Coconut trees, mountains and tea plantations

“Settled in the middle of the Uva Mountains we reached Nuwera Eliya in the mist”

Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

And touchdown…Ayubowan as they say here, welcome to Sri Lanka. We had finally arrived, some 45 minutes late which was unfortunate as we had a long driver ahead to our first destination. The airport is not very large but when arriving the first thing you see is a sea of faces all holding up white placards. We were lucky in spotting our name straight away and were soon meeting our driver and guide, Vimu, for the next three days. For those wanting to pick up local currency there are many currency exchange companies but only two ATMs. The best one we found was the Bank of Ceylon as you didn’t have any pay any extra bank charges.

Heading outside into the humid hot air we were soon in our air conditioned car and heading towards Nuwara Eliya in the heart of the Tea region. Don’t be fooled it was to be a good 6.5hrs before we reached our hotel. It is only once you are here in Sri Lanka that you realise that distances seem so much further. We travelled all the way along a single lane road, passing many very busy villages and towns where everyone was just racing to pass the next person – no matter if you were a motorcyclist, tuk-tuk or car, you had to be the fastest! Unless you were a big bus where they seem to aggressively push you out of the way so they can pass you, just to stop and pick up passengers at the next corner.

The villages all looked similar in terms of shops and it seemed quite easy to be able to pick up a new car bumper, car seats, timber, wine and even plants. The most interesting to me where the fresh fruit stalls selling pineapples, coconuts, bananas and watermelon and the Bake House tuk-tuks playing an ice-cream van tune when stopping to sell their freshly baked bread.

The vegetation was thick and green with mainly coconut and papaya trees, now and again breaking away to reveal large rice fields. Rice being one of the main food staples in Sri Lanka.

It was about 2 hours into the drive when we started to make our ascent towards Kandy, which is in the middle of Sri Lanka amoung the forest hills. We took a short break at the Susantha Spice and Herbal Garden to use the toilet facilities and get a mini tour around the garden. The spices and herbs each having their uses for medicinal purposes or in Sri Lankan cooking. You can either give a donation or buy something from their shop – we did purchase some citronella oil for the mosquitoes and some spice tea (comprising cardamon, ginger, cinnamon, coriander and hill-country tea). We were rather tired when we visited the garden so were under no illusion that this is really a tourist trap and you could probably find the same items cheaper elsewhere.

The remaining 3.5 hours of the journey continued on a steep single track, zig zagging all the way up the mountain where you were able to spot the Knuckles mountain range in the distance. I am not entirely sure when the vegetation started to change from mainly mountains and forests to tea plantations as it was starting to get dusk. We travelled the remainder of the way in the dark with the bright moon shining in the sky, it had been the super moon phenomenon the night before so it was still larger than normal and created more light on the road.

Settled in the middle of the Uva Mountains we reached Nuwera Eliya in the mist before driving about 40 minutes to the hotel, climbing higher and higher as we went. We were understandably exhausted by the time we reached the hotel at 9pm and rather hungry.

We feasted on chicken coconut soup and an array of different curries including pressed banana flowers curry which was rather tasty but too spicy for my palate. The manager also kindly took me around listing all the food that was gluten free and safe for me to eat which made things far less stressful.

Now our hotel – the Heritance Tea Factory was rather impressive. The original tea factory has been converted into a hotel. They have done this really well, explaining with different colours where the original structure still stands and where they have made enhancements making the interior a ray of green, red, yellow and silver. All employees were dressed very smartly from the bygone era taking you back to the days of the oriental express.

The views the next morning from our room were certainly amazing and we found ourselves floating above the clouds looking towards the Uva mountains and luscious green tea plantations.

Our exploration of the tea area was slightly delayed due to Prince Edward and Sophie visiting one of the charities in the area but once the Royals had finished their special visit we were on our way to the Pedro Estate and the Lover’s Leap Ethical Tea Boutique. Greeted by a cup of tea our visit took us through the factory and the tea making process. I was genuinely surprised how antique the equipment looked but still in perfectly good working order. Only 4% of the tea made on the premises is sold at the tea boutique and the remaining 96% goes to the auction for export. The vistas of the tea plantations are very impressive and every so often you will spot a tea lady picking the young leaves, their quota for the day is to collect 16kg of tea leaves every day – earning them a minimum of 800 LKR per day.

From here we travelled by tuk-tuk up the mountain to see the Lover’s Leap waterfall. There are a few  of waterfalls in this particular region but this one is accessible from Pedro’s Tea Estate. You can walk direct from the estate but due to limited time we caught a bright red tuk-tuk halfway up before climbing the remainder of the way. The waterfall is 30m high and is situated on Sri Lanka’s highest mountain range, Piduruthalagala (2524m). Lover’s leap is quite an unusual name and legend says:

A prince living in Nuwera Eliya had met a beautiful girl in the nearby village and fell in love with her, but the King did not allow the Prince to pursue the relationship. The disheartened Prince on one full moon evening climbed to the top of the rocks with his love and jumped off the rock fall. Therefore naming the waterfall Lover’s Leap.

The town Nuwara Eliya is quite busy with some colonial buildings still standing along with Victoria Park and a racetrack. It is also known as Little England due to its greenery and cooler climates. We had lunch at the Calamder overlooking Gregory’s lake. It had a lovely setting overlooking the lake which was populated with big white swan pedlos. The food however let it down with very little suitable for those with a gluten intolerance – which was a pity as the pizza’s looked very good.

Our day ended by going back to the hotel to sit by the warming fire as the mist had once again rolled in. Dinner was once again spectacular and we got to try the local Sri Lankan dessert: Watalappam. The dessert is very sweet and is made out of coconut milk, cashew nuts, eggs, jaggery and spices including cinnamon and cardamom.

It was one more cosy night spent at the hotel before we woke up to another morning view above the clouds.  We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast before starting the long journey to the south west coast.

Trip booked through Travel Counsellors. Petra was very efficient and knowledgable in helping us plan our trip and providing accommodation and route options.

The red and yellow desert

“The beautiful sunset cast long shadows across the deep red sand making the terrain even more dramatic”

Sharjah and Dubai,  United Arab Emirates

It has been one of my wishes, while we have been in Dubai, to venture into the desert to see the sunset. I have done this many years ago at the Atacama Desert in Chile and remembered how the sun casted long shadows in the sand turning the sand into a golden sea – it was a photographer’s dream.

What excited me more about where we were venturing on this desert safari is that we were going to the red desert and we were actually going to experience driving across the dunes.

There are a number of desert safari companies in Dubai but we went with Red Dune Tourism and were lucky enough to be given an entertainer voucher, meaning we got 2 tour places for the price of 1. We were collected from our apartment and the tour got off to a slow pace while we picked up other passengers along the way making the transfer time to the rendezvous point a long 1 and half hour drive.

The rendezvous point where we waited for the rest of the 4x4s to join us, was at Al Merdan Quadbiking pitstop in Sharjah. Here you could get refreshments and visit the toilet facilities which were adequate, but it is best take your own tissues and handwash. You also get the chance to have a go on the quad bikes. This might sound boring but we did not venture on one but rather watched others have a go with no helmets and everyone zig zagging in all directions as there was ‘no route’ for people to follow.

It was from here you could really get the sense of scale of the desert and the deep red sand. As we went before the UAE National Day there was also a sense of country pride as everywhere you turned you could spot the colourful red, white, green and black flags blowing in the breeze.

Once the tyres of the 4×4 were deflated to cope better on the soft terrain were were off! I was so not prepared for the trip and although exhilarating it was frightening at the same time, as we ventured over the dunes often slipping sideways down the dunes to many a gasp from myself. Our driver, Adil, was really skilled having done desert racing in Pakistan. He certainly knew his way along the route and made sure everyone was okay and enjoying themselves. It felt reassuring to be in a safe pair hands even though I closed my eyes a few times.

White knuckled, we got out of the 4×4 to watch the beautiful sunset. It cast long shadows across the deep red sand making the terrain even more dramatic. The sun was a perfect ball turning a vibrant red as it disappeared from sight leaving behind a golden hue across the horizon.

The only disappointment about the desert was that it seems where humans go so do the rubbish and it was really sad to see in a number of places plastic water bottles littering the landscape.

From the desert we left the big red dunes behind and headed towards Dubai, where the sand changed from red to yellow with dotted green vegetation. Our final stop was at a Bedouin style camp for dinner and entertainment. Here they have recreated a camp to show the Bedouin lifestyle and culture. Bedouin is a group of nomadic Arab people who inhabit the desert.

At the camp you can ride camels, have your picture taken with a falcon, go sandboarding, have henna hand painting and smoke shishas. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming with long tables set out with red sturdy cushions on the ground.

The entertainment was rather enjoyable as we watched a Tanoura Dance – where a man spins in an almost trance like state with a multi coloured skirt for about 30 minutes. It is quite a popular folk dance in the Islamic countries and it made me dizzy just to watch! We were then entertained by a belly dancer and fire performer. It was quite phenomenal to watch him twirl fire around to create amazing visual affects along with fire breathing.

The food was surprisingly better than expected with lots of fresh salads, flatbreads, grilled chicken, lamb and fish and some non traditional curries. We were also pleasantly surprised that we could enjoy a chilled bottle of wine while watching the show and eating under the stars.

It was a long but really exciting day and I would certainly recommend a trip to the desert when you are in Dubai!

Relaxing in the Al Hajar Mountains

“Nestled in the rugged mountains it was like an oasis with far stretching views and abundant birdlife”

Hatta,  United Arab Emirates

A visit from family had us looking for things to do and places to show them what Dubai was all about. We also wanted to see places that we had not yet visited or that the everyday tourist would not normally add to their itinerary.  We were off to Hatta!

Hatta is an enclave of Dubai, in the Al Hajar mountains, so totally different from the beaches and nightlife everyone comes to Dubai to explore.

Our journey took us about 2 hours, slightly longer than predicted as we could just not find the road we needed to be, going on a loop after loop with the sat nav trying to take us on the road through Oman which is only open to GCC nationals.   We eventually got on the right road.  Breathing a sigh of relief and relationship intact, we drove through contrasting scenery, changing from skyscrapers to rolling orange coloured sand of the desert to finally the rocky mountains.

We stayed at the JA Hatta Fort Resort, which felt like an oasis and perfect for a few days relaxing in the hot temperatures but away from the humidity we had been accustomed to on the coast.  The newly renovated hotel had an air of peace and charm about it with the mountain view rooms cool and light.  Both restaurants, one near the pool open for breakfast and lunch and the main restaurant in the hotel, Jeema, had good quality food.  Once told, they also remember any dietary requirements you have! The sunset bar was just as described, a great place to enjoy the bright orange hues of the sky turn to pink as the sun set behind the mountains.

The hotel was very quite – we were staying the Sunday and Monday evenings, but this did not worry us too much as we managed to get in for some great massages at the very small spa and it all added to a peaceful atmosphere.

There are a few activities available at the hotel such as archery and a very simple 9-hole mini golf course, but with the temperatures reaching 40 degrees Celsius, we opted to spend the afternoons cooling down at the turquoise blue pool.

Hatta itself is a small village and I would highly recommend visiting the Hatta Dam with its emerald green waters.  Constructed in 1990s it took about 2 years to fill the dam and even now it does not look overly full.  There is a good viewing platform and although closed the day we visited you can hire kayaks and pedlos to take out on the water.  I would check on other facilities as if you are spending a fair amount of time on the water you might want to bring some food and water supplies.

Hatta also has a newly restored heritage village, that is open free of charge to wander around the 30 buildings and discover what the traditional mountain rural life was like. As a historical monument that depicts the 18th Century village, I can imagine that the festivities on UAE national day would be quite remarkable.

The village is surrounded by two round watch towers built in the 1880s – they are quite fascinating as the entrance is 2.5m above the ground and required the guards to climb on ropes to get to the entrance.  We visited around midday and I would have been better in the mornings when slightly cooler as there is limited shade. Definitely worth a visit.

It was great to escape the humidity of coastal Dubai and wake up every morning to the rugged mountains looming above you along with abundance of birdlife.  My favourite were the brightly blue coloured wing span of the Indian Roller (they were too quick to take a photo) and the bee-eaters.

Would I visit again?  Definitely, maybe next time in the cooler months so we can explore one of the hiking routes along the winding wadis at the foothills of the mountains.

JA Hatta Fort Resort – beautiful rooms and eating facilities with a variety of options for breakfast.  All hotel staff are very attentive ensuring you get the best from your stay.

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Dolphins in Musandam

“The land was barren but picturesque, you had contrasting limestone mountains on one side and the blue and green ocean on the other side.  “

Musandam,  Oman

The excitement could be felt in the car – we were going away for the weekend. It was a last minute decision after hearing the words: Dolphins, Oman, Musandam, Snorkelling and more Dolphins. What had failed to compute into my mind was we were camping overnight on the beach until I ventured outside into an extremely hot and sticky day.

Now I don’t mind camping – it has been a few years since the last time and it does bring back fond memories and fun adventures that were had in off the beaten places. This was going to be another adventure to add to the memories and I remained excited along the road trip to Oman, spotting camels for most of the journey until we got into Oman where it changed to goats.

The boarder crossing was a little confusing so don’t forget to bring into the building your car insurance papers and present your passports together for the car you are travelling in to make it swifter. On the Oman side don’t forget to take a pen to fill in the immigration forms – there are no spares available.

The land was barren but picturesque, you had contrasting limestone mountains on one side and the blue and green ocean on the other side. It took about 2 and half hours to reach Khasab where we met up with the tour company to start the next part of our journey. Khasab is the Arabic word for fertility and the town is known for its large produce of dates and fresh water.

Having psyched myself up for the camping and beach barbeque, we were surprised to be offered an alternative. Apparently the beaches were getting rather warm and unpleasant and would we rather sleep on deck of the Rubba. The Rubba was a luxury dhow and it was a no brainer for us to not only accept the offer but we upgraded to the cabins that were available – luxury sailing with air conditioning here we come!

Our early evening and night on Rubba was very relaxing and comfortable. We got the first glimpse of the Musandam Peninsula – also known as the ‘Norway of Arabia’ from the water. The beautiful khors are fjordlike inlets with the most spectacular being 16km long – Khor Sham.

That evening you were given the opportunity to fish from the side of the dhow, admire the rugged coastline, watch the sunset and see our first glimpse of the dolphins. The barbeque dinner was cooked at the back of the boat and was really good especially the fresh calamari – straight from the sea.

In the morning we were transferred from the Rubba to a more traditional wooden fishing boat/dhow painted blue which was to take us along Khor Sham. The Khor had clear blue waters contrasting to the high rugged and arid mountains. There were a few small hamlets dotted about. It is quite isolated and the hamlets rely on freshwater to be delivered by boat. The children all commute to school in Khasab. Many of the inhabitants only spend 6 months of their time at these hamlets before also going to Khasab during the date harvesting season.

You could not visit the hamlets without a permit so we remained on the water. It was a day of relaxing, admiring the scenery and going snorkelling in the turquoise waters. We were also delighted by the Dolphins that came to surf alongside the dhow and we got to see both humpback and bottlenose dolphins.

Relaxed, hot and happy we go back in the car for our 2+ hour drive back to Dubai.

Tour company: Musandam Sea Adventure Travel and Tourism
Very professional and I would highly recommend using them.



Temples, Mist and Trains

“The mist had accumulated during the night and settled like a thick blanket…”

Darjeeling, India

The mist had accumulated during the night and settled like a thick blanket over Darjeeling. It was a complete contrast to the day before, along with a noticeable drop in temperature.

We took a long walk from the hotel to the Japanese Temple. The longer we walked the damper the air became until it eventually started raining. We were absolutely soaked by the time we reached the temple and took respite from the rain by heading up to the prayer room. The atmosphere inside was solemn and peaceful. We were invited to sit down and join in the prayers. Using a small drumming pad and stick we drummed to the same rhythm as the chants, well I tried too.

The weather stayed wet and gloomy for the rest of the day with the only spots of colour appearing from the prayer flags. While sheltering at the bus stop we were delighted by the singing and guitar playing of a young student as he was returning from his guitar lessons. I thought he was just going to play for us but we were amazed when he started singing – it gave me goose bumps.

Exploring more of the town of Darjeeling we wandered around the streets in the mist having lunch in front of the fire in Glenary’s (near the Darjeeling Mall area) and purchased Darjeeling tea at a fraction of the price of the Happy Valley Estate. For our final dinner in Darjeeling we went to the Elgin. The Elgin did not disappoint – it is another hotel that is part of Darjeeling’s colonial history and it is beautifully decorated. We warmed our hands and toes by the crackling fireplaces telling stories and enjoying a selection of mini Indian dishes. The hotel was very accommodating as they normally only cook enough food for hotel guests to have at dinner, so if you would like to dine in the restaurant it is best to book ahead.

The mist had disappeared by the time we woke up in the morning for our long journey back to Bagdogra to catch our flight. This time we had been given permission to take the famous Hill Cart Road. Not used as a main tourist route since a landslide in 2010 it meant the road was extremely quite allowing us the opportunity to take in the magnificent views of mountains, valleys, village life and of course follow the route of the Toy Train.

It is along the Hill Cart Road that you can really see the engineering achievement as the train track has several zigzags and loops on the way to help the train negotiate steep gradients. I am sure going on the train you would be able to appreciate it more but we got the chance to get out of the vehicles a number of times to inspect these zigzags along with another famous loop called Agony Point. When first constructed the loop was so short that at one point the train used to literally overhang the deep gorge below – scary!

Our last stop en route was Tindharia. We bought our entry tickets at the station which was opened in August 1880 before driving further down the hill to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Workshop. It is here that the toy train engines and coaches get repaired.

As the last stop it was then back in for the final drive along the very high and winding roads. If you are not a height person then make sure you grab a seat on the right hand side of the car behind the driver. From the peaceful mountain views you know you are near the airport when everything turns to chaos. The cars hooting, traffic jams and the constant need to rush to get where you are going, took me back to the day when we arrived.



Himalayan Mountains

Queen of the Hills

“A beautiful day shone before us with clear views across to snowy peaks…” 

Darjeeling, India

This morning we awoke to more delights! The breakfast was fantastic and the chef made it his priority to search me out at breakfast to tell me all the options I had to eat in addition to the normal omelettes and boiled eggs. I sampled Idli served with a coconut and tomato chutney and then the best treat for me Dosa (Indian pancake made from rice and lentils). Choosing a plain Dosa I ate it the untraditional way with honey instead of chutneys – repeating the ritual everyday for breakfast.

Darjeeling is known for its unpredictable weather patterns! We were therefore pleasantly surprised that that the mist from the day before had disappeared. A beautiful day shone before us with clear views across to the snow covered peaks of the great Himalaya and Kangchenjunga – the highest mountain peak in India.

The day continued to entertain and surprise us with every turn. We left the normality of our hotel and descended to the streets below, being careful to walk without getting knocked over by the enthusiastically speedy drivers. It is here in the town you realise just what a physically hard life the people endure in this hilltop town. You often see women and men young and old carrying on their backs heavy loads – it could be gas bottles, food, mountains of luggage – up the steep roads.

I must admit it was overwhelming to take in all the noise of the cars hooting, people talking or arguing over who needs to move first to free up the traffic jam. It is not the cleanest of places and the air was permeated with the smells from the rubbish just dumped in the streets in piles and the pungent smell of tar making. BUT what I loved about the town was how colourful it was! Colour was all around you from the brightly painted houses to the flowering pot plants on their window sills and balconies to the prayer flags blowing in the wind. The taxi’s decorated their cars inside with colourful seats and dashboards, some of the locals wore amazingly colourful traditional dress and even the fresh vegetable stores with their vibrant green red and orange produce brought bright hues and freshness to the streets.

We were lucky to have in our party a local who was a great negotiator and managed to secure a taxi for the day! The first stop was the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). On entering the zoo, we were entertained by the Darjeeling tea ladies and daughters in national dress – only to discover that you could pay to dress up in traditional dress and we were essentially photographing other tourists – whoops! The zoo on a whole was rather unimpressive but we were privileged to see a Bengal tiger move from his resting place and give us a small parade. For me I found the HMI much more interesting as it looks back in history to the attempts made to climb Everest giving special attention to Tenzing Norgay (a Sherpa who conquered Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary). I would say that you would be more confident and comfortable climbing now with all the new equipment available than in the earlier days – making their conquest even more impressive.

From here we went to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre situated on a hill overlooking impressive views of the tea plantations. The centre was built nearly 50 years ago with just four workers and is now home to over 650 refugees. The site that the centre is built on holds significant importance to the Tibetan people as it is on the same location that Dalai Lama spent his exile in India. Our visit over the weekend meant that it was a quiet place. We were fortunate enough to be there when the carpet workshop was open and watch as the carpet workers weaved their magic into the beautiful handcrafted Tibetan carpets.

Winding our way along the hillside are next destination on this busy day was the Happy Valley Tea Estate – which is situated at the highest altitude in the world for a tea garden. Although the first pickings had not begun yet on the estate, the tour guide was very informative about their traditional tea making process, giving us a number of teas to try at the end. It was interesting to find out that it is the mist common on these hills that gives Darjeeling tea its famous aroma!

It was back in the car for a bumpy and sometimes hair-raising ride back into the centre of Darjeeling as we sped up little roads and turned tight corners – we made it back in time for a late lunch before it was off to take our seats on the famous ‘Toy Train’.

Accommodation: Sinclairs Darjeeling
Hotel was clean and functional.  The restaurant was particular good for evening dinners with lots of yummy choices for breakfast.  WiFi intermittent and you need a separate code for each device every day.


Batasia Loop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Joy Ride on the Toy Train

“We travelled on the Toy Train from an altitude of 6812ft to the highest station town at 7404ft.”

Darjeeling, India

“Whoo-woo!” and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was off, slowly leaving the art deco station of Darjeeling behind. Not having 8 hours to take the train the full 55 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling, we embarked on a Joy Ride on what is loving known as the Toy Train. This was a 2-hour return trip from Darjeeling to Ghum (Ghoom) and back again. Travelling from an altitude of 6812ft to the highest station town at 7404ft.

The train almost hugged the shops and houses when we went past, making it quite easy to touch the walls. The locals used to the train would rush to get their goods off the train tracks while the train passed or would cover their produce with material to keep off the black soot that seemed to be flying through the air in abundance.

The actual cabins and seating were not the most comfortable but it was definitely a special experience – after all the Toy Train has been given UNESCO World Heritage status. The trip allowed you to take in the sounds and sights of the local people as they rushed about their business. The train itself caused a lot of traffic chaos, as when moving along the tracks it made the roads even narrower with everyone fighting from different directions to dash through the gap, often causing the cars to come to a complete stand still with the only movement being hand to hooter.

The Joy Ride stops at the world famous Batasia loop where you get the chance to get off the train while the train negotiates the spiral track with a double loop. Built to reduce the drastic fall in gradient it is considered a great engineering achievement.

The train operators worked rather hard to keep the steam train puffing along the tracks billowing white to black plumes of smoke along the way. We were lucky enough on our return trip to sit near the viewing window in the cabin, where we had front row seats to watch the working of the steam train. It looked hot and sticky and was not surprising when filling up with water that a few workers jumped under the water for a quick refreshing shower.

It was dark by the time we returned back to Darjeeling station and after a full on day filled with activities, we all were rather pleased to jump into a taxi and head for a relaxing evening at the colonial Mayfair Hotel. Walking into what felt like an English garden, we relaxed in the bar in true British style with a Gin and Tonic before sampling the various food dishes at the evening buffet.

Accommodation: Sinclairs Darjeeling
Hotel was clean and functional.  The restaurant was particular good for evening dinners with lots of yummy choices for breakfast.  WiFi intermittent and you need a separate code for each device every day.

Tips: Toy Train
It is a popular route to go from Darjeeling to Ghum so you do need to book in advance. It is great way to see the scenery and watch the workings of a steam train.  I would get your hotel or tour guide to buy tickets for you as you can’t buy them online from outside India.  There is a lot of black soot from the steam train so it is best not to wear white or light coloured clothing.