Mayang Sari Beach Resort, Bintan

Nirwana Gardens is a resort complex in Bintan that has 3 resort options. The eponymous Nirwana Gardens is the regular place with all the facilities that you expect from an all-inclusive resort hotel. The Beach Club is the place for the serious water-sport enthusiast, with other facilities a bit thin. Mayang Sari is a bit of both. And since we were in a ‘middle-of-the-road’ mood, we plonked for Mayang Sari.

It was a good choice.

Mayang Sari Resort Beach

Mayang Sari

Mayang Sari Beach Resort

Mayang Sari

View of Dubai from a helicopter

Anshul & Rashi took their 5 year old up in a helicopter over Dubai. It costs US$ 800 for a 30 minute (max. 5 adults) and they say it is well worth it. Here is some of what they saw. Check it out the next time you are in Dubai.

A Dubai Panorama

The Burj Al Arab & Jumeirah beach Hotel

The Burj Dubai on its way to becoming the world’s tallest building

Cranes over Hotel Atlantis

Click on for a few more photos.

Continue reading

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and 10 other Indian cities

HolidayIQ has just revamped its weekend getaway section. Now one can find weekend getaway destinations as well as weekend getaway resorts/hotels by distance from each of the top 17 Indian cities.

Click here to see the new pages:

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata

Weekend getaways from all 17 cities

Indiana Jones Vacations from Expedia

Expedia.com has a nice set of itineraries built on the Adventures of Indiana Jones. Titled ‘Indiana Jones Travel Experiences’, it covers itineraries in India, Egypt, Italy, China, Jordan, Mexico, Nepal, Peru & USA. Sounds interesting. Check it out.

Planning a holiday abroad? Book your hotel online.

Over the last few weeks I have had a number of people asking me various doubts on planning an independent international holiday & particularly about booking hotels abroad. So, till such time as HolidayIQ launches a comprehensive international section (don’t worry, that is coming soon & I promise, it will be a great planning tool), here is a quick primer on how to book hotels & resorts abroad.

I am an online guy, so my first preference is always to book hotels online. With both Travelocity and Expedia launching India sites, the widest international hotel inventory is available to be booked from India and paid in Rupees. So, it sure beats your neighbourhood travel agent hollow. And since both sites have an Indian call centre, one can also talk to a real person in India to double check your bookings, which is often a real comfort.

I stress-tested booking a family room (4 people, 2 adults and 2 kids) at Orlando – in or around Disneyworld – on both the sites. Both Expedia & Travelocity did a good job and threw up a number of options (although Travelocity gave funny error messages & repeatedly failed in my Firefox browser which was a disappointment). However, Expedia’s search methodology was a shade more user-friendly since it allows you to find hotels by naming the Attraction you want to go to and throws up hotels around the attraction. Of course, both Travelocity & Expedia also allow you to narrow the list of hotels in the search results by distance or ease of access to the attraction.

Both excelled in prices. Hotel room prices around Disneyworld started in Expedia at Rs 1386 per night and in Travelocity at Rs 1583 per night. Continue reading

A couple of new tourism websites

Here are 2 new tourism websites that I recently came across. Each interesting in a different way.

Smallwander

As its name somewhat elliptically suggests, this is a site about travelling to small towns. Currently it covers only four states in the US. In many ways, this site reminds me of HolidayIQ, since over 70% of Indian destinations carried on HolidayIQ can be classified as small towns. This aspect makes is refreshingly different from the run-of-the-mill travel info sites, most of which give you more information than you need about New York City while not giving you any about say, Damascus, Virginia. I would have liked to see a user-feedback section on this site to complete the experience, but I guess it is early days for the site.

Fabsearch

Fabsearch aggregates information about hotels, resorts and restaurants mentioned in top travel and lifestyle magazines, probably making it the first aggregator of such content in the world. A search of places to eat in ‘Bombay’ throws up options selected from articles in Elle Decor, Tatler, Daily Candy & Our Friends. Some of the other publications they seem to track are Harpers Bazaar, Elle, FT, New York Social Diary, Town & Country, Vanity Fair, Vogue, W and Wallpaper. Interesting enough as a concept to see whether it gets traction.

Aman, DLF & Zecha

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The big news is that an Indian real estate company, DLF has purchased Aman Resorts, the very high end resort operator for USD 250 million. The interesting part of the news is that this represents just a tiny portion (well under 1%) of the current market cap of the recently listed DLF. Ok, so that is headline. Now, for the analysis & context.

Adrian Zecha the founder & CEO of Aman has done this before. In the early 90s, Aman was sold to LA based Colony Capital and Zecha left the company. What followed demonstrated the power of the man behind the brand. Aman’s regular, very rich clientele decided that Aman without Zecha wasnt quite the thing they wanted and started to drift away. Soon, the money bosses had had enough. They sold the company to a HK group and Zecha was back running the business. So, will there be a replay this time?

DLF is a listed company and listed companies do not make great custodians of luxury brands. Continue reading

Want to go to Zanzibar, Kilimanjaro & the Serengeti?

Watch this video to find out which country you need to go to for a combination of a great island holiday, a fabled mountain climb and the world’s best wildlife viewing.

Click here for all my posts on Africa.

Luxury holidays & the Art of Spending Money

sunseekeryacht8202.jpg

(Charter a yacht for your next holiday. Photo from Sunseeker)

Paradiso, the new tour operator brand launched by the Sahara group focuses only on premium & exotic holidays – Scottish castles, French vineyards, Caribbean beaches, Fancy yachts – the whole caboodle. I like the idea and have been mulling over the execution of such a model for some time. The problems are obvious, notably the size of the market & the sales delivery method. But for a player ready to slowly and carefully build a brand, the medium to long-term value creation from such a business can be significant. After all, India is creating an uber-rich class faster than any other country on earth with the possible exception of China. And clearly ‘Experiences’ are trumping ‘Things’ as the true indulgences. So the need is there, which is an excellent starting point. The question is – have Indians, even rich Indians, got to the point where spending over USD 15,000 (Rs 6 lakhs) on a luxury holiday is ‘natural’? My conversations with a number of friends in the tour operator business & our own experience on HolidayIQ tells me that it is starting to slowly happen, especially among the younger rich.

Which brings me to another point. I am absolutely convinced that for Indians, the ‘Art of Spending Money’ is a tougher one to master than the art of earning money, simply because we will have to unlearn generations of our own mindset. (I am just back from another one of my ‘holiday observation trips’, this time to Hong Kong and it was obvious that the Chinese have a natural flair for spending money which we do not have). As Indians get richer, I am sure we will figure out how to spend money. The faster that happens, the easier Paradiso & others of its ilk will find life.

Click here to find out about a holiday in outer space,

Click here to find other posts around luxury holidays,

And finally, here is my selection of the Top 5 Holidays for Winter 2007.

Utsav – a fantasy island holiday

Last night I was watching the old period movie Utsav. Where have all the Indian women who look like Rehka gone? Anyway, that is besides the point.

It is my thesis that premium holidays are going to move much closer to ‘experiences’ than to ‘places’. While Aman Resorts was the pioneer of the place-based experience holiday (Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman says that all Aman does is to put a picture frame around an extraordinary natural setting), the next step will involve a creation of a composite, enveloping experience. And in this, I am pretty certain that Period experiences will be a big thing in the future. A new breed of vacations specialists will emerge, combining the detailed recreation of movie sets with powerful mechanical & digital capabilities of the amusement park industry and the sophisticated guest management of top end resorts. Targeted at the premium segment of the leisure market, these vacations will induce people to ‘voluntarily suspend disbelief’ for a much longer time than the 2 hours of a movie, maybe even up to a week.

Utsav, Girish Karnad’s mid-80s period movie is the perfect inspiration for one such vacation. All guests will have to shed their modern togs in favour of ancient clothes, electricity will be completely banned and the mood will reflect the life & times of Vasantsena & CharuDutt. It is my hope that I get to conceive this project. And if given a chance, I would love to set this project in one of the uninhabited islands of the Andamans.

In the meantime, I still cannot figure out where the true Indian woman went.

11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India

I was doing one of my usual google searches for HolidayIQ and stumbled upon something that is very gratifying. The sentence was – “One of the best travel sites we’ve seen anywhere on the web”. Apparently, IndiaStreet, the online magazine for new projects & investments in India, did a detailed exercise to identify what they called “11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India” and lo & behold, HolidayIQ is one of them. When one is immersed in work and in creating something new, there is very little time to look up and see how far one has reached. This, for me, is a sure marker of our progress. Obviously, happy about it.

Here is the link>>

6500 Indian resorts, hotels, home-stays & guesthouses

HolidayIQ has now listed 6500 resorts, hotels, home-stays & guest-houses across India. About 40% of these properties have got reviews from actual guests who stayed there, which is amazing for our country. This is simply because of the consistent hard work so many travel-crazy folk have lovingly put into this over the last 3 years. I still remember early 2004, when this project started as India Resorts Survey – a travel-lovers initiative set up by a small group of holiday junkies. It has really grown up now and it cannot be easily replicated.

The count of accommodation options at the major tourism states are: Goa Hotels – 384, Kerala Hotels – 642, Rajasthan Hotels – 561, Himachal Hotels - 381

For the bigger cities, the count is : Delhi – 198, Mumbai – 176, Bangalore – 171

Out of this list, 1157 India hotels are in a mountain or a hill setting, 554 are Beach hotels in India, 161 are wildlife hotels and 92 give the traveller an inland waterfront experience.

Byron Bay

Seems this is the best-known “undiscovered” place in Australia – so I decided on a dekko. In any case I had wanted to try out Virgin Blue, so booked with them for the one hour flight north from Sydney to Ballina/Byron Bay.

Byron Bay used to be a hang out for hippies, so it still retains the charms of an ageing hippy. Long hair & wispy beards complement a distinct undertone of vaguely “eastern” influences. But since the 80s, yuppies and international back-packers have discovered Byron Bay. So, yoga classes and spiritual sessions mix easily with hordes of surfers and whale-watchers.

Almost everyone I met in Byron Bay was relaxed & friendly. It could be that I went in the Winter there and without too many tourists, locals had a chance to stand & converse. Or it could be that I had 3 days of no work all, making me a relaxed person to talk to. Either way, they were friendly.

The sea in Byron Bay has this extraordinarily blue colur of water. Jutting into the water is the cliff face of the Cape Byron Headland Reserve. Hiking up & down the trails of the Reserve, along the seaface, with the water on one side and dense tropical coastal forest on the other is something I would earnestly recommend.

Byron Bay is the eastern-most point of Australia and a great place to watch for whales, while they migrate to & back from The Great Barrier Reef.

I spent a blissful 3 days in Byron Bay, wandering up and down. Couldnt get to meet Olivia Newton John though; she owns a resort there and was in town while I was there. Munching battered fish & chips in The Fish Heads was great too. Sure beats getting my head chewed by the rush hour traffic in Bangalore.

Click here & here to get a couple of interesting perspectives on Byron Bay. Or click here for all my posts on beach vacations.

Also, here is a Byron Bay video I found in Youtube

Best Hotels by Travel + Leisure : Where is Aman?

Another ‘Best Of’ list. Travel + leisure magazine has announced the best of tourism for 2007. Included are the Best Hotels, Best Cities, Best Islands, Best Airlines, Best Cruises, Best Car-rentals, Best Tour Operators and so on.

The big Indian story of course is that the Oberoi Udaivilas comes in as the Best Hotel in the world. The really interesting news for the cognoscenti is the absence of any Aman Resort in the World’s top 100 list for 2007. Intrigued, I checked out the 2006 list – Amanpuri had come in at a low 72nd rank last year. Is this a reflection on the properties of Aman or on the readers of T+L?

It is raining ski-villages

The Economic Times this morning carried a story on 2 new ski-villages being planned in Kashmir. These are in addition to the 2 already under implementation in Himachal Pradesh.

India is definitely one of the hottest countries on earth. So the idea of India having ski-slopes to rival the Alps seems kind 0f strange. Strange, but soon to become true.

It seems climate change is melting the ski slopes in the Alps and for aficionados, the only option soon to be left is the Himalayas.

Pakistan seems to be jumping into the act too - check out this video.

Niche, influential, defiant

These 3 words were written recently to describe both Adrian Zecha, the founder of the Aman Resorts chain and Steve Jobs of Apple. If I have benchmarks, they are it. Their businesses revolve around building lifestyle services created out of a wonderful personal aesthetic.

Obviously, neither of them run the biggest businesses in their chosen fields. Apple is so much smaller than Microsoft – but, given the Mac, the ipod & the iphone, can there be any comparison? Similarly, all the rooms of all the resorts owned by the resolutely niche Aman Resorts can probably be fitted ito a large chain hotel in one place. But again, no product in world hospitality can be easily compared to an Aman.

Sorry to gush – but that is the way I would want to make products – as things of beauty.

Gates vs Jobs : check out this cool animation video

Weekend breaks

As the monsoon sets in and summer holidays become a memory, urban India goes into the short-break mode. Soon HolidayIQ will be flooded with users trying to find weekend getaways from various cities. When we put togethe the Weekend Getaway option on HolidayIQ, we did not anticipate the huge following this feature would get.

The Weekend Getaway feature on HolidayIQ lets users find holiday options around 18 cities of India. The best part is these can be searched by distance from the city, upto a distance of 350 kilometres. I have great fun playing with this feature even when I am not planning a holiday. Dreaming.

Here is the list of 18 Indian cities from which weekend breaks can be found on HolidayIQ:

Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Cochin, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mangalore, Mumbai, Mysore, Nagpur, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Vizag

Slow Travel

Next time. For me, these two words have saved many a trip from degenerating into catatonic nothingness. An initial experience was in Paris many years ago. I was a rookie on my first visit to Europe and with me was a person who had lived over a month in Paris & who wanted to help me “do Paris”. Phew. For two days we whizzed about from place to place, quickly glancing at a famous painting here and running through a famous garden there. (If you are old enough to remember Lil’ Dot and her Uncle Rush, you will get the picture). Anyway, it was on the 3rd day that I caught my breath, stood on the kerb and decided to become immobile. I wanted to “absorb” – I would see the remaining sights “next time”. After that my trip improved although the relationship quickly went downhill.

Slow travel is catching on across the world and is steadily creating inroads among Indians too. My friends in the trade tell me that the “10 nights / 12 country packaged tour” of Europe, so popular with many of us in the last few years, is slowly giving way to a more independant & leisurely form of travel.

Yes, let us not hurry. For, there is always the next time.

Here is a video of a bicycle trip – a great way to slow down & connect with the host land

Royal Time Machine

Finally. I used to often wonder why we never have a city bus tour that goes beyond the mundane. Here it is (or at least that is the promise). The Royal Time Machine is a tour operator that has started luxe tour coaches for sight-seeing in Delhi. They have pulled out the usual 50 odd seats from the bus and transformed it into a 19 seater with interiors done in Mughal/Rajput motifs. All of this does not come cheap. All their tours cost about Rs 7000/- per person. The good news is that they offer booze (including cocktails) as part of this price. They promise to soon roll out this service in all other prominent Indian tourism destinations.

Now, we need to see whether they can deliver consistently on their promise.