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Valentine’s Day for many couples is less the romantic holiday it is made out to be and more of a marketing gimmick pressuring us with false expectations some of us may never live up to. That said it is also the only day in the year when so many couples openly express their love for each other, something which is so important yet often forgotten once entrenched in our daily lives. This is the twisted but important reason why this day is so important to all of us.

We do not believe in material gifts but for those of our readers that do, we’ve drawn up a gifting guide for either gender. There are no affiliates whatsoever so you can feel free to click on the links provided without feeling guilty of having contributed even a little towards our wealth!

HER VALENTINE’S DAY GIFT LIST Watch:

GUESS WATCHES

What better to commemorate this wonder day than a gift of time. We understand that watches have now outlived their use as a timepiece but have instead taken on a new avatar as a fashion accessory and a style statement. Hence our recommendation is for a special edition Guess watch. A Rose Gold dial with pink straps and stylish embedded crystals, it ensures that it is stylish enough to gift to your beloved without fear of it being parceled off to the exchange counter.

PRICE: 170 USD / 12300 INR

WHERE TO BUY: https://amazon.com , SHOPPERSTOP/LIFESTYLE outlets

Shoes:

PC: TROPICFEEL

Given our own experience no girl can have enough shoes. Almost every other outfit demands a certain type, colour and style of shoes meaning that you’re always missing that one shoe for the next outfit you select. Our shoe recommendation is for what the brand is calling travel shoes. They are good looking, light and can be worn with or without socks! Add to it the fact that they are water resistant and fast drying, they are a boon to travellers like us who don’t know where they’re going to be next. We present the Tropic Feel shoes. Nirali has been trying out the Khakhi ones (1st colour option) and she cannot be more pleased with them.

PRICE: 100 USD / 7000 INR

WHERE TO BUY: https://tropicfeel.com/collections

Subscription Box:

PC: STYLECRACKER

Box subscription was a novelty when it was launched, then it became a trend and now it’s a question of how many box subscriptions do you subscribe for. There are beauty, fashion, food, watches and even tech subscription boxes offered. However we will be going to be a fashion subscription for our recommendation. What makes this one different is the questionnaire they send you and that every box is curated by a personal stylist. As far as subscription boxes go, this feel like a great place to start! We present to you the Style Cracker Box Club.

PRICE: 200 USD / 12000 INR (6 months /4 boxes subcription)

WHERE TO BUY: https://tropicfeel.com/collections

Fragrance:

PC: CHANEL

An important part of your fashion or style statement is how you smell. Atleast that’s what we believe. Everyone has a different preference which makes it difficult to identify a universal recommendation. That said there are certainly some which have mass appeal and there’s a substantially low chance that you will go wrong with it. Of the lot, our vote goes to Chanel Chance. Why you ask? It was launched in 2003 and is still one of the most popular fragrances around, you can do the math.

PRICE: 200 USD / 14000 INR

WHERE TO BUY: https://www.amazon.in/Chanel-Chance-Women-100-ml/dp/B000GHVH0Y

You may also wish to check out our recommendations for Valentine’s Day Trips For 2019

HIS VALENTINE’S DAY GIFT LIST Wallet:

PC: EKSTER

With the advent of digital wallets, physical wallets are fast going the watches way, an accessory. That said, cash and cards still account for most of the payments in our day to day dealings. There’s not many things we can say to introduce a wallet, but the particular kind we have in mind is a smart one. Think of a wallet which is small, compact, can hold the majority of your cards, looks cool and stylish and even has a tracker linked with your phone. We introduce the Ekster 2.0 . This cool wallet can be exactly what your partner wanted but didn’t know yet. We are told that there is an Ekster 3.0 on its way in a couple of months with the only major change being the brand of tracker used. So you’re in safe hands literally!

PRICE: 80 USD / 5500 INR (WITHOUT THE TRACKER)

WHERE TO BUY: https://www.amazon.com/Ekster-Parliament-Leather-Wallet-Blocking/dp/B0797RCHG3

Translator:

PC: YOUTUBE

You might ask what use is a dedicated translator when you have a software in your phone who does just that. Well considering that your phone battery is limited and data is precious while travelling abroad, having a dedicated device always helps. Given that it’s not that expensive, it’s a cool gift for your partner who will probably love it for its novelty factor and to show it off in front of his business associates or his friend abroad. Although there are a lot of options available, this Konjac AI Translator from Xiaomi simply works considering its build quality and the brand name behind it, making it great as a gift.

PRICE: 50 USD / 3500 INR

WHERE TO BUY: https://www.gearbest.com/electronics-gadgets/pp_009741951901.html

Shaving / Grooming Kit:

PC: BOMBAY SHAVING COMPANY

If you’re pissed off at your partner for keeping his beard despite your misgivings or that you want him to take better care of it. Our recommendation has enough options to cover your needs. We are obviously talking about a shaving / grooming kit. Bombay Shaving Company has a lot of customized offers for Valentines and is definitely a great option to gift your partner.

PRICE:  15-50 USD / 1000-3000 INR

WHERE TO BUY: https://www.bombayshavingcompany.com/valentines-day-gifts/

Backpack:

PC: NOMATIC

What’s a backpack doing on this list was our first question as well. It seems everyone is in need of a better backpack and we are no different. Although we haven’t tried it out personally, the review video describing the Nomatic Backpack comes across as ticking all our check boxes, even some we didn’t know we had listed. That said it is definitely a bit more expensive than the ones we’ve been lugging around so far. However if it’s even half the bag it’s shown to be, it would be money well spent

PRICE: 230 USD / 16000 INR

WHERE TO BUY: https://www.nomatic.com/products/the-nomatic-backpack

Although we’ve listed certain gifts which are exclusive to the respective gender, there is no reason why it may not be interchanged – Shoes, wallets, backpacks etc are something which are gender agnostic in the first place. That said we are also major fans of twinning – matching outfits for a couple. It does sound a bit cheesy at first but once you’re out there wearing it, the look of envy on other couples will be quite worth it! If you have some suggestions on gift ideas which worked for you in the past or something you gifted your partner this Valentine’s Day, we would love to hear about them in the comments.

The post VALENTINE’S DAY GIFT LIST FOR 2019 appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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This year Valentine’s Day has landed on a Thursday making it a great excuse to ask for a leave and make it a long weekend trip. If that’s not possible, you can always postpone the celebrations and plan the trip a day or so later over the weekend. Travel is something which is very close to our hearts and our ideal gift to each other is a trip together. Thus our gift to you, our readers is a guide to our trip shortlist for this year’s Valentine’s Day celebrations. To make things even easier for you, we will also be sharing our favourite hotels for the destination as well. We are awesome like that!

Stock Photos from Nila Newsom / Shutterstock

Bikaner:

Bikaner in Rajasthan is not a wildly popular destination, primarily for the lack of a dedicated airport near it. That’s pretty much changed now that it has a civilian airport with a couple of direct flights from Delhi & Jaipur via Alliance Air. It’s still not as widely connected as we would’ve liked but its fast getting there. You can spend your sunsets on the sand dunes or at the lovely fort, both making for wonderful locations to whisper sweet nothings to each other. Think of it as another Jaisalmer, but without the tourists. It can’t get any better than this especially since the weather is still nice enough.

PC: NARENDRA BHAWAN

Our recommended hotel to experience Bikaner in its full glory is a relatively new hotel which has also found its way to the list of the world’s best hotels, Narendra Bhawan. An eclectic confluence of the ancient grandeur and the sharp modernity, the luxurious hotel is a case study in design and boasts of a luxurious experience. This Valentines, travel as a Maharaja & Maharani. With rajasthani hospitality and this being a former residence of the Maharaja of Bikaner, it definitely checks all the boxes!

DISCLAIMER:  We have visited Bikaner but haven’t stayed at this hotel. The experience recounted is based on reviews from friends who have and information shared by the property.

Stock Photos from Zangrilli Andrea / Shutterstock

Hampi:

Hampi is a surprise entry to this list and is purely based on our experience there last year. A small archaeological town with possibly more ruins than modern buildings, Hampi has found its way to this list on the strength of its gorgeous location, spectacular (and well preserved) ruins and possibly because it’s still not quite on the mass tourists horizon. That said we saw quite a few backpackers and locals who’ve made it their haunt exactly because of the above reasons. Although there is a lot to do, our greatest takeaway was that it gave us one of the most beautiful sunsets we’ve seen. Climb the Matanga hill, select a boulder with an open view and wait for the sun to set. You won’t need much more to make your valentine’s day perfect.

Our recommended hotel in Hampi is Evolve back resorts. Formerly known as Orange county resorts, they are a premier name in responsible luxury hospitality. Think of a sprawling modern day palace with even the basic category rooms having jacuzzi’s, Add to it lovely food, an energizing spa and attention to detail over even the little things you would normally nit-pick over and you’ve described Evolveback Hampi. If budget isn’t an issue, we probably wouldn’t stay with anyone else in Hampi. There are very few hospitality brands who walk the talk when it comes to Responsible travel and what better to share our love for travel than to support a hotel who shares our love for the environment as well!

Check out our review for Evolve back Hampi

Stock Photos from Guzel Gashigullina / Shutterstock

Goa:

There are few places closer to Rishabh’s heart than Goa and although we would normally avoid this cliché’ destination for our list for Valentine’s Day, we couldn’t help but place it here. There are few things one needs to say about Goa except that most of us have probably not seen it in its entirety. Have you had freshly baked Pao’s from a family owned bakery, gone kayaking on one of the rivers or possibly the mangroves, or possibly enjoyed boating in a lake in a part of goa surrounded not by beaches and the sea but lush green forests and hills? The answer for most of our friends and possibly you, our readers will be a big No. So this Valentine’s try and live the real Goa. Hit us up for tips on how and where to do it!

PC: NOVOTEL DONA SYLVIA

There are so many hotels to recommend in Goa that we cannot get started on it. Therefore we will go with a hotel we were introduced to recently and one we would possibly wish to experience in our next trip there, Novotel Goa Dona Sylvia Resort. Coming from a big hospitality brand like the AccorHotels group, you can expect all the basic luxuries. However the thing that excites us most that it has tried to create an authentic Goan experience with a mix of contemporary and local heritage Portuguese architecture. Designed like a small village with its own private beach on the wonderful south Goa beach of Cavelossim it is probably safe to say, love is in the air.

DISCLAIMER: We have visited Goa many times but haven’t stayed at this hotel. The experience recounted is based on reviews and information shared by the property.

Alternately, You can check out our review of the beautiful Coco Shambhala in Goa as well.

Stock Photos from Amit_85 / Shutterstock

Binsar:

Binsar, nestled as a sleepy hamlet in the Kumaon Himalayas is possibly the best open secret of the region. It offers amazing views of the ranges and is surrounded by a wildlife sanctuary and orchards, with the entire forest filled with oaks and the fiery Rhododendrons just about to bloom. It is still winters in Binsar so don’t forget to carry your woollens and possibly a big warm shawl to snuggle in , right in front of the cackling bonfire as the sun sets and the temperature plummets.

PC: MARY BUDDEN ESTATE

It was a tough choice for the hotel recommendation so we finally went with a boutique hotel we’ve been eyeing to visit since a long time. Mary Budden Estate is not your usual hotel, infact it is closer to a luxury homestay than a hotel and which is another reason why it finds its way to our recommendation list. They promote environmental and cultural sustainability which is always a plus in our books but what makes them perfect for couples is that you get to unwind and reconnect with nature with very few neighbours to disturb you. Think long walks in the forest, a clear view of the Himalayan ranges and by what we hear, great food to top it all up! If there were Pizzas served every night, Rishabh would possibly never come back, to say nothing of Nirali!

DISCLAIMER: We have never visited Binsar or stayed at this hotel. The experience recounted is based on personal reviews of people we trust and information shared by the property.

You can instead check out our review of the lovely hotel called Soulitude by the Himalayas in Gagar, a scant 85Km’s away.

Stock Photos from ImagesofIndia / Shutterstock

Gulmarg:

Gulmarg in Kashmir is a long pending entry to any list on our website. We really feel it is a place which has been receiving less love than it deserves recently for the obvious reason of its location. That said, its beauty cannot be ignored and nor should it, especially in February where there is still a good chance of experiencing snowfall. Kashmir is often referred to as Paradise on earth and the same still holds true for Gulmarg. Enjoy the slow Gondola ride up the Ski slopes or better still get into a snowball fight with your better half, it is stuff romantic movies are made of.

PC: The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa, Gulmarg

We’ve only ever heard of one luxury hotel which does justice to the Gulmarg experience, Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa. Perched with a beautiful wide-open view of the mountains and pine trees, every nook and cranny within the hotel is a view point. Distance wise it is just 5 minutes from the Gondola Office and possibly has the best view a swimming pool can offer. A swimming pool you ask? Well, there is a different level of joy in swimming in a temperature controlled pool with glass panels looking out to the Himalayas! Doesn’t get cooler than that. There is no one single thing that makes it great for couples, it’s the entire experience and we’re told it’s a mighty fine one at that.

DISCLAIMER: We have visited Gulmarg but haven’t stayed at this hotel. The experience recounted is based on reviews and information shared by the property.

There is no limit to the number of destinations or hotels we can include in this list. Infact it was a painful to shortlist just five. However, as we mentioned earlier, this is our list for 2019 Valentine’s Day (or whenever you may choose to celebrate it). If you are planning to visit some other destination feel free to shout out in our comments of social media. We’ll be sure to consider it for our future shortlists (and possibly our own trips to the region).

You can also check out our 2018 Valentine’s Day list for interesting ideas.

Wish you guys a very Happy Valentine’s Day!

The post TOP ROMANTIC VALENTINE’S DAY TRIP FOR 2019 appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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Madhya Pradesh is a destination of many faces. One shows the jungles of Kipling’s jungles, another shows the temples of Khajuraho. Yet another shows the face of mother Narmada, one of the holiest rivers in Hindu mythology and the list continues. We have visited this wonderful state of India several times in the past and this recent trip with MP Tourism just cemented our love for this wonderful region. We’ve often explained to our overseas friends how India cannot be taken as just a single country but more so a continent like European Union where every region / cluster of regions, speaks a different language, has of a different culture and boasts of a unique history to be proud of. Madhya Pradesh, one of the largest states in India offers unparalleled diversity in terms of wildlife, natural formations, cultural and historically significant destinations amongst others. We explored a very small part of this region in the limited time we had and found ourselves planning the next trip even before this trip ended. Our trip had us cover 3 unique destinations which we will introduce to you shortly. We’ve tried to write the post as a mix of a guide and travelogue so that it is possible for everyone who reads this to replicate the itinerary easily.

The following is a travelogue of the itinerary we followed for our trip exploring the destinations mentioned above.

ITINERARY:

Mode of journey: Flight: Ahmedabad to Jabalpur – Car: Jabalpur – Bandhavgarh – Amarkantak- Jabalpur – Flight: Jabalpur to Ahmedabad

DESTINATION: JABALPUR

Jabalpur is a city with an old heritage. Some Ashokan relics found here point towards it being a part of the Mauryan dynasty. History records it later being a part of the Satyavahana dynasty and Gupta dynasty as a city and vassal state respectively. It was later a seat of power for the Kalchuri dynasty, the Gond dynasty and Marathas before the British gave it its present name. Although it is a Tier 2 city in Madhya Pradesh, it remains an important city for both trade, tourism and cultural reasons. An interesting fact about this small city is that it was originally chosen to be the state capital after the Indian Independence when the state of Madhya Pradesh was formed. However due to a myriad of reasons, Bhopal became the state capital instead.

The city has good infrastructure with a number of activities catering to all age groups. We found the city very clean which shows the effort of both the government and the residents. Even the various walls across the city were adorned with murals and paintings evidently commissioned by the municipal corporation. Accommodations of all budgets can be found easily and the predominant language spoken is Hindi. A highly recommended target for MP Tourism to promote.

ACCOMODATION: Kalchuri Residency (MPSTDC) (***) | Vijan Mahal (*****)

DAY 1: JABALPUR

We started the day by covering parts of the old city market, the Kamaniya gate and having the famous khoya jalebi at Badkul, established in 1889. Cars are a big no when traversing the old city area and it is recommended to take either a cycle rikshaw or an autorikshaw to take you around. The prices are completely negotiable and depends on your haggling skills.

We then covered a couple of beautiful old churches including the English Methodist church (1874)which is only open for the public on Sundays. The High court complex (1889) is also beautiful and can easily be mistaken for a church owing to its colonial architecture.

We then visited the beautiful Shiva Temple in the Kachhnaar city area of Jabalpur which houses an enormous 76 feet tall open to sky statue of Lord Shiva in a seated position. The main draw of the temple is the statue, but the sprawling gardens around it provides a peaceful environment for both tourists and devouts to relax and enjoy the serenity of the place. The temple also houses the replicas of the 12 Jyotirlingas found in different regions across the country.

Our day wrapped up with the enchanting evening aarti on the ghats of the river Narmada. Popularly called the GwariGhat Narmada Aarti, it starts sharp at 19:00 and continues for 30 minutes. A treat to watch for its spiritual and visual experience, it can be considered a smaller but no less significant version of the more famous Ganga Aarti in Haridwar and Varanasi. One can participate in the aarti by just sitting on the cemented steps facing the river. It was perhaps one of the few times we felt like leaving the camera on the tripod and just experiencing the mesmerizing moment in front of us. This is a must do activity when in Jabalpur, infact it left such a deep impression that we could even recommend a special visit just for this aarti especially if you wish to partake in the ceremony minus the huge crowds.

DAY 2: JABALPUR

We started the day by visiting the famous Madan Mahal / Rani Durgawati Fort, named after the famous Gond rulers who built it. The beautiful small fort takes a bit of a climb to reach it but the ruins perched on a big boulder make for a wonderful sight. At the base of the climb is also the famous balancing rock where it is possible to sit below a huge boulder balanced on another piece of rock with only a few inches of contact with each other. We then left for Bedaghat to visit the breathtaking Dhuandhar falls and the enchanting boat ride through the Marble rocks. There are a few famous temples on the way which we visited. The Chausath Yogini Mandir is the only temple in the world which portrays Lord Shiva & Goddess Parvati sitting on Nandi, depicting their return to Lord Shiva’s abode after their wedding. The Bajnamath temple is one dedicated to Lord Bhairav who is the avatar of Lord Shiva as a guardian of the 52 Shakti Peeths scattered across India. PisanhariniMadiya is a Digambhar Jain Temple built by a simple flour grinder. The woman inspired by the preaching of a Jain monk decided to build a Jain temple. The temple is a standing testament to the hard work and dedication of the woman in building the temple where she invested her time, energy and all of her earnings in building the temple. At the end even that wasn’t enough and to adorn the head of the temple, she used the grinding stones which were her livelihood and also the most valuable things she possessed. Another must do is visiting atleast a few shops displaying the marble sculptures. Beware of cheap imitations in the form of soapstone sculptures which although cheaper and better to look at, are very fragile and may break in transit. The highlight of our day was definitely the entertaining boat ride where our oarsman cum guide cum singer took us through the journey in what can only be described as a musical. Witty one liners, rhyming couplets and ever so often, entire poems kept us clutching at our stomachs and cameras as the boat was expertly guided through the rock formations. We would recommend you visit during the sunset as we did as the changing hues of the white marble surfaces and its reflection on the river, are a delight to watch.

If you like road trips, you might like our Rajasthan roadtrip guide as well

DESTINATION: BANDHAVGARH NATIONAL PARK

Bandhavgarh was declared a National Park in 1968 and has a core protected area of 716 Km2with an extended buffer area of about 820 Km2. Best known for its high density of Tigers, it also has a significant population of leopards and different kinds of deer, namely sambhars, nilgai and chital. The Indian Bison or Gaur was recently introduced into the forest from Kanha after its own small indigenous population died from a cattle disease some years back. Although every safari comes with the thrill of not knowing when and if a predator will be spotted, the chances of spotting one in Bandhavgarh are definitely higher. This is despite the guides & jeep drivers not carrying any form of communication devices on them to coordinate with each other. The most famous residents of the forest were the tigers (and tigress) Charger &Sita. Most of the existing tigers in the national park are said to be descendants of the famous couple. Charger who once appeared on the cover of National Geographic magazine is considered the second most photographed tiger in the world after Machli from Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Charger, given his popularity, even had the erstwhile royalty of the region come visit him in his final days and has a memorial dedicated to him at the spot where he died. Underpromoted by MP Tourism despite being one of the best National Parks to see a Tiger in the wild.

ACCOMODATION: White Tiger Forest Lodge (MPSTDC) (***)

DAY 3: BANDHAVGARH

We started the day early to visit the Fossil Park at Dindori . The fossil park has a small museum with exhibits explaining the history of the region from the prehistoric times along with lovely visuals and lots of written matter which is self-explanatory and can be great for kids and adults alike. However the open museum or the open air fossil park is better traversed with a guide who can explain the significance of plant fossils at various locations. Also it is better to visit early in the morning or nearing the evening when the sun is less harsher especially in the warmer months. The drive to Bandhavgarhwasabout 3.5 hours from Jabalpur with great roads and lovely landscapes to accompany us. We reached in time for lunch and took the rest of the day off to relax.

DAY 4: BANDHAVGARH

A very early start to the morning saw us driving to the Magadhi Zone of the forest to experience a wildlife safari. Although we had seen tigers in the wild before, any wildlife safari has a unique thrill to it. The safari which probably deserves an entire writeup for itself was a wonderful experience and the national park is gorgeous. It was also the only national park we’ve visited which had a small area in the buffer zone where people could have some hot tea and packed breakfast in the forest setting. We were fortunate enough to catch a tiger sighting with full credit to the guide and our driver who heard the tiger growls and chital shrieks and then went on to track the tiger for over 30 minutes before it emerged from a clearing more than 3-4 Kms from where we had first noticed its presence. After the safari and a hearty lunch at our hotel we proceeded towards the Jwalamukhi temple in the Bandhavgarh village. The temple worships Goddess Jwalamukhi after the Jwalamukhi temple in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh which is known as one of the Shaktipeeths in India. A popular myth is that all Shaktipeeths represent a part of the body of Goddess sati/parvati who was divided into 51 parts by Lord Vishnu in order to calm down Lord Shiva who had gone made with rage after she had died. Jwalamukhi Ji represents the Goddess Sati’s tongue in the form of an eternal flame which is said to have been burning since thousands of years without being extinguished. The perfect day deserved a fitting end which we got via our kind hosts at Pugdundee Safari who entertained us with a lovely cultural performance by one of the tribes indigenous to the region and a romantic dinner in a clearing in the middle of the forest with good food and lanterns to keep us company.

You might like to read our previous story on our tiger sighting in Kabini 

DESTINATION: AMARKANTAK

Amarkantak is a pilgrim town on the border of the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh & Chhattisgarh. Popularly called the Teerthraj or king of pilgrimages, it is believed to be the place of worship for all three worlds. The poet Kalidas refers to it as Amrakoot and it is supposedly the place where he found salvation. The location of this town is unique because it is built where 3 mountain ranges meet, namely the Vindhya range, the Satpura range and the Maikal Hills. It is also the source of three rivers, Johila, Son & the Narmada. The Narmada is one of the holiest rivers in the Hindu religion and worshipped by millions of devout believers. As the source of the river, Amarkantak is naturally of great importance for pilgrims, especially for followers of Lord Shiva who believe that Narmada is the daughter of Lord Shiva & Goddess Ganga.

ACCOMODATION: Amarkantak Holiday Homes (MPSTDC)

DAY 5: AMARKANTAK

Although we were reluctant to part with Bandhavgarh, we had to leave early to reach Amarkantak (200 Kms and roughly 4 hours away) visiting Karopani Deer Park& the Patangarh village on the way. The Karopani Deer Park was an eye opener as it was a boundary less park with free roaming deer. However given its uniqueness, one would be required to leave the confines of the car and search for the deer herds, a difficult task indeed. We asked a few locals to roughly figure out where they could be found, but given the limited time at hand we could only spot a couple of black bucks grazing in the distance. We weren’t too disappointed though, as we had seen plenty of deers the previous day in our safari. Our next stop, the Patangarh village was a very different and interesting experience. There are artisans in each family in the village and the first person we asked for directions ended up being an artist himself. To understand the Gond art we need to understand the community first. The Gond people are an indigenous tribe of India and number more than 10 million today, making it one of the largest tribes in India. Although the community is spread across many states, the art form is said to be predominantly from Madhya Pradesh. As many members of the community started taking up different professions including agriculture, the Patangarh village has become a bastion of sort for the art form with artists from the village displaying and selling their paintings in art galleries and exhibitions all across the globe. The artists use either canvas or handmade paper as the base, acrylic colours and rotring drawing pens to create the final art piece. On an average it takes 5-7 days for an A4 sized painting which they sell for an average of USD 50 (INR 3000). SantuTekam, the artist we visited was kind enough to give Nirali a short walkthrough / tutorial, highlighting what goes into making a painting. The highlight of our day if not the trip for sure. We reached Amarkantak late afternoon and after our check-in and lunch decided to rest for the day as the sun..

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The beautiful vistas and the stunning landscapes of Ladakh are perfect for the photographers and adventure enthusiasts but before this trip we never thought it would be perfect for couples like us who love a bit of luxury mixed with our travels. We started off our trip with horror stories of unbearable cold, AMS and bad roads and when we were given a chance to experience the hospitality of Grand Dragon Ladakh, the premier name in Luxury and the only choice for the Who’s who visiting this paradise on earth, we couldn’t say no. We travelled with them to Nubra Valley & Turtuk and ended our trip with a couple of nights at their hotel in Leh.

Location:

The location of the hotel is in the middle of the city of Leh and very close to the market area making it the ideal location for people like us who prefer exploring the city and markets for the majority of our stay. The city of Leh is however small and distances do not matter much if you have a prebooked conveyance with you. However it gets dark early in the mountains and shops start closing close to sunset. Dining options are open till later and Grand dragon is a well-known establishment and is very easy to get a taxi to take you back.

Hotel grounds & Accommodation:

The hotel is a sprawling complex with a big parking area, garden area which doubles up as a venue for open air events and 4 different room types – Deluxe, Family Suite, Luxury Suite, Premier Heritage Room. We were put up in the Luxury Suite which provided us with a Balcony looking out to the beautiful gardens and the Stok-Kangri range. It was too cold for us to realistically enjoy the balcony but we can easily see ourselves doing it in the months of June-July when it is warmer or in the afternoons if we decide to stay in. The rooms were luxurious and looked the part. No muted colours or minimalistic designs here. The creamy walls moved into the background as the pillow and cushion covers as also the padding behind the bed were resplendent in colours of orange, red, green and gold. Although we aren’t fans of in your face luxury, this was very tastefully done. To give you a better reference think of those old Chinese movies with a scene showing the Emperors room in the palace. That is exactly the feeling you get when you first enter the room. Pure unadulterated richness. The linens were of the finest thread-count (we’ve learned to differentiate given the amount of time we spend travelling), the view from the window / balcony is stunning, the climate control (also given that the entire hotel is centrally air conditioned) is just perfect and you can move about in a t-shirt and shorts without worrying about the biting cold outside and the most important part of the stay experience, the complementary amenities, were top notch. Needless to say we slept like a baby and it was the first night in our entire trip without multiple layers wrapped over us.

You might also like to read about our experiences at the Naropa Festival

Dining Experience:

The hotel has 3 lovely dining options of which we only ended up trying one – because it was enough. Solja the Bakery, Zasgyath the Coffee Shop and Tusrabs for Oriental cuisine. Tusrabs unfortunately was booked both the nights we were there for a private party and hence we opted for the Buffet dinners at Zasgyath on both nights. Let’s first talk about the breakfast. Given the remote location Leh is in, it is indeed prudent not to expect the same spread of breakfast options as other major cities, right? Wrong. It seems we were mistaken as it was amongst the biggest breakfast buffets we had seen across our travels with a huge range of options for vegetarians like us! Dinner buffets weren’t any different with continental, oriental and Indian delicacies finding their way to our plates and (sated) stomachs. In short we could have been dining in any fine establishment in any major city in India and wouldn’t have felt any different. Except maybe that the décor was again very opulent with a lot of gold used in the paintings and carvings all over the walls and ceilings. It wasn’t dazzling, but you could be forgiven for thinking you had been invited to a party in a palace.

Hospitality & Service:

Our belief is that any hotel can be an architectural masterpiece, can get great chefs to serve finger licking food and have a location to die for because all of that can be bought. The only thing which cannot be bought and has to be inculcated is the service ethos. We’ve stressed that several times in the past while telling you about some of the best hotels in India which fell short of our expectations. However Grand Dragon Ladakh checked all our expectations and delivered on point. Because we were always on the go, our interactions were few & brief but all touchpoints were a pleasure to deal with. Mr. Hafiz who took care of our arrangements for the trip and our stay, was a fine gentleman who ensured that we weren’t inconvenienced in any way on the trip. Mr. Abdul who became a guide, photographer, driver and a friend taking us around Nubra Valley, Turtuk and around Leh. A rare combination of a man of few words and a jovial temperament.

Closing Remarks:

Can we recommend this hotel to anyone visiting Leh? Absolutely! Is it worth the (significantly) higher cost per room night? Undoubtedly yes. The unpredictable weather and high altitude of the location ensures that our bodies are never in optimal conditions and we’ve found that it is very important that the body receives the rest it deserves to enjoy the trip. After battling the elements in the initial leg of our trip we finally found peace when we arrived at the Grand Dragon Ladakh for the above mentioned reasons and hence we can heartily recommend it as the only place we would prefer staying at when we’re next in Leh. An added bonus is that it’s a great place to bump into a celebrity unexpectedly given that it’s perhaps the best luxury hotel in the city. We saw His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche and Sonu Nigam who was staying at the Grand Dragon and it’s entirely possible to bump into your favourite idol the next time you’re there – no guarantees.

Fact File:

Grand Dragon Ladakh is roughly 15 minutes or about 4-5 Kms from the Airport and walking distance from the main market area.

The best time to visit would ideally be from May – August. However from our personal experience early September is a good time to visit as well given that it is near the end of tourist season, hotel rates are lower and tourist locations are less crowded. Given that the region is inaccessible post October, May to September remains the best season to experience the property.

Grand Dragon Ladakh is great for everyone visiting the region. Be it couples looking for romance or families wanting a base to explore the region. You can book a room at their website for the best prices.

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The post [Review] Grand Dragon Ladakh – Luxury at the Top of the World appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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We were recently invited as part of the official media delegation to cover the Naropa Festival and jumped at the opportunity. Ladakh had been on our bucket list for a long time and the “Kumbh festival of the Himalayas” as it is popularly called, seemed an apt stage to experience it for first timers like us. Through this post, we will try to explain the story behind the festival, what one can expect and if it is worth attending.

Nirali at the Naropa Festival site with young lamas

Who was Naropa and why is the festival Celebrated?

Naropa was an 11th-century Buddhist spiritual leader, famed as the ‘Guardian of the Northern Gate’ for his acumen and understanding of dharma. He is considered as one of the fundamental pillars of the Vajrayana Buddhism and is the one who inherited the Kagyu school of Buddhism. A scholar from the Nalanda University, Naropa is remembered for having collated the ‘Six Dharmas’, practices that help to attain enlightenment, that was said to be handed over by Buddha himself and had passed on to Tilopa in an unbroken lineage.

Legends say that when he attained enlightenment, Naropa was gifted the Six Ornaments by Dakinis who can be equated to angels in western mythology. The holy relics were passed on through an unbroken lineage of masters and are said to be so sacred that mere look of those can help one attain salvation. It is believed that the ornaments were created by different body parts of Buddha including his hair and bones and for close to a thousand years, have been used as a relic of devotional support. Till this year, devotees could only catch a glimpse of these holy ornaments once every 12 years when his Holiness His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, spiritual head of the Drukpa lineage, unveiled and donned the ornaments—a crown, earrings, a necklace, a seralkha, a bangle, and an anklet—in front of chanting monks and the attendees.

His Eminence Drukpa Thuksey Rinpoche

Naropa festival is an effort by the Drukpa Lineage to remember the great saint Naropa. The festival is celebrated every 12 years and given the importance and the scale of this spiritual gathering is often referred to as the Kumbh Mela of the Himalayas. The festival has a number of sessions on Buddhist teachings, cultural performances, archery performances and the unfurling of the largest hand painted Thangka (cloth painting, can be equated to a canvas) of Saint Naropa in the World spread out over a period of 7 days. The Millennial year celebrations in 2016 was the largest celebration in the history of the festival and saw nearly a million attendees. His holiness and the organizing team have since taken a decision to hold the festival every year starting from 2018 in order to make it more accessible for both the devotees and cultural enthusiasts.

What can tourists expect from the Festival ?

The festival has a mix of religious and cultural activities which makes it ideal for a wider audience. Apart from the Buddhist teaching and discourses, there are a variety of cultural performances organized including dances from various regions of Ladakh, a performance by the Kung-fu nuns, music performances by the Naropa fellowship students, archery performances among others. There are also a variety of music performances on all evenings by top Bollywood artists. To give you a reference, Kailash Kher & Sonu Nigam were the artists performing on the opening and closing day of the festival. There is also a range of stalls both at the venue and outside of it with options for trinkets, clothes, souvenirs and food. We had half a mind to try on some gorgeous ladakhi robes for a shoot but couldn’t find an opportunity to do it, but the landscapes and environment of the festival would be ideal for it even if it’s the most touristy thing one can do. If you take your food seriously, it is best to carry some with you. Although the organizers have made arrangement for meals for all visitors, there are no dedicated gourmet food stalls should you want options. You get a solid basic meal of rice, curries, lentils and salads with possibly a sweetdish and indian breads included but given the scale of the festival it is best not to expect something fancy. That said, there was a bakery stall with muffins, cupcakes, patties along with coffee and tea, as well as numerous maggi stalls. We did go through our trip with atleast a meal dedicated to maggi on multiple days. What can we say, maggi just tastes better up in the mountains.

Where is this festival ? Should I plan for Naropa ’19

Location of the Naropa Festival

The Naropa festival is organized at an empty patch of land near the Hemis monastery (the same venue as the millennial celebrations) and can accommodate a large audience. It is about an hour’s drive from Leh and just 5-10 minutes from the Hemis Monastery. It can be easily reached via car or bus and you are planning to visit the festival over multiple days, it is possible to cover Hemis Monastery, Shey Palace and Thiksey Monastery either while going or coming back.

Although it is apparent that it is a recommended thing to do if you’re in Ladakh, the important question is if you should plan a trip around it. Our answer would be yes as it is a very important festival in the Ladakhi Calendar with a lot to offer in terms of cultural experiences especially for a first time tourist. Most other Ladakhi festivals are specific to a monastery or a region and do not have the same breadth of experiences offered at a single place except maybe the Ladakh festival. Even if you discount the actual festival, the timing is perfect. It is celebrated in September when it is nearing the end of the tourist season and is possibly the best time to visit Ladakh given that the weather is starting to get colder and the hotel rates have become affordable. Infact we had planned our trip in such a way that we were able to attend the festival, explore some parts of Ladakh like Pangong Lake & Nubra Valley and still make it in time to attend the first couple of days of the Ladakh Festival before catching a flight back home. All this in a trip spanning 8-9 days. Although it’s impossible to cover everything the region has to offer in such a small trip, we feel we managed to get the best out of it.

Young Buddhist Lamas

If you have any questions on the festivals or wish to ask for help planning your maiden Ladakh trip, feel free to drop your questions in the comments, ask us via our comment form or chat tool or simply say hello on any of our social media channels. We’re always happy to help.

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We’ve taken two trips to Dubai in the past year and it has proved in more ways than one that reading up about a destination does not reveal all its secrets. One had to visit it, experience it and live it to figure out the real essence of the place. At the end of our trip, we asked many of our friends, some locals and some tour operators if they had done all of these activities in Dubai and to our surprise most of them weren’t aware of the options. We went to Dubai with a lot of research and with the confidence that we had the place figured out, we’ve come back humbled and with a list of things to do in our next trip there. Despite our two very active trips, we have set up alerts to book tickets online in the next sale. We’re listing here both the things we managed to do and the things we have in our to-do list for the next trip.

Hot Air Ballooning

Most people have seen the pictures of hot air balloons over the desert but never cover it as an activity while in Dubai. The reasons for the same ranged for being unaware to simply not having enough time. The excuses are kind of lame given how great the activity is and that it is meant to be done around sunrise which means you’re back at your hotel before 8. There is no greater thrill than flying and though skydiving might be closer to the actual thing, it is quite scary as well. Hot air ballooning is romantic, exhilarating and peaceful at the same time. It was indeed a breath-taking sight which greeted us as the sun slowly emerged from what we can only describe as a hazy horizon. Our unique high vantage point gave us a perspective like none other, further accentuated by the arrival of a paramotor gliding in front of the rising sun. As far as we know, there are two operators for ballooning activities in Dubai. One is Balloon Adventures Dubai which is the more glamorous experience with vintage cars, falcons and gourmet breakfasts thrown in for a lifelong memory. The other is Sindbad Ballooning adventures which is a no-nonsense ballooning ride with only one focus, a great ballooning experience. It had a practical breakfast, a great crew, a 4×4 taking us to our launch point and a non-crowded balloon. We’ve flown with both of them and can promise a great experience with either of them. If you have the budget Balloon Adventures Dubai provides a better overall experience and would be our preference. However Sindbad is as good when it comes to the pilots and the actual ballooning experience and is total value for the money paid.

Private flights

We aren’t talking about chartered flights across the atlantic but flights as a way of touring Dubai. Paramotors are a great way to do tandem flying and is available across the desert or over Dubai Marina while Gyrocopters provide an unbeatable perspective of this architectural dreamland. There is no feeling which quite describes a 360 degree view of the city and though these activities aren’t cheap, they’re quite worth it if you want a lifetime memory of your trip. Both are offered by Skydive Dubai, the former under their Skyhub Paramotors company and the other as part of the Sky Dubai offerings. We chose to do the Skydive and missed the Gyrocopter flight but we have it under good authority that these aren’t to be missed.

Abra Ride

There’s a saying, the best things are often the little things in life. No-one equates a great experience with something as small and simple as an Abra – small wooden ferry boat. Especially not in Dubai where everything is bigger and glitzier than the next one. The Abra ride might be just what the doctor ordered giving you a feel of Old Dubai as you share your ride with locals, all sitting on what is essentially a wooden plank. The driver/captain sits in a sunken out space in the middle with controls and steering which takes you to the other side of the Dubai creek. Evenings or early mornings are the best time to take this ride because you’re surrounded by seagulls and an orange golden sky which just adds to the experience. The best part is that it costs you just 2 AED and is essentially cheaper than anything else you can do in the city.

Polo Match

There are different kinds of Polo matches which happen regularly in winter. The most popular are Horse and Camel Polo matches. We normally aren’t big fans of any animal sports as we hear horror stories on how they’re treated. However we were pleasantly surprised in our conversation with a polo player on the sport. The horses involved in play are changed every Chukka, roughly 7 minutes of play time and sometimes even twice in the time frame depending upon the level of play. A greater preference is given to the protection of the horses than the players especially among experienced players and dangerous plays which put the horses at risk are frowned upon. The horses trained for polo are bred such from a very young age and are strong and friendly rather than aggressive and competitive, a distinct difference from racehorses. The actual gameplay is more fun if one has a better understanding of the gameplay and what is involved in it, others it’s just a few horses with riders running around the field in no particular direction. We were guests of the Desert Palm, Dubai which has their own Polo grounds and riding schools and thus were privileged enough to see a Polo Practice match of 2-4 Chukkas and meet some Polo Players as well. It is possible to get basic training for the sport and though we were surprised enough to watch it, we weren’t quite ready to burden the poor horses by our inefficient riding skills and risk hurting it. That said, we are keen to catch a game of camel polo in our next trip to Dubai!

Boat Tours

Dubai is unique among coastal destinations across the globe in terms of the limited access to the beaches in most cases. Add to it the clothing restrictions and that most beaches are private, most tourists does not have too many memories to associate with the sea around it. Yellow Boats Dubai is a fine way to beat the crowd and get a whole new perspective of the city. Most great views in Dubai are from either a very high elevation looking down or from ground up looking towards a skyscraper. The Dubai cityscape has very little probability of including the sea in it except when clicking pics of the Burj Al Arab, Atlantis or the Dubai Marina. The Yellow Boats gives you the thrill of traversing the high seas on a fast motorboat, a unique perspective of the city looking in from the sea and last and probably our favourite, the feel of the moist sea wind blowing across our face! We cannot recommend this activity enough. There are a few options you can choose from but we would recommend the 90 minutes tour which covers everything and probably an evening slot for the best weather, views and the lighting for your pics. A newer option by the team behind Ballooning Adventures Dubai is Hero Boats. A self drive option covering most of what you would cover through the Yellow Boats tour mentioned above. However there is a totally different feel to riding in the open seas at high speeds on a boat/bike/raft (we’re unsure what to call it) with little to worry in terms of safety. There is an experienced team leader accompanying you throughout the 90 minute tour to ensure your safety but you probably won’t notice his/her presence until he asks you to hand over your camera for what is sure to be a memorable pic. We had a gala time with the activity and can’t think of a better way to spend a lazy afternoon in Dubai.

P.S. We’ve seen the Mumbai to Dubai flights at their lowest in the past few sales and the upcoming winter months is the best season to explore Dubai. You might also wish to checkout our review for Radisson Blu, Deira where we stayed while in Dubai.

We’ve listed only 5 activities which we feel are not as well-known as they should be and though they aren’t exactly cheap, they are unique in being experiences you will definitely love talking about on your return. If you have any other activities you would like to recommend, feel free to share in our comments, we will try and include them as well on a bigger post on things to do in Dubai!

The post Top Offbeat Activities to do in Dubai appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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The question which often gets asked by our readers & followers is how we fund our travels. Travel is not cheap and the ever weakening Rupee ensures that our budgets are often exceeded. Add to it our love for the finer things in life and the expense charts go spiralling up. It is not that we were born billionaires nor do we make enough in our daily lives to maintain this kind of a lifestyle indefinitely. That said we’ve found a good balance which allows us to do just that. There is no secret mantra, nor a formula which would work for everyone but we’ve found somethings that work well for us and possibly by extension for most people in most conditions.

Most of our plans are made on other trips or while in bed, or both.

When, Where & What

While planning our next trip, the most essential thing we look at is when we want to travel. Accordingly we shortlist the places where we can travel and then decide what we can do there in the time we have. We don’t play it by the ear and leave our trips to chance. There is a lot of research that goes into it which makes the process feasible. Suppose we are looking at November for our next trip. It is the start of peak season for most destinations and also coincides with the festival of Diwali celebrated across India. Given that most people travel during that time, either to their family or with their family, flights are generally expensive and accommodation for popular destinations are at peak rates. However we try and select destinations where it might be off season, say for example Indonesia. Bali is generally a popular destination for Indian tourists, however given that early November marks the end of the monsoon season, the number of tourists are considerably lower. If we do away with the water activities due to the monsoons, we are still left with a lot of options to explore at what might be a much rate than what we might ordinarily spend at another destination during the same period. This makes the trip more affordable and allows us to stretch our budget longer.

Photo Credits : Airman 1st Class Anne McCready

Managing Finance

This is the toughest part in our trips. How do you arrive at a budget for a new destination and how do you work towards it. The answer is simple, research. We research religiously on everything of importance to the destination, add up activities we think we would like to cover, include travel costs within the city and estimate food expenses including a couple of meals at a nice restaurant which might be termed as a splurge normally. Once we arrive at a budget we feel should cover the trip expenses, we increase it by 10% to include a buffer. We do not dip into our savings to fund our travels. Instead we try and look for alternatives which can help us either save or earn the required amount. It is definitely not overnight and includes us taking up freelance work, cutting down on our shopping expenses as well as considering financial products like ULIPS. For the uninitiated, ULIPS are like dual purpose mutual funds. It is an investment plan integrated in an insurance policy. Most of what we earn through our daily full time jobs goes into our savings or our day to day expenses. A small part of it contributes to the Gypsycouple fund which includes travel as well as the miscellaneous operational costs which add up to a significant amount each year. However that’s what makes it so much fun, when we finally go on the trip, it all feels worth it.

We aren’t ready for a full time commitment to Travel Blogging. Irrespective of what we look like

Being Part Time Travel Bloggers

Being a part time blogger allows us to live dual lives and technically have two sources of income per se. Our Clark Kent life has us living the boring life of daily drudgeries while the Superman life as a travel blogger supplements the income, scores some interesting collaborations, gets us some discounts and/or FAM’s and allows us to share our experience of doing with our 100,000+ followers. That said we believe travel to be an integral part of our lives. However we cannot see ourselves doing it full time. Firstly, we would lose the advantage of having two sources of income, talk about having the cake and eating it too. Secondly, when something which is such a big source of happiness becomes work, we think it would end up losing the charm it has for us. When the escape you planned for your daily life becomes your daily life, how do you escape it? For us, travel is fun but equally so is the entire journey of planning for it. We may end up pulling our hair in frustration trying to ready the funds to make the trip possible or get lost in the AP world of deciding the next destination, it is also one of the fond memories of the trip. We wouldn’t want to change it for anything – unless some billionaire decides that we are just the couple to bequeath his fortune.

You may also want to read about our guide for travelling abroad.

The above are a very brief summarization of how we live our lives as travel bloggers worrying about each trip as it comes. It is not easy, given that we take a lot more trips than most people around us, spend more on the trips to customize it as we like it and enjoy the finer things in life. However we’ve found the right balance which has kept the clockwork moving. If we find that something has changed, you’ll be the first ones to know, right here in this article.

The post HOW WE FUND OUR TRAVEL & OTHER QUESTIONS ANSWERED appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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As travel bloggers and frequent travellers, we can be said to have a decent understanding as to what goes behind every trip abroad. Although it normally ends up being labelled as a vacation and the drool worthy pics do end up causing a bit of envy, the sweat, time and energy that goes in making a trip successful is something everyone overlooks. If you’ve planned for your honeymoon yourself instead of signing up for a package, you know exactly what we go through every time. We’ve listed down some pointers on the major decision areas and how we keep them in check.

Photo Credits : Airman 1st Class Anne McCready

Budgets:

Most of us have to plan for the next big International trips because, budgets. We love to travel in luxury but despite what you might think, not all of our trips are sponsored. In fact we end up paying for almost all of them, all the time. That means we end up saving for our next International trip well in advance. Investment planning thus becomes a big keyword for us where we keep aside a certain percentage of our monthly incomes and have them generate a passive income for us. This in turn ends up funding a majority of our smaller trips and goes a long way in contributing to the budgets of our bigger international trips. For any trip, we do a lot of research to figure out the destinations we wish to explore and the activities we are interested in. This gives us a fair idea on the number of days, the bigger cost pits like flights and accommodations and the maximum amount we would end up spending on activities. That creates an informed base for our budget planning for the trip. Although we end up overshooting it most of the times (because we do enjoy splurging on a nice experience or a spa treatment or even a hotel upgrade) we’re yet to break the bank.

Photo Credits: Letti – S

Currency:

It’s always a big question on how much money to carry while going abroad. Credit card fees are pretty high for forex and you would ideally not want to carry around too much currency to avoid any unfortunate incidents. However when you’re like us and don’t like booking things in advance, you need to have some kind of a financial planning in place to avoid straining your budgets. The key to that is research. You can check forums, info guides and even booking platforms to estimate the amount of money you would end up spending for activities you like. We’ve found forex cards a good option but generally prefer taking along some cash for emergencies and petty expenses where hunting for cards isn’t always the most convenient option.

Insurance:

A lot of people skip on this very important thing while planning their travel abroad. Especially if you’re travelling with your family it is extremely important to invest in a term insurance for financial security and peace of mind. Also, healthcare is very expensive in certain countries and a freak injury or illness can not only put your holiday at risk, it can also become a very expensive proposition depending upon the situation. Add to it the common threat of missed/cancelled flights and MIA luggage and you have a very compelling reason to buy insurance. We always travel abroad with some kind of a travel insurance and are luckily yet to make use of it. That said, the sense of security it provides is worth the trivial investment by far. It’s best to do a bit of research to know the benefits each policy provides. We’ve found some policies offer better coverage in some regions while others are more geared towards mediclaim. It generally takes us all of 5-10 minutes to research and an additional 5 to buy online.

Hotels:

We’ve often faced a situation that the type of hotel we booked looked good in the pictures and turned up dismal despite being rated a star hotel. We’ve come to understand that ratings work differently in different countries. In some destinations we’ve found really good and affordable star rated hotels and in others we had to scurry out right after checking in and opt for a more expensive hotel because it just didn’t cut it. To give you a reference, we’ve found European hotels to be smaller in size, more practical in nature and more expensive for the facilities they provide while SE Asian hotels are generally cheaper, bigger and with more frills for similarly rated star hotels. Hotel rating are also a bit confusing as sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish what incremental advantage you’re getting while choosing between two hotels at a similar location but rated as a 3 star hotels vs a 4/5 star hotel. We’ve even come across cases where a non-star boutique hotel was more expensive than a 5 star hotel from an established chain and still managed to provide value for our money.

Food:

If you’re a vegetarian like us or worse still, a vegan, it’s very difficult to find good options for food. This is especially true if you’re planning to explore some offbeat destinations off the road. We’ve found ourselves stuck many a time where we didn’t come across a single place on the road where we could stop and have a fulfilling hot meal. However that is where we feel our habit of packing some ready to eat food/ dry snacks becomes very helpful. We’ve never once had to do without food because we had some right with us which we would then refill in the next big city. It does become a hassle as you do have to lug it around, but that said, it becomes lighter with each passing day as you manage to eat your way through the load.

If you have some tips of your own and feel we’ve left out some key decision areas which you would like help with. Do share them with us in the comments or simply ping us. We will be glad to share our experience with you! If you liked reading this, you might also wish to check out our packing guide.

The post Top 5 things to consider before planning a trip abroad appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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It was a long journey to the hallowed ruins of Hampi. A flight change at Hyderabad and a tiny roller coaster ride through a tiny trujet flight later, we finally arrived at the Vidyanagar airport. The airport was so small it looked like a corporate office of an MNC. We walked down from the plane to a bus stand type structure where our bags were delivered via a smallish trailer a little while later. The entire experience seemed surreal and it was just the start of our journey.

It took us a short 45 minutes’ drive to reach Evolveback Hampi and the route was mostly uneventful. That is, except for the last stretch which is made on the lines of the old roads in the Vijayanagar Empire. Though it looks and sounds authentic, it’s not quite the best option as far as car maintenance and even our body maintenance goes. A huge gate in what appears to be a long stone wall leads us inside and a gong is struck to announce our arrival. Quite the classic touch. We were welcomed with a ‘Tika’ & Garlands. The cold towels and the welcome drink, a concoction of coconut milk and some dry fruits served right after were what was much needed.

Our stay at Hampi was for 3 nights and it still felt kind of rushed. There is a lot to explore in Hampi and we simply didn’t have enough time. The ruins are vast and though they were broken down into four different experiences called “trails” by the Evolveback team, it still felt like we could have given it even more time. The temples are gorgeous and the huge balancing boulders will resonate with the closet instagrammer in you. The name Hampi itself has a very interesting origin story. In Hindu mythology, this place was where goddess Parvati, originally known as Pampaa, pursued lord Shiva. The Kannada translation for Pampaa is Hampa and the place where the event happened was called Hampe, further anglicized to Hampi. However what was surprising is that there is no particular city called Hampi per se. In concept it defines the region where the ruins of the Vijayanagara Empire are located and hence is also referred to as the Group of Monuments at Hampi by the Unesco World Heritage Centre.

Our first impression was that team behind Evolveback Hampi has done its homework well. The palace, built from scratch is a grandiose building with a striking local architecture, filled with plenty of lotus filled water bodies around. The colours of the structure are earthy yellow for exteriors and muted white for their interiors. We were told that all materials and designs used for building and decorating the property is sourced locally and this is a prime example of responsible tourism. Vaidyashala -the Ayurveda wellness centre, Bahamani – a Nawabi cuisine restaurant, their library and an inhouse shop for souvenirs is housed in a complex called the Lotus Mahal. The structure is supposedly a replica of the original Lotus Mahal which is renowned monument in the palace complex of the Hampi ruins. Although the building is hardly a minutes’ walk away, given the scalding heat of the Hampi afternoons, its best to visit it early mornings or late evenings or ask the reception to arrange a buggy to take you there. It sounds exaggerated but trust us, you’ll thank us for the tip. Tuluva – the main restaurant faces the adults infinity pool which in turn faces a wide water body, modelled on what is locally known as pushkarini or holy water. These are rectangle shaped water bodies which accompany most big temples and are used exclusively for bathing the idols and once or twice in a year, there is an elaborate event where the idols are seated on boats and taken for a trip around the pushkarini as part of a ritual. In lines with the local architecture, there is also a mandappa which is a raised platform covered by an ornate dome and usually used for performances. The mandappa at evolveback however is used primarily for arranging special dinners. A nice touch if it is executed well.

Our room was another story altogether. We checked-in into Nivasa which was their lowest category room. However we were impressed. The room was spacious if not sprawling with a huge four poster bed as its star attraction. The bathroom area in comparison was a bit cramped and we really feel they could’ve done without the bath tub inside. That said, it was in no way lacking and the ceramic bottles for the shampoo, conditioner and moisturiser was a good touch in favour of the responsible luxury the group stands for.  The limelight however was taken by the lovely Jacuzzi in the balcony. We have never stayed at a property which offers a Jacuzzi in their lowest category rooms and this was quite a nice touch. That said we would have preferred the Jacuzzi to be indoors given that it was fairly open to insects, monkeys and prying eyes. We weren’t trouble by either during our stay but we can imagine the condition of a person if they’re suddenly accosted by a monkey while relaxing in their Jacuzzi.

The interiors and the Jacuzzi aside, we felt the best touch was a RO filter tap right inside our room. Bye bye plastic bottles, hello water on demand! This is something we feel every hotel should adopt to eliminate the tourism evil that is plastic bottles. We’ve never seen something like it before and we were blown away by the practicality of it! The best part was that these portable RO filters taps were placed at strategic locations all around the property especially in the activity centres, eliminating the need to carry water anywhere. In our opinion there are a lot of hospitality brands which talk about sustainable travel and responsible luxury but fail to go beyond the bare minimum. A conscious effort is what defines a brand’s ethos and evolveback certainly feels like it is doing its part.

The hot weather notwithstanding, it was a real pleasure experiencing their hospitality. Coming to the food, unfortunately it really didn’t match up to the high standards of everything else. Not to say that the food was bad, it was quite good actually. However when everything else seems so perfect, being just great really doesn’t cut it especially when it comes to something like food. However that is our personal bias and only for their vegetarian options on their menus. The breakfast options were plentiful and definitely ranks among the bigger breakfast spreads we’ve seen. That said they’ve got a lot going for them as far as ideas go. They’ve got two alternating menu options with a few differences between them and though it does not really make a big difference to the food experience per se, it’s the little things like these which add up. In the short duration of 3 nights we also managed to experience 3 different dinner settings. One was a buffet by the pool, one was a proper dining experience at Tuluva and on our last night, at Bahamani. Though a lot of bigger resorts have various themed restaurants for their guests, we were pretty impressed by how they went about creating a dedicated experience for their guests which went much beyond an ordinary meal.

We usually judge a property by its service levels. This is especially true for a boutique luxury hotel because the personality of the property is in essence defined by its staff whom you interact with the most. However given that this property is hardly a year old and still going through its formative years, we would like to hold on to our views and maybe visit it again after a couple of years and tell you how it fares. That said, the upper management and the front desk is pretty responsive and we saw them regularly approaching the guests for feedback on their stay experience which is always a positive sign. A small tip for new guests, Abhishek who handles operations should be your goto person for most things. He knows his stuff and we found him willing to go the extra mile to get things done.

To summarize, Hampi is a great destination to relax especially for families with kids, as the place is brimming with culture and stories. Evolveback Hampi however is also great for couples as the property is big enough for one to easily find their little space. To put things into perspective, the property was at about 70-80% occupancy when we were there and apart from the dining area, we seldom found the place too full or even noisy. The experiences they offer are great but for couples and passionate photographers like us, we would recommend you sign up for an exclusive guide especially so if you have your own car. We were lucky that we were never on a trail with guests who objected to us stopping ever so often for pics, but we can easily see families with little kids getting annoyed by it. While there, do go for atleast a couple of trails with them, they are well designed and the guides are fantastic. If it helps, they also took some really good pics of us, always a major plus in our books. We rate a hotel not through a checklist but through our experiences and evolveback Hampi manages to convert every part of it as one. Be it the Palace ritual every evening where Keshav, the flautist starts by playing an evening raga and then tours the entire premises accompanies by two women burning incense. Apparently this is a ritual of all local palaces and hence followed here as well. Move to a trail experience with their in-house guides and discover a new side to the ruins even if you’ve visited them before. Or simply relax the entire day and attend the story-telling sessions at Deep Mahal in the evening where one of their experienced guides shares a story about the region with the guests. We’re yet to come across a hotel which can proudly share their story-telling sessions as one of their USP’s, until now. The Vaidyashala – Ayurveda spa is another hidden gem. We went for a 60 minute full body massage and it was fantastic. Just make sure you book it in advance as there are only 2 rooms, one for males and one for females. If it isn’t clear yet, we’ll speak it out loud. We absolutely loved our stay and can easily be convinced to come back especially during winters. If you’re anything like us, so should you.

The post [Review] Evolveback Hampi – Responsible Luxury done right appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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A man-made entertainment island created on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, Yas Island is where we stayed on our maiden trip to Abu Dhabi. Radisson Blu is one of the 6 hotels in a district named Plaza which apart from the Yas Viceroy are the only hotels on Yas Island. The arrangement means that guests have a wide choice of food options and convenience in the form of easy access to the Yas express which is a complementary shuttle service connecting all major entertainment options on the island. The hotel itself is gorgeous and looks out to a golf course and the sea beyond. However given the relatively limited accommodation options on the island, there’s always a significant influx of tourists especially family travellers with kids which may be a boon or a curse depending upon the type of tourist you are. Read through the review for our thoughts on the facilities, service and the hotel package as whole.

Rooms:

We were upgraded to the suite and thus had the best level of accommodation to ourselves. This meant a sprawling living room, an even bigger bed room and two bathrooms. Add to it a humongous balcony and what you’ll get is a hotel room bigger than most apartments from where we come from. The interiors were minimal and plush, a trait we’ve seen across hotel rooms in UAE and something we like. The view was fantastic and the beds incredibly comfortable. If our itinerary wasn’t packed, we probably wouldn’t have left the room.

There wasn’t a single flaw we could find with the room and the view from the balcony was as great as it sounds. Given its possible proximity to the airport, we could see several planes flying at low levels. Also given that our view from the room was of one of the holes in the adjoining golf course, we could see a stream of caddies and golf carts on both mornings we were there.

Service:

If you’ve read our previous reviews of Radisson Blu Hotels, you would know that we’ve got a very positive view of the level of service that the chain delivers. So much so that we’ve rated it as one of our benchmarks for service levels going forward. With such a high benchmark, we thought it was impossible for us to keep getting impressed. However, except for the inordinately long time it took to get us checked in, we were more than happy with the level of service we enjoyed throughout our stay.

Food:

We were generally pleased with the food options at most Radisson Blu Hotels. However we faced a bit of an issue here. The Belgian Beer café could only serve us Belgian fries (which were delicious) as we do not even eat eggs, crossing off most options on the menu. Filini, their Italian speciality restaurant wasn’t available on both the days we were there for because of some renovations. Assymetri their casual dining option with primarily buffets available, wasn’t something we were too interested in. This made Amerigos, the Mexican Bar & restaurant at Park Inn, our staple choice for meals. The biggest reason was the number of vegetarian options available but the amazing food served was what sealed the deal. It also helped that the two hotels are practically one and it’s impossible to figure out the boundaries between the two. Breakfast at Assymetri was especially amazing because there was a huge group of Indian Tourists staying in which gave us a lot more vegetarian options than what we would’ve expected. That’s said, our choice was dictated primarily because of our food restrictions and the unfortunate situation of Filini not being operational while we were there. Otherwise, given our history, you could have easily found us happily munching on Pizza with a guest appearance of either Pasta or Ravioli on both the nights!

Package:

Most hotels on the Yas island have some sort of a package deal with day passes for Ferrari World & Yas Water World included. Why else would someone stay at Yas island afterall if not to visit these two major attractions. From a tourist perspective, especially so if you’re a family with kids, it’s a no brainer. The rides at both the Ferrari world & Yas waterworld are enjoyable for children of all ages and some even for their parents. In addition, most shuttles also take you to the Yas Beach which is only open for guests of the hotels on the island, the golf links if that’s something you enjoy and the F1 circuit which is unfortunately pretty desolate on non-race days. All of this makes it a perfect stay for atleast 3 days (or more if you like). There’s a lot to do and it’s a waste if you do not have enough time to enjoy it all. And this is only Yas Island. If you want to see the Palace, The Grand Mosque and other attractions in Abu Dhabi, you can stay an extra day and take a day tour to cover it all. Cabs are easily available or if you need an all-day transport, the concierge can fix one up for you as well. Although the package isn’t really tailored for couples, it’s a great option if you’re not too hung up on the traditional idea of a romantic vacation. We know we had a great time there.

Summary

The hotel as an overall package is a no brainer. Great service, good food, great attractions nearby and a free shuttle service to take you there. The rooms were amazing, although we could only manage to use them to sleep, late at night on both days. This would probably be true for everyone who comes to Yas island. With multiple attractions, a beautiful beach, a big mall and a lovely (if a bit cramped) pool, how would you find the time to get back to your room the entire day. That said, the beds are made for a good night’s sleep, they’re that soft. We for one had a lot of fun and would definitely like to come back, preferably with our parents or when we have kids.

LIKE IT PIN IT!

The post [Review] Radisson Blu, Yas Island – The complete package appeared first on Gypsycouple.

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