Category Archives: Travel Tips

Sun, sea and Shamu

In light of the UK’s recent disappointing ‘summer’ weather, we can be forgiven for looking further afield this year in search of our much needed dose of summer sunshine. Especially since 2012 was the wettest in 100 years. So where better to look than the sunshine state itself, Florida? Boasting sumptuous sub-tropical temperatures and a list of world class attractions, Orlando is the city of choice for many visiting the region. We all know that it only takes a mention of “Disney world” to get the kids jumping with excitement but, if you’re an animal lover like me, you can’t miss the chance to visit SeaWorld, one of the world’s largest sea life parks.

orlando florida

If you’re lucky enough to be paying Orlando a visit this year, you’re best to get in quick and pre-book tickets for Orlando’s top attractions before you leave. Especially since you can make significant savings by booking attractions such as SeaWorld Orlando tickets before leaving the UK.

SeaWorld offers you a chance to lose yourself in the awe-inspiring beauty of the sea and get up close and personal with huge range of amazing creatures. Come feeding time you can really become part of their world, as you meet and hand-feed a range of colourful park residents, including playful Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins, majestic sea lions and feisty stingrays.

But perhaps one of the most entertaining features of the park is its live shows. Here you can experience the wonders of the sea as they unfold before you. As you watch the live antics of animals and their trainers you can’t help realising just how incredible these creatures really are and what an amazing bond they share with their keepers. The shows set out to educate inspire and enthrall and they certainly don’t disappoint. But be warned, if you decide to sit in one of the front rows you may come out pretty wet!

For the thrill-seekers out there, the park also offers a range of world class rollercoasters, including Manta, the world’s only ‘flying’ rollercoaster. Manta sets out to let you experience what it’s like to spin, glide, skim and fly just like a giant ray. This monster of a ride sees passengers taunted by head-first, face-down inverted nose dives as they skim across the water on one of the smoothest tracks in the world.

Or how about the Kraken? Inspired by the myth of legendary giant sea monsters said to dwell off the coasts of Norway and Greenland, this is a monster-coaster like no other. Consistently voted by enthusiasts as one of the world’s best coaster experiences, this ‘mythical beast’ will lift you higher, drop you longer and spiral you faster than any other coaster in Orlando.

It’s also great to know that the centre is a world leader in animal welfare and conservation, supporting and working with more than 100 environmental organisations worldwide. In an effort to protect wildlife and their habitats, the centre is committed to raising awareness of conservation issues around the world and giving everyone a chance to play their part in helping out. Working in partnership with the state and local federal agencies, the park also trains rescue teams who are on call 24/7 to respond to wildlife crises. The job of these workers range from treating animals victims of natural disasters to caring for those who have been orphaned or injured.

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Top Rated Hotels for a Holiday in Side

Southern Turkey is home to one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world. With perfectly turquoise Mediterranean waters, a nice mix of wide, sandy beaches and dramatic, rocky cliffs, and a totally unique and engrossing cultural and historical side, this region is the perfect holiday destination. But where to stay? Side, one of the most popular resort centers, has almost too many options to choose from. Here are ten of the best:

Alba Royal

Top Rated Hotels Side 1

Want to escape children (your own or others’)? This is the perfect place. With no guests allowed under 13 years of age, the romantic possibilities open up endlessly, and vacations are that much more relaxing. Voted one of TripAdvisor’s “Best Hotels of 2012,” the Alba Royal offers an excellent selection of facilities, bars, restaurants, pools, and very comfortable and spacious rooms. It’s located right on the beautiful beach and has a distinctive and memorable character.

SENTIDO Perissia

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This excellent member of the SENTIDO chain of resorts is conveniently located for those interested in exploring some history and archaeology in addition to enjoying the sublime relaxation that a high class beach resort like this can offer. The SENTIDO Perissia is located at the boundary between the trendy, beautiful beachfront promenade that most of the resorts in the area share and the beginning of historical Side. Its wide range of amenities and activities make it a prime choice for couples or families.

Trendy Palm Beach

Top Rated Hotels Side 3

If escaping the bustle of the resort center is important to you, the location of the Trendy Palm Beach may be especially appealing. The restaurants and bars here get extra marks, as do the beach activities like canoes and pedalos. As with most resorts in Turkey, its spa is particularly well-developed. Turkish massage is a world-famous art, and guests here report that it is especially blissful. And as you might expect from the name, the beach is beautiful.

Alba Queen

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Large, stylish, and full of fun, the Alba Queen is an excellent choice for family vacations. There are waterslides leading into its expansive swimming pools, there is a ten-pin bowling alley, and the whole resort is located right on the beach. Children are well cared for at the thoughtful mini-buffet, the playground, and the hotel-run “kid’s club.” If your family is active and likes to get around a lot on their holiday together, there are transportation options to Side, Çolakli, and other nearby centers.

Sunlight Garden

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If you’re looking for a more comfortable, homey feel, then Sunlight Garden may be the best choice for you. This resort takes a much heavier emphasis on apartment-style accommodation, making it much easier to feel at home and creating inexpensive options for large families and groups that want to stay together without paying exorbitant room rates. The community feeling here is heightened by the smaller size and overall layout centered around the two outdoor pools.

Voyage Sorgun

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This is another highlight on TripAdvisor’s “Best Hotels of 2012” listing, and with good reason. Voyage Sorgun is located at the edge of a pine forest, with a secluded beach and a private dock that make waterskiing, scuba diving, and other fun activities possible. If you’re hanging around the hotel, you can engage in bowling and pool, or catch a movie at the mini cinema. Between shows, you’ll have to choose between nine restaurants, six swimming pools, and 12 bars. This one’s a winner.

Kentia Apartments

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For those hoping to enjoy the luxuries of the top resorts while still being mindful of their budgets, the Kentia Apartments complex is a great option. By staying just 1.3 kilometers away from the beach (and enjoying easy transportation to and from it), your family can save a lot of money while booking accommodation. You’ll still enjoy great food, attractive pools, and frequent evening entertainment, as well. It’s definitely a smart choice for those that want to save their money for more traveling in the future.

Hotel Asteria

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Elegant, right on the beach, and full of amenities, the Hotel Asteria offers luxurious rooms and great activities in a central location. There is a sense of sophistication here that not all resorts manage to exude, but it is palpable. If you stay at the Asteria, you will enjoy great service, food, spa treatments, and more. Not that you’ll ever need to leave the resort for anything, but if you ever decide that you need a change of scenery, you’re not far from Side and other communities.

Crystal Palace Luxury Resort & Spa

Top Rated Hotels Side 9

If you’ve come for comfort, you’ve come to the right place. The Crystal Palace Luxury Resort & Spa offers every indulgence you could ever require, in a full package that is stylish and downright heavenly. Getting massage and other treatments here will make you wish you could stay forever. It’s remoteness is part of the charm–you’re not far from the shops of Gundogdu and Çolakli, but are far removed enough from the main press of visitors to not feel overwhelmed. Of course, all the usual amenities are provided, and are as excellent as you’d expect.

Paloma Ocean Resort

Top Rated Hotels Side 10

As the face of tourism changes in Turkey, hotels are adapting and upgrading. Formerly known as the Paloma Beach Resort, the Paloma Ocean Resort has received some major updates to prepare it for the next tourist season, and is one of the best of the family-friendly options. Featuring tons of activities for kids, modern decor, and friendly staff, this is an excellent choice. The waterpark comes highly recommended, as do the multitude of bars and restaurants.

Enjoying comforts like those offered at these hotels is one of the best parts of traveling. Do yourself a favor and treat yourself to stay on the Turkish Riviera, and enjoy all that this great region has to offer.

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Travel Insurance Tips

When you’re traveling, chances are your main focus is on enjoying your time to the max, seeing new and interesting sights, eating local food and experiencing a new culture. But oftentimes, one mishap can turn a completely positive holiday upside down- a missed flight, stolen bag or passport or even travel company going bankrupt are all risks that you take when you travel. For these reasons, many travelers opt for travel insurance to protect them from the worst case scenario. Here are a few tips to get you on the way to picking out the right travel insurance for your trip:

 money

Why Travel Insurance? Of course we know that insurance protects against stolen baggage and belongings, but imagine some of the following other scenarios: A family member comes down with the flu the day before you’re scheduled to depart on holiday, and they can’t fly. That’s a lot of money gone on a plane ticket that can’t be used! Or a massive storm wipes out the beach where you’re staying in a resort, and you’re forced to evacuate. Wouldn’t you want to recover the cost of your stay? Travel insurance protects against all the unexpected problems that can come up while traveling, saving you tons of money and stress.

Pick your Categories Travel insurance covers five main areas: medical, flight, baggage, evacuation and trip cancellation/interruption. You’ll usually end up buying a package that has a few of these, and you can always add on policies like identity theft, for example.

Where to Buy You can get travel insurance in a few ways: from a travel agent, an online broker, or from your current insurance provider. Travel agents will usually try to push travel insurance because they earn a commission, but shop around before you choose what to go with.

Before you Buy… Make sure you completely go over what’s covered by your existing insurance before you buy a travel plan! You might find that you have property loss protection that’s still in effect when you travel, or your health insurance offers medical care overseas. Don’t invest in something that you don’t really need if you’ve got the coverage already.

Other Kinds of Insurance If you’re a student planning to go abroad, you can purchase insurance plans for both short and long-term stays. Business travel insurance is great for jet-setting professionals who need protection for laptops and electronics or reimbursement for canceled conferences and meetings. Or even if you leave your pets at home, you can even get pet insurance to protect your furry loved ones.

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Top 5 Biggest Cruise Ships in the World

When you hear the term “luxury cruise liner,” images of great ships like the Titanic, Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth 2 probably come to mind. Each vessel was a legendary name in the annals of the world’s largest and greatest cruise ships.

Oasis of the Seas

Oasis of the Seas

Now, in the 21st Century, a whole new generation of massive ships is sailing the seas. Like floating cities, the new generation stretches the boundaries of size and luxury as each one ferries passengers from port to port. Here are the five largest ships currently on the water.

5. (Tie) Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas & Independence of the Seas

All three “Freedom” class cruise ships are owned and operated by Royal Caribbean International, which owns seven of the ten biggest cruise ships in the world. The Freedom, Liberty and Independence each are 154,407 gross tons (GT) in weight, 1,112 feet long and 184 feet wide. By comparison, the ships are as long as the height of a 90-story skyscraper building and wider than a football field.

Making these ships even more impressive is their 209-foot above-water height. A wide hull makes it possible for each massive vessel to not only stay afloat but remain relatively smooth in rough seas and right itself quickly if a wave ever attempted to knock it over.

2. Norwegian Epic

At 155,873 GT in weight, the Norwegian Epic by Norwegian Cruise Line is the second largest passenger ship in the world today. At 1,081 feet by 133 feet, the Epic is shorter and thinner than the Freedom Class ships of Royal Caribbean. But what it lacks in depth it makes up for in capacity, holding up to 5,183 people.

The cruise ship was built in France and delivered to Norwegian Cruise Line in 2010 by STX Europe shipbuilders. It has 19 decks and operates in the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea.

The Epic’s luxury includes balconies for all outside cabins and a water park with the only tube and bowl slide at sea. Going over-the-top, the Epic also features an ice bar, where the temperature is kept at 17 degrees Fahrenheit, where drinks are served in ice glasses, and where patrons have to wear thick coats even in the tropics.

1. (Tie) Oasis of the Seas & Allure of the Seas

Royal Carribean is the owner of the world’s two largest passenger ships, each one staggering in size at more than 75,000 GT larger than second place. In fact, both the Oasis and the Allure, commissioned in 2009 and 2010, respectively, are more than twice the size of the largest ship afloat in 1998, the Grand Princess.

Both vessels are 1,187 feet long, longer than an aircraft carrier, and 213 feet wide. They rise more than 20 stories above the waterline (236 feet) and each carry up to 6,296 people. The first ship, Oasis, was also the most expensive commercial ship ever built, reportedly costing $1.24 billion (US). That price bought luxury, and the newest ship, Allure, has an ice skating rink, two-deck dance hall, and a 1,380-seat theater.

 

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5 Tips for Dealing with Culture Shock

Culture shock 1Dealing with culture shock can be a surprisingly difficult challenge for some people that are either traveling abroad for the first time, or delving into a much more foreign culture than what they’ve experienced in the past. It’s tough to prepare for the first steps out of the modern, air-conditioned Delhi airport, when the noise and smell and sights hit you, the autowallahs surround you, and the beggars surround you. When you arrive at a homestay in a Masaai village in Tanzania, you can’t do much to get in the mindset of little girls being stronger than you, sharing a bed with a goat, or giving up on identifying what it is that you’re eating. Culture shock can be overwhelming, and make travel that much more difficult. Here are some tips for combating it:

 

Culture shock 21. Know what you’re going into

If you take some time researching the place that you’re going, understanding a little bit of the local customs, and knowing at least a little bit what to expect, your transition will be infinitely easier. Get information from guidebooks, travel blogs, national websites, novels about the country, or whatever else you find easiest to acclimate with. You will find many moments where you instantly recognize a custom that would otherwise be totally baffling to you had you not read about it beforehand.

 

2. Learn a few words

You’re always going to feel like a little bit of an idiot saying the same three Thai phrases over and over again, but they really do help. Being able to say simple pleasantries, ask how much something costs and understand the answer, and a few emergency phrases will help a lot. As you become more comfortable with the culture, you can expand your vocabulary, but it’s good to have at least a tiny bit before you arrive.

 

3. Find patterns

Diving into a place that is totally foreign from everything you’ve ever experienced is great, but don’t overstretch yourself. Many backpackers arrive in a city, see the top recommended sites, and move on within two days. This isn’t recommended, especially when you’re first starting out. Find a comfortable guesthouse, get to know the owners, ask them lots of questions. Learn your way around the neighborhood, go to the same noodle lady on the corner every day until she knows what you want better than you do, and otherwise ease into things. Then you can move on with a much better basis.

 

Culture shock 34. Band together

Other foreigners will be going through the same experience as you, and can be an excellent resource in information and retaining sanity (not to mention talking you out of making bad choices). This is especially true if you’re traveling alone. Find comfort and familiarity in people with similar backgrounds to your own, and use their advice and company to get a better foothold wherever you are. That’s not to say that you should be dependent, or only have an “expat experience.” The more you adapt over time, the less you’ll need other foreigners to help you out.

 

5. Reminders from home

Sure, traveling with your stuffed bear you’ve had for 20 years might like funny to the locals, but who cares? If it gives you a sense of security, it’s worth it. Skype home. Have your parents send you something special that you can’t find where you are (cheddar cheese, maple syrup, good coffee, tampons, whatever). You will be a happy person.

 

Immersing yourself in a new culture doesn’t have to be intimidating. While some degree of shock is inevitable, it’s easy to manage by following a few simple tips. Above all, don’t be scared of trying new things!

 

 

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Staying Sane on the Road

Long term travel can be one of the most liberating, refreshing, and consciousness-expanding experiences that you choose to undergo in your lifetime. But while it has so much positive potential, it can often take a toll on your mental health. Feelings of homesickness and culture shock can be overwhelming, especially when combined with the stress of always being on the move.

 

staying sane 1If homesickness is a big issue for you, you should take the time to recognize why that is. Do you miss specific people? Routines from home? Utilize Skype to keep up to date with loved ones. Bring a keepsake from home to travel with, or engage in activities that remind you of the life that’s on hold there. Write your thoughts down continuously, and then take some time to appreciate where you are. There was probably a good reason you decided to do this solo cross-Europe backpacking trip. What was it? Make it happen.

 

Excessive anger and frustration often arise in places far-removed from your normal comfort zone. The train is five hours late, the immigration office is inexplicably closed, the tuk tuk driver scams you, the street food made you sick, and the directions that every single person gives you are wrong. Most western cultures appreciate timeliness and demand logical explanations for policies. We welcome directness over saving face, and expect honesty over cheating. The same values are not necessarily held in all parts of the world, and you may find your temper rising when things just don’t run the way that they should.

 

staying sane 2To combat this, perspective is essential. Sure, the enterprising Turkish shopkeeper ripped you off for as much as he could—probably less than a Starbucks’ coffee worth. The bus to Dar es-Salaam isn’t running today for no apparent reason? Fine, walk around the village instead and appreciate that this is only a one-time inconvenience for you instead of a daily reality. My personal philosophy is to budget for these annoyances, as unfortunate as they are, and not let them bring me down. If it ever becomes too much, spend the little bit extra to treat yourself—a hotel with AC and a pool, a well-earned meal at a modern restaurant, or a spa day. You’ll feel much better for having done so.

 

staying sane 3But psychological stresses like these are often heightened by backpackers’ tendency to always be on the move. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, by all means, slow down. Drop some stops from your itinerary in order to appreciate the places that you most want to see and not feel like you need to leave on the same day. Take the time to explore each town that you like and try to get a feeling for local life as much as big tourist sites. Being flexible will allow you to adjust to the pace of each place, learn more of the language, find restaurants and people that you like, and feel much less stressed than if you are constantly running to catch the next sleeper bus.

 

If at any point traveling ceases to be fun, it’s time to take a moment to seriously evaluate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Long-term backpacking is a release from the frustrations and cycles of life at home. It gives us a chance to explore totally new things, but by the same token requires that we be open to them.

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Lebanon: Full of Surprises and Awesomeness

For many Americans that were politically conscious in the early 1980s, “Beirut” is synonymous with the suicide bombing that killed 300 servicemen. For the French, Liban represents a decline of global influence after WWII. For Australians, Brazilians, and many other countries that received torrents of refugees during Lebanon’s 15 year civil war, the country is the source of large social groups that had never existed before. For other Arabs, the Lebanese society is often a symbol of westernization and departure from traditional Muslim values. But whatever your background, you will find that Lebanon is full of surprises if you’re lucky enough to visit it.

Lebanon 1Beirut has reemerged once again as a chic and cosmopolitan capital city, reclaiming a title that it once held—the Paris of the Middle East. Its downtown has been rebuilt in the wake of the war into a modern, clean, and highly organized center. Nearby neighborhoods like Achrafiyeh and Gemmayzeh are known for their extensive nightlife options, ranging from hole-in-the-wall bars to massive nightclubs with internationally-renowned DJs. Hamra Street connects these East Beirut landmarks with Ras Beirut, on the west side of the city, known for its cultural melting pot and student culture. I studied at the American University of Beirut for a semester and enjoyed the liveliness and friendliness of the Hamra neighborhood. Beirut borders the ocean on both the west and north sides, and the lovely Corniche road follows this coastline. This seaside promenade is perfect for morning jogs and evening strolls, and it is a popular local pastime to bring chairs to hang out by the sea and smoke nargilehs with friends and family. Throughout the rest of Beirut are interesting historical neighborhoods with drastically different political and religious leanings, divisions that can at times lead to violence but recently have seen cooperation and coexistence for the most part.

Lebanon 2Outside of Beirut, there are many places worth visiting. In winter, one can ski without the crowds at Faraya or The Cedars and swim in the Mediterranean in the same day, a famously clichéd statement about Lebanon that is entirely true and totally delightful. Jbeil, also known as Byblos, is a short drive north of Beirut along the coast and is said to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has fascinating ruins of crusader castles and much, much older settlements that will interest archeology and history buffs. In the south, towns like Nabatieh have conservative charm, offering a much more traditional cultural picture of the country than the modern, European cities. Driving through the hills and vineyards is enchanting—the terrain is beautiful, and the rural villages and farms are all welcoming of polite foreigners. Lebanon 3Tripoli, in the north, is the country’s second largest city and boasts more coastal atmosphere. It even has islands famous for palm trees and green turtles. Further to the east, the ancient ruins of Baalbek are larger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Greece, albeit much less famous. This ancient Roman city has layers of intricate stonework built on top of it from Arab and Ottoman periods, and is exquisite in its detail, scope, and preservation. A visit here is a must.

Lebanon is so small that visiting the entire country is not difficult at all. One should always do some research on political conditions, but in general it is a safe place for westerners. People are nice, well-educated, and guaranteed to be curious about you. If nothing else, the sheer variety of the country is reason enough to visit.

 

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Adventures in Nicaragua

Once off-limits due to its extreme politics, military control of society, and high crime rates, Nicaragua now enjoys a substantial tourism industry and stands as a much more welcoming state. While it certainly still has its share of problems, it was third on a recent New York Times list of the 46 places to visit in 2013, and with good reason. Nicaraguans enjoy an excellent quality of life, and trips to their homeland are always worthwhile.

Of course, that’s excluding Managua, the capital. Managua is a pretty awful place—there really is no center of the city, no downtown, no cultural hub. It is just a sprawling mess, poorly served by police and sanitation and other government offices, and not much to look at. Visitors arriving in Managua are encouraged to escape as soon as possible. However, this poor introduction to Nicaragua shouldn’t dissuade you. The rest of the country is great.

Nicaragua 1Many people take in Granada when they visit, and are very pleased with the decision. This pleasant town 50 kilometers from Managua has great colonial architecture, a vibrant restaurant and live music scene, and plenty of art galleries spread around. There are colorful and artistic old mansions, great bars, and plenty of shady spots to cool off on cobbled backstreets. Granada stands on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, and there are excellent opportunities for renting kayaks and canoes on the shore. Small groups with local guides paddle around the hundreds of tiny islands forming an archipelago in the lake, some only large enough for one modest house. One isle is home to hundreds of monkeys that live in mango trees and offer endlessly entertaining animal watching. When you finish with the lake, there is a magnificent cloud forest on the opposite side of the city. Scaling the slope of a dormant volcano, Nicaragua 2the Mombacho Forest is a great place for treks. Dense mist at times obscures the line of sight down the mountainside, but it occasionally parts and rewards persistence with fantastic views. You can even peer down into the crater of the volcano, now overgrown with jungle. There are also several companies offering canopy tours and zip-line courses, which are a generally safe but still very exhilarating diversion. This is great for children as well as adventurous adults—my mom was brave enough to do it with me on my last visit, and she loved it.

Nicaragua 3Another great place to visit is Ometepe, an island made up of two dormant volcanoes within Lake Nicaragua. Crowded but fun ferries take you to the island, and an uneven road circles its perimeter. Ometepe is known for coffee plantations, hiking trails of various intensity on the volcanoes, and a little bit of ancient history. Large rocks inscribed with petroglyphs stand overgrown with foliage and date back thousands of years. There are also smaller islands within swimmable distance from Ometepe’s shore. Be careful though—this is one of a few places in the world where freshwater sharks have evolved (though they have been hunted almost to extinction at this point).

If you are more adventurous or have more time, you may consider making the trip out to the Corn Islands, or taking a boat down the Rio San Juan. There are tons of options within this underdeveloped country, and at least for now you don’t have to share them with too many other travelers. Enjoy!

 

 

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Desert Dreams Part II: Western Rajasthan

The deeper you go into India’s desert state, the more rewarding the experience can be. From ancient cities to modern hangout spots to truly unique cultural experiences, there is a lot to see. If you missed it, make sure you check out the previous post in this series to see our top recommendations for eastern Rajasthan. For now, though, deeper into the desert!

West Rajasthan 1

Jodhpur contrasts to Jaipur in many ways, and in my opinion is preferable. Its extensive old city is painted various shades of deep blue, and wandering through the back alleyways is fascinating. There is excellent food to be found, and endless opportunities to see local life played out—incense burning on windowsills, flower offerings on doorsteps, children playing with cows in the street, and so on. The Blue City is perhaps even more impressive when viewed from above, either from a guesthouse rooftop or on the parapets of the awe-inspiring Mehrangarh Fort. Jodhpur’s location makes it a possible starting point for camel treks, for anywhere between an afternoon and a week.

West Rajasthan 2Even more famous for camel-related activities is Jaisalmer, further into the desert and another tourist hotspot. Known as the Gold City (notice a trend, yet?), Jaisalmer is famous for massively inflated prices—haggle like your life depends on it, and even after that plan on paying around three times as much as an item is actually worth. Better yet, just don’t buy anything. Still, the city has great architecture, and plenty of music and dance on offer (something it exports to the rest of the country). This is a place to see a lot of cultural variety, and get a really foreign feel for India. Just keep an eye on your wallet and think carefully before buying gifts for yourself or people back home—can you get this same item in another city? If so, it is almost guaranteed to be cheaper elsewhere.

West Rajasthan 3One last stop to consider on your Rajasthani adventure is Udaipur. Another city around a lake, Udaipur is a princely place that retains its relaxed character in contrast to somewhat overrun spots like Jaipur and Jaisalmer. It too has its share of impressive palaces and architecturally rich mansions, as well as enjoyable streets for walking. The surrounding hills are attractively green, and the size of the lake gives it a cooler atmosphere. There’s even some pop culture history here—the 1983 James Bond film Octopussy was filmed here, on an island in the lake and around the city. Many guesthouses have showings of the movie every night, so you’re sure to see Roger Moore in action if you haven’t yet.

Wherever you choose to go, Rajasthan is a romantic destination. It is easy to access from Delhi and Agra, and offers totally unique cultural experiences. This is the India that many first time visitors are looking to discover. Enjoy!

 

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Desert Dreams Part 1: Eastern Rajasthan

East Rajasthan 1

Trips to India can vary widely depending on how much time you have available and how much off the beaten path you want to go. Most short visits include Delhi (the megacity capital, where most flights arrive, and a textbook example of the poverty and wealth that exist side by side across the country) and Agra (home to the Taj Mahal and a few other, less famous monuments). The third corner of the classic India-in-one-week triangle is the desert kingdom of Rajasthan, known for its camels, handicrafts, and colorful festivals. Finding your way in this expansive state can be difficult, be here are some pointers on what to see and what to pass on.

Jaipur is the easiest accessed of the Rajasthani cities via the traditional route. Known as the Pink City, it has a historic old city that is required by local law to be painted an odd shade of coral that dates back to the king’s decision to paint it that color in the 1800s. Jaipur has plentiful markets and some interesting architectural sites like the honeycombed Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) and the Jantar Mantar, an impressively accurate set of car and building-sized astronomy instruments. Nearby is the Amber Fort, a sprawlingly huge castle. While there is plenty of the local charm and color, you may find Jaipur overrun with tourists and those who make a living by taking advantage of them.

East Rajasthan 2For a much more laidback experience, hit up Pushkar. This much smaller town surrounds a small lake and is painted entirely in a pleasing pastel blue shade. Pushkar is a holy site and the destination for many religious pilgrimages, but also an important stop on the so-called Banana Pancake trail. Hippies are pilgrims too, in their own way. This ultra-chilled out place is a great spot to meet other travelers, eat Israeli food, drink bhang lassis (a canniboid extract legal in Rajasthan, surprisingly strong—be careful). A word of warning: don’t accept “free” flowers or assistance from anyone offering to help you do a puja (prayer) at the lakeside. You’re getting conned, and a large amount of money is going to be demanded.

East Rajasthan 3

Not far away is the town of Ajmer. Ajmer doesn’t have much going for it besides a massive Jain temple that is worth a stop as you transit to or from Pushkar. The Jain religion is similar to Buddhism in many ways, but predates it and generally has stricter rules relating to asceticism and purity. Their temples, however, are some of the most interesting in India. Ajmer’s is three stories tall, with a central hall that is filled floor to ceiling with a wood and gold models of religious figures and a fantasy city or heaven. There are elephants and angels and kings and mythological creatures and a whole paradise in miniature. The whole display is astoundingly large and intricate, and visitors can circle it on all three levels on walkways around the perimeter. There are even models hanging from the ceiling, of swans and flying boats. Jain’s definitely know how to build a temple.

This is only a few of the excellent places to visit around this colorful state. Rajasthan has a lot to offer—stay tuned for the second post in this series with more expert tips!

 

 

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