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.

First Tea Pickings

Road Trip – Bagdogra to Darjeeling

“The senses awakened when landing at Bagdogra…”Bagdogra, India


The senses awakened when landing at Bagdogra located in the West Bengal District in east India. This was definitely a good thing after the long 11 and half hour journey from Dubai via Delhi.

It was hot and dusty yet full of life as everyone seemed to be in a race to reach their next destination. The sounds of car horns tooting could be heard echoing all around. I felt cocooned in our vehicle somehow in a different world watching with extreme fascination the cows on the sides of the road eating the deposited rubbish, rickshaws pulling heavy loads, political flags flying from the houses and the blasts of colour everywhere across the landscape – I loved it!

Our journey through the state of West Bengal to our final destination of the hill town, Darjeeling, took about 3 hours. Narrow winding roads took us higher and higher to a final altitude of 6710ft. If you are scared of heights, then this will be a nerve wracking journey and you will need to remember to keep hydrated with the increase in altitude.

The landscape changed from a busy dusty city to greener than green tea plantations, where we saw the first pickings for the 1st tea flush of the season, to the impressive Himalaya mountain range. The views were just fantastic and become rather atmospheric as the mist rolled in the higher we went. We travelled through many little buzzing villages stopping halfway at Kurseong for a refreshing beer for some of us and a must have Darjeeling tea for others. We finally reached our hotel: Sinclairs in Darjeeling, the Queen of Hills at 4pm.

Exhausted from the day we ate dinner at the hotel. Having a gluten intolerance always makes eating out a little more than a challenge but I could not praise the Chef enough. He came out to meet me to understand my requirements and made sure every meal was suitable for me to eat. I was truly looked after! It was not just the personnel touch that made the evening – the food was in abundance and super delicious.

We ended the evening with a nightcap in the bar and teaching a local couple how to play pool.

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: Transport Bagdogra to Darjeeling
It is best to book your transfers ahead with a reputable company with a good safety record.  Our group booked through  Ffestiniog Travel, who specialise in Rail holidays of the world.

 

Characteristic Doors of Malta

Maltese Summer Days

“With over 7000 years of history and a mixture of cultural influences from the surrounding Mediterranean, French and British it has developed its own unique style…”

Malta


On first impression Malta is not a beautiful island in its entirety but look deeper and you will find pockets of interesting and lovely places. With over 7000 years of history and a mixture of cultural influences from the surrounding Mediterranean, French and British it has developed its own unique style and traditions along with what sometimes looks like a hodgepodge of architecture.

We hired a car for the duration of the trip and it certainly made it easier to travel around the island than rely on public transport. As we drove to our accommodation we took in the surroundings which tended to be dry and dusty. The directions to our villa were not exactly accurate and left us in an empty country lane with fields of pumpkins and marrows on either side with no villa in sight. Eventually after numerous phone calls and arranging to meet the caretaker we arrived at our Villa called Samudra, which was like an oasis in this tiny hamlet of Manikata (quite fitting considering Samudra means Ocean).

The owners have done well to keep some of the original features as well as add some modern improvements like air conditioning and an inviting pool without changing the Maltese characteristics. As we were here in Malta for a family wedding, we all managed to stay comfortably at the Villa and enjoy some BBQ’s at the pool and al fresco dining in the converted cave. Throughout our time you could hear the village fireworks as it was ‘Festa’ season when the Maltese hold events to honour the patron saint of the local church – with 365 Churches on Malta, it is not surprising the ‘Festa’ runs from June to October every year.

When we were not at the Villa it was time to go exploring and start finding some of those hidden gems. Our first exploration took us to St Paul’s Bay, previous a fishing village where were introduced to Maltese spicy sausage and Ġbejna (Maltese Goats Cheese) combined in a wrap with Balsamic Vinegar – yummy. It felt great to be out in the warm air and stare across at the ocean. But even though the view across the Bay was lovely it was a pity that the houses further to the north of the Bay were left derelict.

Mellieha Bay was a different story as we come up the hill from Manikata all you saw was a gorgeously blue ocean waiting to be dived into. We were not the only ones that thought this as Ghadira Beach was packed full of sun loungers and umbrellas. The water was warm and clean, well worth a swim but not before having a mouth watering sea food lunch at Point Break. With the temperature reaching over 30 degrees the cool sea breeze and umbrellas gave a welcome break. It was certainly a day for good food as that evening we ventured off to Golden Bay to watch the sunset while drinking crispy white wine and eating a selection of seafood delights at the well recommended Munchies. The manager was extremely pleasant and even told us how to make Mqaret – small packages of sweet pastry filled with a dates and figs that are then deep fried….no wonder we all liked them 🙂

A trip to Malta is not complete without a day trip out to the Blue Lagoon. Situated on the Maltese Island of Comino it is a short ferry ride across from Malta. Having been pre-warned not to go to the Blue Lagoon on a weekend we opted to go on a Friday to miss the local crowds.

Upon entering the Blue Lagoon you are greeted with amazing colours of blue which extend across the lagoon. There is a tiny beach as you leave the ferry for land and hundreds and hundreds of deck chairs and umbrellas covering the rocks. It feels a bit claustrophobic as you walk to find a spot to sit but once you find a place all you can do is see the expanse of blue in front of you. The water is crystal clear and although not exactly a snorkelling haven you do get to see the odd stripy fish further out. Alternatively for a better way to enjoy your time is to grab a lilo and float around…complete relaxation.

Next on the agenda was to visit the Fortress City – Valletta. It was a scorching hot day around 40 degrees, this was mainly due to the fact that you do not seem to get any sea breeze in the city due to the high walls. This made our walk around a bit uncomfortable and I am sure we would have seen more had we not been eyeing out the cold frappuccino in everyone’s hands. Nevertheless it is an old city with meandering narrow streets with a collection of churches, museums steeped in history making this a UNESCO World Heritage site. The main streets are the most interesting as if you tend to wander to the outskirts little has been done to restore the buildings to their former glory.

It was towards the end of our trip that we once again entered Valletta for Lisa and Johns wedding, held in the beautiful Mary Jesus Christ Church for a lovely ceremony. Leaving Valletta behind we all took coaches to the Wardija Hilltop Village where we celebrated at the Palazzo Promontorio while enjoying great food, company, the perfect sunset and a visit from Elvis!


Accommodation: Samudra Villa, Manikata 
Property can sleep 8 people, has air conditioning, a pool and BBQ area. It is close to the Golden Sands Beach, Rivera beach and Ghajn Tuffieha.  You do need a car although the hamlet has a bus stop and it takes about 15-20mins to walk to the beach. Booked through James Villa Holidays.

Marrakech Streets

Final Stop

“…the train had been like a sauna that it was difficult to sleep. Nevertheless it was my last day in Morocco and I was determined to make the most of it!”

Marrakech, Morocco


I felt a little jaded as the train pulled into Marrakech station – the train had been like a sauna that it was difficult to sleep. Nevertheless it was my last day in Morocco and I was determined to make the most of it!

After a quick shower and breakfast, it was off to explore. Unfortunately due to the circumstances the day before with the bomb in the square we were warned to stay away from the square which meant our sightseeing was a bit limited, which was disappointing as I was looking forward to seeing all the spice markets .

We made the most of the day by exploring the small shops near Mohammad V avenue, along with a number of art galleries which are always great to visit. When we got tired of walking we opted to have a sweet mint tea and sat at a very nice looking cafe. They went out of there way to buy us some fresh mint for our tea and only when we left and peered inside that we realised we had unknowingly sat down at a betting house solely for men it seemed…we were also wisely warned not to use the facilities ( thanks Jane!)

Taking a horse and carriage we were dropped at the Koutoubia Mosque just in time for the call to prayer. It was very interesting watching all the people descend like ants to the entrance of the mosque.

My trip ended with a lovely evening with all my fellow intrepid travellers over dinner and drinks at the bar with some new friends.

I caught my plane feeling like there was so much more to see and I hope to be back soon to visit all those places I missed – Inshallah!

Accommodation: Hotel le Caspien – 12 Rue Lobnane, Marrakech, Morocco
Good location  easy to walk to main attractions.

 

 

Atlantic views

Ocean views, beers and tapas

“What I was looking for was a nice quite place to sit looking at the ocean and enjoying some fresh seafood.”

Tangier, Morocco


Within four hours we had left the beautiful town of Chefchaouen and the Rif mountains. As the local bus pulled into the bus station..Tangier did not give me a feeling of wanting to be explored. It was busy in a typical modern way with people rushing everywhere – a typical port town that has seen huge developments in the last few years. What I was looking for was a nice quite place to sit looking at the ocean and enjoying some fresh seafood.

Well I got the seafood…After a delicious lunch of calamari and chips we eventually managed to find some taxis and headed off for a panoramic view over the straight of Gibraltar. While sipping on a sweet mint tea we all admired the views.

It was here that we heard about the horrible bombing in the square at Marrakesh. It was quite a shock as we were heading there the next day and because we were also advised that we were to stay away from busy tourist places. How busier could Tangier be? Our group leader, Moha, handled the situation really well and gave everyone a sense of calm as we really did not have the full picture. The best solution was for us to hire a mini bus and head out of Tangier.

What a great decision! We headed out towards Cap Spartel, which takes you through a wealthy suburb of villas and royal palaces. After exploring Hercules Grotto and attempting to take a picture of the famous view that looks like the map of Africa, it was off to the terraces to watch the views, the people fishing and the young boys playing in the sea…very brave as this was the Atlantic.

After a relaxing day, we headed back into Tangier to a Tapas Bar so we could have a few relaxing drinks before catching our overnight train to Marrakesh. The atmosphere was really lively and I am sure they picked all the English classics to play just for us tourists. The hospitality was fantastic and instead of just a few tapas for the table they kept bringing out more and more…which made everyone buy more drinks to compensate for all the food and the vicious cycle began.

The festivities of the evening continued on our overnight train as we all piled into one of the carriages, drank warm wine, laughed at jokes and enjoyed some excellent singing entertainment.

Thanks to new found friends for a great time that will be fondly remembered!