Monday, June 19, 2017

THE MAGNIFICENT MALDIVES (Part 6 in a series on recent Journey)


Sharing with people that one is fortunate enough to visit the Maldive Islands typically garners one of two reactions:  1) Where is that? -or- (more commonly) 2) Oh, that's on my bucket list!! I can't wait to go there!!!  In answer to number 1, southwest of India. In answer to number 2, there is a very good reason for that reaction ... 

Upon making the decision to visit India, the proximity to the Maldives made it nearly automatic to include this exquisite location in the itinerary. The biggest decision was how much time to allocate and how much time we could afford.  This destination is not for the faint of wallet, so the decision became four days/three nights of splendor.  
This map is hardly to scale but you get the general idea.
We flew Sri Lankan Air from Delhi en route to Male.  A schedule change had us at the airport in Colombo (Sri Lanka) for roughly nine hours. Brilliant move on the part of the airlines to add a nice, clean hotel attached to the airline lounge that literally books by the hour -- $10 USD.  I reserved the room in advance and followed their directions.  We did not have to pass through immigration so it's a breeze.  We checked our bags all the way through from Delhi to the Maldives, got a decent night's sleep, boarded the continuation of our flight and were at the resort by 9am. Win/win all around.
On approach to the main city of Male (above); new resort construction (left) visible from the plane.
It is a 25-minute boat ride to the Four Seasons Kuda Huraa, one of multiple options for the company in the area.  I deliberately picked this one for the proximity to the airport. Depending upon flight arrival time, one might have their resort arrival delayed and I wanted to take advantage of every single minute.  Indeed, we were met after collecting our bags, and in our room a short time later.  Nirvana.  

 


View from the room.  I know (WOW factor).  All accommodations have their own small pool.  Through the shrubs was the white sand beach. 


Above left:  phenomenal snorkling right in front of the property;  Above right:  beach service awaits with the press of a button. 


                       Standing knee-high in crystal clear ocean water
So what does one do in the Maldives?   Not much, which is kind of the point.  Of the 1,100+ islands, less than 200 are even inhabited.  The area is busy for avid divers at certain times of the year.  We happened to stay during a slower period, which was quite fine.  Lots of gazing at the incredible colors, swimming, enjoying terrific food, etc. But I was particularly fascinated with the resort's Marine Center, where turtles are rescued and nurtured by trained biologists in the most comprehensive manner.  

Some are missing one or both front fins but seem to manage pretty well. They are treated for various infections, weighed and measured regularly, and hand fed fresh fish via tweezers.  They hit the turtle lottery in this regard! 

Clockwise from top left:  kids are carefully petting a turtle; one is being examined; big guy clocks in at 70 lbs; interesting names for the turtles with their vitals noted.
Among the activities offered, there is shark feeding at dusk each evening. The black-tip sharks are quite small, safe, and seem to know when it's chow time as a lot of them showed up.  




By the over-water bungalows
Don't you decorate your bed at home with fresh flowers?!
Dusk at the main pool
Madives takeway: It's a safe bet that the various luxury properties here -- one per atoll or small island -- such as One and Only, Taj and others, offer excellent service. But we can only speak for the Four Seasons where not a thing was missed.  Best of all was not only getting into our room at 9am, but likewise being able to stay in the room until departure time at 6pm.  Four FULL days. Cannot thank the resort enough for making it so easy on us. The Maldives are indeed magnificent. Expensive? No question. We're feeling quite fortunate for the experience. Next up: Three flights to Perth!

Thank you Chef Junious for this delicious and inventive dessert:  Red velvet cake with raspberry-studded frozen yogurt and edible sponge cake depicting the local coral.  Amazing!

                No descriptions necessary for these last pix ...

Monday, June 5, 2017

UDAIPUR: LAST STOP IN INDIA (Part 5 in a Series)

Any and all questions about Indian hospitality, service and generosity were permanently cemented at the Jaipur airport prior to the short flight to Udaipur for our final stay in India.  We left the terminal via shuttle on the tarmac for the walk to our Spicejet prop plane.  Once strapped in but prior to departure, I could not find my camera bag containing not one but two cameras.   Good lord, why was the bag NOT on my shoulder as it had been since leaving the hotel??!

The hubby jumped up and alerted the flight attendant to contact the terminal folks so they could search the area where we had been sitting. Outcome?  Found right where I left it, placed on a dedicated shuttle, and returned to me at my seat.  Theft is clearly not an issue among these wonderful folks. 

But pity the poor pilot who hitched a ride on our flight and took the seat next to me. Surely he wasn't anticipating the slew of questions (are these planes safe?  how long have you been flying? and on and on). Typically needless worry; the flight was short and uneventful.  

The entrance to the Oberoi Udaivilas was by a small hotel tender across Lake Pichola. From quite a distance, evidence of the four-day wedding extravaganza taking place at nearly every venue in the area could be seen in all full spendor. 
Grand entrance to the wedding luncheon
The bride is second from left
Three Jews crash an Indian wedding ... appropriately attired; no?
Inside the swag area.  Pedicure anyone?
As talked about in the previous post, we were "invited" to attend as we were just about the only guests in the hotel not there for the wedding. We ventured into the arrival area and the massive tent constructed for the day's luncheon hosted by the bride.  Beautiful silk bags were being handed out to the female guests, and I was given one in navy. Want the definition of chutzpah?  I asked for a different color -- pale grey. No harm; no foul.  

There was a separate area for different types of "swag" -- everything from colorful bracelets to henna painting to pedicures and mini massages.  It's hard to describe the detail, but clearly the most colorful and beautiful event imaginable. 
I thought this was a tribute to a lost loved one.  Turns out it was for the caterer, indeed alive and well and brought in from Thailand.  A very small corner shown below of the incredible food and dessert spread.


We were told that there could be 60-70 of these weddings from October-May, which is the high season. It is clearly a huge business, what with wedding planners, caterers, decor and you name it.  Get this -- for all of you who have wedding plans in the future -- the groom's family paid for all of the guests' accommodations, buying out every 5-star hotel in the area.  A little background digging by yours truly discovered the father of the groom can well afford it; he is the wealthiest man in Nepal. Travel companion/Aunt Judy Stone dug up this article providing more wedding and guest list details.  Coincidentally, two days later we flew from Delhi to Colombo (capital of Sri Lanka).  Someone pointed out the Prime Minister on the plane a few feet away. But via commercial transport?? Mon dieu!
Flowers and glorious decor inside and outside the tent.

Wedding festivities notwithstanding, we used the two days in Udaipur to relax in a gorgeous setting, although the hubby and Aunt Judy did a half day of sightseeing in the older part of Udaipur City including the palace.  But our fascination with the whole scene was a big part of the experience.  As the hubby says, women love two subjects:  weddings and babies!  Can't say he's wrong about that...
Spa pool just out side our room, with the lake in the background.
A member of the lovely and hospitable staff.
Hotel front
Last night together ... in the lobby of the hotel en route to the
Leela Palace for dinner

City Palace viewed across Lake Pichola by day and by night


My final thoughts on 10 pretty incredible days in India:
1) I can't recommend highly enough andBeyond (in particular our planner Devika Surie) and The Oberoi Hotels for their extraordinary care of us;  
2) We traveled very well with Aunt Judy from NYC!  She may have 10 years on us, but she was game for everything. We had a great time together;  
3) Nearly every time I thanked someone for something in India, I got this response: "Madam, it's a pleasure."  The pleasure was all ours ...

Next stop for the hubby and me: The Magnificent Maldives.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

JAIPUR, INDIA: A HELLUVA STORY (Part 4 in a Series)


Why is the drive from Ranthambhore to Jaipur nearly four hours in length when it is only about 100 miles (180 km)?  Because a "major" road in India can mean just two lanes in each direction.  Mind you, few drivers actually pay attention to traffic lanes, not to mention dodging all the animals, motorbikes, and enormous sacks of hay.

"Wide load" to say the least!
Arriving at the Oberoi Rajvilas is indescribable. It is a true oasis on 32 acres of lush grass with peacocks in abundance. It is just a gift.  And we thought we'd seen some pretty wonderful welcome amenities, but hand's down this property gets #1 status.  Witness below the edible chocolate. How in the world ...?? Someone across the planet reads my blog (not to mention the hubby's weekly column on Townhall.com)!  We are honored.
 

Pathway to our room above;
marigolds are used liberally for messaging (below).
Remember "Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"?  Filmed in and around the Jaipur area.
 
Prior to visiting somewhere, I'm forever collecting information on shopping and restaurants. For Jaipur (one of the world's major jewelry sites), on the list of must-see's was the Gem Palace.  Founded in 1852, and still in the same location, this historic jeweler has a sign-in book so incredible I actually took some photos:   
In case it's not clear:  Jacqueline Kennedy (top; circa 1962); Charles & Camilla (bottom left; circa 2006); Oprah (bottom right; 2012).  We were in very good company to say the least! Alas, no acquisitions.

We had a lengthy and fascinating conversation with 8th generation propietor/scion Samir Kasliwal, at the end of which he showed us some incredible commissioned pieces. I couldn't resist trying on the 900-carat "chandelier" made for a Kuwaiti royal (as heavy as it looks). Somehow we started discussing our next stop -- Udaipur. 

Yours for about a million bucks.
Back story: Before leaving home, we were informed by our tour company andBeyond that all 82 rooms at the Oberoi Udaivilas, plus the other comparable area hotels, had been bought out for a wedding during our scheduled visit and would we consider switching our plans. Firmly no. There's no way we're missing this place!  Of course, guess who's going to the wedding?  Our new friend Samir! And since andBeyond personnel knew the groom, we would be welcome to attend .. along with the 1,200 or so other guests. What's a few more?  Wedding highlights in the next post.

While in Jaipur we had a full day of sightseeing the historic sights, culminating with an elephant ride and dinner at Dera Amer.  The following day, it was a challenge getting up for a 6:30 a.m. hotel departure to the airport for the short flight to our next and final stay in India:  Udaipur.... 
Can you guess what this gentleman (facing the laptop) does for a living?  Notary Public.  Fax/typewriter/computer -- the works.  Inside the walled city on our tour.

 
 
Clockwise from upper left:  Next to my Capricorn sign at Jantar Mantar, a Unesco World Heritage site with 19 "architectural astronomical" instruments built in the 1700's; with our new Indian "friends" who love being photographed with Americans -- mostly selfies; inlaid lifesize chess board -- we heard something about the rulers using concubines as chess pieces; and the world's largest sundial.  The hubby still can't believe I used the word "hypotenuse" when we were there, but I will keep reminding him I did pay some attention in high school.

Atop Amer Fort
The hubby in deep discussion with Fort guards -- about "Fast & Furious" movies!
Traveling companion/Aunt Judy Stone & I lasted about 15 minutes ... love the elephants but the ride is VERY bumpy!