Friday, July 3, 2015

St Petersburg - Combination of history and beauty.


Winter Palace - main building of Hermitage museum

The Gulf of Finland is very shallow and the cruise ship docked at St Petersburg around 8 AM. As I mentioned earlier, visas for Russia are not easy to get. An exception is made for cruise ship passengers. Russia has realized the potential of cruise tourism and many cruise ships dock here. This has resulted in good revenues for the city . Most cruise ship are here for 2 days so that the entire city could be experienced by passengers. We could have chosen shore excursions for this city through the Costa cruises itself but I learnt that certain Russian Companies were better and cheaper. I had chosen a Company called SBP. The booking was fairly simple and was done on website in advance (http://sbp-tours.com ). No advance payment was made but all passport information was provided to them so they could submit them to Russian authorities in advance for processing of visas.
We had to carry our passports and tour booking tickets to show the immigration personnel. We had to remain with the tour guys all the time and if required we could have taken an evening tour as well. Evening tour could have been a ballet tour, a boat ride or  what is known as a Vodka tour. One could just ask them for a car and driver and he would have taken us where we wanted to go but I was sure that no one would have energy to go out in evening after all the Museums and churches. I was proved right here as the days were exhausting. And during that time there is no 'night life' as it does not get dark till 11 PM !


I must be happy with SBP tour company

Luckily not many cruise ships had docked at the same time as us so we did not have to stand in long queues for immigration. We got past quite quickly and were delighted to see a nice black Mercedes Van/mini bus standing there waiting for us with a driver and guide. They had promised no more than 16 people for our group and thankfully there were just 4 more people besides the 7 of us. The mini bus was very comfortable and we all were provided with water bottles and an audio system so that the guide could keep us informed about the history in Museums and churches.

SBP tour’s signature tour was a 2 day deluxe tour which shows you a lot of places in and around St Petersburg but is very hectic. I don’t think any of us were enthusiastic enough for a grueling sightseeing. I would go on to say that amongst the 7 of us, I was most enthusiastic so I had to take a call on behalf of all of us and I knew Kunaal and Jyoti would not want anything hectic and the teenagers would start cribbing if we overdid the sightseeing bit. So what I chose was a tour called the ‘2 day highlights tour with Amber workshop.’ The cost was approximately $ 240 per person including tips. I was happy when our guide Danay announced that we would be visiting the world famous ‘Hermitage Museum’ as our first sightseeing stop.

The Hermitage Museum- you need days here.




The tour companies have special arrangement with the authorities to let the tours enter the Hermitage Museum before the official opening hour. This was wonderful as we could enter  before the general public. As I had mentioned earlier, on this particular day there were not many cruise ships docked so Hermitage was not crowded at all. During peak season in July and August the queues are long and it gets hot and stuffy inside. It also encourages pick-pockets and thieves to target the tourists. The weather on this day of June was nice and cool at 16 deg C.  


Hermitage Museum comprises of several buildings and the main amongst them is the famous Winter Palace of the Czars. It has 3 million pieces of exhibits so you can imagine that how little we must have seen in just a couple of hours. Museum had been started by Catherine the great in 1764 but opened for public in 1852. The museum dazzles you. Your eyes dart all around. Each room is exquisite. As you move from room to room you are greeted by great paintings, sculptures, gold pillars, exquisite painted ceilings, tapestries and you can understand why Czars had this reputation of opulence. Danay enriched our knowledge by giving a nice and simple commentary explaining the significance of the rooms and pieces of art which were prominent. He made us spend more time in the room which had Leonardo da Vinci paintings.

Leonardo da Vinci's work has been given one full room here

We were in the Museum for 2 hours but even for a person with average knowledge of art, I would have liked to spend a couple of days here.

Art and art everywhere

Churches are like this ?






‘Church of our savior on the spilled blood’ is striking. It is a kind of building where you want to start clicking pictures the moment you see it. This Church was built on the site where Czar  Alexander II  was severely wounded and died in March 1881.The church was built from 1883 till 1907.
It is a well known fact that Soviets who came to power after the Russian Revolution were against religion.  Many churches were damaged and priests sent to prisons in Serbia. This church was damaged and looted after the revolution and during the WW II it was damaged badly.  It was restored and opened in 1997 but not as a normal place of worship.  You have to visit this church if you ever visit St Petersburg. Without this visit your trip would be incomplete.

Inside the church is as beautiful

Russian food and feel of the city


Danay suggested that to save time we have ‘Piroshki’ for lunch so that we don’t spend too much time eating. These are meat, cabbage, rice filled pies and are either baked or fried. We vetoed the idea and he took us to a local restaurant where the Russians were eating their lunch. It was a nice place and we could pick up from variety of soups, chicken, pork, beef, skewers ,vegetables and get them billed. The food looked good and it turned out to be pretty good and nice tasting and I got tempted by a soup called ‘Borscht’ which was made out of beetroot but had vegetables and beef in it. It was quite decent.
We did get a feel of the city as we walked on the main avenue ‘Nevsky prospect.’ The economy must be hurting the normal citizen very much as there were hardly any people in plush stores on this avenue. Danay said that Putin's adventures and his trying to emulate the Czars in their conquests was hurting the Russians badly. The oil prices had crashed, the western economies had put sanctions on Russia due to Ukraine misadventure and the Ruble had crashed. Normal Russian citizens were not happy at all. 

The town of St Petersburg is spread around Neva river and as you stand there you see a nice flowing river around which the town is built. The architecture of many buildings is striking and many of them are churches.  It indeed is a very pretty city.

Dazzled by the metro ride 


Each metro station dazzles you


We were taken by surprise when Danay told us that a metro ride is a very important part of our tour. He started by saying that this metro was deepest in the world. I really thought that we would be wasting our time. I have seen enough metro systems in world so really wondered what the big deal was. My assessment turned out to be totally wrong ! We visited 2 stations and really, they were stunning. I can’t imagine why anyone would make such beautiful metro stations  and spend so much money on them. 

The stations are very ornate and very impressive

One of the stations called Avtovo had  chandeliers, lamps, ornaments decorated with laurel branches, swords and other emblems of valor. The far wall of the central underground hall is a decorated mosaic called 'Victory', with the image of a woman and her child. This Avtovo station has been voted as one of the best in the world. No wonder all of us kept clicking picture after picture. I think we were all very keen to post these pictures on Facebook to show our friends that metro ride can be so wonderful and full of ornate stuff. 

The day was rounded off after we visited Peter and Paul's fortress and Cathedral. The remains of last Czar Nicholos II and his family were buried here. After the revolution the Czar had been taken to Siberia and had been assassinated along with his family. Decades later his remains were found and brought here to be buried. No one had been sure what had happened to him. 

We had learnt quite a bit in this one day. It had been a tiring day but really exhilarating as we had seen and learnt so much. No one was complaining about tiredness so this meant that the day had gone off well for everyone. All of us were asking questions about Russian history to the guide and this meant that interest had come alive.

It was time to go and relax in the spa and get prepared for another long day tomorrow. 

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cruising the Baltics on Costa Luminosa


The lovely city of Tallinn in Estonia

It must be the relief of being on the plane taking us for the long planned summer vacation that makes me doze off as soon as the plane starts to taxi. The mind ignores the call for drinks and food by the stewards and it also ignores the turbulent weather which tosses the plane around for good 15 minutes. The uncomfortable economy class seats makes the back stiff and the neck goes topsy turvy but I keep my eyes closed and try to keep the mind relaxed. The next 15 days will take all seven of us (My cousin Kunaal and my family normally travel together during summer vacations) to seven countries. The mind and body has to be fresh and kicking for what the next fortnight has to offer.

Arriving at Stockholm


Our group on the roads of Stockholm
Stockholm and its approach looks lovely from the skies. Our 7 day  Baltic Cruise starts from here. The embarkation time is after 1 PM. We have a lot of time to kill. The mind says that with so much luggage it is better to stay put at Arlanda Airport and keep having croissants and coffee.  The heart says that we are already in Scandinavia and time wasted is opportunity wasted. Opportunity to explore a new place. The heart wins. We board a nice bus which takes us to city centre. The place is very near the central station. We roam around the town on a crisp morning. Our suitcases wobble on cobbled lanes. We admire the candy shops and buy cakes and coffee. The legs and hands start to tire after a couple of hours. We see a few tents and activity a few hundred yards away and walk towards it hoping to find some place to sit and waste time. 

What a food feast !

International street market- the FOOD market !
What we actually stumble to is something called ‘International  street market- Geraud markets Scandinavia. ‘ It is actually an international food market which travels from city to city in Scandinavia and is hugely popular. Today was the first day of this market in Stockholm and the crowds were gorging on around 20 different kinds of international cuisine. The smell of food was too difficult to resist. The pork ribs, Kangaroo meat from Australia, Pastas, Thai cuisine, fish and chips ………all kind of food was being cooked right in front of us. I settled for German Bratwurst with chillis and then hailed the taxi to go to the port to board ‘Costa Luminosa.’

All Aboard

Our group aboard the ship
In 2012 Costa Concordia sank near Italy killing many people. The Costa Cruise Company has been able to put that nightmare behind and has many ships operating now. We chose Costa Luminosa as its dates suited our schedule for Baltic’s. The check in process was quite smooth and we had half a day on board that day as ship was scheduled to sail the next morning. We could have gone back to Stockholm city centre but all of us were in a mood to relax on the ship. We were all tired as we had been travelling the night before and then walking the streets of Stockholm in morning. On the 9th deck we were greeted by a hostess who took us around the spa of the ship. On the previous 2 occasions I have cruised on Carnival ships and Carnival is the parent company of Costa. The layout of Carnival ships and Costa was exactly the same. The main difference was that in none of the Carnival ships I had come across such a nice spa. 

The spa on board


There was a price to pay of course as there was a nominal price of Euro 110 for the duration of the cruise for use of spa. Kunaal and I got a discount of 20% by subscribing on the first day. Gym could be used by anyone but lovely facilities of sea facing Jacuzzi, steam, sauna, rest room and Japanese tea room were part of the spa which was open only to members. Each day we would go out for shore excursions and after walking for 10-12 km, this spa was something which actually refreshed me. This membership of spa was money well spent!


You could see the sea from the Jacuzzi

Sweet Japanese tea room

Sailing amongst natural beauty

Really loved these colorful houses as we sailed by them.

Day 2 was the day that ship sailed and we stood on the balcony seeing hundreds of small islands as ship maneuvered its way through them. We saw some lovely hamlets on the shore. Stockholm itself is a city which is built on 14 islands. The Stockholm archipelago extends around 60 km and we sailed next to that before we entered the Gulf of Finland. The views were lovely and there was smell of freshness. It was a day we explored the ship, spent time in the gym and spa and caught up with some reading. Thankfully we had a good time of 9.15 PM for dinner unlike the American ships where you were expected to be on dinner table at 7.45. By a matter of chance our table was next to the window and we could have lovely views from there. Being an Italian ship, each day they served us Italian food from some different district of Italy. We were served by Indian waiters so it was good fun as we shared jokes and talked in hindi. The food each day was delicious and different.

Our dining table - with a view !

Helsinki- the first shore excursion


The ship was docking at Helsinki on 3rd day morning. We had not booked any shore excursion. I had read that you could buy a ticket from the bus near the port for €8 per person and with this you could travel for full day on buses, trams, metros and even on ferry to world heritage site  Suomenlinna island. This is exactly what we did. The bus dropped us to Kampi which has a huge mall and shopping centre. We walked to the lovely Rock church nearby and spent some time here just sitting around and taking photographs.


The church hall is covered with a dome, lined with copper and supported on the rock walls by reinforced concrete beams. The interior walls are of rugged rock and rubble wall. Before noon, the sunlight spreads from the row of windows surrounding the roof periphery to the altar wall. Sitting inside the church was very soothing and Piano music was being played. 

The soothing Piano music at the Rock Church
We walked back towards Kampi shopping centre and from there towards the waterfront or the market square. We saw the University and a few more churches before walking down the Esplanade and coming to the main square called the senate square with statue of  Alexander II. From the market square we could see the city hall and the Royal Palace. If you look up you can see the most popular White Lutheran church

Walking is the best thing you can do at a new place. It gives you an idea about the people, the place and the culture. Even window shopping teaches you a lot about the place. Till now the weather had been cold and sunny but suddenly the clouds appeared. It became colder. As we boarded the HSL public ferry the drizzle started. As mentioned earlier, the price of HSL public ferry was included in the ticket we had purchased that morning. There are private ferries as well so it is important to go to the correct ferry station. In 15 minutes we were at the  Suomenlinna island but we could not move beyond the tourist information centre as it started to rain heavily.

Fresh strawberries and cherries at market square
Kunaal and I sat in the restaurant and had peanuts and draft Beer and kept a lookout on the weather conditions. The others were happy to get wi fi at the tourist centre and stayed occupied there. When it seemed that the rain will not relent, we gave up the idea of exploring the island and crossed back to Helsinki on the ferry. We will just have to read about the island to know what we missed. A tram from market square took us to the familiar Kampi where we had Chinese food at Empire Palace. The food was pretty decent. From there we took the bus back to the port as the schedule departure was 6 PM. In just half a day we had become quite pro at using public transportation at Helsinki.

Planning for St Petersburg over Glenlivet 12


We met up at the Atrium of the ship later in the evening before dinner for drinks.The musicians were playing some nice music and the place was buzzing with well dressed people who had come down for dinner . On a cruise ship people are very particular about what they wear for dinner and they want to be at their best. I was feeling fresh after spending an hour in the spa. We made friends with Christopher who happened to be manning the bar. Christopher was from Mumbai and he had a lot of stories to tell about cruise ships as he had been sailing for more than a decade. He suggested that we buy a bottle of Glenlivet 12 (instead of buying on per drink basis) as it would work out cheaper and on top of that he promised to get a further discount after speaking to superiors. He kept his promise the next day. Costa cruises allows no outside liquor and one has to buy drinks on the ship itself.  Whisky is not served in dining hall (only wine and beer in dining room) but if you have your own bottle bought from the ship you could carry it to dining hall as well. 

our evening time was spent here in the Atrium
The ship was docking at St Petersburg for 2 days the next morning. Russia always seems a faraway country as visas etc are still not easy to get. Having read many books about Russia and having studied its history, one actually didn't know what to expect from St Petersburg. There was some thrill in the expectations about visiting the city. All we knew was that we had to meet the agent after crossing the immigration counter next morning at 8.30 AM. The agent was suppose to arrange for visas and take us around. We had been assured by many people that visit to St Petersburg would be the highlight of our trip. We anxiously looked forward to explore this totally new world. 

Helsinki has statues, Museums, churches and a nice waterfront. 

------To be continued----















Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Corbett National Park

Bijrani Forest area, Corbett Park.

Journey-not so smooth.

It is advisable to leave home early so you can cross Delhi before the rush hour traffic if you want a smooth  car journey to any of the nearby tourist destinations. We did not leave quite that early but it was not the NH24 traffic in East Delhi that bothered us but the road that turns towards Ramnagar once you cross the Moradabad bypass. Before that Gajraula was a good place to stop for breakfast as many fancy eateries have opened there. Once we turned left towards Ramnagar, the nightmare of travelling on the 30 km of broken roads of Uttar Pradesh started. The Toyota Innova went up and down the big potholes and we went up and down with the mighty vehicle. At that point one did not know whether to be sorry for ourselves or the poor car. Thankfully, we were greeted by the sign of ‘Welcome to Uttarakhand’ after being tortured for more than an hour and a half.  Miraculously the roads became perfect thereon.

You are outside the forest reserve as soon as you cross Ramnagar. The Corbett national park is a welcome sight after a drive of almost 6 hours. You feel that roar of tiger would greet you soon enough. All along the road opposite to the forest area are the numerous hotels and on the road you can spot many tourists zipping across in military green Maruti Gypsies. Many companies take their employees for 'bonding' and 'workshops' etc so the hotels stay busy. You can spot Kosi river from the road itself and the huge tall trees towards the reserve make you feel welcome in this abode of the tiger. All we wanted to do was to quickly dump the luggage in the resort and jump into one of the Gypsies for a 4 hour jungle safari.

Dhikala-the best place to stay

Safaris are allowed only on official vehicles
These private resorts including the club mahindra resort in which we stayed in are very picturesque and nice but there is no better place to stay in Corbett park than the Dhikala forest rest house. Rajiv Gandhi had gone along with his friends Arun Singh and Amitabh Bachchan and their families back in 1985 to usher in the new year. Stories about their sighting many tigers had appeared in newspapers at that time. It is said that Amitabh Bachchan gave a scintillating performance of ‘Mere angney mein………..’ at their exclusive private party near the bonfire on a freezing  December night. He apparently lifted Jaya in his arms while singing 'jiski biwi chotti.....' which got him the standing ovation from the PM and the first lady. A forest guard had told me about this performance when I had gone and stayed in Dhikala around a decade back. Other than the time when 2 tigers had entered the rest house, the song and dance by the superstar had been the most memorable night for him.

Some vantage points inside the forest

It is no longer an easy task getting a booking inside Dhikala. Either you have to be a VVIP or an expert at computers so you could book accommodation within 2 minutes when the bookings open 45 days before visit date. I could manage neither even though I tried hard enough. The travel agents control the system and then rent out rooms to tourists at a very high price. Dhikala is 32 km’s from Dhangari gate and right in the heart of the forest. The food served there is vegetarian and liquor is not allowed. The rooms are nothing great but they have water and electricity. There are some places where you can stay inside the forest in Sultan, Gairal and Jhirna where there is no restaurant and no electricity also. Only those who stay the night in Dhikala are allowed inside the Dhangari gate. A decade ago, we could go into Dhikala driving our own vehicles and then could go looking for tiger in our own cars along with a guide. All this is a thing of the past. Now you can only enter the Dhangari gate on official vehicles. Safaris  can be booked in advance on the website and those are done only on a canter. Also available at Dhikala are the elephant safaris which are really popular and need to be booked much in advance. The elephants can enter the thick part of the forests where vehicles cannot. The chances of tiger sighting are high in Dhikala.

Tiger can't be nearby

A guard at Corbett museum at the Dhangari gate informed us that a year back a tiger had come right up to the gate. This sounded exciting. Corbett museum is the most disappointing museum you can ever come across. It virtually has nothing but a few carcasses of animals including tigers. It has a bit of history of the Corbett Park. They certainly can improve this.

Jungle Safaris and search for Tiger

You do see a lot of pretty birds
Many have seen tigers on the main Ranikhet road as well outside the reserve. Leopards often stray out of the reserve. The forest guard amusingly told us that as a guard he had seen tiger many times but his children had never spotted a single tiger in the last 22 years even though they had always lived in the forest. Agonizingly a couple of times the tiger had passed almost under their noses and they missed him! According to him, he advised them not to be obsessed with tiger but learn to enjoy the forest and the nature. Tiger will automatically be sighted.Fair advise this.

If you are not staying in Dhikala then you have to take jungle safari either in Bijrani area (Entry from Amdanda gate right next to Ramnagar) or Jhirna area, around 20 km’s away.  Dhangari gate for Dhikala is around 20 km’s from Ramnagar on Ranikhet road. The rule is simple. Book an entry  permit on the website. This booking opens 30 days in advance.  The Supreme Court order a couple of years back had regulated ‘tiger tourism’ and only 30 gypsies can enter each area in one session. There are 2 sessions in a day. Session one is normally from 6 AM to 10 AM and session 2 is from 2 PM to 6 PM. Time changes somewhat during winter. You cannot enter the jungle if you do not have the permit. Cancellations are not allowed so do not go to Corbett thinking you will manage permits if you can’t manage it online. You will not be able to enter the forest. 

lol


We had permit for Bijrani area on day 1 and Jhirna area for day 2. On day 1 we asked the resort to book Gypsy and guide and they did so for Rs 3800.00. Next day  we did it on our own and it cost Rs 2250.00. Hiring Gypsy is no problem as there are many available in Ramnagar and outside the reserve. Each vehicle allows for 6 people , driver and guide. If your group has only 3 people, you just cannot ask anyone to join you. Your names have to be on permit to enter the jungle.

Tiger eluded us in Bijrani though one could make by certain indications that there was one around. We did wait patiently along with some other gypsies but he/she never came out of the thick forest. There have been a lot of sightings recently in this area as there is a tigress with 4 cubs and they often venture  out on the jungle paths. We had 3 children with us (age 14-17) who did enjoy this gypsy ride, this spirit of adventure and the rough terrain. Unfortunately they could not experience the thrill of sighting tiger in the wild.  I was happy that they enjoyed  the forest and the landscapes. The very next morning a photographer staying in the neighboring resort got some lovely snaps of a tigress in action. We did envy him.

Elephants at Jhirna
We would have gone to Bijrani once again the next day and taken a chance of sighting the tigress and cubs but we had permit for Jhirna so this is where we had to go. We had the most unenthusiastic guide possible. He told us right in the beginning that we should not expect to see a tiger or any exciting animal. This was a bit unfair as there are tigers in the area and some people had sighted a tiger just 2 days back. We did manage to see some lovely forests and a herd of elephants so it was not a total washout.  Being close to natural beauty can never be a washout.

Marchula area with Ramganga river

Marchula-A pretty place nearby

We did have another day with us and each day we had been trying to get a booking for Dhikala. We would visit the forest officers office in Ramnagar each day and were willing to grab a chance of staying in Dhikala if we did get one. But this did not happen and we went for a drive to Marchula which was around 30 km’s from our resort. It was a lovely day and we sat on the rocks near Ramganga river enjoying the flow of river with beautiful backdrop of forests and mountains.The last time I was here was a decade back when we had stayed at the beautiful Ramganga resorts. 
A place this lovely is so near Delhi and it is a pity that we gave it a total miss for more than a decade. I hope we can make amends in the next few years and in the bargain see first hand the tiger in the wild. It is definitely worth a try. 

Fun on the rocks

Corbett Facts

Delhi to Corbett Park : 258 km’s
Corbett Park to Nainital via Kalidungi : 65 km's
Nearest railway station : Kathgodam.
Bookings for Accommodation inside the park and for safari permits : http://corbettonline.uk.gov.in
Accommodation bookings open : 45 days advance for Indians
Safari bookings : 30 days in advance
Main Gates : 1) Amdanda (for Bijrani). 2) Dhangari (For Dhikala). 3) Durga Devi 4) Jhirna
Places to stay : 
Inside the Park : Dhikala, Gairal and Sultan from Dhangari gate. Jhirna on the other side.
Many resorts outside the park are very popular with tourists and corporates.

Jeep Hire : From Forest office at Ramnagar or Amdanda gate. Rs 1750.
Guide Hire. Compulsory. Rs 500. From the gate you are entering for Safari.

Note : Carry the same ID which you had used for booking of  permit. Carry your permit.
Park closes during monsoons other than Jhirna area. 
























Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Perth- A week wasn't enough !


Nature has given a lot to Western Australia

7 hours is hell of a long time to spend at an airport in transit and when you are struggling to catch your connecting flight even after that, then it is a comedy of errors. As I strolled leisurely to the gate to board the flight to Perth, I was informed that for Australia flight no liquid more than 100 ml packing is allowed even if it has been bought at the duty free shop and is sealed properly in tamper proof bag. These countries do everything to make your life exciting by making funny laws.  I was tempted to throw the bottles in trash can but they gave me 15 minutes to return the whisky I had bought and it was indeed 15 minutes of excitement as I was sprinting all around trying to save some money. I did succeed and was thankfully on time for the flight to the Western Australian capital. 2 bottles of Johnny Walker certainly were not worth missing a flight for. 

Bangkok airport called the Suvarnabhumi Airport is a bustling airport with miles and miles of concourses full of people enjoying duty free shopping. I am pretty familiar with this airport and always enjoy spending time there. The place buzzes with people and I took a walk from concourse A to G and then went around again. Actor Fawad Khan and I bought the same after shave from Kings Power duty free shop and I decided to have some duck and fried rice at Thai restaurant called Mango tree. The food was excellent and service was efficient. The Thai airways had served some terrible food and their choice of drinks was poor.  I had walked around at the Airport quite a bit, so required that my feet get some massage. At 800 Bahts I had a very nice foot and neck massage at concourse G at Chang's massage. I was ready for another walking round but decided to spend time in the Louis Tavern first class lounge.

American express cards had offered me to join Priority Club without any membership charges. As I had long stopovers at Bangkok Airport while going and coming I jumped at that idea. The card gives you access to several lounges at airports and 2 accesses a year are without any charges. The concourse G had a huge Louis Tavern CIP first Class lounge which was spread over a few floors. I used this nice lounge on the way back. It even had showers and wi fi. While going my flight was from concourse C, so I used the smaller lounge there. This was very tiny but had some decent snacks and plenty of Black Label scotch to keep me happy.

The story behind the visit


It was in the month of August that I called up my friend Rajat in Perth. Rajat has been in Australia for more than 20 years but I have never visited him. He was earlier at Adelaide and shifted to Perth a few years ago where most of his wife Farah's family stays.  My mind was working towards planning a trip for next summer. We wanted to go to a cool place as Delhi gets unbearably hot in June with temp as high as 45 deg C. Last few years we have travelled to USA, Europe and South Africa during summer break. Rajat wasn’t very pleased about our coming at that time of the year as it could get  very cold and windy and wet in Western Australia. He encouraged us to come in December when the atmosphere is festive and beaches are full. He tempted me with this idea and as I easily fall for such temptations, within next 30 days not only did I have a ticket in my hand but also the visa for Australia. The downside was that this trip was for me only as kids had their school exams and board exams from Jan to March. So, Devicka and kids had to opt out but encouraged me to go. It so happened that Farah and the girls were in USA at the time of my visit. It was going to be a bachelor's party in Perth at new Years time.

Day 1, A perfect start


The weather was nice when I landed at Perth in morning on a Sunday. I had left a cold and foggy Delhi where minimum temperature had be around 4 deg C. In Perth the day gradually became warmer and reached a nice 28 deg C as we had lunch at the picturesque Matilda Bay restaurant overlooking the Swan river .The restaurant was upmarket but served great grilled fish. Rajat has forgotten his 'jat' habits and is now a very fit Indian-Aussie. He decided to eat some shrimp salad.



Australian families were out in the sun having bar-be-cues and picnics near the river. Youngsters were skating, cycling and busy playing Frisbee. As we finished our lunch and planned a small swimming pool party with Farah's family for the evening, Kohli and Rahane hit magnificent centuries in a counter attack to Australians in the Melbourne boxing day Test. This fantastic weather, the great atmosphere and the cricket scores were a good omen for the week ahead.

Pleasant start to a New Year – on the beach.


The crowds increased as the day progressed. 

The week ahead turned out to be busier than I thought it would be. Perth is much more laid back than Sydney or Melbourne. It is a small town which has grown but not grown as much to make life hectic. Rajat told me that he had started his life in Australia as a student in Perth 25 years ago. I did remember the time when Rajat had left for Perth . Perth had just one high rise at that time. Now it has a modern city centre with a lot of buildings. At this time of the year people were in a holiday mood. Even the restaurateurs decided to close shutters for a few days starting 1st January. Even they needed to have fun with their families. For us also the New Years day was a day of relaxation. We decided to spend the time at the beach on the morning of the New Years day. The water looked lovely and even though days were warm in Perth, the water was pretty cold. It did take me some time to gather courage to jump in. Once inside, it was pure bliss. I did not come out for an hour and later went for a dip again. Cottesloe beach was full of people and it made a pretty sight. I loved this atmosphere. We took a full round of the beach and then went to a restaurant for some chilled beer. We got some fish from Amberjacks and the amount of chips they give with fish is not funny. The place was very popular and the fish they served was pretty good. Just the night before we had had a nice evening at Foreshore ushering in 2015. 

The New Years eve and some selfies.


The New Years party at Foreshore. The fireworks were dazzling.

Rajat had bought tickets for an open air party downtown at ‘Foreshore’ for the New Year's eve. In the huge lawns reminiscent of India gate lawns a huge stage was set up with a DJ and a massive and effective sound system. The food available on payment was basic and mainly Pizzas and some light snacks. The drinks were all pre-packaged mixtures in cans so that crowds could be served fast. At first we had Bourbon & Cola mix and then switched to Beer. There were thousands in the park. Mostly were unattached like us. They were there for fun and sure they knew how to have fun. No ‘chic’ approached us but it was good fun as many revelers would offer me their drinks and many would take selfies with me. Some groups did involve me in dancing to the rocking music and initially I was a bit scared but then realized that these were all friendly blokes. 2 pretty girls who were dancing near me , at some point came on my either side and decided to take selfies with 'me the foreigner'. So fair were they that my dark  face would disappear in the dark background of the night in the photograph. They needed to put on their flash to make me appear in the picture. I wish I had that picture for remembrance.

As the magnificent fireworks came to an end we trudged towards the bus station a few km’s away. People don’t take chance with drinking and driving in the developed nations. As was expected, we missed the last bus and as we had no plan 'B' , and with no cab available, most of the journey home was on tired legs. It was a night to remember.

Margaret River region – a nice place to chill


Wine tasting at Margaret river

300 odd Km’s from Perth lies the Margaret River wine country. This place is eminently popular with tourists as well as locals. The area has so much to offer that perhaps our one day journey wasn't enough to do justice to all that the place has to offer. As you approach the region, you can see the wineries all around. There are several breweries and chocolate factories as well. In route to Margaret river you can stop in at several other prominent touristy places . I saw 2 Kangaroos lying dead on roadsides as they must have been hit by speeding cars. 

The magnificent caves at the Margaret River region

There are surfing beaches, swimming beaches, forests, golf courses and the stalactite and stalagmite caves. I had visited the similar caves in South africa near Oudtshoorn and it is really lovely to see such well preserved and looked after natural wonders. They do charge you good money to enter but the audio gives you wonderful knowledge about formations of such caves and the historical and geological aspects attached to it.
A landscape photographer would love the entire Margaret river area. People come here to live for a few days and it is considered to be a very popular holiday place in Western Australia. The quaint little market has some lovely restaurants and the Margaret river information centre. We thought of having lunch at the sea side but then decided to drive to the market for some Mexican food. You could go to any of the wineries and most of them have wine tasting facilities as well as decent restaurants. You can learn a lot from the personnel there about wines. Our hostess was a young Indian lady who had just come to Australia . Her husband was a wine maker in another winery. I did ask a few questions but not too many. Wine drinking was the only priority.

The Sand Dunes of Lancelin

These naturally formed San Dunes are marvellous to look at.
There are many places in and around Perth which makes you fall in love with the place. Lancelin sand dunes were really breathtaking. They were visible from very far and the pure white powdery sand gleamed in the afternoon sun. They were not too far from the sea and the beaches. On the drive here I asked Rajat to stop at a few places so I could see their 'bush' region and could see a lot of area destroyed by the 'bush fires.' It is said that these sand dunes were formed  over 4000 years ago along with other dunes in the Quindalup system when water levels rose following the end of the last ice age. The dunes are visible from many kilometres away and have provided a useful landmark for travellers and even the aboriginals over the centuries. I was delighted to see such beautiful natural formation so near the city of Perth and ran up and down the soft sand hills like a child and tumbled down many a times till the legs got tired.

It would have been prudent to travel a little further and seen another great natural formations called the Pinnacles, but we decided against it. It was New Years eve and it was time to go back and get ready for the evening. 
My friend Rajat relaxing in sand

Gastronomical Delights of Perth


Australians love drinking and they love eating. The variety in food is tremendous and popular places remain full. I have written earlier that I enjoyed the upmarket Matilda bay restaurant on the first day. We also went to Jamie's Italian for lunch as I was told that for dinner you have to book months in advance. The place was busy and had great atmosphere. More important- the food and drinks lived up to the hype.


My lunch at Jamie's
 


Twice we went to the happening area of North Bridge at night. We did some pub crawling and eventually decided that North-bridge Brewing Co. was where we were most comfortable. The place was large and lively. The drinks were good but food was limited. Each time we were there we decided on eating dinner at a seemingly popular Malaysian place called 'PappaRich' but by the time we finished with drinks we could get food only at Nando's or Outback Jack's.   


Inside the Northbridge Brewing Co. 
To a tourist the city and surroundings has much to offer. People throng to places like a Casino for night entertainment as we did one evening and gave away some money to the roulette table. Hillary Boat harbour was for a pleasant afternoon and you could go for swim as well. A lot of kids were jumping from the jetty and having fun while parent's relaxed at the beach. We saw them all from a vantage location while eating fish n chips and then took one big round of the place before settling for some Ice cream. An entire day could be spent at Rottnest island and from there you could take a Ferry to Perth city or Freemantle . Rottnest has everything to offer which a tourist or fun seeker requires.

The port town of

Freemantle

I quite liked Freemantle as it had a very relaxed look about it with some great food places. The Beer always tastes better in such places. The King's park in Perth is one of the largest Urban parks in the world and from high above you get spectacular views of the city. There were many people there and while children played around, the joggers were busy cutting down their fat as they went up and down the jogging path which was shaded by lovely trees and had great slopes and climbs.

As I sat in the aircraft after a week in this lovely city, I carried back with me the following images which will remain with me for a long time to come.



At first I thought it was a damaged wall

New Years party had more than 10000 people. 

Nice way to cool down after morning in bright Sun

A view from King's Park

I love the color of sea

From the jogging track of King's park

The waves could be real rough. But enchanting.