Top ten things to do in Edinburgh

 

There is so much beauty and history in Edinburgh that you can spend days getting to know your favourite parts of it. Here’s my list of the Top 10 interesting things to see and do in Edinburgh:

1. Free Walking Tour: The tour starts from the Starbucks on the Mile and lasts about 3 hours. The guides pepper the facts with humour, making it overall a fun tour. They work for tips only. The tour will give you the general layout of the town, and also acquaint you with the legends and celebrities connected with the city. You would probably see the St Giles Church, the Elephant Café (where JK Rowling used to write before becoming JKR), the Heriot School (inspiration behind Hogwarts), the Writers Museum, Princess Street Gardens etc.

2. Ghost Tour: This one is usually a paid tour and full of drama and gory stories, as expected. You will also be taken to the cemetery and on to Calton Hill, from where you can get a lovely view of the city below as well as a Parthenon-style incomplete Monument.

3. Visit Edinburgh Castle: Located on top of Castle Hill, the 12th century castle is the result of years of building, rebuilding and renovation. I am glad I paid extra for the audio guide, it’s of a high quality and allowed me to explore at my own pace. You can easily spend an entire morning wandering around here.

4. Climb Arthur’s Seat: If you have a reasonable level of fitness, climbing up to Arthur’s Seat can be a fun activity. It is an extinct volcano and Edinburgh’s highest hill, offering fantastic views. Early morning or evening would probably be the best time to go.

5. Walk the Royal Mile: The lower part of the Mile especially Canongate is a nicer area than the upper half, less crowded and touristy. You just have to veer off into any of the narrow lanes leading off the main road and you find yourself in beautiful little residential areas with gardens and flower-boxes in the windows and that kind of thing.

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The Royal Mile

6. Party at the Grassmarket: Grassmarket in the Old Town is a vibrant and lively area full of pubs and restaurants. You can choose to pub crawl, or have a casual dinner with friends, or sit in the central square and people-watch.

7. Try the local food: Popular Scottish dishes include Haggis (minced liver, heart and lungs of a sheep mixed with oatmeal, onion and spices) usually eaten along with neeps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes). I was lucky enough to find a vegetarian version of the dish at The Last Drop pub. You can also try Black pudding, Leek and Tattie soup, Scotch pies, shortbread, sticky toffee pudding and the fabled deep fried Mars bars!

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Vegetarian haggis (!!) with neeps and tatties

8. Take a tour to the Highlands: I took a three-day backpacker’s coach tour to the Highlands and Skye from Edinburgh, and it was just amazing. If you prefer you can hire a car and drive yourself. The highlands are beyond scenic, and you will find some great photo ops everywhere you go. More detailed post on this part, to follow someday soon!

9. Visit a distillery: Lovers of Scotch whisky cannot miss this. A number of companies run tours from Edinburgh to various local distilleries, covering the history and process of whisky production with tastings thrown in.

10. Cultural immersion in New Town: New Town on the other side of the bridge can be termed the cultural hub of the city. It has some highly rated museums such as the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, etc. New Town also has The Edinburgh Playhouse, the largest working theatre in the UK, which routinely stages musical productions.

I hope this list will someday help someone out there who is planning a trip to beautiful Edinburgh. To me, it was a walk down memory lane just putting this together. More posts to follow soon, on my tour to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye!

So, what’s to see in Phuket?

I’ve been meaning to write this post since my visit to Phuket over a year ago. When I visited I was with a group of friends and had no idea what to do or where to go – so I just went along with all the others! I now know a little bit more, and can share that little bit with those in a similar situation 🙂

Contrary to what the first-time visitor might imagine, there is a lot more to Phuket than the famous Patong beach and Phuket/Patong nightlife. Granted that the nightlife is a major draw for most visitors, but here are some other suggestions on things a visitor can also enjoy in Phuket:

  1. Boat trips – Tons of options are available for day trips on speedboats or larger cruise boats to neighbouring islands and beaches. If you are not planning to stay at Phi Phi, a boat trip to see Maya bay might interest you. If you only have time for one excursion, I would recommend the excursion to Pha Nga bay instead. The boat will take you to this impossibly scenic bay and the famous James Bond island, and later give you an opportunity for canoeing and swimming off a secluded beach. A good lunch is usually included.

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2. Spas – Thailand is known for spas, and there are some really great ones in Phuket offering massages, scrubs, foot rubs etc. at really decent prices. After a hectic day out, a good foot and back massage can be just what you need, before a night of partying!

3. Beaches – Naturally, you cannot be in Phuket and not spend time at the beach. The most commonly known beach is Patong of course, but for the same reasons it can also be crowded. If you prefer a quieter, calmer beach experience then head to Kata or Karon beaches. I loved the sunset at Karon. Kamala and Nai Yang beaches are also recommended.

4. Street food – Try some of the local food being sold by roadside vendors. You will find delicious fruits, pancakes with a variety of fillings, soups, noodles, seafood and a host of other interesting dishes being sold very cheap. Be as adventurous as you like!

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5. Heritage tours – If you are the kind (like me) who likes to learn something about the history and culture of the place you are visiting, this one is for you. The Old Town of Phuket still has beautiful examples of Sino-Colonial architecture – buildings dating mostly from before the second World War. These include old merchant mansions, shops, gardens, hotels etc, and are best seen on a walking or bicycle tour of the Old Town.

6. Adventure – For those seeking an active holiday, there is no dearth of interesting options in Phuket. You could go white water rafting, scuba diving, take a bicycle or ATV ride into the countryside, try ziplining or even river canoeing.

Getting There: Phuket can be reached from Bangkok via flight (most convenient) or by bus (cheapest, but a 12-ish hour ride).

 

Monsooning in Meghalaya!

One part of India that I had not visited at all so far, was the north-eastern states. I broke that jinx this month by visiting Meghalaya, the predominantly tribal state carved out of Assam in the 1970’s. It seemed right to be visiting the wettest place on earth, in the middle of the monsoon season!

Shillong, the capital, is a busy little town with the usual urban paraphernalia composed of shopping centres, cafes, schools, markets, traffic jams…In fact, apart from chilling out at a few cafes in town, I spent most of my time outside Shillong in the midst of nature. This is where the true beauty of Meghalaya can be seen.

Everyone will tell you that if you are in Shillong, a visit to Cherrapunjee is a must. Aside from the fact that it was once the district with the highest recorded rainfall in the world (this position is now held by Mawsynram, also nearby), Cherrapunjee or Sohra as it called locally, also offers amazing views of nature in all its grace. Places you should not miss while visiting Cherrapunjee include the Wah Kaba falls, Dainthlen falls, Eco Park, Nohkalikai falls and the Seven Sisters falls. The drive from Shillong takes about 2.5 to 3 hours one way, and it is a scenic route.

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Meghalaya also has a large number of limestone caves and cavers from all over the world visit in order to explore them. I visited the Mawsmai limestone caves, and the stalactites and stalagmites were indeed imposing to see.

While in Shillong you can also take a trip to Mawlynnong and Dawki. Mawlynnong is known as the cleanest village in Asia, and after seeing the place I didn’t really doubt the title. From here you can easily get to the nearby Living Root bridge in Riwai. Living root bridges are natural bridges found in a couple of places in Meghalaya – roots of Indian Rubber trees are trained and woven into a mesh and plastered with mud and stones so that a natural bridge gets formed, allowing people to cross over streams. Ingenious idea, and the bridges are still going strong! Be prepared for a hike up and down several steps though!

Dawki is about 100km from Shillong and can be combined with a Mawlynnong excursion. It offers scenic views of the Umngot river, and the India-Bangladesh border. Outside the monsoon season the river is very popular for boating.

Meghalaya is a must-visit destination that offers natural beauty, offbeat experiences and an opportunity to get away from the concrete jungle. The people you meet here will in general be really warm and friendly, and you will feel welcome wherever you go.

I know that I will be going back someday soon!

Getting there: Flight to Guwahati; 3 hour drive from Guwahati to Shillong

Where to stay: Definitely not in Police Bazaar area, unless you want to be stuck in traffic all day. The Laitumkhrah area is better. If budget allows, go for Ri Kyinjai near Umiam lake.

 

Top 7 Monsoon Getaways in India

Ideas for a getaway in the rainy season

Travel during the rainy season in India has its pros and cons. On a trip during this season one needs to be prepared for a more leisurely vacation, since sightseeing would become weather dependent. However there is a lot to be said in favour of quiet getaways where one can just kick back and relax, without the pressure of ticking off “must do’s”. Enjoy the weather and simple pleasures like walks in the rain, endless cups of tea and conversations with your loved ones. Here are some ideal places that can be picked for a quick monsoon getaway:

1. Kumarakom – The backwaters of Kerala are pretty all the year round, but the rain lends an added touch of solitude and romance. Take advantage of off-season rates at hotels, and book yourself into a lakeside resort for a couple of days of relaxation involving Ayurveda treatments, amazing local cuisine and gorgeous sunsets.

Closest airport: Cochin; closest railway station: Kottayam

2. Udaipur – The “City of Lakes” becomes greener and prettier during the rains, with the lakes looking their best ever. Enjoy breathtaking views from vantage points like the Monsoon Palace and City Palace, and take a relaxing boat ride on Lake Pichola.

Closest airport: Udaipur; closest railway station: Udaipur

3. Goa – Goa in the rains offers a distinctly different experience. Take long walks along rain-swept beaches, enjoy a drink at one of the many watering holes, and party the night away at a club. While many of the temporary shacks along the beaches close down during the monsoon, this also means fewer people around!

Closest airport: Goa; closest railway station: Madgaon

4. Kodaikanal – Kodaikanal in the rains looks really green and washed clean. The misty hills and gushing waterfalls offer a very scenic view during this season, if you are up to getting soaked now and then. Perfect weather for invigorating walks and steaming cups of tea!

Closest airport: Madurai; closest railway station: Kodai Road

5. Mahabaleshwar – If you want a quick break from chaotic urban life and are not too keen on running around sightseeing, a monsoon break in Mahabaleshwar might be just the right thing for you. The rain in these hills can be torrential, keeping the tourist hordes away, but offering beautiful landscapes and a peaceful stay.

Closest airport: Pune; closest railway station: Satara

6. Orchha – This sleepy little town on the banks of the Betwa river is full of old palaces and temples that you can explore at leisure. The monsoon brings cool temperatures and fewer crowds, always a plus. Do attend morning Aarti at the Ram Raja temple.

Closest airport: Gwalior; closest railway station: Jhansi

7. Ladakh – This is for those who wish to escape the monsoon downpour, since Ladakh typically sees dry weather during these months. You will enjoy the warm sunny days and cool evenings, and have the added advantage of being cut off from mobile networks once you get out of Leh town! Keep aside at least 5-6 days for the trip, since you would need some time to acclimatise to the altitude.

Closest airport: Leh

The monsoon is here. Time to get packing!