Travel

O’Land Estate, Coonoor

The planning obsession has ensured that our vacations/home trips are meticulously planned, and much in advance. So the long Ugadi weekend would’ve ended up as just another long weekend, but for the wonderful disruption by B & N, who suggested that we take a mini break. After many Facebook chats and near misses, we finally zeroed in on O’land Estates. (all details are on the site – click on the individual rooms for prices)

Day 1: Though we’d heard much, we’d never actually met a 5 AM (departure) on a Saturday, so it took us an extra fifteen minutes to get fully acquainted, and get started. (route map) Though B tried his best to convince us on the merits of the thatte idli at Bidadi, we made very Amit-like (for a definition, check the text here) jokes based on the first word minus an h and finally landed up at the standard Kamat Lokaruchi. Masala dosa, idli, chow chow bath, vada and coffee later, we were on our way. Barring a tiny water purchase stop, we (I use the word loosely, B and N did all the driving!) then drove until Gundlupet before stopping at the unofficial restroom sponsor of all weekend getaways out of Bangalore – CCD. ( a pot can happen over coffee!) We entered the Bandipur National Park in a while, and after some standard deer and monkey spotting, also managed to get the elephants to pose!

36 hairpin curves later, we were in Ooty. After much googling and even 4sqing, we landed up at the Nahar Sidewalk cafe for lunch. I sensed something wrong in the menu and we soon discovered that – horror of horrors- it was all veg!  But we were too hungry and the pasta we ordered turned out to be quite decent. I also happened to earn a Herbivore badge on 4sq thanks to the checkin! We had Google to thank for the chocolates from King Star Bakery, which were consumed through the trip.

The trip thus far had been very pleasant and we were wondering if we’d beaten our road trip hex. And then began our road wrestling! The route from Ooty to O’Land is curvy in real life but pretty straightforward on the map. But a couple of wrong turns after Lovedale meant that it was near 4.30 by the time we reached O’Land! The only consolations were the beautiful vista including picturesque bungalows, and the ever dropping temperature. The road on Google Maps actually ended quite a long way before the estate gate (that was a first for me) but the locals were very helpful. O’Land was quite a land’s end and looked totally awesome. We enjoyed the view from the Estate House and the tea, thoughtfully provided by Aslam. Our rooms – Hornbill House – was a tiny walk away, and we were already floored by the unique design before we even inside!

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Hornbill house is spread over two floors and shares a common living room. The ground floor has a sit out while the first floor has a bathtub with a view! (though the area was facing a drought, said a notice, and guests were requested not to use it) The view also includes a waterfall, but that was on a leave of absence, courtesy the same drought!

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We relaxed for a bit before heading over to the Estate House for dinner. The biryani would take a while, said Aslam, so we decided to have a simpler rice + vegetables + chicken meal, all the while admiring the quirky decor elements of the Estate House. The Bollywood lover in me had a feast! We also chatted with Sajan, the estate manager, who had himself just returned from Coorg. The night view from the Estate House was equally fantastic – lights from the isolated dwellings on the hills, and a starlit sky above.

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Day 2: We just about made it in time for breakfast – Poori sabji, bread and eggs washed down with some excellent tea! There’s a little space below the courtyard level that offers a wonderful view, and that came to be our favourite eating spot. We asked Sajan for some outing options and he had two – a 40 km drive to Upper Bhavani or a 30 km drive to Coonoor. After much debate, we decided that we’d pursue the latter after lunch. We roamed around the plantation until lunch.

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Lunch was the biryani we missed the previous night, and we set out to Coonoor at about 2.30. Thanks to Sajan’s precise directions, it took us just about 45 mins to get there. Splendid views all along the route. B, for some reason, got it into his head to see Wellington, a cantonment a little after Coonoor. What he specifically wanted to see was a golf course which apparently Tendulkar had visited. We never found it and B was the subject of much ridicule, though I later found that it does exist! We roamed around Coonoor hunting for a place to hang around and finally landed at the Gateway Hotel, a lovely property that has the Raj written all over it, including a hunting trophy from 1912. After a couple of beers, fish ‘n’chips and a fruit platter later, we decided to begin our journey back. Some fruit and plant shopping happened on the way. Dinner was standard fare and we watched Flight before a sound sleep!

Day 3: We decided to start our return trip immediately after breakfast – that turned out to be Rava Idli @ 9.30. :) Sajan was kind enough to have one of the workers get us the jackfruits we’d been eyeing since the time we’d arrived! :) He also gave us directions and even accompanied us for a bit. This time we didn’t get lost and made it to Ooty in just under an hour. There was much shopping to do – pickles, chocolates, spices – from Modern, which was also Sajan’s suggestion. Lunch was planned at Gundlupet, a slight detour from the Kanakpura route we’d decided to take. The Misty Rock hotel is exactly opposite the CCD we’d stopped at on Day 1, and its restaurant De Shell was our lunch stop. The unintentionally funny menu (check the image below) was the only solace while we waited and waited for our lunch to arrive. (Tip: order only meals or biryani if you’re in a hurry)

The Kanakpura route has small stretches of bad roads, and is relatively quite boring compared to the regular Mysore route. If you’re planning to take this route, prepare yourself for repeat stretches of farmland, hamlets, little towns and lakes that exist only on Google Maps. (blame the summer)

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We reached in about 8.5 hours including the hour long lunch break – significantly better than Day 1. O’Land is a wonderful retreat from the concrete jungle, and the perspectives that nature provides when you allow it to, continue to amaze me.  And we owe B and N one for a fantastic mini break! :)

Kodagu Moments – Days 2,3

Continued from Day 1.

The replacement for the early morning trek was a coffee trail trek that began at 10.30. Breakfast was sumptuous, and in addition to the elaborate buffet, you could also get dosas and eggs made-to-order. We returned to our room before getting to the Leisure area to begin the trek. Arun Poovaiah arrived on time, but we had to wait for a few guests who took a while to land up! After introductions, to each other, and to some fauna near the building (like the Burmese you can see in the second image – it stops growing if it comes in contact with an alternate life form! And I thought I was asocial!) we began walking higher, towards the second phase of the property’s expansion. On the way, we were shown the Arabica and Robusta coffee plants. The second phase was where the deluxe suites were being built – they were complete except for the work on the interiors. I think 227 was the suite we saw, and it was a rival to the ‘best view in the resort’ tag. To top it, there was a Jacuzzi on the balcony!

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Here’s a quick view of the scene from the balcony.

Poor Arun, having encouraged questions, was at the receiving end of some utterly random questions! I hate to sound like a jerk, but I really wished I had lmgtfy stickers! When he asked us for feedback on the stay, most guests said there were not enough activities – live bands was one suggestion! Led me to wonder whether humans had lost their ability to make their peace with silence and stillness. ​Our frantic days are really just a hedge against emptiness. 
 ~ Tim Kreider. Ah, well. Arun replied that live bands were not really in the scheme of things, but they did have tennis, basketball and badminton courts. We had also discovered a ping-pong table, carom and several board games in the Leisure area earlier. This is one feedback we had – that the welcome folder in the room should have this information, WiFi passwords etc.

We had been asked specifically to wear jeans and shoes for the trek, but several in the group pretended not to have received the memo. Thanks to that, the leeches in the area decided to invite themselves to the party! Arun totally downplayed it saying that it was blood donation. :D We then saw a rudraksh tree and the poor guy was asked for the significance of the number of faces a rudraksh had! He did say that a single faced one only appeared once a century and apparently Rajinikanth, Sonia Gandhi and Queen Liz had one! From there we moved on to see Elaichis, and the leeches decided to crash the party again! I got a video of one doing its version of the pub crawl.

We also saw the soon-to-be spa, the sports courts, and even the area for the swimming pool before we completed the trek.

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Lunch was another buffet, and there was still no pork! We asked for it and were told that we’d get a portion for dinner. We also saw a couple of kids whom we suspected were aged less than the resort’s 12 year old criteria. Hmm. On the way back to the room, I thought the buggy ride would serve as a good proxy tour of the resort. Here it is!

D had already made plans of how to spend the afternoon – Arun had invited everyone to The Verandah to make their own blend of coffee. I begged off and went into deep meditation, from which I emerged bleary eyed an hour later, when D came over to call me to taste the coffee she had blended, ground and brewed. We even got a packet of it. After we walked back to the room, we played a Calvinball version of chess, and then (for the first time) walked to the restaurant from the room. Silence except for crickets, a light breeze, bliss!

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We did get the pork curry, but though it was tasty, it was too little too late. This is another feedback we gave – when in Coorg, it is unpardonable not to serve pork in every single meal! After dinner, we played carom, and D was convinced that we should buy one. Yay! I’d been asking for one forever now!

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And thus ended Day 2, and our check out time the next day was 11 AM.

Day 3

The only time the service faltered was after breakfast when we asked for a buggy. It was raining heavily, and we had to wait for about 20 minutes before we got one. I have to say that this was the sole exception – the staff had always been courteous, and understood the meaning of service very clearly. They’d go out of the way to help and always made it a point to ask if we needed anything. Most everyone smiled, and that was wonderful! We ended up paying Rs.34500, inclusive of the driver’s food (nominal charges, and his accommodation was complimentary) for 3D/2N and while it might seem on the high side, and the place is not the easiest to reach, all things considered, it’s worth it if you can convince them to feed you pork regularly! :D

We left out by around 11.30. and the driver’s clock showed 4.50. Our time was not right, I should have taken it seriously! We had initially thought of lunching at Madikeri but we made quick time on the way back and based on the distance, decided on Cafe Coorg near Hunsur for lunch. At Kushalnagar, the driver braked suddenly thanks to an idiot in front of him who, without any warning, decided to stop and attempt a U turn in the middle of the road! A bike scraped our vehicle a bit, cursed us and we thought that was the end of the day’s adventures. We stopped at Cafe Coorg and managed to keep down the food. Enough said. (Probably a good idea to have an early breakfast at Tamara and lunch at Madikeri)

A little after that, the awesomeness began. A sudden hump ahead made the driver in front of us brake. Our driver was too late to respond, and we could only watch in helpless silence, as despite the hand brake, we skidded straight on to the back of the vehicle ahead of us! No one except our car was hurt. The other car’s owner was a Mallu and after mildly complaining about the damage to his vehicle, (which wasn’t much) prophesied that our vehicle wouldn’t move! He offered us a lift till Kengeri but we declined. We then limped r.e.a.l.ly.s.l.o.w.l.y till Srirangapatna, where we got a mechanic. There was a theatre playing ‘Bulbul’ opposite the workshop, but D wasn’t very interested. The ‘fix’ took half an hour, and we resumed the journey. Turned out in a while that he had made it worse – the engine began to overheat! We barely managed to reach Mandya. Several bullock carts chose this opportunity to add wins to their CVs! Hmmph! Our driver managed to get us an alternate vehicle at Mandya, after unsuccessfully trying to convince us of the benefits of a Volvo bus, and then practically assembling all the taxi drivers around to offer bids, and suggestions!

We started from Mandya at 6, and managed not to touch other vehicles. But this driver also understood that we were on a vacation and despite directions and suggestions, decided to show us most of Bangalore before dropping us in Koramangala at 9.45. Ten hours and fifteen minutes on the road! D claimed that all the tranquility she had attained at Tamara was lost on state highways! But hey, we have 2 posts and photos to show for all of it! ;)

Kodagu Moments – Day 1

A variety of factors led us to look nearby for the first of this (financial) year’s vacations – a relatively unambitious trip to Coorg. But it was our first trip to the area, so we decided to make it special by resorting to luxuries that we otherwise stay away from during our travels. The trip began on a Friday morning, and our Celcabs driver was only about 15 minutes late. At 7.30 we got out of Koramangala on to tolled NICE and un-tolled other roads, and parts of Bangalore that we’d seen only on Google Maps.

Though we’d have liked to try out breakfast at Maddur Tiffany’s, hunger and a persuasive driver led us to Kamat Lokaruchi, just after Ramanagara, at about 9.15 AM. We decided that the ‘buffet’ option would be the least taxing mentally. At Rs.120 per head, it wasn’t the stuff legends are made of, but pretty filling and reasonably tasty – pongal, dosas, (masala and standard) Kotte Kadubu, vada, jalebi, kesari bath and so on! The pit stop was short and we then passed more Kamat outlets, a few CCD, McDonald ones, and even a KFC and Empire, all much more spacious and luxurious than the ones in Bangalore.

On to Channapatna, Maddur, and a Mandya quite different from the muddy little town that I had somehow visualised. Ambareesh (whom we have something bordering on affection for – thanks to Sumalatha’s mallu movie connection :) ) was everywhere, and thanks to ‘Bulbul’, so was Darshan! Shaded roads, a smattering of brand outlets and large parks, Mandya made a pretty picture. Neither of us knew that we’d meet again in a more elaborate way during the trip, but that’s for later.

Srirangapatna, Hunsur (which has a few highway eateries) Periyapatna later, we passed Bylakuppe, where ocher and saffron robed monks swarmed, and a couple of them managed to scandalise D when she spotted them in a non-veg restaurant which heavily advertised chicken as a specialty. I told her about the Dalai Lama being a non-vegetarian and she refused to believe me! After Kushalnagar, we were at Madikere just before 12.30. Given that our destination was only about 40 km away, we decided to wait till we got there, for lunch. But 40 km actually took almost a couple of hours, and past Napoklu and Kabbinakad lay the end of our journey – The Tamara, where we had reserved a weekend break package.

The billing happened first, heh, as did a welcome garland a vanilla drink that was oh-so-refreshing! Since we were reasonably famished, and there was some confusion regarding the room, we went straight to the restaurant. A buffet awaited us, and we weren’t really discerning of what we ate – I remember it as a large blur! Our luggage saw our room before us. A buggy (on-demand and a call away) is the most common form of transport, unless you want to walk, which is a splendid option. We’d specifically asked for Room 111 (or its adjacent 112) because they offered the best view in the property. And so it was.

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Since even a few thousand words aren’t really enough, here’s a video that D shot.

As with every other trip, my headache decided to pay a visit in the evening! Thankfully, there was an option to lounge around on the balcony, or to watch the landscape change colour right from the bed! Easy to guess what I chose. :)

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The buffet dinner had a couple of Coorg dishes but not what we had come seeking – pork! But we pigged out anyway. By then, it had begun raining. That meant that our trek planned for 6.30 AM had to be canceled, since the paths would be slippery. I pretended disappointment, but apparently not enough of an act to convince D! Haha. Day 2 would therefore begin a little later. At least one of us was not complaining!

To be continued…

Filipinotes – Days 6,7

….continued from Day 1Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5

Waking up at 5 AM during a vacation. Check. Ok, 5.10. We left the hotel a little after 5.30 for our flight at 7.50. Coco Huts had cost us 10800 pesos, and was totally worth it. Very helpful staff! This time the flight was from the Caticlan airport, 45 minutes – 1 hour away. The transfer crew thankfully were more helpful with the baggage, and we even had the van all to ourselves. At the Caticlan jetty, we had to pay porters about 20 pesos per bag/per shore to get it into the boat and out, but it’s worth it from experience! From the jetty, we were taken to the airport, and had to pay airport fees of 200 pesos each. But it’s a nice, small, clean airport and there’s WiFi. The Cebu flight was on time and we reached Manila around 9.

We realised when we landed that the hotel had arranged transport for us from Terminal 1! We boarded the transfer bus to Terminal 1, and it promptly broke down on the way! Thankfully, we were picked up immediately by another bus and dropped at Terminal 3 departure. We made our way to Arrivals and tried to find the taxi counter where our transfer to the hotel had been booked. The folks there studied the mail print out with a reverence and attention that made it seem like an archaeological specimen! Turned out English was a forgotten language there, so they pieced together letters and formed words, then tried to understand the sentences that resulted. We repeatedly kept saying Nissan and even stood in front of that specific counter but they waved us into silence as they studied the manuscript! The girl at the Nissan counter continued giving her undivided attention to her chewing gum. No multitasking, no sir! Half an hour later, they had reached line 6 where Nissan appeared, and the girl was summoned to take care of us. She wasn’t convinced, but spat out the gum and proceeded to her next task with the enthusiasm that our nation’s leader displays before giving a speech.

The car took another 15 minutes to get to us, and from there we took an hour to get to Casa Bocobo. It cost us 600 pesos, and much cheaper that the 1000 peso options we were given by other airport taxis. We suspected that metered taxis would have been cheaper. At Casa Bocobo, we were told that check in time was 2 PM, and the earliest time we could be given a room was 12 PM – checkout time. We spent the next two hours staring at various available walls. While D sulked, I was busy multitasking – the combination of a lack of breakfast and the early wake up provided me some material to start a headache.

We stubbornly decided to have a meal only at SM Mall of Asia, our destination for the day. At 12.30, we were taken to our room, and I discovered that I would need an adaptor to charge anything here! We quickly freshened up and took a cab to the mall, 250 pesos and about 20 minutes away. After getting there, and discovering that reading about the 4th largest mall in the world and understanding its ramifications were two different things, we realised that there was no way we’d be able to cover it in a day! We surveyed the lunch options and decided to go multi-cuisine at Pho Hoa. After a quick but excellent meal Pho, Kungpao chicken, Brochette, mango juice and Black Jelly drink and 855 pesos later, D was heady with the prospects of the massive shopping time ahead of her, and my headache gave a me a welcome message!

The interactive maps at the mall were helpful but upside down and we spent quality time getting lost, but since we weren’t looking for anything specific, it was okay and we kept discovering new avenues and shops! I found an old favourite that had disappeared from India – Springfield! There was also a smaller version of ODEL in Lanka, and we rued the fact that we had already picked up stuff for everyone! This place is obviously a shopper’s paradise, and I frequently wanted to ask D if she needed tissues to stem the salivation. Across the road was the bay, and at about 5.45 we made our way there to watch the sunset. The promenade was alive with crowds, kids playing and mime acts! The mall had a huge number of options that allowed us to watch the bay as we had dinner. After inspecting the options, we chose Abe where we tried Manok sa Luyang Dilaw, chicken in coconut milk, and Betute, farm frogs filled with minced pork. :) D was queasy about the latter when she ordered and kept asking if they’d be fried, but I saw none of that later as she crunched away the dead frog’s legs! :D Rice and beer and sangria followed. The bay view was beautiful, and the meal cost us  1100 pesos. Worth it, and the only thing that spoiled it a bit was my nagging headache. The taxi back cost us 300 pesos, we gave 50 extra because the driver was a sweet old man, who looked like he could survive in Bangalore traffic. :)

Back at the room, I asked for an adaptor – unfortunately not available, and confirmed our taxi for the airport, thankfully available. Thus ended Day 6, our last night in the Philippines.

Day 7

The plan was to visit a nearby mall. We had given our breakfast preferences the night before and quickly consumed that in the restaurant. The adaptor was finally available as well!

Robinson Mall happened to be a really short walk away, and on hindsight, we should have just lunched here the previous day! The shopping options were quite good as well, and we bought more here, despite having less than 2 hours. This has become a ritual, the last day frenzy and the rush to the airport. We reached Casa Bocobo just in time. We had already paid the 2500 pesos due. Stuffed the new acquisitions into the bag and hoped into the cab which was waiting. 650 pesos took us to the airport. We changed currency from the one option available. This airport is an 80s style one and doesn’t really have options to do anything much. The Malaysian Airlines flight to KL was delayed after we boarded and some fidgeting later we were on our way. This one didn’t have screens, so we were a bit bored. At KL, we were back in the familiar corridor and killed time (with the help of chocolate drinks at Old Town and currency exchanges involving amounts less than $10 :D ) before the flight to Bangalore! Four hours later and the last 15 minutes of Life of PI and 3 episodes of Big Bang Theory later, we were in Bangalore. After the sloooooow motion Immigration queue, and a Meru, we were finally home!

I loved Philippines more than Bali and Cambodia – Palawan for its beauty and balance with nature, Boracay for the sunsets and the buzz, and Manila for just being an awesome city to look at and be at. Thailand is probably close in terms of mind space. Philippines had everything we wanted in a vacation, and is relatively less touristy. It was well worth the visa headache, which involved us submitting everything we had except my dad’s horoscope and property documents, and cost us Rs.3500 each! The trip cost us about Rs.1.9 lakhs with flight tickets (including within the country) at about a lakh, staying options at around Rs.4ooo, meals at about Rs.1500 each and shopping of course! In essence, ranks right up there in terms of journeys, and highly recommended! :)

The End

Filipinotes – Day 5

….continued from Day 1Day 2, Day 3, Day 4

Another lazy day had been unplanned. The only planning as usual were the meal spots. For breakfast, D had identified a crepes joint called Ti Braz nearby, which also had other breakfast options. Though the beach view was awesome, we chose to sit inside, and were served a pretty mediocre breakfast for 820 pesos. Back at the hotel, we asked for a spa session, which had been advertised in the room in the form of a brochure. That was confirmed for later in the day. Since we were to leave early the next day, we also asked them to check with the guys who were supposed to drop us at the airport on when we’d have to leave. We wandered about all morning, tasting a Boracay version of a breezer, (chocolate flavour dominated) shopping, and as per plan dropped in at Mesa (part of the Boracay Regency) which had a ‘modern Filipino’ cuisine….and WiFi :) After sadly learning that the Ostrich meat wasn’t available, we had a Tilapia simmered with mustasa and gata (mustard and coconut) that seemed like a stew, beef cooked two ways (crispy and saucy) and a  laing fried rice. The fish was almost like a stew with mustard leaves and quite good. The crispy beef was bland but the saucy one made up for it. The Laing fried rice has pork in it. Enough said. Washed down with Rum-Coke. A fine meal at 1275 pesos.

We slowly walked back to the hotel, a short walk away, and got to know that the spa appointment was at 4, and we’d be picked up the next day at 5! :O A nap later, we learnt that the spa would be coming to us! The mobile massage squad did their job in the room itself! Cost us 700 pesos (for two) and worth it! Massage services are the only ones giving food outlets a run for their money in Boracay. Across the beach front, you will be accosted by those advertising massages, or adventure stuff. I slept off and missed the sunset but D managed to catch it, though she said it wasn’t as beautiful as the previous day.

Dinner was planned at Jony’s, in the extended Station 1 section. We had actually thought of having lunch here, but then flipped the plan. That turned out to be a good idea. This was a quieter area, and we could watch the sea peacefully. We had catfish, a chicken preparation inspired by the Chinese, and plain rice. D ordered a Mango-Pineapple shake that turned out to be better than her ex-favourite Jonah’s! Inspired me to try a mango shake as well, and it was really good. A perfect last meal at Boracay – 1129 pesos. We talked about the shops we’d seen that seemed to have been started in the 80s, and wondered what kind of adventurers had made their way to Philippines then. I remembered reading Alexander Frater’s “Chasing the monsoon” and the feel of India in the late 80s it gave. That’s one of the reasons I blog – years later, I hope someone, from all of this, would be able to get a glimpse of how the world was, and how a life was lived. A page across time. :)

We slowly walked back to the hotel, and received a message that the pick up was at 5.30. I hoped I’d be able to keep a promise to myself to avoid early morning adventures during vacations! Thus ended Day 5.

Filipinotes – Day 4

continued from Days 1, 2, 3..

For the first time during the vacation, the morning dawned like one! We’d slept listening to live music and woke up after 9! Though Coco Huts gave a 20% off on breakfast at their Army-Navy restaurant in the premises, we decided to explore a bit. Beach facing options were the focus, and we found Cafe del Mar a hundred metres down. D, as usual, managed to pick up an awesome Chef’s special omelette while I got more standard fare! Couldn’t complain though, especially given the awesome view and a bill of 540 pesos. The table number was 21. #youremember We’d been told that since the heater in the room hadn’t been fixed, they’d be shifting us to the family room. They did that soon as we got back from breakfast. This one was spread across 2 levels (and a mezzanine one in between)  and could accommodate about 6 people! We were requested to use only the lower floor and the balcony. Fair request. Like all rooms, this one too was all wood, and had a verandah facing the beach.

We hadn’t made any specific plans for Boracay in terms of what are called ‘activities’. The only planning we did was figuring out the places to eat at! D Mall featured a lot in our research, and on our way the previous night we’d seen it on the road and thought it was a bit away. But on the beach, it seemed much nearer. It’s just off the beach and the first horizontally spread out mall I’d seen. :) As if the eating options on the beach weren’t enough, this one had many as well, along with shopping options! But D had one destination in mind – Jonah’s Milkshakes, and she claimed to have seen it on the road the previous night. After getting on to the road we ambled a bit before realising that we should probably ask someone. Turned out that it was right after the spot where we’d been dropped the previous night! My turn to look at D accusingly! Our mango and mango-pineapple shakes were delivered in bottles, and proved to be a task to finish, though it was good! We shopped a bit, seeing Gandhi in the strangest of places, and a restaurant called The Hobbit House (turned out that they had one in Manila as well) where they employed midgets as servers, before dropping the stuff at the room and heading out for lunch.

A Thai option was available in the form of Saneh Thai, where we planned a light lunch of Tom Kha soup and a Chicken Satay (because nothing else was available) I also asked for a ‘Rhum Coke’, (not a spelling error) perfect for a balmy afternoon. Cost us 850 pesos. After another round of trinket shopping, we thought we’d explore the area a bit more. We went further along the beachfront (to the left of our hotel) and marked options for future meals. One of the places that did give that was the Coco Cafe, where we had some nice coffee and great WiFi for 305 pesos. ;)

Once we got back to the hotel, I also found spots that gave me access to their internet, which had proved elusive the day before. After a brief rest, we got out to catch the sunset. Turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever seen. There were boys doing sand art, and when we clicked pics, they politely asked for money. :)

After some more sunset clicking, we walked to the ‘right side’ of our hotel and were almost deceived that we were at one end. But we could proceed along the beach and discovered there was a quieter area with restaurants beyond. Again, we mistakenly thought this would be Station 2 or 3. Boracay has 3 Stations – 1,2,3 in descending order of ‘happening’ quotient. :) Our hotel was at Station 1 and it turned out that this quieter area was actually an extension of 1. Tito’s, a stone’s throw away from our hotel, where we hadn’t been able to get a table the previous night, was kinder at 7.30 and Absinthe, and Sisig were consumed, along with some great music. Some tummy space had been reserved because we wanted to try out the Mati Chocolate Sin at Zuzuni, right next to our hotel, a dish recommended across the web! The day before we had reached the place pretty late and they had claimed they were about to shut shop. The dish turned out to be quite good (chocolate usually is!) and together, the dinner cost us 980 pesos. I quite cheaply hung around just outside Coco Cafe, and browsed the web even as D browsed fish stalls!

Back in the room, live music could still be heard, and I slept in the comfort that the next day could be another late start! Thus ended Day 4.

Filipinotes – Day 3

….continued from Day 1, Day 2

This was another 7 AM starter, but this time we could skip the bath since the plan was to island-hop. This was a custom plan since we had a flight to catch at 3 ish, and typical plans ended later than that. After another hearty breakfast, we waited. One of the hotel boys knocked in a while, and happily announced that he would be the tour guide! It would seem that the original guide had vanished. Instead of the tricycle planned for the drop to the pier, we got a van, and almost reached the boarding point for the Honda Bay tour. Almost, because we took a ‘shortcut’ that got us to a boat that was brand new! I think it probably even hadn’t gotten its permit yet! A tiny patch of paint hadn’t dried on the boat floor. D promptly chose to step on it, and fell. She didn’t show me the bruise then, but the purple spot still hasn’t gone! Nice start! The good part though was that we had the 10 seater boat all to ourselves.

The plan was to go to 3 islands, an official guide announced. The first was Luli island, which had a nice blue diving board, which we didn’t try. A Japanese group also arrived and were posing away as usual, and obviously chattering incessantly. The cafe there was only just about opening as we left. The next stop was Starfish island, and there was a nice long stretch to walk. Our hotel guide insisted on snapping our pics regularly! By the time we left, the school group from the previous day made their appearance, this time in ‘colour dress’. :) The last stop was Pandan Island, the most touristy of the lot, and with the highest entrance fee as well, which covered a table/cottage charge as well. We chose a table and then proceeded to go swimming, much to the relief of the guide who was afraid that our enjoyment would be incomplete without swimming. Amazing water it was, temperature and colour, and we spent an hour before having the lunch that the Mercedes guys had packed for us. There are also live sea food counters if you’d like those. The place has clean shower areas and cubicles to change.

The return trip was uneventful, but at the point of unloading, our bag broke and the camera almost fell into the water! Nice end. We had to wait for a few minutes before our pick up van arrived. The hotel owner and his wife, an elderly couple, were in it and they played some great 70s tracks as we drove back. A shower later, we were ready to leave. The entire package without the island entrance fees (750 pesos for 2) but including the tours (Mercedes arranged them for us) cost us 9000 pesos. They were really a friendly bunch of folks, and we’d recommend the place highly.

After paying an airport fee of 80 pesos, we waited for the Airphil express flight to Manila. It was a short flight, but they gave us nuts and biscuits! :D I asked for coffee, and regretted it. Black! At Manila, (Terminal 3 again, so no transfers required) our next flight to Kalibo was delayed! It actually turned out to be the same flight we’d come in. This time, I declined coffee! The flight was half empty and by the time we landed, it was quite dark, though it was only just after 7. The airport had this on-the-decline feel to it. We were met by our transport guys, and after a short wait, led to a bus. D was pissed because she had been promised a van. We had paid 2200 pesos for a 2 way transfer, (Boracay Best Deals, because they got us the room in a place we wanted, but My Boracay Guide might be a good option, I think, though they cost the same) but could see 250 pesos/person (for one-way) signboards, though it wouldn’t cover the last bit of our journey to Boracay. You can get to Boracay from 2 airports – Kalibo and Caticlan. The latter is better and nearer, we chose Kalibo only because it had night flights operating. Caticlan is a smaller airport and dos not have flights that land later in the evening.

The bus driver seemed to be having an argument with the crowd, but we finally started. After an hour and 45 minutes of twists and turns and dark stretches, we reached the Caticlan jetty. Carrying luggage into the boat was our own headache! Thankfully, the boat fees had been paid! We ‘walked the plank’ into a crowded boat. D got irritated when they dropped a tarpaulin sheet to cover the ‘window’, but the waves that followed soon after made it a wise decision. Some massive rocking and 15 minutes later, we reached the Boracay side. A van was waiting for us…and others. Another ride, during which we dropped off the others, we stopped on the roadside. We were a bit dismayed because we had chosen our hotel Boracay Coco Huts solely for the beach view! But it turned out that the last 100 metres or so had to be walked. The hotel was indeed on the beach, and the room was really cool – small but classy with lots of wood and a balcony, but we learned soon that they had a problem with hot water!

We wanted a quick dinner before we crashed, so we ignored our list and dropped in at Aria, which looked decent. Italian food – pasta, pizza, and a San Miguel Pale Pilsen (quite solid!) later, (1300 pesos and good food) we were ready to drop. It was around this time that I began noticing that the Philippines’ traditional costume (for women) was hot-pants. With that promising thought, I closed Day 3. :)

Filipinotes – Day 2

…continued from Day 1

Day 2 started early – D has this habit of not letting us slip into a vacation that easily, so she makes plans so as to phase it over days. :D This meant that we had to get out at 7 AM. After a filling breakfast, we got ready just in time for the Travelerspal guys who were organising our trip to the Underground River. We were dressed to get wet, but were told that wasn’t the plan. So we quickly changed clothes and got into a van which could accommodate 8. I was thrilled.. for about 5 minutes, by when the other passengers had been picked up from other hotels nearby! But it was still comfortable – not with my back, but in general. Our guides were the Men in Pink :) One of them reminded me of a Telugu/Hindi villain – the guy who played the swami in Sarkar, but a much fairer version! :)

There were stops at regular intervals because our boat was booked for 1.30 PM, and that helped. The first stop was for a fantastic view of the bay, and D also bought more nuts, water and a souvenir. A trip to a fairly neat loo cost 20 pesos. The next stop was at Ugong Rock. Cave hiking and ziplining (450 pesos/person) were the activities, and though I was tempted, I didn’t want to spend the rest of the days nursing a worse back. D went though, and thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve noticed that in people – they tend to be happy when away from me! Strange! I sat down in the waiting room and heard the local guide repeat the spiel (including the punch lines and the laugh!) about 3 times, then started reading news clippings. Apparently, this was Ugong Rock’s second attempt at becoming a tourist destination. The first time around, drivers never stopped between Puerto Princesa and Sabang, so it flopped. This time they had more funding from an agency, and tour guides were helpful. The men worked in the fields and fished, while the women worked on tourism. This meant that there was a balance – local life isn’t tampered with much, and they have a stake in making sure the ecology is preserved. This was a trend that I noticed here (across Philippines) – people were serious about nature and preserving it. In fact, they have a planting event too each year. More power to them!

In about an hour, D got back and showed me photos. Seems the other couples were extra nice to her. :)  We proceeded to Sabang, and the driver (after warnings) played ‘roller-coaster’ on smooth roads. The other guide called a tiny bridge the ‘Miracle bridge’ very seriously, and then said that it was called so because it was a miracle it was still standing! We had an hour to kill and for lunch, after we got there. (part of the day trip deal that cost us 1500 pesos per person) Lunch was buffet with beef and pork and chicken and rice! We wanted to try woodworms but there was a huge crowd. After lunch we wandered about on the pier. Loos cost, but we were ok with this – at least they were maintained clean, unlike those Bali ones! D saw a jeepney again and looked at me accusingly. Thankfully, I was saved by the boat.

Clear blue skies, aquamarine water and we were off to the Underground River after paying an Environmental fee of 50 pesos/person. The first boat left us on the island from which it could be accessed. A short walk got us to the second boat point. But there was a huge batch of school (or college?) kids, dressed in green, and that meant that we had to wait quite a bit for our turn. We wandered around taking pics. One of the girls in green offered to take snaps for us, but we politely declined. She was quite the photography buff as we saw her later too, with others’ cameras, clicking away happily. :) A monkey and its baby arrived to offer distraction. After a long while, we got our turn. Vested and helmeted we got into the boat as the staff kept clicking away photos! “Everybody wave”! We had a really funny guide, and I really would’ve liked to understand his Filipino comments as well. The passengers at the front of the boat also play ‘lightboys’. The guide tells them to point a flashlight given to them as per his instructions. Once inside the subterranean river-caves – one of the seven new natural wonders of the world, we saw the ‘bat cave’, with Batman – Boatman jokes from the guide. Rock formations that looked like Jesus/John Lennon depending on your religion, he said! It is quite spectacular – specifically the ‘church’, where rocks have formed ‘biblical scenes’ over millions of years! Humbling stuff!

We got back to Pier 1, after D purchased photo prints. (of us, which they’d shot earlier) At Pier 1 we even saw a boat sinking! (check the last few seconds of this video) We were a bit antsy as we had a dinner reservation at Kalui (so packed that you couldn’t get in without reservations apparently) at 6.3o PM and didn’t want to miss it. But we took only just over an hour to get back. The driver played DJ while our ‘Hindi villain’ slept off!

We got back to Puerto Princesa and Mercedes to learn that Kalui was closed – Sunday! By this time Mercedes had given me WiFi access and the next option was Badjao. Relatively, it was a little off, but I think that’s a perception because of the dark stretches in between. But 50 pesos for the ride meant I wasn’t so right. The web told us to have the tricycle wait, since getting a ride back wasn’t easy. But we saw enough tricycles parked there, so ignored the warning.

Badjao is an excellent dinner spot, thanks to its location on the shore, and there’s a definite buzz about the place as well. From the menu, we tried the Cali, a pineapple fizz drink, Calamansi juice, (sour citrus fruit) the Chicken Binakol soup, the much lauded seafood platter and pork! Except for the shrimp and crab, I managed to help finish the platter! The soup was different from anything we’ve had before – with tender coconut pieces and a sweet tinge! Loved it. The pork actually took a backseat. All for 1500 pesos.

We saw a couple from our morning tour there as well. The ride back was a fleece job- 100 pesos, and the guy actually had the gall to ask us if we wanted a city tour the next day! Thus ended Day 2!

Filipinotes – Day 1

In a departure from our usual forays into South East Asia, we chose to fly Malaysian Airlines this time, after an MS excel battle that saw as many as 3 plans for the same destinations being made and deleted to balance places, planes and prices. We began the journey at midnight on a Friday with an in-flight mutton dinner. A very auspicious beginning, I thought. :D My back, taped after a physio session, pretended to be on my side until we landed at KL, at the airport we’d never seen so far. (we used to land at the cheapie airport thanks to the Air Asia flights we took) We expected to do the entire transit visa gig here too- in fact, the dates were planned so that we wouldn’t have to take another Malaysian transit visa. Surprisingly that was not required and our next flight – to Manila – was to be boarded just down the corridor. But that was a good 3 hours away, so we slept on the seats – perfect for lying down as well!

We got a sense of Malaysian hospitality while boarding the next flight. A female passenger was carrying massive cases as cabin baggage, and was told by the staff – an old lady – to transfer stuff and send one as check-in – first politely, then sternly, then rudely! The tone never changed, just the facial expressions. Great entertainment! :D We watched ‘Life of Pi’ on the flight – all except the last 15 minutes! D saw about 5 minutes more thanks to an earlier start. I fidgeted thanks to my back and wondered if I should have traveled by raft!

We landed at Terminal 1 at the Ninoy Aquino international airport – named after the opposition leader assassinated in 1983, I learned later. The airport looked like it was made around then as well, though it was clean! We changed currency ($ to PHP) and boarded the transfer bus that would take us to Terminal 3, to board our next flight that was about 4 hours away. We also learned that in the Philippines, counting worked as 1, 2, 4, and then 3 in terminal transfers. They played Gangnam Style in the bus and asked us for 20 pesos each for the trouble. :D D saw a jeepney (jeep + rickshaw used for public transport) outside and clamoured to sit in one!

Cebu Pacific, our next airlines partner, ruled Terminal 3. Yellow was everywhere! This seemed a newer, swankier, neater terminal and had a fairly equipped food court. We had a quick, but excellent meal at Kenny Rogers Roasters for 370 pesos. D continued to embarrass us by asking a customer for water! I expectantly, shyly, went to something called a Comfort Room, but it turned out to be just a loo. Cebu didn’t feed us anything in the roughly 1 hour flight, and we landed at Puerto Princesa  at just before 8.

We had booked shelter at Mercedes B&B, and they were at the tiny airport to pick us up. The car turned out of the airport and then turned again and we’d reached! I said we could have walked. No one laughed. They don’t serve dinner, so we asked for recommendations. Kinabuchs, which was also on our list, won out and a tricycle was called to get us there. 20 pesos, as we watched the nightlife and numerous restaurants on the roadside. It was close, but this time I didn’t say anything. Fast learner.

Kinabuchs was bustling! A giant outdoor screen played a football match. But most importantly, they served crocodile! We asked for a Crocodile la Bicol Express and a Bistek Tagalog. The first was cooked in coconut milk with finger chillies and the second was a Filipino style beef preparation. Red Horse seemed to be the local favourite beer, so we asked for that as well. The crocodile was almost like chicken, and the beef was good too. Red Horse was quite mild. All at 900 pesos.

The tricycle guy happened to be still around, so we asked for a ride back. This one cost us 30 pesos – because it was late or we were heavier! Auto drivers of the world united on one and a half! Our room at Mercedes was simple, but clean and functional. The plug points here were India friendly but we learned later that it would be good to carry around an adaptor. Meanwhile, we slept. Thus ended Day 1.

Shillonging Day 4 – Peaks and Falls

Contd from Day 1, Day 2, Day 3

Ajmal managed to be late citing tire problems as an excuse. My legs were tired too, but D seemed to be even worse off, stooping like an old woman when she walked. I laughed, but my back hurt when I did that! Breakfast was standard – paratha and omelette. The night before, Ajmal had claimed complete ignorance of where Laitlum – one of our destinations for the day – was. Though Chintu also professed no knowledge, he was kind enough to find out and draw a map for us. Google Maps helped too.

We decided to go straight to Smit, and from thereon to Laitlum. Despite the map, it was difficult to find. It was really an ‘edge of the world’ place, and though there was heavy mist, it was quite an awesome view. Unfortunately the damn mist wouldn’t allow the canyon view to pose for photos! It takes just over an hour from Shillong, so it’s really worth a trip, for the silence and awe. :) Ajmal, as usual, had no idea on where the 100 year old house in Smit was, so we had to skip that!

 

 

 

The next stop was Shillong Peak, and it had begun raining heavily again! But it cleared for a few minutes just as we reached the peak, and so we were able to catch the splendid view, though there were clouds and mist. D also got to wear the traditional Khasi costume for Rs.50. While climbing the little watchtower, D suddenly realised that she had developed a fear of steps. :D

    

Elephant Falls was next. Appearances and sounds were deceiving, and when D realised the number of steps that it would take to reach the third level of falls, she immediately balked. The first level was easy, and I went till about the second level, but from my vantage point, didn’t see a lot of sense in going to the third. I also realised that the place seemed to be a favourite rendezvous for the young Shillong crowd, and didn’t want to disturb their, erm, best practices.

We got back to Laitumkhra after spending close to an hour in Shillong traffic! This time we were adamant about finding Sesame, and finally did! It was in a little building called Shoppers Cove near the Municipal Parking Lot in Laitumkhra! We entered the dimly lit, tiny outlet and discovered that they really didn’t serve local dishes as various stories had informed us! So Pork Chilly Mushroom and a Chicken Chopsuey it was! We then went back to the hotel, totally tired.

We were too lazy to even go out for dinner, so the plan of visiting Cloud 9 in Police Bazaar was dropped. Instead we ate waffle cone ice creams at the Baskin Robbins outlet nearby. :D A sweet last night in Shillong.

Day 5: On the return trip, Ajmal was supposed to stop at Barahpani, but didn’t deem it worthy enough. Instead we got to see several man made waterfalls on the road, with truckers being the major contributors. Ajmal seemed to be focused on sending us heavenwards even before the flight, and had a curious habit of accelerating on hairpin curves and places where there were boards that stated speed limits of 20-30 kmph. Have to mention here, that we found a Kerala restaurant at 9th Mile! Seemed closed though. The Guwahati airport does have a couple of options for snacks. At Kolkata we sat at our regular CCD hangout just outside the main building and killed a few hours. Indigo proved to be as 6E as it always is in terms of sticking to time.

The trip cost us around Rs.60000 inclusive of everything – tickets, hotels, meals, taxi. We went through Traveloearth, but really wouldn’t recommend them mostly courtesy Ajmal. Both White Orchid and Cherrapunjee Holiday Resort are functional and clean. The trip was worth it thanks to the day spent at Cherrapunjee,  a couple of really nice people we met – Chintu and Angela, and for visiting a place that a favourite author set her first book in – also her birthplace. I am a huge fan of Anjum Hasan‘s writing, but on Day 1, I became skeptical of her description of Shillong. However, by the end of the journey, I could completely relate to the place in “Lunatic in my head” though it is set in the 1990s. It would seem that Shillong has grown since then, but hasn’t really moved.