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.

 

 

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.

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.

Pilgrimage Village & Roman Ruins

“Moulay Idriss. A whitewashed town settled between two green hills it makes an impressive approach.”

Moulay Idriss, Morocco


Having left the capital city behind it was back on the train to my next destination Meknes. The 2 and a half hour ride provided the time needed to catch up on some sleep from a very busy morning – yes it is still Saturday :).

Leaving Meknes behind in the late afternoon we literally squeezed into a taxi and drove for about 30 mins to one of the country’s most pilgrimage sites, Moulay Idriss. A whitewashed town settled between two green hills it makes an impressive approach. After leaving our bags at the very friendly guesthouse (Le Combe Blanche) it was once again out and about and up and down stairs to take in the character of this town, from watching workers twining thread, marvelling at the process of bread baking and looking at the impressive decor leading to the Mausoleum of Moulay Idriss.

I really enjoyed my fun packed day that it seemed fitting to end off with a Moroccan Kefta Tagine and a glass of the local Meknes Wine (which was surprisingly decent not to mention hard to find) as the sun went down.

Sunday we woke up to a tempting breakfast at the friendly home stay, orange juice and pancakes which we all smothered in honey or goats cheese – very yummy and soon to be my favourite breakfast choice . It was then down the winding stairs with our bags to our transfer to the Roman Ruins of Volubilis,a UNESCO Heritage Site.

It was a very cold and wet walk around the ruins that I must say I did not take in too much of what our guide was telling us, but the Roman marble floor mosaics were quite impressive and the addition of the local stork nesting on the pillars was an awesome site.

Accommodation: Guesthouse Le Combe Blanche

Sea Lions rule the bay

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador


The Galapagos – a place so enriched with wildlife, it is hard to imagine some of these beautiful creatures are still endangered.

The Galapagos – takes you back in time, to a prehistoric world, a world filled with giant tortoises and iguanas. There are many ways I can describe these islands and for me and I am sure for everyone that has visited or will be visiting a complete privilege, an all enthralling experience each and every day.

I was lucky enough to spend a week in the Galapagos, with 5 days being on a small cruise boat, Aida Maria, exploring the south islands with 14 other just as excitable passengers.

My first few days on Santa Cruz island were like being part of a cartoon – a magical land where everything seems perfect. I walked along the pure white sand of Turtle Bay while watching deep black marine iguanas merge from the sea, returning just a slight tilting of the head in acknowledgment that you were there. There were plenty of them along with bright red crabs scattered on the rocks, peering and watching you warily as you passed.

If time had stood still, this is where I would want to be! I know it sounds surreal and I will admit I asked myself the same question was everything truly happening, was I actually gazing out at the sunset over the ocean while spotting elegant manta-rays somersaulting out the water at intermittent occasions.

The boat I stayed on was great and the bonus was I had a small cabin to myself with bathroom. There was enough space on deck to enjoy the views and something I am not used too – mounds and mounds of food. My only excuse for eating it all was I needed to keep my energy up for my next excursion – which for me generally meant racing around in the water with my camera trying to capture all the fish I could see.

My route took me around the south islands: Santa Cruz, Santa Fe, Española and Floreana. Each offered something new and more of the same beautiful creatures.

The sea lions ruled the bay – on every island they were irresistibly cute: dreaming contently in the sun, playing in the surf and swimming around you while you snorkelled.

While I wasn’t in or on the water, I was walking around the islands visiting both marine and land iguanas, seeing the famous blue footed boobies – you guessed it the ones with the bright blue feet and watching the albatross waddle to the cliff edge to take off into the sky.

On my last full day sailing I got a chance to snorkel in an amazing place – Devils Crown. The water was crystal clear and I got to experience snorkelling with black tip reef sharks (plenty of them just lurking below you), marble rays, turtles, tropical fish and sea lions all the time while admiring the stunning rock bottom covered in electric blue and orange starfish.

´Can I stay longer?` was my first thought when it was time to leave this place. A place I hope to one day return. A place I will hope will stay as enriched and magical for all who visit.