Child-friendly London

March 08, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Top attractions and easy locations for families travelling in the UK capital

London is a choice attraction for most tourists. With its combination of history, excellent museums and galleries, ever-changing culture and festivals, as well as big exhibits and parks, a visit there can be a whirlwind of attractions and quick stops.

With kids, this kind of city travelling can be even more testing. Yet London is a good choice for families looking to distract the parents and the youngsters alike.

Making a choice about where you stay is crucial. We recommend placing yourself in close proximity to the major museums and galleries in South Kensington, by selecting a hotel or B&B near Hyde Park.

You can choose from a selection of Knightsbridge and Kensington hotels with Millennium Hotels group, European hoteliers who specialize in 4 star quality hotels for shorter breaks in some of the UK and Europe’s most visited cities. These hoteliers will often offer special deals for kids and discounts for longer stays – with anything over 3 days incurring a reduced rate.

imageimage[3] When it comes to entertaining the kids this year, don’t hesitate to delve into the day-long catalogue of interactive features and exhibits at the Natural History Museum (pictured). It’s long been a favourite with families because it combines a really exciting hands-on delivery with ageless facts and fascination. Who isn’t captured by 40-foot whales – and a free entry?

For an evening pursuit, this year it seems the biggest new hit on the West End is the RSC’s musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Matilda. With high praise from critics and kids alike, it is worth booking ahead.

In fact, we’d advise booking for it as you book your flights and hotel. There’s best availability mid-week so if you’re booking for a family of four, look for Tuesday to Thursday seats. What is more, this might fit quite nicely with a reduced 4-night stay at one of SW1 or SW7’s hotels, perhaps Sunday to Wednesday.

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Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve: A very different national park!!

March 08, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

There is only one tiger reserve in the entire country that is seeing a healthy increase in the tiger numbers. And there is only one tiger reserve where one can see tiger cubs regularly. That tiger reserve is Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve, located in central India.

The stripes that make Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve such a favoriteIMG_7346  
This is one of the larger tiger reserves that is not well known among the masses and thus the reason for its excellent health. Only people in Maharashtra and the wildlife fraternity of India seem to know this place well. But, apparently, this place is real famous for its tigers. Such is their fame that National Geographic and Discovery Channel visit this place regularly.

Yellow-footed green pigeonIMG_7260  
The place as such is remote and can be accessed from two major cities: Nagpur and Adilabad. Tadoba is about 135 kms from Nagpur, which is the nearest airport and about 35 kms from Chandrapur, which is the nearest railway station.

Juvenile Changeable Hawk EagleIMG_7046  
Another speciality about this place is that it is one of the few tiger reserves that is open all year round. The monsoon sightings here are considered phenomenal. Hence, everyone going to this place is awed even before actually setting foot inside this tiger reserve.

Eurasian Collared DoveIMG_6884  
Such was the case with me and my friends. I have been to Tadoba before, but the previous visit was more than a decade old. Our plan was to stay here for 4 days and do a total of 5 jungle safaris. The ‘tiger’ and to some extent, the ‘leopard’ are the only buzz words here. No one seems to be bothered about the other animals here.

Common Mongoose crossing the jeep track in the wee hours of the roadIMG_6859  
But, may be because it is very difficult to spot these various other species here in this pristine terrain. In fact, me and my friends were pleasantly surprised when we found very less bird species in this tiger reserve. During each visit, we would find the jungle silent, which is very different from other wildlife sanctuaries and national parks, where bird calls would be the norm everywhere.

Plum headed parakeetsIMG_6979  
We did manage to see some birds, but not as many as what we would have seen else where. And like others, we also diverted our energies to tracking the king of the jungle. Each morning would begin by tracking pug marks and droppings. There would be long waits just to see if a tiger crosses the jeep track somewhere through the bushes.

Common HoopoeIMG_7102  
The excitement built to a frenzy when we heard a couple of groups saying that they saw a group of 6 tigers – an adult male (father), an adult female (mother) and 4 cubs. We had our share of luck too when we saw a sloth bear in the thicket and some gaur both up close and at a distance. And when we didn’t get to see the mammals or birds, we would immerse ourselves in the giant wood spiders and their massive webs that could be seen in large numbers all over the forest.

Giant Wooden Spider - 2IMG_7112  
As we kept our search for the largest carnivore of Tadoba, we found that Tadoba was sparkling clean. Not a piece of plastic or any garbage could be seen anywhere. In fact, we used to notice jeep drivers and guides picking up plastic from the jeep tracks and putting them in their vehicles. I guess in that sense, the Tadoba forest department is doing a great job.

Giant Wooden Spider - 3IMG_7133  
But, there is one area where they can improve and that is by not allowing private vehicles and diesel vehicles to enter the forest premises. First, private drivers don’t really understand the jungle rules unlike the forest drivers and go tantalizingly close to animals and diesel vehicles cause more pollution (air and noise).

Indian RollerIMG_7168  
As we kept our search going, we would regularly hear stories from other groups on how they saw the tiger. Now, tiger sightings in the wild is a matter of pure chance as we all know. But, these stories have different effects on different people. For those who are regular wildlife visitors, this just eggs them on and make them feel that the law of equilibrium is going tilt in their favour soon. While, the tourist feels dejected and sometimes even feels that he has been cheated.

Wild Boars cross the jeep track inside Tadoba Andhari Tiger ReserveIMG_7215  
In our small group of 3, our hopes were high and we ended up scouring different parts of the forest and different terrain, from dense forests to lake sides to bushes and grasslands. But, our tiger sighting kept evading us. Each day after our evening safari, we would come back to our camp and talk to locals and listen to their stories.

Common MongooseIMG_7227  
This is when we met Shalik Jogwe, one of Tadoba’s well known naturalists and key member of the wildlife conservation society. Shalik has been working in this forest for than a decade and listening to him was such an immersive experience as he shared stories, eco tourism plans, educational plans for the locals and many more.

Common Flameback WoodpeckerIMG_7249  
Finally, it was time for our fifth and last safari and we had still not given up hope. We played the waiting game and did the distance game, but lady luck was still eluding us. And then, when we were about 5 minutes from our exit gate, a Tata Sumo vehicle in front of me braked suddenly and that is when our luck changed.

Bhamera Male TigerIMG_7342  
It was here that I saw the Bhamera Male tiger walk in front of the Tata Sumo vehicle, cross it casually, give us a customary glance and disappear into the bushes. Thankfully, I was awake and hence saw this entire sequence of events, unlike my friends who were dozing and saw only the later half of the sequence. The entire sighting would not have been more than 15 seconds, but the adrenalin rush was tremendous. Such was the adrenalin rush that I forgot that I had my camera around my neck for a good 10 seconds before getting it into fire mode. Same was the case with my other friend.

Bhamera Tiger gets into the dense bushes after crossing the jeep trackIMG_7343  
A natural sighting in the wild is a different experience altogether and is so much better than sitting around a waterhole or chasing them based on information provided by other jeeps. The only negative about this sighting was the Tata Sumo vehicle, which was less than a foot away from banging into the tiger. But, this hardly disturbed the tiger and he walked as majestically as possible. After all, he is the true king of the Indian Jungles.

Locals of Tadoba Andhari Tiger ReserveIMG_7217  
After seeing the golden yellow coat with black stripes, the mood in the jeep changed completely from being lethargic to having super animated conversations. A beaming smile could be seen everywhere. Such is the aura of the Tadoba Tiger. I am just hoping that this place remains a healthy ecosystem as ever!!

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Sri Lanka’s Heritage Train Journey

March 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

A sensational train ride from the warm and coastal Colombo to the cool and misty central highlands where the level ground gives way to steep ground and where the train literally starts chugging and winding through tea estates and pristine tropical rainforests. This is what makes Sri Lanka’s heritage train journey.

Sri LankaIMG_5550  
This journey, which begins at Colombo’s fort railway station is best taken during the day, especially the trains from morning 6 AM through to 9 AM to allow one to enjoy Sri Lanka’s natural wonders from the comfort of the train seat. The sheer ‘GREEN’ effect captivates one and all. Furthermore, it is quite an experience to see a train that is plying at 60 kilometres per hour drop its speed to around 10 kilometres per hour and struggle its way through the steep tracks of Sri Lanka’s central highlands.

The view from the observation carIMG_5549  
The ride begins at Colombo and goes on till Badulla, one of Sri Lanka’s tea towns, but most tourists, prefer to get down at Nanu Oya, which is the closest railway station to Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka’s tea capital. To know the train timings, one can look up Sri Lanka’s railway site. Currently, online booking is not possible, but one can book tickets from the station 14 days in advance. Typically, 2nd class and 3rd class tickets are available on the day of the journey, but the most sought after seats are the first class observation car ones, which is slightly more comfortable, but provides a 3 side view of the journey. If I remember right, the first class observation car seats cost about 700 LKR, while the 2nd class seats cost about half of that.

The train passes through lush green plantations and forests all alongIMG_5535  
The first class compartments are non-air conditioned, something which you will prefer coz it will allow you to feel the change in the temperature as the train starts climbing into the mountains. The seats are fairly comfortable and the 3 side view is very interesting. Though, personally, I would have preferred if the observation car view was that of the front of the train and not the rear. But, then I do understand that the engine has to be at the front.

First Class Observation Car on the heritage train allows great views of the passing by countrysideIMG_5521  
As the train leaves the Colombo fort station, the crowd thins out and the stifling humidity is more bearable due to the wind. The train crosses small villages and stops at some stations. In about 3 hours from the start, the temperatures begin to dip as the train slowly begins to ascend. The landscape changes to that of tea estates interspersed with tropical rainforests, mountain streams and waterfalls. Umpteen bridges and tunnels add to the eerie factor. A loud scream from all corners of the train greet one n all when the train passes through the pitch dark tunnels, some of them really long.

A view of the Heritage train at the colombo railway stationIMG_5522

As the train approaches Nanu Oya, the train has covered about 180 kms in about 8 hours. Mightily slow one might say, but if you were to account for the 6,000 feet rise in elevation and the rugged terrain, then I guess it sounds reasonable. The entire journey is thrilling with beautiful vistas greeting you at each turn. This is one journey that every tourist to Sri Lanka must do. A road journey from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya is much faster, say 3 hours less, but lacks the nature’s punch of this heritage train journey.

Local Kids enjoy the views during the train ride to Nanu OyaIMG_5525

For those who are wondering where Nuwara Eliya is located…Nuwara Eliya is located about 8-10 kms from the Nanu Oya station. One can either catch the bus from just outside the station or take a cab. A bus journey takes about 30 minutes and will take you right into the centre of Nuwara Eliya.

Enjoying the view as the train meanders its way through the central highlandsIMG_5538  
Tips: Do remember to carry a packed lunch, some high energy snack items and lots of water as the station and train food leave a lot to be desired. Even though it might be warm while you board the train at Colombo, be sure to pack a thin fleece or sweatshirt to help protect you against the nippy weather of the highlands.

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Serai Tiger: Tadoba’s Tented Wildlife Camp

March 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

There are not many wildlife resorts at one of India’s lesser known tiger dens, the Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. In fact, there are only three of them running base on the fringes of this tiger reserve. One of them is run by Maharashtra tourism, while the other two are managed by private players. The last time I was there, I decided to stay at one of these private wildlife resorts and thus ended up at Serai Tiger, a luxury tented camp situated 5 kilometres from the Mohurli gate.

I stayed here for 3 days and had a great time at this tented wildlife camp. The place is ideal if you seek some luxury while not wanting to spend too much for it. A little bit of luxury is required here given the fact that Tadoba faces some of the most extreme weather throughout the year. Summers can be terribly hot at temperatures above 45 degrees, while winters can be bitterly cold. And early morning and late evening wildlife safaris will make you even more vulnerable to this extreme weather.

In such extreme weather, the Serai Tiger, offers 11 great luxury tented accommodation, each with an attached bathroom, an air-conditioner and an air cooler. The tents located slightly above ground level are even fitted with nets to prevent mosquitoes and other insects from entering inside. These tents, which come with 2 beds are large enough to accommodate an extra bed, if required. Backup generators ensure that power supply is available round the clock. These tents, if I remember right, cost about 3,500 rupees per tent and this includes 3 meals for both the occupants in the room.

In addition, there are 2 dormitories that can accommodate 16 people each. This is ideal for large groups, who are on a tighter budget. Food is served in a central dining hall that has a television in it, though I am not much in favour of television while I am on a wildlife trip. But, I am sure a lot of travellers would love to catch up on the latest news n stuff. The food here is homely and the cook can dish out some fancy fare, vegetarian and non-vegetarian both. Breakfast is generally packed to be had during the morning safari. The lunch is between the morning and evening safaris. A cup of hot tea and a plate of biscuits greet you when you are back from your evening safari and then dinner from 8 to 10 pm. In between, one can admire the various photos in the dining halls, read the assorted collection of wildlife books in their library, enjoy the serenity while walking in the garden or climb up the watch towers in an attempt to spot any stray wildlife.

Another thing in favour of the Serai Tiger is its location. It is situated very close to a hillock and its perimeter is frequented quite often by the leopard especially in the late evening hours and the night. And i you are interested in bird life, then the surrounding dam waters offer tremendous opportunity. The service is also quite impressive with each employee ensuring that your trip is great fun.

The resort also helps arrange wildlife safari tours, though might charge a bit more than the jeeps available at the gate. But, they also make up for the extra cost by providing great drivers and forest guides. They also offer pickup services from Nagpur airport and back through their tie-up with local travel operators. Bonfires are arranged upon request and on a full house, tribal dances are arranged, though I did not get a chance to see the tribal dance.

I would definitely recommend Serai Tiger if you wish to indulge in some luxury while on a wildlife trip to Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve. It may be a bit pricey, but it is totally worth it especially in the summers, when a little bit of luxury is needed and its location offers much more than other properties.

To book, you can lookup their website www.seraitiger.com, reach them out on their email id: [email protected] or call them on their phone numbers: +91 – 9552224149, 9373663219, 9868920498, 9810062078, 9665053505, 9910069567.

Nearest airport: Nagpur at 135 kms from the camp, roughly a 3 hours drive.
Nearest railway station: Chandrapur at 30 kms from the camp, roughly 50 minutes away.

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The best things to do when in London

March 07, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

Huge, energetic, historic, beautiful and edgy – London remains one of the world’s most fascinating cities. You can visit again and again, and never have the same experience twice.

Unless you have many months to spare, the best way to see London is to go for variety, selecting just a few areas. Here are some ideas:

Notting Hill
Fridays and Saturdays show Notting Hill off at its best, if you can stand the crowds. Portobello Market is a heaving treasure chest full of antiques, street food, vintage clothing and flea market fare. Colourful cottages line the streets and chic boutiques sit happily alongside the market stalls. When your legs are tired you can sit in one of the hundreds of cafes, bars and pubs and watch the passers-by.

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Soho & Chinatown
Soho is an excellent place to observe London in all its diversity. Self conscious media types in skinny jeans rub shoulders with market vendors in streets packed with cafes, bars, restaurants, pop-up shops and fringed by the city’s red light district. Old Compton Street is a vibrant slice of London’s gay community, and the theatre land of Covent Garden is a stone’s throw away.

Step over Shaftsbury Avenue and you are hit by the exotic, pungent flavours of Chinatown. Streets hung with red lanterns are packed with windows full of glistening crispy ducks, ancient Chinese medicines and unusual foods to take home. Feast yourself on dim sum and take in the aromas and colour.

Brick Lane
Brick Lane and the surrounding Spital fields, Shoreditch and Whitechapel shows off London in all its artistic, cosmopolitan and eclectic glory. Steeped with history and yet constantly developing, the area is perhaps best known for its Bengal community and its top quality, cheap curry houses. Once haunted by Jack the Ripper, winding alley ways lead to open spaces and covered markets. The street food is excellent and urban art covers the crumbling walls.

Riverboat
If you fancy sitting back and taking in the view, the riverboat is a novel and relaxing way to get your bearings. Get on at Embankment and ride all the way to Greenwich to enjoy a winding river ride which takes in many of London’s famous landmarks as well as a fascinating combination of historic and cutting edge architecture: the Houses of Parliament, Tate Modern, Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf, to name a few.

Tip: When it comes to accommodation, the best way to absorb the atmosphere of these areas is to avoid the big hotels and ‘stay local’. There are various beautiful boutique hotels, and for a truly authentic local experience, onefinestay.com provides quirky vacation apartments (complete with local tips) with all the comforts of a hotel.

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