Thursday, October 17, 2013

It started with a lighthouse...Croatia Road Trip: Dubrovnik to Zagreb

A couple of years ago, an article in an issue of National Geographic Traveler caught my eye. Since then, 'staying in a lighthouse' was up there on my bucket list, right at the top - next to a long writing/painting/cooking/learning Italian holiday in Tuscany.

And so it began. A few months of surfing the web, reading up whatever books I could lay my hands in travel companions. S of course, but this time, we were joined by another couple -  M and R. So here it was - our final itinerary for a 12 day trip to Croatia. We chose September for its good weather, warm seas and to avoid the peak crowds (peak season in July and August gets a little crazy is what we hear).

Day 1: Arrive in Zagreb
Day 2: Fly to Dubrovnik
Day 3: Dubrovnik
Day 4: Drive to Split via Neum. Ferry to Hvar.
Day 5: Hvar
Day 6: Ferry back to Split. Drive to Krka National Park. Night at Zadar
Day 7: Ferry to Dugi Otok(staying in a lighthouse!)
Day 8: Dugi Otok
Day 9: Ferry to Zadar. Drive to Tribalj/Vinodol Valley
Day 10: Drive to Zagreb
Day 11: Zagreb
Day 12: Zagreb, fly home

And we were off!

Croatia Holiday Planning Tips!

  • If you can, rent a car. You don't need an international permit to drive here. Your home country license goes. Works out more convenient and you can make the most of your day(not having to stick to bus schedules was worth it), in a group it is likely cheaper than flying. Plus you see all that lovely coastline and countryside on the way. We went with the Sixt rental company and were happy with the car and service. They offered us the cars for a lot less than what we were getting with the others for the time we were traveling (Hertz/Europ car/Avis etc).
  • Aim for mid September. Weather's perfect at around 20-25 deg C. Sea temperature is around 23 deg C. Lovely. It got really cold in the last week of September in the north of the country in the Tribalj and Zagreb area, so aim to visit the colder north first and fly out from the south. Or arrive a little earlier. 
  • You can eat cheap in Zagreb at some lovely little local restaurants, a full meal for 4 with drinks at a pub/beer garden cost us about 200 Kn including a healthy tip. Doner kebabs go for about 25kn and the Mr Kebab chain makes them huge - 1 is more than enough for 2 adults with healthy appetites. 
  • Prepare to fork out double for food in the more touristy south/coast. You can still get by on a slice of pizza at 15kn, or a borek from the baker at around 10kn, but a sit down meal could set you back 500-600 kn for 4 adults for a fairly basic meal without any wine(just a small Coca Cola each).
  • Explore their National parks! Each one is lovelier than the spend some time on each national park's website to figure out the one best suited to your interests. Donkey sanctuary anyone? Swimming in a salt water lake? Waterfalls? Forest trails? Cliff walks? They have it all. Its a tough choice and this one had us second guessing our decision till the very end. Doesn't matter really...because whatever you pick will take your breath away.
  • Music. Take your pick from classical music in Dubrovnik, Jazz around the country...esp Zagreb, dub and dance music in Zagreb, pop/great cover bands in Hvar...and that's just the live acts. There's also a slew of bars that play some classic records.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Life in the Fast Lane – My Guide to a Grand Prix Getaway

Michael Schumacher retired from racing Ferraris last year. But the lure of the sport and the chance to see Fernando Alonso race for McLaren or Kimi Raikkonen for Ferrari will keep die hard fans of the sport coming back for more this racing season.

It is also the time of year where race season schedules are published and the buzz about the sport starts to gain momentum again after a break during the wintry months. Fans the world over and curious first time aficionados begin to take out their calendars to plan for the 2007 season. Some even decide to make a holiday of it and plan a vacation around a race in Europe, Japan or even Brazil. As with most holiday options, for Formula 1 vacations as well, there are several different ways to experience this adrenalin rich sport. What style of holiday and which race one ends up going to ultimately are a function of the charm of the circuit and money in the bank. What follows is a quick guide that should help plan such a holiday

The Tried & Tested Way

The official formula one website lists packages through trusted operators and has been in existence for years.

The site is well designed and guides you through the decision process. You can pick from tickets only options to the fully loaded ticket/hotel/flights and car hire options.

The only trouble is, sometimes it offers too many choices and can get confusing. The upside is, you know exactly how much each ticket costs, what point of the circuit it’s at and can quickly check back to the official race circuit maps.

The Value for Money Way

For a hassle-free yet not exorbitant way of watching a race, a travel agent is still your best friend. Agencies like Kuoni (Sports Abroad) offer sporting holidays worldwide. They offer holidays to most of the racing destinations every year, covering some of the best circuits like Monza, the new Shanghai track and Bahrain and Malaysia which are more affordable races for an Asian enthusiast.

Holiday packages are typically 3 nights/4 days and include accommodation at a 4 star hotel, transfers to the track and entry to qualifying and race day. The packages are extremely competitively priced and help you work around the bother of buying tickets and finding good accommodation during peak season. Most packages include airfare and as you travel in a group it’s also a great way to meet other racing enthusiasts.

The packages offered by the official racetrack websites often throw in freebies like city tours and vouchers for discounts in the city stores and restaurants. The only downside is the choice of hotels is limited to 2 or 3 premium hotels and may not cater to the mid range hotel seeker.

Hitchhikers guide to raceday

For a budget traveler the best way to do grand prix weekend is to NOT take a package tour. That way you don’t pay for the frills which you can do without or the ‘freebies’ which you won’t use.

Accommodation- Hostels or dorms are the best way to go. Organizations like the YMCA have locations worldwide. For the more adventurous there are groups which offer home swaps (but then you will need to let someone use your home as well). A newer concept is what’s being called ‘couch surfing’ -where families let travelers come in and use a spare bed or room in their home for free.

Tickets- These should be bought as early as possible and definitely off the internet (do check that the site is secure and legal before giving your card details away). Some official race track websites actually have hefty discounts which can save a few 100 dollars off each ticket and allow you to sit at a grandstand seat for a lower stands price. If you don’t get a deal but still want the best view on race day – it may pay to skip qualifying, saving money for the big one. If your budget doesn’t run to prime tickets there are still plenty of great views to be had on the greens. Spending $15 on a ticket for access to the slopes around the track may often get you as good a view as on some of the $75 tickets and leaves you money to come on more days if you wish or to spend on some memorabilia of your trip.

On race day- Pick your race destination wisely so you don’t end up paying more on transport to the race track than you do on your tickets and stay. Most of the tracks are near airports or train stations and many are serviced by buses from the nearest city (where your hostel/hotel is likely to be). If you’re camping at a site near the track then trot over to the race, but otherwise get your local bus or train passes or hitch a ride to the track. Maps of the routes are well detailed on track websites.

Meeting the Stars – An uber-luxurious grand prix weekend

A new flock of affluent young racing enthusiasts have fueled the demand for champagne & caviar race weekends with a chance to meet racing legends thrown in for the lucky few.

These packages typically come at different grades from Gold and Platinum through to Diamond weekends and are offered by several operators (Crystal Holidays and F1 Corporate are quite popular).

Depending on what you choose (and how much you fork out) you could be rubbing shoulders with the lead drivers of the top teams at pre race events or nibbling on crudités with the top guns after the race. The deals usually include luxury accommodations in premium hotels, fine dining, services of a concierge, F1 memorabilia, a kit for race day and transfers by luxury cars to the race with an option to arrive by helicopter.

The 5 P’s of an F1 Holiday
1. Plan Early -Tickets sell out quick so plan early. This is especially true of popular races like Monaco.
2. Preferences - Decide which race to go for-the 2007 schedule is out. Older circuits have history but the new ones are designed for spectators.
3. Pick your price -Work out your budget and how much you want to spend on tickets and hotels. Actual weekend tickets cost between $ 15 and $500.
4. Print & Go- Book online, the rates are almost always cheaper. Early bird rates online are sometimes as much as 75% less
5. Pack Smart – Some smart packing can save you a few hundreds during the race. If you’re going the budget way, carry your team colors from home to save on buying expensive flags and t-shirts and caps at the race. If you’re doing the luxury holiday carry books/memorabilia you may want autographed as keepsakes

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Hamish more amazing can this get?

Our next stop on the trip of the Trossachs was Loch Drunkie-oddly enough its named for exactly what it seems to be. The loch was notorious for bootleggers who brewed their stuff by its banks. When the law came around-they’d dunk barrelfuls of their illicit produce into the lake which soon got a reputation for being ‘drunk’! We stopped short of filling a few bottles of the stuff to take back!

By the time we’d gotten over Drunkie’s odd name, we’d stopped to meet someone who was equally.. unusual...Hamish. I can safely say this was THE highlight of the day…Hamish is a very friendly chap who belongs to the highland cattle family and any description wouldn’t do him justice-that’s him in the picture here.

He’s one of the few survivors of the mad cow disease and was saved from being put down by the drivers of the tour buses who love the feller so much that they got permission to keep him alive, so long as he didn’t mix with other cattle. So Hamish is more human in that way now…seeing as how all his friends are of the non cattle variety!

The next stop on our trip was the historic Stirling castle-too much tragedy and blood split over the lands-came away a tad numbed. The way William Wallace came to his end was really gruesome. What an end for such a brave man! I never did watch Braveheart-maybe I will now.

Our route back to Edinburgh took us past several towns and hamlets out of famous works of literature, through history books with Robert Bruce and modern day monarchy’s castles peppered our road back.

At the bridges across the Forth we stopped to look at the 2 bridges-standing proud and spanning the river connecting Fife to the mainland. Was hard to believe the grander of the two was actually much older and would outlive its younger sibling.

The picture here is of the older bridge-a beauty isn't she?!

A hot shower & dinner
As the tour bus pulled into Edinburgh, we were ready for a nice warm bath and a good hot meal. We decided to pick up a takeaway dinner and stopped over at a Lebanese place where we had the largest ever jumbo sized " Small" Shawarma with healthy sized portions of pickles and fries on the side! Guess e'burgh makes everything in a " Hungry Student" size! *good thing we picked the small!* Headed back to the guesthouse and after a hot shower we tucked into our drinks and shawarma in front of the telly and looked out onto the bright sun setting on the horizon at 8.30pm from the comfort of our cozy room...g'nite scotland!

Some Must do’s on a trip to Scotland

Must Listen: Runrig- more about them here + Loch Lomond
Must visit: The highlands-Timberbush tours
Must meet: Hamish
Must eat at: Deacon Brodie’s Tavern

Tip 1: If you have digital camera and need the memory card unloaded to a cd-they do it in about 30 mins at the Camera Obscura for a reasonable amount.
Tip 2: At Aarajura try for rooms 6 and 7-they face away from the street and have awesome views
Tip 3: Do the Timberbush tour and ask for the one where you can stop to meet Hamish!

On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond

An early start after a full Scottish breakfast and soon we were at the Timberbush office to set out on our tour titled “Loch Lomond, The Trossachs & Stirling Castle”-here’s how its desbribed “Spend a day in the majestic beating heart of Scotland; a land of ancient fortresses, flowing stream, lochs, forests and hills; a land of kings, heroes, thieves and rogues!”. For more of what they offer-check them out at their site. Booking a tour with them was probably the best thing we did. At 26 pounds you get the day’s tour, a great guide who doubles a dj and driver and access to places you just wouldn’t; find on your own. Our group had some German women, a Japanese American, a couple from Hong Kong and us (who were mistaken for Spanish by our Scottish guide!).

The tour started at 9.30am and began with a quick trip through Glasgow, the route was lovely with bright yellow daffodils along the road all the way. Our first stop was Loch Lomond, where we went on a cruise of the lake-the weather was nippy but the views of the mountains, the swans on the lake and stately homes by the shore made it all worthwhile. The cruiseboat was nice too and we tanked up on much needed hot drinks.
After the Loch, the DJ in our driver burst out and he played us a series of gaelic ballads and Loch Lomond was especially touching. I discovered a band I really like on this trip-Runrig ( Can’t get any of their music here but you could catch some of it on Celtic radio stations online.

We passed through so much pretty landscape in the Troassachs , we were quite ready for a break when we got to our lunch stop-Aberfoyle. There’s a woolen mill there and great stuff at wholesale rates-which had everyone in a tizzy trying on and buying stuff. I must say lunch at the mill café was probably one of the best meals I ever had too. Basic, comfort food has never been better…baked potato stuffed with mince, beans or whatever you want(they have half a dozen options) and served with salad and bread, hot soups on offer and the most scrumptious desserts-we settled on the freshly made clotted cream & strawberry tart.

And soon we were off again, this time to the Trossachs ( highland foothills). We saw Bon Lomond from closer up and as we neared the top of some of the higher hills, the sunny weather turned suddenly as it began to snow! The bare trees on the mountain top blew wildly in the snowy winds as we grinned into our cameras for memories of our trip.

High in the misty Highlands,
Out by the purple islands,
Brave are the hearts that beat
Beneath Scottish skies.
Wild are the winds to meet you,
Staunch are the friends that greet you,
Kind as the love that shines from fair maiden's eyes.
-Scotland the Brave

A wee drappie whisky (Exploring Edinburgh)

Caught the bus to Princes street and began walking the length up to the castle.
There was so much to see-little shops selling all kinds of memorabilia, a shop called ‘Thistle Do Nicely’ , pubs and at the very head of the street-the Scottish whiskey heritage centre on side , the Scottish Mill on our right and the Castle standing grand and tall.

Our first stop was the Camera Obscura – read all about it here. If you love optical illusions and other tricks with light –this place is a must-see. There are 3-4 floors, each dedicated to different kinds of illusions and 3-d imagery. And it’s a must visit for the guides of nothing else-do make the hike up to the top floor where the camera show is.You’ll get lots of photo ops against the old buildings ramparts and more importantly-you will get to meet the highly entertaining hosts of the show who had kids and adults alike in splits. Highlights include getting to make people vanish on the street below!
Don’t forget to visit the gift store below for really unusual gifts the likes of which you won’t get anywhere else on your trip.

We’d spent much more time than planned at the Camera and it was already nearing 5.45-lucky for us, being early summer things were open late. We crossed over to the Whiskey heritage Centre (they do regular rides taking you through the process of whiskey making and history of the place). We ended up stocking up on lots of goodies from the store again! Some lovely celtic symbol embossed stuff available aside from the shelves being a who’s who of the whiskey world-name a big brand it was there-from miniatures to huge sizes!

Against the magnificent backdrop of the Edinburgh Castle, The Tartan Mill is again a great visit, watch tartan being woven on the automated looms (which are not a new creation-this is how tartan’s always been woven). If you’re part Scot or have some Scot ancestry, they even help you find your clan tartan-in a tie, scarf, beret, coat, skirt or suit material! A fun addition they’ve made is t shirts in scotspeak-we picked up one saying Spawnie Git-which may sound insulting to the unitiated but all it means is 'Lucky person'.

Was 7 by the time we were done, so headed off to a pub to grab a very late lunch!
We chanced upon what we later discovered was one of the best pubs in town (came recommended by some locals the next day)- Deacon Brodie’s Tavern.
Now if you wanted to know who Brodie was , all you’d need to do was step out onto the street and make a left to read what was on the wall of the pub. Turns out William Brodie was a chap who inspired the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story. A respectable man by day and a thief by night(who stole to fund his gambling habit), he was eventually hanged for his crimes(on gallows he himself had designed in his day job!) and the pub retails t shirts which carry pictures of him at the gallows(odd sort of merchandise-can’t imagine buying that!)
Got to see a bunch of students from the Univ. going through some start of term rituals with the freshers. A bunch of guys dressed up in robes (priests supposedly)stood outside the pub and the fresher was made to cross the street and sing the college anthem out loud as passers by looked on in great amusement! I guess college rituals are same the world over :)

Dinner was great-I went all out on the bangers and mash with gravy and S opted for the roast lamb!

Now simmer blinks on flow'ry braes (Arriving in Scotland)

As the train pulled into the station..we’d already glimpsed the stunning Scottish countryside..cliffs on the sea…green fields…and the people.

The ride from York to Edinburgh was so different from the London York intercity ride…the people were much noisier, the spirits up and sounds of cheer all around!
It already made me eager to get to the historic city-the journey seemed too long!

The air seemed cleaner, the sky bluer and the trees greener! Got a cab to the guesthouse (Aarajura-a really quaint little place run by a non Scot family, but just as friendly as the locals and every bit as well informed). A teenage girl(half my size) let us in and offered to help heft our huge bags our 2 flights to our room-we politely refused out of sheer guilt at having someone so tiny lift our stuff! Check it out!
I couldn’t wait to get out and start looking around but the house was so pretty, we delayed setting out for a bit-our room had a panoramic view of the city with all its spires and hills in the distance…really gorgeous…

Our trip to the UK & France

Got off my armchair for a bit and did some real travelling...we did a holiday this summer to the UK and France...some memories of the trip to follow...

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Some days are full stops.

There are some days when journeys are interrupted...rudely without warning-like a full stop in an unfinished sentence.

Its always annoying when the best laid plans go awry. I love to plan. I guess that's why I've always been an armchair gypsy! My trips away from my armchair usually involve some serious research-which is almost as much fun as the journey fact that's really half the journey for me. So when I discovered today that a trip that had been planned for quite a while would need to be 'indefinitely postponed' -it felt like I'd just had a flat tire on a dusty road, 100 miles from civilization in the peak of summer.

This calls for the gypsy in me to take over...and just head out anyway...the biggest crime in my book is to let a holiday go by unhonoured. The long weekend deserves more than to be relegated to hours of TV viewing and rounds of the usual malls and restaurants.

So I am somewhere..I don't really know where...but that doesn't really matter!

Some days are diamonds, some days are stone...Some time the hard times won’t leave you alone...Some times the cold winds blow a chill in my bones...Some days are diamonds, some days are stone

Monday, October 10, 2005

Passing through the land of passes

The unexpressed sorrow at returning to life as usual often comes in
larger measure than the relief of being on familiar ground.

The delight on the threshhold of a holiday on the other hand can put
one in such good spirit that doing anything but daydream of the 'might be's' and 'far far aways' seems banal...almost vile.

Its one of those funny days today that sits confused not sure whether it wants to bring good cheer and excitement or mind numbing boredom of the mundane.

I returned from a delightful weekend in one of my favourite places in the world...home. But then again-what is home...I have many homes-one everywhere I linger a little longer than what might be called a 'visit'.

When does a gypsy know when to move on...when is long- 'too long' and until tomorrow-'long enough'?

Having settled at a healthy choice to make the most of today and declare it neither the end of a holiday nor the threshold of one, I've decided to introduce you to one of the most fascinating places in the world. Its quite fitting then, that the place I write about-much like this day-is in a nowhere land, not all mountains, yet not all desert, but both at once.


'La' and interesting word that has so many disconnected meanings in my life. A good subsitute for the Indian word 'yaar' on travels in south east asia...on other occcassions it lent itself to a tune whose words I had somehow forgotten...but the 'la' I refer to today means 'pass'(mountain pass) and when it gets together with 'dakh' that's the place to find the original gypsy.

Over the next few days, I'll take you on trips to Ladakh and discover the secrets that its huge mountains and powdery snow hide within...

Saturday, October 08, 2005

If life is a journey...I'd like a return ticket

Who is the Armchair Gypsy?

A wanderer...of lands and spaces...mindspaces and realms of the universe as we know it...unlike the explorer , the armchair gypsy has no purpose to her journey..the journey is life itself, and from the journey comes life.

This is going to be a place for the gypsy to sit back and reflect on her travels and adventures of place and time, myth and reality. The armchair for the gypsy who in an otherwise restless world is forever journeying into the ever an unfinished sentence such as this...

This is a place where tales shall be told of the past and present...and in inspired moments even the the gypsy has special powers...perceptions of the unhappened.

So hop on board the caravan or lean back in an armchair of your we travel...for the love of travel!