Palace. We saw the change of guards, Regent’s Park, Hyde Park and Madame Tussauds.

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Windsor Castle (2005)

Fast forward ten years. My sister had just finished her Masters in Reading and she invited the family over for graduation. It had been a while since I had seen my family so I got a visa for the UK. My parents had already been to London and Reading thrice after my (pampered) sister arrived, so they said they wanted to visit Scotland.

We flew Ryanair to Glasgow and booked SACO Glasgow right at the city centre. It was very well suited for a family of four. Being in the centre meant we had easy access to everything, and the Christmas Market had popped up right next door. Everything in Glasgow is accessible by foot, if you are up for a small walk.

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George Square

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Glasgow Cathedral seen from Glasgow Necropolis

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Glasgow Necropolis

Notable places to see are Glasgow Cathedral and the Glasgow Necropolis next to it (climb to the top for amazing views), George Square (where our apartment was located), the Gallery of Modern Art, the Lighthouse and Provand’s Lordship (a medieval period house still intact). We also took the one-day tour to Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands. This is a MUST DO. The drive to and from the Highlands is just mystifying. We passed through Loch Lomond, where we stopped for some amazing photos. Even in December, when the sun doesn’t shine so much, the entire place looked magical. Our driver kept us entertained with history lessons and some of the best Scottish music I’ve ever heard. At Loch Ness, we stopped at Fort Augustus for even greater views of the Loch. I distinctly remember us driving back around 3 or 4 pm, and it was pitch black outside. We could only see the outline of the huge mountains looming around us. Coupled with addictive, foot-tapping music, it was one of the best bus rides of my life. I remember I was sitting behind this gorgeous young lady (bonnie wee lassie as they say) who was traveling alone, and who had been alongside me the entire time. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to say hi. She must have thought I was utterly useless. If you’re reading this, pretty lady from the tour of 10th Dec’16, you’re absolutely right.

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Loch Lomond

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Dad at Loch Ness

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Fort Augustus

When we were heading out from Glasgow, a Santa run was being organised. At least two to three thousand people dressed up as Santa Claus took part in the run, and the entire street had the Christmas air to it. We took a train to our next stop – the Lake District. My sister said all her friends had mentioned that she should definitely visit the Lake District before she leaves the UK. Not knowing much about it, we headed out and booked the really cosy and comfortable Orrest Cottage in Windermere. Clean, warm and breakfast included, the place is ideally located just 5 minutes from Windermere station, the supermarket, and is at the start of the climb to the Orrest Head viewpoint. It’ll probably take 15 to 30 minutes to reach the summit, but it is totally worth it. You can see the entire lake and the valley behind.

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Kirkstone Pass

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Castlerigg Stone Circle

We took the one-day Ten Lakes Spectacular Tour. Luckily, we were the only customers of the day so we had the entire minivan to ourselves. The tour operator was knowledgeable enough and drove leisurely to ensure we could take our time at the various stops. He even included some spots from other tours which were originally not included, as we were too few and had too much time on our hands. Notable points worth mentioning are Thirlmere, Kirkstone Pass, the rocky and picturesque Honister Pass, Keswick (where we had lunch) and the village of Grasmere, where the gingerbread was invented. We had the chance to dig into some delicious gingerbread from the original store. And in case you missed the Stonehenge like we did, not to worry. The tour includes a stop at Castlerigg Stone Circle, a mini version of the Stonehenge, but equally beautiful, nestled in the lap of valleys.

After two days in Glasgow, we took a train to Edinburgh and stayed at the Safestay hostel. It was pretty neat for the four of us – bunk beds with private bathroom and toilets. Although I choose to walk all around in Edinburgh as well, it isn’t advisable for someone short on time.

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View of Edinburgh from Calton Hill

One of our first stops was the Calton Hill. A small hill in the middle of the city provides excellent views, and is featured in almost every picture of Edinburgh. There is a brief climb though. My sister, who’s been there before, suggested we climb up an hour or two before sunset to get the best views, and she was right. The flat hill provides 360-degree views and tons of photo opportunities – Nelson MonumentNational Monument of Scotland, Holyrood Palace etc. You can even see Arthur’s Seat at a distance, and it looks majestic.

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National Monument of Scotland

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View of Arthur’s Seat from Calton Hill

The next day, we started off on foot towards Edinburgh Castle. Perched on yet another hilltop with a vast viewing area, the castle shines just after sunrise. We were really lucky to have excellent weather, at least for the month of December in the UK. The stretch up to the castle passes by a lot of other attractions – St. Giles’ Cathedral, the Scotch Whiskey Experience, the Hub – which looks like an ornate church from the outside but is more of a meeting and event center. Keeping the castle in front of you, look on your left and you’ll see the castle which inspired Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. Look south-west, and you’ll again get an amazing view of Arthur’s Seat.

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Edinburgh Castle

No points for guessing that the Scotch Whiskey Experience was my favourite stop. The largest collection of whiskey in the world, untampered by interference. Only two bottles were affected by the elements and had dried up. The tour included a sampling, a barrel ride and quite the lesson on why Scotland is still the king of producing fine spirits.

Next, we headed up to Holyrood Palace. A half an hour walk led us to the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland. Tip: walk along the walls of the palace from the outside to reach the foot of Arthur’s Seat. The open landscape is one of the best you’ll ever see, and another fantastic photo spot. Although I wanted to hike up to the summit, my parents wouldn’t have been able to make it to the very top, so I left it for another time. The starting point of the hike upwards is, nonetheless, worth visiting.

The stay in Edinburgh was pretty short and I had really fallen in love with Scotland. That is why when it was time to head back, I was feeling pretty low. The country is full of open landscapes and an overall feel-good vibe, making anyone who visits instantly connect with the environment.

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A short flight back, and we were in England again. My family stayed over for a couple of days to help my sister pack up her things and bring her back to India. Visa rules do not allow even the brightest students from top universities who graduate top of their class (case in point – my sister) to stay back, even if they do find work. I, on the other hand, had to be on my way back to France. A chance Facebook post made me realise that one of my friends from school, who I hadn’t seen for 10 years, was residing in London. We decided to meet before I returned, and hence I spent my last day in the capital.

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Before meeting up with him, I decided to walk along the Thames from Westminster to the Tower Bridge. I hadn’t been here since 2005 as I mentioned before, and hence decided to see if and how things had changed since my last visit. Armed with a new camera now, I was able to capture a few, world-renowned attractions – some new, like the Shard, and some historic, like Big Ben.

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The Shard

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On my way to Victoria Terminal for my ride home, a group of people, orchestrating on the street, were trying to talk to people about Christianity, or their version of it. Completing my MBA amongst a truly multicultural cohort comprising of 24 nationalities has taught me to be more accommodating and appreciative towards differences. Not that I was any different before, but living amongst a diverse group for a year shines a new light on things. So when one of the group approached me and asked if I had five minutes to spare, I politely said yes with a smile. Christmas was around the corner and I didn’t feel like shrugging him off like most of the people passing by.

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He was very passionate when he spoke to me, and I patiently listened to him. For well over 15 minutes, I actively engaged and interacted with this man, whose first question to me was “What is your religion?” All said and done, we shook hands and he went back to his group. A minute later, a Hindu group passed by, chanting our religious slogans. To my utter annoyance, this group of African-Christians started hurling abuses towards the Hindu group, while I stood 10 feet away. I thought to myself I just told this guy I’m a Hindu. Then listened to him explaining why Christianity is the only way and why only Jesus can save me (his words not mine). I listened to him because more often than not people are misunderstood and just need someone to listen to them. When people don’t listen, it creates problems. After all that, he now starts insulting my religion, in front of me. He didn’t even wait for me to leave the area. I’m not an ardent follower of religion of course, but I firmly believe that no one should insult another’s faith. The incident once again reminded me of why England doesn’t hold a special space in my heart. From the incident that happened in 2005 to this now, it seems that every time we visit our ‘colonial masters’, things don’t seem to change, no matter what the country tries to portray otherwise. No place, faith or group of people is perfect, but in difficult times like these, one could do with a little bit of compassion towards your fellow human being. Wouldn’t you agree?

Adi

Malaysia and Singapore

Country Counter: 17, 18       

Cities Visited: Kuala Lumpur, Singapore City, Genting Highlands

Timeframe: December 2011

I’m sure everyone agrees that traveling in south-east Asia can be really cheap. Even if you don’t earn in Western currencies, a buck will go a long way in most of the countries down there. My parents read about a holiday package offered by D’Paul’s, one of the most recognized operators in India. 8 nights in Malaysia, Singapore and the Genting Highlands for €700, including flights, stay, transfer AND visa (it’s €850 now, after 6 years though!)

The trip starts with an economy-class flight (usually sold out) to Kuala Lumpur. Once we land, a bus escorts the group to a hotel (think Grand Seasons and the like), with buffet breakfast included. The first half of the first day is free for tourists to roam about independently. We took this occasion to visit the not-to-be-missed Petronas Towers.

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                                                          Mom near the Petronas Towers

The second half is usually spent in a conducted tour of the city. We were glad that we visited the tower early. Although the conducted city tour is great, things are on a clock so you won’t get those leisurely minutes to click an infinite number of selfies. We indulged ourselves in the highly popular street food, or ‘makanan jalanan’, consisting of meats and fish on satay skewers. To be honest, it was so good I kept coming back every day for the rest of the tour. The national dish is chicken rice, which, you guessed it, is fried chicken served with rice.

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Istana Negara – the official residence of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the monarch of Malaysia.

Next, we headed off to the Genting Highlands. On our way, we passed by the magnificent Batu Caves, a Hindu temple set in a limestone cave with a huge golden idol of Lord Murugan. The sheer climb will deter many, but when you make to the top, the view is worth it.

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                                                                           Batu Caves

Simply getting to Genting Highlands is an adventure. A bus takes you to the base of a mountain (or hill, don’t remember). From there, you ride one of the longest (and most scenic) cable cars to reach atop. An absurdly huge area welcomes you – 5 hotels, three casinos, an amusement park, a shopping center – all in one building complex. I literally got lost once trying to find my room, which number into thousands. I’m not saying the place is unorganized – quite the contrary. Well lit, with signs everywhere, the place is a must visit for at least a night, even if you aren’t into gambling.

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                                                                 Genting Highlands

A roller-coaster runs INSIDE the hotel complex, zipping by overhead, and the entire place is decorated with life-size models of every imaginable movie and TV memorabilia. I even tried out the Go-Kart track (which, understandably, has the longest queue and waiting time) which was super fun.

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                                                                          Go Karting

After our one-night stay, we headed off to Singapore. We were able to cross the border pretty fast, as our visa was already pre-arranged by the company. Conducted tours in Singapore ranged from a ride on the Singapore Flyer (Singapore’s answer to the London Eye) and the Jurong Bird Park. A city tour also takes you through Orchard Street, which boasts of all the major luxury brands in one stretch.

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View of Marina Bay Sands from the Singapore Flyer. Residents write their wishes on white balloons and place them on the river before Christmas.

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The city tour was conducted on an amphibious vehicle, which, at the risk of sounding naïve, I had never seen before. It completely blew my mind when the seemingly normal ‘monster truck’ simply glided into the river and became operational as a boat, without any unpleasant noise or jerk.

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                                                     The wonder car (or boat, or both?)

During the tour, we stopped by one of the most visited spots in the tiny island nation – the Merlion Park, located right next to the Central Business District. A clichéd picture had to be snapped.

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                                         Merlion Park, near Central Business District

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The last day was reserved for two separate parks: Resorts World Sentosa, which had the Mama Merlion, and Wild Wild Wet, a water-ride amusement park that is worth its name. The rides were some of the craziest experiences I’ve ever had. The best part is, the whole setup is so well organized, no extra safety harnesses are required. Rides range from steep water slides to downhill Go-Karting.

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                                                                    Marina Bay Sands

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Even though we were returning home during Christmas time, I felt gloomy after the trip ended. I had not expected a conducted travel package to turn out to be so much fun. My mood was partially lifted when we flew back via Singapore’s Changi Airport. You’ve got to experience it to know why it is consistently rated as the world’s best airport.

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                                              The Central Business District and skyline

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Total Cost of Travel and Stay: ₹ 50,000 per person incl. tax (€707 in today’s exchange rate)

Adi