India
The ultimate first-timers guide to India
If ever there were a destination that was larger than life, and more vibrant than the postcards can even do it justice, it would be India. Millennia of tribal history, no less than 22 languages and countless cultures combine to make it a fabulously complex (perhaps rather trippy) place to get your head around – which, of course, is why we love it so Once you’ve enveloped yourself in this ever-moving nation of 1.2 billion people and its inextricable melange of cultures, you’ll never quite be the same again. So where to start this life-changing trip of yours? [caption id="attachment_46128" align="alignnone" width="600"] Sunsets over temples[/caption] How to get there Air India flies direct from Australian capitals, with many international carriers flying between the two countries via an Asian stopover.   Indian airports are fantastic in themselves, with Delhi claiming the spot as the sixth busiest airport in the world, while Mumbai manages a record of 969 take-offs and landings in a single day.   Meanwhile, Cochin airport is the first in the world to run entirely on solar energy – reason enough to hop down to the beautiful coconut palm-filled state of Kerala. [caption id="attachment_46129" align="alignnone" width="600"] India's magnificent views[/caption] How to get around With no less than 26 airlines servicing domestic routes within India, it’s very easy to whiz directly to where you need to go just about anywhere on the massive subcontinent.   If you stick to the air, though, you’ll miss out on some glorious other ways to travel. The Indian railway system is nothing short of incredible, its 12,000 trains carrying 23 million passengers every day through an ornate spider’s web of tracks across the country.   Eight classes of travel mean you can find exactly the experience you’ve dreamed of, from the four-bunk sociability of second-class air-conditioned overnights through to the most rarefied of luxury onboard such treasures as the Palace on Wheels or the Golden Chariot.   If you long for a chariot on only two wheels, touring India atop an iconic Royal Enfield motorbike is the quintessential way to see, feel and love this country. If you prefer four wheels, touring with a private car complete with your own driver/guide can be less expensive than you think here. Where to stay Heritage digs: It doesn’t get much more delicious than staying a while in a haveli mansion, a medieval fort or even a real palace, replete with bejewelled walls and soaring dining rooms, and India offers this kind of experience everywhere. In Rajasthan, the colourful and popular desert state, there seems to be almost a palace in every town; the family-run Deogarh and super-luxe Samode are both worth every penny when you stop for a night (or three), while the Jagat Niwas Palace gazes directly over Udaipur’s famous lake (and Lake Palace). Cosmopolitan chic: Modern architecture in India’s capitals is even more awe inspiring when you get to stay within it. Every perfect curve and pillar is yours to enjoy at the thoroughly beautiful Roseate in Delhi, or get spoiled in the classically plush Leela Palace hotels, spanning from Chennai to Bengaluru, Udaipur and of course, Delhi. Eco luxe: Stay in a luxury tree house on a tiger reserve at Lemon Tree Wildlife Resort Bandhavgarh or in a beachside eco-village of bungalows at The Dune in Puducherry; out in the Andaman Islands, quench your thirst on fresh rain- and springwater in an elegant thatch tent amidst the rainforest at Barefoot at Havelock Resort.   Some must-sees The Taj Mahal is beyond a must-see – it’s a part of India’s very soul. Getting out of bed before sunrise will all be worth it if you witness this shining marble edifice at its best, at dawn.   The holy city of Varanasi has sat augustly upon the river Ganges for over 5000 years, and the sacred waterway continues to be the centre of life here. From births to deaths, blessings to prayers, the ghats are alive with humanity and their rites 24 hours a day, and must be seen to be believed.   Sikkim is far beyond the beaten path, high in the Himalayas and barely attached to the rest of the country, but its unique culture and breathtaking vistas put it high on any list. Take a yak safari, go paragliding through the world’s most famed mountain range, or just meditate in a breezy, open-air monastery.   Amer Fort exemplifies the vast Rajasthani forts that have marked the desert through this state’s millennia of royal history. Once you have marvelled at its length and breadth, some of the region’s best dining can be had in the rooftop restaurant, and the son et lumiere evening performance is the perfect finish. Some must-dos The Pushkar camel fair brings countless tribespeople, herdsmen and pilgrims to do business, dance, sing, compete, pray, socialise and trade their 30,000-odd camels. Watch circus performers, sit and sip chai with other visitors and attempt to chat amongst the dozens of languages and dialects filling the air, and bargain in the crowded markets.   Travelling by boat – especially houseboat – through the silent canals and waterways of tropical Kerala is an essential experience for anyone needing a deep breath, and especially a deep dive into the everyday life of the people here. You’ll witness the flow of village life from a unique angle as you drift by.   An epic journey by rail is an unforgettable experience. The longest train journey in India, the Vivek Express, covers an incredible 4,273 kilometres; if you’re not quite up for that 85-hour epic, the Grand Truck Express covers more than 2,000 kilometres cross-country, from New Delhi to Chennai.   Australians can now apply for an e-Visa for India, meaning you’ll no longer have to hand over your passport at an embassy, if you are eligible. To apply, head to indianvisaonline.gov.in (and beware of third party websites).
Goa, India
The essential guide to Goa: the fascinating seaside state of India
Where the Indian subcontinent meets the warm Arabian Sea, nestled subtly between the relative behemoth states of Maharashtra to the north and Karnataka to the south and east, you’ll find India’s gorgeously laid-back, sometimes a little cheeky, and utterly fascinating smallest state: Goa.   It is a meeting place in so many more ways than mere geography. It is where the western ways and architecture of the Portuguese and British have fused with everyday Indian life; where history and ancient culture is melded with modern traditions such as meeting for sundowners on the sand; where generations-old recipes are transformed into on-trend eats and world-famous dishes; and where its famed coastline of beach upon beach forms a golden thread, tying it all together. [caption id="attachment_46121" align="alignnone" width="600"] How many perfect sunsets can you get?[/caption] History The irresistible scent of spices (and subsequent riches) lured the Portuguese across the seas around 1500AD, leading to an astonishing 450-odd years of colonisation under Portuguese rule, interrupted only by brief British occupation from 1799 to 1813, and only finally ended in 1961. During the height of Portuguese influence, Goa would have more closely resembled Lisbon, or perhaps Brazil or Macau, than it would its Indian sisters Mumbai or Delhi.   [caption id="attachment_46122" align="alignnone" width="600"] Oozing with history[/caption]   Now that Goa is safe back in the arms of Mother India, its European personality has blended quite uniquely with the countless other influences that have been thrown into this fabulous cultural crossroads. In any day, you might tour the 15th-century Basilica of Bom Jesus (housing the remains of St Francis Xavier, no less), munch on the local bhali-pau (bread roll and curry), shop a hippie market in Anjuna and then dance the night away in what is rated the sixth-best nightlife capital of the world. Don’t miss a heritage walk of the charming Latin Quarter of Fontainhas, and a visit to the state’s oldest fort at remarkable Reis Magos. Beach Every kilometre of Goan coastline meets the sea in spectacular fashion, with almost entirely uninterrupted beach in many sections. This article may tell you about Goa three ways, but the truth is, Goa interprets beach life about a thousand ways: whether you’re looking for a weathered hammock under a palm tree or perfectly swept sands fronting five stars of resort luxury, you’ll find it in (beach) spades. Spiritual seekers come for the sunrise yoga and meditation retreats; Insta-influencers adore the perfection of the beachside bungalows of Turtle Hill, or Brangelina’s favourite flop at Elsewhere in Mandrem; history buffs fall in love with the wonderfully preserved treasures of Ponda and Old Goa, the inspiring temples and mosques such as Mangeshi Temple and 450-year-old Shri Mangesh, Bollywood-famous Chapora Fort and the must-see Fort Aguada, and stay in the opulently converted fort at Fort Tiracol. But then everyone seems to end up, sooner or later, on the beaches themselves. The ‘queen of beaches’, Calangute Beach, is an endless parade of watersports, shopping, eateries, and unbeatable people-watching. Baga Beach is similarly non-stop, while Anjuna Beach adds a hippie vibe and some particularly sensational market shopping. For the perfect quiet, tucked-away oasis of your dreams, try Ashwem or Arossim beaches – the latter has a couple of beach shacks with cold beer, great seafood and killer views as you watch the sun sink into the waves. [caption id="attachment_46123" align="alignnone" width="600"] Go on, dip your toes in![/caption] Food Forget everything you think you know about Indian food and fall in love all over again with the gastronomic marvels of Goa. It was spices that made Goa the mixing pot it is today, and it’s spices that manage to bring together Indian ingredients with Portuguese traditions, Catholic cuisines with Hindi necessities, and make it all sing.   Fish and seafood are everywhere, befitting this coastal location and also pleasing both Hindi and Catholic sensibilities. However, the Portuguese wine that has flavoured their own cuisine for centuries has morphed into more sensible options here in India, with fermented coconut toddy (vinegar), Portuguese acrid lime, peppercorns and the southern Indian staple, tamarind, all adding a very particular tartness and depth of flavour in its place. You’ll also find a range of local sausage specialties, and a delicious obsession with cashews and cashew paste flavouring local dishes from corner holes-in-the-wall through to five-star kitchens.   [caption id="attachment_46124" align="alignnone" width="600"] Never have a bad meal again[/caption]   For top-shelf, occasion dining, the global-but-exotic menu at Go With the Flow in Baga is always a solid recommend, or pour on the Portuguese charm at The Verandah, Alfama or Nostalgia. On the other hand, put at least a mealtime or more aside to experience the famous Goan fish thali served at most beach shacks up and down the coastline. Follow the crowds to the best ones – they always know.   Australians can now apply for an e-Visa for India, meaning you’ll no longer have to hand over your passport at an embassy, if you are eligible. To apply, head to indianvisaonline.gov.in (and beware of third party websites).
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Agonda Beach, Goa, India
Four secret travel gems of India
From sipping fragrant tea in the tea gardens of Coonoor to trekking a breathtaking hike to Dzongri Peak, India's 4 secret gems will offer experiences to last a lifetime. 1. Agonda Beach, Goa Where on Earth is it? In goa state on India’s south-west coast, on the Arabian Sea. Why you need to know about it It’s the best beach in India, according to TripAdvisor members, thanks to it being not much more than a sleepy hamlet hugging the wide, white sands on an idyllic stretch of the Arabian Sea; a contrast to some of the big resorts further north.   It’s also home to a hatchery for Olive Ridley turtles, providing a great chance to see them nesting. Grab a colourful beach hut for a week and get to know this wonderful palm tree-framed golden crescent by doing nothing much at all. 2. Coonoor Where on Earth is it? It is the second-largest hill station in the Nilgiri Hills in India’s southern state, Tamil Nadu. Why you need to know about it One of three hill stations in the Nilgiri Hills (the others are Ooty and Kotagiri), Coonoor sits at an altitude of 1839 metres and is surrounded by tea plantations. [caption id="attachment_25996" align="alignleft" width="667"] A vibrant green tea garden in Coonoor, India.[/caption] Though the town is accessible by road, many visitors choose to arrive via the UNESCO World Heritage-listed mountain railway built from 1891–1908; its track passes over 250 bridges.   Many people visit the hill station in summer because the cool climate offers a welcome break from India’s stifling heat. 3. Dzongri, Sikkim Where on Earth is it? In the state of Sikkim, north-west India. Why you need to know about it Sitting at an altitude of 4200 metres, Dzongri is incredible for trekking. The five-day journey to Dzongri Peak and back starts from the town of Yuksom in West Sikkim, a six-hour drive from the nearest railway station. [caption id="attachment_25998" align="alignleft" width="1000"] A dramatic view of Kangchenjunga from Dzongri, Sikkim, India.[/caption] Passing through verdant rhododendron forest, past Buddhist monasteries and taking in views of snow-drenched mountains, the journey can be a taxing one, but standing on top of the world looking out over uninterrupted 360-degree views will make all the work seem worth it.   Hypnotised by the Himalayas? read about Leisa Tyler's experience here:  Sikkim: The spirit of India's Himalayas. 4. Gangotri Where on Earth is it? In the Indian state of Uttarkashi, 470 kilometres north of Delhi, close to the Indo-Tibetan border. Why you need to know about it Surrounded by the Indian Himalayas, the picturesque town of Gangotri is an important pilgrimage for Hindus as it’s the origin of the sacred Ganga (River Ganges). [caption id="attachment_25997" align="alignleft" width="1000"] India's Gangotri has a divine beauty and is an important pilgrimage for Hindus.[/caption] Pay your respects at the 18th-century temple, which stands at an altitude of 3042 metres. Alcohol and meat are strictly prohibited here, but you’ll find delicious vegan cuisine at the local dhabas.   More… The 17 Secret Travel Gems of Asia
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