The valley of snow!

Sikkim is, if I have not stressed it enough already, one of our favourite places to disappear when we need a break. The people, the land and the food, are all such welcome salves when you want to get away from the jaded city life. This is precisely what we were looking for on our trip to North Sikkim. Our destination after Lachen was Lachung.

The Yarlam resort is the best the village has to offer and we were booked for three days here. Just like the Apple Orchard resort, this one too might seem a little expensive, but considering the harsh weather and terrain, we were glad of the comfort they provided. We were greeted with tea and shown our abode. The room was all we could have asked for plus had a marvellous view of the mountains on both sides.

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The view from one of the windows of our room.

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Since it had taken us a while to reach here, just like in Lachen, we decided to make use of the massage chairs [ at an extra charge] and some music that evening. We were informed by the hotel staff that the snowfall had been very mild here and that they had heard of the snow blanketing Lachen. I think the snow gods were pleased with us during our trip. We retired for the night and while we were snuggled in our heated matresses, there was a heavy snow storm happening all around us.

The next morning we started off for Zero Point but could only reach Yumthang Valley. The army had once again asked tourist vehicles to not go further ahead as the temperatures had reached – 16  and there was a lot of snow piled high on the road. The valley was blanketed with a thick white sheet of virgin snow. For someone like me, who had never set eyes on snow before, this was exhilarating. We could see quite a number of other tourists just as excited and soon almost all the snow which was easily accessible had been trampled on or played with. We were extremely thankful for our gloves, snow jackets and boots. Well, boots for one of us at least, I had only packed my trekking shoes and they were soon soaked through. The rented boot shops all around came in handy and soon I was back in the snow.

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Untouched snow as far as our eyes could see!!

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On our way to Yumthang, our driver had made a short stop to give a ride to a friend of his who had a vegetable stall at the market. The one thing that always makes me marvel is the hardworking locals who never seem short of a smile or a helping hand. And this seems to be true of all hill folk. Always stylishly turned out and cheerful and always ready to go the extra mile if theres livelihood to be made. We saw a few enterprising souls here too. There were makeshift stalls and small shops selling maggi and hot drinks on the road approaching the stop.  There were also ladies selling alcohol but if you are not used to the altitude, it is best to stick to tea/ coffee or soup. We have seen people have shortness of breath and worse because of having a drink too many in the mountains.

I think it shall help you prepare better for a holiday in the mountains if you stick to what the locals ask you to do. Eat what they eat, sleep when they sleep and start the day when they do. There is a reason behind everything and at temperatures and altitudes that your body is not used to, it is best to heed people who are in the know. We tend to do just this no matter where we travel, and so, inspite of the sub zero temperatures, there was not a day we felt sick or did not feel comfortable. They made sure we ate right and kept us toasty warm all through our stay. The staff at Yarlam were the sweetest and right from making sure we drank only warm water to bringing hot puffed rotis to us every single time, they looked after us like we were home. Stick to the local vegetables and fruit not to mention the local cuisine. Tashi, Jeevan, Bhumika and Sangam were some of the most wonderful staff we’ve encountered. They came to call us out for a snow ball fight when it snowed the next night because by now they had seen how much I enjoyed it. Even though snow to them is a fairly normal event, they were as crazy as us and we had a fabulous time catching snow flakes on our tongues, making angels and having snowball fights.

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Just a couple of the many delicious, local dishes we tried.

Our time here passed quickly- taking village walks, buying essentials at the local store and taking pictures. We absolutely loved their heated beds and the heater which not only kept us warm, it also helped us dry out our socks and gloves. We found a locally made lip balm, which managed to do what all our branded ones could not in the harsh climes and we smiled with uncracked lips at the sheer relief. This was suggested by a lady who owned a store in the village. I had my doubts given that I had never seen the name before, but she insisted that this was just what we needed and we remain grateful.

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The wonderful lady who helped us find the perfect lip salve 🙂

We proceeded to Gangtok from here and had an adventure or two along the way. An extremely huge boulder missed us and a car that was coming towards us from the opposite direction as we made our way on the hills. We stopped at the same small eatery that we had on our way going up and fed about 29 [ Yes, you can trust me to count] dogs outside it. Mountain dogs are the most gorgeous with their beautiful fur and limpid eyes. As we sat outside with the sun shining bright, so many beautiful furries at our feet, full tummies and chatted and laughed with the locals, I silently thanked whoever it was that had watched out and saved us from a sure death.

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Our favourite spot as we drove from Lachung to Gangtok

Winter Wonderland

“It does not snow in March anymore”, we looked across at Phuchung as he said this. The three of us had climbed a small hill next to our resort, Apple Orchard in Lachen and I had been wondering at whether I was about to witness the first snowfall of my life that day. We were exploring the sleepy village with its ever smiling locals and the Lachen ‘Ngodub Choling’ Monastery.

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Japanese cherry blossom

 

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Country roads..

The day had started off crisp and bright but seemed to be rapidly moving towards biting cold and grey. As we climbed back and sipped on our tea sitting outside under the apple trees, we looked through the many books on sikkim and the local flora and fauna that Kumar, the manager had thoughtfully brought out for us. We were also given many sympathies over our unsuccessful foray. Our early morning excursion to Gurudongmar lake had come to nought, the army had advised against tourist vehicles going ahead because of black ice on the roads. We tried to take as many pictures as we could of the surreal winter wonderland before we were turned away halfway from our destination.

Seeing our crestfallen faces, the staff had rushed to ply us with hot food and drink and make sure we were entertained. We  still had the packed breakfast given to us at dawn and were admonished when we offered to eat it instead. Being the sole guests at the resort did have its perks, while the weather was certainly not one of them, the almost familial warmth we felt at the hands of the staff, certainly was. We insisted they join us for tea so we could talk and find out a bit more about the locals. Over piles of fresh and warm home baked cookies, we were regaled by the lot about stories of adventure as the locals went into the protected areas, reserved only for the indigenous tribes to go and hunt for a magic herb which is extremely expensive and very sought after. Half plant and half insect, this herb is said to delay signs of aging and is an aphrodisiac. As we poured our second cups of chai, we looked up to find the first snowflakes descending. As the chef and Kumar looked out, they turned to us and smiled “ Aap ka luck acha hai” and it most certainly was.

Chai?

The first time you experience anything, even more a natural phenomenon as beautiful as a snowfall, is sure to make you break into a smile. We made plans with the kitchen staff to have our dinner in the dining area by the fireplace. Ten minutes into us reaching our room, there was a power cut. The town has very sparse lighting as it is and with a power cut, it was literally pitch dark as far as the eye could see. The only hotel to have a power back up in the area was ours and within half an hour we had the power back on, though limited. Luckily our room was warm enough from the heaters being on earlier. The temperature outside had dipped to sub zero and we were freezing even after our thermals and warm outerwear. The guys at the hotel let us know that the snow had made the stairs too slippery for people unaccustomed to walking in the snow and that they wouldn’t want us to risk coming down in the dark. What followed made us feel so welcome and well looked after that we thanked the guys a million times. Not only did they humour me with my requests of local food, they fed us a proper feast in our room. The rooms are quite a few flights of stairs away from the kitchen and when we thanked them, we were told it was the least they could do, they do not meet many outsiders and having us over was fun for them. The monastery that was clearly visible from our room otherwise, could only be made out because of the sound of the tibetan horn and chanting coming from it. We washed up as quickly as we could, taking care to not run out all the hot water, and tucked ourselves in with the two hot water bottles at our feet and the heaters facing the bed. When the power came on sometime during the night and both the heaters kicked in [only one had been working till then], we actually got warm enough to want to push the hot water bottles away.

The beautiful Apple Orchard, our home away from home.

As we looked out, we truly understood how too much of a good thing can be bad.

Mornings like these..

 We had decided to try for Gurudongmar again but we found out the place had experienced abnormally heavy snowfall during the night. It looked like our rendezvous with the lake was not to be and we were told we would be lucky if we were not snowed in and stuck in Lachen for the rest of our trip. We made the most of what snow we found along the way to the lake and back. The one thing travel teaches you is to make hay while the sun shines, or run around like demented monkeys while it snows. We bid the sleepy town of Lachen goodbye with promises of returning and left for our resort in Lachung.

 

The surreal sunsets of Kanyakumari

 

The next stop for us was Kanyakumari. This place stole our hearts in a way that has us craving for a repeat visit. And this even before we had left. We started the day with a visit to the Thiruvalluvar statue and the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. The entire thing was done in such an orderly manner, given the teeming crowds that they had, that it made us wonder at the endless queues and jams we get back home in the cities for almost everything. Once you buy the tickets, you join the queue and wait your turn to get onto a jetty that takes you to both the islands. The breeze and the beautifully coloured greenish blue ocean is sure to take your breath away.

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We had just the two days in Kanyakumari and regretted our short stay the very first evening. The windows looked right over the sea and we could tell we had a spectacular sunset awaiting us the very evening we checked in. As we left our resort and walked towards the beach, we were waylaid by the sight and smell of bhajiya’s being fried right in the open. The absolutely charming and beautiful mother-daughter duo ladling out the goodies, were absolute sweethearts and gave us a couple of freebies too. Language is really not a barrier when you’re travelling, we barely spoke and yet I doubt any of us would ever forget them. Our evening was spent taking in the most spectacular sunset of our lives till date. The beach is a short walk from the hotel and we stayed out watching the colours till the last trace vanished. This is one of those things that you must do once in your life if not more. I find it hard to believe a more beautiful sunset is possible anywhere.

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Our hotel was the Sparsa Resort. The property is beautiful and has efficient staff who make your stay as comfortable as they can. Could not find any faults with the place given the rates they charge. Complete value for money and pretty good food. We  have had our Karwachauth vrat happen on quite a few of our trips every year and this hotel hosted us during the karwachauth of ’14. Since the both of us fast on this day, not religious but sentimental, almost all the hotels we stay have had staff that go to such lengths to make us juices and make sure we eat well at night. Not to mention the “aw, so cute” looks and comments we keep getting. These guys were the same and we were bestowed with beaming smiles all day.

We left but not without witnessing two of the most gorgeous sunsets of our lives and a wish to visit again and stay on to see a few more.

 

The pristine beaches of Varkala

Varkala was a much looked forward to destination for the both of us. We are your typical beach bums and had read so much about the powdery soft sands and clear waters. We reached the sleepy little town pretty late in the afternoon and after a quick stop at our hotel headed down to the beach while the rest of the family stayed back to get over the travel fatigue.

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The hotel we were at was the Deshadan again. Apart from the absolutely heartwarming service we received from the staff, the hotel itself left a bad taste. They really need to refurbish the place. We had a humongous spider visit one of the rooms and mosquitoes were in plenty even after the staff took pains to light “kachua” in and outside our rooms everyday. The property itself is beautiful and with such excellent staff, it’s a shame nobody is putting in more time and effort to better the place. As we were leaving, the manager offered to give us his bike keys to go down to the beach to ensure we got back safely. Varkala, being a small town, most places concerned about the safety of their guests prefer you back before dark. It was a short walk down, and we did not take him up on the offer but it did tell us so much about how much of himself the guy put in his work. Lesson in it for all of us. Almost all places we visit leave us with such fond memories of not only the places and the food, but the people. Makes you believe in the goodness that makes the world go round.

As we neared the beach, we saw a lot of hotels at the edge of the cliff and we would try to get a place in one of these if visiting again. The views must be breathtaking. High tide had rendered the paapnasam beach inaccessible and we had to make do with the black beach. The difference in both being, The paapnasam beach is usually thick with tourists, both indian and foreign, as the temple is right on the beach. The idea being to wash away your sins after a dip in the waters. Maybe the guy above just knew we had not committed enough to wash them away ;).

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The way to the black beach, which stays underwater for most parts and is visible only when the other one goes under water, is either by climbing down a winding flight of stairs, which seemed way too mossy and slimy to be safely walked upon, or by climbing over the black boulders that flank the beach. As we got down, and it is fairly easy to do even for people who have a tendency to fall like moi, we felt our feet sink into lusciously thick and soft sand. The waters are beautiful and compared to the other beaches, pretty clean. A lot of the people seemed to be into yoga and beach sports, surfing et al. The shacks on top of the cliff , Cafe Del Mar and Trattoria’s, remind you instantly of some beautiful places you’ve been to in Goa. Varkala itself does the same, like a quieter, less crowded Goa.

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The endless tea gardens of Munnar

On our trips to the rolling hills and beautiful plantations of Munnar, we always make multiple halts along the way. Either it is the bewitching sights begging us to take pictures or some absolutely enticing food stalls. Along with the plantations, the elephant rides are also just outside the main town and you need to make a stopover if you want to experience the joyride. Not to be missed if you’re a fan of all beings four-legged like yours truly.

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Being as it is, situated at an elevation higher than quite a few in our country, the joy of sipping on a cup of cardamom chai, smelling the eucalyptus and pine trees along the way is to be experienced. We have walked in beautiful plantations, had passion fruits fall in our laps from trees and tasted the almost watery, yet so flavourful burst of fresh cardamom picked off plants in front of our eyes. We don’t think we can do justice to the wonderful local food we have encountered while we’re talking about our staycations and will talk about the culinary adventures of each destination in a separate post. 

On our earlier visit we had chosen to stay at Blackberry hills, this unfortunately, was not to be. There was some rioting in the town the day we reached, friction between the local and tourist cab drivers and our man of the hour – Danny, wonderful as he was, was not very keen to go on ahead and asked if we would be willing for a change in plans. We then proceeded to the Sienna Village. All our trepidation was cast aside when we had a look at the property and our cottage. Everything from the breakfast to the romantic candle lit dinner they arranged for us was pretty good.

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The trip that we took last year, had us staying at the Ambady Estate. The place, though a little difficult to locate, stole our hearts the moment we got down from our tempo traveller. With such picturesque cottages, the completely private plantation and birds calling out to you, it is very difficult to leave even for day trips. We were welcomed with a herbal tea, and the manager was kind enough to share the recipe with us. They have an old cardamom drying facility that he took us to get a look at. Warning : Go up to the attic like space only if you are comfortable climbing up seriously old stairs and not claustrophobic. The cardamom needs a lot of dry heat to lose all the moisture and hence the breathing issues once you’re inside. Out of the seven of us, just the two daredevils that we are, ventured up. The dining area is right next to the cottage they use as a reception and the food is scrumptious to say the least. The family that owns the property lives on it, along with their wonderful staff. The owner was friendly enough to enquire about our stay almost everytime we ran into him inspite of the manager being on his toes all the time.

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This property charmed us so much, almost felt like leaving home when our stay was over. p.s They sell the organic cardamom they make. Be sure to get a packet or ten, like we did.

Among the things to do while in Munnar would be, a visit to the Rajamalai National Park, something we missed doing on both our trips even after hours of waiting in line. It’s almost like the Zara store has announced a pick anything for free promotion in Mumbai. The kalaripayattu or the kathakali shows, suit yourself, we being a family of adrenaline junkies, chose the former and renewed our resolve to get fitter after we had been suitably chastened by their feats.

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The natural or manmade beauties at the Matupetty Dam, Top station and the tea gardens. The freshly cut pineapple they sell everywhere, inexplicably, tastes better in Munnar than anywhere else. A well guided tour of the plantations is also something we enjoyed. The guides do tend to get carried away while they take pictures and you might find yourself strugging to contain your laughter as you humour them and take the most awkward poses. Almost all plantations have shops near the main entrance and hold a treasure trove of spices, oils, tea, coffee, sandal and what not. The Kolukkumalai tea estate was a favourite with us on both the trips. Just a word of caution, this being the highest place in the world for organically grown tea, the ride is pretty bumpy and not for the faint of heart or full of stomach. Eat light and please avoid this if you have any serious health problems. Once you reach, it is quite a delight to the sense. The cool, misty air and the wonderful, soul soothing tea that you can have, is sure to leave snapshot memories.

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The one thing I absolutely love in Kerala are the freshly fried, salted yellow banana chips. You cannot imagine what popping a crisp and hot banana chip, straight out of the kadhai, feels like. Life changing. Go already.

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The lush greens of Alleppey

Kerala’s backwaters have been popularised through innumerable hindi movies and music videos. The lush greenery and shiny, happy faces that surround you while your stay are second only to the beauties of the hills of Munnar.

The best time to visit Alleppey would be from October to February. The place tends to really heat up during the day and the best way to take in the blooming water lilies while sipping on coconut water, would be the shaded boats that ply to take you on rides through the day. While we stayed at a luxury houseboat the first time we were here, we would not advice you to make it an overnight stay unless you’re fine with a few creepy crawlies coming in to say a hello.

The resorts we favoured during our stays were the Kondai Lip Backwater Heritage Resort and The Deshadan Backwater Resort.

Kondai Lip made us fall in love with it as soon as we reached. It was, in it’s isolation, the ideal place to spend a romantic couple of days for our newly married selves and we adored everything about it. The canoe ride that circles around in the moat before it takes you to the secluded wooden beauty that the entire place is.

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I could wax poetic about the place. We loved the wooden structures, the individual cottages and the brass decoratives.

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The food was all locally sourced and so fresh! Whether it was the wonderfully cooling kokum juice that was the elixir that welcomed us or the beautiful kerala parrota’s with chickpea curry that we had for breakfast the day after.

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The staff is not only very warm and welcoming, what adds to the charm is that everyone is traditionally attired. They have the most beautiful lakes, one of which you can wake up early to fish from! We did not go fishing but seeing the huge beauties jump up in the lake made me squeal with happiness. The only thing that made us sad here was the part when we had to leave.

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The Deshadan chain has this beauty right at the shore and has the Taj property flanking it.

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We were in luck as two of our rooms were upgraded from being Superior Lake view rooms to Lake view rooms with private dip pools. The property itself is beautiful but the view and feel these individual pools give you, as you sit with your feet or yourself immersed in the water and look out at the lake, is unsurpassed.

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They have tried to create the feel of an infinity pool and succeeded, almost. The breakfast spread is varied and pretty good. They even arrange day or overnight trips on houseboats and we took the former. Staff is once again, extremely helpful and warm. The spa was also frequented by some of us and they found it pretty good.

 

The luxury stay on a houseboat, taken on our earlier trip, started wonderfully with refreshing fresh juices and the most luxuriant kerala thali.

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We still drool when we think of the food we had on the boat. The two guys on board were extremely friendly and the room was pretty well equipped with an air conditioner and a fairly nice bathroom. Tea and dinner were served on board as well, and though not as spectacular as the lunch, were pretty nice.

 

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The morning boat ride

 

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The pretty backwater lanes
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The Lilies are in abundance
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Going to school
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Or to your work
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Makeshift bridges
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A docked house boat

All the houseboats need to dock at night and so did ours, the covers were pulled on the boat as it prepared itself for a nighty night. What we had not taken into account earlier, however, was the huge cockroaches flying in at night. The guys dealt with the best they could but it clearly is something that is part and parcel of staying on a swampy lake. Hence the earlier warning. On to our next destination..

 

And so the adventure begins…

IMG_1500God’s own country – We have visited this beautiful, lush state twice in our travels and have returned equally charmed both the times. The first time would be on our honeymoon and well, we would have loved any other place just as much I suppose. Pretty hard to dampen spirits of a pair that has gone through the rigours to be together. The next time was when we took la familia to the place to get them a taste of what they had been craving for since they saw our pictures.

Kerala has, not only an inherent natural beauty, but a wonderful diversity and the most charming, ever smiling locals. Hills, plains, beaches, lakes, cities, villages, forests, there is nothing that you would miss experiencing in this coastal state.

The main cities are all well connected by flights with the rest of the country and almost all the locals understand and speak english. The food in particular is impossibly fresh and delicious. Eating local is always the best way to travel according to us and the fresh produce makes the bounty you can savour, limitless in Kerala. From the delightfully salty, fresh out of the oil banana chips to the passion fruit off the orchards in munnar, from the spice plantations to the freshly made kerala thali on the houseboats, we could go on and on about the deliciousness we encountered on our trips.

IMG_0355 1The places we covered during out sojourns were varied, from the towns of Kochi and Trivandrum to the beautiful backwaters of Alleppey. From the lush hills of Munnar to the beaches of Varkala. We even ventured into the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu during our second visit and took in the surprisingly beautiful sunsets of Kanyakumari.

The following posts shall guide you through planning a trip with references to the hotels we stayed at and the operators who helped us organise it all. [This is not a sponsored post and we do not gain monetarily or in any way from it]. We hope it helps you plan a beautiful vacation with your loved ones with some local know-how.

Let’s get tripping 😉