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!

Charming in Blue

“The City of Chaouen was in complete contrast to the previous cities we had visited.”

Chefchaouen, Morocco


The four hour bus journey went rather quickly, passing through plantations of Olive trees and the occasional Poppy. We had one stop mid way where you can have a BBQ lunch – once again you had to go and buy your raw meat and then queue to have it cooked on the grill – I must say it did smell delicious and left me wishing I had opted for lunch instead of a quick granola snack bar.

Eventually the flat plantations turned into hillsides meaning we had finally reached the Rif mountains and our destination, Chefchaouen (or the City of Chaouen), which was a quaint village nestled between two mountain peaks.

After a slight mis direction our taxi finally dropped us off at our raid which was a picture of prettiness. As soon as you entered the doors you wanted to explore or just collapse by the pool. It captured the Moroccan/Spanish influence so beautifully that the 12 of us descended on the hotel so excitedly that I am sure we caused quite a stir. Unbeknown to us the party that was having lunch included none other than the Prince of the United Arab Emirates….guess a Hola greeting might not have been the most appropriate 🙂

The City of Chaouen was in complete contrast to the previous cities we had visited. Being further north the influence was more Spanish with most people speaking a dialect of Arabic and Spanish. Being more serene it allowed for quite exploration. The prices seemed to have been about a quarter of the price of goods in Fes and all the shop owners were happy to have you walk around without jumping to your side as soon as you picked something up to examine.

My time in Chefchouen was filled with taking many many photos of the picturesque streets of different blue hues, watching children play in the streets, mistakenly stumbling into an unsuspecting homeowners house thinking it was a pottery shop, sampling snails on the street and strangely for such a small Medina getting lost!

The evenings stayed just as relaxing with the occasional Shisha thrown in to add to the atmosphere.

I hope you all like the pictures, I think they tell more about the town than I can put into words 🙂

Accommodation: Dar Echchaouen

 

Yellow Leather drying in the sun

A medieval maze

“Impressive thick bronze doors surrounded by the traditional Moroccan Mosaic – in many colours of blue…”

Fes, Morocco


The day started off with heading to a local cafe for some breakfast. Not speaking French or Arabic was a disadvantage but having mastered the word for Pancakes with honey ‘Crepes aux Miel’ I was guaranteed a delicious breakfast! We waited a fair while for our food to arrive and only realised why as soon as some other diners had finished their breakfast as they were waiting to wash the utensils – classic!

Back at the hotel we met up with a local guide who was to spend the day with us showing us the sights of Fes. Our guide’s name was Hakima which means wise or insightful and was most fitting as she told us many interesting facts.

Our first stop was at the Royal Palace where you are met with impressive thick bronze doors surrounded by the traditional Moroccan Mosaic – zillij in many colours of blue which is the colour of Fes. The palace is guarded but you are allowed to walk right up to these doors and have a good look at the brilliant workmanship. Once I had my picture in true tourist style with the guards we headed off in time to the medieval parts of Fes.

The Medina of Fes was an intense experience – you were overloaded with sounds, smells and sights from the moment you enter through the impressive blue gate. Once inside the Medina walls it is hard to capture the initial impression as already you are starting to dodge the local trade. Wooden slats act as the roof in some parts adorned with lanterns that must make an impressive picture at night. I was thankful that I had someone to follow as the constant turns and small doorways we entered could not have been placed on any map. So if you do ever go to Fes I would recommend that you take a local guide to give you some direction – or at least find your way out once you have finished getting lost.

Throughout the Medina you walk marvelling at the beautiful handicraft of the Moroccan slippers and colourful Jilaba. Though the food markets everything is beautifully put on display from towering olives to hanging bananas. You did have to be aware of the cries of Balak! (Look out!) in the tiny alleyways as this normally meant a heavily laden donkey was approaching and that you had to get out of the way very quickly – in some cases it saw us sprawled against the wall wondering if there was enough space or you would have a load crash right into you.

This medieval Medina highlights the traditional crafts still in place and allowed us to see fabric being weaved, carpets being made and of course leather being dyed at the famous Fes Tannery. Walking into a leather shop which takes you to a view of the Tannery, you are greeted along with a piece of mint. When reaching the top to the balcony you see colourful sight of reds, blues and yellows…along with whiff of raw hide. Amidst taking photos I was quite happy to bury my nose in the mint leaves provided.

Housed inside the old city are a number of Mosques and the Medersa (College) Bou Inania, which recently restored shows the elaborate Zellij, carved plaster, cedar screens and massive bronze doors.

For lunch we were taken to our guide, Hakima’s friends restaurant (Familla Berada) for lunch. I was a bit skeptical at first as you always think there is some pay off but it turned out to a be a very festive occasion for as little as MAD70 you received cooked salads, choice of main and a drink, plus welcoming gestures and entertainment from the owner. Who said you had to understand each other when this man’s personality overtook with his happy smiles, showing his strength by picking you up and twirling you around. It was a lovely lunch but I must say my choice of lamb tagine and vegetables was a bit disappointing. Not because it was not cooked well but for some reason all I could taste was the smell from the Tannery that we just visited.

The afternoon we did more exploration though the alleyways and after a sweet mint tea and for some a Nss Nss (Half coffee, half milk), making a wish in the wall (which to be honest I was laughing so much I forgot to wish!), I was quite happy to take my few purchases and head back to the hotel and put my feet up.

Accommodation: Hotel Olympic