Weekend indulgence at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai

Pool at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel in Colaba district

I have been a member of the Taj Innercircle programme (https://tap.tajhotels.com/reward-programmes/taj-advantage-plus/taplogin.html) since the past decade and every year, Laveena and I make it a point to cash in with our free night stay coupon as it makes the already rich and rewarding programme, even more worth it. Indeed it helps being a travel writer and knowing some high up people at the hotel, as the networking results in room upgrades and with the upgrade comes the palace lounge access available to all Taj club and suite guests.

Last weekend, Laveena and I returned to our favourite city hotel, the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai. It was the long weekend and while many of our friends darted off to some exotic overseas location, we decided to skip the drive to the airport, the check in, the wait for our flight and the flying itself and instead chose to have a luxury holiday in our home city. Since I had an Amex Platinum Taj reward voucher, we booked for two nights and were upgraded to a fabulous suite for the weekend by Genevieve D’Cunha, who heads the Innercircle programme and is a very dear friend.

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Dining_Wasabi

SM_LM_1The first evening, Laveena and I visited the Palace lounge for cocktails. After interacting with a few guests and engaging in pleasant conversation, we headed to Wasabi and treated ourselves to Chef Morimoto’s signature dishes, the finest Chilean Sea Bass and our favourite Black Cod. At 10 pm, we walked to the lounge for cognac and chocolates and met with a couple from North Carolina who shared with us stories of their experience in our crazily chaotic yet fascinating maximum city of Mumbai. Ed and Ellena had done the ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ tour, earlier in the day and they said that they absolutely loved it. They said they were mesmerised by the vibrant colours, the cacophony of strange sounds (we guessed that these would have to be the blaring car horns) and the mystical smells of Mumbai, home to over 20 million people.

Taj_image4The next morning, breakfast at the Sea lounge was fantastic. The restaurant manager Pradeep, recommended we skip the orange juice and instead settle for a beetroot, carrot, lime and ginger mix to help revitalise our bodies. He also recommended we try the kheema (minced mutton) with soft pau (bread lightly fried in a buttered pan), with green chillies and onions. view from the Sea LoungeNot a conventional breakfast, but with the Gateway of India serving as a backdrop and the bobbing sails of boats in the harbour, we relished and savoured every bite of our breakfast which was accompanied with freshly brewed medium roast whole bean coffee. When returning to our room, we found ourselves in the elevator with Maestro Zubin Mehta and his lovely wife Nancy. He Jivahad just checked in and we decided not to bother him for a photograph. We wished him a happy 80th birthday and said that we looked forward to his concert on Wednesday. Later that day we had a couples aroma massage at the Jiva spa. After a swim and a hot shower, we were treated to a 90 minute massage, the expert hands of our therapists, kneading away at our fatigued muscles with just the right amount of tender pressure; their hands softened with the fragrance of oils which smelled of lavender and jasmine. 

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Taj_image3I couldn’t help but think how special it felt to admire the city we were born in, through the eyes of a tourist. So many facts we take for granted, we begin to marvel at when we role play and pretend to be visitors in Mumbai. The Taj history tour we did at 5, was a fascinating walk through the corridors of the past. We were told that the seven islands that came to constitute Mumbai, for centuries were home to communities of fishing colonies.  Mumbai was ceded to the Portuguese and subsequently to the British East India Company when in 1661 King Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. Catherine was born into the House of Braganza, the most senior noble house of Portugal, which became Portugal’s royal house after Catherine’s father, John, 8th Duke of Braganza, was proclaimed King John IV after deposing the House of Habsburg in 1640. As part of Catherine’s dowry, Charles received the ports of Tangier and seven islands of Bombay. MumbaiDuring the mid-18th century, Bombay was reshaped by the Hornby Vellard project, which undertook reclamation of the area between the seven islands from the sea. Along with construction of major roads and railways, the reclamation project, completed in 1845, transformed Bombay into a major seaport on the Arabian Sea.

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The Taj Mahal palace hotel was a project dreamed up by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata. J. N. Tata assigned two architects Sitaram Khanderao Vaidya and D. N. Mirza to design the original plans for the Taj Palace. But due to the untimely death of Vaidya the project was assigned to and completed by W. A. Chambers, the man who had designed the Watson Hotel in Mumbai. These architects had worked with F. W. Steven who had designed the Victoria Terminus station, today known as Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus. Similarities are visible as the station architecture is said to have influenced their work. The hotel first opened its doors to guests on 16 December 1903. We were told on the tour that it was a common misconception that the layout of the Taj Mahal Palace was reversed erroneously by the architect and as a result of this blunder, he committed suicide. However this is not true, as The Taj was deliberately designed in such a way that most of the rooms enjoyed a sea view and a well maintained garden was placed at the entrance. Taj_poolIt was also logical to make the entry and exit gates to the hotel within the city so that it could be easily accessible. The entrance was then reversed to the front side due to growing traffic problems. Originally, the area where the horse carriages parked to drop off guests, is now converted into a swimming pool.

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SM_LM_2Lunch the next afternoon was at the Golden Dragon. Sous Chef Swapnil Vankar cooked up our favourite stir fried prawns with ginger and scallions, sliced lamb in black bean chilli, dry cooked haricot beans with a touch of soya and the stir fried burnt garlic and chicken rice. Mr. Shrenik Shah, a reader of my blog was also at lunch and walked up to our table and introduced himself. He said, he enjoyed our travels and recognised us from our pictures. Since travel writing is a hobby, it is always encouraging to receive comments from those who follow my blog. I promised Mr. Shah that I would be writing again soon.

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Laveena and I returned to our room and briefly napped in the afternoon. Before indulging in the hi-tea at the palace lounge, we spent some time on the swing in the foyer by the pool, admiring the stunning architecture of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel. There is so much we take for granted at this hotel, so many of us know so well. While on the swing we noticed the mustard coloured ceiling with intricate white art like design panels within a rectangular border. Fans with leaf like arms and pretty brass and glass lamps with candle lights decorated tFood courthe ceiling. The foyer was surprisingly empty and we enjoyed this moment of quiet and solitude, in a hotel we have both grown to love so much. With a wide choice of restaurants, Mumbai’s 1st licensed bar (The Harbour Bar) and views which will leave you spell bound, a weekend at the Taj Mahal Palace is an absolute must do and it comes with the highest 5 star recommendation from us.

A Rajasthani ‘affair’ to remember

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‘Vita Pulchra Est’ is Latin for ‘Life is Beautiful’ and our recent stay at the Oberoi RajVilas reaffirmed the aphorism. Laveena and I visited the royal resort, built in a traditional Rajasthani fort style, last month, and fell instantly in love with what the grand property had on offer. Beautifully landscaped gardens, pink lime plastered walls to help create that mystical feeling of the true Jaipur experience, exotic birdlife including majestic peacocks with their iridescent blue and green plumages, high dome ceilings, peacockmagnificent arches reminiscent of Mughal times, crystal chandeliers and gold leaf frescoes. Together, they perfectly decorated the thirty two acre resort, deeply connecting each guest with the luxury and charm which so distinctly reflected what the ‘Oberoi’ group was so well known for.

We were welcomed at this ‘oasis of elegance’, by Mr. Abhishek Sharma, the General Manager of the Rajvilas. Laveena and I are lucky to know many General Managers of several luxury hotel properties from across the world. Abhishek however, is the very epitome of hospitality. A General Manager who is humble to the core, yet sensitive to every need of his guests, from start to an absolute perfect finish. Throughout our stay at the Rajvilas, Abhishek personified warmth and congeniality and made our experience complete. His attention to deliver excellence was complimented and reflected in the high service standards of the amazing hotel staff. One in particular, Max, more than impressed us with his genuine commitment to help make our vacation a very special one. Max  was most charming and his pleasing personality and eye for detail made our meals at the Rajvilas, memorable.

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India_Jaipur_The_Oberoi_Rajvilas_TentAfter checking in, we had breakfast and were driven in a golf cart to our ‘luxury’ tent by the affable Taufiq. Tastefully done up interiors with weather and heat resistant canopies, decorated with traditional Rajasthani hand block prints, made the insides of our room feel culturally rich and comfortable. The polished teak floors and grand king size bed, mirrored the comfort which the hotel promised. We could actually breath in a bit of Rajasthan through the traditionally made mud walls surrounding our tent. Our room had it’s own private garden and patio and we were delighted to see peahens and peacocks freely roaming in the garden. We took our time to settle in and enjoy the room and later headed out for an early lunch, at the ‘Surya Mahal’, which is a Sanskrit name for ‘Sun Palace’. The restaurant is aptly named, as the space is bright with natural light flowing through the wall to ceiling glass windows.

Our afternoon nap was a brief one as we had a Puja ceremony planned at the 280 year old Shiva temple, around which the hotel is built. A pundit (a hindu priest) welcomed us at the 18th century temple where I was asked to perform an arti, a devotional hymn, sung in praise of God. In this haven of peace and natural serenity, the priest began to chant verses from holy ancient hindu scriptures, praising Lord Shiva. A small cup-shaped oil lamp (diya) made of metal with a handle just big enough for me to slip my finger through, was given to me. As the priest chanted, I closed my eyes and deep in devotional prayer, I firmly gripped and rotated the diya around the Shiva statue. To Shiva’s right was a statue of his wife Parvati. Ganesha and Karttikeya, flanked both parents. The experience was spiritually uplifting and as the sun began to set upon the temple, we walked away, with a sense of divine peace in our hearts, away from the small island, past the exotic water lilies and mud towers standing tall and erect in the pond.

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LM_astrologer1Our Puja ceremony was followed by a meet with an astrologer by the pool side. Adorned in a traditional white garb of a holy man, with a bright orange Rajasthani turban on his head and prayer beads around his neck, the astrologer sat us down on comfortable bedding with bolster like cushions. Under a pink sandstone canopy with white pillars, situated by the poolside, the astrologer bent forward to peek into our future. He asked for us to put out the palm of our hands and deep in concentration, with a torch in one hand and a magnifying glass in the other, his reading glasses precariously balanced on the bridge of his nose, he explained the position of the planets and attempted to delve into the intricacies of our lives and what the future had in store for us. He was strangely accurate of the past and had some rather interesting things to say about our future. We were thoroughly entertained, amused and mystified, all at the same time.

At 6:30 pm, we had a couples appointment at the hotel spa. Located in the restored 18th century haveli in front of the temperature controlled hotel pool, the spa is decorated with vegetable dye frescoes and has white marble and red sandstone floor tiles. From the list of treatments, we chose one called, ‘Romance of Rajputana’. Created as a tribute to beauty, this signature experience offered us a perfect harmony of healing therapies which included a steam bath, a gentle pomegranate body exfoliation, followed by a heavenly massage and a soak in an exquisite bath. After the soothing and holistic treatment, we felt revitalised and rejuvenated.

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With General Manager Abhishek Sharma

At dinner, Chef Ajit Raman, put together a menu, he christened, ‘Taste Of India’s Culinary diversity.’ Seated at a well adorned table, with a blue linen cover, a green table runner with intricate gold zardozi like embroidery on it and a vase with fresh smelling red roses, we had our hands washed in milk and rose water. We were first served papdi chat, a tian of savoury gram flour crisps topped with potatoes and dressed with sweetened yoghurt and sweet and sour tamarind chutney. The kebab samplers followed with a malai jhinga, an achari machhi tikka, a kachhi mirch ka murgh and boti kebab. A few decadently delicious, melt in the mouth bites later, we were served an aam panna sorbet, as a palate cleanser. As we watched a troop of graceful Rajasthani lady dancers skilfully balance a pot of fire on their heads, we relished the raw mango and cumin slush which was flavoured with a hint of mint. A light drizzle of rain surprised us all and came as a blessing from the heavens. As if on cue, a few diners were drawn to the dancers and joined them in performing the folk dance of the dessert people. folk_danceAccompanying this fascinating balance of mesmerising music and dance, was the food which followed as our main course. Chef Ajit prepared the famous Rajasthani laal maas, succulent pieces of tenderised meat, marinated in a variety of spices and served in a delicious Indian red curry. We were also served murgh bajre ka soweta, palak mangodi, dal panchmel and smoked aubergine raita with esoteric whole grain breads and bati made on an open charcoal flame. After devouring the delectable spread, Chef Ajit announced with much fanfare, an array of royal desserts which included the paan sasmali, the baddam aur khajoor ka halwa and the besan choorma. Surrounded by soft sandstone floors, an outdoor fireplace and ornate Mughal arches and columns, we could feel the pulse of grandeur beating through every tile and intricate corner of the grand Raj Mahal.

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Temperatures were down at a very pleasant 18 degrees celsius that night. After the royal dinner spread, Laveena and I decided to walk around the landscaped grounds for an hour before returning to our room. The peacocks and peahens had retired for the night and the sounds of nocturnal insects kept us company, as we walked under the bright dessert moonlit night, hand in hand, appreciating the good fortune we were blessed with to experience the magical wonders of the Oberoi Rajvillas. We had a number of activities planned for the next day, including a sight seeing tour around the pink city. I was excited about a visit to Amer fort after which we were to partake in a pottery session, block printing on textiles and a nature walk through the property.

After a quiet nights rest, we were up early the next morning. On the property there is a magnificent ancient Haveli. On the outside, it has been restored to it’s former glory. The hotel spa is located in the haveli and here is where we met our yoga instructor.

We were offered freshly laundered cotton kurtas and pajamas and were escorted to a section on the lush green lawns, near the lily pond. Over the next 30 minutes, the instructor helped revitalise our bodies, using ancient pranyam (breathing) techniques. He helped relax our minds through meditation and healed our thoughts by making us aware of our surroundings. The experience was as rejuvenating as it was unforgettable and we both looked forward to another session the next morning. After yoga, Laveena and I had a light breakfast and then visited Tijori, the store at the lobby of the Rajvilas. There is a myth that stores at hotel lobby’s display products which are over priced and usually appeal only to tourists. This certainly wasn’t the case with Tijori, which was a treasure trove of surprises. For a few of my business associates in Europe and London, I purchased some Rajasthani printed textiles and some handcrafted jewellery.

The afternoon was spent touring the bazaars of Jaipur with our guide, the well read professor Malik. We visited the Amer Fort which overlooks the Maota Lake. Known for its artistic Hindu style elements, the fort with its many gates and cobbled paths, is constructed of sandstone and marble. Professor Malik is a powerhouse of knowledge. As we walked through the grand fort, we visited the Diwan-e-Aam or “Hall of Public Audience”, the Diwan-e-Khas, or “Hall of Private Audience”, the Sheesh Mahal (mirror palace), and the Sukh Niwas. The professor took us on a fascinating journey through the corridors of history, patiently explaining to us in detail, how the walls of the fort played a significant and key role in the lives of the Rajput Maharajas and their families, way back in the 17th century.

     

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When we returned to the hotel, there was a surprise waiting for us. A note from the General Manager read that Laveena and I would be driven to Mr. PRS. Oberoi’s private residence for an exclusive sundowner for two. Palace_Front_View1The pottery lesson, the block printing and the nature walk planned for us, was rescheduled for early the next day. We were delighted with the invitation and at 4:30 pm, we were driven to Naila Fort. Perched on a steep, rocky precipice in the Aravalli mountains, the fort is grand by any standards. We were greeted at the brass studded antique entrance door by the young talented chef Phonica Yadav and a member of the waiting staff, Pawan Chandra. The moment we stepped into the 150 year old restored fortress, we were handed glasses of sparkling wine. poolI instantly connected with the appealing aura of remoteness and feudal romance which seemed to surround us at the fort. Naila Fort we were told by Mr. Oberoi’s personal staff member, was built as a garrison to defend the village of Naila and the land in the valley beyond. In the courtyard, we got to see Mr. Oberoi’s personal collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century swords and shields. These hung on the wall above what we were told was an antique Gujarati chest. Palace_WallWe were taken on a guided tour around the fort and were directed to the lawns near the swimming pool, where a table for two had been set up. Perfectly manicured and lush green, the garden around us had roses, palm and fruit trees. While Pawan ensured our glasses of sparkling wine never dipped below the halfway mark, the eternally smiling and charming young Phonica, served us a bento box with sandwiches, rice paper rolls, a salad, a kathi role and cookies and cake. Guests at the fort should not miss the views of the majestic sunset. BreakFast_waiterWe climbed the stairs of the fort to the terrace and looked beyond the depths of the valley to the mountain ranges afar. As the sun began to set, the skies across Naila turned into the most magnificent hues of oranges, reds and yellows. A mix of vibrant bright colours so glorious, that it made us shut our eyes in awe and wish for happiness for all. We knew we were scheduled to return home late tomorrow and we were going to miss the solitude of Naila, the comfort and luxury of Rajvilas and the magic of the vibrant pink city of Jaipur.

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We returned to the hotel at 8 pm and although we were not ready for dinner, we were informed that a private table for two had been set up by the pool side as a celebration for my birthday. Chef Ajit had put together a contemporary, Indian menu, encapsulating a mix of magical flavours and showcasing his skills in multi sensory cooking with a more than interesting molecular twist.Dinner On a table decorated with a blue and pink coloured table cloth made from woven silk with a brocade design and little toy elephants and peacocks, our menu for the evening was an edible one. We got to dinner at 9:30 pm and started with a pearl millet jhalmuri (vegetarian millet puffs with onions, tomatoes and gram flour vermicelli dressed with mustard oil and lemon vinaigrette). This was followed by a khade masala crusted rare seared mini tuna with cucumber, fennel and tomoto verge, a tamatar adrak ka sherba (a flavourful tomato broth flavoured with ginger and coriander), a betel leaf wrapped steamed chicken parcel with sous vide glass noodles, a narangi sPuppetorbet, home made with black salt and mint, dhoongar maas (a traditional Rajasthani lamb stew flavoured with garlic, coriander seeds, smoked with cloves, pearl millet porridge and wilted spinach), a selection of cheese with bajra and corn meal chips and apple crisps and traditional indian desserts including gajjar halwa, rose kheer, a panacota, and a coconut and jaggery ice cream. Even though these were tasting portions, by far the most delicious we had ever eaten, we were full beyond imagination. We needed to walk around the grounds to help us digest the delectable feast. As we walked past the poolside, we noticed a puppet stage had been set up for hotel guests. The puppeteers asked us to be seated as they were keen to put up a performance for us. In perfect english, which he said his father had taught hDholim, the young puppeteer introduced us to the many colourful characters on display. Puppet_DanceHe went on to sit cross legged and began to drum on his tabla as he sang in the language of marwar, folk songs of ancient times depicting an elaborate story of war, love and peace. His partner skilfully made the puppets prance, dance, fight, leap and embrace, all to the accompaniment of marwar tunes and music. And as the puppets prepared to call it a night, Laveena and I too thanked the talented puppeteers and walked hand in hand, underneath the moonlit sky, back to our luxury tent for another beautiful night of peaceful sleep and romance.

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We have been back home since a fortnight and we haven’t stopped thinking or talking about our love affair with the Rajvilas. It has in an extraordinary way, appealed to every alluring and seductive sense of ours. We cannot wait to return and have recommended it to every friend we know, as we would like for all to live the wonders of the Oberoi Rajvilas, just as we did and hope to do again in the not so distant future. After all….the turbaned astrologer with the prayer beads did say that we would return soon.

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The Dhara Devi in Chiang Mai Thailand redefines ‘luxury’

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Laveena and I feel infinitely blessed to have had the opportunity of repeatedly traveling to beautiful countries with stunning landscapes, fascinating cultures and exotic cuisines. We are equally blessed to have experienced living in some of the most luxurious hotel properties in the world. While each property has it’s own specials to showcase and often has their staff going out of their way in the name of high quality 7 star hospitality, we find that in today’s competitive market, most luxury hotels have risen up to the occasion of pampering their customers on every visit. Be it a special pillow menu, information of a regular guest’s newspaper preference, knowledge about a guest’s food allergies, room type preferences and one of my favourites, being addressed by your last name throughout the hotel property including at the hotel restaurants, the lobby, the pool, the gym, the spa or even by the bell captain and the doorman.

While researching our Christmas and New Year holiday plans for 2015, I stumbled upon the fabulous Dhara Devi hotel in Chiang Mai. I read that Maria Sharapova, absolutely loved the hotel and listed it as one of her favourites. This luxury hotel has also played host to the likes of Prince Albert of Monaco, Violinist Vanessa Mae, tennis player Venus Williams and Hollywood stars Sylvestor Stallone and Angelina Jolie. If such well known celebrities travelled across the world to experience the magic of Dhara Devi, Laveena and I planned not to miss out on staying here, especially since we were scheduled to be in Thailand to celebrate New years eve. I reached out to the hotel and connected with Khun Sirikanya (Sarah) Phoocharoen who would be our contact point at the Dhara Devi and who helped plan our stay.

Chiang Mai is located in northern Thailand. It is home to the well known 14th-century Wat Phra Singh and 15th-century Wat Chedi Luang temples and was the former capital of the Kingdom of Lan Na (1296–1768). The city sits astride the Ping River, a major tributary of the Chao Phraya River.

We arrived in Chiang Mai on December the 26th by a local Thai Airways flight. The flying time between Bangkok and Chiang Mai is a short 1hr and 10 minutes. The many holiday makers on our flight were excited about the yearend celebrations and Laveena and I were happy to engage in friendly conversations with our fellow travellers. While many we talked with, mostly European, were travelling to Chiang Mai for the first time, this was our third visit. The first time we stayed in the city, at an old luxury hotel called the Imperial Mae Ping, while on our second visit we were at the fabulous Four Seasons.

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The Dhara Devi hotel hostess welcomed us at the arrival hall at the airport and guided us to our vehicle. Our white gloved chauffeur greeted us and we were handed ice-cold lemongrass scented towels as we sat back comfortably for our short journey to the hotel. A quick 20 minutes into our drive, our car steered off the main road onto a quiet side street from where we drove over a small wooden bridge which rumbled when the tires rolled over it. We were told by out hostess that in ancient times the wooden bridge built over a river or a moat, was deliberately engineered to make this loud rumbling sound, in a bid to announce the arrival of guests. Ahead was the gate to the Dhara Devi hotel. As we drove up to the main lobby area, Laveena and I were simply awed by the luxury resort’s design, which we were told draws heavily from the architectural and cultural influences of the historic Lanna Kingdom. We were checked in by the lovely Sarah Phoocharoen and were driven in a golf cart to our more than luxurious villa which had a private pool overlooking one of the two private rice fields at the hotel. From our villa, number 99, we could see local rice farmers, employed by the hotel, tending to the rice crop in their blue overalls and their straw sun hats. A few scarecrows added to the ambience and gave us a warm fuzzy feeling of adventure as we looked forward to our 5 day stay at this luxurious piece of paradise in the hills of Northern Thailand.

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After settling down in our villa, we decided to step out for an early lunch at the Loy Kham Bar, located by the infinity pool. On our way over to the bar we walked past the Art and Craft village and were told that the Dhara Dhevi Chiang Mai, is the only hotel in Chiang Mai that offers guests a regular daily program for art and craft demonstrations which include basket making, bamboo weaving, rice pounding, paper cutting and flower arranging, in a northern Thai style. Not wanting to simply watch, we asked if we could participate in one of the fun programmes. A local craftsman from Chiang Mai skilfully helped us guide our hands back to front, left to right, up and down, until magically, from a simple sheet of coloured paper, a beautifully crafted flower appeared. This little fun craft activity was followed by a chilled beer for me and a tender coconut water for Laveena and a lunch which accentuated the beautiful flavours of Northern Thailand with that kick of chilly and the occasional burst of basil, lemongrass and galangal. We started off with the yamsomo, the pomelo salad with prawns, crispy onions and roasted coconut flakes. In the mains we ordered the phad thai goong, wok-fried rice noodles with shrimps, bean sprouts, bean curd, Chinese chives, peanuts and tamarind sauce. We also had the gaeng kiaw wan nua, sliced beef simmered in fragrant green curry, coconut milk and eggplants, served with steamed organic jasmine rice. We decided to walk back to our room to help digest the heavy meal. The resort, spread across over 60 acres, journeys you back through time. We walked by the Lanna Kids Club which is located in a one-hundred-year-old northern Thai house offering lessons in Thai dancing and music and art and craft. Children also have access to traditional Thai games and toys and can experience rice planting, yoga for kids, paper making and umbrella painting. Fascinated by what we saw we walked a little further and came upon what looked to be a breathtakingly beautiful Burmese temple, with an intricately carved roof and marble stairs. When we asked a waiting buggy driver what the building housed, we were told that the Dhara Devi spa was located in this magnificent building. Laveena and I had a massage booked the next day and we couldn’t wait to explore what the spa had on offer.

IMG_3553   IMG_3432 15 Grand Deluxe Villa with Plunge Pool

We couldn’t stop admiring the property as we finally reached our villa and retired into our bedroom for a quick afternoon nap. Our villa was beautifully designed and wonderfully appointed. We had been informed by Sarah in her impeccable queens english that the stunning villas at the property had mostly been been converted from traditional Northern Thai and Lanna houses. Ours featured a patio at the entrance with a comfortable dining and seating area overlooking the pool, the hot tub and the paddy fields beyond. We had our own sauna and an outdoor covered kitchenette. The villa itself had wooden floors throughout, a vast living space on the ground floor, a large bedroom upstairs with high ceilings and a king bed draped in elegant white muslin. Our private retreat also offered us access to a large walk-in closet, a spacious bathroom and an outdoor balcony with an open air tub and a raised Jacuzzi (the second in our villa). I had decided that my first glass of wine that evening would be on our outdoor balcony, staring out at the rice fields of the lush and grand Dhara Devi.

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For Dinner we were booked at the Farang Ses. We had read reviews raving about the food at this restaurant with some labelling it as the finest and most acclaimed French restaurant in all of Thailand. We obviously went in with very high expectations and were immediately enthralled by the opulent and rich french decor which exuded luxury from every corner. From the wine list, I selected a French bordeux, a 2009 chateau carignan. We started the evening with a red quinoa salad with marinated tuna, manchego cheese, dried fruits and beetroot vinaigrette. After our heavy afternoon meal, Laveena and I decided to share the  appetiser. For the mains, Laveena ordered the stuffed supreme chicken rolled with prosciutto ham, black organic rice, yellow tomato and celeriac pine nut reduced juice while I had the beef tenderloin rossini with duck foie gras, brioche and truffle sauce. The talent of head chef Stephane Courtin seduced our palates from our very first heavenly bite. His intricate plating style deserved an award, while his high standards of delicious cooking sent us both on a gastronomical journey to Paris in an instant. We feasted and talked and then feasted some more as we listened to a Thai lady pianist whose instrumental renditions that evening included popular old songs, rearrangements of movie soundtracks and easy-listening arrangements of classical music. The evening felt so complete with the best French food we had ever had, outstanding service and what appeared to be a full moon night which illuminated the property through the full length glass windows.

When we returned to our villa that evening we couldn’t resist a swim. Temperatures in December usually dip to 10 degrees or below in the mountains but with global warming, it was actually quite warm at near about 24 degrees and a night swim was perfect.

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We slept like babies that night and woke up bright and early the next morning. We walked to breakfast at Akaligo. Translated from Sanskrit, “Akaligo” means timeless. The multi cuisine grand spread of fresh tropical fruits (the sweetest Thai mango, pineapple, papaya, watermelon and musk melon we have ever tasted), a Japanese station, a Chinese station, a Thai station and a fabulous continental station would have impressed even the most discerning of gourmets. What caught my eye was a lady who walked around with a wooden shoulder yoke with a basket on either end, offering foods local to this part of Thailand. I was fascinated with this added touch of theatre, something I hadn’t witnessed before. We were seated by the large windows overlooking the terrace where other residents were seated and the lush landscaped tropical gardens beyond.

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After breakfast we walked to the Kad Dhara Shopping Village which is located at the resort. Popular with the affluent locals, it is a small but fascinating village built in the local northern Thai style of the past. Dotted with a a series of shuttered wooden shops, this unique place is home to a number of specialty stores which sell local thai artefacts. There are also a few upscale designer boutiques as well as a coffee corner and the famous Dhara Devi cake shop where despite our heavy breakfast, I couldn’t resist a delicious banana vanilla smoothie with whipped creak and a macaroon. As we sat back to enjoy the sinful sweet treat, some musicians grouped together in the courtyard. While one played the saxophone, the other two strummed on their guitars. The cake shop is neatly nestled within the Kad Dhara Shopping Village. It is a charming Victorian-style tea salon which offers guests a colourful and mouthwateringly delicious selection of macaroons, homemade pastries, cakes and ice cream, smoothies, fine teas and The Dhara Dhevi Blend of coffees. One can sit either indoors in the shop’s quaint air-conditioned interior or outside in the picturesque courtyard among lush green palms.

Late that morning we briefly met with Andrew Quinlan, the general manager at the resort. There was an instant connect with this fine and affable gentleman who exuded hospitality from every inch of his being. I was delighted to learn that he had worked very closely with Biki Oberoi and had lived in India for many years. Andrew, being the quintessential hotelier, confidently looked at us and said that we were going to love our experience at Dhara Devi. Laveena responded that we had been at the hotel a little over a day and it already felt like a week as we had done so much and yet it all felt so relaxed, so right, so much like a perfect holiday.

29 Fujian

We were invited that afternoon for lunch at the Fujian, an exquisite restaurant located within the Kad Dhara village, serving contemporary and cantonese Chinese. Housed in a two-story mansion built in a typically Sino-Portuguese style dating back to the mid-19th century, the dim sum at this restaurant is legendary. Chinese chef Natcher Choachong designed for us a menu which would have made the emperor of China proud.

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We started of with a dim sum platter which was followed by deep fried tiger prawn with spicy salt crust in mashed taro, a sautéed iwate sea scallop with black bean sauce and wok fried rice noodles with beef and yellow chives in a light soya sauce. We were very well looked after by the restaurant manager khun Amnard Phunsupruk who shared with us many interesting stories including the one where he served tennis star Maria Sharapova who absolutely loved the food prepared at Fujian.

Post lunch we were driven in the golf cart to the Jum Sri Hall Library at the hotel. This world-class library houses several thousand volumes of books, including journals and periodicals related to the region’s art, culture, cuisine.

We returned to our villa for a nap and decided to spend late afternoon at the gym, burning off all the calories we had consumed on our sinful gastronomic cheat day.

At 7:30 pm we took the hotel shuttle bus into Chiang Mai town and spent a couple of hours on walking street where the shopping is cheap and the flavour truly local. Later we stopped by at a typical street bar where I sipped on a few Chang beers and Laveena ordered her favourite sweet tender coconut.

47 Kids Rice Planting

The next day we had booked ourselves for a rice planting class. Even though common across India, Laveena and I had never actually planted rice. It was exciting as we had the chance to wear the farmers blue overalls and even ride bare back on a water buffalo.  Immersed in the local culture we learnt the art of rice planting on the resort’s property . It was a fun experience which was followed by a dip in our temperature controlled jacuzzi followed by a swim. I had ordered a sundowner, a Mai Tai which i sipped as we lazed in our pool, infinitely grateful for this remarkable holiday experience.

35 The Dheva Spa Lobby

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Later in the afternoon we visited the Dheva spa and wellness centre. Known to be the soul of the resort, we found ourselves surrounded by intricate interiors inspired by a 19th century Mandalay palace. We were in one of the 18 spacious suites where we were treated to one of the most relaxing and rejuvenating massages we have ever had. As the gentle hands of the skilful masseurs caressed our bodies, we felt instantly transported to a special place in paradise with bliss written all over it.

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For dinner that evening, we were booked at Le Grand Lanna, a restaurant offering Classic and Northern Thai food. Hidden behind sweeping roofs and centuries-old rain and flame trees, Le Grand Lanna’s raised wooden pavilions were filled with precious Lanna artefacts. When we arrived at the restaurant there was a cultural dance performance underway. The actors were beautifully adorned in traditional outfits and hairstyles. We were treated to a fabulous show. The diverse menu on offer at Le Grand Lanna bridges the cultural divide between Thailand’s north and south; it’s past and present. We chose to dine outside on the terrace which overlooked a delightful tropical garden. Chef Thanu Fufueng cooked us a delicious red curry with beef , stir fried minced pork with chilies and holy basic , stir fried chicken with cashew nuts onions and dried chilies and brown rice. We were attended to by Khun Jarkrit Sunang who made sure my glass of Chateau Carignan Bordeaux was never empty.

46 Culinary Academy

The food was so very delicious that we asked to speak with the chef, Khun Thanu. While in conversation with him, the hotel’s food and beverage director, Mr. Jean Marie Vallee introduced himself to us and said that we must visit the Dhara Dhevi Cooking Academy during our stay. In fact he insisted on personally accompanying us on our visit the next day. The cooking school is located on the upper storey of a delightful wooden pavilion behind the Le Grand Lanna Restaurant. We were fascinated to see classroom-style kitchens, fitted with modern equipment with individual cooking stations, extractor hoods, sinks and preparation areas for up to twenty students. Although we didn’t sign up for a class, it is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon at the hotel. Laveena said to the charming Mr.Vallee that the high quality of food standards at the hotel deserved worldwide attention and appreciation as the French, Chinese and Thai food we had eaten at the hotel restaurants were the best ever and all Chef’s were deserving of the coveted Australian chef hat awards or Michelin stars.

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On our last day at the hotel, we ran into two Hollywood celebrities. Boris Kodjoe and Nicole Ari Parker, hosts of ‘The Boris & Nicole Show’. Down to earth and easy to talk too, we got along very well and promised to stay in touch.

We also shopped at the Dhara Devi boutique from where we picked up some souvenirs and silk scarves. They had a fine collection of local jewellery, typical of this region. As we bid our farewells to the many friends we had made at the hotel, we were very sad to leave, but knew that we would return soon to this piece of paradise in the mountains of Chiang Mai. For those among my readers who travel often to South East Asia, as a luxury traveller, I put the Dhara Devi among the very best of the best we have ever experienced. It is a hotel, which each one of you must visit to celebrate a special day in your life. It is an experience you will talk about long after you return home.

High hospitality standards on Jet Airways

After an unpleasant experience we had last Easter, Jet Airways was struck off our list of preferred airlines and we chose instead to switch our loyalties to the ever dependent Indigo for domestic flights across India, Singapore, Cathay and Thai for flights to South East and Far East Asia and Middle Eastern airlines like Qatar and Emirates for flights to Europe and the US. The PR department of Jet however sprung into quick action and reached out to us with a request to give them one more try. And we did. Not once, not twice, but three times in the past three months. And how pleasantly surprised were we? Very.

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Given our choice of destinations, from Mumbai to Dubai and from Mumbai to Bangkok (twice), the 737-800 aircrafts which operate on these sectors, were old and needed repair and urgent interior upgrades. After all, the Jet Airways website does confirm they ‘operate one of the most modern fleet in the world to ensure you enjoy the best in comfort, cabin design and reliability.’ With this particular class of aircraft, ‘best in comfort’ may have been the case a decade ago, but certainly not in the current competitive market environment where the passenger today is greeted on most reputed airline brands, with fine interiors, comfortable seating, aesthetic colour combinations, the occasional fresh flower neatly placed in a wall mounted vase, personal TV screens with multiple channels for entertainment and well stocked washrooms in business class. I cringe to say this, but even business class on the sectors we flew, did not have personal TV screens and had seats with adjustments which felt dated and almost antique. I feel these negatives need to be looked into and mended on priority by the Jet management. Even Air India is known to have introduced it’s dream liner on the Mumbai Bangkok sector recently and the feedback has been very positive, thereby further adding to the competition for Jet Airways.

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So why you may ask were we pleasantly surprised with our experience on Jet? Well it was because of the much improved service standards and the unflinching commitment to hospitality we noticed on every sector we flew. Not only were the ground staff polite to a fault, during check in and at the boarding gate, but the cabin crew too made passengers feel like they were on a Learjet 65, flying private to the Bahamas. The personalised service by cabin supervisors Ashdin and Tanveer, cabin attendants Karan and Prachi and Mumbai ground staff Sneha, truly deserved praise and compared with the best in the industry.

 

Also noteworthy was the fact that on every sector, we departed and arrived bang on schedule, much to the approval of all passengers. The food on flight was exceptional, although I do strongly recommend a full meal service on the Dubai Mumbai 9W535 flight which departs Dubai at 16:10 and arrives in Mumbai at 20:45, a time which many of us consider to be well past our dinner time (Laveena and I are at the dinner table at 1930 most days). Many travellers routinely eat before 20:00 hours and offering dinner on this sector is the right thing to do. If the passenger thinks it’s too early, leave the choice off refusing the meal to him. But do offer dinner.

Thankfully, on the Bangkok to Mumbai sector, they do offer you dinner. It’s not a feast, but it will do. For our most recent meal on our flight from Bangkok to Mumbai in the New Year, Laveena and I selected the protein (the menu selection can definitely improve) and were served tender morsels of carefully diced chicken, perfectly cooked, marinated in mouthwateringly delicious spices with a rich butter curry. It tasted like royalty and the red Australian Rolf Binder shiraz from the Barossa valley complimented the meal perfectly. These are the little things which in my opinion help Jet Airways get all the right ticks on the hospitality front and has convinced us that we will continue to fly the airline in 2016.

A rare and priceless jewel in the Middle East

Nurai Island is Officially Opened for Guests

Earlier this month, Laveena and I returned to Dubai, to celebrate her birthday and also for the Diwali holiday break. Dubai is one of our favourite modern cities in the world. Known for its active nightlife, its gleaming high-rises which make for a stunning skyline, it’s fancy cars, it’s more than luxurious shopping malls and it’s fabulous restaurants, Laveena and I look forward to our annual visits to Dubai. Although often referred to by many as, ‘artificial’ and ‘ostentatious’, we are fascinated by the way in which Dubai’s royal family has orchestrated development over the past few decades and how they have perfectly choreographed the coming together of a vibrant city, we just love returning to time and time again.

Our favourite restaurants in Dubai, to name a few, include Pierchic for their delicious seafood menu, Roberto’s for the fine Italian food, Zenghe’s for Chinese, Le Petit Maison for French and of course Nobu and Zuma for Japanese.

We arrived in Dubai on November the 7th. Laveena’s birthday was on the 9th. I had spent the last few weeks doing some choreography of my own and although I didn’t plan to present Laveena with a model city of Dubai, I did visualise an out of the world vacation experience for which I began my research late in September of 2015. After weeks of net surfing, lengthy discussions with my sister in law Shamira, who has high hospitality standards in her DNA and several back and forth emails to GM’s of various resort properties across the Middle East, we settled on an island property called Zaya, introduced to us by our dear friends, the lovely Janaki and Bharat Grover.

On the eve of Laveena’s birthday, on November the 8th, our private limousine drove us from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. The 150 km long drive which took us no more than an hour, was smooth and more than pleasant and we both noted that there wasn’t a single halt along the way, not even for a traffic light. As we entered the emirate of Abu Dhabi, we passed Ferrari world on our left and shortly afterward took a right at a sign which read ‘Saadiyat’. Zaya has a nice reception area set up at the main pier. We were welcomed by Tarik, and were told that our speed boat which was to take us to the resort island, would arrive shortly. We waited 10 minutes, during which time we were told that Nadia Zaal is the CEO of Zaya retreats and is responsible for the spectacular resort we were about to experience.

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I hopped onto the boat and helped Laveena on after me. Once our bags were loaded, we saw a group of four rushing through the doors of the welcome centre, to get onto the boat. We introduced ourselves and were told that Zaya encourages day visitors too. Nigel and his friends were looking forward to spending the day on what they were promised would be an island which showcased luxury living at another level with fabulous restaurants, an infinity pool, white sand beaches and turquoise blue waters, all a short speed boat ride away from Abu Dhabi. He said that guests could arrive at the island by speed boat, helicopter or even on a sea plane.

As the motor on the speed boat roared to life, with a thunder and a roll, we excitedly braced ourselves for the adventure which lay ahead. Our boat raced past what appeared to be mangroves and expensive beach front properties and motored on to the open seas.  A short 12 minute ride later, an island appeared, dotted with very large sized luxurious villas. Zaya Nurai Island has 32 luxury boutique beach villas with private pools along with 23 uber luxurious private residential villas. Waiting to welcome us when our speedboat docked was the ever charming, young and pretty General manager at Zaya Nurai Island, Norliza Omar. She greeted us with a warm hug, promised us that our stay would be a memorable one, introduced us to our butler ‘Joe’ and said that she would meet with us later that evening at a dinner she was hosting for us. Another member of the hotel staff handed us cold scented towels and a delicious welcome drink. Thankfully, there are no cars on the island and to ferry us to our room we had to hop onto a golf cart. Joe drove us toward the beach front villa we had booked for our stay. Along the way Joe pointed out to where the restaurants were and showed us the tennis court, the helipad, the water sports centre, the yoga studio, the gymnasium and the spa. We couldn’t help but notice how green the island was and appreciated the landscaping, which was lush and vibrant, despite the harsh desert conditions. The golf cart soon came to where the beach villas were and we wondered which one was ours as Joe drove right past them, one after the other. I whispered to Laveena that Norliza may have handpicked the most remote beach villa to ensure our privacy. I let her in on the fact that I had been in touch with the GM for several weeks and had told her how important it was that I made this holiday a truly memorable one for Laveena. We finally came to the last of the 32 luxury beach front properties, but Joe didn’t stop here either. He continued to drive on, prompting me to believe that he wished to show us the private residential villas before checking us in at our villa. And I was right, for soon we drove up to a line of exquisite luxurious water villas, each with uninterrupted views of the azure blue arabian gulf. I casually asked Joe if we would get to see one of these luxury villas from the inside. He nodded and drove up to the one located near the tip of the island. Our golf cart came to a halt and we walked through the private garden area of the villa and up to the main door. Joe used a set of keys to let us in. As we walked through the doors, both our jaws dropped in sheer amazement at the opulence of the interiors and the generous and spacious living area.  Laveena’s eyes noticed a flower decoration on the floor, spelling out the words, ‘welcome home’. I noticed that the flowers were fresh and I asked Joe if the owners were expected later today. He smiled and said that the management had for Laveena’s birthday, gifted us this remarkable upgrade to the four bedroom 933 square meter water villa which promised the ultimate in comfort and luxury with a private pool and a wooden deck with endless views of the stunning blue ocean. For us, this was an instant glimpse into infinite luxury. While the living area amazed us, we found the bedrooms to be even more fabulous. Clean and straight lines with a modern contemporary decor which showcased predominantly white and grey colours, perfectly paired to balance the blue of the infinite ocean view, clearly visible through the ceiling to floor windows. I noticed an iPad on the side of every bedroom door. Joe explained that we could control the music in every part of the villa from any of these iPads. Ironically, the very first song I found on the playlist was,  ‘what a wonderful world’. With the volume level on high, Louis Armstrong’s voice streamed through the villa. It was a mesmerising feeling and a perfect start to our holiday. There are 12 four bedroom villas on the property and we felt blessed to be staying in one of them.

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As soon as Joe left, Laveena and I set out to explore our villa at leisure. With a nespresso coffee in hand, we walked to the edge of the wooden deck where the sun lounge chairs were set up. We both lay down on the hammock for two and looked out at the blue expanse of the ocean. Laveena thought she saw a dolphin and gasped as she held my hand and asked me to look in the direction, her finger was pointing in. And there I saw, not one, not two, but four magnificent and graceful creatures. Both our cell phones were back in the villa and we didn’t want to rush back to get them as we were afraid to miss this sight, which would forever be etched in the photo albums of our minds. The dolphins with their wet smooth backs, shimmering in the bright sunlight, glided past us and disappeared into the ocean. After a late lunch at our villa we retired for a brief afternoon nap following which we spent an hour splashing around in our private pool.

Dinner was hosted by the lovely Norliza at the sea front terrace of Frangipani. Paired perfectly with a winner of a hand picked French Pinot Noir, Chef Marc Abed started of the evening with some sundried tomato hummus, a labneh cucumber roll, miso black cod fingers, duo cheese balls, baby lettuce with maple glassed roasted duck, fattoush with pomegranate molasses and chia seeds and some tomato Burrata Salad. This exotic course of starters was followed by the fabulous entree’s of a medium rare rib eye & tenderloin and a grilled corn fed chicken breast. Vishal our server presented us with a choice of sauces which included blue cheese, peppercorn, bernaise tarragon, shiraz wine jus, creamy three mushrooms and a chimichurri sauce. This remarkable feast was accompanied by soft, buttery and delicious mashed potatoes with asparagus hollandaise.

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A dinner fit for Kings can never be rushed through and we took time over our meal as our conversation with Norliza was a friendly, comfortable and incredibly interesting one as we learned about her exciting life in the hospitality industry. Her journey from the time she worked with the renowned Como group to how she was handpicked to head the Zaya island property was a truly inspiring one. She told us about the 32 boutique one bedroom beach villas on the property, each offering a distinct and unique vista with a private pool and a location which she described perfectly as a tribute to barefoot luxury. Norliza explained that a unique feature about this luxurious resort was the fact that they had accommodations in different sizes to cater to all kinds of families.

Chef Marc served up a delicious Tiramisu and Panna Cotta dessert feast post dinner, following which we returned to our lavish villa. The light ocean breeze created a romantic nip in the air and tempted us to put on our walking shoes. Underneath the gentle, quiet moonlit and starry sky, Laveena and I walked hand in hand on our private patio which was large enough to help us work up a sweat and burn up a few calories. I was excited, as tomorrow was Laveena’s birthday and I hoped that my carefully planned day would be executed to perfection.

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The next morning at around 11 am, our masseurs arrived at our villa. Juliana & Wahyu massaged away the daily stresses built up in our bodies and pampered us for 90 heavenly minutes. Rejuvenated and eager to wash of the oil off our bodies, we showered and snacked on white chocolate coated strawberries as Ed Sheeran’s ‘Photograph’ played in the background. Our butler Joe rang a short while later to ask when we would like to be served our champagne brunch. We said that we would be ready to eat in an hour. We walked to the edge of our villa deck and this time lay down on the lounge chairs with our books in hand. I am yet to progress to a kindle as the thrill I feel when I turn the pages of a paperback is unmatched and can never be replaced with a gadget. I remember reading somewhere that as a book ages, the ink, the paper and the glue break down and release an interesting smell. To me the smell is a magical mix of vanilla, nut and grass. Laveena turned to me and said that this was a perfect start to her day and she couldn’t have asked for a better birthday celebration. She thanked God for this infinite blessing and shortly afterward we walked back into the living room and let in our butler Joe, our server Vimara and the Chef. We were asked to be seated at our grand villa table for 10 and were served hash browns, veal bacon, chicken sausages, an egg white omelette for Laveena with peppers, asparagus and ham, while I had an omelette with red chilli powder, mushrooms and cheese. This was accompanied by a Middle Eastern menu consisting of labneh, shanklish, foul medammes and balilla while the bakery basket offered us plain and chocolate croissants, arabic bread, sour dough baguettes and muffins. There was also a plate of neatly cut fresh fruits. All of this was served up with a chilled bottle of Veuve Cliquot.

As we indulged in the breakfast banquet, we appreciated the architectural brilliance of the villa and the philosophy of bringing into the plush inside of our living room, the natural light, the stunning and vast blueness of the ocean and the general outdoors. I knew that we had experienced a similar feeling before, but it all paled in comparison to what we felt at Zaya at Nurai island. The word Nurai is derived from the Arabic word ‘Nur’ which means light and our four bed palatial villa was designed as a perfect reflection of this light.

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Even as we imagined that the island couldn’t possibly offer a more luxurious accommodation, Joe told us that the beach estate villa had six bedrooms. There are eleven of these villas on the island, cleverly tucked under sweeping grass canopies, each with access to its own private beach, undisturbed ocean views and infinity swimming pools.

Since the island offers water sports, post brunch we headed to the water sports centre. With Laveena’s hands wrapped tightly around my waist, I hit the throttle on my water scooter and we raced into the open sea. The rush of adrenalin left us with an extreme feeling of exhilaration.  What was also amazing was the fact that at one point when we looked around, we could see only the expanse of the azure blue ocean surrounding us on all four sides.

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A little over an hour later we were back in the comfort of our villa. While we were out, housekeeping had decorated our bedroom and our bathroom beautifully. While the playlist on the iPad had Laveena’s favourite songs playing through the villa, the bathroom had mood lighting with scented candles decorating it. A hot bath with essential oils and soothing salts had been prepared for us and champagne chilling in ice had been placed by the grand tub. For the evening, the management had arranged a very special birthday dinner on the open deck, below the moonlit Arabian sky. Almost like a beautiful magic carpet, our table for two was set up by the edge of the deck while the sound of the evening waves was accompanied by a gentle ocean breeze. The chef had set up his BBQ grill and on the menu that evening was a cold mezze platter of hummus, babganoush and vine leaves. The stars twinkled in their stately constellations and the electric quietness around us had only our conversation, Richard Clayderman’s music and the polite service of our servers Vimara and Ravi for company. Chef Vipin then worked his magic on the hot mezze which included the sawda dajaj, the lamb kibbeh and the cheese sambousek. The BBQ mains were lamb chops, tiger prawns, lamb kofta, shish kebab and shish tawook with broccoli, roasted potato and corn on the cob as side dishes. We finally were treated to a dessert feast of date cakes, mouhalabieh and kunafa.

I cannot begin to describe how perfect the evening was. We finished with a quiet dance and a prayer of eternal gratitude and were so grateful for the time we spent on this dream getaway island, which although small and natural, is both pleasantly rustic and beautifully landscaped. At Zaya, the standards of hospitality are high with housekeeping services at par with the very best in the industry. We loved the privacy offered to us at our more than luxurious villa and felt that what scored above all else was the incredible accessibility of this holiday jewel in the middle east. Just minutes away from Abu Dhabi and less than an hour and fifteen minutes away from Dubai, it is hard to enjoy the sheer magnificence and enchantment of Zaya Nurai island, unless personally experienced.

A royal, grand and most magnificent stay at the Taj Falaknuma Palace

For the Dussehra (Indian festival which signifies the victory of good over evil in hindu mythology) holiday break, Laveena and I travelled to Hyderabad, a city over 400 years old and rich in it’s history and culture. Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, established the city of Hyderabad in 1591. The Qutb Shahi dynasty ruled Hyderabad for nearly a century before it was captured by the Mughals. It was in 1724 that Asif Jah, a Mughal viceroy, declared his sovereignty over Hyderabad and created his own dynasty which came to be known as the Nizams of Hyderabad.

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We were picked up at the airport by the Taj Falaknuma’s spanking new Jaguar car with freshly smelling interiors and an ‘In Car’ Amenity which had Jordan dates, chocolate dipped apricots, sugar coated nuts and crunchies, in little white porcelain bowls which were neatly placed in a wooden carved box. A scrolled note listing out the contents, was placed in the box with a royal blue ribbon on it. I loved this personal welcome touch which gave us a taste of the high standards of hospitality which lay ahead. A thirty minute drive from the airport, a part of which includes a smooth ride along the spankingly new and green airport road, brings you into the old town. And as you drive through the town your eyes chance upon a majestic sight. In all of it’s white glory, preening in it’s neo-classical magnificence on top of Koh-i-Tur hill, you feast in awe as you glance for the very first time at the grand Falaknuma palace.

We were greeted at the boundary gate by security who with a traditional ‘Adab’ directed our hotel car into the Nizam’s palace grounds. At the clock gate, known to be the ceremonial entryway to the palace, our car came to a gentle halt and a host of hotel staff stepped forward to receive us. We were later informed that in the days when the palace was occupied by the Nizam, in the chamber above the gate, musicians beat on their drums and blew on their shehnais to announce the arrival of the Nizam’s special guests. Although there were no musicians waiting to announce our arrival, we were welcomed warmly, shown through the Clock gate and led to a waiting horse carriage, complete with a regally dressed blue turbaned rider. The clip clopping of the horse hooves made the carriage ride a perfectly delightful start to this royal holiday. As the carriage passed the well manicured gardens on the left hand side of our ride to the main palace, I spotted a peacock displaying his plumage, almost as a sign of secret welcome, while on the right appeared the impressive coronation hall.

And then, the carriage turned and rode through an arch before coming to a halt on a paved terrace in front of the most stunning and grand palace we had ever seen. Awed by the beauty of the miraculous vision of one man and his inspiration from his travels through Europe, Laveena and I stared at the Falaknuma palace in absolute amazement. Work on this palace was started by the then Prime Minister of Hyderabad and Berar, Nawab Viqar Ul Omra in 1884, who built it as his private residence at a cost of forty lakh rupees. He was from the Paigah family and was the uncle and brother-in-law of the 6th Nizam, Nawab Mir Mehboob Ali Khan Bahadur. The palace, situated on a 32 acre piece of land, is built in the shape of a scorpion, with two pincers spread out as wings in the north. The main building and kitchen occupy the middle part while the harem quarters, the Gol Bangla and the Zenana Mahal stretch to the south.

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The name Falaknuma in urdu means the ‘Mirror of the sky’ and to greet us as we alighted from the carriage, was the hotel director of sales, the affable young Bikramjit Bhangoo, ever smiling and warm and indeed a perfect representative of the palace to give you that special feeling of high class Taj hospitality. After a dab of cold scented towels and not one but two welcome drinks for each of us, we were led up the grand marble staircase, by a uniformed guardsman, holding a metal pole with royal insignia on it. Just as we crossed the first flight of steps, we were showered with rose petals as part of the welcome ceremony, a nice touch, which both Laveena and I loved. Finally, a young lady greeted us at the entrance to the fountain vestibule with a fragrant arabian jasmine lei. We were then introduced to our butler Bhiboo, who we were told, would be our personal assistant through our stay at the palace. We were checked in under the grand staircase and were shown to our suite, located in a private courtyard designed for a time when women were not allowed to be freely seen, a time when they observed the purdah system. The grand royal Shehzadi suite was done up in a style which although opulent to the core, was complemented by custom made Turkish carpets, upholstery and tapestry which gave one the feeling of being in a grand palace room, a very well decorated living area, a walk in wardrobe with a wooden floor and ample cupboard space, a bedroom with a high ceiling and a touch of tudor influence and a huge marbled bathroom which had a tub with tiled mirrors all around it, a place where even Cleopatra would have looked forward to a milk bath soak every day. And the housekeeping staff each evening, did ask us our bath preferences, which included a milk bath, an attar (an essential oil perfume) bath and a foam bath. For the three nights we were there, we bathed in milk twice and in attar once and I have to say that the experiences were rejuvenating. We finally thought we understood the science behind these elaborate baths so loved by royalty.

Lunch that afternoon was at Adaa, one of the two restaurants at the Palace. The Falaknuma is blessed to have one of the most multi talented Executive Chefs, I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Sajesh Nair welcomed us to the palace with a delightful culinary spread, fit for Kings. To start with, we were served a dahi ke kebab, a pan seared yoghurt patty with assorted nuts and dry fruits. This was followed by a trio kebab platter of Shikampuri lamb (ground lamb patty – an in house speciality) , pathar ke gosht ( escalopes of kid lamb, marinated for 48 hours and cooked on a hot granite stone) and lagaan ke tangdi (chicken drumstick cooked in a sealed brass pot and flavoured with tandoori spices and coconut milk). If ever I had to pen down a couplet about Kebabs, it would be about the Pathar ke gosht. The first bite sends you to the gates of food heaven where you linger and relish the deliciousness of the meat. The second, allows you to enter the gates of paradise where you stay on until you finish that last perfectly marinated melt in the mouth meat treat. Next came the world famous Hyderabadi kacche ghost ki biryani (fragrant basmati rice mixed with choice cuts of kid lamb, marinated overnight). We walked away from the restaurant with visions of what it may have been like to feast daily on food made in the royal kitchens.

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We returned to our suite and after a brief nap, headed to the hotel swimming pool to burn up some of the calories we had gained at the grand lunch. The water temperature was perfect and the views of the palace from the pool were simply majestic. As the sun began to set, a thought which crossed both our minds was that at the Falaknuma, one doesn’t get the feeling of the property being overcrowded. Whether you walk through the corridors of history, stroll along the terraces and the gardens, or visit one of the many rooms displaying rare collections of treasures including statues, paintings, books and manuscripts or even furniture, one doesn’t cross the path of other guests very often. This adds to the magic of the palace which has a total of 60 rooms in all.

In the spring of 1897, Amir e Paigah Sir Viqar Ul Omra, the man responsible for building The Falaknuma Palace, invited the 6th Nizam, Mehboob Ali Pasha, as his guest to the palace. It is said that the Nizam fell so in love with the palace that he decided to stay back at the magnificent property which also belonged to his older sister, who was the wife of Sir Viqar. The Nizam first stayed a week, then extended this to a fortnight and finally stayed on for a month, which prompted Sir Viqar to offer him the palace as Nazar (offering). The Nizam appreciated the offer and is reported to have paid Sir Viqar a sum of Rs 20 lakhs for the palace. In addition to this, there are reports that the Nizam also paid of Sir Viqar’s huge debts to the banks. The palace thereon was used by the Nizam as a royal guest house. From where it stood 2000 feet above sea level, the Nizam would proudly show his guests views of the entire city of Hyderabad which lay below. And then the guests would enjoy the refined elegance and luxurious grace of the palace and the hard to match hospitality of the Nizam. Praise was showered on the exquisite wood work, the rose wood carvings, the stained glass windows, the leather upholstered chairs, the magnificent marble entrance with the fountain, the frescoed ceiling, the venetian chandeliers and the coming together of Indian and European craftsmanship to create what has withstood time and can be enjoyed by guests today as the finest palace hotel in the world.

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Dinner that evening was at the Italian restaurant Celeste. We started off with a Mango basil soup, a cold concoction of alphonso mangoes and basil and scented with sichuan peppers and berry bruschetta. We both loved it and called for the sous chef Mahaveer Purwal to thank and praise him. We were pleasantly surprised with their healthy menu option and their gluten free pasta on offer. Laveena loved her Quinoa fussili bolognese while I, being high on my holiday spirit, opted for a pepperoni and cheese, thin crust pizza. Not what one would think of as an ideal meal choice in a royal palace, but I can assure you that even royals may have enjoyed feasting on junk food every once in a blue moon. Our Italian meal was complemented with a dessert recommendation from the Chef, a kaffirlime pannacotta served with stewed figs. Mouthwateringly delicious, yet again.

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After a wonderful nights rest we woke up the next morning and headed to the palace gardens for an early morning walk. At any time of the night or day, the luxury of the Falaknuma stands out in all of it’s glory. A brisk 30 minute walk in the royal gardens helped us build an appetite which we thought we may have lost forever after our previous days feasting. Breakfast that morning was served to us in the garden. With the trees serving as our natural canopy we enjoyed an interesting breakfast of soft bread with paya (trotters), kheema (minced mutton meat) and crispy dosas.

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At 11 am that morning we had planned a private meeting with Mr. Mohammed Faiz, the body guard of the 8th Nizam. Mr. Faiz was known to be the expert historian at the palace with deep first hand knowledge about the Nizam’s family history and intricate details about each of the prominent rooms at the palace. We met at the colonnaded verandah at the top of the double staircase. We were told that this is where the Nizam’s visitors were personally greeted. Hanging atop are hexagonal shaped lanterns made from ruby red and clear glass panels, held together by a delicate metal frame. The floor on which we stood was paved with tiles displaying colourful geometric and floral patterns. These patterns are similar to those of the late Victorian period and brought out the richness of the tiles imported from England. The verandahs which wrap around the front part of the palace and on the sides too, have wooden dividers which we were told were used to conceal the activities of the palace staff. From the verandah, Faiz took us through the fountain vestibule, onto the grand staircase and then to the many exquisite rooms that are for resident viewing at the palace. My personal favourite was the banquet hall with a 33 meter long table which was designed to serve 101, including the Nizam and his guests. Five elaborate chandeliers alternating with ceiling fans hang from the panelled carved wooden ceiling above. Since dancing was known to be a popular form of entertainment at the palace, the ballroom with the wall mirrors and the brocaded drapes, is a treat to step into. The glass chandeliers here too add to the grandness of the place and helps transport you to the times when the Nizam entertained his royal guests in style. After a wonderful lesson in history and a walk through this spectacular palace, Laveena and I returned to our room and decided on a light salad lunch. We’re glad we ate light as later that afternoon, the young, dashing, debonair and incredibly charming GM of the Falaknuma Palace, Mr. Girish Sehgal, invited us for high tea. Over scones, light flaky pastries, cucumber sandwiches, jasmine tea and sparkling wine, the three of us chatted and bonded and shared travel experiences and interesting and exciting stories and before we knew it we were speaking as dear friends. What was to be a quick 30-45 minute informal meeting over tea, lasted nearly 2 hours and as we bid adieu we promised to stay in touch even after we returned home.

As the sun began to set, the sounds of sufi music wafted through the palace grounds. Our always smiling and ubiquitous butler Bhiboo showed us the way through the gardens to where a group of Qawwall’s (singers of sufi music) were singing devotional music reminiscent of the days of the Nizam. A sufi saint, Amir Khusro Dehlavi is credited with fusing Indian, Persian, Arabic and Turkish music to create the Qawwali (sufi devotional music) in 13th century India. We were hypnotised by the music and so enjoyed the Mehfil-e-sama (a gathering held for Sufi devotional music) that we involuntarily began swaying to the Qawwali and I was tempted to act out a scene from an Indian bollywood film Jodha Akbar, where the emperor arises from his seat and walks to the whirling Dervish’’s and is so intoxicated by the mystic of the music, that he begins to spin on the balls of his feet, in sync with the energy flow of the universe.

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That night, dressed in our fine Indian wear, we dined privately at the Gol Bungalow and relived the opulence enjoyed by the royals in this enchanting setting. As the lights of the cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad twinkled below the intricate terrace with it’s cast iron railings with classical palmette designs, the food prepared in the Royal kitchens enraptured us in their sheer deliciousness. Every dish was a pure and perfect mix of taste, skill, craft and technique on a plate. The enticing flavours so well created in the royal kitchen by Sajesh Nair and his sous chef Emon Mukherjee would please any ruler and I am sure if they were both serving the guests of the Nizam, they would be rewarded handsomely for their culinary skills and immense talent. The first course was the Gosht Ka Marg, or the lamb broth flavoured with Cashew and indian spices and finished with fresh coriander and lime to taste. Laveena was so in love with this broth that she said she could feast on this every day of her life. This was followed by the Murgh Sikhanja (fresh herbs marinated chicken breast cooked on a charcoal grill), the patthar gosht (which I insisted on feasting on again) and Dakhni prawn ( fresh water prawns sautéed in a brass vessel with grounded masalas and southern spices). Next came the Hyderabai haleem with Sheermal bread and for the minutes spent relishing every bite of this exquisite dish i was lost in the world of food ecstasy. We were then served the rogani boti (choice cuts of kid lamb, marinated and cooked in a clay oven with assorted peppers and tandoori spices). Delicious paan flavoured ice cream for dessert helped balance the heat from the spices and made for a perfect finale to a meal which very well may have been served on the tables of the Nizam’s of Hyderabad.

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The next day the management at the Falaknuma had organised a private viewing of replicas of the Nizam’s jewels for us. In the living area of our suite, a representative from one of the jewellers who adorned the Nizam’s family, carefully laid out a spectacular collection of rings, earrings, necklaces and chokers, each an exact replica of exquisite pieces of jewellery which belonged to the Nizam’s prized collection. The evidence of the highly skilled craftsmanship was seen in the brilliantly cut stones, polished and eventually finished to make for a magnificent piece of jewellery. The gentleman who showed us the jewellery was also an expert on pearls. He gave us a brief insight into the different types of pearls which we found to be very interesting. The viewing of the jewellery was followed by a meeting with a professional perfumer. The attar industry in Hyderabad is known to by a 400 year old industry and the experience of creating our own perfume was truly a memorable one. After we completed these two activities, Laveena and I headed to the Jiva spa at the palace. Here we were pampered, like royalty would have been, with a two and half hour long spa treatment which was called the Nawab E Khas. That night we dined by the coronation hall, at the Grill. We were attended to by Prachi Chavan and Imran Sazid. Both Prachi and Imran made us feel so very special, attentive to our every requirement and need. Executive Chef Sajesh served us Raan E Adaa, a signature dish of baby lamb leg, braised with onions and aromatic herbs and finished in a tandoor. The wine, a D’Arenberg Laughing Magpie Shiraz Viognier 2011, McLaren Vale, Australia was hand picked by the executive FNB manager Siddharth Sathe and paired perfectly with the Raan. The Falaknuma is very lucky to have Siddharth, supremely articulate and polite to a fault. He is a trained and extremely knowledgeable wine professional and I very much appreciated the discussion we had about his many trips to vineyards across the world and his list of personal favourites, a fine selection of both red and white, many of which he was eager I experience on my future trips to wine country.

When it was time to leave the Falaknuma, Laveena and I felt heavy hearted. In as short a time as four days we had fallen so deeply in love with the palace that like the 6th Nizam, we too were reluctant to leave. We had made a life long friend in Girish the GM, Bikramjeet the director of Sales and Siddharth the executive FNB Manager. Restaurant manager Jithin Nizar who in detail had shared stories about how in almost military like precision after weeks and weeks of intense training he so perfectly orchestrated service at the banquet table serving 101 guests, was now an FB friend as was the ever smiling and eager to help Varun Sharma, assistant restaurant manager, who was on his toes each time we were served at the restaurant. He made sure that every requirement of ours was fulfilled with a polite ‘certainly’ which helped complete every dining experience at the palace. A special thank you also goes out to FNB associates, Kishore Kumar and Abdul Nassar who waited on our tables at dinner and helped add to the grandeur of the evenings with their high and impeccable service standards.

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A stay at the Falaknuma is all about feasting like royals, walks through corridors of rich and vibrant palace history, perfumed baths, fine wines, very high standards of hospitality, peacocks and poetry. Girish Sehgal’s team at Falaknuma are a shining reflection of what the pinnacle of hospitality standards should define. Even before we were checked in and through our stay, each and every staff member convinced us that we were indeed Royal guests of the Nizam. Even as we bid adieu and were walking toward the carriage to leave the palace grounds, the management had set up a little surprise pre birthday celebration for Laveena. A table with a gluten free birthday cake on it, strewn with rose petals and with two glasses of sparking wine were waiting for us. As the waiting staff sang ‘happy birthday’, Laveena made a wish and cut her cake. Flower petals once again were showered upon us from the upper terraces of the palace. And just when we both believed that there couldn’t possibly be anything more to impress us, our ever attentive butler Bhiboo who had seen Laveena glance at a coffee table book entitled ‘ Falaknuma’ at the property, had prompted the management to have one gift wrapped for her. This was the perfect birthday gift and goodbye souvenir to help us live and re-live the fabulous royal memories we had collected at the Falaknuma. For every reader and follower of my blog, I have a simple message. The Taj Falaknuma Palace is number one on our list of must experience hotels in the world. It may have been voted as the number one palace hotel in the world by trip advisor, but it has Travelmango’s vote as the number one hotel in the world for 2015.

Je t'aime beaucoup Annecy

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Our final leg of our summer vacation had us travel from the ski town resort of Chamonix to the sleepy alpine town of Annecy, in southeastern France. The town is located where the River Thiou meets Lac d’Annecy. Johnny Depp, the Hollywood heartthrob is believed to have fallen so in love with this romantic little French town that he purchased a beautiful home here.

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The town is known for its Vieille Ville (old town), with it’s tiny cobbled pedestrian streets, it’s winding flower lined canals, it’s many stone bridges and pastel-coloured houses and the fabulous crystal blue lake with the French alps as a backdrop.

After checking in at our hotel, we asked the young lady at the reception how far the old town was? Chantal pulled out a city map and with an ever friendly smile explained that it would take us all of 7 minutes to reach Vielle Ville. As we followed the route on the map, we walked under tall stone arched gates and came upon a magnificently charming part of Annecy, which we guessed was the old town. Free of vehicular traffic, the place was buzzing with excitement. We saw an abundance of restaurants, bars and cafes and happy looking people walking everywhere. Many were strolling hand in hand, oblivious of the world around them while a few appeared hopelessly in love and as thrilled as we were to be in this magical little old town of Annecy.

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We walked by a church which I noticed had a beautiful gold statue of mother Mary on the roof. We decided to learn more about this neo-classical style religious structure and walked up to the wooden door. Notre Dame de Liese, also known as Our Lady of Joy, we learned is a french catholic church that was built between 1846 to 1851. The original church was demolished during the French Revolution, however the 16th century clock tower survived and today forms part of Notre Dame de Liese. After stepping into the church and saying a prayer, we spent some time at the side altars dedicated to St Francois de Sales and to the Rosary.

 

We stepped out feeling spiritually rejuvenated and walked around some more, building up an appetite for what promised to be a fabulous meal at Restaurant le 7367. A french jewel in Annecy, highly recommended by Chantal.

As Laveena and I treated ourselves to the talent of street musicians and tap dancers, performing by the canals and side streets, we grew to love this little town and were excited to call it home for the next 3 nights.

As the sun set on Annecy, we found ourselves at the entrance of the recommended restaurant. Once seated, our friendly French waitress, Amélie, introduced us to the specials on the menu. She recommended we try the fresh cod, the pork and coconut muesli, the whipped basil with mozzarella, the salers steak and the salmon tartar. Feeling partial to her french accent and hungry too, we relented to all of her suggestions and settled down for what promised to be a gastronomical adventure, packed with Michelin styled surprises along the way. The restaurant sommelier, Emanuelle, recommended the Alphonse Mellot Sancerre Rouge Generation XIX, a world class burgundy, a pinot noir which had a depth and complexity, which was just delicious. The food more than impressed. Every bite was like a special gift to our pallete. We were not in a hurry and did not rush through our meal. Instead, we savoured every delightful bite and celebrated with a chocolate fondant lava cake and a creme brulle, both of which tasted like they were made in the kitchens of dessert heaven. At the end of our meal, Ameile, gave us a box which had dice in it. She said if we rolled 7367, we wouldn’t have to pay for our meal. I of course didn’t mind paying for this fabulous three course authentic french treat, but I wasn’t going to ignore the theatrics on offer. I never was a gambler and strongly believe in the maxim, ‘ lucky in love, unlucky in gambling’. I offered Laveena the dice to throw. She didn’t come up with the required number. Amelie insisted I too try. I did give it a go and was excited to see a 7 and a 6 on the table, however the other two digits were far off. We still happily paid for our meal and walked out into the chilly night, with brightly lit streetlights bouncing yellow hues of the cobblestone narrow streets.

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As we headed back to our hotel, we noticed a long winding line of people outside what seemed to be an ice-cream shop. Curiosity got the better of us and even though we had sinned and feasted like gluttons at the restaurant, our holiday spirits overpowered our will, as I asked a waiting customer about this place. He smiled and incredulously asked, ‘you are in Annecy, and you do not know Le Palais Des Glaces?’ Laveena cleverly responded that we did know about it now and we too stood in line, befriending Jerome and his lovely lady Eva, who highly recommended we try the rhubarb and the kinda bueno gelato flavours. Even though we were bursting, we ordered single scoops of Eva and Jerome’s favourite gelatos after which we headed back to our hotel for a good nights rest.

 

The next morning, after breakfast, we stepped out to visit Château d’Annecy, once home to the counts of Geneva. The Chateau, we learned, is a restored castle, bought by the town of Annecy and transformed into a museum, le musée-château d’Annecy. Steeped in history and a victim of many fires, the castle was abandoned in the 17th century and later repaired to serve as barracks until 1947.The castle is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture. The museum houses numerous regional sculptures and paintings, a collection of vernacular furniture, dating from the 15th century onwards and photographs and models of Alpine chalets.

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After the museum we headed to The Palais de l’Ile , popularly called the “old prison”. Built in the 12th century, The Palais de l’Ile was a court house and a prison. The prison cells can be seen at the site while one can also visit the exhibition on display highlighting the architecture and heritage of the time. A popular symbol of Annecy, the Palais de L’lle is said to be one of the most photographed places in France.

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For lunch we stopped by one of the restaurants at the old town and sat by the canal, watching the lazy ‘town world’ go by. Locals happily interacted with tourists, and everywhere we looked, cameras and cell phones were being used to capture memories of Annecy, fondly referred to by many as “the Venice of the alps”. The Plein Sud is situated on the side of the canal leading to the prison in the old town area of Annecy. Our waiter, Fabien, recommended some great french beers which he insisted went fabulously well with the local french cuisine on offer at the restaurant.

      

Post lunch we walked over to The Cathedral of Saint-Pierre. Built in the 16th century, the Cathedral houses some fabulous baroque artworks from the 19th century. Right next to the cathedral is the bishop’s palace. We walked over a bridge into the garden of the bishop’s palace and along the Quai Madame de Warens to the Rue de la Republique. From the Pont de la Republique we had some breathtaking views of the river Thiou, one of the shortest rivers in Europe.

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Laveena and I returned to our hotel and rested for a while before heading out in the evening for a lake side picnic at Jardins de l’ Europe. The landscaped garden dates back to 1863 and is a perfect setting for a picnic. With a picnic rug crafted from beautiful soft wool, a polyester reverse that we were told would protect us from wet grass, an Olga Raffault, 2006 Cabernet Franc and some sandwiches and salad prepared by our hotel, we lay out our picnic treats onto the blanket on the cold grass. As we talked about the magic of this place, I sipped on my red wine, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a certain elegance and opulence to this franc which I am glad I experienced. As we feasted, we held hands and stared out at the expanse of lake Annecy in front of us. We noticed other couples too had spread out their blankets for a picnic. Romance was everywhere and we felt it only natural to walk to the Pont des Amours (Lovers’ Bridge) after dinner. The delicate-looking iron bridge was constructed in 1907. We took pictures and then walked on through the garden and to a beach where many locals were out with their friends, sitting by the lake, singing and strumming on their guitars and celebrating ‘life’. A group of young locals asked us to join them and we did. Although they were singing french songs, they asked us where we came from. They were surprised to learn we were from India and when they did, the guitarist belted out a few notes and words from the Bollywood film Dhoom. He sang ‘Dhoom Machale’ and with our new found French friends, we got up and danced by the lake, gleefully joining in the singing and the fun. We were sad to say goodbye and as we were leaving, one of the girls, Celeste’, presented us with a flower and said that she had never met an Indian couple before and that she was very happy to meet us that lovely evening by the lake. We started to walk back to our hotel, but not before one more night walk through the old town, with it’s brightly lit gothic style buildings and winding narrow streets. We were in love with Annecy and it’s people, and like Johnny Depp, we too hoped we could have a home here someday…..but to afford that I would have to audition for the role of Jack Sparrow’s Indian friend on the next Pirates of the Caribbean.

Je t’aime beaucoup Annecy

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Our final leg of our summer vacation had us travel from the ski town resort of Chamonix to the sleepy alpine town of Annecy, in southeastern France. The town is located where the River Thiou meets Lac d’Annecy. Johnny Depp, the Hollywood heartthrob is believed to have fallen so in love with this romantic little French town that he purchased a beautiful home here.

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The town is known for its Vieille Ville (old town), with it’s tiny cobbled pedestrian streets, it’s winding flower lined canals, it’s many stone bridges and pastel-coloured houses and the fabulous crystal blue lake with the French alps as a backdrop.

After checking in at our hotel, we asked the young lady at the reception how far the old town was? Chantal pulled out a city map and with an ever friendly smile explained that it would take us all of 7 minutes to reach Vielle Ville. As we followed the route on the map, we walked under tall stone arched gates and came upon a magnificently charming part of Annecy, which we guessed was the old town. Free of vehicular traffic, the place was buzzing with excitement. We saw an abundance of restaurants, bars and cafes and happy looking people walking everywhere. Many were strolling hand in hand, oblivious of the world around them while a few appeared hopelessly in love and as thrilled as we were to be in this magical little old town of Annecy.

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We walked by a church which I noticed had a beautiful gold statue of mother Mary on the roof. We decided to learn more about this neo-classical style religious structure and walked up to the wooden door. Notre Dame de Liese, also known as Our Lady of Joy, we learned is a french catholic church that was built between 1846 to 1851. The original church was demolished during the French Revolution, however the 16th century clock tower survived and today forms part of Notre Dame de Liese. After stepping into the church and saying a prayer, we spent some time at the side altars dedicated to St Francois de Sales and to the Rosary.

 

We stepped out feeling spiritually rejuvenated and walked around some more, building up an appetite for what promised to be a fabulous meal at Restaurant le 7367. A french jewel in Annecy, highly recommended by Chantal.

As Laveena and I treated ourselves to the talent of street musicians and tap dancers, performing by the canals and side streets, we grew to love this little town and were excited to call it home for the next 3 nights.

As the sun set on Annecy, we found ourselves at the entrance of the recommended restaurant. Once seated, our friendly French waitress, Amélie, introduced us to the specials on the menu. She recommended we try the fresh cod, the pork and coconut muesli, the whipped basil with mozzarella, the salers steak and the salmon tartar. Feeling partial to her french accent and hungry too, we relented to all of her suggestions and settled down for what promised to be a gastronomical adventure, packed with Michelin styled surprises along the way. The restaurant sommelier, Emanuelle, recommended the Alphonse Mellot Sancerre Rouge Generation XIX, a world class burgundy, a pinot noir which had a depth and complexity, which was just delicious. The food more than impressed. Every bite was like a special gift to our pallete. We were not in a hurry and did not rush through our meal. Instead, we savoured every delightful bite and celebrated with a chocolate fondant lava cake and a creme brulle, both of which tasted like they were made in the kitchens of dessert heaven. At the end of our meal, Ameile, gave us a box which had dice in it. She said if we rolled 7367, we wouldn’t have to pay for our meal. I of course didn’t mind paying for this fabulous three course authentic french treat, but I wasn’t going to ignore the theatrics on offer. I never was a gambler and strongly believe in the maxim, ‘ lucky in love, unlucky in gambling’. I offered Laveena the dice to throw. She didn’t come up with the required number. Amelie insisted I too try. I did give it a go and was excited to see a 7 and a 6 on the table, however the other two digits were far off. We still happily paid for our meal and walked out into the chilly night, with brightly lit streetlights bouncing yellow hues of the cobblestone narrow streets.

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As we headed back to our hotel, we noticed a long winding line of people outside what seemed to be an ice-cream shop. Curiosity got the better of us and even though we had sinned and feasted like gluttons at the restaurant, our holiday spirits overpowered our will, as I asked a waiting customer about this place. He smiled and incredulously asked, ‘you are in Annecy, and you do not know Le Palais Des Glaces?’ Laveena cleverly responded that we did know about it now and we too stood in line, befriending Jerome and his lovely lady Eva, who highly recommended we try the rhubarb and the kinda bueno gelato flavours. Even though we were bursting, we ordered single scoops of Eva and Jerome’s favourite gelatos after which we headed back to our hotel for a good nights rest.

 

The next morning, after breakfast, we stepped out to visit Château d’Annecy, once home to the counts of Geneva. The Chateau, we learned, is a restored castle, bought by the town of Annecy and transformed into a museum, le musée-château d’Annecy. Steeped in history and a victim of many fires, the castle was abandoned in the 17th century and later repaired to serve as barracks until 1947.The castle is listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture. The museum houses numerous regional sculptures and paintings, a collection of vernacular furniture, dating from the 15th century onwards and photographs and models of Alpine chalets.

IMG_10281 

After the museum we headed to The Palais de l’Ile , popularly called the “old prison”. Built in the 12th century, The Palais de l’Ile was a court house and a prison. The prison cells can be seen at the site while one can also visit the exhibition on display highlighting the architecture and heritage of the time. A popular symbol of Annecy, the Palais de L’lle is said to be one of the most photographed places in France.

IMG_1046 IMG_1044

For lunch we stopped by one of the restaurants at the old town and sat by the canal, watching the lazy ‘town world’ go by. Locals happily interacted with tourists, and everywhere we looked, cameras and cell phones were being used to capture memories of Annecy, fondly referred to by many as “the Venice of the alps”. The Plein Sud is situated on the side of the canal leading to the prison in the old town area of Annecy. Our waiter, Fabien, recommended some great french beers which he insisted went fabulously well with the local french cuisine on offer at the restaurant.

      

Post lunch we walked over to The Cathedral of Saint-Pierre. Built in the 16th century, the Cathedral houses some fabulous baroque artworks from the 19th century. Right next to the cathedral is the bishop’s palace. We walked over a bridge into the garden of the bishop’s palace and along the Quai Madame de Warens to the Rue de la Republique. From the Pont de la Republique we had some breathtaking views of the river Thiou, one of the shortest rivers in Europe.

IMG_1030 Canal Du Vasse Annecy France Wallpaper #88295 - Resolution 2880x900 px

Laveena and I returned to our hotel and rested for a while before heading out in the evening for a lake side picnic at Jardins de l’ Europe. The landscaped garden dates back to 1863 and is a perfect setting for a picnic. With a picnic rug crafted from beautiful soft wool, a polyester reverse that we were told would protect us from wet grass, an Olga Raffault, 2006 Cabernet Franc and some sandwiches and salad prepared by our hotel, we lay out our picnic treats onto the blanket on the cold grass. As we talked about the magic of this place, I sipped on my red wine, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a certain elegance and opulence to this franc which I am glad I experienced. As we feasted, we held hands and stared out at the expanse of lake Annecy in front of us. We noticed other couples too had spread out their blankets for a picnic. Romance was everywhere and we felt it only natural to walk to the Pont des Amours (Lovers’ Bridge) after dinner. The delicate-looking iron bridge was constructed in 1907. We took pictures and then walked on through the garden and to a beach where many locals were out with their friends, sitting by the lake, singing and strumming on their guitars and celebrating ‘life’. A group of young locals asked us to join them and we did. Although they were singing french songs, they asked us where we came from. They were surprised to learn we were from India and when they did, the guitarist belted out a few notes and words from the Bollywood film Dhoom. He sang ‘Dhoom Machale’ and with our new found French friends, we got up and danced by the lake, gleefully joining in the singing and the fun. We were sad to say goodbye and as we were leaving, one of the girls, Celeste’, presented us with a flower and said that she had never met an Indian couple before and that she was very happy to meet us that lovely evening by the lake. We started to walk back to our hotel, but not before one more night walk through the old town, with it’s brightly lit gothic style buildings and winding narrow streets. We were in love with Annecy and it’s people, and like Johnny Depp, we too hoped we could have a home here someday…..but to afford that I would have to audition for the role of Jack Sparrow’s Indian friend on the next Pirates of the Caribbean.

Mont Blanc, Chamonix – Marvellous and Magnificent

Last summer, from the beautiful swiss village of Gruyere’, Laveena and i journeyed by train to the valley of Chamonix, a commune located in the Rhone Alpes region in south eastern France,  home to the famous Mont Blanc or White mountain. We had heard from friends that Chamonix was not only renowned for its alpine skiing but also for it’s breathtakingly beautiful panoramic views of Aiguille du Midi, Pointe Helbronner on the Italian border and Le Brévent.

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The hotel we shortlisted, the Labrador Boutique Hotel in Chamonix is outside the main town and offers stunning views of Mont Blanc. Views of the Aiguille du Midi and the Drus mountains from the property are also quite spectacular. What makes the hotel even more special is the fact that it is built on a golf course with clear and unparalleled mountain views.

When we checked in, we were told by the hotel owner, that the golf course was first opened in 1934, with just 4 holes. The course now has 18 holes and is popular with local and holidaying golfers.

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We were shown to a stand alone Savoyard chalet, ‘Chalet Le Labrador’, authentic to look at from the outside and even more warm and traditional in it’s look and feel from the inside. When we walked into our room, we were greeted by that unique smell of pine wood interiors. The bed looked very cozy and comfortable and a glass door with wooden frames, led us to a patio with our own private garden. We decided right away that dinner that evening would be fresh salad, sandwiches and local french red wine on our private table for two on our garden patio. The bathroom was also of a fairly large size with a jacuzzi tub and a window with fabulous mountain views.

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After settling in and resting for a bit, we decided to set out for an early evening walk. We started in the direction of the main town and came upon a beautiful church. As we often do on our travels, we went inside the church, prayed with all our heart in the almost electric silence that enveloped this house of God, lit a candle and then stepped out to explore more of Chamonix. From the grounds around the church you have clear views of Aiguille du Midi. The name translates literally to “Needle of the Mid-day.” We were informed by some townsfolk that when the sun passes over the summit, it is noon. We found the local french people around Chamonix to be very friendly and eager to share information about their lovely town, with tourists. A resident we stopped for directions said that the town centre was quite a distance away and it would be best to take a bus to town. He also recommended a few nice local restaurants and bars we should visit. Since the evening sun was setting, we decided instead to shop for dinner and return to our chalet for our private garden meal. After an early dinner of freshly baked smoked and white cheddar panini, green garden fresh salad and some delicious red wine, a Syrah from the Rhône region, we stepped out again for a post dinner walk on the gorgeous grounds of the hotel. As we walked through the golf course, we enjoyed the breathtaking views of the glistening snow on top of Mont Blanc. I am not sure what you call the swirling mist like formation on the top of the peak, but I think it is virgin snow dust, riding the waves of the strong winds at that high point, 4,807 m above sea level. As we continued to walk the grounds of the pristinely green golf course with the air so fresh, we could hear sounds of a gurgling brook serenading us. We were drawn to the sound and as we walked toward it, hand in hand, giggling like two teenage kids in love, ripples of happiness crept through our bodies. After spending an hour walking underneath the bright stars, we returned to our chalet and retired for the night.

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We were excited about the next day and were looking forward to it, as our dear German friends, Lydia and Olli were to join us. They drove into Labrador around noon and were as awed by the mountain views from the property as we were. Lydia recommended we immediately plan a visit to the top of Mount Blanc and we did. We drove to the base of Aiguille du Midi from where we took the cable car to a height of 3842 meters, the closest we could get to Mont Blanc without hiking or climbing.

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In the cable car there was a french skier who told us that he would get off at a station called, Plan de l’Aiguille (2,317m), a mid station which was ideal for skiing. He said this was a point which was popular for hiking, rock climbing and paragliding.

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The cable car traversed past the Les Pelerins glacier before rising up the North Face of the Aiguille du Midi at the top station (3778m). We then climbed onto a footbridge which lead us to the Central Piton terrace. To get to the highest point possible for visitors, we had to ride an elevator inside the rock which took us 42 m higher to the top terrace which was at an altitude of 3842 m. Temperatures plummeted to below zero at this altitude and some of those present here were finding it hard to breath. Oxygen is thin at these heights and it takes the body time to acclimatise itself to the many changes you experience at this altitude. Blanketed in pure virgin white snow, the views from this point are unimaginably fantastic. Groups of brave heart winter sportsmen were seen adorning their gear as they stepped out over the edge to explore the unknown. The faint at heart gasped in amazement hoping that these thrill seekers would return home safe as a tiny misstep could cost them dear, despite all the ropes and safety harnesses seen dangling from metal clips attached to their thick waist belts.

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The one thing I real was looking forward to but sadly it was closed for maintenance, was the Aiguille du Midi Skywalk, “Step into the Void”, a glass room with a glass floor, situated off the uppermost terrace of the Aiguille du Midi at an altitude of 3842 metres. I had read that this was “the highest attraction in Europe”. It has three glass walls, a glass floor and glass ceiling panels. And once here you can experience in the safety of this glass shell, the greatest descent in Europe (4810m – 1440m). I was terribly upset to learn that this attraction would start up again a couple of weeks after we returned home.

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While on the mountain top, lines from PB Shelley’s famous poem ‘Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni’, came to mind.
Far, far above, piercing the infinite sky,
Mont Blanc appears,—still, snowy, and serene—
Its subject mountains their unearthly forms
Pile around it, ice and rock; broad vales between
Of frozen floods, unfathomable deeps,
Blue as the overhanging heaven, that spread
And wind among the accumulated steeps;

  

After taking 100s of photographs of the surrounding peaks, we returned to the base of the mountain and drove to a bar in town to wash down our experiences with some local beer. The MBC is Chamonix’s first Micro Brewery & Restaurant. Four Canadians who loved beer dreamed of opening a pub in the valley, a place where locals and tourists would meet and interact. The food was delicious and the local brews were fab. We walked out a little tipsy and returned to our hotel soon after. But rather than retire to our rooms, we decided to explore the wide open course and the surrounding forests and we did so revelling and singing with not a care in the world. In these quiet surroundings with only the mountains and trees watching us, we had little to be embarrassed about. As Lydia awed us with her gymnastic skills, her handstands and cartwheels, Olli practiced his golf swings with an imaginary club while Laveena and I ball room danced and made up fun steps as we went along. We finally called it a night and went back to our beautiful chalet where we fell asleep after spending an adventurous day in the mountains.

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After breakfast the next morning we headed down to Chamonix town. The local shops were fun to visit and we did enough shopping to build up an appetite. We walked around for a bit, watched some street performances and finally found a charming little french restaurant where we sat on the pavement, ordered some fabulous local beer and some really delicious french food. The rest of the day was spent discovering the town of Chamonix, it’s culture and some of its local history.

The next day we had a train and then a bus to catch to the quaint french lakeside alpine town of Annecy, known for it’s cobbled streets and winding canals.

Picture Postcard adventures in Gruyere

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The natural beauty of Gruyeres in hard to describe. Gruyères is a fascinating and pretty little medieval town, located in the upper valley of the Saane river, in the canton of Fribourg, in Switzerland.

We had visited the picture book town of Gruyere, with its rolling green landscape and the peaks of the Fribourg pre-Alps, a decade ago, on one of our many trips to Switzerland. Both Laveena and I remember having instantly fallen in love with this charming little town with ‘Happily Ever After’, fairytale like promises, written all over it. It was at the time we decided, that one day we would love to experience this story book like historical town as local residents.

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And this summer we did, as we booked ourselves into a quaint little inn, located on top of an 80 metre high hill, north of the alps, in the foothills of mount Moleson. Our hotel, ‘ Hôtel de Gruyères’, had breathtaking views of the castle, the church and the valley; views we would wake up to every morning with a ‘thank you’ prayer on our lips. The feeling one gets when standing at the verandah of your room at the inn, breathing in the freshness of the purest air ever, hearing the clanging of the town church bells, watching the grazing deer, sheep and cows, with no humans in sight, seeing the morning clouds lazily drift past the green hill tops, feeling the nip in the air graze the surface of your skin like the gentle touch of a butterfly’s wing, all of this and more, convinces you that this has to be the paradise, most pray for in the after life.

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After a delicious breakfast of freshly baked croissant, muesli, gruyere cheese with whole wheat toast, strawberry yoghurt, raspberry jam and home made granola cereal, Laveena and I on our first morning in Gruyere, left our inn and walked along, hand in hand on the cobble stone main street, which was deserted at this early hour. We walked to the town church and prayed with all our heart. The feeling one gets in an empty church, up in the mountains, with the cold air trapped within it’s stone walls, is soulful. It fills me up with a sense of happiness, liberation and elation. In fact, I find that when the organ plays, the sound that resonates through the empty church, stirs up emotions within my deepest being, which feels so totally and completely beautiful.

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A little while later, we stepped out of the church and walked through the town of the Earls of Gruyeres, it’s medieval charms, so well preserved. The XI century castle that overlooks the valley, is also worth a visit. We toured the castle that morning and walked through eight centuries of history, culture and fabulous medieval architecture. On exiting the castle we continued to feast on the peaceful picture postcard scenery of this traffic free town, so perfectly nestled between the slopes of Moleson and the Dent du Chamois. Everywhere we looked, all we saw was pure beauty.

We then returned back to our room at our hotel which was formerly known as the Knight’s Inn. Hôtel de Gruyères has 37 rooms, is very comfortable and is done up in a very typical swiss style. Our room was large, with a double verandah and heavenly views of the valley.

That afternoon we lunched at the Chalet De Gruyere, an emblematic restaurant serving delicious fondue and raclette. From where I sat, I noticed the ornamented cowbells and the traditional swiss woodwork and a cauldron hanging from the roof, at the end of a thick metal chain.  The food was at the restaurant was exceptional and I washed down the delicious cheese with an ice cold draft beer.

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The next day we visited, La Maison du Gruyere, the cheese factory located at the foot of the hill, near the station. Here we learnt that the local cows grazed on an exceptionally diverse flora, which helped give the alpine milk it’s unique and delicious flavour. The cows fed on lavender, alchemilla, anthyllis, fragrant vernal, dandelion and brown clover. The absence of additives further contributed to the pureness of the milk and cheese. We enjoyed the interactive exhibition which helped us discover the king of the cheese, Le Gruyère AOP.

 

Later that day we returned to the town centre and walked to the Museum HR Giger Bar, in Chateau St. Germain. The bar is themed and modelled by Swiss artist H. R. Giger. It is done up in his original style, modelled on his acclaimed Alien monster from the film by the same name. Our experience at the bar was unique and weird at the same time, but impressive nevertheless. As we sat in this cavernous bar and sipped on our drink, we noticed the skeletal structure covered by a crisscross of vertebrae along the ceiling of the ancient building. Although a little misplaced in the surrounding quaintness and beauty of Gruyere, I felt the bar is definitely a must do while a guest in town.

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Laveena and I enjoy our Nordic walks. Mountain biking is also an option. There are many tracks marked out along the mountains which offer breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys and lakes. There are signposts everywhere to help you in your adventure. On one of our trips outside the town of Gruyere, we visited an alpine cheesery where Gruyère AOP cheese is still made in the traditional way over a wood fire.

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On day three, we visited the famous Maison Cailler (Nestle’) Chocolate factory in Broc. An interactive guided tour opened up hidden doors to the magic of chocolate making and shed a light on the history of the factory from 1898 to the present. We were given tips on how to better appreciate, savour and love chocolates, more than we ever did before. We were first told to enjoy the look of the chocolate, to feel it’s texture, to smell it’s intensity and finally to place it on our tongues, allowing it to linger there for a while. We were told that the chocolate would melt naturally before we bit into an explosion of heavenly flavours. We were allowed to then taste Cailler’s many chocolates, and taste we did, feasting on more than a dozen varieties of delicious cocoa relish.

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We spent five wonderful days in Gruyere and promised to return. The villages around Gruyere are also quaint and lovely. If you have a car you can drive around, you can take the local bus if you like or you can simply walk around this beautiful part of Switzerland. Back at the medieval town, there are endless restaurants to choose from. We ate at a few of these though our preference was to sit out on our verandah, with our bread, meat, salad, cheese and wine, feast on both the food and the immense beauty surrounding us, often drifting into a dream world which repeatedly began with the words, “once upon a time, in a land far far away, there lived a beautiful princess………”