Top 5 holidays for winter 2007

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(Hogmanay in Edinburgh – photo from stuckonscotland)

So you have done well this year. The bonus has been good, your spouse is making good money & the stocks you invested in have zoomed up with the index. It is time to reward yourselves. How about a Mont Blanc Pen? Or maybe a set of fancy wheels? Or maybe a ballooning trip over the African veldt? or book yourself for one of the first sub-orbital flights with Virgin Galactic?

In my regular conversations with users & members of HolidayIQ, many of whom have the classic ‘successful’ profile I outlined in the first para, I now find that unique experiences are taking over from fancy products as the real self-indulgences. And it is clear that in the early 21st century India, unique travel has become THE way of self expression of the successful. Move aside, Mont Blanc & Maserati. Welcome to Masai Mara & the Moon (soon, hopefully).

Over the last few years, I have given up on business travel and got into some serious holidaying. So I get asked this question quite a lot – what are your suggestions for a holiday this season? So, in answer to the key existential angst of our time, here is my personal list of 5 great travel escapes for Winter 2007.

  • Watch the whales migrate at Byron Bay, Australia. One of the world’s most scenic spots, home to a great ‘littoral rainforest’ is also the setting for one of nature’s amazing events.
  • Soak in the atmosphere of true ‘ancient India’ on the banks of the Betwa and Maheshwar, ancient rivers of Madhya Pradesh. Stay in classily refurbished palaces & forts right on the waters edge.
  • Bring in the New Year at one of the classiest cities on earth. Be a part of Edinburgh’s Hogamanay, from 29th Dec 2007 to 1st jan 2008
  • Do a ‘Cantonese crawl’ – explore haute chinese cuisine starting in Hong Kong, Shenzen & Guangzhou and taking in various parts of the chinese coast around the south china sea
  • Scuba dive in the pristine coral island of Agatti, Lakshadweep. Discover the million shades that lie between Blue & Green.
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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

Unnatural Act

Hungry Jack’s as the name suggests is the trencherman’s fast food. Get a massive bite of beef in a bun and off you go. Except, I didnt go. I decided to commit that most unnatural of acts – sit in an early 21st century fast-food counter in Sydney, Australia & reflect.

The experience was a bit like meditating underneath a moving train – at best an acquired taste. A steady stream of gaunt, famished faces walked in, rapidly chomped and walked out, all in a blur.

So, after a half hour of training I gave up. Modern capitalist society, as Paul Theroux mentions somewhere, practises various forms of natural selection on the reflective. Hungry Jack’s is clearly part of the conspiracy.

Great hamburgers though.

Karnataka : India’s best tourism destination?

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(Karnataka map from Totalkannada)

From the rolling, cool country of Coorg to the azure blue seas around Karwar just south of Goa & Maravanthe just north of kerala, from the elephant & tiger reserves of Kabini & Nagarhole in the Nilgiris Biosphere to the historical poetry of World Heritage Sites such as Hampi & Pattadakkal, Karnataka is a state with a hell of a lot of tourism oomph. Unfortunately, the state tourism bureaucracy has managed to keep this one of India’s better-kept secrets.

In spite of which, of late, tourism has blossomed here only because of the desperate need of Bangalore‘s denizens to escape the city on weekends.

While Karnataka’s tourism future has Bangalore as its possible saviour, what about the other strong potential tourism states, such as Orissa or Madhya Pradesh?

Oh, and another thing. Talking of Kannada oomph – Aishwarya Rai & Shilpa Shetty, the 2 most-est current hotties of Bollywood & Deepika Padukone the babe-in-the-making are all from Karnataka. Coincidence or what?

Click here to read all my posts on Karnataka >>

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?

Nok Nok Thailand

The Indians are coming! And far from circling the wagons, the Thais seem to be rolling out the red carpet.

India’s Free trade Agreement with Thailand is set to happen this year. Already, Thailand is among a bunch of neighbours that have instituted visa-on-arrival for Indians. And now, come the low-cost airlines. Nok Air the hitherto domestic Thai airline, has just gone international with the launch of its Bangalore-Bangkok flight. I did a random search for prices. In end July or early August a family of 4 can get return tickets from Bangalore to Bangkok at about Rs 39,000/-, which is lower cost than flying Bangalore – Delhi – Bangalore.

Given the broad parity in currency values, the low-cost of flights, the compelling prices of accommodation in various parts of Thailand & most importantly, the general tourist-friendliness of the place, I do expect the country to get a sustained increase in Indian tourist arrivals over the next few years.

Here is ad from Nok Air. Since it involves a puppy swallowing a credit card, I presume it is a good ad – cannot make out anything else, as it is in the Thai language.