India

Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in India.

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The Decan Odyssey – India

It’s been a miserable December .The Orient Express on its way to London has come to a sudden halt in the night, thanks to snowdrifts blocking the tracks somewhere in the Balkans. Everything is deathly silent. The next morning, detective Hercule Poirot is called upon, for, on that eerily quiet night, a murder was committed on the train. The killer is still on the train, and it’s Poirot’s job to find him. Fast forward to 2016. The Deccan Odyssey, a train not unlike the Orient Express, is thundering along on its eight-day Maharashtra Splendour journey across Maharashtra and Goa, with me aboard it. Poirot, however, is nowhere in sight, and neither is a murder mystery.

There’s just me, biting my nails as I read my copy of Murder on the Orient Express, trying to figure out how the moustachioed detective will pick the murderer out from among the passengers. Although these two events are taking place nearly a century apart, one thing remains the same. Once you’re on board, it’s almost like you’ve cast away the vagaries of real life and stepped into a fantasy world of self-indulgence. It was American industrialist George Mortimer Pullman who introduced the world to the hotel on wheels, in 1867. It didn’t take long for his idea to catch everyone’s fancy, and, before long, the era of luxury trains dawned. The first of its kind was the Orient Express, which began its maiden journey from Paris and travelled across Europe. In fact, it was aboard this grande dame of train travel that mystery novelist Agatha Christie was inspired her to write her most famous work.

India only caught on in 1984, with the introduction of the Palace on Wheels. However, today, the country boasts a fleet of luxury trains, each more opulent than the other, and all promising to take their guests back to the golden age of royalty. Although much younger than the Palace on Wheels, the Deccan Odyssey offers an experience that is equally quaint. Everything about my journey on the Deccan Odyssey, from the very start, breathes history. We’re at Mumbai’s imposing Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus (CST), where a red carpet has been laid out for us. It was the British who brought the railways to India, with the country’s first train running along a 34km stretch from Mumbai to Thane in 1853.

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You’ll get a red carpet welcome at Chhaatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai

CST itself, a glorious Victoria  Gothic Revival structure, was completed more than three decades later, and continues to look as magnificent as it did a century ago. As soon as the train starts pulling into the station, a group of dancers assembles on the platform and perform the lezim, a Maharashtrian folk dance, to welcome us. Immediately, the cameras come out, eager to document the beginning of what we all know will be an epic journey. We’re spending eight days aboard the train, disembarking each day to experience a new place, beginning with Nashik, moving on to the stunning Ajanta and Ellora temples, then Kolhapur, followed by Goa and, finally, Ratnagiri, before heading back to Mumbai. The Deccan Odyssey is unlike anything else that runs on the tracks that exit Mumbai’s stations every day. With its polished metal and fresh purple-and-gold paintwork, this train turns heads —it’s the beauty pageant winner in a sea of plain Janes. Even on the inside, she’s a beauty—end-to-end carpeting, and , comfortable cabins, each equipped with a personal butler.

A walk down an seemingly unending narrow corridor running through several coaches takes me to my cabin, which, although a tad tiny, has all the creature comforts I could possibly desire. The wood-panelled room has soft ambient lighting and a bed I want to sink into. But before I do that, I peek into my en suite bathroom (on a train, can you believe it?), where I find fresh towels that smell like the morning sun. I’ve now been permanently ruined for regular train travel.

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The wood panelling, warm-lighting and plush beds in the cabins come together to form the perfect environment is which to catch some Zs

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The Nowadays Cuisine of Thanjavur – Tamil Nadu, India

It’s believed that sambhar was first created in Thanjavur in the kitchens of the Marathas who ruled over the region for nearly two centuries. Sadly, none of the restaurants here seem to serve traditional Thanjavur Maratha food anymore, but everything else is so good, you won’t even mind.

ANBU MILK BAR

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The server at Anbu Milk Bar put on a show for you before handing you your glass of iassi

This blink-and-you-miss-it stall has been around for over 40 years. Come here in the morning and you’ll be greeted by a line of people standing in front of it. Wait and you’ll earn yourself a glass of thick, frothy ‘Bombay lassi‘. Return at night for the badam milk. The server scoops out a glassful of the fragrant stuff and makes a great show of pouring it into a glass, topping it off with a dollop of cream.

DHIVYA SWEETS

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Take a break from South Indian fare by digging into piping hot samosas at Dhivya Sweets

Dhivya Sweets might otherwise go unnoticed, but, come evening, you’ll find pretty much everyone returning from work heading straight here. While the 30-year-old eatery serves everything from sweets to packaged snacks, it’s the freshly-made fare that keeps people coming back  for more. Ask for the delicious masala sandwiches, or the piping-hot samosas. Don’t go too late – they run out pretty quick.

SAHANA

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You’ll need to settle in for a long nap after demolishing the thali at Sahana

The meals at this restaurant will have you asking for a second (or third) helping of rice. The thali comes with sambhar, vathal kuzhambu (berry curry), poriyal (dry veggies) and kootu (gravy veggies), among others. If you’re breaking for lunch, this is a good place at which to fuel up.

VASANTA BHAVAN

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The ghee roast dosa at Vasanta Bhavan comes recommended

This vegetarian restaurant is a Thanjavur institution. Enjoy a hearty South Indian breakfast- pick the masala dosa, with a flavourful potato filling, or the ghee roast dosa – fried to crispy perfection. The menu features North Indian and ‘Chindian’ dinner favourites too, but stick to southern staples.

SRI VENKATA LODGE

Reportedly one of South film star Sivaji Ganeshan’s favourite places at which to eat in town, this eatery does only vegetarian fare. The owner’s a friendly chap and will regale you with interesting tales if you show interest. Try the puli sadam (tamarind rice) in which the mustard-and-chilli tempering smoothly cuts the tanginess of the tamarind.

THILLANA

This upscale multi-cuisine restaurant inside the well-known Sangam Hotel has a good selection of South Indian dishes, but of the kind you won’t find gracing the menu of many eateries in the area. Try the meen poondu kozhambu, a delicately-flavoured Chettinad-style fish curry, or the Malabar chemmeen curry, which is a north Kerala specialty featuring prawn in a mildly-spiced coconut curry.

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Vallonne Vineyards, Nashik, Maharashtra

More than just vines

You’re fascinated by the cherry red colour, and the gentle, tinkling sound of the liquid hitting the crystal, completely oblivious to the gleaming steel tanks around you. At Vallonne Vineyards, you sit mesmerised as wine is poured into a sparkling Bordeaux glass for you to sniff, swirl and roll around in your mouth. You can discover the flavours on your own or the person conducting the tasting can tell you whether the notes are fruity, floral, spicy, woody, or a combination. Either way, the hour-long tour and tasting at Vallonne Vineyards is a lot of fun.

On this getaway, you can learn about the journey of grapes from vine to bottle  and decipher the nuances of a dry or sweet wine from the people who do this for a living. Teetotallers needn’t worry — it’s perfectly acceptable to spit the wine out after a tasting. Should terms like ‘terroir’ and ‘Sauvignon Blanc’ not be a part of your vocabulary, no one will be surprised given that wine making in India is a recent phenomenon, which is why owners of wineries in Maharashtra and Karnataka offer familiarisation sessions.

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Each wine reveals its best aromas at a certain temperature

Even if wine appreciation is not the main agenda on this trip, your spirits will lift as soon as you come upon the property’s wide, open vistas. An undulating landscape of neatly-laid vineyards, untamed shrubbery and paddy  fields meets the Mukhne Dam reservoir, set against a backdrop of the Sahyadri mountain range. As you stand on a terrace abutting the onsite Malaka Spice restaurant, a pleasant breeze plays with your hair, setting off a cascade of ripples in the water and paddy fields, and causing the trees to sigh. Swifts glide in tight circles and dive in graceful movements resembling trapeze artistes. Soft music wafts from the restaurant speakers and you involuntarily smile as you drift into a happy space.

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Photographs at Malaka Spice offer a peek into Vallonne Vineyards’s journey

When your reverie is broken by the demands of your stomach, move back into the restaurant, lined with photos portraying the journey of Vallonne Vineyards and that of Malaka Spice. A postprandial walk around the property will take you past rows of vines where you can spot birds like red-wattled lapwing, robins and bulbuls foraging for insects. From December to February, you might even spot migratory ducks, kingfishers and other birds that are drawn to the cooler climes and water bodies during this time.

Unlike a day visit, a stay at Vallonne allows you to truly relax and enjoy a view that is undeniably captivating — so much so that it’s reproduced on some of the vineyard’s labels (one Japanese visitor came to these vineyards looking for the place he saw on a label). A mere 10-minute walk takes you to the edge of the reservoir where all you hear is the sounds of nature. Lose yourself in the rustic environs — pluck veggies or grapes in season, or milk a cow, or cycle around the property and stop at Upper Vaitarna Dam’s scenic catchment area to admire the imposing mountains, freshly-ploughed fields, and huts that are witness to a lifestyle very unlike your own. If you crave more action, Vallonne Vineyards has a tie-up with Drumstick Lagoon, so you can take a short drive (9.3km) for an invigorating dip in an infinity pool or pump up the adrenaline with adventure sports like rock climbing, ATV rides and more. The property plans to add a pool, eight more rooms, and a vino spa over the next year. A stay at a vineyard can, after all, be about much more than just vines.

WHERE TO STAY

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All the rooms come with private balconies and beautiful views

Vallonne Vineyards: Scenic views and peaceful environs lend Vallonne Vineyards the perfect aura to calm an overworked mind. The building itself seems unremarkable from the outside till you step into the guest rooms. Of the four rooms, two (Premium) offer views of the Mukhne Dam reservoir and Kavnai Peak, while the others (Regular) offer views of the lawns and countryside. Between the rooms is a spacious living area in which you can chill, browse through some of the magazines and books placed there, or have meals if the restaurant is occupied. Simple elegance defines the property’s decor, and original vintage posters of liquor advertisements remind you of its vineyard association. The rooms have air-conditioners, but no TVs or wi-fi.

WHERE TO EAT

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The grilled Veggies Javanese taste yummy with peanut sauce

There are no restaurants within walking distance, so the onsite Malaka Spice restaurant is your best bet here. It does a good Indian breakfast and decent Southeast Asian meals. The soups and starters have an upper hand over the main course. It exclusively serves Vallonne’s range of wines, sold by the bottle, not by the glass. The Tom Kha Soup and Top Hats served with peanut sauce are delicious. Do try the Roti Kanai, which pairs better with the curries than the slightly sweetish Rotijhala. The variety of curries is limited and a bit mild, so, if you prefer spicy food, do inform the chef while placing your order. The Choco Lava Cake is to die for. The service is good, but you need to allow time for the food to be prepared.

SHOPPING

Choose from white wines like Sauvignon Blanc, or reds like Syrah-Merlot or dessert wines like Vin De Passerillage.

CLEAN LOO GUIDE

The drive from Mumbai takes a little less than four hours. On the way down, stop for a loo break and tea or snacks at Food Hub off the Mumbai-Nashik highway. On the return journey, you can stop at Food Way on the same highway.

SAFETY

External roads are not well lit, so avoid walking outside the property at night. Shut doors and windows before it gets dark, else mosquitoes and bugs become uninvited guests in your room. As with any other place in a natural setting, snakes coexist with humans but no bite cases have been reported.

MEDICAL AID

A first-aid kit is available on the property. Minor medical ailments can be treated at a local clinic in Sanjegaon, 1.5km away. Serious cases are referred to Wockhardt Hospital in Nashik, 51km away.

CHILD-FRIENDLINESS

Guest rooms are reached via stairs and have balconies, so parents of toddlers need to be a little watchful. While there are no TVs, there is ample space for kids to play outdoor games, and badminton equipment is provided. Cycles are also available for guests’ use (free). If kids would rather stay put, there are board games. Bring books along though, as the collection here might not interest children.

GOOD TO KNOW

Visit between February and April for grape harvesting and wine production, while December to February is good for bird-watching. The property also hosts a grape-stomping event in the month of December (charges vary as per the amount of grapes used).

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Shopping in Jodhpur, Rajasthan – India

HEY, BIG SPENDER!

Those who love to shop love Jodhpur. Antiques, handicrafts, fabrics, footwear — you name it, and Jodhpur will have it, probably tucked away in a restored haveli. What’s more, the city is simpatico to lazy shoppers. Nothing opens till about 11 am, so you can sleep in, enjoy another cup of masala chai and set forth, wallet quivering in anticipation. But, if you’re a morning person, or god help you, travelling with one, your best hope is The Museum Shop at Mehrangarh Fort, opening at 9am, and a must-see microcosm of Jodhpur’s many offerings. After a steep hike up Mehrangarh Fort, you’ll be ready for some calm contemplation over polo- themed T-shirts, clothing for women and kids, ittars, knick-knacks with Jodhpuri motifs, tea bags, eclectic books on Rajasthan, and bags and purses in native fabrics. There is also a small selection of paintings by local artists, and, on the way out, stalls selling handicrafts like block-printed and bandhini fabrics, and mojdis. Artisans at these stalls are rotated on a monthly basis, but are asked to keep their prices to a given range, so ask to see the fixed price sheet before making a purchase.

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Lalji Handicrafts is a second home for film stylists and set designers, with movies like Vanity Fair to its credit

Another must-visit is Lalji Handicrafts, an emporium of antiques and furniture. You can spend hours here just walking past myriad shelves of cigarette and other advertising posters, perfume bottles, enamel doorknobs and peacock-shaped handles, and even vintage buttons and postcards. The staff is helpful and honest about pointing out the differences between ‘antique’ and ‘reproduction’.

If your trip is a little longer, forego visiting the MV Spices outlet at the fort in favour of its outlet in the Clock Tower market area. Let the friendly owners offer you a tea-tasting session, tell you about the sourcing and grinding of their organic teas and spices, as well as the history of this family-run firm, while your senses are beguiled by the heady aromas of cloves, cinnamon and the pungent Mathania chillies, which are sold only in powder form; deeply red and almost oil-free.

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Mathania chillies are sold everywhere, but ground to a fine powder at MV Spices

Down the road from MV Spices is a place containing the secret behind that Jodhpuri swagger: India Tailors, purveyors of finely-crafted Jodhpuri polo breeches, jackets and more. They cater to customers as elite as the Jodhpur royals, with effortless, exact fits based on measurements alone. Happily, they are also open to custom-making Jodhpurs, and, thus, swagger, for women too.

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Sambhali Boutique’s washable, adorable stuffed toys are great for gifts

Of course, as unfairly as usual, women have more options in the Blue City. Like the Sambhali Boutique, where you’ll find clothes, bags, all made by underprivileged women and girls, trained and supported by the Sambhali Trust. Vibrant fabrics and careful stitching ensure that you’re doing some good to your closet and your karma.

Follow the winding road from Sambhali to Bibaji Churi Wale, one of the oldest bangle sellers here, where a charmingly irascible Bibaji, or Abdul Sattar, will help you choose bangles by colour, budget or style as generations of his family have done for the women of the Jodhpur royal family. Crystal, glass, lac, plastic and plain metal bangles abound in the shop, in every size possible.

You can explore Jodhpur’s other shopping areas, too — simply slather on some sunscreen, hike up your Jodhpurs, and swagger out.

WHERE TO STAY

Devi Bhawan: An oasis of calm situated near the airport, this hotel combining the virtues of heritage and modernity, and offers a swimming pool and tranquil lawns.

Haveli Inn Pal: This 18th-century haveli- turned-cosy hotel offers rooms with lovely views of the lake or fort. Stained-glass windows, traditional enamel furniture, red-tinged architecture and a central location make it an ideal place.

Ajit Bhawan: Originally built for the brother of the erstwhile Maharaja of jodhpur, Sir Ajit Singhji, this luxury hotel offers 20,000sqm of landscaped, imperial living style in its rooms, tents and suites.

WHERE TO EAT

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With glorious views of Mehrangarh Fort, an evening at Panorama 360 will revive you

Make a pit stop at Shahi Samosa to sample Jodhpuri delicacies like the onion and potato kachori or the mirchi bada.

Janta Sweet Home nearby is also known for its kachoris as well as desserts like jalebis and imartis.

For dinner, you have two great choices that offer fine views of the lit-up Mehrangarh Fort in the evening. Indique has an Indian and continental menu with a decent selection of cocktails and liquor. Panorama 360 in the same complex, but with a slightly better view due to its height, features a primarily Indian menu.

CLEAN LOO GUIDE

Jodhpur isn’t very large and you might not be too far from your hotel room at any point. However, nature is cruel and twisted thing. Places of interest like the fort have clean  loos and Sambhali Boutique offers restroom facilities, but do carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you – these are not easily available here.

MEDICAL AID

There is no dearth of good hospitals in bustling Jodhpur. Kamla Nagar Hospital comes recommended.

GOOD TO KNOW

Virasat Experiences offers the Bustling Bazaars of Jodhpur walk through Tripolia Bazaar, which also incorporates visits to block-printing and tie-dyeing workshops.

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Rokeby Manor and Residences – Mussoorie, India

Landour is the kind of place you should never take older relatives nostalgic for the good ol’ days of the Raj, or you’ll never hear the end of it. Unlike its increasingly chaotic twin, Mussoorie, the cantonment town was spared relentless deforestation, construction and commercialisation under the Cantonment Act of 1924 and remains every bit the bucolic English retreat it started out as in the mid-19th century.

The Pine Tree Lodge, one of three new luxury cottages operated by the area’s iconic Rokeby Manor hotel, is a good place to settle into. Unobstructed views of the lower Himalayas rush in from every window, the Scandinavian-style decor – warm, woodsy, yet uncluttered – is equally good for photographing, and you get used to the butler and chef sooner than you’re comfortable admitting. “What would you like to eat?” is the only hardship here: should you have hot, homemade rajma-chawal, an English fry-up, or sweet tea-and-pakora marathons? Or should you, swaddled in your warmest, settle in the patio outside your bedroom, watching the chef poke the embers of your barbecue? Or then, let Rokeby’s in-house restaurant, Emily’s, bring its British meat-and-potatoes staples to you? Make the right choice: all of the above.

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A suite at Pine Tree Lodge – Mussoorie

You might not see the point in leaving the cottage at all, but Landour offers some good-quality loitering. Follow the 2.4km loop, Gol Chakkar, a deodar-and chestnut-fringed road, which threads all the sights. The Saint Paul’s and Kellogg Memorial churches conjure up Raj-era weddings of pale Chantilly lace and cold roses. Lal Tibba, the highest point in Mussoorie, lets you count off the major peaks of the Garhwal Himalayas through a telescope. Char Dukan, once a cluster of four Indian eateries, has, over a century, expanded to six with the addition of two grocery stores – and is one of the few places in Landour to people-watch.

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view from Lal Tibba, the highest point in Mussoorie

Take a rain check on activities that take you out of Landour, save for two. Sainji (23km) is a tiny tribal settlement above Mussoorie in the Tehri-Garhwal district, famous for its corn decor. Bunches of yolk-gold cobs that need sun-drying so their seeds can be sown are arranged like awnings on both, the squat newer acid-coloured buildings as well as traditional wood homes. Each of the village’s 35-odd residences has its own courtyard where toothless grannies winnow grain and toddlers chase chickens. Jabarkhet Nature Reserve is the other must-do outside Landour, on the Dhanaulti-Dehradun road (www.jabarkhet nature.com; 6am – 6pm;).

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Corn hung to dry forms part of the decor in Sainji Village

The 300- acre private reserve has all but recovered from extensive damage due to logging and overgrazing and is now once more cloaked in oak, pine and rhododendron forests and reclaimed by leopards, bears and martens, and black bulbuls sing their hearts out. In late February, an explosion of violets and deep-blue gentians render the reserve still more beautiful. But until then, make do with a pre-dawn trek to Flag Hill, where you get to stare stupidly as the rising sun sets the forest on fire. By the time you make it back to the Pine Tree Lodge, the neighbouring Landour Bakehouse will just be opening it doors (see Where to Eat). Order yourself a pot of Earl Grey and the warm, crumbly scones with lots of cream; sit down at a table next to the big window looking out to a swathe of deodar. Maybe your auntie has a point after all.

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Kellogg Memorial Church is just one of the sights on the Gol Chakkar circuit

GREAT FROM: Mumbai, Delhi, Chandigarh

GREAT FOR: Raj-era nostalgia

WHERE TO STAY

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Rokeby Manor

Rokeby Manor and Residences: Of the three luxury residences spread across Gol Chakkar Road, Pine Tree Lodge has the best mountain views and is sited just a 10-minute walk from Bothwell Bank Cottage, which is perfect for a small family. Bothwell Bank House, with its restored 19th-century architecture, parquet floors and sprawling balconies, is perfect for a big group (00-91-135-2635604, 00-91-9634443666; www.rokebymanor. com, reservations@rokebymanor.com; all rates include breakfast, and 30 minutes use of mountain bike per day).

WHERE TO EAT

Anil’s Café, a Landour institution, is a favourite with visitors and locals, including the town’s considerable student population. Between the Nutella pancakes, cheesy Maggi and veg momos, you’ll have your hill station junk food sorted (00-91-135-2633783; Char Dukan; 8am – 8pm;). The 19th-century Landour Bakehouse always smells of bread and coffee and serves several old-timey British breads, puddings and cakes. The chocolate chip cookies, raisin scones and madeleines get our vote (00-91-8755343343; Shop No 152, Sister’s Bazaar; 8am – 8pm;). The Stray Dog Ale House and Stübli is the hotel’s members-only hillside restaurant, which is built like a log cabin and serves a concise, rotating menu of hearty, warming Swiss stews, sausages and puddings. The upstairs Tudor-style ale house’s spicy toddy concoctions and bar bites are good to get a little colour in your cheeks (00-91-135-2635604; Gol Chakkar; 12pm – 3pm, 6pm – 10pm).

WHAT TO PACK

You’ll need thick woollens, lip balm and good walking shoes. Carry rain protection, too, as there tend to be light showers this time of year.

SHOPPING

There isn’t that much in the way of shopping in Landour but be sure to stock up on the famous chunky and smooth peanut butters from A Prakash & Co (Landour Bakehouse uses these for their desserts), as well as their excellent cheeses and marmalades (00-91-135-2632544; Sister’s Bazaar; 10.30am – 6.30pm).

CLEAN LOO GUIDE

Restaurants and tea stops between Dehradun and Landour have clean if rustic bathrooms, but it’s best to carry toilet paper and hand sanitiser for emergency stops along some of the forested stretches in between.

SAFETY

Landour is a very safe town and even solo nighttime walks aren’t nerve-wracking in the least.

MEDICAL AID

For emergencies, head to the well-known Landour Community Hospital nearby (00-91-135-2632053; www.eha-health.org; near Tehri bus stop).

CHILD-FRIENDLINESS

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Jabarkhet Nature Reserve

Kids will love the wide open spaces and friendly local dogs, but will need entertainment if you plan to stay more than a couple of days. Jabarkhet Nature Reserve could be fun with a good guide.

GOOD TO KNOW

*Landour is home to Anglo-Indian author Ruskin Bond who has had a hand to play in most of our childhood imaginings. You might ‘casually’ lope past Ivy Cottage, his home on Mullingar Hill, to try and run into him. Or, just show up at the Cambridge Book Depot on Mussoorie’s Mall Road at around 3pm on any Saturday to meet Bond in the flesh.

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Eating in Alibaug – Maharashtra, India

Sun setting over the beautiful ocean, golden rays bouncing off gleaming waters, waves crashing on the beach providing  a background score, happy chatter enveloping you. It’s easy to see why the city’s cacophony is but a distant memory at Alibaug – plus you don’t have to travel too far to get here. While local cuisine  is always a hot favourite, a few Mumbai restaurants have trickled in, bringing  with them trendy spaces and gastronomic experiences that are slowly changing the culinary landscape in this sleepy hamlet.

Don’t waste any time upon arriving  at Mandwa Jetty; plonk down at the waterfront Boardwalk by Flamboyante even before you get to the parking lot (see Where to Eat for all details).

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One of the specials at Boardwalk by Flamboyante, the Grilled Fish pairs well with the watermelon and feta salad

Run by  the team behind Flamboyante in Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, this open-air, Mediterranean- style restaurant does a great watermelon and creamy feta salad and cheesy potato wedges, with a side  of sweeping views of ferry-dotted waters. Don’t miss the Pomfret Peri Peri  and the Grilled Fish in lemon butter garlic with capers, both of which are cooked to mouthwatering perfection. A few feet from Boardwalk,  the cheerful Kiki’s Café & Deli  is the brainchild of Mumbaibased hotelier and caterer Nitin Mongia. Imagine stepping off the ferry for a hearty breakfast of Truffle Oil Scrambled Eggs, a gigantic Brownie Freakshake  and gooey Salted Carmel Tart.

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Kiki’s Café & Deli

But the eclectic café is known for more than its breakfast offerings – try the Spaghetti Aglio Olio with chicken. For a relaxed, hippie vibe, head  to Bohemyan Blue Garden Café, where  you can spend the afternoon at a shaded café next to a vegetable garden, which produces some of the eatery’s ingredients.

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Bohemyan Blue Garden Café

The Guava Juice with Sprite and Mint Lemonade are refreshing accompaniments to its tasty – albeit not authentic – Konkani-style charcoal-grilled chicken or the Prawn Thai Curry, served with rice  and a yummy raw papaya salad. If you like a more hands-on approach  to your food, Colaba’s The Table has just the thing – informative workshops at owners Jay Yousuf and Gauri Devidayal’s home in Saswane, which  has a small-scale working farm that supplies fresh produce to the restaurant. Adrienne Thadani of Fresh & Local, who  is an expert in urban and organic farming, takes you around the farm. Before you know it, you’re wrist-deep in dirt, helping make permaculture beds, transplanting saplings and harvesting micro-greens.

All the hard work pays off handsomely when you sit down to a large spread, prepared by the chefs – juicy pieces  of barbecued chicken and eggplant hot off the grill, freshly-picked salads and creamy pastas with delicious wines, followed  by an excellent apple crumble pie.  While the menu changes with each workshop, you can always expect great food and fresh ingredients. If all this sounds too tedious, round up some friends, rent a bungalow and let  the food come to you.

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Live music at Café Zoe’s Kitchen

Café Zoe’s Kitchen offers weekend delivery of its signature dishes right to your doorstep. Try the half-kilo quiches – the Leeks and Ham  one is delicious and can feed a small village , or the Spaghetti in Truffle Butter Sauce and Smoked Salmon Mousse dip with Melba crisps.

Now all you have to do is sit back  and revel in the food coma.

GREAT FROM: Mumbai, Pune

GREAT FOR: Delicious food in seaside settings

WHERE TO STAY

Countryside Farm: Located about 2km from Mandwa Jetty, and with  a choice of 10 decent stay options, including rooms, a cottage and tents, Countryside Farm makes for a relaxed stay. Bohemyan Blue Stay: The spacious tents, interspersed with quaint lotus ponds, gardens and a tented dining/common area, are ideal for a laidback, romantic escape. Service might be a little slow but it makes up with good food and great surroundings.

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Ccaza Ccomodore

Ccaza Ccomodore: This is a great pick  when you’re travelling with a bunch  of friends. The villa sits amid a manicured lawn in which chairs, tables and hammocks are set up. The villa comes with cosy rooms and a pool.

WHERE TO EAT

Boardwalk by Flamboyante: 00-91-9920569772, 00-91-2141-237787; www.flamboyante.in; Mandwa Jetty; 11am – 9pm; reservations are mandatory.

Kiki’s Café & Deli: 00-91-9820132158, 00-91-8308802678; near Mandwa Jetty; 8am – 9.30pm

Bohemyan Blue Garden Café: 00-919823481829; www.bohemyanblue.com; Plot No 1, Agarsure, Alibaug-Rewas Main Rd, opp Fountain Head, Zirad; 11am – 7pm.

Café Zoe’s Kitchen: 00-91-9833490490; Alibaug-Rewas Main Rd; only on weekends; 9am – 9pm (for placing orders), delivery between 11.30am and 10.30pm.

SAFETY

The area is quite safe though it is better for women to travel in groups. Most beaches don’t have lifeguard facilities,  be careful while taking a dip in the ocean.

MEDICAL AID

Primary Health Centre can handle minor ailments (00-91-2141-237831, 00-91-9833955370 [Dr Abhijeet Ghase]; Dhokawade; 9am – 6pm daily except for public holidays, call for emergencies).  It’s best to head back to Mumbai  for serious medical issues.

GOOD TO KNOW

*Kiki’s Café & Deli opens at 8am,  but don’t expect service for the next  30 to 45 minutes.

*Rickshaws are easy to find  at Mandwa Jetty till 9pm. If you don’t have your own vehicle, make sure  to take down contact details of a few rickshaw drivers beforehand, or fix  a time for pick-up.

*Café Zoe’s Kitchen also delivers marinated, uncooked meats for barbecues and whole roasts with sides which needs a five-hour notice.

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Backwoods Camp – South Goa, India

Wild melodies

Picture yourself in Goa, wide awake at dawn — no hangover or beach in sight. Instead, you’ve been walking in the woods, listening to birdsong, watching flashes of colour play peekaboo among the leaves.

Backwoods Camp draws you into Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary‘s earthy interior, where giant squirrels run amok in the trees and unusual feathered creatures are visible at close range. Peace cocoons you as you switch to the simple life: rising early, going for long walks in the sanctuary’s buffer zone and befriending other birding buffs at the rustic property.

bhagwan-mahaveer-wildlife-sanctuary

Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary

Over 170 species of endemic and migratory birds can be found here  in winter. The forest surprises you with nature’s unsung marvels at every turn. Huge wood-spiders hang over the gravelly paths while butterflies and damselflies flit about the thick shrubbery. With neither phone network nor any signs of urban life close by, every sighting becomes a conversation piece here.

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An orange-headed thrush stops to catch its breath

An entire morning can be spent tracking rare species like the Malabar trogon or Indian pitta by their distinctive whistles. Resident guide Leio makes birding easy with his sharp ears and powerful binoculars that show crests, beaks and plumes in bright detail. He leads the way on walking trails that wind around the camp, behind which flows a secluded little stream. The colourful Oriental dwarf kingfisher likes to frequent such watery spots and you might see one flying by when you wade in for a dip.

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A green bee-eater on the lookout for prey

The camp itself is far from luxurious, but it gives you the luxury of exclusivity. Few visitors come to this part of Goa, so every walk feels unspoilt. At Tambdi Surla, a few kilometres away, you can wander through tall grasses warmed by the winter sun, before seeing the ancient stone carvings of a 12th-century Mahadev temple. It’s the perfect place to just be in the moment — or share it with a friend. In this simplified milieu, small talk revolves around the habits of barbets, sunbirds and other pretty birds.

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The Mahadev Temple at Tambdi Surla

It can be tricky to identify them at first, but Leio’s light commentary on the birds makes you wiser. If this place were to have a winged mascot, it would have to be the weirdly adorable Ceylon  frogmouth. Romantics at heart, frogmouths are commonly found here roosting with their mates after dusk within the camp itself. They’re superbly camouflaged even at head height, but, once you spot that grumpy, froggy face, you won’t forget it.

By night, things get more intriguing. There are no large predators in the sanctuary, but Leio and his helpers are happy to take you on night drives to help you look for owls, nightjars and encounter other wildlife — if you’re lucky. Packs of wild dogs, or dhole, can be found roaming the forest, and deer’s eyes often shine through the quiet darkness.

Though it’s cut off from civilisation,  the camp makes a nice base for exploring other locations in Goa. The Dudhsagar Falls, tucked into a corner of the sanctuary, are worth visiting for the drama of driving through shallow streams, smelling the red earth of the forest and swimming under the large, frothy, three-tiered waterfall.

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Dudhsagar Falls makes a pleasure to walk around the camp

And when you return, tea and pakoras await in the camp’s cosy dining room to be enjoyed to the soundtrack of birds chirping merrily in the birdbaths outside.

WHERE TO STAY

backwoods-camp

Backwoods Camp: This camp is ideal for a mellow getaway in the woods. The guest rooms in the main house are more airy and spacious than the small cottages scattered across the property, which offer more privacy. Facilities here are simple but clean and efficient.

WHERE TO EAT

This isn’t a foodie destination, so expect basic meals with veg and non-veg dishes. As the camp attracts foreign visitors, the flavouring in the food is on the mild side, and might be bland for the Indian palate. So carrying your own condiments and some snacks is not a bad idea. The market is far away from the camp  so dietary preferences should be mentioned at the time of booking.

WHAT TO PACK

You’ll need thick-soled walking shoes when you stroll on the pebbly trails, as well as mosquito repellent, a hat, sunscreen, any medication that you regularly need, and binoculars — if you own a pair. The forest is slightly cooler than the beaches, but comfortable enough for lightweight clothes. If you’re travelling in a group, consider carrying some games for the evenings.

Falls both take about an hour, so you can use the restrooms at the airport, camp or entry point to the falls. The walking trails lack loos, but you’re never away from the camp for more than three hours at a time.

SAFETY

This is a safe destination, but do stay with the group and watch out for snakes while walking in the forest. Life jackets are provided at Dudhsagar Falls.

MEDICAL AID

There’s a first-aid kit at the camp and there’s the government-run ID Hospital for emergencies (00-91¬832-2312115; Ponda) as well as a private hospital— Savaikar Clinic & Nursing Home — both are about an hour’s drive away.

CHILD-FRIENDLINESS

Babies and children are welcome at Backwoods Camp, but, unless your kids are very passionate about avian life and can survive in a quiet place for 48 hours, we suggest leaving them at home.

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Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway – India

SMACK YOUR LIPS

“Should I get a massage or head to the infinity pool and relax all day with a drink for company? Should I try the delicious buffet at Feast or the home-made pastas at Bene? Should I try the Paired Menus at the Lobby Lounge or the Smoking Cocktail experience by the pool? Maybe I’ll just stay in this comfy bed with fluffy pillows and order in while I make up my mind.” These are some of the tough decisions you’re faced with at the Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway.

The main draw here is the food, so you will spend your staycation in a happy haze of gourmet bliss. Bone, the hotel’s   Italian restaurant run by Chef Guiseppe Lioce, offers you treats like Capesante Mare e Monti — scallops cooked to perfection in truffle honey and served on a bed of pumpkin puree, asparagus and crispy Parma ham, or Branzino alla Livornese — oven-baked Chilean sea bass cooked in a light tomato sauce with garlic, capers and anchovies.

For delicious grills, and international, Asian and Indian delights, try the all-day dining Feast. The massive buffet brims with delicious pan-Asian sautés, North Indian curries, an array of desserts and chefs’ homemade pickles  with flavours from around the country. Or try sampling from one of the themed live counters that serve up delicious grills, Tex-Mex and South Indian delights.

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Lobby Lounge

Early evening, head down to the Lobby Lounge for a taste of the delectable Paired Menus — small plates of goodies like Lamb Sliders or Bira Blonde Battered Sea Bass that are pre-paired with wines or beers. smoking-cocktail-sheratonRemember to leave enough room for the Middle Eastern feast by Chef Gopal that awaits you at Persian Terrace. Start with cold mezzes like Burani Spinach and babaganoush, followed by platters of juicy chicken, lamb and seafood kebabs and end with Om Ali — a traditional Arabic puff pastry served with saffron and pistachio ice-cream. Set by the pool, this open-air restaurant has pretty cabanas and a fire pit, which adds a touch of drama to your meal. And, if you’re looking  for a really dramatic experience, try the lit-up Smoking Cocktails (left), which are essentially hookahs filled with alcohol, fruits, tobacco and ice.

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Persian Terrace

Having achieved the ‘Grand’ status a year ago, the service here steals the show. It isn’t just about making your stay comfortable; the staff takes care of little things like cars fitted with wi-fi, charging docks at the table, Champagne breakfasts at the Club Lounge and romantic dinners by the poolside.

sheraton-grand-bangalore-hotel-bedroom

Offering stunning city views, the room here are built for comfort

And, since the whole idea of a staycation is to do nothing, the hotel is really quite perfect. Apart from copious amounts of delicious food, tasty brews and cocktails as well as indulgence available at the hotel, its proximity to Onion Mall (see Shopping) means you can indulge in some major retail therapy and entertainment, take a leisurely walk around the lake at sunset or party the night away at High Ultra Lounge located at an altitude of 420 ft on the rooftop of the World Trade Centre (see Good to Know). With everything located literally a stone’s throw from the hotel, why would you ever want to leave?

WHERE TO STAY 

 Sheraton Grand Bangalore Hotel at Brigade Gateway: Located inside the Brigade Gateway complex, this hotel boasts 230 superb rooms, luxurious service and facilities, brilliant restaurants, a spa, an infinity pool and a fitness centre.

WHERE TO EAT

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Bene Pizza

The hotel has quite an array of restaurants serving up delicious treats. The open-air Persian Terrace is a great option for dinner on a breezy evening (level 4; 6.30pm -11.30pm). The hotel’s warm and friendly Italian restaurant, Bene, has a pizza bar, pasta counter and a spectacular selection of wines and spirits (level 4; 12pm -3pm, 6.30pm -11.30pm).

Feast is an all-day dining restaurant that does huge buffet spreads that include Asian and Indian treats as well as themed live counters like grills and Tex-Mex. The a la carte menu offers international, Asian and Indian cuisine (lobby level; breakfast: 6.30am -10.30am, lunch:12pm -3.30pm, dinner: 6.30pm-11.30pm, Sunday brunch:12.30pm- 4.30pm).

The Lobby Lounge is open 24X7.

MEDICAL AID

The hotel provides first-aid facilities and has a doctor on call. The nearest hospital, Columbia Asia, is five minutes away.

SHOPPING

Head to the adjacent Orion Mall.

muchukunda-murals-1

Muchukunda Murals – Thiruvarur, Tamil Nadu

You enter the ancient hall, with its ochre pillars extending upwards in the dark, cavernous depths of the structure. How plain, you think. That’s when your guide taps your shoulder and points upwards. There, on the ceiling, lit by weak shafts of sunlight, are long rows painted in vivid reds and greens, featuring a motley crew of very small people. And that’s when your jaw drops, and the dance begins.

And what a dance it is. Observing the murals at Muchukunda, panel after panel, row after row, requires you to pirouette as you walk along the length of the corridor so you can take in every single detail illustrated on the ceiling.

The motion makes you wonder if the arrangement of the panels was, in fact, intended to make you circumambulate the panels from below — making the little people above your head seem like gods.

You are in the Devasiriya Mandapam of the Sri Thyagaraja Swamy Temple, which predates Thanjavur’s ancient Brihadeeswarar Temple. The painted panels tell the story of the mythical monkey-faced Chola king Muchukunda. It is believed that Lord Shiva took up residence in this temple in the form of Thyagaraja Swamy only after Muchukunda correctly identified the former’s real image from a set of seven nearly identical ones.

muchukunda-murals

Your neck might ache from constantly looking up the murals but it’s all worth it

These murals were painted only in the 17th century, during the Nayaka period, a more recent addition to the temple’s landscape. However, they suffered damage over the centuries, and have been recently restored by the Prakriti Foundation and the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (IN TACH).

The Mangala Rural Retreat, in the vibrant town of Thirvarur, is the perfect place at which to base yourself to see this beautiful piece of history.

mangala-rural-retreat

Base yourself at Mangala Rural Retreat, which offers the quaintness and warmth of a village home

Built to resemble a traditional Tamil house, it has five rooms, each different from the other, and overlooks the historic Agneeswarar Temple and its expansive tank. Set in Thirupugalur Village, about 22km from the site of the murals, the hotel is run by the Prakriti Foundation, giving you direct access to the murals, which are otherwise not always open to the public. So it’s worth staying here, despite the distance. Besides there’s enough to do in and around the village  to keep you occupied for the rest of your trip. Take a leisurely walk (3pm-5pm) or borrow a bicycle and pedal past lush fields and quaint houses, and meet friendly locals. If you’re lucky, you might also be able to feed the temple elephant.

Agneeswarar Temple

Agneeswarar Temple

That’s not all, though. You could also visit a potter’s home in nearby Thirukanapuram and learn the craft from him, or head to Nanilam, 10km away, to perfect the art of bamboo-weaving from the villagers (both activities can be arranged by the hotel; 9.30am – 5pm).

For meals, you don’t need to look any further than the property itself. With only vegetarian fare available, the thalis here are generous, featuring a dozen items, from sambhar and rasam to poriyal and kozhakottai (appams stuffed with grated coconut and jaggery). Breakfast, too, is a truly traditional affair, starring fluffy idlis and chutney or pongal, among an array of other dishes.

The town and its murals might not enjoy the same popularity as the relics in nearby Thanjavur. And perhaps that is a good thing. Because, when you visit, you will understand why this hidden gem requires quiet and solitude for your dance to be magical.

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The locals are a friendly bunch

WHERE TO STAY

Mangala Rural Retreat:

mangala-retreat

The property is run like a homestay and has five rooms. Although equipped with modern amenities, the vibrant house — painted a happy yellow —exudes old-world charm, with courtyards, red oxide floors and stone and terracotta tiles. The caretaker Arun, who lives nearby, is always on call and will take care of your every need.

WHAT TO PACK

Light cottons, sunblock, comfortable shoes

CLEAN LOO GUIDE

You won’t need to use the loo as the drive from Tiruchirapalli takes about an hour. Use the airport toilet if you must.

SAFETY

While the locals are friendly, it’s safer to not venture out too late.

MEDICAL AID

Mangala Rural Retreat has a doctor on call. For any serious medical issues, head to Thanjavur (68km away), which has many hospitals. The super-specialty MVK Hospital is a good bet.

CHILD-FRIENDLINESS

There isn’t much on this trip to keep kids entertained. Unless your little ones are interested in art or history, we recommend leaving them at home.

SHOPPING

poompuhar-india

Muchukunda doesn’t offer much by way of shopping. Make a stop at Thanjavur, en route to Tiruchirapalli airport, for a wealth of interesting options. Among these, Poompuhar, run by the Tamil Nadu Government, sells handicrafts from Thanjavur and around.

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Camping in Satpura Tiger Reserve – Madhya Pradesh, India

The morning fog has begun to disappear and you’re trudging along on the nature walk. The langurs on the teak tree  are swinging from the branches  and a couple of racket-tailed drongos  are chirping away. But what happens  next breaks the spell you’ve been lulled  into, and you remember you’re in an actual jungle, where encounters rarely  end amicably. There’s dried blood on the walking trail. You walk into the bushes  to investigate and come across the bony remains of a sambar; the tree nearby  has leopard claw marks all over its trunk, suggesting the cat dragged the deer up the tree to devour it. The brutal beauty of nature is one of the many things you experience on the camping and nature walk, organised by the Reni Pani Jungle Lodge in the Satpura Tiger Reserve.

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Reni Pani Jungle Lodge

The programme includes one or two nights of camping, depending on your preference, as well as half- and full-day walks. Located at the confluence  of the Nagduari and Denwa rivers,  Reni Pani’s Jamanidev Under Canvas Mobile Camp is nestled in a splendid valley. The fun begins with a drive to the campsite from the lodge. It’s a bumpy 22km ride in a 4×4 that will get you ready for the adventure ahead. On the way,  the forest guard accompanying you keeps a look out for animal sightings while the in-house naturalist peppers the conversation with titbits about the jungle and its inhabitants.

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Wild dogs usually roam in packs and can take down animals 30 times their weight

Depending on how sharp your eyes are, you might see leopards, deer, nilgai, sloth bears and boars in the abundant foliage. Once you reach the campsite, it’s time for some pampering. You’re welcomed with a hot towel that instantly makes  the chill in your bones disappear, and the tents remind you that the term ‘glamping’ was invented a few years ago for a reason. Equipped with everything you might need for a couple of nights under the stars – toiletries, a torch and a whistle, in case you need help in the middle of the night, or if an animal comes visiting – the tents are spacious, but cosy.

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Dining at the campsite is at Gol Ghar, which makes even simple food like dal, rice and sabzi seem romantic

After a sundowner, a simple meal of dal, rice, curries and parathas awaits. An after-meal coffee around the bonfire later, you’re ready  to be tucked in along with a hot-water bag – a lifesaver in the winter months.

The next morning, it’s time for a full day (about 7km) of nature walks. Taking muffins and sandwiches along, you’ll begin a day full of surprises. You’ll stumble upon deer and nilgai, who are startled by your presence. You’ll hear sounds you never have before from beautiful birds you didn’t know existed.

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The nature walk in the reserve’s buffer zone is a learning experience at every curve

And you’ll learn more about  the forest than you did in your geography class at school. By the end of the day, you’ll know the crested hawk-eagle from the grey-headed fish eagle, and the satin wood bark tree from the crocodile bark tree. By night, you might even hear an alarm call ringing out from the woods that breaks the laughter around the bonfire, and puts everyone on high alert.

A juvenile crested hawk-eagle peers out from behind a tree. Apart from the crest, they’re known for their distinctive yellow eyes

A juvenile crested hawk-eagle peers out from behind a tree. Apart from the crest, they’re known for their distinctive yellow eyes

Is a sambar going to be killed?  Is the predator likely to come sniffing around the campsite? The naturalist laughs off your questions, assuring you there’s nothing to worry about. The first question is answered the next morning during the morning nature walk (3.5km), when the guard from the anti-poaching camp informs that all is well with the deer. As you’re walking past large meadows  and ponds, home to kingfishers,  and you hear the songs of the white-browed wagtails, you realise you need  to come back.

GREAT FROM: Bhopal, Mumbai, New Delhi

GREAT FOR: A weekend of adventure

WHERE TO STAY

Jamanidev Under Canvas Mobile Camp by Reni Pani Jungle Lodge: The lodge has 12 very comfortable cottages of varying sizes – six Nallah Units, four Forest Units and two Hill Units. The campsite has single and double occupancy, well-equipped, spacious tents and hot water on demand.

 WHERE TO EAT

The lodge and the campsite offer mostly Indian food and some Continental dishes. Share your preferences with the staff and they’ll accommodate your requests. All the meals at the lodge are buffet-style. At dinner, try the Mohua Martini, a specialty considering mahua trees don’t grow everywhere in India. The food at the camp is prepared fresh on-site. It’s usually simple but delicious fare with a vegetable and meat curry, rice, dal and hot rotis and parathas. The gajar and doodhi halwas are yummy! The nalli nihari and baingan bharta are popular dishes at Reni Pani Jungle Lodge. Since the camp is situated in a jungle, the food served here is your only option.

baingan-bhatra

The baingan bharta is one of the most popular dishes at the lodge, but you can ask the staff to prepare it for you at the campsite, too

WHAT TO PACK

Forest-friendly colours are ideal for jungle excursions. Carry a pair of good hiking shoes, as sneakers don’t quite offer good grip; winter gear, including a hat, is a good idea, as is a pair of binoculars if you own one.

CLEAN LOO GUIDE The loos and bathrooms set up at the campsite are better than anything you’d expect. On the way to Reni Pani Jungle Lodge from Bhopal, Highway Treat, run by Madhya Pradesh Tourism in Bhimbetka (45km), offers a decent toilet and good coffee.

SAFETY

While the lodge, campsite and the jungle are safe, be aware of your surroundings on the walks as well as at the campsite at all times.

MEDICAL AID

There is a well-stocked first-aid box in the cars and at the campsite. However, there is no mobile network or electricity at the campsite, and a doctor is available only at the lodge. Dr Sitoke is a GP and his clinic is about 10km from the lodge. There’s also a government hospital 14km away in Sohagpur. Inform the lodge staff if you need assistance.

CHILD-FRIENDLINESS

Even though the camp is comfy, it’s not the best idea to travel with very young children, considering their various needs. This trip is better suited for kids aged 12 years and over.

GOOD TO KNOW

* Satpura Tiger Reserve is closed on every Wednesday afternoon.

* If you’re looking for more rigorous activity, you can opt for the Panchmarhi Trail. It involves two-day treks of about 13km each with overnight camps in Dehelia and Manakachar villages.