Goa & the Magical Monsoon

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Sunset at Uttorda Beach

Goa is known as the most popular beachfront state in India lying along the Arabian Sea bounded by Maharashtra to the north and Karnataka to the east and south. Its biggest draw is undoubtedly its virtually uninterrupted string of white-sand beaches each beach having its own personality from tropical retreat to backpacker haven to hippie bliss.

Over 450 years of Portuguese rule and the influence of the Portuguese culture presents visitors to Goa a cultural environment that is not found elsewhere in India. Goa is often described as a fusion between Eastern and Western culture with Portuguese culture having a dominant position in the state be it in its architectural, cultural or social settings.

Goa is visited by large numbers of international and domestic tourists each winter season given its top world ranking nightlife and beaches. But I chose to visit Goa in the monsoon season (July through September) when the foliage turns lush green from the rains. Beauty abounds while the tourist population recedes.

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I stayed for four wonderful days at the new Planet Hollywood. Well-appointed and comfortable along clean and quiet Utorda Beach with a most welcoming and hospitable staff. So many surprises awaited from day one, including a beautiful and very tasty greeting cake, an upgraded luxurious suite room and a handwritten personal welcome note from the GM. Each room is individually designed according to a Hollywood theme featuring creature comforts like massage chair, mood lighting, goose down pillows, plush towels, satin sheets, and designer toiletries. Rooms either overlook the Arabian Sea or feature a lush garden view.

As to meals while in residence, I was offered a menu but instead asked that the chef select all my meals choosing from local favorites like pork vindaloo, chicken xacuti, balchão, pomfret curry… all prepared to my taste using a mouth-watering array of Goan spices. I was never disappointed.  What a fantastic culinary experience!

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Welcome assortment and brownie topped with Serene Journeys

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Welcome note from GM Anand jee

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one of the walls at the lounge bar

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executive suite

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Prawn Kismur

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Pork Vindaloo

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Pomfret Recheado

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MargaFeni – Feni Margarita

The second day I enjoyed a bicycle breakfast picnic to Three Kings Church, a famous ‘haunted church’ once attended by three Portuguese kings… one poisoned the other two and then committed suicide. Dicey heritage, cool place for enjoying a picturesque view in a most serene setting. I dined on fresh fruit, fresh baked breads and muffins, an omelet, some Indian delicacies and of course all washed down with delightful local coffee and tea.

On the way back, we detoured through local rice fields, small villages and took a long photo-stop, as I was excitedly prepared to ‘shoot’ every unique beauty coming my way from ruined churches among the coconut trees, to the farmers in the field and the butterflies. I spent the day at leisure along the beach watching beachgoers and cricket matches along the Sea as fisherman brought in their ‘treasures of the deep’.  My day ended still at the beach embraced by the patina of a golden sunset through the clouds and into the Arabian Sea.

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Wallance & I getting ready for the adventure

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the road to three kings church

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the spots decided

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we have a picnic butler 🙂

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under the tree on a beautiful morning

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beautiful moth

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this tree is beautifully creepy LOL!

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The ruins at Three Kings Church

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Picturesque view from Three Kings Church

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Three Kings Church

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The caretaker makes sure this fire does not go off

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another abandoned church on the way back

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The third day we toured many of Goa’s famous historical religious sites. Goa has a rich spiritual history where east meet west, Hindu meets Christianity.  First stop was the Basilica de Bom Jesus housing the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier, a UNESCO world heritage site. Dating to 1605, the basilica is an outstanding example of baroque architecture… one of the most important destinations for Christian pilgrims from all over the world. Then on to the Se Cathedral which is the cathedral of the Latin Rite Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Goa and Daman as well as the seat of the Patriarch of the East Indies. Next, I visited the church of St. Francis of Assisi built in 1660 by the Portuguese as a chapel later gaining status as a church. Then on to the church of St. Augustine completed in 1602 and now a famous ruin with the only remaining structure being a 46-meter bell tower constructed of laterite.   Last but not least on the list was Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church built in 1541 and featuring the second largest bell in Goa. I enjoyed a fish fry thali for lunch at the famous Ritz Classic.

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Basilica de Bom Jesus

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the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier

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Se Cathedral

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The ruin around the church of St. Francis of Assisi

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The ruin around the church of St. Francis of Assisi

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the church of St. Augustine

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the church of St. Augustine

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the church of St. Augustine

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the church of St. Augustine

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Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church

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View from Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception Church

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Blue building is Singbal’s Book House, Church Square

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Given my diverse religious background (a prodigy of both Hinduism and Chritianity) I visited several Hindu temples each surrounded by flower vendors stringing garlands and making beautiful floral arrangements to place in the temples. I visited Shantadurga Temple, a Hindu temple dedicated to the goddess who served as a messenger between Shiva and Vishnu. Formerly a small laterite mud shrine with a small idol during Portuguese times it is now converted into a beautiful full-scale place of spiritual enlightenment featuring a blend of Indian and Portuguese design. Next was the 400-year-old Mangeshi Temple founded during 16thcentury dedicated to Bhagavan Manguesh a incarnation of Lord Shiva.

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Shantadurga Temple

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Wallance & Chauffeur Rakesh ended up doing their own little shopping

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the 400-year-old Mangeshi Temple

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Stay tuned for Part 2 of ‘Serene Journey’s Excellent Goa Adventure with Planet Hollywood

 

Robindro Saikhom
robin@serenejourneys.co
www.serenejourneys.co

Robin is the founder of Serene Journeys, a gay travel company based in Delhi and a freelance travel photographer, exploring the beauty of India, Nepal, Bhutan and Southeast Asia.
Check us out on Instagram Facebook Twitter Youtube 

The Pink City

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Arrive in Style with Serene Journeys

While Delhi is the capital and Agra the home of the Taj Mahal, Jaipur is by far and away the most stimulating vertex of the Golden Triangle.  The film ‘Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ was filmed near Jaipur and most will recall the character Evelyn Greenslade (Judy Dench) remarking that “India is an assault on the senses.”  She meant it in a nice way.

Jaipur is known as the Pink City.  In 1876, the Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VII of the British Empire embarked on an extensive tour of India.  Since pink denotes the color of hospitality, Maharaja Ram Singh of Jaipur painted the entire city pink in color to welcome His Royal Highness.  The tradition has been followed through the years both inside and outside the walled historic center with every building being painted a terracotta pink with few exceptions.

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Albert Hall Museum

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A visitor at Albert Hall

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Staff lunching at Albert Hall

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Birla Temple

The Pink City is famous for its palaces and temples including the Hawa Mahal and its 953 windows used by women of the court to view the market screened behind the sandstone carving; the Amber Fort with its daily elephant entry procession; and the Water Palace that seems to sit atop the middle of Man Sagar Lake built by Maharaja Singh to provide a cool respite in the summer heat.  These are jut a few of the many, many examples of 17th and 18th century architecture found in abundance in Jaipur.

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A close-up of Hawa Mahal

Rajasthan is a desert culture featuring a colorful, harmonious lifestyle with natural elements that can occasionally be challenging.  In summer, while not as hot as Delhi or Agra, the temperature often climbs to more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit.   Elephants, camels, horses and donkeys still perform various transport tasks.  Rajasthani men wear sculpted mustaches and colorful, multifunctional turbans.  Popular sports include cricket, golf and polo.

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A Rajasthani man in his beautifully crafted turban

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Durga, owner of Dera Mandawa, working on my turban

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Durga and I, at Dera Mandawa

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Rajasthani men and their turban & moustache, truly fascinating

Jaipur is particularly noted for its arts and handicrafts especially marble carving, printed and woven fabrics and handwoven carpets.  The markets from inside the walls of the old city to the outskirts are always busy with locals and tourists finding treasures and striking bargains.

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Rickshaw ride anyone?

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The beautiful courtyard at Dera Mandawa

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Colorful sheets for charpai

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Pigeon feeding

The culinary style of the region is reflective of the bellicose lifestyle of the natives.  Rajasthani breads are made from corn, wheat, and other grains which are typically roasted on the tandoor or in frying pans.  Unavailability of many fresh vegetables, and other ingredients due to the arid climate have a profound effect on cooking style including the use of mild and other water substitutes in cooking.  Although predominantly a vegetarian region, the influence of the non-vegetarian Rajputs who favored lamb, chicken, pork and occasionally wild game is ever present.  Be ready for flavor as Rajasthani cuisine is inherently rich in spices appealing to every palate.

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Rajasthani Thali with Laal Maans, at Dera Mandawa

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Indian snacks street style, different kind of peanuts & green peas and chickpeas

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Suvarna Mahal restaurant at Taj Ramgarh Palace

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Suvarna Mahal at Taj Ramgarh Palace

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Papad platter at Suvarna Mahal

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Lamb tikka

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Pakoda

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3 course meal thali at Suvarna Mahal

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With Chef Sunil at Suvarna Mahal

So when visiting India’s Golden Triangle be sure to include Jaipur along the way.  Walk in the steps of the Maharaja’s, enjoy the colorful desert lifestyle, sample the local cuisine, and shop til you drop.

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Travel like Royals with Serene Journeys

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Make sure you get some shirts made with hand block print cotton fabrics

Puppet shows & cultural Rajasthani folk music are highlights of the evening at almost all hotelsPartcipate, and be part of the culture & you will truly enjoy your holiday.

 

Robindro Saikhom
robin@serenejourneys.co
www.serenejourneys.co

Robin is the founder of Serene Journeys, a gay travel company in India and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @ serenejourneys or Facebook @ Serene Journeys.

 

The Hidden Sanctuary of Northern Kerala

The Refuge of Peace

To most travellers, a trip to Kerala conjures an image of an idyllic cruise on the backwaters of Alappuzha. Indeed, there are now over 500 houseboats on the backwaters of Alappuzha alone. But there is much more to South India’s most serenely beautiful State than cruising in the increasingly busy backwaters.

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Theyyam dance make-up

In search for serenity, I headed to Northern Kerala and arrived at Neeleshwar Hermitage, a cloistered tropical paradise set in a secluded palm grove beside the Arabian Sea. I was overwhelmed by this boutique sanctuary: it took my breath away and could truly be described as a haven of perfection. Eighteen beautiful cottages, each named after a traditional yogic virtue, come with a garden or pool view and private pool. The beach is just 20 steps away from the retreat where you can enjoy breakfast to the sound of the waves watching the fishermen returning from the sea.

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Isn’t it rare to see a crowdless beach?

After a wonderful 3-night stay at this refuge of peace and tranquillity, we drove to a small jetty a ten minute drive south from Neeleshwar Hermitage situated on the banks of the Tejaswini river. I boarded The Lotus, a two bedroom rice barge offering total comfort in tasteful style and elegance.

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The Lotus Houseboat

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The cruise covers about 25kms of the Valiyaparamba backwater, a large inland lake several miles due east of the Hermitage. As you sail further south, the only sound is the lapping of water or the occasional jumping of huge red snappers. The cruise also takes you on a short walk through the sleepy village to the monkey island. A taxi ride to Shri Mutthappan temple, a highly atmospheric shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva in his form as a local tribal hunter offers the opportunity to witness the evening ritual involving the priest acting as a trance-medium for Shiva and serving as an oracle for worshippers.

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Where the river & sea meets

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A perfect sunset from the deck

To appreciate the joys of this part of ‘God’s Own Country’ aim to spend at least 4 days and enjoy the remote peacefulness where days can easily and slowly turn into weeks.

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Sunset and wine goes quite well together

Nearest Airport: Calicut or Mangalore

Need help? Write to us at robin@serenejourneys.co or steve@serenejourneys.co (For UK & Ireland)
Visit our website at Serene Journeys

Robindro Saikhom (Robin)
Founder, Serene Journeys

Robin is the owner of Serene Journeys, a bespoke travel specialist for LGBT & communities based in New Delhi and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @serenejourneys or Facebook @Serene Journeys.

 

ITC Grand Bharat, Gurgaon

A luxury retreat for discerning guests

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Have you ever wanted a weekend retreat from Delhi or to celebrate a special occasion without having to travel too far?  Then look no further than the luxurious ITC Grand Bharat at the foothills of the Aravallis overlooking beautiful landscaped gardens in the shade of the mountains.

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Located in Mewat region approximately 45 km from center of Delhi towards Gurgaon, this property boasts 100 deluxe suites with semi-private pools or terraces offering magnificent views of the picturesque surroundings. The retreat also features 4 Presidential Villas offering unrivaled luxury with butler services provided by a dedicated retreat host. Each of the Presidential Villas reflects a particular era of India’s rich and fascinating history and their decor draws inspiration from the Maurya, Chola, Mughal and Maratha dynasties.

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The retreat is a perfect place to relax, connect with nature or indulge in more adventurous activities including hiking, cycling, rock climbing or mountain-biking The hotel is also a haven for golf enthusiasts featuring a 27-hole, championship golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus.

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When I arrived at the hotel, I was received by friendly, smiling staff dressed in traditional attire, in a huge lobby area with palatial seating and a very impressive chandelier hanging atop. Guests staying in the Presidential Suites can choose to drive in directly to the arrival court, to a ceremonial welcome, without having to go to ‘The Palace’ or the main block to check-in.

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The hotel houses four restaurants, each offering its own unique culinary experience. You can choose to dine al fresco, poolside, in the opulent Aravali Pavilion or take a journey through India’s colonial past in the India Room offering European dishes from Greece, Portugal, Holland, France and Britain. The property also features the Peacock Bar, inspired by India’s national bird and serving classic cocktails and premium spirits. Relax with your favourite cocktail prepared by Zac Abbott, the master mixologist whilst enjoying some mild jazz.

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India is the birthplace of Yoga, ayurveda and meditation and ITC Grand Bharat offers you the ultimate experience in wellbeing and health services with therapeutic and aromatic massages at Kaya Kalp – The Royal Spa or experience magical togetherness at the Yoga Pavilion. Take the opportunity to revitalise your senses in this island of tranquility.

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Picture Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat

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Picture Courtesy ITC Grand Bharat

Paying tribute to the glory of India, ITC Grand Bharat is a unique retreat for anyone living in Delhi, passing through on a stop-over before or returning from Agra or Jaipur. The staff are gracious and helpful and a warm welcome is extended to all guests.

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Robindro Saikhom & Steve O’Donnell
www.serenejourneys.co
Email: robin@serenejourneys.co
steve@serenejourneys.co (enquiries from UK and Ireland)

Robin is the founder of Serene Journeys, a gay travel company in India and a freelance travel photographer.  Follow him on Instagram @ serenejourneys or Facebook @ Serene Journeys.
Steve is Director (UK & Ireland) with Serene Journeys and a freelance travel writer and photographer.