Shoalhaven Estate is located five minutes west of Phillip Island’s centrepiece Cowes and 700 metres from the beautiful Red Rocks Beach which features an outlook towards the majestic Bass Strait and Westernport Bay waterways. Shoalhaven’s unique location makes it the ultimate seaside retreat offering unsurpassed tranquillity but also the convenience and quality of life that modern contemporary living expects. Phillip Island’s wider seaside villages contain coastal charm that is home to fine dining options inspired by local produce and culinary creations. Local wineries are also popular destinations for locals and visitors alike – keen to sample world class wine produced within the island’s numerous vineyards. And speaking of world class, the island is also home to surf spots that often attract the world’s best surfers and a Moto GP race that annually draws the best motor cyclists on the planet.
Located 90 minutes from the Melbourne CBD, Phillip Island is the perfect location to help you strike a balance between convenient connection with the world’s best city and the freedom to embrace a simpler, coastal inspired lifestyle. The recent announcement of Shoalhaven’s latest land release ‘Clearwater’ offers you the perfect place to raise a family, retire, build a coastal getaway or invest in your new and exciting future. And with a variety of build friendly land sizes ranging from 391 m2 up to a generous 921 m2, most with premium elevated views, now is the perfect time to join your new and diverse community at Shoalhaven, Phillip Island. Feed your soul in your new living experience at Shoalhaven Phillip Island.
The enchanting gardens and wetlands of Boneo Maze in Fingal provide the inspiration for over 80 hand-crafted lanterns. As the sun sets, the lights of the stunning silk sculptures illuminate the natural landscape and a journey into fantasy begins. The lanterns whisper the story of Australian animals and plants and explore ideas underpinning the Dreamtime stories. Children and adults alike will be captivated as they wander 27 acres of garden, boardwalks and outdoor play spaces. Returning for a second year, these specially designed new sculptures transform bush land and peaceful gardens into an ethereal walk-through journey. Dreamtime characters will shimmer on the landscape: Elder wombat, Waa the wise crow, the heroic eagle Bunjil, the thirsty frog Tiddalik and others.
Mesmerising 3m high sculptures cast shimmering reflections over the lakes and waterways while cute illuminated critters inspire imagination. Learn more about aboriginal Australia with Carla Lauch, of Living Culture (a Gunditjmara Kirrae Wurrung-Bundjalung man), through his didgeridoo meditation performances, bush tucker gatherings and tools and weapons demonstrations. In the games garden, families can picnic under the stars surrounded by illuminated sculptures or enjoy supper at the lakeside cafe watching the gardens glow. Frogs calls and bush sounds mingle with laughter and chatter- this is an outdoor experience like no other in a truly magical setting.
After a successful Lantasia season last summer, managers Tyson Savannah and Justine Watt are thrilled to incorporate new designs and storytelling elements to this year’s event. ”By opening the gardens at night and creating unique light sculptures, we’re bringing a little magic to the Mornington Peninsula,”said Tyson. Boneo Maze will take its magic further after the season, with the Bunjil and Waa laterns starring in the Melbourne White Nights event. LANTASIA tickets also include Boneo Maze’s popular twilight mini-golf in the entry price. The newly licensed cafe will serve Indigenous inspired meals accompanied by local Mornington Peninsula wines and beers.
From the rugged cliffs and blowhole at the Nobbies to the spectacular rock formations at the Pinnacles to the turquoise waters around Cape Woolamai, this area possesses endless backdrops for selfies, great places for exploring and many an opportunity for picturesque beach walks. While a visit to any of the island’s beaches never disappoints, there is another way to take in the splendour that abounds on these shores. Since December 2014, Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Wild Oceans EcoBoat Tours have been giving visitors an unprecedented view of the coastline, as well as allowing them to get closer than ever to the renowned Australian Fur Seal colony at Seal Rocks.
Operating year-round, this 47 seat rigid-hulled inflatable boat has thrilled those on board, giving them a different perspective of the area’s stunning beauty from out at sea, while Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Environment rangers offer insightful commentary for those onboard.
The new 90 minute EcoBoat Adventure Tour has replaced the original one-hour tour, with visitors treated to an extended and even more unforgettable journey at the same price of only $85 per adult. A trip to Seal Rocks is always a spectacle to behold and the extra 30 minutes provides even greater opportunities for visitors to experience this up-close encounter with the seals, and other wildlife such as gannets, terns and even albatross, along with the spectacular scenery. For half the year, the Seals also have some special neighbours on Phillip Island as the short tailed Shearwaters return home after their long migration from Alaska to spend their summer here, feeding and breeding. These intriguing birds have been the inspiration for Phillip Island Nature Parks’ latest product offering, a one hour Shearwater Sunset Tour.
This tour offers guests the rare pleasure of seeing the Shearwaters as they fly against the postcard-esque backdrop of the Cape Woolamai sunset. Departing from San Remo and running every Saturday evening until early April, it is as suitable for a family as it is for a romantic evening with that special someone. The EcoBoat’s unique design allows you to get nice and close to the coastline as it navigates its way around the Cape’s Pinnacles, rising majestically out of the ocean. You will be in awe of the spectacular scenery and the unique view of the shearwaters as they fly around you and over the top of you, bound for their clifftop rookeries. At just $65 per adult this tour is bound to leave you with some unforgettable memories.
For those with a bit more time on their hands, the Island Discovery Tour is a great way to spend three hours embarking on a journey of discovery and exploration, taking in many of the treasures of Phillip Island’s coastline and spotting its unique and varied wildlife. The EcoBoat’s experienced Skipper will plot your course subject to daily conditions, but some possible highlights of the journey include Pyramid Rock, views of the GP track from the water, the Pinnacles, Cat Bay and many more. Cruising under the Phillip Island Bridge gives visitors a great opportunity to see dolphins, sting rays and even sharks. The Island Discovery Tour includes a gourmet picnic lunch prepared by the chefs at the Churchill Island Cafe.
The EcoBoat’s draught and ability to anchor just about anywhere means you will have the chance to enjoy your lunch at a surprise location, which could be on one of the island’s many amazing beaches, or possibly even across the waters of Western Port on one of the stunning, secluded beaches on French Island. This tour will operate on weekends between late November and early April, and at only $130, this exciting three-hour boat tour is bound to be a hit with locals and visitors alike. All EcoBoat tours include commentary from one of Phillip Island Nature Parks’ expert Education and Interpretation rangers who offer valuable information, and know these shores as well as anyone.
GETTING THERE – Fly with any domestic airline, such as IndiGo or Air India, to Chennai, from most Indian cities. Book a chauffeur-driven car through a boutique travel company like Silk Route Escapes, which can also help customise your trip.
SUGGESTED SIX-DAY ITINERARY
DAY 1: CHENNAI— MAMALLAPURAM (55KM) – Spend a night in Mamallapuram and explore its 7th century UNESCO World Heritage monuments, experiments in temple design and other carvings that draw from Hindu mythology. Don’t miss Krishna’s Butter Ball, a huge rock that appears to teeter on a slope.
STAY: InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort – The look of this seaside resort is inspired by traditional South Indian temples. Sign up for activities like wreck diving and deep-sea fishing.
DAY 2: MAMALLAPURAM- PUDUCHERRY- THARANGAMBADI (215KM) – Drive down NH32 and the East Coast Road, via the temple town of Chidambaram. Stop for the night at the former Dutch colony of Tranquebar or Tharangambadi. Lunch at La Villa.
STAY: Bungalow on the Beach – The refurbished former home of the Dutch governor of Tranquebar is a chic option.
All the rooms at this seaside property are named after Dutch ships that sailed here.
DAY 3: THARANGAM BADI — KARAIKUDI (210KM) – This stretch of the route, via East Coast Road and NH32, draws you inland to the capital city of Chettinad. Stop along the way at the Sufi shrine in Nagoor, and the church of Velankanni. In Karaikudi, have your hotel arrange a visit to a Chettiar home, some of which are open to the public. Also stop by a local weaving unit such as Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Cotton Weaving Centre to pick up an authentic Kandangi cotton sari.
STAY: The Bangala – What was once the home of a Chettiar family is now part of a heritage boutique hotel. The store sells Kandangi saris and other regional crafts like the colourful, woven kottan baskets. Owner Meenakshi Meyyappan can arrange for visits to nearby weavers.
DAY 4: KARAIKUDI— RAMESWARAM (200KM)
Drive back towards the coast, via SH536 and AH43, to Rameswaramon Pamban Island. The area attracts a lot of Hindu pilgrims who come to perform rituals and visit the famous Shiva temple. Drive up to Ram Sethu Point on the very edge of a strip of sand called Dhanushkodi, which extends out to sea and is just 30km from Sri Lanka. (In fact, once a ferry service from here linked the island nation to India.) If you’re the adventurous sort, you could sign up for activities like sea kayaking, kitesurfing and snorkelling with Quest Expeditions on Kathadi Beach. There are a few basic rooms available to stay in as well.
STAY: Daiwik Hotel – While this hotel primarily caters to the pilgrim crowd, it’s one of the better stay options around and comes with all of the standard mod cons.
DAY 5: RAMESWARAM- THOOTHUKUDI— TIRUCHENDUR (230KM) – Start on NH87 and then swing back onto East Coast Road. You’ll get great #lnstagram shots as you travel all the way down to the temple town of Tiruchendur. Along the way you will spot vast stretches of salt pans that make the landscape seem almost unreal in their blazing whiteness.
STAY: Hotel Udhayam International – The only star-rated hotel in town, it offers clean rooms and pleasant, efficient service. Hardcore carnivores, know that like most hotels in this area, it only serves vegetarian fare.
DAY 6: TIRUCHENDUR— KANYAKUMARI— THIRUVANANTHAPURAM (185KM) – The last stretch of your drive (SH176 to Kanyakumari and then SH66) is also the most scenic. Stop when you see the water and go in fora dip where you can. The water’s cool, the beaches are clean and on most occasions, you will have them to yourself. There are plenty of fishing villages along the way and for a small amount of money, you can find a local to cook you a delicious meal. At Kanyakumari, take a ferry across to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. Walk to the rear of the monument and see the ocean spread till the horizon, and find yourself truly at land’s end. Drive on to Thiruvananthapuram, the city with the closest airport. Spend the night there before catching your flight back.
There is this road by the sea that breaks free from concrete and chases the coast. At points, parts of it break off and fan out. Most course inland while one continues to hug the sea where the sea has allowed it to, without claiming the land for itself. They call this the East Coast Road, at least for a few good lengths of it. Elsewhere, it has other names: SH49, NH32, SH176. Depending on the time of day, the sea it borders reveals its many colours—silver at dawn, teal at midday, golden at dusk, black at midnight. If you follow the road by the sea, leaving behind the chaos of Chennai, it’ll lead you to temple towns via quaint colonial outposts where the well-heeled vacation in refurbished heritage homes.
It’ll take you past hamlets where men knit fishing nets in the shadows of towering churches. At the end of it all, this road by the sea will lead you to the tip of the subcontinent: Kanyakumari.
That point in a tectonic rudder that drove one prehistoric landmass to collide with another, causing mountains as high as the Himalayas to rise and fall, into plains and plateaus, hills and valleys and rivers, coming right back down to sea. On the Vivekananda Rock Memorial, a monument on an island, you find yourself surrounded by day-trippers posing for photographs, the younger ones for selfies, older ones for family portraits, the cell phone almost always replacing the traditional camera. Standing here, you realise that before you lies a land drenched in stupendous complexity—the nations, their people, customs, food, rituals, languages, politics. You find it comforting to relish the simple sights and sounds. An elderly Marathi couple arguing over whether Swami Vivekananda had attained samadhi at the rock or had merely visited it. Girls on a school trip playing hopscotch while their teachers catch a break from the afternoon heat.
Tourists listening intently to their guide who, in fluent German, points and gesticulates at the structure in front of them. The wind in your hair, the sun on your face. The road by the sea has led up to this, but only you know how long it’s taken to get here—about 1,000km and, along the way, many discoveries. It all begins when you arrive at the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mamallapuram (more commonly called Mahabalipuram). Stroll through its 7th- and 8th-century monuments and romance the ruins —Krishna s Butter Ball, the rathas, the cave shrines. Wander around and stumble upon a whole new reason to visit—amateur sport fishing. The area’s marine residents—marlin, barracuda, barramundi, yellow tail and whatnot—are reeling in fishing enthusiasts from across India. You’re struck by #fomo, so you rise before dawn and head out to sea. Your feet are jelly on a swaying boat.
Armed with a steel rod and fancy tackle, Prithvi, a deep-voiced man with a large belly shows you how to cast, where and for what. Plop! There goes the bait. You tease your prey and pray for luck. Nothing. Repeat. Nada. Different spot. Same result. Never mind, it’s still a thrilling experience, you decide. The rush of the sea, the uncertainty of success. Hooked—fine and sinker. Another day, another thrill you’d least expected in another sleepy temple town—this time in Rameswaram. You’ve been taking detours to empty beaches that you’re grateful no one else seems to know about. Not in your circle of friends anyway. Then you spot a kitesurfer on a beach and realise he’s Jehan, a friend’s friend. One person doesn’t count, you decide. Jehan now runs a water sports school. You grit your teeth and try paddle boarding, with a fish in a dog’s body perched on the board.
You wish that you had his balance, that you could swim like him, that you were that graceful fish. Return disappointed as the toddy’s been drank and all that’s left is coconut water. Drive on through dusty towns where filter kaapi and malligai poo (jasmine flowers) are more bywords than keywords. And look out at a verdant skyline punctured every so often by a temple spire. One of these, standing tall, grabs your attention. You turn to it: Tiruchendur, one of the holiest sites dedicated to Karthikeya, Shiva’s son. It’s obvious this is a one-horse town—all roads lead to the temple, all hotels cater to pilgrims. All restaurants are vegetarian. You work either for the temple or for those who visit it. Groups on tour, families with elderly folk and with children, heads tonsured, gender no bar, covered in sandalwood paste waiting to enter the temple, exiting it, resting in its corridors and bathing on its beach.
Pilgrimage, probably the oldest form of tourism known to humankind, thrives on this road that takes the faithful to places like Tiruchendur and Velankanni and Nagoor. A trinity of holy sites for India’s trinity of major religions: Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. In Velankanni stands the sparkling white seaside shrine to Mary. In Nagoor, the shrine of Sufi Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed. In both, you find devotees of all faiths, united by their faith. This road by the sea also leads to a feel-good place, you realise. You #heart this road. You also #heart your lunch in Puducherry, in a refurbished French home called La Villa. You step in and bump into old friends. Shake your head at the chances and join their table. Lunch turns into a joyous affair, full of mirth and memories. You wonder at how so many travel memories are connected to food.
This is reinforced days later, in KaralkudI, when the doting matriarch of another lovely old home-tumed-boutique-hotel, The Bangala, ensures you’re fed to the point of being comatose. Multiple courses of delicious vegetables and game meats: kaadai (quail), muyal (rabbit), pitta (turkey). Sour, spicy, savoury, sweet. All as traditional as they get, she insists, and all farm- (or jungle-) to-table. The food’s delicious and you’re so stuffed that you can do nothing but rest in your four-poster bed under a lofty ceiling. It’s only later, when you wake up, that you admire the intricately carved doorways, the pillars and period photographs of the family on the walls. Some days on the road are indeed better spent off it, you surmise. When you do step out, you realise The Bangala is just one of many palatial homes here, known simply by the initials of the families that own them—MSMM, AVM, PMA. Each makes you stop mid-traffic and whip out your phone for yet another photograph.
The grand structures, many crumbling, stand as examples of the power of travel to transform communities. Think of the Chettiars, the dominant class in this region, who moved inland after a tsunami swept through their seaside home. Of how, back in the 18th and 19th centuries, they braved the sea to head to places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar, Singapore and Malaysia to trade and become moneylenders. With the revenue from their travels, they built stunning palaces, channelling every aesthetic form learnt at home and in the West: Art Deco, Gothic, Neoclassical. Some of the wealthy brought over European architects to build their mansions. Others simply produced photographs from trips for local artisans to be inspired by. Today, parts of these homes and the possessions of their masters—Burma teak pillars, doors and doorposts, watches and walking sticks—are found in antique shops.
You also buy heirloom saris from weavers who are returning to handspun cotton and natural dyes. You’ll bring these back, along with memories of meals eaten, people met, temples and churches visited, and beaches bummed on. Sitting on the rock in Kanyakumari, the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, you think about how being on the road is almost always laced with such discovery. Even if you have all your pit stops planned, you can never be quite sure how the trip will turn out. For each road holds many surprises, and certainly this one that borders an endless sea.
Skiing the Dolomites may prompt the question, “Am I in the Alps?” Geographically, of course, the answer would be yes. Shooting up some 10,000ft from the chain’s southeastern foothills, this jagged ridge of 18 limestone peaks stitches together a region vastly independent from the rest of the Alps, like the bohemian branch of a grand old aristocratic family. Politically, they sit in northern Italy, though they don’t inherently feel Italian: rustic mountainside dining rooms serve more spaetzle than spaghetti and a “guten tag” goes further than a “grazie’.’ Mussolini annexed the region from Austria in 1918 and pushed Italianisation, but it never quite took; even today, many locals prefer speaking the mountain dialect, called Ladin, over Italian and German.
While glitzy towns to the west—Switzerland’s Verbier, France’s Courchevel—draw in a Moet-swigging crush of svelte snow bunnies and loud-money oligarchs draped in Bogner parkas, Dolomite villages like San Cassiano welcome Italian families who, season after season, ski its powdery slopes in winter and hike its lavender-lined mountain paths in summer. And amid all this distilled Alpine gorgeousness are the rifugi—traditional cosy mountain huts sprinkled across the valleys, villages and slopes that act as restaurant, pub, inn and cafe in one, offering hearty dumplings and ragu, simple rooms and the requisite espresso hit between ski runs. But that’s not to say the Dolomites don’t telegraph an understated European glamour. For decades, the towns of Cortina d’Ampezzo and Bolzano—bookending the region from 132km apart—have been a landing spot for the moneyed with taste.
Yes, you can find a Prada sweater or two here, but there are also Hapsburg-era castles, stately main squares and a new wave of stylish luxury chalets (helmed by equally stylish innkeepers who know their Frette from their Fiordilino). From now through April, regulars will be hitting the area’s 1,207km of gently sloped terrain, which is often blanketed in dry, powdery snow. Since the Dolomites are protected from the tempestuous northerly storms, chances are you’ll get a cloudless sky (there are 300 glorious sun-flooded days a year here, apparently more than anywhere else in the Alps). And unlike in Colorado or Jackson Hole, once the boots are off for the day, plates of thin-sliced speck and salume served with preposterously excellent glasses of Gewurztraminer and Pinot Grigio are waiting for you. That’s when you sit, eat, recharge—and think about how you can’t wait for the sun to rise tomorrow so you can do it all again.
The fish around here know how special they are. They shimmer and glow and sparkle like stars in their own biopic, performing in the spotlight of crepuscular sunrays. There’s the arresting electric-blue giti damselfish with its yellow tail, the doe-eyed deep-reef cardinalfish and the jamal’s dottyback with aqua-rimmed eyes as startling as Daniel Craig’s. Mandarinfish go about their flirty courtship dance at dusk—part tango, part samba— rising up, cheek-to-cheek, locked in a triumphant embrace of pectoral fins. And there’s the shy Denise’s pygmy seahorse hiding among gorgonians, a specimen so endearing you might just quit your job to study marine biology.
The Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat lies in the Coral Triangle, which stretches from the Philippines to East Timor to Papua New Guinea, known as the most biodiverse marine habitat on earth.
There are many species here you won’t find anywhere else. It has three-quarters of the world’s coral varieties, nearly 10 times that of the Caribbean. The high-definition visibility means that without having to swim a stroke, you will see a multitude of corals resembling Murano vases or bunches of baby com, marbled plumbing fittings, peanut brittle, cobwebs and an oversized cabbage patch. Some say the scientist Alfred Russel Wallace, whose studies focused on these islands, should be considered Charles Darwin’s equal for his work on the theory of evolution by natural selection. “Situated upon the Equator, and bathed by the tepid water of the great tropical oceans, this region… teems with natural productions which are elsewhere unknown,” he wrote in 1869, in his book The Malay Archipelago.
Raja Ampat consists of four big islands—Misool, Waigeo, Batanta and Salawati—along with hundreds of dots and specks off the fragmented western comer of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island. The eastern half of the island is given over to the independent state of Papua New Guinea; the western half belongs to Indonesia, evidently reluctantly, and is known as Papua and West Papua. Locals are culturally Melanesian— more like Fijians than Javanese—and they’re keen on independence. The morning I arrive in the province had been preceded by overnight political demonstrations. “Drunks,” says one man, playing it down. “There’s a revolution going on,” says another, playing it up. The streets are crawling with Indonesian soldiers and military police. If you want edgy, this is it. Yet this part of the world also serves as a reminder that there are still relatively unexplored places, serene and pristine. It has stayed this way because of the simple fact that for many years, there was nowhere for travellers to stay.
Committed divers, often the most pioneering of explorers, travelled around the region on liveaboard boats. Homestays have since opened up and word is beginning to spread. Most visitors get to Raja Ampat via Sorong, a city on the far west coast of Papua, where there is an airport, army barracks and a karaoke bar called Happy Puppy. Life for many here revolves around three of the nation’s main sources of revenue: fishing, mining and logging, which also happen to be destroying the country’s natural habitats. The port is busier than it should be for a far-flung provincial town. The gigantic arms of cranes unload shipping containers. Oil tankers fill up at oversized vats on the water’s edge. Down the coast is the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world. They say that if Papua was an independent state, it would have one of the world’s richest incomes per capita.
But Sorong does have a go-slow mode, too. Kids walk to school across the airport runway. A column of smoke wisps out from between hillside homes where the call to prayer punctuates the day. At night, 10ft-high crucifixes fight up in flashing neon. Less than two hours from here by boat is a clutch of hotels and homestays, most of which have opened in the last few years. At Papua Paradise Eco Resort, there are 26 overwater bungalows and two house reefs, home to the wobbegong sharks and flamboyant cuttlefish. I sit on my stilted deck and watch radjah shelducks swim past, delivering intermittent quacks. A foot-long needlefish flies out of the water, avoiding a predator. A manta ray somersaults, cleaning its back, and the ripples of the splash extend to the shore. There is even a near-resident dugong.
Early mornings here are a cacophony of chuffing hombills, crass squawks of black cockatoos and cackles of sea eagles. To me the place seems otherworldly—near mythical—and many people are aware of the need to future-proof their miraculous environment. But plans can get muddled. At Papua Paradise—currently all low-impact wood and thatch—there are rumours of increasing the capacity of the hotel. I hear fellow guests muttering about the projected changes; that they won’t be coming back. To discover why people really come here, it is necessary to travel to the far reaches of southern Raja Ampat, to the island of Misool. I arrive by an overnight ferry from Sorong, a crowded, colourful vessel stuffed to the rafters with freight and large families. I spend most of the night on the bridge with the captain, who chain-smokes and tells me, in broken English, that he hasn’t had a ferry sink on him yet.
We motor between outcrops of towering rainforest, like someone has tom up the Amazon basin and thrown fragments into the Ceram Sea. The land rises steep and high: sugarloaves of karst limestone with streaks and striations and stalactites. Wave erosion has undercut the islands so they look as if they’re levitating above the water. On the shore it’s all cliffs and caves and mangroves, until suddenly, around a bay, there’s a secret slip of a beach without a footprint in the sand. Rocks of birds rise from the treetops in a series of whoops, only to settle again, gloating with satisfaction at their performance. At dawn, the ferry docks near one of the world’s biggest pearl farms, not far from Misool Eco Resort, a beautiful hotel constructed along strict eco-friendly lines. Its 20 villas and cottages are set around a scalloped bay built from driftwood and fallen trees.
Calico drapes billow between hammocks slung beneath pitched thatched roofs, with wooden steps leading down to the sea, and views of nearby islands so verdant, you feel they might rise like Godzilla. The hotel is the creation of Marit and Andrew Miners, who, after seeing how the region’s marine environment was being destroyed—by dynamite fishing, nets, long-line fishing and chopping up turtles as bait for sharks—“wanted to do more than talk about saving the world’.
’“I was coming up from dives and there would be 30 fishing boats, all shark-finning,” Andrew says of the time when he was working on liveaboards in the region. “I even had a bomb thrown on top of my group during one dive. And yet this was hands down the best diving I’d ever done. It’s the Amazon of the world’s reefs.” The Minerses secured the lease on a 425sq km patch of ocean and began to solicit local support for the creation of a no-take zone where all fishing would be banned. They hired a patrol team, set up ranger posts and began building a hotel on the site of an old shark-finning camp.
When it came to opening, their construction staff changed clothes and became waiters. “They had never even stepped inside a restaurant,” Marit says, “and the housekeeping staff had never seen a Western bathroom.” The divers came first, then intrepid couples, followed by families. There’s more happening. In Sorong, a café / shop opened in 2015 to help fund conservation work, and there are also plans for an aquaponics project. But the Miners’ overriding accomplishment is the impressive recovery of the environment. “This is the only place in the world where marine biomass is increasing this rapidly,” says Calvin Beale, the hotel’s recreation manager and acting marine biologist and dive instructor. “The number of fish on our house reef has doubled in six years.”
Impressed with the hotel’s success, the Minerses were approached by local villagers who had seen the increase in fish numbers and how foreign fishing boats were staying away. They also wanted jobs at the hotel and to benefit from its community projects. The Minerses paid for the lease on a second section of ocean and the marine-protection zone nearly tripled in size. “We are now seeing shark-finning fishermen become rangers,” says Marit. With the support of NGOs working in the region, such as Conservation International, the Minerses also petitioned local government for support; it has since made Raja Ampat a shark and manta ray sanctuary. This inspired a national declaration in 2014 to ban all fishing of manta rays across Indonesia. “You’re guaranteed to see manta here,” Beale says. “There aren’t many places on Earth you can say that.”
For much of our world, there is an urgency to visit now before it’s too late. But here at Misool, you could plan a trip with your unborn grandchildren. This is one of those rare places where it’s set to get better and better. On day trips to neighbouring islands it is rare to see another boat, let alone another traveller. I swim through a cave as big as a cathedral— with a Pantheon-like shaft of fight—and exit by duck-diving under a rock into an aquamarine lagoon.
I gaze upon 4,000-year-old petroglyphs of stencilled fish and handprints. I snorkel in a saltwater lake among hundreds of pulsating golden jellyfish; mesmerising, hypnotising, like floating in a lava lamp. I snorkel the house reef and fool myself into believing some of the fish have become friends: the cloud of flirtatious black-and-white damselfish; the pair of coral rabbitfish; the clownfish hiding in the tentacles of an anemone. Now I know what to choose for my Desert Island Discs luxury: give me a mask and snorkel here and I’ll be happy forever.
VERBIER is having a “moment”: the young royals are rejecting family ties to Klosters and setting up camp in the new capital of cool. Well, that’s according to the gossip sites. What we can tell you is that, in Chalet Chouqui, it has a top-of-the-line lay-over that features something money – or shared genes – cannot buy: a business partnership that brings a high-altitude hospitality expert and a polar explorer together at a single resort. Ski Verbier Exclusive was founded by David Pearson and Tom Avery to manage 18 Verbier properties, including a Fiona Barratt-designed, shared-use chalet, No 14, topping out in Chalet Chouqui, the last word in Swiss alpine luxe.
Built with firm entertaining credentials in mind, Chouqui sleeps 18 (serviced by 12 dedicated staff), and features two sitting rooms and nine bedrooms decorated with herringbone tweeds, faux fur throws, reclaimed wood and custom-made English furniture. As well as the usual down-timing technology (including an impressive wine cellar, a games room and state-of-the-art Sonos music system throughout) there’s a cinema, 15-metre indoor pool, hot tub and hammam. But where Chouqui really scores is in its dedication to the cause of alpine adventure: in addition to organising transfers, lift passes and ski equipment hire, Ski Verbier Exclusive will arrange private guiding, heli-skiing (and parapenting), ice karting and dog sledging.
When electricity first coursed through the jagged terrain of Spiti, its older inhabitants were ill-equipped for change. Like the elderly woman who tried unsuccessfully to snuff out a light bulb as one would a candle, and then proceeded to douse it with water. The bulb exploded and the valley echoed with an urban legend. But change has been a constant in this Himalayan haven ever since the earth folded up to form the greatest of the world’s mountain ranges, its rippling ridges and striations forming a variegated pattern of textures and colour. This tiny valley in Himachal Pradesh, which straddles both India and Tibet, has belonged to the Guge kingdom of the Tibetan plateau, and the kingdoms of Ladakh, Kullu, Punjab and Kashmir, before it became a part of British India.
The previously pastoral settlement was impenetrable until 1992, due to its sensitive border with China; even Indians needed a permit for entry. Today, it is largely agricultural, having undergone a rapid transformation since it opened its doors to the world. Spiti is the eco-traveller’s dream, unspoilt and pristine. From the Kunzum Pass, our car is but a slow-moving snowflake in the magnificent vastness of the arid landscape that resembles, at times, the Grand Canyon. The dramatic play of light and shadow under a mackerel sky mimics the movement of a time-lapse video in which the Spiti River is a constant companion. In Kyato, en route to Kaza, yaks plough fields that have been freshly harvested of green peas. In Demul, women roast barley for the coming winter, pressing some into our hands as a snack while we gaze upon snow-capped peaks from behind fluttering prayer flags. Higher into the mountains is the last potter of Langza, who shoulders the great responsibility of having to train a new generation in its dying, traditional art.
It is little wonder, then, that visitors to this destination should wish to contribute towards its upkeep; Spiti offers what most destinations can only dream of promising—a return, if briefly, to the simple life. This is a place where even the tourist can make a difference and drive change. The bedrock of all activity here is Ecosphere, a social enterprise that works with the local community to create sustainable livelihoods. With its focus on conservation and development of the region, the NGO protects traditional agricultural practices, ensuring that Spiti’s produce remains organic. The organisation has its roots in seabuckthom—a berry packed with minerals, vitamins and Omega oils 3, 6, 7 and 9, among other nutrients— that grows wild in the valley.
What began as a mission to educate the people of the region regarding the potential of this ‘miracle berry’ resulted in seabuckthom products, followed by solar houses and energy, management of black carbon emissions, reduction of the conflict between humans and wildlife (leading to an increased wolf population) and a revival of dying arts. But Ecosphere’s most significant contribution has actually been in the development of homestays for sustainable livelihoods, and in voluntourism. Today, thanks to the organisation’s initiatives, visitors have the chance to live with resident families to experience the local way of life firsthand, while a steady flow of volunteers means more helping hands in a variety of developmental projects. Schools from Canada and Scotland bring their students here on volunteer programmes, and in the green village of Demul, voluntourists have helped build greenhouses and restore a 500-year-old stupa.
For Jennifer Evert from Sacramento, California, the Live like a local programme is a chance to engage more deeply with Spiti’s culture. “From befriending other volunteers to working in the cafe, helping build an artificial glacier and experiencing the daily lives of my kind and generous host families, every phase here has been so different,” she says. The income from these activities goes back into the projects. “The goal, eventually, is local ownership. The staff is being trained for self-sustenance,” says Ishita Khanna, cofounder of Ecosphere. Her business partner, Cherring Norbu, tends to daily tasks from behind the counter of their fusion restaurant, Taste of Spiti. Here, and at their other cafe, Sol, even the menu, which combines local ingredients with global recipes (think barley pancakes with seabuckthom jam or Kaza falafel with black-pea hummus) has been conceptualised by a volunteer.
I learn soon enough that when in Spiti, one must do as the Spitians. This is a back-to-the-basics journey that shakes you out of your urban complacency. It challenges you to step out of your organic cafes and experience the real thing. To forsake fancy meditation retreats for the austere monastic life. To take a break from your virtual community and experience true community life. As for holistic living, try traditional healing with Tibetan Amchi medicine and trade the treadmill for a trek in the giant outdoors. In return, you will be blessed with the beauty and the wisdom of the Himalayas. From Kaza, we proceed towards Pin Valley National Park, where a red fox darts from behind the bushes and a herd of wild blue sheep (bharal) perches precariously atop a slope strewn with boulders. The park is thickly populated with snow leopards in winter, but for now we must be content with tamer sightings. Meanwhile, the village of Kalamuti, on the way, has a population of three people.
Our guest house, run by Choden and Chhimed Doijey, lies in Phukchung, at the edge of the national park. Meals are had in their adjoining family home and we gather around their hearth, revelling in its warmth. Food is integral to the Spiti home, and guests are warmly received in the welcoming space that is the kitchen, dining and living room all at once. In the days to come, we will partake of many meals around the bukhari or chaktap—the traditional stove with its chimney going up the roof—ranging from the thukpa, potato-stuffed momos and mutton soup to alu parathas, rajma chawal, instant noodles and more. I take a bite of the ornately shaped tingmo bread and down it with a shot of the potent barley arrack. Reeling from the latter’s intensity, my mind replicates the star-studded Himalayan night sky.
Chhurpi, the local cheese, is an essential ingredient in thukpa, formed when hung curd from the milk of a churn (a cross-breed of a yak and a cow) is kneaded and laid out to dry. In Demul, we watch Butith Dolma churn ghee from curd the traditional way, in a somchok made of juniper wood. She counts softly under her breath, turning and twisting the shuma, or wooden rod, with a leather strap to make a sloshing sound. On the 250th count, she heats the mixture and resumes activity; on the 500th count, the ghee rises to the top. The first offering is stuck onto the pillar to which the implements are attached. Called soktsel and used in the traditional butter tea, the ghee is then stored for a year. We are rewarded for our patience with femar, a mixture of ghee, sugar, barley and dried cheese. Milk and cheese apart, the yak’s wool is used to twine rope and weave beautiful woollen shawls and socks.
“A long-distance lover is like sunshine on the mountain,” goes the song that the young girls of Demul sing wistfully for us later that evening. Dressed in colourful shawls, headdresses and silver waist ornaments, they sing songs of sorrow and hardship, of happiness and peace; this oral tradition has been passed down generations of women. They clap their hands and dance in formation in a grassy clearing as boys from the village play the drums in accompaniment. The mountainscape behind them resembles a studio backdrop. The experience is sublime, almost spiritual. Spirituality is integral to the tiny population of about 14,000—entirely Buddhist—that lives in Spiti. The valley is a veritable constellation of gompas, or monasteries, like at Ki, Dhankar, Tabo, Kungri and others, all atop impossibly beautiful locations. The prominent ones like Ki and Dhankar house thangkas that are almost 1,000 years old, and a bedroom occupied by the Dalai Lama during his visits.
Hie community is closely connected to the gompas—most families give their second son as a lama. Monks are highly revered and, interestingly, open to change. “Buddhism needs to keep up with the times,” says Takpa Loden of the Ki monastery, telling me that where entertainment was denied earlier, monks are now allowed access to TV and the Internet. In Pangmo, we spend the night in a nunnery and debate the notions of right and wrong with the young chomos (nuns). Spiti’s gompas hone the debating skills of monks and nuns, who are encouraged to question teachings and precepts. The flexibility of the religion adds to its appeal; they can even renounce monastic life should they be disenchanted with it. The blue-faced Medicine Buddha is an important figure in most monasteries; in Norbu’s house, an entire room is dedicated to this Buddha.
Spilling over with scrolls, medical scriptures and thangkas that go back several centuries, this room is where he meditates to invoke the spiritual powers granted to his family by the Medicine Buddha. Norbu belongs to a long line of Amchi physicians, and like his forefathers before him, he is training in Sowa-Rigpa, the ancient science of healing, which uses a profusion of powders made from the 1,000-odd medicinal plants and herbs found in the region. But the trained hydrogeologist has no ready antidote to the grim reality of climate change—the biggest threat faced by the region. “Do you see those mountain peaks? Those were covered with glaciers in our childhood,” he says, wistfully. For the first time in its history, Spiti has had no snowfall this year, making precious water even more scarce. It was under Norbu’s supervision that Ecosphere volunteers like Evert built an artificial glacier in Demul to channel springwater into lower-altitude springs.
Our trip ends in Komic, the highest village with a motorable road, where we visit the highest post office in the world at Hikkim. At 15,500ft, it’s also the highest I’ve been (barring that night of arrack). At our homestay overlooking the Chocho Khang Nilda peak,Tsering Lamo passes around a box of laddoos to celebrate the first birthday of her daughter, Chhukit Somo, before seeing us off. A trip to Spiti is far from luxurious. One goes there knowing that accommodation is basic, roads are bumpy, electricity can be erratic and mobile network and water, scarce. As we return to Kaza, we muse that if the roads were better, Spiti would see more visitors. To which Takpa Tanzin, our guide and companion, responds wisely, “To reach heaven, one must prepare for an arduous journey.”
Scott Fitzgerald once said, “It’s a funny thing about coming home. Looks the same, smells the same, feels the same. You realize what has changed is you.” Over the years, coming home to Ajmer has mostly meant sleeping in till noon, spending the day with the family and friends, pottering about the house. As I stepped out at the crack of dawn, 5am, this day clearly was not one of those. I was going to the Ajmer dargah, officially the Hazral Khwaja Moinuddin Ohishti Dargah, which has become synonymous with the town. Dawn is the best time to go, because tourists on holiday don’t wake up this early, so you can linger at peace. As I neared the shrine, morning prayers had just ended and I could hear strains of qawwali.
The rest of the neighbourhood (Ajmer’s literally built itself around the dargah) was still waking up. Fresh flowers were being unloaded and the smell of roses permeated the entire street.
As I entered the dargah, I realised that while it’s not imposing, it has a quiet, assured authority, that possibly comes of having been at the exact same place for hundreds of years. I walked around on the cool marble floors, offered my prayers and just sat there for a while, listening to the music. There was no restlessness to reach out for my phone and check Twitter, no urge to Instagram. There was peace. Quiet. That which we seek and chase all over the world. And I had found it right here at home. When you think of a city in Rajasthan, your mind automatically conjures up images of imposing forts, magnificent palaces, sand dunes and heritage hotels with vintage cars and polo matches. Ajmer is the exact opposite. It’s a sleepy little town nestled in the Aravalis.
As you enter, you notice how old the buildings are, how narrow the roads, the camel-drawn cart next to your car at a traffic signal. Our most popular market is called Naya Bazaar; it’s been called that for decades. In theory, Ajmer (the district) is only famous for two things—the dargah and Pushkar, that place of pilgrimage 15km from Ajmer (the town). Both places largely lie ignored by the wayside, on a highway towards the curated glamour of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur. At best, most tourists stop for a few hours. But if you can, stay for a couple of days, poke around, talk to the locals and discover little-known secrets of these two towns, Ajmer and Pushkar. The people here are incredibly warm, with a robust sense of humour and great hospitality.
The most famous kulfi wala will urge you to first go have pyaaz kachoris elsewhere and then return to him for dessert. The local sabzi mandi is a lovely farmers’ market in the truest sense: men and women come here daily, from nearby villages to sell the freshest fruit and vegetables, and they happily chat with their customers as they do so. Like Ajmer’s famous miniature paintings, a lot of things here are bite-sized. From the 14th-century Taragarh Fort, built on the hilltop from where you can get a spectacular view of the town, its two beautiful lakes and the green hills around, to the museum in a tiny palace, built by Akbar. Within the city, there are no high-rises to speak of, so you can see the Aravalis from everywhere. If the centre of Ajmer is like a once-beautiful tapestry, the suburbs are all shiny new malls with glass facades, swanky multiplexes, chains like McDonald’s and Cafe Coffee Day.
The most accurate indicator of Ajmer’s claim to being a ‘destination’, perhaps, is the arrival of chain hotels like the Taj, Marriott and (soon to open) ITC. Unlike most other places in the state, Ajmer was not ruled by any single family It was founded by a Rajput king in the 12th century, taken over by the Mughals and lost to the British, whose army used Taragarh as a sanatorium. As a result, there are some beautiful old buildings built in the Indo-Saracenic style. The most famous of these is Mayo College, which counts a venerable list of politicians, bureaucrats, writers and actors among its alumni. Other notable landmarks are two lakes, Foy Sagar and Ana Sagar. Well-maintained gardens with gazebos lie to one end of each.
Ana Sagar, though, has always been the livelier of the two, even back in the 16th century, prompting Shah Jahan to build a lovely baradari, or pavilion, in pristine white marble, which still frames the sunset perfectly each evening. A product of the central government’s Smart Cities Mission, there’s now a promenade along the lake, complete with cycling tracks and benches under the shade of trees. Where Ajmer is more urbane, Pushkar is Rajasthan’s own version of Goa. When you begin your descent into the Pushkar valley, the road is strewn with resorts, spas and yoga retreats that fit every budget. The tiny town is also home to 52 ghats that border Pushkar Lake, and these are dotted with more than 400 temples. The most important and well known of these is the Brahma temple, the only one in the world.
As a result, restaurants and hotels in Pushkar are all-vegetarian and alcohol-free. (Although both, sharab and kabab, are available at resorts just outside.) Most of the buildings in the main town are painted white, and serve as a great backdrop for the riot of colour on the bustling streets. It’s hard not to get swept up by the vibe. Today, the walls also feature a lot of street art and interesting graffiti. Being a heritage town, new construction is not allowed, so the old-world charm of the buildings, narrow streets and steep stone staircases is still intact. If you’re not a pilgrim, and you’re done with Ajmer, then Pushkar is where you eat and shop and chill. How tiny a town is can be gauged by how tiny its main street is.
And depending on how often you get distracted by the shops, it will take you anything between thirty minutes and an hour to walk through Pushkar’s. But I suggest you linger, for Pushkar is a treasure trove of goodies: bohemian clothes, antiques, second-hand books, music stores, vintage knick-knacks. My favourite shop here is called Roots of Pushkar, on Varah Ghat. It’s where I once spent hours riffling through vintage records and chanced upon the OST of Roman Holiday and Funny Girl. If Rajasthani folk music is your thing, the owner has his own label for that. And he also stocks the work of some seriously good local artistes. And then there is food. Gau Ghat is Pushkar’s food street, home to delights like freshly made malpuas with toppings of your choice, crisp, flaky dal kachoris served with a piping hot, tangy kadhi. And if it’s pizza, falafel and crepes you crave, then there are numerous little cafes and restaurants that dot the streets and sit on rooftops.
One of the best is Out Of The Blue, with its cheerfully coloured walls, airy balconies and a great view of the lake. The other not-to-be-missed spot is the atmospheric Pink Floyd Cafe, in a bylane just off main street. But the quintessential Pushkar experience, for me, is Sunset Cafe. Right next to Pushkar Palace, a heritage hotel, sits this little gem, with the best view of the entire lake and all the ghats, accompanied by excellent coffee. Despite its popularity, the place is never noisy. You look around and see dozens of people just sitting quietly and taking in the view. Or speaking very softly, as if in awe of the spectacle before them. Soon it’s time for the evening aartis, and one by one, the ghats light up with diyas. The sounds of bells and chants echo over the lake, the holy fires are reflected in the waters. You want to experience this powerful moment. Quietly. By yourself. Surrounded by a crowd.
One of Pushkar’s best-kept secrets is its off-road tracks. Late in the evening, vast stretches of dirt tracks are illuminated by the headlights of SUVs and the roar of revving engines that, in the hastening dark, sound like thunder. Just watching these cars go up and down the dunes is quite an adrenaline rush. There’s also dune-bashing on ATVs, camel safaris and treks to the surrounding hills. And if you happen to visit around the famous camel fair, walk at leisure admiring the men and their beasts—each one adorned like a bride or groom. But the one thing not to be missed at this time is a hot-air balloon ride. It is mesmerising, to say the least, to watch the thousands of men and animals moving around below, the many colours of Pushkar, the shimmer of the lakes. Before leaving, Pushkar will also lead you up a garden path. Literally. To its famous rose gardens, said to be the biggest in India.
You will see roses of all colours, sizes and varieties. It’s a beautiful sight and the fragrance is heady and rich. Do buy some rose water, rose oil, gulkand and any other rose-based product that might seduce you. Let it remind you of time spent here, like a treat from a doting grandparent. In fact, lately, I’ve realised how you always end up taking your hometown for granted, often feeling a sense of entitlement even when you’ve chosen another town over this one. And now, I find returning to Ajmer-Pushkar is like visiting your grandparents. You know they will indulge you and be proud of you, no matter what you do. And with them, you can truly be yourself, because they will accept you for who you are. That’s what it feels like. Yes, that’s what it feels like.