Guru

Guru-Purnima-Images-2016-1-1Spiritual masters like Kabir, Rumi, Christ, Guru Nanak, Lalaji, Babuji, Chariji and numerous other sages including Lord Krishna have stated that God is omnipresent and seated in our own hearts. Ancient sages have reiterated that a human being alone is gifted with a mind & intellect capable of reasoning, analyzing etc. The way an individual makes use of this supreme and unique faculty determines the outcome of his life, either of bondage or of liberation. A being can therefore use the mind to be the cause of his bondage or attain liberation through spiritual evolution. However, many tend to build numerous material aspirations that distract the self from one’s true purpose of life and miss the opportunity that would have led them to emancipation.

Nonetheless, there are always blessed souls who are born with an inclination towards a higher purpose of life and develop a deep yearning for the Divine. Such hearts that crave for enlightenment with earnest prayer need not even search for a Guru, as God in all His compassion appears in the form of a Guru to enliven the divine dormant in them. Scriptures reaffirm this fact through lives of Jesus Christ, who was baptized, Adi Shankaracharya , Swami Vivekananda and many others were initiated by their Gurus, and even Lord Rama studied under Rishi Vashista Lord Krishna in Rishi Sandipani’s ashram.

Bahujanma-kratat-punyal-labhyate sau mahaguruh,
Labdhva mum na punaryati sishyah samasara-babndhanam.

One gets such a Supreme Guru as a result of merits acquired through many births.
Having attained such a Guru, the disciple never falls prey to bonds of samsara, he is liberated forever. -Guru Gita, 3.45

Thus, aspirants with longing for union with God are not only re-initiated by a Guru but He also removes the burdens of the past lives and carries them across the sea of separation to the shore of Liberation and facilitates their union with the Divine.
Literally, ‘Gu’ means darkness or ignorance and ‘Ru’ represents the illumination brought to eliminate this darkness in the hearts.

gukArashchAndhakArohi rukArasteja uchyate |
aj~jAnagrAsakaM brahma gurureva na saMshayaH || 1.32 ||

The syllable ‘Gu’ denotes the darkness, and the syllable ‘Ru’, the light. There is no doubt that guru is only the Brahman that consumes ignorance. (From Guru Gita 1.32)

‘Gur Meh Aap Rakhaya Kartare.’ (from Maru Mohalla 1(15)
‘In the body of Guru, God revealeth Himself.’ (Translation of the above)

Throughout one’s spiritual life, one’s needs a living Guru, who is an inspirer, a role model and a vanguard with a compassionate heart, who supports at every step through one’s trials and tribulations. By emulating Him and following His instructions, aspirant progresses much faster towards his goal. It is tremendously rewarding to spend time in the company of a Guru or a Master as His caring eyes perceive in advance all the unseen impediments that may arise and clear one’s spiritual path. His guidance creates detachment and discrimination in the aspirant’s mind, enabling one to regulate the forces of nature, both internal and external. His compassion awakens the sleeping heart and illumines the mind of the disciple. Guru is the embodiment of the Divine essence in human form and the disciples should venerate Him as much as God as He is the one who paves the path to God Realization.

In the Bhagavad-gita(4.34), Sri Krishna Himself tells us the method of seeking out and approaching the guru:

tad viddhi pranipatena pariprasnena sevaya-
upadeksyanti te jnanam janainas tattva-darsinah

Learn that by worshipping the feet of the teacher, inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized soul can impart knowledge unto you because He has seen the truth.

“Just as a mountaineer who has been to the summit returns to bring others through the difficulties of the ascent, so a spiritual guide, who has attained self-Mastery, supports others on the spiritual journey. ” ~Chariji

Saint Kabir has beautifully explained this entire concept in a perfect verse that says,
Guru Govind Dou Kahde, Kake lagu pav,
Balihari Guru apno, Govind diya bataye.

Both Guru and God are standing in front of me. Whose feet should I touch first?
I will touch Guru’s feet first as HE is the one who has shown the Lord to me.”
The divine self in us is realized only under the guiding light of a Divine Master.

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Misty Munnar – Kerala

13083869_edited-001One of Bombay’s scorching and sultry days made us desperately seek an escapade to the mountains. I recall reading a while ago about a National Geographic traveller rating Kerala as the seventh among the fifty places to visit in a lifetime. That’s when it dawned on me that we must flee to God’s own country Kerala. To our ecstasy the decision was made on Kerala’s premium hill station- Munnar.

 Until some Scottish planters discovered, Munnar was once a sleepy little hamlet. Set at an altitude of 6000 ft, Munnar was a favored summer resort of the erstwhile British rulers in the colonial days. Munnar derived its name from the Tamil and Malayalam words munu (three) and aaru (river) attributable to the town’s strategic location at the confluence of the Muthirappuzha, Nallathanni, and Kundaly rivers.  Till date its lush green foliage covered in cool mist, revitalizing ambiance and its bracing air makes it an ideal vacationer’s destination in south India.  The two closest airports to Munnar are Kochi and Coimbatore.  Munnar is just 135 km from the seashore of Kochi. The drive through the mountainous roads heading to Munnar from Kochi is a great way to flee out of the high-speed lane of urban life into a serene expanse devoid of noise & pollution. The Coimbatore-Munnar route of 150 km is incredibly scenic and even if a bit longer is usually believed to be worth the extra time spent. We hired a car with a driver Ganesh from Coimbatore airport. As soon as we entered Kerala, we stopped by to relish an authentic Kerala delicacy the Puttu and Vegetable. On the way we passed through thick forests and got to see some monkeys and wild elephants. Thirty km before Munnar the city itself we started spotting the tea plantations on both sides of the road. By evening we were at our resort on a mountain top with a 180 degrees of excellent view. After sunset from our room we could see few solitary lights from the houses scattered on the opposite hill and some faint outlines of electricity poles and cell phone towers creating a magic in the ambiance.

At day break, the clear blue sky beckoned me to step out of our room and inhale the energizing mountain air. Instantly my heart was overflowing with a profound sense of gratitude and wonder at the magnificence of nature and God’s creation. Munnar is essentially a tea town and most tea plantations have now been taken over by the Tatas. All around our eyes could see miles and miles of endless tea plantations that covered all the hillsides like bright green quilts as all the tea shrubs were trimmed to same height and planted in straight rows. Even from a distance we could sight the women picking the leaves. It was an extraordinary view of an enormous manicured garden! After breakfast, Ganesh drove us up towards Top station, the highest point in Munnar. En route Top station we paused at various spots to capture some images of the magnificent tiers of hills, the majority covered by tea gardens and the rest by woodlands, numerous tiny streams & water falls flowing amid the tea estates. On reaching the Top Station, first we got to see a couple of thatched roof shops selling fruits and munchies and behind them was a mud road . A few steps up we could see valley on either side with wild flowers, shrubs and tall trees. We strolled ahead drawn by the whiff of teas from a small tea shop selling hot cups of tea. I still cannot forget the aroma of the hot cardamom  tea and as I was sipping my tea, in a few moments I was enveloped by the clouds elevating me to a dreamy state. Moments later the jingles of the bells around the necks of a flock of sheep crossing us stirred me out. After the masala chai it was time for a speedboat ride. It was thrilling but it was so cold in the lake that my nose instantly froze! Speaking of boating, there are quite a few places to go boating in Munnar. Choices are from peddle boats, speed boats to Kashmiri-Shikaras. For those who have not been to Kashmir, its a great opportunity to get a ride on the beautiful ‘Kashmiri-Shikaras’ for the most romantic experiences. Before dusk we reached the Echo point,  a small lake set amidst rolling hills. Any loud call made from a spot on the lake’s bank is returned manifold by the echo from the surrounding hills. Munnar being a small town is easily covered by foot but its easier to hop in to an auto-rickshaw should one get bit tired of walking. For out of town jaunts a rented bike or taxi is the best option. Moreover many tour operators arrange excursions to outskirts as well.

 

Next morning we set out a bit early and drove towards Eravikulam or the Rajamalai National Park. Munnar’s highest peak Anamudi – which towers over 2695 Mts  in a majestic pride is here and is an ideal spot for campers who like to do some trekking. But only a expert can drive here as the roads are very narrow; Quite often we had  to stop and direct other vehicles approaching from opposite direction. Though I was holding my breath whilst Ganesh was maneuvering through those constricted edges but he managed it pretty well. From my window all I could see was soft cottony clouds as if we were gliding in the clouds up to the sky due to low visibility. Wow! What an adventurous drive! We were told that the slopes of these hills have an abundance of  extraordinary flora and fauna like the Atlas moth (the largest of its class in the world), the Nilgiri Langur, the lion-tailed macaque, leopards, tigers, etc. A guide told us that inside the national park an endangered species of mountain goats the Nilgiri Tahr can be observed at close quarters .We were debating if climbing up the high peak just to see some goats was worth all the effort. However, the walk along the park was very romantic and the view was out of this world! The prime exotic flora in the woods and grasslands here is the Neelakurinji, a blue flower which blooms only every twelve years. The last time it bloomed was in December 2006 and the next will be in 2018. So, want to plan 10 years ahead for a trip to Munnar? I just loved this place for I could walk in the Clouds, trek to my hearts content while the clouds slowly descend upon us. The park is breathtakingly beautiful and is easily comparable to the best mountain ranges found anywhere in the world.

Our next destination was Mattupetty dam, a  dam at a height of 1700 Mts and Mattupetty farm famed for its dedicated dairy farm, the Indo-swiss live stock project. Over 100 varietes of high yielding cattle are reared here. Visitors are allowed into three of the eleven cattle sheds at the farm. For those lucky ones who have a week or more days there are many more attractions in and around Munnar. To name a few:

Kundala lake, where the lush hills around encase the water like a bowl and the view of the reflection of the mountains in the crystal clear water is mesmerizing.

Pothamedu – 6 km from Munnar, offers an excellent view of the tea, coffee and cardamom plantations in Munnar. The rolling hills, the lush mountain and the breathtaking scenery here is ideal for trekking and long mountain walks.

Devikulam -7 km from Munnar, an idyllic hill station is covered with velvet lawns, exotic flora and fauna and the cool mountain air is a rare experience. The Sita Devi Lake with its mineral waters and picturesque surroundings is a good picnic spot. The lake is also ideal for trout fishing.

Pallivasal -8 km from Munnar, is the venue of the first Hydro Electric Project in Kerala and a place of immence scenic beauty.

Located 10 km from Munnar, Nyayamakad is a land of breathtaking waterfalls. The waters cascade down a hill from a height of about 1600 meters. The enchanting surroundings makes an excellent picnic spot and trekking point.Ten km from Munnar, with its sleepy little cottages, bungalows, old playgrounds and courts, Chithirapuram still exudes an old world charm. Home of the Pallivasal Hydel Power Project, this hill town is also famous for its picturesque tea plantations. Lock Heart Gap, 13 km from Munnar, is an ideal place for adventure tourism and trekking. The fresh mountain air, the mist-clad hills and panoramic view make it worthy of a visit. Thommankuthu waterfalls is the seven step waterfall and is a much loved picnic spot . At each step there is a cascade and a pool beneath .

Ramakalmedu has rolling green hills and its fresh mountain air makes it an enchanting retreat. The hilltop also offers a panoramic view of the picturesque villages of Bodi and Kambam on the Eastern slope of the Western ghats. This is an ideal place for trekkers and mountain climbers.

A hill station transcending excellence – Munnar is bordered by numerous rolling hills draped in the calming green of vast tea estates, mountain streams, valleys offering a wide array for tourists. It is an excellent base for trekking in the hills covered by lush rainforests; for picnicking alongside a crystal-clear mountain stream; for wildlife watching; or for simply getting the kinks out of a tired system!

As we left very early from Munnar, heavy fog had descended on the hills bringing down the visibility to barely 2 meters. Ganesh didn’t seem troubled by this at all and pretty much carried on driving in normal speed and soon we drove past a bend and the mist just vanished. Driving downhill was a pleasant experience as well with roads slicing through the canopy provided by trees and shrubs on either side. To catch our return flight we arrived at Coimbatore at 5 PM to bump into the indistinguishable rush of civilization(paradox intended) on the roads as we see in amchi Mumbai.

Munnar too is called the ‘Switzerland of India’. It is undeniably the most awesome place I have ever set my eyes on. Unending expanse of tea plantations – pristine valleys and mountains- exotic species of flora and fauna in its wild sanctuaries and forests – aroma of spice scented cool air – Yes! Munnar has all these and more. It’s the place you would love to visit – it’s the place you would wish never to leave. So folks, if you are planning out for a refreshing retreat then Munnar is all set to embrace you with its charm.

MUNNAR – Fact File

Altitude- 1600 Mts to 1800 Mts.

Temperature- Min. 0 c – Max. 25 c

Clothing- Warm Clothes and Rain Gear

Tourist Season – August to March.

Stay- Wide variety to choose from budget hotels to exclusive resorts.

Buy-The best things to buy are Tea, coffee and spices like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom and pepper.  Food & Drink- Besides a few exclusive restaurants housed in classy resorts the other popular vegetarian joints are: Saravana Bhavan  right at the heart of town is the most inexpensive places to eat. This place serves delicious south Indian dishes on a Banana leaf.  Mahavir Jain Restaurant serves  authentic North-Indian and Gujarati meals.

 

Ooty – Udagamandalam

P1050842Since my childhood I was always fascinated by train journeys. The sight of an engine pulling the coaches thrilled me. I was exhilarated by the mere thought of traveling by a toy train to the hills of Ooty! In fact we chose Ooty over other hill stations only to experience the famous Nilgiris mountain railway. This train journey was much more than just a mode of transport for me, as the journey through the scenic valley and hills made it awe-inspiring and brought back the memories of my carefree days. We were transported literally and figuratively to another world!

We flew down to Coimbatore and took a bus up to Mettupalayam, a small town at the foothills of the Blue Mountains. We were astonished when we learnt that the fare for a 5 hr train journey was just 25 rupees! Incredible isn’t it? With just 4-5 coaches, The Blue Mountain train was very narrow like our city bus as it runs on a narrow gauge line. It is the only rack railway in India which uses ratchet & pinion track, starting from Kallar, near Mettupalayam.It wends its way through many hair-raising curves and tunnels, chugging alongside deep ravines full of verdant vegetation, gurgling streams and tea plantations. We noticed a remarkable change in flora as one goes from Kallar to Coonoor. At Kallar it is tropical and at Burliar it is sub-tropical. Near Coonoor, it gets humid with pines, eucalyptus and cypress trees. Traveling from Ooty to Gudalur, the change is striking. What a splendid interaction between climate and vegetation!

At noon we arrived at one of the UNESCO world heritage sites…The quaint and clean Ooty Station. It was constructed by the British who came to explore these hills in the early 1800s. They constructed the first railway line in the area and made it the summer capital of the then Madras Presidency. Ooty is situated in Nilgiri Mountains near tri-junction of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala state. It is the only hill station in India which has built up fame as the ‘all-seasons-hill resort’. Ooty is at an altitude of 2240 metres, summer temperature is rarely higher than 25°c with a minimum of 10°c and winter is distinctly cooler with a high of 21°c and a low 5°c.

After a refreshing cup of Nilgiris tea, we strolled through the lush green well manicured lawns of the Botanical gardens. Encompassing exotic trees like the cork, paper bark, the ornamental monkey puzzle tree etc. it is enhanced by the distinctive presence of an Italian style garden and fern house with vast range of ferns & orchids. We were awed to see a 20 million years old fossilized tree trunk. The garden hosts a flower show every year in May. Being a paradise for bird watchers, variety of birds both seasonal and year-round residents were sighted. As we are ardent rose lovers, we dashed to the rose garden laid right in the heart of Ooty, with its largest collection of roses in India. With beautifully laid out terraces we saw hybrid tea roses, miniature roses and more than 2,500 varieties in unusual colors like black and green roses.

We booked ourselves for a conducted sight seeing tour arranged by the Government Tourism Development Corporation as they are reliable and economical than hiring a cab. Fully equipped with our cameras, raincoats, water bottles etc. the next morning we boarded one of the mini tourist buses for a sight seeing tour to Ooty and the neighboring hill station Coonoor. Accompanied by a hilarious guide who spoke English with a heavy Hindi accent, enacting the scenes from all the romantic bollywood movies shot at some of the spots, we had a ball of a time! Our driver first wheeled us to Ooty Lake, an artificial lake with a wide range of boats. For kids there were snack bars, pony rides and mini train rides. On our way to Coonoor, we stopped by Ketti – 2nd longest valley in the world offering enchanting views for miles extending to the plains of Coimbatore and Mysore plateau. From this spot we saw a cluster of tiny villages belonging to Badagas, one of the predominant hill tribes of this district. Speaking about the hill tribes, originally Ooty was inhabited by Todas, Irulas, Kurumbas, Panias and Badagas. Of these, the Todas, who are vegetarians, tall and fair, have dwindled in number. The Badagas, who speak a mixture of Kannada and Tamil are said to have migrated from Mysore about 400 years ago. The Panias and Irulas are confined to Mudumalai sanctuary. Though the Badagas were essentially agriculturists, like Todas they too are socially, educationally and even economically advanced now. As these tribal areas are hard to access we managed to meet only some Todas, in their own habitat with the help of a great auto driver, Mani. He was friendly and was very good at driving on the steep, curvaceous roads of Ooty. He took us to this tiny village inhabited by the Todas since centuries. We visited their temples, did photo sessions and had a nice chat with them which was a truly memorable experience.

After lunch we ascended to an elevation 2,623 mts, the highest point in Nilgiris, the Doddabetta. This mountain range which is the junction of the Eastern and Western Ghats was christened Neelagiri by its inhabitants 850 years ago, because of the blue haze of the clouds enveloping its slopes. Nilgiris is India’s first biosphere that has been declared as one of the 14 ‘hotspots’ of the world because of its biodiversity. At Doddabetta we could use a telescope for just 5 rupees but as there was a long queue and each one gets only a minute. I managed to get glimpses of an ancient church, a tribal village, the surrounding dense shoals and a panoramic view of the hills and plains.

Did I tell you that while on the road we drove through miles and miles of rolling hills of tea estates? You can also take an appointment at a tea estate and watch the entire process of tea brewing. We stopped by at one estate to taste some of their exotic varieties. I bought loads of it, cardamom tea, spice tea, orange flavored tea and even chocolate tea. And yes, lots of home made chocolates. Ooty is as famous for its tea and spices as its home made chocolates; chocolate fudge, white chocolate, strawberry chocolate, nuts & fruits chocolate and slabs of bitter chocolate.

The Nilgiris are a trekker’s delight landscaped by nature. Well equipped with trekking gears and ample time we have planned to come next summer as treks can be full of adventure and a way of seeing and enjoying nature in all its beauty and splendor. We found a base camp at Parsons valley, from where one can start to various points. Trekking pamphlets were available with the Nilgiris Wildlife and Environment Association (NWLEA). We met some guides who had sound knowledge of trekking in these areas. The Tourist Information Office at Charring Cross was quite helpful. For our next summer’s adventure we found out also about the hand-gliding courses organized by the Department of Tourism at Kalhatty hills. Taking off from this exhilarating point, one can fly over dense sholas, beautiful water falls and streams. For our friends interested in angling we found out that goad trout, carp and mixed water fishing is possible in various streams and lakes of Ooty. The Assistant Director of Fisheries issues the fishing license for it.

At dusk, we reached the Sim’s park at Coonoor’s gorgeous botanical garden full of ethnic trees, shrubs and creepers co-habiting with many unusual species of foliage brought in from various parts of the world. Queensland Karry pine, a handsome ornamental tree and Rudraksha- the bead tree were the main attractions for all of us. In summer tourists come to see the annual vegetable and fruit shows held here. We returned to our room thoroughly refreshed. For dinner we freaked out on the authentic south Indian hot dosas, vadas and sambar.

Next morning we woke up by the aroma of fresh coffee from the next room. After a sumptuous breakfast of toasts, cereals, fresh fruits and coffee, we set out to explore some water falls and Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary. As the bus stopped around a corner of a hill for us to get down and walk to the Pykara falls we could hear the sounds of cascading waters and gurgling streams which instantly soothed and mesmerized us. The lake surrounded by the Blue Mountains was extremely serene and boating on this lake was enchanting. To top it all we feasted on the hot roasted corn cobs while soaking in the drizzle and the mist surrounding us.

Next we drove to the most awaited part of the trip – the Madumalai Wildlife Sanctuary situated at an elevation of 1140 meters and spread over an area of 321 sq. kms. We were given a ride along the designated visitor’s route inside the jungle. We came across some spotted deer, a wild boar, some peacocks, bison and lots of monkeys. This ride was a bit disappointing as we had hoped to at least catch a glimpse some exotic animals. Suddenly there was commotion and we learnt that a leopard was spotted killing a deer. We hurriedly got down from the bus with our cameras and found the leopard sitting on a branch of a tree with its kill. This visual treat made the bumpy ride of 67 kms worth while. We reached Theppakadu elephant camp on time to watch elephants being fed big lumps of a mixture of rice & jaggery cubes. Thoroughly satisfied we returned to Ooty and crashed out in our room.

The last morning in Ooty we went on a shopping fiesta. We bought some aroma oils and spices, eucalyptus oil, honey, cinchona products. A must buy in Ooty is the handicrafts made by the Toda tribes. So I picked up the red, black and white Toda shawls and silver jewelry from the shops at Charring Cross. Bringing back the fun-filled memories of our enchanting voyage we concluded our journey by once again riding on our favorite Blue mountain train. How did I forget to the mention the endless cups of steaming masala teas we drank while munching on the cashews? Coming down hill it took just 3 ½ hours as compared to journey uphill that took 5 hours. By sundown we reached Mettupalayam well on time to catch our flight from Coimbatore to Mumbai.

Now as I sit in my balcony, sipping my cardamom tea brought from the Nilgiris, I reminisce the rolling grasslands, dense sholas, waterfalls, lakes, vast expanse of tea gardens, an amazing range of flora and fauna, spectacular view points, spell binding sunrises & sunsets, fabulous trekking trails, pollution free air, mist, clouds, star studded skies, serenity. Ooty presents a truly breathtaking kaleidoscope of visual treats and soul stirring experiences. We welcome you to go to the Nilgiris and discover it for yourself!

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FACT FILE:

> Getting there: The nearest airport is Coimbatore which is very well connected to the rest of India.

> Road Journey: From Coimbatore a good network of roads and national highways connect Ooty with all major cities. Driving distances: Ooty to Bombay- 1320 kms, Bangalore- 290 kms, Calicut- 178 kms, Coimbatore- 89 kms, Chennai- 535 kms, Mysore- 160 kms, Trivandrum- 498 kms,

> Train journey: Ooty is on the narrow gauge railway, connected to Mettupalayam (47 km). Train costs Rs. 25 per person and takes 5 hrs to go up and 3.5 hours to come down Mettupalayam is connected to Chennai by a nightly train (The Nilgiri Express).

>Accomodation; A wide range of hotels are available right from a bed in a dorm to luxury suite in a star hotel. Tariffs vary depending on the time of the year. Best hotel booking guides are available on the net.

Langkawi

Read a thousand words or view a hundred pictures, yet there will be no substitute to visiting Langkawi. We flew down from Singapore and landed on this beautiful green mountainous island, “The Langkawi Archipelago”, with 99 unspoiled islands of which only three are inhabited. An airport taxi drove us to our hotel located at the island’s longest and famous beach– Pantai Cenang. It’s packed with an assortment of bistros & cafes, souvenir shops and famous restaurants that transforms this area to a very lively place to hang out in the evenings.

beachAt the break of the day we walked to the beach just 50 yards away and spent four hours chilling out on the white sands and swimming in the emerald waters. The tranquil and sparkling beach with an overcast sky created a magic in the ambiance. After hours of floating on the water we explored for some underwater experience and arrived at the Underwater World, featuring more than 5,000 types of marine life, exhibited in more than 100 tanks of different sizes. The best one was a giant tank housing large species such as sharks, stingrays, groupers and green turtles. We could walk through a 15-metre tunnel to view the underwater gardens of weeds and sea plants together with exotic fish as well as exhibits of fossils and shells. It was an exceptional experience indeed!  

Next on our itinerary was the Oriental Village, a theme shopping centre housed in a couple of individually designed buildings showcasing Malaysian and Oriental architecture. This village offers a wide range of international designer labels and local products. The presence of a delightful tavern completes the village concept while cultural and theatre performances enhance the Oriental theme that encompasses the village. The Base Station for the cable car ride to Machincang mountain range is located here. We took off in a clear bubble shaped cable car ride up the valleys. I’d call it a 12 minutes heart-thumping and breathless ride. At the onset, the car leisurely and gradually ascended the slopes of the mountain but soon it climbed at a steep 45º. The ground suddenly seemed so far below while we cruised along in mid-air. It was a bit of a frightening experience, I actually broke into a cold sweat. Though thoughts of the car falling into the dense forest sneaked into my mind, I forcefully purged them out of my head! But before long, I was diverted by the mesmerizing views of the island and by the Seven Steps water falls against the forested backdrop in the 1,700 meters climb up. I was enthralled by the craftworks of nature fashioned by the granite protrusions on the mountain slopes. 

In a little while, the middle cable car station came at an elevation of 650m above sea level and we stepped out to visit a curved bridge suspended over a chasm. This suspension bridge is an engineering marvel; the view from here provides access to the eastern cliffs with its three vertical chimneys and beautiful 360-degree views. For the first time we were able to observe at close range the unique rock formations shaped 500 million years ago during the Cambrian period, in geological terms. After enjoying the awe-inspiring views we got back into the gondolas, which took us another 450 meters up to the Top Station. A short walk up the stairs took us to the two viewing platforms at the top of the mountain, the climax of the trip. We were amazed by the unfolding of some dramatic views from here. The unique and exciting features of Machincang, are the dominating rock tower peaks providing spectacular 360-degree panoramic views of the Langkawi islands, Kedah and Southern Thailand along with the dramatic views of the deep chasms, overhanging cliff walls, isolated pinnacles and some caves. Such nature monuments in this combination are seldom seen anywhere else other than in Langkawi. A cafe at the Top Station offers some spectacular views alluring visitors to enjoy Sunsets at 708m above sea-level. With its magical feel in the air where the mystique and legends lie, Panoramic Langkawi oozes with the beckoning of a dream island. The cable car ride is a memorable experience I recommend to all the visitors of Langkawi.

Langkawi is full of beautiful resorts, sun kissed beaches and luxurious spas to rejuvenate all visitors. Promoting Langkawi as a green holiday destination, the government discourages visitors from bringing their own cars and vehicles to control pollution and traffic congestion. Hiring cabs is the norm here. For those who prefer to do self driving, the alternative is to rent cars which are easily available either at the airport or at Kuah town and cost around RM 80 to 120 per day. Motorcycles can be rented for RM 20-30 per day. The extensive network of good roads provides easy accessibility to every part of the main island. But we heard that driving in Langkawi can be dangerous, not because of traffic but due to wandering water buffaloes and cows therefore one has to be particularly careful at night.

Langkawi also boasts of the existence of various legends and myths. Well known among them is the legend of Mahsuri.  It is believed that Mahsuri,  a young woman who lived about 200 years ago in the island of Langkawi, was accused of adultery and executed by stabbing. With her dying breath, she cursed Langkawi to have seven generations of bad luck. People here believe that only after seven generations the islands of Langkawi began to flourish after suffering several invasions and natural calamities. Her tomb, Makam Mahsuri, in Langkawi, has become a tourist attraction on the island in the cultural village that also showcases traditional Malay houses, music and handicrafts.

How could we ignore Kuah, the capital of Langkawi that has grown from a quiet little town to a city with beautiful shopping malls since Langkawi was given duty free status. Almost every shop is filled with tax free products like cigarettes, cigars, clothes, electronic equipments and liquor. Wandering around, we reached the Kuah jetty, the landing point for visitors arriving by sea. A few minutes away, is the Dataran Lang (Eagle Square), Langkawi’s most prominent landmark, where a magnificent statue of a reddish brown eagle majestically sits. According to local folklore, Langkawi derived its name from the eagle or “helang”. In old Malay, “kawi” denotes reddish brown, hence, Langkawi means reddish brown eagle! This Eagle square is delightfully landscaped featuring scenic ponds, bridges, covered terraces and restaurants. We were very fortunate to be at this point just before sundown to get stunning pictures and to enjoy the spectacular coastal seascape. The square is brilliantly illuminated at night and presents a dramatic scene. In fact, the majestic eagle is strategically positioned to welcome visitors to Langkawi.
Can a visit to Langkawi Island be complete without a trip to its marine park? The famous Pulau Payar Marine Park is situated in the northern part of the Straits of Malacca, 19 nautical miles south of Langkawi. These islands are enclosed by coral reefs that support the healthy existence of the marine environment. The calm and clear waters with an average visibility of between 30 to 50 feet make these islands a very attractive destination for swimming, diving and snorkeling. For the divers, the marine park offers a variety of diving conditions; one can chose between the flat terrain to the east of Pulau Payar or plunge the steep slope to the west and around Pulau Segantang. There is an underwater observatory for those who do not wish to get wet. I strongly suggest that one must keep at least a day for snorkeling and observing the underwater world.  

Langkawi not only offers feast for the eyes but for the tongue as well. Tourists get to savor varieties of food ranging from Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai or Western but best part is in Langkawi, one gets to enjoy some superb beachfront dining experiences whilst watching the dazzling sunsets. A visit to any destination is incomplete without shopping for some souvenirs. Langkawi is a shopper’s paradise with a wide range of local as well as imported goods. Most of the island’s shopping establishments can be found in Kuah, the main town of Langkawi. The choices for shoppers include items such as pewter, batik, crystals, glassware, silk fabrics, perfumes and liquor.

Going on island cruises is a great way to unwind and capture the breathtaking scenery of Langkawi as your boat weaves through the watery passageways between the islands. As a natural paradise, these islands are perhaps unmatched anywhere else in Southeast Asia. With a geological history dating back 500 million odd years, the islands contain unique rock formations that swirl the imagination and mystify the mind. Numerous caves, with their stunning stalactites and stalagmites, taunt the adventurous to unravel their ancient secrets.  At the end of four sun-filled days on the white mesmerizing beaches of Langkawi, it was time to pack our bags for our next destination Penang. The cool way to get across to Penang is undeniably the Langkawi ferry which facilitates in indulging in the last glimpses of this entrancing island while sailing away with a deep desire to return someday.

 Fact File:

Getting there :

  • From many Indian cities various airlines fly daily to Kuala Lumpur.
  • From Kuala Lumpur Langkawi can be reached by flight, by train, by road as well as by ferry

 

Accommodation

Langkawi offers a large selection of accommodation from Budget Hostels to Five star Hotels to suit all budget types.

 

Melaka – Malaysia

08032017Melaka

The city of Melaka is divided into the new and old sections. The older part of the city is fairly compact and has many historical and cultural attractions tucked into the nooks and crannies of its narrow streets.

Most of the remnants of Melaka’s glorious past lie within the Town Square and waterfront area near the river.

Just above the Town Square is St. Paul’s Hill (Bukit St. Paul) which is the site of the original Portuguese fort of A’Famosa and St. Paul’s Church.

There is a sign-posted heritage trail which visitors can follow to visit all the historical places in the old part of town. The new section of Melaka lies across the Melaka River and is mostly built on land reclaimed from the sea. It consists of modern shopping centres like the Mahkota Parade and is a bustling food and entertainment district.

Outside Melaka town, there are a some nice beaches, two excellent offshore islands with resorts and a golf course. The Air Keroh district is close to the North-South Expressway and has many recreational theme parks.

Perched midway in the Straits of Melaka, is a state that is abundantly rich, not just in natural resources but also history and folklore. Melaka is where it all began.

Founded by Parameswara in 1396 who named his sultanate after the “Melaka” tree, Melaka has provided the stage on which the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English played their roles in shaping history.

Today, Melaka posesses a charm that is all its own. Hail a trishaw for a ride along little streets that wind through a colourful mishmash of architectural styles. Cruise along Melaka river, then walk along hillocks that have tales to tell, of warware and treachery, romance and heartbreak.

Its historical influences have bequeathed Melaka with a delightful mixture of people and cultures, all of whom contribute to the charm of this city. Melaka is also a treasure trove of activities and nature pursuits. Those seeking quality healthcare or education can also rely on Melaka’s excellent facilities. And as a MICE destination, this historical city is without a doubt unbeatable.

When Penang was known only for its oysters and Singapore was just a fishing village, MELAKA had already achieved worldwide fame. Under the auspices of the Melaka Sultanate, founded in the early fifteenth century, political and cultural life flourished, helping to define what it means to be Malay. The town grew rich by trading spices from the Moluccas in the Indonesian archipelago and textiles from Gujarat in northwest India. A levy on all imported goods made it one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world and it gradually expanded its territory to include Singapore and most of east-coast Sumatra. Yet, beginning in 1511, a series of takeovers and botched administrations by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, caused the subjugation of the Malay people; Melaka’s modern-day authorities are still working towards reversing the city’s decline.

Legacies of all phases of Melaka’s past remain in the city, constituting the main tourist sights. Of these, the most interesting are the ancestral homes of the Baba-Nonya community, a new racial mix also known as Peranakan that evolved from the sixteenth-century Chinese merchants who settled here and married Malay women. For a one-stop introduction to the city’s history, watch the English-language Sound and Light Show on Padang Pahlawan (daily 8.30pm; 1hr; RM10)

The Stadthuys (1650) was the official residence of the Dutch Governor. It now houses the Historic Museum and Ethnography Museum which has many traditional bridal costumes and relics on display. Nearby, one will also find the Christ Church built in 1753, another fine example of the Dutch architecture.

The Stadthuys

Situated in Melaka city.

The Dutch Square is famous for its red-painted buildings. It has a display of many unique Dutch mansonry and architectural skills. The Stadthuys, in the Dutch Square, was built in 1650, it is a typical Dutch building with a clock tower. It was once an official home to the Dutch Governors. It has been preserved in its original Dutch architectural form. It is also a historic museum and houses some interesting display of traditional bridal costumes and relics, and others. There are within the square, the Queen Victoria’s fountain built in 1901 and Melaka Clock Tower built in 1886.

Infocraft Centre

Infocraft Melaka is the handicraft promotion centre where quality products such as batik, canes, bamboo, ceramics and other wares are carefully selected as exhibits based on workmanship and design. Made by local craftsmen, the products can be purchased as souvenirs. The centre also has an archive corner to enlighten visitors on the subject local handicraft.

Jonker Street

A definite haven for antique collectors and bargain hunters. Authentic artifacts and relics. some dating as far back as 300 years, can be found among a host of interesting collectibles, each with its own history and mystery. Jalan Hang Jebat, formerly known as Jonker Street, is known worldwide among famous antique collectors as one of the best places to hunt and bargain for antiques.

Maritime Museum

The Museum is constructed after ‘Flor De La Mar’, the Portuguese ship that sand off the coast of Melaka on its way to Portugal. With its hull laden with invaluable treasures seized from Malacca, the ship was doomed from existence had it not for the efforts to revive its symbolic significance to Melaka’s heritage.At the museum, visitors can get a closer look at Melaka from the famed Malay Sultanate of the 14th century to the Portuguese era, the Dutch era and the British era. There are exhibits of foreign ships that had once called at the port of Melaka during the height of its maritime hegemony.

St. Francis Xavier’s Church

St. Francis Xavier, the great missionary to the East, arrived in Malacca in 1545 and served the sick and the children there. He left shortly afterwards, but came back to the town in 1547, when a military victory was attributed to him. He travelled to many countries and stopped by Malacca whenever he was around the region. His fame spread far throughout Asia.

In 1574, the saint died in a ship before he could reach China, a place that he was anxious to Christianize. People found his body perfectly incorrupt, and sailed it to Malacca. People in Malacca were in deep mourning at the funeral. On the day of the funeral, the saint, after his life on earth, performed a miracle and stopped a plague that had been causing many deaths every day.

The body of St. Francis Xavier was later shipped to Goa in India, after parts of the relics were stolen or taken by different people. Today, most of his remains still rests in the Basilica of Bom-Jesus in Old Goa. He is the patron of the Indies and is called “the apostle of the East”.

The present St. Francis Xavier Church was completed in 1856.

St. Francis Xavier’s Church

Perched midway in the Straits of Melaka, is a state that is abundantly rich, not just in natural resources but also history and folklore. Melaka is where it all began.

Founded by Parameswara in 1396 who named his sultanate after the “Melaka” tree, Melaka has provided the stage on which the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English played their roles in shaping history.

Today, Melaka posesses a charm that is all its own. Hail a trishaw for a ride along little streets that wind through a colourful mishmash of architectural styles. Cruise along Melaka river, then walk along hillocks that have tales to tell, of warware and treachery, romance and heartbreak.

Its historical influences have bequeathed Melaka with a delightful mixture of people and cultures, all of whom contribute to the charm of this city. Melaka is also a treasure trove of activities and nature pursuits. Those seeking quality healthcare or education can also rely on Melaka’s excellent facilities. And as a MICE destination, this historical city is without a doubt unbeatable.

GENTING

2,000 meters above sea level, Genting Highlands, a magnificent city on the hilltop, is but a mere 50km from Kuala Lumpur. It offers a cool respite from the hustle and bustle of the city capital. Crisp invigorating mountain air complemented by majestic scenery spreads out before your eyes. Lush green tropical rainforest shrouded in a veil of perpetual mist makes it hard to believe that you are just minutes away from the sweltering equatorial heat and the ever dusty city. Here, consistent temperatures between 16 and 23 degrees provide natural air conditioning.

Genting Highlands Resort offers the bountiful harvest of nature together with a staggering potpourri of international standard facilities. Besides the cool air and scenic surroundings, this hilltop city also houses the country’s one and only casino. However, one should not underestimate its value as this casino has been featured in many films produced by Hong Kong, Taiwan, and even Hollywood. Besides the casino, this hilltop resort also has a theme park of its own and an entertainment center.

Casino de Genting

Malaysia’s very own gaming paradise is one of the leading and more famous casinos. It boasts of the latest modern gaming facilities. In successfully courting lady luck, many a winner has walked away with broad smiles on their faces (despite the fact that many Chinese believe its building structure, which is rumored to symbolize that of a coffin, carries bad luck).

A staggering choice of slot machines and table games beckon the strong hearted. Those who prefer a little exclusivity can become members of the International Room and enjoy the privilege of gaming in privacy and plush surroundings. Special guests of the casino are treated to the VIP room.

Frills and Thrills on the Hills

A fantasyland of wild and thrilling adventure awaits the bold at both the indoor and outdoor Theme Park. There are seemingly endless choices of amusements to entertain people of all ages. In the wild outdoors, whoosh down a roller-coaster perched at the edge of the mountain! Dive, plunge, and escalate on the Corkscrew. Take the tranquil Boat Ride, Monorail, Skyway, Main Train and Antique Cars around the man-made lake and enjoy the ingenious landscaping. Adventure through the Jurassic age in the Land of That Time Forgot, speed around the Grand Prix Circuit, venture into the Pirate Train, and try the many, many other attractions…

Genting Theater Restaurant

Treat yourself to international shows from all over the world at the Genting Theater Restaurant. Enjoy a scrumptious dinner while feasting your eyes on pretty dancers from Las Vegas, mysterious magicians, and world famous singers. Party goers can boogie all night long at the Big Rock Disco Café.

Golf and Horse Riding

For the avid golfer, the cool air pushes you further to accept the challenge of finishing the course. Many pleasant alternatives such as horse riding and trekking also beckons to those who wish to soak in the wealth of the tropical rainforest.

Genting Highlands

Genting Highlands, only fifty kilometers (less than an hour) from Kuala Lumpur, is the most developed hill resort in Malaysia. At 2,000 meters above sea level, it offers a cool respite from Malaysia’s capital city combined with all of the excitement, luxury, and entertainment of an international resort destination. In fact, many Malaysian people head for Genting Highlands specifically for its nightlife. There are international dinner shows and discos, while the world-class Casino de Genting offers Blackjack, Baccarat, Keno, French Bull, Roulette, Tai Sai and slot machines.

The resort also includes two theme parks, both with dozens of amusement rides and attractions suitable for the entire family. In addition, the Awana horse ranch offers equestrian activities, rides for children and lessons for beginners. For golfers, the Awana Golf and Country Resort offers a challenging 18-hole, par-71 golf course.

Accommodation includes the Genting Hotel, the Theme Park Hotel, the Resort Hotel, and the Awana Golf and Country Resort.

Getting to Genting

By Car: Genting Highlands can be reached from Kuala Lumpur via the faster Karak Highway or the slower old Pahang Road (Route 68). The latter passes by Mimaland, which may be a good place to stop by before proceeding to Genting Highlands.
By Bus: The Genting Express Bus leaves every hour from the Puduraya Bus Station in Kuala Lumpur. Genting also offers limousines, coaches and helicopter services for charter.

Genting Highlands is in Pahang, Peninsular Malaysia.

[edit] Understand

A self-proclaimed City of Entertainment, Genting is as close to Las Vegas as it gets in Malaysia – which isn’t actually all that close. The primary draw is that Genting is the only place where you can gamble legally in Malaysia, but there’s also a theme park to keep the kids amused. As a plus, being located up in the highlands means it’s cooler than the steamy lowlands.

[edit] Get in

Genting Highlands is 40 minutes from Kuala Lumpur on the Karak Highway There are frequent buses from Puduraya bus terminal and KL Sentral train station (RM7.30-7.50 [approx. USD$2] ), including a ride on the Skyway gondola. For details, check Genting Getting There, [1].

[edit] See & Do

  • Casino de Genting, [2]. The only legal casino in all Malaysia, offering all the usual games plus a selection of Chinese favorites. Open 24 hours daily, but you must be at least 21 and not a Muslim. A dress code also applies, prohibiting T-shirts, shorts and sandals.

  • Genting Theme Park, [3].

[edit] Buy

  • First World Plaza, in First World Hotel, [4]. Malaysia’s self-proclaimed highest shopping mall, divided into six kitschy themed zones from Malaysia to Switzerland and with an indoor theme park to boot.

[edit] Eat

Local as well as western cuisine and fast food. A wide variety is available but prices tend to be somewhat higher than even major cities like Kuala Lumpur. Most are ‘halal’ to cater for the large number of muslim visitors and natives.

[edit] Drink

There are several cafes such as Starbucks Coffee and Coffee Beans & Tea Leaf available in Genting Highlands.

[edit] Sleep

With 10000 rooms to choose from, there are usually plenty of beds at Genting. However, demand is highly seasonal and the hotels fill up fast in November and December, when additional surcharges may also be levied.

  • Theme Park Hotel, [5]. Over-the-top French-themed castle-village-hotel notionally modeled on the 16th-century village of Colmar in Alsace, France, complete with drawbridge. It stands 2,600 feet above sea level on 80 acres of natural forestland.

  • First World Hotel, [6]. This three-star monolith with the gaudy exterior paint is the biggest in the entire world (as certified by Guinness World Records), with 6300 rooms in two towers. A self-contained StarWorld Casino, with no direct connection to the original one, is located here. Rack rates from RM240 for two although rooms are smaller than you would expect from a similar class standard hotel.

  • Genting Hotel, [7]. One of the earliest to open in the Highlands, this 5-star hotel offers a wide range of entertainment and recreational facilities such as heated indoor swimming pool, 10 restaurants (including the award-winning The Olive), and a large karaoke center. Rates from RM235 nett (low season).

  • Highlands Hotel, [8]. The Highlands Hotel,located adjacent to the Genting Hotel, boasts over 932 exquisite rooms, impeccable service, fine food and entertainment that is bound to make your stay more pleasurable. Members & Invited guests only.

  • Resort Hotel, [9]. The Resort is a four-star hotel adjacent to the Genting Hotel with its own section of the Casino and three F&B outlets. Standard low season rates from RM160 ne

Memorable Malyasia

togetherLooking for a glorious locale comprising of island life, adventures, city excitements, mix of oriental cultures and heritage for an inspiring holiday? Explore Malaysia ! A land of intriguing extremes, where towering skyscrapers flank primitive longhouses, a pluralist culture based on a vibrant fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian natives. Malaysia also offers tropical rainforests, great beaches and scuba diving spots, making it a cool Island getaway!

Just 10 days in hand & thrilled hearts we disembarked at Kuala Lumpur International airport, 50 km away form KL city. An express train took us from airport to KL Central in 28 min to be welcomed by our lovely friend drove us to his home. First day in KL, we walked along a Heritage Site trail which led us to some fascinating old historic buildings. What impressed me most was though KL is a modern Asian city of gleaming skyscrapers; it has retained much of the local color that has been wiped out in other Asian boom-cities like Singapore .

We saw many colonial buildings, the classic Moorish-style old Railway station, Masjid Jamek mosque, the vibrant Chinatown, bustling Little India and the magnificent Petronas Twin Towers . At 1,483 ft high, once the tallest towers in the world, these are now second only to the newly built Taipei 101 building. Distinctively linked through a sky bridge from where we got an excellent birds-eye view of the Kuala Lumpur city.

We enjoyed the evening promenades at the 50 acres KLCC Park located adjacent to the towers and indulged in shopping at Suria KLCC’s arcade inside the towers. Another striking structure within KL’s skyline is the 421m KL Tower, popular as Menara Kuala Lumpur. Ranking fourth amongst the world’s tallest telecommunications towers, it is designed to endure wind pressures up to 90mph. This tower appears to be taller than the Petronas Towers , as it is on a hill. We got a brilliant night view of KL from its observation deck. To top it all we had burgers from the highest McDonald’s in the World housed in the Minara!

I noticed KL is not quite a pedestrian friendly city due to heavy traffic and fewer pedestrian crossings. Walking at Chinatown was ok but long distances are tough as we were asked to watch out for pickpockets everywhere. But the upside is taxicabs are not expensive in KL, so are the best way to get around. We used the monorail extensively which spans around the city centre to find our way around.

For a respite from the heat of KL we drove 50km away to 2000m high Genting Highlands for a day’s trip. As we took a ride on the Skyway gondola, crisp vitalizing mountain air complemented by awe-inspiring scenery spread out before our eyes. Lush green tropical rainforest shrouded in a veil of mist made it hard to believe that we were just minutes away from the sweltering equatorial heat of KL.

Most go to Genting to gamble as it is the only legal gambling place in Malaysia . We went to the amusement park offering endless choices of rides of which the most thrilling one was the whoosh down roller-coaster perched at the edge of the mountain! Really electrifying! There were boating and horse rides as well but we spent time trekking in the forest area.

At lunch time we found a large variety of fast foods, local as well as western cuisine though the prices were much higher than KL we feasted to our hearts’ content. We spent the afternoon in Malaysia ’s highest shopping mall, The First World Plaza, in First World Hotel, that is divided into six themed zones from Malaysia to Switzerland and with an indoor theme park. Thoroughly refreshed we were back home in KL by night.

Next day we headed to explore Melaka. Driving through the narrow streets of old Melaka we savored its historical and cultural attractions tucked into the nooks & crannies. We hailed a trishaw, (like our cycle rickshaw but lot more colorful) for a fun ride along tiny streets winding through a colorful mishmash of architectural styles. We strode along Melaka River to see the maritime Museum, constructed after ‘Flor De La Mar’, the Portuguese ship that sand off the coast of Melaka on its way to Portugal .

Most of the remnants of Melaka’s glorious past lie in the Town square. From here we caught a glimpse of the Portuguese fort of A’Famosa .The spot where most pictures were taken by us was the striking Dutch Square , full of red buildings displaying unique Dutch masonry and architectural skills. One of them is the Stadthuys, a typical Dutch building with a clock tower; once a home to the Dutch Governors, now houses the Historic and Ethnography Museum displaying traditional bridal costumes and relics.

Within the square stands Queen Victoria ’s fountain and Melaka Clock Tower. Its historical influences have bequeathed Melaka with a delightful mixture of people and cultures contributing to the charm of this city To catch up with some shopping, we strolled into Infocraft Melaka, the handicraft centre selling batik, canes & bamboo products and ceramics. The memorable part was the trip to Jonker Street where we found authentic artifacts and relics, few dating as far back as 300 years, among many interesting collectibles, each with its own history and mystery.

As grand finale to our holiday we checked in to the luxurious Legend Water Chalet, in the beach town of Port Dickson . Our exquisite cottage, built on stilts in the sea with transparent glass floors displayed the seawater and the fishes. Amazing ! Popularly known as PD, Port Dickson is synonymous with sun & fun on the beach.
We lunched near the famous Blue Lagoon, an excellent spot for sports like water-skiing,
canoeing, snorkeling and wind surfing. At dusk it was fun to just grab a coconut,
relax and enjoy the pounding of the waves on the white sandy beaches, making plans
for our next holiday in Penang and Langkawi.
So as we say in Malay “JUMPA LAGI”

 

Sensational Sydney!

After a Marvelous vacation in Melbourne we landed in a city consistently voted the world’s best by most travelers – the syd2 We were picked up from the airport by our very dear friends who hosted us during our entire stay.

Associates of mine who had earlier visited Sydney had declared that this city has everything one would expect of a world-class city – full of world-renowned icons, internationally-acclaimed art performances, stylish restaurants, an effervescent night scene, chic shopping, unique landmark architecture, posh hotels and a vibrant beach culture! We set out early next morning to explore Sydney with a discerning eye to compare it with other famous cities of the world to test out our friend’s claims. The first thing that caught my eyes was the Australia’s tallest structure – the Sydney Tower. Sydney Tower took us to the highest point above Sydney for breathtaking 360° views of the beautiful harbour city. As we got a clear day we could see everything from the golden beaches to the distant Blue Mountains! But this was just the beginning as wherever we looked there was something to see and discover at Sydney Tower. Our ticket to the top included Oz Trek, an amazing virtual reality ride across Australia with 3D holographic technology, 180-degree cinema screens, surround sound and heart-stopping real-motion seating! We were soaring above Sydney’s icons, gliding effortlessly over the Bridge, Opera House and the warm sands of Bondi beach. We could upgrade our Tower ticket to include Skywalk – Sydney’s highest outdoor adventure. Skywalk is an exhilarating walk on top of Sydney Tower, 260 metres above the harbour city – more than double the height of the Harbour Bridge! Expert guides were providing fascinating insights about Sydney as we effortlessly traversed outdoor walkways and overhanging glass platforms. After this exhilarating experience we wandered towards the CBD and turned up at the Australia’s best shopping arcades, lavish department stores and some fine restaurants. The sight of the restaurants rang the lunchtime bell in our bellies and we stopped at the Pitt Street Mall for some impromptu lunch.  Those with ample time to spare for a relaxed lunch get to select from a range of international cuisine on offer at restaurants below the MLC Centre, Pitt Street Mall and opposite Sydney Town Hall as well.

One of the things that I liked about Sydney was that most of the attractions, restaurants and beaches one wants to visit, hug the shoreline of Sydney Harbor. The city fans out from the focal point of Circular Quay. This transport hub is within walking distance of the city’s star attractions – the Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House. Around sundown, walking around the  sparkling waters of Sydney Harbour we reached the iconic architectural jewel of this city – Sydney Opera House, the edifice that use to appear in my mind each time I thought of Sydney. This gorgeous architectural feat is now not only one of the most recognised buildings in the world but also one of the world’s busiest performing arts centres. One must watch a ballet or an opera at this Opera House and do a backstage tour that includes an insider’s view of the Concert Hall, the stars’ dressing rooms. If time permits one may enjoy lunch or dinner at the outdoor Opera Bar, perfect for a sublime Sydney experience of harbour views, city skyline and delicious food. Moreover, if in a mood to splurge, one can dine luxuriously beneath the ivory sails at the elegant Guillaume at Bennelong where modern Australian cuisine is served with a touch of classical French style. To prolong the indulgence one may choose to Shop for international designer labels at brand boutiques along Elizabeth and Castlereagh streets or pop into the stylish David Jones or Myer Sydney department stores for the latest in Australian and international fashion.

 

To capture the best images of the Opera House, we hopped on the Manly ferry from Circular Quay and enjoyed cruising around the Darling Harbour. Later in the afternoon we strolled past the Opera House to the Royal Botanic Gardens, full of exotic plants  and through Hyde Park lined with fig trees. The joy ride on a monorail for an overview of Darling Harbour was thrilling event of the evening.

 

Each time we caught a glimpse of the harbor we were drawn to it like a magnet. A lively waterfront precinct, Darling Harbour throbs with activity 24 hours. The area adjacent to the harbor is a joy to walk around with landscaped paths linking interesting places like the Sydney Aquarium, containing a massive 2.6-million-liter Great Barrier Reef exhibit and the Australian National Maritime Museum that has historic ships. We came across a plethora of waterfront promenades with alfresco cafés and sleek dining lounges. Across the water we could see the Harbour side Shopping Centre, a dynamic mix of shops and eateries.

My favorite hangout was the architecturally splendid Queen Victoria Building (QVB) with over 180 of Sydney’s finest shops, cafes and restaurants. On the first look, this grand building appeared like a Cathedral from outside . We were spell bound on entering the Grand Walk on the ground floor, with beautiful tiled arches and galleries overhead, featuring renowned shops and coffee bars. The ornate galleries of on level one houses speciality boutiques selling international and Australian designs, jewellery boutiques and cafés. The second floor sits under the glass barrelled roof with an amazing array of antique, art, duty free, opal, Australian craft shops. One must not miss the absolutely attractive Royal Clock, a unique, 6 metres long clock built in the shape of Castle by the Queen’s clockmaker of ‘Big Ben’ in London. Next, the Victoria Walk has a wax model of Queen Victoria dressed in full coronation regalia and sitting on an Ornate Chair. Copies of Royal paintings as well as a handwritten letter by Queen Elizabeth to the people of Sydney are also on display. A few steps away is the life size Jade Wedding Carriage – over 1 ton of intricately carved jade, the only one of its kind in the world, two life like models wearing traditional Chinese wedding robes, dated 1840 – of the Ching Dynasty.

It’s easy to get around downtown Sydney on foot. Public buses, monorails, ferries and trains offer convenient and affordable transportation to almost every other place.  Sydney’s yellow and green public ferries  are by far the most scenic and often the most convenient way to get between downtown and shores of Sydney Harbor such as Manly or Sydney Olympic Park. In downtown Sydney, all ferries depart from wharves on Circular Quay. Using a rental car to get around is a possibility but not recommended as street parking is hard to come by and rates at public lots can be expensive.

Once again if one is on a long vacation in Sydney. there’s no shortage of active pursuits for any age group. It’s an outdoor city at heart with beautiful weather and a harbor as its best assets. One can stroll though Sydney’s pedestrian arcades and gardens, sail or cruise around the harbor, relax on the beach. The more adventurous ones can try jet-boating, surfing or climbing to the top of the Sydney Bridge or Sydney Tower. For new experiences on the water, one must try sailing by Sail  or jet-boating with Sydney Jet.

When I looked at the Sydney Harbour Bridge from a distance it reminded me of an old coat hanger, although I’ve memories of its spectacular New Years’ Eve fireworks on the TV. Sydney offers an opportunity to do the Bridge Climb and the Discovery Climb. The Discovery Climb gives an insider’s view of the structure of the bridge as one climbs one’s way to the summit. But we found it ridiculously priced around $200+ and time consuming as it takes 4 hours. Instead from the nearby Circular Quay, we caught a Rivercat boat, that passes directly beneath this elegant structure and loved the experience.

Sydney is not just all about multi-ethnic city life. Many tourists venture out and discover the treasure trove of Sydney’s beautiful countryside that is just a short drive from the city centre. One among these is Manly, located on the northeastern shore of Sydney Harbor. The suburb of Manly has the feel of a seaside resort town, although it’s only seven miles from downtown. The ferry ride across the harbor from Circular Quay is more than worth the fare.

 

Our favorite was the Blue Mountains, famous for its one million hectares of World Heritage-listed landscape just 90 minutes’ drive from Sydney. I can never forget the refreshing and the rejuvenating blue-hazed hills with dramatic cliffs and deep canyons of the Blue Mountains.

Not only is the bushwalking in its wilderness offers a great experience, but we could see that the region is also famous for its heritage guesthouses and luxurious resorts offering spas and nature therapies. We had just enough time to enjoy a great coffee at one of the cozy cafés near  Katoomba’s Scenic Skywalk, a glass-bottomed carriage that glides 270 m above the valley and watched, The Zig Zag Railway, the vintage steam train that runs from Bell to Lithgow.

 

There’s so much to see and do in the city and the surrounding areas that most visitors  spend at least two weeks. One hour’s drive south of Sydney took us to Wollongong and a ribbon of beautiful beaches  famous for its great surfing and Sea Cliff Bridge . The small coastal villages around Wollongong have numerous excellent surfing beaches. The drive was scenic on the Grand Pacific Drive and also the walk around Mt Keira on a 5.5-km trail that passes through rainforest and eucalypt forest was absolutely refreshing. We paused to get a fabulous panoramic view from Bald Hill but the most thrilling experience of the day was the walk over the Sea Cliff Bridge.

How could I miss the Nan Tien Temple at Wollongong, the largest Buddhist temple in the southern hemisphere. A dear friend of mine drove us about 80 km south of Sydney to this temple which is also one of Wollongong’s major tourist attractions that conducts regular weekend retreats for visitors interested in Buddhism. It’s has a very serene, calm and mystical ambiance. We relished the Buddhist vegetarian lunch served there which is almost impossible to get any where in the city.  Very appropriately the temple has been named Nan Tien in Chinese, meaning the “southern paradise”.

Plan & Get the best:

Located “Down Under” the equator in the Southern Hemisphere, Sydney’s seasons run the opposite India’s. Summer (December through March) is the warmest time of the year. The spring (September to December) is both drier and sunnier  than the summer and fall. Winter (June to September) is the coolest time of year. To add some additional value to one’s visit one can plan during some popular festivals like the Sydney Festival in January, Sydney Mardi Gras in February and March, Sydney Royal Easter Show in April, the Sydney Film Festival in June, Sculpture by the Sea in November and famed New Year’s Eve. Close to Opera House is the free Museum of Contemporary Art, which features a number of Aboriginal art collections. Art lovers can also check out the, Australian Museum, which showcases important Australian archeological and anthropological artifacts.

Cost-effective Tips:

Discounted combination tickets can be bought if one plans to see two or more of attractions like the Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Wildlife World, Sydney Tower and Oz Trek.  Another concessional card, the Smart Visit card, entitles one to free admission or discounts at more than 40 popular attractions. Cards are good for one to seven days and cover Sydney public transportation as well. It’s a good idea to book tickets at a discount for the Sydney Opera house tour and the Sydney aquarium.