Lavasa – A Lyrical Journey in the Rains

I can open your eyes

Take you wonder by wonder

Over, sideways and under

On a magic carpet ride 

The carpet of smooth road welcomes us to Lavasa

The carpet of smooth road welcomes us to Lavasa

These lines from my favourite song in the Aladdin movie rang in my ears as we zipped through the mountain trail on our first monsoon roadtrip for the year. The road almost sang for me as it curved and split and sloped with alarming swiftness beneath us, almost taking us on a magic carpet ride over the Western Ghats!  I slid the car window down to feel the winds getting stronger as we gained altitude on the road to Lavasa. And after about five hours of playing hide and seek with the rains all along the path, we reached our destination. Hidden somewhere between the hills of the mighty Sahyadri range, a charming little city gleamed in the afternoon sun. I could not believe I was still in Maharashtra!

Just before the thunder split the sky

Just before the thunder split the sky

As the car eased into the driveway of our hotel – Mercure Lavasa, I made a mental note to find out why this city looked so Mediterranean. Weary as I was from the long drive, I almost flopped on my bouncy bed, but I realized I hadn’t had lunch. So, off we scurried to Mercure’s Celebration restaurant, and got hold of a table by one of the French windows. A view like that could only be enjoyed with Italian mains! After the appetizing meal of spaghetti and mushroom, we gathered our camera lenses and tightened our shoelaces – it was time for action!

Spaghetti with olives and grilled bread

Spaghetti with olives and grilled bread

As we walked through Lavasa, I learned that this planned hill station is modeled on the Italian fishing village of Portofino. Orange, yellow and brick red coloured buildings dazzled from afar. This was the Waterfront Shaw which framed the shimmering blue waters of the Wasargaon Lake. These waters are boundless in the scenes they reflect, yet restrained by the Wasargaon Dam. The mountains that guard Lavasa have an appeal of their own – they are gentle in their incline but strong when it comes to carrying entire villages on their backs.

The waterfront at Lavasa

The waterfront at Lavasa

My train of thoughts was broken by a little kid calling out to her father. She insisted on getting on the trackless toy train that chugged along Portofino Street. It was only then that I took my eyes off the mountains and looked around me. The lakefront promenade was lined with a host of counters that let one try everything – from miniature golf to adventure sports. Instantaneously, I broke into a smile as I knew just how I would spend the rest of my evening!

The toy train is coming!

The toy train is coming!

“Burma bridge crossing” was first on my list. This adventure sport can actually mislead people into thinking all bridges in Burma are made of ropes and only luck can help you go across. The operator from XThrill Adventure Sports warned me cheekily not to ask for help if I got stuck on the bridge. He hurriedly plonked a yellow helmet on my ashen face, straightened the harness around my waist and told me he’d see me on the other side. I held on to the rope railings for dear life as I wobbled across the rope bridge, stepping on one knot at a time. Zip lining, the next thing on my list, was a breeze after the Burma bridge ordeal. Zip line is also called Flying Fox, though you don’t quite feel foxy as you fly from one point to another, suspended only by two ropes. We tried our hand at archery and shooting before heading back to our hotel.

I tight-rope-walked across the Burma bridge

I tight-rope-walked across the Burma bridge

This hill city has a handful of business hotels and resorts, but not much for the budget traveler. In Lavasa, be prepared to loosen your purse strings! There are some cafes that dot the waterfront. If you love people-watching, you can sit and sip a different coffee under a different awning every time you pass a café by. For visitors who like to “feel” a place as opposed to tick things off a checklist, I recommend alfresco dining. No music is more melodious than the whistle of the wind, and no décor as enchanting as the mood of the sky.

The soothing sounds of water against rocks

The soothing sounds of water against rocks

Back at Mercure, we realized we still had some light before dusk would swallow the place. So, we decided to walk on the other part of Lavasa. Right outside our hotel, we heard a stream gurgling loudly with no other sound adulterating it. We walked past rows of single storey and double story houses which had no occupants but a guard to keep an eye on them. I guessed that many real estate investors have second homes here, but choose to stay in bigger cities. I cannot fathom why one would prefer noisier cities to the tranquil tunes of nature. In some time, the sky darkened with clouds and we strolled back to our hotel. I was a little upset that water-sports was closed in the rains. I just could not get the image of that expanse of hypnotizing blue out of my head.

The sky darkens

The sky darkens

To get my spirits up, we ordered Italian again. We had ravioli with some wine for dinner and then went out one more time to look at the diamonds that had scattered all over the night sky. The best thing about a weekend getaway to the hills is the crisp air and the clear skies. Stargazing is a luxury one cannot afford in big cities where light pollution is rampant. Over a bottle of Bordeaux and under a sheet of stars, we exchanged stories of our past and toasted to a brighter tomorrow.

Washed by the rains, the city gleams again

Washed by the rains, the town gleams again

We were greeted next morning by an intermittent drizzle that kept most of the tourists indoors and left all of Lavasa to us. With no group to trek with, we explored the place further on our own and spotted many a rare blossom and insects crawl out in the rain. Monsoon, I have observed, is more beautiful when you get out there and explore. A warm mug of coffee can only soothe your throat, not your soul. Rains are not for us to sit and watch from the confines of our glass walled homes. Rains are the Earth’s way to communicate with us. And we must reciprocate – by walking, running, driving and dancing in the downpour.

The hill station from the top

The hill station from the top

From where I stood, I saw at a distance, all the touristy cottages perched precariously on the hills. I knew then that I had escaped the tourist trap and wandered where only travellers could! I could then hear the true song of Lavasa.

Blessed by the heavens, Lavasa is crowned by a tiara of hills

Blessed by the heavens, Lavasa is crowned by a tiara of hills

Useful Information:-

  • Arrange your hotel bookings in advance, especially if you plan to visit over a weekend. Tourists start trickling in mostly in the monsoon.
  • Lavasa does not have an airport. The closest international airports are in Pune and Mumbai. There are also no trains or buses that connect Pune / Mumbai to Lavasa. Travelling by car is recommended. Besides, the enthralling views along the route are best enjoyed on a long drive!
  • If you are travelling in a bigger group, do not miss the morning tour conducted by Nature Trails.
  • For running enthusiasts, the Lavasa Hill Run is the cherry on the pie! Even if you are training for another marathon (see Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad), the hills of Lavasa could be your practice pit!
  • If you have more time on your hands, squeeze in a visit to Bamboosa – the bamboo factory. You can also request for a tour of the entire area, interact with the workers and see how a bamboo product is made – start to finish.
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Karjat on a BMW – A Road Trip to Remember!

Last weekend, I got a generous dose of luxury and a taste of the rustic countryside, all in the same trip! I had always wanted to drive through the valleys of the Sahyadris and spend a night in the mango orchards of a village. So, I put a break to my wishful thinking and stepped on the accelerator.  My frantic last minute search for hotels and cabs was wearing me thin. Did I expect to find an empty room for a sunny weekend when it was Friday already? Just when I was about to give up on my quest, I found a nice resort and decided to rent a car.

All set for the drive!

All set for the drive!

My self-drive vehicle wasn’t just any car, it was a BMW 3 series!!! 🙂 I have my entrepreneur buddies to thank for this brilliant idea. Justride.in, their startup, lets you hire luxury cars and enjoy your long drives like a boss! 😉

Village women with baskets full of food beckon road trippers to satiate their hunger

Village women with baskets full of food beckon road trippers to satiate their hunger

The drive from Powai to Karjat is a pleasant one. In the 90 minutes you spend on the road, you see the polluted cityscape transform into a quiet countryside. I had booked us into a resort in the Mohili village, which is a little toward the interiors of Karjat. We stopped for some watermelons on our way to quench our thirst and ask for directions. After few more minutes of negotiating narrow kutcha roads, we finally reached our weekend home just before lunch.

Our bungalow across the bridge

Our bungalow across the bridge

Mohili Meadows was a pretty picture to behold. They say, it becomes even more vibrant in the monsoon. We had almost forgotten about our hunger as we learnt about all the activities we could participate in at this village – flying fox, archery, water-zorbing, and the works. After a quick lunch, we set out to explore this part of the Western Ghats.

View from the valley of the Sahyadris

View from the valley of the Sahyadris

Even though it is summer, the valleys have ample green cover, with small lakes of fresh water adding a dash of blue to the frame. Most visitors like to trek in and around Karjat. There are plenty of plains too for those who love to camp.

Admiring the green walls of Karjat

Admiring the green walls of Karjat

The heat of the afternoon had drenched us of all fluids, so we bought some bottles of beer and drove back to our resort. Four pints of beer later, we changed into our swimsuits and faced the sun head on! We lazed in the cosy swimming pool until the guard said we could stay there no more. I was taking a swimming vacation after many years, and it felt wonderful to play catch, race and find the “missing coin” till our eyes burned with Chlorine. Oh, how I wished I could swim in one of those natural lakes instead…

Deep fried samosas for deep discussions

Deep fried samosas for deep discussions

Our tired and chlorinated bodies craved high calorie junk food in the evening. We gorged on French fries, potato wafers and samosas till a sensible voice said it was time for dinner. We walked about our resort, noting the plants gleaming under the dim lamp posts, and looking up at the sky, spotting a constellation or two in the relatively clear skies. Village skies always make me want to leave Mumbai forever. The lack of light pollution makes it so pleasurable to stargaze.

The wilderness in Karjat comes alive in the night. Look how ethereally it glows!

The wilderness in Karjat comes alive in the night. Look how ethereally it glows!

Next morning, it was time for us to leave. We drove past acres and acres of green lands and basked in the tranquil surroundings of this lesser known cousin of Mumbai. Our trip was a short one, but there is plenty one can do and see in Karjat. For architecture enthusiasts, the Kondana caves and Peth Fort should be on top of the list!

One of the many bridges that keep this city together

One of the many bridges that keep this city together

On our way back home, we met the same ladies selling mangoes from their cane baskets. Life does come a full circle, doesn’t it? 😉 With the mango season on the cards, juicy pieces from Ratnagiri are transported through Karjat before they reach millions of Maharashtrian homes.

These mangoes look tempting, don't they?

These mangoes look tempting, don’t they?

My first road trip this year has set the ball rolling. I have several weekend outings planned for the next few months. Follow my travels on my blog to stay updated with my exploits. Until then, I shall leave you lusting after my BMW… (so what if it was mine only for a weekend!)

Are you drooling over the BMW too?

Are you drooling over the BMW too? 😀

P.S. You too can go on your dream drive, thanks to the car rental service of JustRide. (Top Secret: Your first ride is on the house! 😉 )

P.P.S. Let me know about your road trips. How often do you hit the road? I’m all ears!

Admiring the Clouds below – in Coorg

This is my entry for Prismma Holiday 2014.

This year, I spent the ‘month of love’ falling in love with nature… in the least populated district of Karnataka – Coorg.

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My journey began from Mysore and we drove for a couple of hours through an empty road that lent us views of leafless, lanky trees and lush coffee plantations alternately. Once inside Coorg (Kodagu), it took us a good hour to reach our resort.

I stayed in a chalet with a valley-view at Porcupine Castle. This is an eco-friendly property that sits at the end of a long-winding road that cuts through a coffee estate. The bedrooms, walk-in closets and bathrooms have sunroofs that let in light during daytime and restrict the usage of electric-lights to nights only. The only sounds you hear in the serene surroundings are those of the winds, whistling (and perhaps your own self, gasping at the charming sights).

I sat on my balcony over the clouds, sipping on Coorgi coffee as I watched the golden sun dissolve into the silver clouds till the sky was painted in a riot of warm colours. I could see the Western Ghats curtained by the diaphanous clouds from where I stood, and an entire world of dark green trees that hid the earth that lay several feet below. The night was equally enchanting as the fireflies and bumblebees filled the air with more sounds.

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Next morning, it was time to trek! We decided to tour the coffee plantations on foot.

Hot Tip: Wear shoes and clothes fit for rugged terrain if you plan to trek through the plantations. If you can’t manage professional hiking gear, studs or even basic keds will do. Wear cargoes (that have multiple pockets to hold your things so you don’t have to carry a backpack) or denims with comfortable a tee and avoid jackets/sweaters (it only gets hotter as the day progresses and you work yourself up).

I must tell you now that nobody gave me the aforementioned tip, and my ignorant self assumed the coffee plantation would be like tea plantations – almost like a garden I could leisurely stroll through. I showed up in peep-toed flats and a fancy summer top with a knit jacket. I also took my dangling handbag along. I was in for a rude shock when I saw the trail.

Our trekking-guide handed us each a walking pole and took us through narrow clearings in the dense foliage. I soon realized my jacket was of no use when the temperature kept rising along with my body heat. After an hour of non-stop walking, our guide showed us a lake – way down the sloping hills covered with coffee trees. Our goal was to reach at the foot of the slope. Sweat trickled down my forehead for I was sure I’d end up with torn shoes and clothes if I ever managed my way down. But the adventure-enthusiast in me rose to the occasion. The rest of the trek was physically gruelling as we slid and scraped through the land with only the coffee shrubs for support (walking poles are of little help in this kind of terrain).

There was a point when I was ready to give up and I had mentally decided to never trek again if I only made it through this time. But after I reached the lake at the bottom of the slope, I knew the effort was worth it. The view from below was so humbling – all the trees dwarfed us and made me realize how insignificant humans are in this grand world. We observed many plants other than coffee (life saviour for its strong stem that keeps you from rolling down the hills into your death) – orange, eucalyptus & cherry-tomato, to name a few.

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Before I left Coorg, I made a detour to Bylakuppe. This area houses many Tibetans in exile. It feels like you’re in a new country as you absorb the distinct culture around you. I walked into the Namdroling Nyingmapa monastery (locally known as the Golden Temple) – a majestic monument that struck me with awe with its sheer size and beauty. The statues of Buddha and others inside the monastery are imposing and send a signal of peace to your heart. I was lucky to witness a prayer-session during my visit.

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My trip to Coorg ended with a torn shoe and a strengthened heart. And I hope my story will teach you not to repeat my mistake :). Write to me about your trip to this heavenly place, and if you haven’t been here already, let Coorg be your next vacation!