Ultimate relaxation in the Maldives

Dreaming of the perfect lazy, romantic, upscale vacation? Look no further than the Maldives, an atoll in the Indian Ocean.

As a part of our first journey to Asia, Husband and I spent 7 languid nights lounging at the Constance Halaveli resort in The Maldives. For more about The Maldives and how to get there, my prior post “The Maldives: Getting there is Part of the Fun!”

Choosing a Resort in The Maldives

One of the most daunting parts of the planning was selecting a resort in The Maldives. There are over 160 to choose from, each its own separate island. The vast majority of these earn 4 1/2 or 5 star ratings on Tripadvisor; it’s hard to go wrong from a quality standpoint.

Considerations when choosing a resort

Here are the major things we considered, not necessarily in order:

Type of Room: Does the resort offer over-water villas, and did they include a private plunge pool? We quickly realized that we wanted to experience what differentiates The Maldives from Florida or the Caribbean, and it’s definitely those beautiful over-water villas. This eliminated about half of the resorts, as not all of the islands support this type of structure.

Location: How long is the connection from Male ? With only 7 nights, we didn’t want to spend 4+ hours each way just getting to and from Male Airport

Food and Drink: Since each resort is its own island, visitors to The Maldives will be dining only at their resort. Most resorts offer some choice between a-la-carte, Half board (breakfast and dinner included), Full board (3 meals a day included). Some are fully All Inclusive (including alcoholic beverages), while others offer drink packages, and some throw in spa credit or other perks.

Reviews: Specific, recent reviews and comments on Tripadvisor, Booking.com, etc. I think I’ve mentioned before, I tend to focus on 3 and 4 star reviews, which in my experience generally contain the highest percentage of legitimate concerns and criticisms. If a resort hasn’t had a 3 or 4 star review in over a year, well… that’s probably a good thing?!

TOTAL cost: Making a few assumptions about our eating and drinking habits, and adding in the cost of transfers and gratuities, we tried to create an ‘apples to apples’ total cost comparison.

Booking Options: Where can we book, and can we leverage any Amex or Chase Ultimate perks? I looked at booking on the Amex and Chase websites, TripAdvisor, Luxury Escapes, Booking.com, and the resorts’ own websites. Once I had narrowed down the list, I also Googled “XYZ resort deals”.

Cancellation Policies: Although we have annual travel insurance policy to protect us in case of emergency, flexibility is still a consideration. How much upfront deposit is required? What are the cancellation timelines? Are there cancellation penalties?

Result

Duh, I’m a banker…. I made a spreadsheet. Of course I made a spreadsheet!

Our finalists:

  • JA Manafuru
  • Hideaway Beach
  • You & Me Maldives
  • Mercure Maldives Kooddoo
  • Obu Select Sangeli
  • Raffles
  • And the winner: Constance Halaveli

I am sure that any of these choices would have been just as satisfying, and I’m also sure I missed a few possibilities.

We ended up finding a great deal for the Constance Halaveli through a UK website called Turquoise Holidays – this is why the Google searches are an important step. I’m not sure whether Turquoise Holidays has a special relationship with the Constance resorts, or is perhaps an aggregator that had rooms to sell, but the total price for our stay was about $1k less than any other booking engine, including Constance’s own website.

Constance Halaveli Resort

Constance Hotels is a small, upscale chain operating only in the Indian Ocean: the Maldives, Seychelles, and Mauritius. I had first read about them through my good friend and fellow wonderful travel blogger, Bencard’s Bites, who wrote about her experience at a sister resort in 2014: Welcome to Paradise, it’s called Moofooshi.

Luxury with a decided foodie orientation? Sign me up!!

Travelers to Constance Halaveli are required to book a 1.5 hour seaplane ride from Male through the resort, who coordinates the flights on Trans Maldivian Airways.

View on arrival from the seaplane

On arrival, we were greeted “White Lotus” style at the pier, by smiling staff members holding up a Welcome sign. There were about 6 couples on the plane, and as we exited, our luggage was whisked away, while a Guest Relations staff member stepped forward to become each couple’s personal escort through the check-in process. Ours was Silvia, from Italy. She handed us a welcome drink as well as all of the vouchers and paperwork that came with our package, and explained the dining options, which I will review shortly. Silvia drove us via golf cart over the long wooden jetty to our Villa.

Welcome drink on arrival
Golf carts, they’re for more than just golf!

Our Villa

Silvia smiled when she saw our villa assignment, number 83 – I strongly suggest asking for this villa, as it’s situated on an angle such that the rear deck and pool are almost entirely private.

Villa #83

Although I had spent a lot of time reviewing photos and videos before arrival, we were still STUNNED by the size and beauty of our villa. Hands down, this is the nicest place I have ever stayed .

The main room, including the bed, with its gorgeous wood ceiling
The opulent bathroom with his and her closets
The private deck with loungers and an infinity plunge pool
Rear view of the villa

The villa is about 2/3 of the way down the jetty. Pros and Cons to this location: CON: it was almost half a mile just to get back to the resort. Given the intense heat, this sometimes seemed like a long walk, atlhough it was lovely in the cooler evening. Golf cart rides are always an option. PRO: The further out your villa is situated on the pier, the fewer rumbly golf carts pass your villa. More distance = more privacy. I’d choose this location again, overall.

The unbelievable WATER and sea life

What mesmerized me the most about our stay at Constance Halaveli was the abundance of sea life in the shallow waters surrounding our villa and the pier.

From our villa, a staircase descended into crystal clear blue water approximately 2 feet deep. That shallow depth extended several hundred yards, and the water teemed with a variety of fish including rays and sharks of the non-deadly variety. We could have snorkeled, but there was actually no need – we could just stand in the water and look at the fish and corals.

Periodically, a pod of jumping fish would swim rapidly by, with birds swooping and diving, trying to catch their dinner. Husband and I called it “The Show” and sat on the deck watching it in the mornings. As in, “Hey, honey, our show is on!” Who needs Netflix?

Jumping Fish and birds, aka the Daily Show ….

Ray, Ray, don’t go away
Baby shark, doo doo doo dooo

We also had several daily avian visitors as well as a large tropical carpenter bee (see: Xyocopa latices) who languidly floated from one end of our deck to the other all day long. I normally hate bees, but this one was just so….. mellow.

This is not how I normally spend my days in Delaware.

Dining

Constance Halaveli’s primary dining is at Jihaz, an open air buffet with an ever changing variety of choices. Yes, a buffet. But this buffet was a cut above. A chef prepared a variety of made to order dishes in line with the daily cuisine (Indian, Japanese, Seafood, etc.). In addition the buffet included plentiful bread choices, rice and soups, copious fresh fruits and vegetables, decadent deserts, and an ice cream bar.

Just a small part of the buffet at Jihaz

We never dined at the adjacent sushi bar (there was sushi available at the buffet), as it was only available certain hours. We tended to eat just twice a day. Sometimes breakfast, sometimes lunch, always dinner.

There is also a specialty restaurant, Jing, serving beautifully plated, seafood-heavy dishes. Jing is situated about halfway down the Jetty and right over the water. We dined here twice and found it to be a quiet, romantic experience.

cocktail hour at Jing, on the jetty
Sunset at an outdoor table at Jing. Covered indoor dining is also available

Resort amenities

The Constance Halaveli, like many Maldives resorts, is on a small island. The entire island is less than one square mile of habitable property. As a result, activities on the property are limited to the beaches, a resort pool, a tennis court, and a gym. The resort also offers various water-related activities such as a sunset cruise, kayaks, and floats.

Onsite Resort map

There is also a world-class spa, where massage rooms include a window to watch the enchanting sea life swim by below your massage table.

Hanging out in the resort’s infinity pool
Tree swing on the beach
Sunset cocktail hour
couples enjoy a sunset cruise

Candidly, if you are looking for an action-packed vacation, this is NOT your place. If you are looking to relax, rest, and recharge with nature and 5 star dining, then YES

Service and Atmosphere

Service at the Constance Halaveli was refined and utterly gracious, attentive without becoming bothersome. The staff stays on the island grounds, given the logistical challenges. They hailed from many countries, including India, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Ireland and were very well trained. Several of them, including the hosts and hostesses at both restaurants and several bartenders, knew our name and villa number on sight within 24 hours, as well as our drink of choice. One thing we couldn’t get used to was often being addressed as “mamsir”, which is a Filipino term of respect.

Our room attendant spent fully 30 minutes pulling apart palms to set this up the day before our departure….

Fellow guests during our stay, who hailed primarily from Asia and the UK, were probably 75% couples and 25% families on Easter break. Of the couples, probably 75% were under 30 and on their honeymoon; the rest were middle-aged and often celebrating a milestone anniversary or birthday. Socially speaking, given this guest mix, the Constance Haleveli is not likely to be a place where you will meet a bunch of new friends or party late into the night.

Should YOU go to the Maldives and the Constance Halaveli?

YES, if:

  • You want to disconnect from the world
  • You love the ocean and nature
  • You want a quiet, romantic atmosphere
  • You are OK with a long day (or days) of travel to and from your resort. And never leaving until checkout, once you are there.
  • You want to relax and spend hours each day sunbathing, swimming, watching the fish, reading, and napping
  • You want high- quality dining that’s effortless to reach and always available

NO, if:

  • You hate buffets
  • You want an unlimited choice of restaurants and cuisines to try each day
  • You are looking for an endless list of activities to keep you busy each day
  • You like to explore a new location each day
  • You want to party or go clubbing with the locals or other guests

What to pack for the Maldives:

Don’t go crazy overpacking. It’s hot, and it’s casual. Also your luggage is limited to 25kg (20kg “checked”, which means loaded in the back of of the cabin, and 5kg hand luggage. There are no overhead bins). But don’t forget:

  • Sunscreen, and lots of it!
  • Bug Spray
  • Swimsuits and coverups
  • A type “D” (British) plug adaptor, although many resorts will have them available
  • A hat or hats
  • Sunglasses
  • Water shoes, for walking around in the water which contains sharp rocks and coral
  • T shirts and shorts for lounging around your villa or the resort duringthe day
  • For the evenings:
    • (Ladies) Light dresses and sandals for evening dining. You can bring a light sweater or stole but the dining is open air and we were never cold or over-air conditioned
    • (Gentlemen) resort-wear short sleeve shirts and light slacks or shorts
    • Leave the fancy shoes at home, you will be walking on a wooden jetty or barefoot in the sand
Romantic evening beachfront dining for 2

We absolutely loved our stay at the Constance Haleveli in the beautiful Maldives. I finished 3 books in just a week, there is that much downtime. After the noise, color, pollution, and dense population of India, the Maldvies was a tranquil respite. Given the cost and distance from home, we are likely to return only if a)we are otherwise going to be in the area, or b)we hit it big in Atlantic City. But the Maldvies will surely be a unique and highly treasured pin in my world travel map.

The Maldives: Getting There is Part of the Fun

“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Following nearly three weeks in India visiting my Oldest, who accepted a short term assignment there, Husband made the journey to meet me, and together we embarked on a completely different type of adventure.

Once we knew I would be traveling halfway across the world from Lewes, Delaware to Bengaluru, India, we pulled up trusty Google Maps and considered our options for an add-on destination. The world sure is a big place, and I admit that I did not fully comprehend how big until I focused on this tiny corner of the Asian continent. Initially, we thought a trip to Singapore, Thailand, or Australia might make sense… until we realized such a pilgrimage would require another 8 – 12 hour flight, an unwelcome thought after already having traveled so far to get to India. Plus, we needed to eventually get home. Didn’t we?

As a result of thorough almost no research and extensive negligible spousal negotiation, we settled on the Maldives in roughly this manner:

Hey look, the Maldives are pretty close to India!

-Husband

Wait, isn’t that where they have those villas over the water? I’m in!

-Me

My knowledge of the Maldives prior to planning this trip was limited; I credit longtime friend, sister, and inspirational travel blogger Ellen Ferrara Bencard for sharing her own trip to these beautiful islands for what little I did know: Villas over the water, luxurious resorts, and excellent gastronomy.

About the Maldives

Trivia fodder

In just about two hours, we traveled from chaotic, noisy, bustling Bengaluru to what has to be one of the most peaceful spots on the planet. Here, blindingly white sands peak out from within clear, cerulean waters to form one of the world’s most iconic beach destinations.

Sunset over the villas in paradise…

Lying about 560 miles from the southern coast of India, the Maldives consists of an atoll with over 1,000 small islands.

While there are other beautiful beach destinations around the world, the Maldives “One Island, One Resort” concept makes it utterly unique. While there are numerous reefs, only about 150 of them boast enough land for human habitation. Each of these is home to one and only one luxury resort, hosted by well-known brands such as Four Seasons, Fairmont, and One and Only as well as by small, independent operators.

Aerial view of one of the islands; more islands can be seen in the upper right

The upshot of One Island, One Resort is unparalleled privacy and customer service, provided by highly trained staff and world-reknowned chefs, who live on-island for months at a time.

What is an atoll?

An atoll is a specific type of island formation that is characterized by a ring-shaped coral reef, often enclosing a lagoon in the center. Atolls are typically formed from the remnants of volcanic islands that have subsided over time, leaving behind a circular or oval-shaped reef structure. The reef itself is composed of coral and other organic materials that have accumulated over many years.

The Maldives’ unique geography is a result of an intricate interplay between tectonic forces, coral reef growth, and sea level changes. The atolls are surrounded by shallow lagoons and encircled by coral reefs, offering natural protection against the open ocean. The islands themselves are usually formed from the accumulation of sand and other sediments on top of the coral reefs.

Near the center lies Male, a two square kilometer island, the country’s capital and only city, home to roughly 150,000 Maldivians (somewhere around 40% of the population). The international airport lies on a newly built landfill island adjacent to Male, so all visitors must start their journey here. From Male, the various resorts can be reached by some combination of boat, private resort seaplane, or the national seaplane airline, Trans Maldivian Airways. The journey from Male to a specific resort can take as little as 15 minutes and as long as 4 hours. In addition to time, there is the cost to consider: transferring to a resort from Male can cost as much as $800 per person.

Arrival in Male and the Logistics of One Island, One Resort

Given the distance and lack of infrastructure among the Maldivian islands, logistics can be challenging, with the entire atoll stretching over 500 miles from north to south. Our resort of choice, the Constance Halaveli, utilized Trans Maldivian Airways for the roughly one-hour flight transfer.

Our arrival timing was a bit tricky. The resort islands do not have airports or runways, requiring a water landing and floating dock. Therefore, TMA will not fly anywhere near dusk or dark. In April, this meant no flights after 4pm. Since our flight from Bengaluru was not scheduled to land until after 3pm, we were cutting it too close, which meant we needed to stay the night in Male and transfer the next morning.

For our one night visit to Male, we chose not to stay in the crowded city proper, but on the smaller airport island known as Hulhule. The Ocean Grand hotel, sitting across the street from a beach, was not necessarily “grand” but it provided a clean room, a free shuttle to and from the airport, a view of the water, and free breakfast. We also enjoyed an excellent dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant. No complaints here!

The Ocean Grand hotel in Hulhule, Maldives

Seaplane Transfer… the adventure begins!

The next morning we were back at Male airport, this time at the Trans Maldivian Airways terminal. “Organized chaos” is the phrase that comes to mind; each resort has a kiosk inside the open air terminal.

So many resorts, so little time…

We had received our flight time just a day or so before our journey; fascinating to me was that TMA does not operate on a set schedule but evaluates the number of passengers arriving and departing each resort and maps out a different set of routes each day. This was a little challenging for a planner like me to absorb, but upon seeing the system in action, I have to admit it seems to work!

First, they weighed us. It’s always comforting to know such care is being taken with our safety….. right? Right? We checked our bags, which were also carefully weighed, and were escorted to Constance Hotels’ private waiting lounge, which included an outdoor patio to watch the sea planes scurry about in the airport/harbor.

Your Seaplane Awaits….

After a very short wait we were brought into a small room for a safety briefing video with our flying companions. From there, we were escorted out to the dock (runway?), where flip-flopped pilots run the show

#lifegoals: To be a Maldivian seaplane pilot
Yep, I’m getting on that thing and flying over the water!

There were about 10 passengers on the plane, with all of our luggage piled in the rear. There are two pilots on each plane. We were told where to sit based on weight, but generally couples were able to sit together. Our entire plane was full of honeymooning Asian couples, with the exception of Husband and myself and one single British woman.

One of our pilots introduces himself… the plane is so tiny he can’t stand upright
My view just after takeoff, looking back at Male
One of the larger islands near the airport
On our way to Constance Halaveli!

Our blissful weeklong experience at the 5 star, luxurious Constance Halaveli is deserving of its own post, which will follow. For now, suffice to say that The Maldives and the Constance certainly qualify as a destination that is difficult to reach, but worth the effort.

Arrival at Constance Halaveli: Serious White Lotus/Fantasy Island vibes

Discovering History and Heritage in Karnataka

By this point in my Indian sojourn, I had been traveling for 8 hot, dusty days. I’m not embarrassed to say that after returning to Bengaluru from our 3 day excursion to Agra, I spent a day doing absolutely nothing at the JW Marriott Bengaluru. A little spa, a little reading, a little swim, a little glass of wine. A perfect little breather in bustling India.

Following this needed respite, Oldest and I set off to enjoy a full day private tour from Hidden Gems Tours, a local Bengaluru-based tour company. Our day started at 6:30 am because the company’s owner and our guide, Praveen, wanted to explore a new stop on this tour: an open air flower market along the Mysore road.

Flower Market, Bengaluru

As with many things Indian, the flower market is unstructured. There is no official opening and closing time, and no official location. As early as 4 am, sellers begin lining the streets with flowers including jasmine, roses, and orchids. Shoppers at the market can purchase flowers, or scrutinize potential vendors for future parties and weddings.

Breaking dawn revealed the colorful, noisy, fragrant, and chaotic market. An apt metaphor for Bengaluru itself.

Busy Flower Market in Bangalore
Flower petals litter the streets
an explosion of color and scent

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (sort of)

Next, we headed off down the Mysore road. Out of the packed city environs, and past fields of sugar cane, we stopped for breakfast. Audrey Hepburn was not to be seen, but Maddur Tiffanyss, about half way between Bengaluru and Mysuru, was a great pit stop. Praveen selected our meal, which included Maddur Vada, a delicious grainy fried pancake with dipping sauces.

Breakfast at Tiffanyss: Delicious Maddur Vada

Notably, Maddur Tiffanyss does not enjoy the greatest online reviews. Perhaps those negative reviewers did not have the advantage of an experienced local to place their order? I thought it was delicious.

Somanathpur and its Temple

Keshava (Somanathpur) Temple was our first and most intriguing historical stop. Constructed over a 5 year period beginning in 1268, Keshava Temple was built as a place of worship and a symbol of the power and prestige of the medieval Hoysala dynasty under Narashima III. Crafted of soapstone, the temple’s interior and exterior contain incredibly intricate carvings of various Indian gods and goddesses, along with elephants, war scenes, and flowers.

Still standing after over 800 years! (not Oldest, he’s only 27)
Vishnu rocks!
complex friezes outside the temple have survived heat and monsoons
Vishnu, gargoyles, snakes, and jewels
quiet, cool interior of Keshava temple with intricately carved pillars

While I found the Taj Mahal fabulous in its marble beauty, I was simply awestruck at the level and longevity of Somanathpur’s craftsmanship out of basic soapstone. I must have said “Wow” about a hundred times. No doubt, our visit was enhanced by the fact that there were only a couple of small groups visiting when we did, creating a huge contrast to the crowds at the Taj Mahal. We almost had the place to ourselves, allowing for quiet introspection. Thanks are due to the Archaeological Survey of India for restoring and maintaining Somanathpur beginning in the 20th century.

Mysore Palace

The 245,000 square foot Mysore Palace is located in central Mysuru city. The Palace is a large scale example of Indo-Saracenic architecture, which is characterized by a fusion of Indian, Islamic, and European styles. Glorious in its detail, the vibrant three-storied structure is made of fine gray granite. Open courtyards are scattered throughout. The colorful Palace is heavily decorated throughout with intricate carvings, detailed arches, stained glass, and a plethora of domes, turrets, and towers.

Photo challenge: getting the whole palace in one shot
colorful tile, gold leaf, and marble arched decor
the elaborate marriage hall at Myore Palace

The Maharajah Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV, descendant of a family who ruled Mysore for over 500 years, commissioned the current palace in 1897. It was completed in 1912. Although their power was abolished with independence from Britain in 1947, the progeny of the Wadiyar family still enjoy status and privilege in modern Mysore.

It felt like I could step right into this painting of the Maharajah arriving via elephant

I was impressed by the palace’s sheer size, opulence, and stature. However, something about the simplicity and lack of dazzle at Keshava Temple felt more authentic.

Srirangapatana

Lunch followed at the Hotel Mayura Riverview on Srirangapatana Island, just outside Mysuru. A peaceful oasis on the river greeted us, as well as a friendly monkey!

it’s not every day you get a selfie with a monkey…please don’t jump on my head.
Visitors enjoying a river ride in a coracle, an ancient Indian form of water transport

Next, we remained in Srirangapatana to visit the onetime summer palace of Tipu Sultan, which also served as the home of Governor Cornwallis. After the other two sites, this one felt quieter and more approachable. It is a smaller, two story home decorated with open air porches and beautiful tilework. I was reminded of the film “The King and I”, imagining ancient Asian royalty roaming these walkways.

summer breezes and cool tiles

Thank you, Hidden Gems Tours, for an unforgettable day trip to Mysore, Somanathpur, and Srirangapatana. In addition to challenging my spelling abilities, this tour illuminated the history, beauty, and culture of southwestern India. When compared to India’s more famous “Golden Triangle” of New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur, the Mysuru region is often discounted as a travel destination. But its history is just a rich, its beauty just as diverse, and the crowds are notably less. I urge you to consider adding this region to your India travels.

Indian schoolgirls in Somananthpur

A tough act to follow….. Time in Agra after visiting the Taj Mahal

After visiting the Taj Mahal at sunrise, we continued our tour of Agra and environs with our tour guide, Mahesh from https://www.discoverydreams.com/about-us. You will be happy to know that the first thing we did was find a restroom and I was able to fully cleanse my bird-soiled hand before we continued our tour around Agra. Much better. As we exited the complex we stopped for photographs of a lovely red sandstone outer building with an arched passageway:

No, I didn’t call the arches to plan our outfits

Mahesh explained a bit more about the recent history of Agra. Just a few decades ago, the city boasted a population of 6 million whose lives were centered not around its famous monument, but around numerous local factories. Unfortunately, these factories contributed heavily to the locally polluted air, and the government determined that the beautiful marble facade of the Taj Mahal was suffering as a result. Given the value of the Taj as a tourist destination, the decision was made to relocate a number of these factories in an attempt to clear the air. This led to an anomaly for India: a declining local population. Agra is now home to about 2 million people.

Eventually, as so often happens, recognition bloomed that perhaps the relocation efforts had gone too far, and Agra was a city in decline. So, the government decided to use financial incentives to promote the various local arts to the city’s 50 million+ annual tourists: carpet making, marble carving, and jewelry made with local gems among other items. The next part of our tour included artisan demonstrations in each of these areas, along with the inevitable pushy sales pitch. Did I cave and buy something? Read on to find out….

Artisan Shopping in Agra

The showroom of Diamond Carpets (https://www.diamondcarpets.com) is located in the middle of downtown Agra. Our visit began with a quick explanation of the process of weaving wool and silk into beautiful rug creations. We were shown photos of the main carpet factory located a few miles away.

carpetweaving in process
women use their strong toes to edge the rugs

Next, we were taken to the display room, which housed hundreds of gorgeous rugs. One might say they rolled out the red blue carpet for us…

Showing us rugs for sale…. dare I ask the price of this one?

I made the crucial ‘mistake’ of asking the price, assuming it would be completely exorbitant, letting me off the hook with a quick “no, thanks that’s out of my price range”. For reference, last year on a cruise stop in Istanbul, Husband and I attended a similar carpet factory display, where the small but beautiful rug I admired could have been mine for a mere $20,000. So, that was my expectation here. I have a puppy at home, so the rugs tend to come from Wayfair and Home Goods. But… thanks to the government incentives, which included free shipping to the US, the price on the rug I liked was just a fraction of my prediction.

We negotiated the price a bit and I got another 15% or so off the original quote. Mahesh had told us to always negotiate in India! When you buy a rug, you sign the back to ensure that the one you receive is the one you chose. This lovely rug now sits in my office below my desk as I type, a wonderful memory of India. I have no regrets.

signing my new rug!

As our day continued, we also visited a marble carving exhibition and a jeweler, making a few more small purchases. Hopefully we helped the local economy.

Artisans insert gems into marble

Agra Fort

Today’s agenda included the two less famous but equally historic buildings in the Agra area: 1)Agra Fort, and 2)the Tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, also known as the “Baby Taj”.

Agra Fort, an enormous red sandstone complex, dates to the 14th century and once housed the members of the Mughal ruling family. At the time of the Fort’s construction, Agra was the capital of this northern region of India now known as Utter Pradesh, to be replaced by Delhi about 100 years later.

Imposing entrance to Agra Fort

Covering roughly 94 acres, Agra Fort borders the same Yamuna River as the Taj Mahal. The Fort is full of both Islamic and Indian architectural influences, as well as much of the same carved marble as seen at the Taj. In the heat of the midday March sun, it’s not difficult to imagine royal court members seeking cool shade in its many arched, open air corridors.

Inside Agra Fort
a peek at the Taj Mahal through one of the Fort’s windows
Tourists inspecting the gold infused ‘master bedroom’
The Fort’s courtyard almost looks like a University campus quad…
Touring Agra U

Baby Taj

After a quick traditional Indian buffet lunch, we wrapped up the day at the the tomb of I’timad-ud-Daulah, nicknamed the Baby Taj due to its similar architecture: a central marble dome surrounded by four tall minarets. Given the nickname, we made the natural but erroneous assumption that this much smaller monument was inspired by its larger cousin. Nope!

I’timad-ud-Daulah was an exiled emir of Persia, and also the grandfather of Mumtaz Mahal, Shah Jahan’s favorite wife who is entombed in the Taj Mahal. Baby Taj was commissioned by one of I’timad-ud-Daulah’s daughters in 1622, almost 10 years before construction began on the Taj. Both buildings represent a period in which local architectural trends had shifted toward more white inlaid marble and less red sandstone.

Like the Taj Mahal, the grounds of the Baby Taj include symmetrical gardens criss-crossed with water courses and walkways.

Baby Taj – a much smaller tomb than its more famous neighbor, as illustrated by the humans in the doorway

Perhaps the most notable difference between the Baby Taj and its more famous cousin is lack of maintenance. The structure’s interior shows its true age like a Real Housewife without her makeup.

faded carving surrounds an interior doorway
inside the dome, imagine the vibrance long ago…
View of one of the red sandstone entrances from inside the Baby Taj

Unlike the heavily trafficked Taj Mahal, here a visitor can get close to the monument to inspect the beautiful carvings, take interior photographs, and experience the peaceful setting. Despite the damage wrought by age (and gem thieves), the authenticity of this structure shines through.

Around Agra

Our long, hot day in Agra came to an end in the late afternoon, as Mahesh transported us back to the Doubletree to relax before tomorrow’s journey back to Bangalore. Once again we reflected on the divergence between the tourist-filled, opulent royal structures surrounding this former capital city, and the lifestyle of its current inhabitants.

A typical Agra streetscape
children play as mom watches from the doorway
A family walks among the crumbling buildings
Monkeys climb the walls of an old factory

Evening in Agra, with puppets!

A review of our day in Agra wouldn’t be complete without mention of the late night entertainment. Too exhausted to explore any further, we dined at the Doubletree’s restaurant, Kebab-e-Que (https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/dining/) where a guitarist played the same 4 chords on every song. I kept hearing “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, which became tomorrow’s ear worm, because of course it did. We left the restaurant full of good food and wine and ready for bed, only to find the lobby decorated with candles and greens and the number “60”. Shamefully, we did not ask what this was about. Maybe the 60th anniversary of the hotel?

I honestly do not know what was going on here

The lobby festivities were highlighted by a young Sikh performer who showcased his family’s handmade animal menagerie. Waiting for us, alone, he could not contain his excitement at finally having an audience.

I bought the bright red elephant in the back ūüôā
A little culture in the Doubletree Lobby! Turn sound on

Our new friend had also set up a stage for a very unique puppet show. He invited the boys to don turbans …

Awesome headwear

If you are my age, you may remember ultra-kind Mr. Rogers and his somewhat creepy puppet show in the Neighborhood of Make Believe? This was kinda like that.

Watch out for the snake… and turn the sound on

Our time in Agra truly came to a memorable end! Once again I would like to thank Mahesh and Shakul at Pacific Classic Tours India (Trip Advisor Link: https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g297683-d6758183-Reviews-Pacific_Classic_Tours_India-Agra_Agra_District_Uttar_Pradesh.html) for arranging a fabulous trip to all of Agra’s highlights. In addition to checking off an ultimate bucket list destination and a Wonder of the World, we learned so much more about India’s history and culture. We were also once again surrounded by kind, friendly, colorful people who helped create the best travel memories.

The Taj Mahal. And, birds gotta do what they gotta doo doo…

One of the Seven Wonders of the World, it’s the first thing most people think of when they imagine visiting India. Although I don’t always like to follow “can’t miss” and “must do” lists, come on… it’s the Taj Mahal!

So, as soon as I knew I was headed to India, I researched the best way to visit the iconic structure. The Taj is located in Agra, a small city in the north central part of India and almost 2000km from Bengaluru. The closest major city is New Delhi, about a 2.5 hour car ride away.

A word of advice

Many tour operators offered a “day trip” to the Taj from Bengaluru. This would have involved:

  • hotel pick up at 6 am
  • 45 minute ride to BLR airport
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight to New Delhi
  • 2.5 hour car ride to the Taj
  • An hour or so at the Taj, and maybe lunch
  • 2.5 hour car ride back to New Delhi
  • waiting around the airport
  • 2.5 hour flight back to BLR
  • 45 minute ride back to Bangalore city

No, thank you.

Instead, I chose a trip arranged through https://www.discoverydreams.com, leaving on a Friday morning, with two nights in Agra, and returning on a Sunday. Best of all, the company (also known as Pacific Classic Tours India or PCTI) arranged the trip via a direct flight to Agra rather than New Delhi, saving a lot of time in the car. This tour is only available on certain days of the week, as the direct flight from Bengaluru to Agra only operates on a few days, and the Taj itself is closed to the public on Fridays for religious purposes.

Take your time with this place, it’s worthwhile.

journey to agra

The flight itself was uneventful but the arrival was a bit different. We flew on IndiGo, a quirky no-frills airline reminiscent of Jet Blue or Southwest in the US. Riding buses to the tarmac for a domestic flight experience at BLR provides that up close and personal experience:

That gorgeous baby had more gold jewelry than I do

Unfortunately, I have no photos of our arrival at Agra airport, because it is actually a military airport that only recently opened to commercial air traffic. NO PHOTOGRAPHY signs and armed guards greeted us. Next, we were required to take a bus to the prison-like gated entrance of the airport. Although the 1/2 mile bus ride was purported to be free, one of the armed guards wanted to collect a fee of 50 rupees (about 61 US cents). Needless to say, we riders complied.

Our tour guide for the next two days, Mahesh, was positioned at the airport entrance gate to meet us in an air conditioned vehicle. The airport was only about 10 minutes from the small city of Agra, where our package included delicious late lunch at the Salt Cafe. Then off to our hotel, the Doubletree Agra https://www.hilton.com/en/hotels/agrdtdi-doubletree-agra/

My room had a teeny tiny view of the dome of the Taj Mahal. A newly constructed elevated railway obscures the view from this side of Agra (unfortunately including the now inaptly named “Taj View Hotel” nearby). Progress and history compete as everywhere.

my first “view” of the Taj Mahal

Taj Viewpoint in the evening

After a short rest at the hotel, Mahesh picked us up again to get our first real view of the Taj. Since it was a Friday, and the mausoleum was closed, our only option was to proceed to the north side of the Yamuna river to the “Taj Viewpoint”. We dodged rickshaws, stray dogs, monkeys, children and camels on the approach to the viewpoint.

Since the monument is completely symmetrical, from either direction the view is identical. The view you are most likely familiar with looks across well-designed entrance pools and gardens; From the rear, the view crosses a nearly dry riverbed full of weeds, cows and goats grazing . The striking divergence of the opulent marble monument, the pollution-hazed sunset, the peasants with their cattle, and my own sheer wonder added to my sense of awe.

and there it is…..
and here we are!

After a half hour so of wandering, photographing, and simply gazing in speechless amazement, we headed back to the hotel. Tomorrow, we will visit at sunrise and learn more about the history of the Taj Mahal. But for now, driving away from the Viewpoint, I was struck by the “neighborhood” here. Just 1/4 mile from one of the world’s most famous monuments, people live with no running water, no electricity, wandering animals, and scattered trash. One of humanity’s greatest architectural and artistic accomplishments and societal failures in such close proximity. Jarring, to say the least.

Across the river from the Taj Mahal

Despite jet lag and travel weariness, I had trouble sleeping that night.

Sunrise at the Taj mahal

The next morning, we arose early to arrive at the Taj Mahal just before sunrise. The ethereal light attracted plenty of other visitors, but knowing the heat would rise later in the day, we knew this was the best time to be here. As a bonus, the photography is a bit surreal too. In some of the photos, the Taj almost looks like a painted backdrop.

crowds at the Taj gate at sunrise.
spooky look toward the hazy sunrise
that iconic view
here we are standing beside a painting of the Taj Mahal…. (jk)
fun with angles and perspective

A little brief history of the Taj Mahal: The Taj Mahal was commissioned in 1631 as a mausoleum by the Mughal emperor at the time, Shah Jahan, to house the remains of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Per our tour guide, she was one of one of three wives, and bore him 13 children. Pregnant with their 14th, on a camel back ride across the country for some royal purpose or another, she became physically distressed and lost both the child and her life. Construction was completed in 1648. I’m thinking the Shah felt a little guilty… hence the huge marble structure that virtually glows in the sunlight. There are two smaller mausoleums on either side of the structure for the other two wives that seem like (and most likely were) an afterthought.

Details of the Taj Mahal:

Of course I knew the Taj Mahal was a white building, and made of marble. What I didn’t know is that each and almost every inch is full of carvings, jewels, and intricate writings that can only be seen up close. Here are a couple of photos attempting to capture that detail:

The entrance approach up close
close up showing both the colorful inset stones, gold leaf, and some of the damage inflicted by years of people and weather
another close up from outside

One of the more fascinating aspects of this detail is the red stone shown below. Holding our iPhone flashlights up to the stone created a unique glow that blushed across the entire stone. Sadly, many of the 28 types of jewels originally used in the Taj Mahal’s construction were stolen over time.

The yucky part

By now, you may be wondering about the bird doo doo referenced in my title. OK then, since you asked….

The indoor of the mausoleum houses the tombs of both Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah who created the tomb. No indoor photos are allowed. I do have this one, though, which shows my hand on the railing that keeps visitors from touching the inside walls:

I guess I really am over COVID, because I probably shouldn’t be touching that….

Inside of the Taj dome are 82 foot walls. While the structure is enclosed, the doors are tall enough that a few of the birds that surround the monument must find their way in periodically. They happily nest in the windows and carvings above. I don’t know what kind of bird blessed me, but my hand was exactly as shown on one of these railings when PLOP! a cold, nasty liquid was discharged right onto the back of my right hand. Oh, my kingdom for a tissue…..! I’ll bet there aren’t too many people who can say they have been pooped on inside the Taj Mahal. I feel soooo special. Karma for life, anyone?

bird, schmird… I’m still smiling .. check out the fun reflection in my sunglasses – thanks Mahesh!
Taj Mahal at sunrise

In my next post, more to come about the rest of our time in Agra, which included artisan demonstrations, a visit to Agra Fort and the “Baby Taj” monument, and a… puppet show. Yep, a puppet show.

Colmar: Soggy days and Indian food – but the Oo-la-la prevails

The final stop on our fall 2019 trip was Colmar, France, ¬†which we reached by taking the “scenic route” Alpine through southern Germany, the western edge of Austria, and Switzerland. ¬† ¬†Unfortunately the route disappointed due to heavy rain and fog, which obscured the views of the mountains and Lake Constance, and increased the traffic. ¬†Oh well, ¬†now we have a reason to return… ¬†At the very least, it was interesting crossing all of the borders – ¬†we had to buy a vignette to drive through Switzerland, ¬†and we got confused and bought it in Austria when we thought we were already in Switzerland. ¬† Good thing, though, ¬†as we avoided a long line at the Swiss border, which unlike the other borders we had crossed was manned with gates and military personnel.

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The border exiting Switzerland, back to Germany on our way to France 

After the whirlwind of Munich during Oktoberfest, the slower, off-season pace of the Alsace region ¬†was just what the doctor ordered. ¬†We stayed in an apartment found on Booking.com: ¬†Les Appartements Saint-Martin. ¬†Tucked away in a courtyard in the shadow of Eglise Saint-Martin, ¬†our room was comfortable and well-stocked. ¬† It was a bit of an adventure on narrow cobblestoned one-way streets finding the place, and then finding the free parking lot which was about 3/4 mile away, ¬†but the location couldn’t have been better for wandering Colmar’s timeworn avenues.

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Rue des Marchands, where our apartment was located. Cars can actually drive on these streets (?!)

After 9 days traveling in Germany, we were looking forward to the change in cuisine from pork-and-potato heavy German food to the French-influenced Alsatian dishes and bakeries. ¬† Our first night in Colmar, ¬† we made our way to “Le Petite Venise”, a scenic neighborhood interspersed with canals, and were lucky to find a table at Brasserie Schwendi, ¬†a popular cafe. ¬† ¬† Here we tried the two house specialties:

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Tarte Flambée

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Roasti with Pork

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un biere et un petit vin – these tall, small glasses are unique to Alsace

Tarte Flambee is a flatbread made with ham, onions, and goat cheese, and Roasti with Pork, ¬†comes in a cast iron skillet and was, ¬†basically, pork-and-potatoes, ¬†but with cream and cheese to make it even more fattening. We weren’t complaining, it was delicious! Oo-la-la!

We had two full days to spend in Colmar before heading toward Frankfurt and our flight home.  The first,  a Saturday,  was spent wandering the little town.  It was chilly and rainy,  so we took it pretty easy,  but my activity app still says we clocked over 6 miles.  We performed all the classic tourist Oo-la-la activities: shopping in the stylish French boutiques,  stopping for coffee and pastry in a cute bakery, visiting the cheesy gift shops, exploring the church, trying out my very limited French, and taking photos of the quaint little town.

 

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Le Petit Venise, Colmar

 

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The years have taken a toll on this pretty house

We also visited ¬†two wine tasting rooms – ¬†a great activity for a bad weather day when you aren’t driving! ¬†I can recommend both ¬†Domaine Martin Jund¬†and¬†Domaine Karcher. ¬†We actually ordered wine from Domaine Karcher and shipped it home to stock our wine room with excellent, well priced whites. ¬†The wines cost as little as $6/bottle, although shipping costs are high so it only makes sense to send a full case or two.

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Although it was decidedly not Colmar’s peak season, ¬†it was a Saturday, and there seemed to be many visitors in the town, ¬†primarily French and German speaking. ¬†We didn’t have a dinner reservation – MISTAKE! – ¬†and were surprised that a number of restaurants were “Complet” – ¬†full and not accepting more diners, ¬†even if we were willing to wait. ¬†Some actually had signs on the door – ¬†don’t even bother asking. ¬† The better restaurants in Colmar don’t try to turn tables the way American restaurants do – ¬†they seem satisfied with one seating per table. ¬†After trying a number of places in the La Petite Venise area, ¬†we wandered back toward our apartment with the intention of finding dinner at a little Italian place just across the street. ¬†On the way, though, ¬†we discovered Le Maharajah, ¬†a small, family-run Indian restaurant on Grand Rue – ¬†what a find! ¬†Maybe we were just so tired of the pork-and-potatoes that the different cuisine woke up our taste buds, ¬†but we really enjoyed the food here. ¬†Online reviews of Le Maharajah (which doesn’t have a website) aren’t spectacular, ¬†but we are glad we ignored them.

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The Maharajah menu:  short & sweet!

On our second day in Colmar, ¬†a Sunday, all of the shops were closed as expected. ¬†So we took to the Route-des-vins, ¬†the Wine Road that winds through the lower Alsace region. ¬†We didn’t go as far as Strasbourg, ¬†which is the largest city in the area, ¬†because we were a little citied-out after Munich. ¬†We intended on visiting a chateau high above the little town of Riquewihr, but once again the weather daunted us, and the chateau was enveloped in clouds so we skipped it. ¬†We also tried to stop at the harvest Wine Festival in Eguisheim, but were unable to find parking within the tiny, walled city – it was raining again, and we didn’t want to be too far from the car – ¬†so we left in a bit of frustration. ¬†Here are a couple of photos from our drive:

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Foreground: vineyard                     Background: Riquewihr

 

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Wine tasting: open on Sundays!

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The tiny town of Saint-Hippolyte

 

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That evening, we ended up back at Brasserie Schwendi – ¬†not very creative, ¬†but we seemed to hit a wall thanks to the bad weather. ¬†We enjoyed meeting a Chinese couple who spoke excellent English; ¬†they had been traveling for 23 days throughout France – ¬†these are always my favorite travel moments. ¬†I’m always jealous of those who can travel for such a long period of time.

Our 3 days and 2 nights in Colmar was dampened by, well, ¬†the damp … but we enjoyed it enough to want to return one day in sunnier, warmer weather! ¬†We both noticed the not-so-subtle change in culture from Germany to France: ¬†Germans are more precise; ¬†French are unhurried; ¬†Germans will gladly tell you what to do; ¬†French will laugh at your mistakes but allow you to make them; French clothing is more chic and polished. ¬†I have both German and French lineage and it became a joke that “my German was showing” every time I tried to rush Husband or dictate our next move. ¬†I’m not sure what happened to my French blood, because I am definitely not unhurried or stylish! ¬†I can’t even bake well. ¬†But, ¬†I do enjoy wine so… ¬†Oo-la-la!

 

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Oktoberfest: Planning Tips for Partying with the World

In a world that often seems divided,  whether by country, politics, religion, or otherwise, Munich‚Äôs Oktoberfest stands in stark contrast. Every year,  millions of patrons from around the world descend on the 16-day annual festival,  which has run since 1810 when it originated in celebration of the marriage of King Louis I (then crown prince of Bavaria)  to Princess Therese.   Today, the festival celebrates Bavarian culture including food,  dress, music, and of course, BEER! 

 

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Inside the Paulaner tent

A few fun statistics from Oktoberfest 2019 (courtesy of https://www.oktoberfesttours.travel/2019/10/10/oktoberfest-2019-beer-consumption/) 

  • 6.3 million patrons consumed 7.3 million liters of beer
  • Attendees hailed from at least 55 nations
  • Lost and Found items included 660 wallets,  420 mobile phones, and a set of dentures (oops!)  

A lot of early planning went into making our visit a success.  Here are a few tips and a review of our experience:

LODGING: Because Oktoberfest attracts so many visitors,  central Munich lodging must be booked well in advance or we would have ended up staying well outside the city.   I had booked the Platzl Hotel (https://www.platzl.de/en/) way back in January,  to ensure we would have a comfortable room in a great location walkable to the Fest. It wasn‚Äôt cheap, but the rooms were comfortable, very near Marienplatz in Munich‚Äôs Old Town and the famous Hofbraeuhaus,  and I thought it would be a reasonably close walk to the festival grounds. It was,  but just barely –  more on that below.

LOCATION AND TRANSPORTATION: Here‚Äôs a tip from my experience:   When figuring out the distance to Oktoberfest from your lodging, note that a simple Google Map routing to Thereisenweise,  the name of the park where Oktoberfest is held, will not necessarily tell you how far you are from the grounds:  Add at least 1/2 a mile.  Due to security, there are only a couple of entrances to the actual festival.  It‚Äôs easy enough to follow the crowd toward the grounds (I promise, you won’t miss it!), but once you reach the perimeter you may have to walk quite a ways,  sometimes away from the grounds through crowd barrier chutes,  to enter the park.   While our hotel was only 1.4 miles (as “the crow flies”),  we walked over 2 miles in addition to a lot of walking within the festival.   On our first day, when we also walked to Bavarian Outfitters (see below),  I clocked over 11 miles on my Apple watch!  After our second evening outing, we caved and got a cab for our tired feet.

CLOTHING: I also pre-reserved rented Trachten (his & hers traditional Bavarian clothing) from Bavarian Outfitters.   The pickup location for the clothing was on the southern edge of Old Town, and reminded me of the pop-up Halloween costume stores that seem to multiply each year at home.  It was an undecorated, rented space with racks and racks of clothing.  I also later realized that there are many similar stores around Munich during the Fest;  pre-reserving probably wasn’t necessary as we were just guessing at sizes anyway, and ended up taking something different than we had reserved.  The results,  however were worth every penny!   Whether you reserve ahead or not,  do rent or buy the clothing, you won’t be sorry!

 

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Husband and I in our Trachten

ATTEND WITH FRIENDS: Another key to the fun was meeting up with friends in Munich.  Oktoberfest is definitely a ‚Äúmore the merrier‚ÄĚ type of place, and it seemed the majority of attendees were part of a larger group.  One couple joined us for our entire stay in Munich,  and we also joined forces with family friends to reserve a whole table at the Marstall tent our first night in town. 

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BEER TENT RESERVATIONS: Regarding tent table reservations:  it’s a little crazy.   Many tables are not available to the public;  think of it like season tickets for a popular sports team  – they only go to people who already have a reservation from prior years. Forget about making a reservation on Friday or Saturday, unless you choose to use a service that charges you extra.   And you can’t reserve just a few spots, you need to reserve and pay for the whole table which is 8 – 12 people.  While the tents don’t actually charge for the reservation itself,  you do need to prepay a minimum spend on the food and drink;  in our case for Marstall it was about $50/per person.   In our case,  I was able to snag a Sunday night reservation thanks to alerts from Weisnkini,  which I highly recommend subscribing to if you plan to attend Oktoberfest. I received emails regularly when table reservations became available, and we reserved literally the last table in the Marstall tent for that evening.

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Outside the Marstall tent

 

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View from the very last available table at Marstall

Google Translate was invaluable with the reservations.  While most of the tents have an English page,  the reservation confirmation and “terms and conditions” are all in German –  yikes!  Here’s my confirmation:

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WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE A TENT RESERVATION:  It would be unlikely (and expensive) to get a reservation for more than one night at the Fest.  If you plan to attend more than once, as we did,  just be prepared to go with the flow.  You won’t get a beer if you aren’t seated. Here are the best options without a reservation:

  • Go during the daytime – before 4pm
  • Avoid weekends, especially weekend evenings
  • Look for seating in the outdoor biergartens adjacent to each tent
  • Go in small groups or be prepared to split up –  there is a much better chance to squeeze into a table with 2 or 4 people than with 8 or 10
  • Be patient;  a little seat-hawking can be worth while –  when you see a group with mostly empty beer glasses, just bide your time nearby as they may be preparing to move on.  There’s still plenty of excellent people-watching activity until you get your beer!
  • Pop into a tent near the end of the night;  within an hour or so of closing,  tents start to empty and you will be able to enter and find a spot at a table

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    Biergarten fun

 

YOUTUBE THE SONG, “EIN PROZIT”.  So you don’t think they are saying “I’m frozen, I’m frozen…” like I did.   #misheardlyrics

DRINK RESPONSIBLY:  Or not.  It’s up to you.  You will be in good company if you choose to overindulge –  the medics are kept busy at Oktoberfest! But the beers are large –  not only do you want to minimize bathroom trips,  (especially for the ladies –  lines and ewwww), but you want to be able to make it home in one piece. On our walk back to the hotel, we saw a group gathered around one of their fallen compatriots –  just completely passed out on the curb.  The police were summoned,  determine he was still breathing, and moved on –  this is just not an emergency in Munich at Oktoberfest.  Another fellow was passed out inside an ATM lobby. Here are a couple of fellow partiers who didn’t quite finish the night:

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MAKE FRIENDS FROM AROUND THE WORLD:  We met people from France, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK, and Dubai in addition to other Americans.  Whether sharing your table, or at adjacent tables, or on the dance floor,  find your inner extrovert and enjoy meeting people from all over the world!

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Our new friend, “Dubai Guy” was traveling alone.  Ready to head home in his G6

If you’re lucky,  your friend will enjoy enough beer to buy a chicken hat (press a button, and the legs move to the “chicken dance” song),  which will help you make friends!

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A 6’4″ American wearing a chicken hat is a sure hit at Oktoberfest…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Driving the German Autobahn: Where are the potholes?

Hooray!  Husband and I have arrived in Frankfurt, Germany at the start of a new 12 day trip that will take us to several destinations:  the Rhine Valley region,  a short stop on the Romantic Road,  Munich for Oktoberfest, a daytrip to Salzburg, Austria, and the Alsace region of France.  We rented a car for the entire trip.

We rented through a US company called Gemut.com, which specializes in  European and particularly German vehicle rentals for US citizens.  I liked the idea of having a US 1-800 number to call in an emergency, with the promise of an English speaker on the other end of the line.  Plus,  the price was good Р really good. Gamut books German rentals through a consolidator called Auto Europe, for a car rental with Europcar. The price was 10-20% less than booking directly to either of those websites.  I also priced out Sixt and Hertz,  two other big providers.  Gemut was also very responsive when I had questions prior to the trip. 

Side Note: I’m a Hertz Gold Club member through ownership of a Marriott Vacation Club property, and their prices are just never, ever competitive.  Why is that?

We found the Europcar desk and because we had arrived early, ¬†the car I had reserved, a 4 door sedan with automatic transmission in the Premium category (BMW, Mercedes, or Audi) wasn‚Äôt available yet. ¬†I‚Äôm not sure I believe that one would have suddenly become available in the next 45 minutes, but whatever. ¬†The major difference in what we got was that it was not a sedan, but a station wagon. ¬†Maybe not as ‚Äúsexy‚ÄĚ from an American point of view, but as the Europcar agent noted, ¬†Germans looooove their station wagons. ¬†This proved true – ¬†there aren‚Äôt many SUVs on the roads here, but a plethora of high-end wagons. ¬†My guess is they are more aerodynamic than a behemoth SUV. Also, the agent waived the usual charge for a second authorized driver – ¬†we knew we both wanted to drive here. So, ¬†no harm no foul. ¬†5 doors instead of 4. All good.¬† I neglected to take a good photo of our actual car, but here is the general idea (credit bmw.com):

I declined the CDW insurance,  after reading and rereading the terms and benefits of my Sapphire card Р we were clearly covered as primary insurance,  this saved us hundreds of dollars.  Always read the fine print though :  there are exclusions,  such as not having the primary cardholder as the renter, super high-end exotic cars,  and tires and windshields. In contrast to experiences I’ve had renting cars in the US, the German Europcar agent did not press us to buy any insurance.

We spent a good 15 minutes in the rental car garage, figuring out the car’s menu, setting up bluetooth, and getting the navigation, etc. to work in English rather than German:

Eventually we got it set up and entered our first destination,  tiny Oberwesel on the Rhine River, about an hour from the airport. I don’t like to plan a long drive after a sleep-deprived overnight flight,  so I always try to keep the first destination within an hour. 

The car ended up having a ‚Äúpop-up display‚ÄĚ,  visible to the driver only, displaying the vehucle‚Äôs speed, speed limits, and navigational information including directions onto the lower windshield.  This ended up being very useful.  We drove over 1800 kilometers on this trip – about 800 miles – and experienced road closures,  border crossings, lots of construction, small cities with narrow cobblestone streets, and widely varying speed limits. 

I was impressed with the car’s technology. In addition to the pop up display,  parking sensors, and lane deviation/ correction capability, we were frequently rerouted around traffic,  and the car seemed to know where every speed limit change occurred.  On the highway,  speed limit changes were numerous and frequent, and it wouldn’t have been easy for the driver to notice every sign.  This car not only  displayed the limit,  but on both the dashboard and the pop up window,  our speed would display as red if we were over the limit, white if under it.   

Things you see on German highways, part 1

I was also impressed with German highways – the ‚ÄúAutobahn‚ÄĚ in general. ¬†Here, an important side note/ question: ¬†am I the only American who thought there was ONE Autobahn? If so, ¬†feel free to laugh at me. ¬†‚ÄúThe German Autobahn‚ÄĚ turns out to be any major highway starting with ‚ÄúA‚ÄĚ. ¬† ¬†And many, many miles of these ‚ÄúA‚ÄĚ roads indeed have speed limits, ¬†especially through construction zones and congested city areas. But – ¬†then you see a speed limit with a line through it, ¬†usually in a wide open, rural area – ¬†and there it is – the limitless Autobahn of lore. *tingle*

Things you see on German highways, Part 2

We did experience a fair amount of traffic,  especially around Munich (Oktoberfest brings in 6,000,000+ visitors so this was hardly surprising)  and often there were brief slowdowns caused by construction.  It seems as though every 10-20 miles,  lanes were closed.  Bridges, tunnels, open stretches.  Germany is spending heavily on road infrastructure.  The result, over our 800-plus-mile journey ?  NO potholes.  And NO accidents.  The highways are correctly graded,  with minimal intersections and wide exit and entrance lanes.  We dealt with a lot of rain, but no ponding of water on the road. These roads are well maintained. 

Things you see on German highways, Part 3

So, want to hear about our little bit of adventure in the limitless Autobahn?
Both Husband and I kind of like to drive fast. We are from New Jersey, after all. But,  we also consider ourselves to be safe drivers,  never tailgating ,  minimizing lane changes, and keeping with the flow of traffic.   We’re just unlikely to be driving in the right lane,  content behind a tractor trailer. 

When we hit the limitless areas, ¬†we typically enjoyed driving along with most of the other left lane vehicles at 150-170 kilometers per hour ( in the 80-90 mph range). It was rare, however that we could go much faster than this – ¬†due to rain, wet roads, and congestion, we hesitated to really test out the BMW‚Äôs potential. ¬†But , over the course of the trip, ¬†each of us got the golden opportunity we were looking for – ¬†a wide, ¬†3 lane road , ¬†dry conditions, no cars in front of us, and a straightaway with long forward views. ¬†When we got that chance …. yep, we punched the gas pedal.¬†

It should be noted that drivers in Germany are much more vigilant about the ‚Äėkeep right, pass left‚ÄĚ laws that also exist in the States, but are rarely followed, at least where I live. ¬†Trucks are almost never seen out of the right lane. ¬†And when in the left lane, ¬†if a driver sees a faster approaching car in the review mirror, ¬†they move to the right. ¬†How refreshing !! ¬†

Our  top speeds were only maintained for a few seconds each, and then we returned to the safer, slightly slower speeds.  

Wheeeeee!

The display in kph added to the rush we experienced – ¬†seeing ‚Äú200‚ÄĚ on the gauge. ¬†Yikes! ¬†Husband won the top speed award, hitting 219 kph (136mph!). We were both more than thrilled by the experience.¬†

One final note for those who might be considering driving in Germany, but traveling across country borders. In either Switzerland or Austria, a vignette (toll sticker) is required, and must be purchased either before entering the country, or immediately thereafter in the case of Austria / at the border in the case of Switzerland.

Austrian vignette on top; Swiss vignette on bottom

Vignettes are available at most gas stations and convenience stores near the border. The Austrian sticker cost about $10 for a 10-day pass; the Swiss sticker was only available for the year, and cost about $40. It will be a lucky day for any future drivers who rent the same car and want to drive into Switzerland in 2019, I guess… We were glad we purchased our vignette before crossing the Swiss border, because there was a long line for cars waiting to purchase their stickers.

Our German/Austrian/Swiss/French driving experience was, at times, all of the following:

  • Enlightening
  • Exhilarating
  • Rainy
  • Scenic
  • Fun
  • Exhausting?
It’s a good thing Husband trusts my driving…

Singapore Air Business Class: Expectations = Sky High

Hi friends!  It‚Äôs been awhile since I‚Äôve posted – life intervenes! – and I have so many things to share with you.  In addition to our spring 2019 trip to Costa Rica,  Husband and I recently  returned from Germany and France,  achieving  a lifelong goal of attending  Oktoberfest!  I‚Äôve also spent time with Oldest in Chicago and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware and with family and friends at our new home in nearby Lewes. Delaware. We managed to squeezed in a work-related extended trip to San Diego as well.

In the interest of getting back into the writing habit as quickly as possible,  I‚Äôm going to start with our most recent trip to Europe first, before sharing highlights from prior trips such as Costa Rica (she says hopefully). 

This post will detail our departure experience on Singapore Airlines flight # SQ25 from JFK to Frankfurt, Germany in Business Class. 

Although JFK is not our most convenient airport, often the best value-for-points flights to Europe originate there.  As I‚Äôve noted previously,  I really REALLY prefer a lie-flat seat on an overnight flight.     For me, actual sleep is important, and  I‚Äôm saving a whole day of vacation by landing with at least some semblance of my consciousness intact on that first morning.    So,  we bit the bullet, paid the $100+ Uber fare, and headed across Manhattan at rush hour to catch the 8:55pm flight. By the way, the late time of this flight is what I usually look for when traveling to Europe – the later the flight, the more chance I’ll be tired enough to sleep shortly after takeoff.

My very first trip over the Verrazano Narrows Bridge!


It may seem odd to have a flight on Singapore Airlines that has neither an origin nor destination anywhere near Singapore.  It turns out,  this is a rather unique itinerary known as a “Fifth Freedom” route, allowing Singapore to pick up and drop off passengers on what is essentially a stopover in JFK. You can read more about Fifth Freedom flights here: https://www.forbes.com/sites/geoffwhitmore/2018/05/30/what-you-need-to-know-about-fifth-freedom-flights/#2270a7b63c85

I booked the flight using Chase Sapphire Reserve points, transferred to Singapore’s KrisFlyer program.  Singapore has a vaunted reputation for service,  and it‚Äôs easy to get excited about their beautiful suites when you click around on their website.  So much space!  So comfortable!  See, here‚Äôs the thing –  the suites are only available for First Class, not Business Class.  They would have cost a sizeable amount of additional points. So, nice,  but no.  More trips > one trip , amirite? 

So what DO you get in Business Class? Pre-flight lounge access. A short but wide, angled flatbed capable seat. Free alcoholic drinks.  Professional, courteous service. Dinner, and/or breakfast, and/or the right to be left alone and skip dining in favor of sleep (I chose the latter, Husband chose dinner only). 

We arrived well before the flight, and our tickets granted access to the King David lounge at JFK.  I was surprised,  because my research told me that the typical lounge for this flight is Swiss Airlines’ lounge, as part of the Global Alliance.  However,  the Swiss Lounge was under construction.  The King David Lounge, sponsored by El Al,  appears to seat about 85-100 people, and every seat was taken. People were sitting on the floor and window ledge.  The majority of the passengers were headed to Israel, so when that earlier flight boarded, the lounge felt much less crowded.  I’m fairly certain that the food was  Kosher, although I didn‚Äôt actually see any signage to this effect. The well-stocked buffet included mostly cold foods, such as lox and bagels,  tuna  and egg salads, and a Greek-style salad.  The wine was a very tasty red blend from Israel.  We were lucky to find an outlet to charge our devices – I would estimate there was one for every 10 or so passengers in the lounge.  I didn‚Äôt take photos in the lounge.  Lounge grade:  B-, due to being overcrowded initially with little hot food available.  

Now let‚Äôs get to the plane. Singapore flies a two-decker A 380 on this route. The Business Class seats are all on the upper deck; unlike the 747s of old, you don’t climb stairs on the plane, you simply embark on the upper level. The boxy style of the seats reminded me of the Commodore 64 computers that adorned my college computer lab.

Someone at Singapore Air really likes beige.

As to the seat itself:  I don‚Äôt claim to be the world‚Äôs most experienced overseas flatbed seat traveler,  but I‚Äôve been on Aer Lingus, United, Virgin, and Lufthansa.   Singapore‚Äôs bed was easily the worst.   Husband and I were in middle seats (both aisles, the configuration is 1 – 2 – 1) so we could be next to each other;  seats next to the windows were singles.  They appeared to have the same dimensions as our center seats.  The seats are wide,  but the space available to lie flat is made for people 5‚Äô6‚ÄĚ or less. 

Husband settles into the Business Class seat.

It‚Äôs not every day that my vertical challenges are an advantage, but today was that day.  The seats are in a pod style format ,  with a footwell in the seat in front – but angled toward the middle of the plane.  The ‚Äúbed‚ÄĚ is created by folding down the back of the seat toward the footwell –  you have to get out of the seat for it to become a bed.  I prefer the seats that simply recline all the way to a flat position –  it‚Äôs just easier.   A flight attendant is ready to assist, but I didn‚Äôt want to wait for that – I had taken my sleep aid and was ready to go down as soon as the plane was in the air –  so I struggled a bit but eventually figured it out by watching like-minded passengers set up their beds.

The bigger issue was the length of the bed. I am almost 5‚Äô3 and I just barely fit.  Taller people, including Husband, had really no choice but to lay in a fetal position – and due to the angled footwell,  they had to stay on one side.  I don‚Äôt know about you, but I usually move at least once or twice in a 6 hour period – middle age creeping in, after all.   I knew what to expect from reading other reviews, but I was still surprised by the discomfort.   In addition,  when upright (even when somewhat reclined) ,  my short legs barely reached the footwell –  because the seat doesn‚Äôt shift forward,  there‚Äôs nothing supporting your legs if your feet don‚Äôt  reach.  

stretching so my toes reach the footwell – not so comfortable


Husband reports that his filet mignon dinner was tasty enough, and he enjoyed a few cocktails as well.  He doesn‚Äôt need as much sleep as I do,  luckily,  because he didn‚Äôt get much. 

Also, the bed was very hard. And it would have been nice had the center console lifted up –  we both would have benefited from more space that way and could have better utilized the angles. Plus, a little snuggly time. Overall seat grade:  C+.  Only because flat was technically possible. 

The flight and service were timely, well-coordinated, and smooth,  we actually arrived in Frankfurt a full hour ahead of schedule –  a mixed blessing when jet lag looms.  Flight grade was an A.

Overall:  lest I sound like a whiner or unappreciative, there was absolutely nothing wrong with the Singapore Business Class experience.  It was good. I’ve certainly suffered through more uncomfortable flights (and more uncomfortable situations, but that’s a story for another day….).  We arrived, early, in one piece and with a little sleep to boot. Germany, here we come!

The Ring of Kerry: sometimes those “Best of” lists have it right

Any search of “things to do in Ireland” will undoubtedly include a tour of the famous Ring of Kerry. ¬†It’s often cited as one of Ireland’s top sights to see: #6 on this list, ¬†2nd on this one,¬†¬†and at the top of Frommer’s “best scenic drives in Ireland”.¬†¬†What is the ring? ¬†It’s a driving route around the Iveragh peninsula, hugging the Atlantic coast closely and circling through the towns of Killarney and Kenmare, as well as Killarney National Park.

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It’s also offers breathtaking scenery including the ocean, mountains, cliffs, lakes, waterfalls, fields, domesticated animals, and wildlife. ¬†And although I’d been to Killarney before, I had never driven the full Ring around the peninsula, ¬†only the bit near town and the Killarney National Park. ¬†Here is a preview of a few of my photos from the area:

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See? breathtaking!

So you know I’m a planner, ¬†but my plans usually leave a bit of flexibility. I was planning to drive the 111-mile Ring myself; ¬†many tourists do it every day, and although there are ¬†harrowing stories involving oncoming buses, ¬†I figured my approximately 20,000,000 hours of commuting time spent on Rt 287 in New Jersey leaves me well prepared for just about anything. ¬†I even made a map with scenic pit stops and approximate drive times. But, as the day approached, and as I spent as a passenger on the “wrong” side in Scotland, I realized that if I drove myself, ¬†I would not be able to fully enjoy the scenery. ¬†So when Dave, our Corporate Transfer driver from Dublin, offered us contact information for his friend Aidan at Killarney Chauffeur, ¬†I took him up on it. ¬†We booked a day with Aidan and never looked back.

Aidan arrived around 9 am in a beautiful BMW 5 series, which was a nice upgrade from the rattletrap I had been driving. The day started out a bit overcast, but the gloom added to Kerry’s atmostphere (and we eventually found the sun once again). After a brief stop at the Aghadoe viewpoint just outside of Killarney, we drove through the tiny town of Killorglin.

In the center of Killorglin is the statue of a goat, ¬†named King Puck. ¬†Aidan explained that the goat had warned residents of the approach of Cromwell’s army, earning himself such a royal title. There is an annual “Puck Fair” in his honor as well. A very accomplished goat!

King Puck
King Puck!

Just beyone Killorglin, we stoped at a roadside display of crafts that Aidan recommended, and once again came upon the sight of a dog… sitting on a donkey. ¬†I guess this is a thing in County Kerry?

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Dogs + donkeys.  Why?

Next, we stopped by the beach in Rossbeigh, ¬†which looks across to the Dingle Peninsula. ¬†Somehow I’m still surprised to see beaches in Ireland.

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checking out a portion of Rossbeigh beach

Aidan offered us an educational tidbit here and there, including a brief explanation of common town name origins around Ireland:

Kill = church

Bally = Town of

There are a number of ancient ring forts around Kerry,  and we had told Aidan we were interested to see one.  He took us  to Cahergall Stone Fort, which we were able to climb and take a few fun photos:

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I’m the King of the World!

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Please don’t fall

Just outside the fort, I took one of my favorite photos of this trip.  This home is so peaceful looking,  I think I could live here, very happily:

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Serenity Now

Valentia Island was our next stop,  offering dramatic, steep cliffs and views back to the larger island.  Aidan took us by the Valentia slate quarry, bored deep into a mountain:qjs+mnnfqvyncme8hvdmua

You may or  may not have noticed in the photo above, but Mary watches over it all:

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Beyond the quarry, we stretched our legs by hiking up to Bray Head on Valentia:

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Skellig Michael, filming site for Luke Skywalker’s home in “The Last Jedi”, in the far distance

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Looking across toward Portmagee

After a stop in Portmagee at The Moorings for a very pleasant lunch, we arrived at the Kerry Cliffs.  By now, Aidan had figured out that we like taking photos on cliffs.  We worked off our lunch hiking to the top, which was only about 2/3 mile from the parking lot, but fairly steep. Also, the sun came out while we were at lunch!

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Skellig Michael, closer now, in the distance.

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On our way to put those calories back on at the Skellig Chocolate Factory, I spotted an abandoned cottage that I tried photographing from several angles.  I thought the sky, clouds, and shadows seemed almost surreal.   I do need to photoshop out the antennae, but I love these photos.  You tell me which is best:

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We completed our trip around the Ring with stops in Caherdaniel:

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Mary is very popular in Ireland

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Somehow, we will pass that car, and no one will fall off a cliff

The bright little town of Sneem:

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Just the cheeriest looking pub ever

And a few views across Killarney National Park:

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An overlook known as Ladies’ View, where Queen Victoria’s laides-in-waiting visited in 1861

Now, 111 miles may not sound like a lot – ¬†here in America, ¬†barring traffic, ¬†it’s an easy 2 hour drive. But attempting the ROK in anything under 6 hours is a foolhardy endeavor, ¬†due to a combination of low speeds; windy, narrow roads; and the absolute compulsion to photograph nearly everything in sight. My iphone says I took 133 photos on our trip around the ring – ¬†and it wasn’t enough. ¬†Guess I need to go back!!