Sunday, September 27, 2009

Diary entry: New Delhi, India

I've certainly learned my lesson: you don't go trekking about India without the aid of an experienced travel planner. You need a car to meet you at the airport, you need a good driver who can make a judgement call on the spur of the moment (this last trip my driver did a U-turn as soon as he saw a truck stuck in an ancient gateway- we would have been waiting there for hours). You need the expert advice of someone who knows the best routes, the reliable flights and trains (an oxymoronic thought in itself), and has the inside information on hotels. That's why I headed down to Gurgaon to consult Mohan at Travelscope India before leaving on a planned circuit through Rajasthan, which is another story altogether. I'm always interested in who is going where and why, so sounded Mohan on what the latest industry trends were in light of the Mumbai massacre, the world economic collapse and Bird Flu, not to mention all the Nervous Nellie terror alerts that have temporarily diminished tourism in India. Mohan's answer was instantaneous: people are discovering the South, for a multitude of excellent reasons.

Of course economics figures prominently in all this. People just can't spend with such abandon as before, and the South is definitely cheaper. It's nowhere near as known as the North. Mohan called it underexplored, not as expensive as the north, yet fairly priced. The South doesn't yet have the luxury that characterises the Golden Triangle of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur, areas most first-time travelers see, already developed for tourism. Turns out there's much to recommend the four states to the south (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu) besides cost.

You can discover cultural heritage 10 centuries old through a wealth of temple architecture and structures emblematic of colonial history. There's an engaging warmth to life in the South, Mohan said, complemented by year-round good weather. Kerala's exotic backwaters have eco-friendly lodges, and tea plantations are everywhere. In fact, the cuisine- signature dishes, spices, and tea are all renowned delicacies. Telicherry pepper, often called the best, comes from Kerala. I'm convinced- next trip I'll go South. Maybe I'll try out the Golden Chariot, a new express rail connection between Bangalore and Goa. And then I'll report back to you.


118, Qutub Plaza, DLF Phase I
Gurgaon – 122002. NCR of Delhi.
Tel. : 91-124-4381801 Extn. : 204
Fax : 91-124-4381805
Website :

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Diary entry: St Leonards on Sea, England

     It’s been almost 950 years since William the Conqueror’s bowmen put an arrow through the eye of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and changed the course of history. You’d think that would be enough time to get over it and move on, yet a visit to this historic section of the south coast of England shows just how much people still remember. Perhaps I exaggerate (moi?) but the seaside hamlet of St. Leonards is rich in its memories. Bingo parlors, amusement palaces and the kitschy beachfront crazy golf course aside, you can’t go far without some remnant of the vivid past grabbing your attention. The names alone tell a story: Norman Road, Archer Terrace, Warrior Square. The ruins of a medieval castle and abbey overlook the tiny boat harbor, and a pastiche of architectural styles pay tribute to the passage of time. A kind of weird, wonderful vibe prevails, promoting visions of bygone days at the shore. It’s not just marauding Normans, either. Locals dress up as pirates and take you on tours of smuggler’s caves. Plaques commemorate sites destroyed in WWII bombings. And a local theatre company papers the town with posters advertising its latest production of “The Tart and the Vicar’s Wife.”

     Perhaps scale has some bearing. St Leonard’s is no Brighton, with its succession of screaming nightclubs and gelato stands and droves of orotund weekenders. You might label it an arty decay here, a small enough community where residents happen upon friends promenading. The tiny pedestrian lane called George Street, has trendy bistros set side by side with ancient curio shops and used book stores, where scruffy elderly hippies sip cappuccinos at outdoor tables. Even the fenced-off, long-condemned pier, with its ghostly silhouette adds a contemplative silence to the picture. Stroll along the boardwalk and you pass a succession of fish and chips places and Indian restaurants, wending your way around cyclists and young families pushing babies in prams, comfortably mingling with old folks on an afternoon stroll, jackets zipped to meet the exhilarating ocean breezes. Nobody hurries, and the regal figure of Victoria, timeless in bronze, presides stern-faced from her pedestal in Warrior Square, watching over the waves she once ruled.

     A few doors away, facing the same ocean, stands the Zanzibar International, a boutique hotel of 9 elegantly-appointed rooms, opened almost four years ago. Spare, minimal, light, airy, the property immediately garnered attention as one of the top small properties in Britain. A tiny oasis of unobtrusive hospitality, this jewel of a retreat seeks only your happiness. As always, the secret is in the details: the vintage telescope on its tripod in the front window; the sandstone Thai Buddha’s head, eyes downcast, on the ledge in your bathroom; the terraced garden with its tropical plants and comfy wood seating; the fully-stocked honor bar in the lobby; the DVD library which has something for every taste; and a genius-level breakfast IQ, “the last impression a guest has of the hotel, so it’s important to us.” Optimal location, devoted staff, fairly priced at the high end of the lodging spectrum. This romantic small hotel is a little dream worth visiting.
     Of course you could go across the square to the fusty old hotel for a third of the cost and get an ocean view, but you will need to tolerate a shabby ambience, the Fawlty Towers school of hotel management, and the dreaded English breakfast (runny eggs, overcooked bacon, cold white toast and two small brownish objects generously referred to as mushrooms). While a number of charming dining out options can be found in the area, the fish and chips shop near Zanzibar’s corner looked authentic, posted a nice menu, and sent out pleasing aromas, perhaps the best advertising of all: probably a great place to pop into for a fast snack.

Zanzibar International Hotel
9 Eversfield Place
St Leonards on Sea
East Sussex
TN37 6BY

Tel 01424 460109