Thursday, 17 December 2015

Mickey to Mickey


As an adult, living in this ‘real’ world, we are becoming increasingly skeptical about anything that has ‘magical’ in it.  ‘Magical’ is an experience, ‘Magical’ is a feeling. ‘Magical’ is unreal…
 
Welcome to the happiest place on earth!!  This place defines ‘Magical’.  From the very first interaction when you book your holiday to the time you check out and your child says, please let’s stay back pleeaasssseeeeeee…it sinks in, what a truly ‘Magical’ experience means.
 
I guess for those who have traveled to Disney often, it might not be such a ‘wow’.  However, for us, this was our first Disney experience and it was a truly exceptional holiday.  They know how to make you special.  We book the holiday and a few weeks later, you get a personalized information booklet with your family name on it…The xyz family’s grand adventure’.  How cool is that...You then get to personalize your magic band, they get your name embossed on it, you get to choose your color and around this band, your holiday is managed.  Enough to impress any adult; let alone, a child!  However, what follows, takes ‘holiday management’ to a different world.
 
You get baggage tags before hand, so if you are landing in Orlando and are using the Disney Magical Express for transport (and why wouldn’t you??), you are not burdened with getting your bags to the hotel.  They ‘magically’ get them to your room.  Your magic band ‘magically’ gets activated as your room key when you land, even though the room number was not known till a little while back.
 



 
 
At the airport, we were walking towards the Disney counters. There was a couple walking ahead of us.  One of the staff asked them, are you booked at Disney?  They answered no and the staff politely directed them elsewhere, telling them, beyond this point, IS ALL DISNEY. 
 
It seemed like a simple enough statement then, but as we get in, you truly understand what it means.   It was all about ‘Mickey to Mickey’.  You touch your band to where they ask you to and you keep moving.  Everyone smiles, everyone talks well, everyone helps you…everyone…no exceptions whatsoever.  You get into the bus and are driven to Disney World…really a ‘World’.  Immaculately landscaped zones, perfect roads, clear signage; it just does not seem like routine, you do enter into a fantasyland.
 
We stayed at the ‘Art of Animation’ resort.  Our son likes Cars and that prompted us to stay here…of course, the suite was great, the resort was awesome, there was plenty of color, plenty of good reviews; all in all, plenty of reasons to select.  The check in quick, optional too I believe, as you get a text with the room number on it and the band/ key is already with you.  It was a beautiful 1 bed suite with a small kitchenette; plenty of images of characters from ‘Cars’, toiletries, linen, furniture, everything around, inspired by Disney characters.
 
 
 
 
We had booked ourselves for 3 nights at Disney and another 3 nights at Siesta Keys beach. Day 1 was at leisure, day 2 was for Magic Kingdom, day 3 was for Animal Kingdom and Day 4 to 6 was to chill out on the beach villa at Siesta Keys.  Disney has so much to offer with its four main parks and more.  We decided to do 2 parks for this visit, as we wanted it to be a mix of activity and leisure…purely a personal choice.
 
We walked around the resort and had some retail therapy on day 1, making up for the early start we had that day.  On day 2, we started early as had been advised by many and were at Magic Kingdom just a little while after it opened.  There were 3 things we were concerned about…how crowded the park would be (and thus the waiting time for rides), how big the park would be (access from one place to the other within the park) and how hot would it get (managing over 12 hours with the little one).  On all of these counts, our fears were allayed. 
 
The park is not terribly big, waiting times at worst were 25 mins and it stayed at mid 80s through the day.  We had planned to do the rides in a certain order, so as to avoid back and forth between ‘lands’.  We had used out Fast Passes to our advantage and gotten ourselves booked on to our favorite rides in advance.  Rides were fun, more than what we had expected.  It was early May so I guess that contributed to the parks not being crowded.  By 4pm, we had covered enough ground and headed back to our resort.   Took a quick nap, had a snack and were back at the park by 6:30 pm.  We picked up where we left and justified the money spent by 10pm.  Fireworks…once you see it here, you will never be impressed with anything else.  Brilliant, just brilliant!!  We got back by midnight and crashed out.  We could not have been more satisfied with our accomplishments for the day.  Taking a break for a couple of hours in the afternoon allowed us to enjoy till the very last minute we were at the park.  We could not have sustained otherwise. 
 

 
The big surprise was an audience with THE Mickey Mouse.  I will be the first to admit that all I was expecting was the usual pic with the character, like you would in front of Toys R us at Times Square.  However, here we were in a queue at the central theatre, with only a handful of people being allowed to go in at a time to meet the celebrity.  10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes and the excitement was building.  Finally, we were ushered in.  Very pleasant, courteous, hospitable…that is everyone around including Mickey.  He made my son feel so special and to our pride, vice versa.  Our son spoke of how much he liked Mickey and that he was his favorite TV character and for so long he has been only watching his cartoons.  Mickey was floored and our son was awarded a big hug and an elephant walk with the Mouse himself.  Magical…again!!
 
 
 
 
Thanks to us wanting to do character dining, we had booked ourselves at the ‘tusker house’ restaurant for an early lunch the next day at Animal Kingdom.  This as well is a pretty good park.  That being said, it is unique and should not be drawn in comparison to Magic Kingdom.  Each has a place of it’s own.  It is amazing how they have recreated the feel of Africa and Asia.  Green, rustic, subtle…markedly different from the rides and magic of Magic Kingdom.  If you think you know what ‘eye for detail’ means, visit this place and you might have to recalibrate your understanding.  From the rust on the name board (recreated with brown paint), cooking utensils dangling from the roof (a la desi dhaba), to the signage reading ‘Public’ toilet (with ‘Shauchalay’ written in Hindi); strips of colored cloth tied to trees, and a DJ playing Bollywood songs in the middle of the road, everything was INDIA (Asia)…not to forget an Auto rickshaw shell.  To name it and make it remotely look like something is routine; to recreate every single detail is Disney.

 
 

 
 
Following lunch, we did the Kilimanjaro safari.  It was good…plenty of animal viewing.  Then there was the walk through a ‘forest’ trail with plenty of bird viewing.  Next on the agenda was Kali river rapids.  Well, we had done the Splash Mountain the previous day, so we expected this to be similar…BIG mistake!  This was a ride in India, remember.  Day before was America.  So they have these round tube sort of a thing with seating in it.  As always, we had our theories on which side would keep us away from getting soaked.  As they say, any number of theory classes does not prepare you for practicals…we sat, we moved, we rose, we fell…and it SPLASHED!!!!  The look on my husband’s face…he obviously had no clue as to what hit him…completely flummoxed and soaking soaking wet!!  There should be better reasons to buy a new wardrobe at a Disney park…not because you want to get out of dripping clothes. 
 
It took us some time to figure out what was wrong with our theory.  Well…when everything is wrong with it, it does take time!  I think we have nailed it and for sure the next time we will stay dry!  I believe so…but for some reason my husband doesn’t J
 
We had a sit down dinner that night at sanaa and experienced African/ Asian food.  A good night’s sleep and we were ready to head to Siesta Keys beach the next day.  Our cousin joined us and by late evening, we were at our beach villa.  The next 2 days were idyllic, lazing on probably the best beach I have been to.  White powdery sand…something I had never experienced before.   It was a great way to unwind after busy 3 days at Disney parks.  Holidays came to an end and on the 7th day we were home!!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Boston


What should you not do on the day of the Boston carnival?  You should never plan a bus departure from the city.  Assuming you do plan, what should you not do before getting to the bus station?  You should not plan to visit the Boston Garden, which is a mere mile and a half from the bus station.  Assuming you do visit the Boston Garden, make sure you are late by a good 30 minutes, not 3 minutes.  Assuming you are only late by 3 minutes, do not stand at the departure gate waiting for a bus personnel to attend to you (as there will be none).  Assuming you do wait, do not open the ‘Gate’ door and run to your bus when you see it start to leave right in front of your eyes
Assuming you do open the ‘Gate’ door and run to the bus, make sure it is not your wife and child who run while you lug the suitcase behind.  Assuming they do happen to be the ones who run, get prepared to be embarrassed by the entire team of service personnel, who suddenly appear from nowhere, to read the riot act to you (ironically, these very people were invisible till a minute back).


This was us, on our very first vacation in the US using public transport.  The vacation, fortunately however, was not as dramatic and disappointing as the sequence above.  

It started with us arriving at the NY Port Authority Bus terminal an hour before departure.  Yes, you read it right.  An hour before departure when leaving for vacation and 3 minutes after departure when returning from vacation.  This should tell you how keen we were to go on a vacation and how ‘un keen’ we were to return.

Boston was a pleasant contrast to NY.  It felt rich in history and architecture, laid back and touristy.  There was no chaos…everyone seemed relaxed.  The people we interacted through the 3 days we visited, were very pleasant and hospitable. There is so much to do and a single visit for 3 days would not do justice.  We went in prepared that this would be the first of a few visits we would need to cover the city.



We reached Boston late evening on day 1 and were received by a good friend.  Dosa camp it was for dinner, and a nice coffee later, we were home all tucked up and ready to sleep.  Day 2 started with us heading to the Prudential centre to take the Duck tour.  The earliest tour available was at 4 pm.  It was only 11am then and we decided to do the city tour in the cable tram.  However, this was not before we had some awesome pizza slices at the famous Regina pizza.   The city tour took a couple of hours and was perfect for a lazy post pizza afternoon. Duck tours are city tours again, but in amphibious vehicles which half way through the tour, slide into the river for the remaining half.   Even with all the gadgetry we are used to around us, this simple transformation amazed you.  No wonder these tours are so popular with everyone.  The lady driver/ guide kept everyone entertained with snippets from Boston’s history and humour.  While on the river, she invited the kids in the bus to drive the duck… including my 3 year old…so, here were 25 to 30 adults in the middle of the Charles river, taken around in a duck/ boat by a toddler.   All the kids were awarded stickers, which said, ‘I drove a duck’…suitably impressed.  

Day 3 started early with a visit to the children’s museum.  Lots and lots to do here for kids.  No one including adults would get bored.  You would be surprised at how entertaining it is to see a ping pong ball go through long pipes and land at a designated spot.  Make bubbles, do Zumba, pedal a cycle to generate energy…loads of fun. 


We had lunch at the food court in Quincy market.  We were told that this is the most popular tourist spot in Boston.  It is so crowded that you will not have to make any effort to get lost.  Lots of options to eat but not a lot of place to sit.  Plenty of shops to pick up knick knacks.  After a couple of hours of buying nothing, we walked over to the aquarium.  We did an IMAX movie next door before getting into the aquarium.  The aquarium is good, although not spectacular.  We called it a day after this with a friend picking us up for dinner.

The next day we started late (mistake number 1) and visited the Boston Central Garden.  We took a Swan boat ride (mistake number 2) while knowing that our bus was at 2pm.  We did hear the carnival doing the rounds but failed to relate it to potential road blocks and traffic hold ups (mistake number 3).  We skipped lunch (smart move number 1) and took detours in order to get to the bus station in time (smart thing number 2).  We still got there 3 minutes late and spent the entire journey to NY discussing what should we have done differently and what could have prevented us from missing the bus…quite obvious I would imagine in hindsight.  



Boston is where politics, religion and education, all came together, making it a special place.  It is believed that just the sheer act of traveling across the Charles river to Cambridge makes you intelligent and scholarly, what with MIT, Harvard, Berklee, all located there.  We effectively travelled to Cambridge thrice in three days and missed our bus the fourth day…guess, too much of anything (knowledge, intelligence!!), is not good.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Newwww York!!

The long wait was finally over.  3 weeks after coming into the US, plans were in place for us to visit New York.  The feeling of having something at your arms reach and still be unable to touch it…yummy food that you can see and smell but can’t eat…probably these might describe how it felt to be in New Jersey and not be able to visit NY.  But then again, there was so much to unpack, so much to arrange… just so much to do which did not allow us to travel sooner.

It took us 45 minutes by train to get to NY Penn station and a quick subway ride later, we reached Central Park.  Knowing that Times Square was next, it took a lot of conviction to get into Central Park as in the face of it, it seemed less exciting.  However, once we were in, there was just so much to do and see.  The fact that we barely did half of what is there to see in the 5 hours we were there, told us how wrong we had been.  Plenty of performances, roadside activities, people in all their colorful attire and moods and a gorgeous sun shining bright, made it a fantastic day out.

We had packed a picnic lunch, which got over in a jiffy as all the walking had made us super hungry.  Took a cab after that and experienced the NY traffic in all its glory.  My son appeared satisfied with the ride; this was so crucial as he had been wanting this ride in a yellow cab from the moment we had landed here.  


Times Square was buzzing, is an understatement.  Not an inch of space…you could not stretch half an arm without touching someone by your side.  We got into Toys R  Us and did the ferris wheel ride.  Plenty of toys were bought and lugging it around, we breathed the New York flavor.  All of us were pretty exhausted by then and took a cab to NY Penn station.  A quick snack and we were ready to head back.

A spectacular day out in one of the best cities of the world…having lived in London for 2 years, there was a bit of skepticism early on…but by the time we ended the day, truly realized that each of these fabulous cities have their own identity and so so much to offer to everyone.


Monday, 1 April 2013

Nawabi Delhi, Mughlai Agra and Yummy Aloo tikkis!!!


The beautiful Taj mahal
It was a gamble visiting Delhi in December.  But if the birthday you want to celebrate and the chaats you want to enjoy happen to be the best in winter, what choice do you have.   We were fortunate though since the weather stayed mild and our 2 year old son coped well with.  This was his first experience of a true winter.

Staying at our cousins and keeping enough days at hand allowed us to leisurely visit Delhi and Agra.  While at Delhi, we started with the Humayun tomb…probably the lesser known of the famous monuments.  All the years I had been at Delhi long before, I never visited this place.  Very very impressive…imposing, clean, spacious, beautiful landscape, not crowded (because it is lesser known) and gives you an excellent flavor of Mughal architecture.  For our son, anything with a dome is Taj Mahal.  So, it must have been a 100 utterances of Amma…Red Taj Mahal amma, appa…Red Taj Mahal appa when he saw the Humayun tomb.  Why correct him…he was soooo excited and it was soooo much fun hearing him say that.


Kingdom of dreams

We drove around India Gate, Rashtrapati Bhavan and Rajpath before getting back home for a late lunch.  Took it easy in the evening and were all set to drive down to Agra the following day.  The rest of Delhi was to be done once we got back. 


We stayed at the Jaypee Palace Hotel at Agra.  I was returning to the hotel after 13 years having started my working career there.  It was strange feeling.  The hotel was to open for operations in early 2000 and I had worked there for a few months prior to the formal opening.  I had always wanted to stay there with my family and finally the wish had come true.  We quickly settled into our room and a quick lunch later, took a short nap.  We just loved the large expanse of the hotel, especially our son as it allowed him to run around without a concern.   The hotel had arranged for a get together for the guests at its lawns.   Snacks, games and a puppet show were organized…great way to spend the evening.  The jalebis were awesome…thin and crisp and just the right sweet.  We drove round the city later that day, visited the bazaar and got back to the hotel for a cozy dinner. 


Humayun tomb

 It was the big day…Taj Mahal!!  Considering it was a Sunday, it was extremely crowded and fortunately we did right thing to get hold of a guide.  Not only did he ensure we got the tickets and shoe bags quickly, he took us to an alternate entrance which was relatively less crowded and got us in.  You need to see the Taj in person to understand why it is considered as one of the most magical monuments anywhere in the world.  It is just so pristine…keeping aside the unfortunate/ sad history associated with the monument; what a memorial.  Even though I had visited earlier, I was unaware that the ‘minars’ were angled away from the central structure so as to prevent them from collapsing on to the dome should there be such an incident.  The fact that one of the sculptors had intentionally introduced a flaw which results in water seeping into the dome even today is quite amazing.  No one has been able to identify where this flaw is.  The hooks on the dome which were later put in to draw a cover on the monument during the Indo- Pak wars…you are in awe seeing all of this.  Even with the crowd, we had a reasonably comfortable time looking around.  Many many pictures taken and back at the hotel for a nice hot lunch.



We visited Fatehpur Sikri the next day and going by our previous days experience, took a guide.  There was no crowd, no queues and just one area to see.  The one thing that the guide could have helped us with was to keep the hawkers away.  He did just the opposite…no doubt he had a cut in every sale made.  All in all, a bad decision.  That being said, the place is worth visiting.  The ‘Buland Darwaza’, tunnel through which Anarkali was smuggled out, Salim Chisti’s dargah…all of these hold historical significance and should be visited.

The last day at Agra saw us visiting the Taj Mahal again.  We did not get inside the dome this time but soaked in the sight leisurely from the gardens and made use of the glorious winter Sun for photography.  Spent a few hours there and got back to check out and head to Delhi.
We visited the Lotus temple and Qutub Minar before lunch the next day.  It is a pleasure to visit these well kept places.  In the evening, we went to the Akshardham temple…were spellbound with the architecture.  The sound and light show was spectacular as well.  


Qutub Minar

The Red Fort was scheduled for the next day.  Probably the least impressive of the sights…what with shops lining up the entire entrance spoiling the appeal of the historical sight.  
The day prior to our departure, we visited the Kingdom of Dreams…amongst the newest attractiosn at Delhi.  It has theatre (a la Broadway shows…) and stalls showcasing eateries and shopping from the respective states.  This is probably the closest you can come to enjoying theatre…similar to the ones you can experience at London or New York.  The themes are definitely Indian and impressive.  
All of these trips were interspersed with visits to Nathu’s, Bikanerwala, Lajpat Nagar and Noida.  Included in the agenda on these trips were aloo tikkis, chole bhature, jalebis, katchori and loads of shopping.
We then returned to Chennai and home after a nice 9 day rejuvenating visit.  The mercury dipped the day after we left Delhi and the city in the following 2 weeks saw one of its coldest winters in many years.  Were we fortunate…you bet!!!!


Sunday, 9 September 2012

ARAKUBORRATUTTUKUDI


Ek tha Tiger! :)


So we travelled an hour by flight and another couple of hours by road to see the Tuttukudi falls; only to realize we could have switched on the tap at home and seen the same :) 
ARAKUBORRATUTTUKUDI.. fancy title.. names of 3 different places…thought having them together would be quite a tongue twister …in Telugu.



Cloud kissed Mountains



Independence Day and Ramzan holidays with a weekend in between allowed us a 6 day vacation.  With limited planning and duration, we could not have done anything grand.  So, we were on the lookout for a close enough location which could offer some variety and was offbeat.  Through an acquaintance, we got to know Vizag better and came to the conclusion that this coupled with Araku valley would offer a nice package of the beach and mountains.

@The Park, Vizag
Just a little over an hour flight from Chennai, Vizag/ Visakhapatnam is a quaint port town with the sea on one side and mountains on the other.   We stayed at The Park, one of the 2 properties on the sea front thanks to its period construction.  Nice landscaped gardens and well spread out, The Park offered us premium facilities and plenty of space for our little one to run around.  The food was nice, nothing to write home about though.  There are a few places to see while in Vizag, namely the Simhachalam temple, the third richest temple in India; a good drive in zoo with animals housed in their natural habitat; Kailashagiri - a mountain top excursion accessible by a rope way with Lord Shiva’s temple, children’s play area, a narrow gauge train ride around the mountain offering an awesome view of Vizag and the sea around and the Rishikonda beach.  Silk and cotton are specialties as also ‘Ettikoppaka’ – wood toys with vegetable lacquer colors.

Kailasagiri temple

After a couple of days at Vizag, we drove to Araku valley…120 kms from Vizag.  This trip had seen us do very limited research unlike most of our other vacations.  Our expectation of Araku was that of a mid range hill station with probably a view over the adjacent plains.  60 kilometers from Vizag, we got into a thick forested area which soon took us to the foothills from where on we started climbing the Easter Ghats.  We had specifically chosen the monsoons as we expected the weather to be better than summers and also the greenery to be at its best.  We were certainly not prepared for the beauty that lay in front of us.  The climb was quite significant and after 30 odd kilometers we were at an altitude of 3000 ft.  Dense green forests washed fresh with rains…what a sight.  I have always believed that man has never been able to recreate the natural green.
The lush green Araku valley
Only BSNL works so you are truly cut off from the world.  The resort does not even have an STD dial out facility and anyone calling in cannot be put through to the room.  It felt odd/ nice/ strange having to go half a kilometer to an STD booth to make a call…few minutes of talking and paid 4 bucks.  Inflation aside…good to know some things are still quite reasonable.  But yes, if you are not prepared, it does prove to be quite a pain not being able to stay connected.



Araku has a few AP tourism resorts and that’s about it for accommodation…not sure why private operators have not set up shop.  I guess that is good in many respects; has allowed nature to stay pristine.  We stayed at the Anathagiri Haritha resort…24 kms before Araku valley.  A well spread resort with 28 spacious cottages and magnificent views of the mountains around.  That’s where the niceties of the resort end.   As you start experiencing the service, you realize with dismay why there is such cynicism about government managed hotels.  The restaurant did not have ample seating, cleanliness left much to be desired, staff appeared busy always, food was bad…we locked ourselves out of our cottage accidentally and on approaching the reception were told that there was no duplicate key available for the cottage.  Quite a scare as you can imagine…fortunately the door had not bolted properly and we were able to soon push our way into the room.   That being said, the location is brilliant and you do get fed when there.  There is hot water, cable television, the bed is comfortable to sleep in and the tea was reasonably good.


Borra caves

We drove around the valley the next day to a couple of streams and waterfalls….visited the Borra limestone caves on the way back which can be quite a unique experience for those who have not seen limestone caves.  Since we had seen such caves at Gibraltar and Andamans, we knew fairly well what to expect.  The approach and access to the caves is well laid and does not pose any challenge to the visitors.

Late that evening, we came back to Vizag and checked into the ITC Grand Bay hotel.   This was sheer luxury and after the stint at a government hotel, quite welcome.  The following day saw us visit the Simhachalam temple and fly back to Chennai.

A quick and sweet get away…offered us what we were looking for…quiet time and some good pictures