Tagged: Destination/Hotel Reviews

Pondicherry Sojourn


I spent couple of days at Pondicherry in the earlier part of this week, and always think of the timing of that visit given what happened during the later part of the same week !

You might have read that Cyclone “Thane” hit Pondicherry and caused extensive damage !!

Which is really a bad thing, and I just so narrowly escaped. Not that anything much would have happened, but it was a big cyclone causing destruction and loss of life in the Union Territory of Pondicherry and Cuddalore (which incidentally I passed through on the way to Chidambaram).

I don’t recall exactly when I had visited Pondicherry in the past, but I am sure that I atleast visited once. It was a nice cute town, and it no longer is one. I found that the town had become similar to any other small town of Tamil Nadu which is congested with narrow roads and heavy traffic. It was also dirty, and had hardly any pavements.

The only area which is really good-looking and neat is the “phoren” area of the French Quarters, with nice yet narrow lanes and beautiful houses. The French built a town of their own, and now the rest of the town is messed up. The French area still appears to remain intact. I really liked that area, and walked around a bit. It is located close to the rocky seashore as well, though one does not feel the effect of the sea in the leafy bylanes.

The Aurobindo Ashram is located in one such lane. There are several small and well-established restaurants in the area, and you can find a number of domestic and international tourists walking around. One important thing I noticed is that the whole area was a bit silent as compared to the rest of that noisy town. May be the Ashram culture of silence is percolating down to the lanes and the surrounding houses.

The hotels are rather expensive, the decent ones cost USD 100 or above per night. Anything at four star or above is not less than USD 200 and at this time of the year, the rates are shooting up towards even USD 400 ! I stayed at a nice place which had a three star rating, and there was simply no rooms available anywhere else. Looks like this is really a tourist town.

The family wanted to go to Chidambaram temple and so we drove to that town via the Cuddalore route. The small town of Cuddalore was horrible, with no decent roads – it was full of potholes and it took more than 25 minutes to cross the town across a distance of less than 2 to 3 Kms.

I also noticed that when you enter Pondicherry, there is a road permit charge of INR 300 if you are on a tourist car with a Tamil Nadu number plate coming from the Chennai side, and there is a toll fee of INR 32 when you cross over into Pondicherry. The same charges did not apply (there was not even a toll booth) when we re-entered Pondicherry on the way back from Chidambaram-Cuddalore, though Cuddalore is in Tamil Nadu.

The archaic road permit fee is an anachronism and should be discontinued. There is no receipt for the payment and probably they issue a stamp on a notebook kind of document. Why should crossing within India from one state to the other be taxed by the government ? It does not make sense.

Overall, my conclusion on Pondicherry is that it might be OK to visit once just to see the Ashram and take a boat ride in the Chunnambar backwaters. And, may be have some good meal. But, beyond that, I do not see much reason to revisit. Well, I forgot to add that liquor costs much less than in other parts of India. I had a good bottle of red wine which costed just INR 600 in a restaurant, which would have costed me not less than INR 1,600 in a Chennai restaurant.

In any case, it was a peaceful visit (without the cyclone effect) and relaxing – and the family enjoyed it, though it was just for 2 days. At the end of the day, that is what matters, right ?

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
31st December 2011
Mumbai

Karma, an Experience in Montreal


Probably you thought that I am going to write about Karma, or fate, and how one’s karma is determined at the time when one is born, etc.,

Not at all. I do not believe in fate anyway.

This is about a restaurant dining experience that happened to me at the West Island area of Montreal in Quebec, at a restaurant called “Karma” – see
“Restaurant Karma”

I know that usually Indian cuisine is considered a bit exotic and the real quality and taste is lacking in Western countries. For this reason, I normally avoid going to Indian restaurants overseas (except in Singapore of course). So, I was surprised not just with the quality of the food and wine at Karma, but also with the great ambience, decor, and service. It turned out to be a truly amazing and enjoyable dining experience last evening.

Couple of things puzzled me though – the restaurant is located some 35 Kms from Montreal downtown, in a faraway place called West Island. It took me approximately an hour and 20 minutes to reach the place via Metro and bus. While there was absolutely no issue with the Metro, the bus ride was confusing and the driver was not speaking English. The Pierrefonds location is quite far away from the Cote-Vertu Metro Station – I felt occasionally that I have lost my way !

The second thing was that the economics of the restaurant would be difficult to ensure its continued sustenance. While it is surely a pricey restaurant, I do not see how they can be profitable. The place and decor looked impressive and expensive – I should also mention their unique Zen style washrooms. The restaurant’s exclusivity does not capitalize potentially on a wider cross-section of the upper middle class clientele that could have enhanced its image and income. Further, it would be too difficult and expensive to replicate the restaurant elsewhere.

So, was I surprised when I learnt that the restaurant is going to be closed in a couple of months ? It is sad and a real pity to let this restaurant go away. It is a truly lovely experience, to be enjoyed at least once a year !

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
2nd June 2011
Mumbai

The Yatra Experience


I have been regularly using MakeMyTrip and Yatra for my family’s flight bookings for the past couple of years, and we have generally been happy. While I also check Arzoo and Cleartrip, et al, finally we have used only the first two booking sites.

So, when it came to booking flights for our recent vacation to The Andamans, I checked all the sites for the best fares as well as for hotel choices. It was a wild goose chase, as getting to Port Blair from Mumbai was costing as much as going to Singapore, not less, and in some cases, more. I was bewildered, because I thought that being a part of India, the fares should be more reasonable to The Andamans. The flight schedules were such that we had to transit via either Chennai or Kolkata, adding several hours of waiting time, apart from the longer flight times.

So, when we spotted an opportunity at the Yatra site for a chartered flight to The Andaman, we literally jumped. It was a direct flight from Mumbai to Port Blair for 180 travel package passengers and so was very convenient, and the flight time was only 3 hours and 20 minutes. Yatra called this as the “Amazing Andaman” package.

We worked out details of our customized package with Yatra salesperson, who was quite helpful. We chose some specific hotels and destinations and worked out the final package.

The travel to Port Blair was just fine, except for some commotion within the flight (which always happens when passengers know each other, or coming from related families), delaying the departure by nearly an hour. Yatra could not have done anything to ensure on-time departure. We were told that there would be several Yatra representatives on the flight travelling with the tour group, but they did not do anything, not even identify themselves to the travellers, or attempt to explain anything.

The experience at The Andamans was not great coming from the appointed agent of Yatra (“Andaman Connections”). Two families got an agent who, in our case, was just not intelligent enough to make things happen on time. So, we started to make our own decisions on what we do on a particular day. The objective of the agent is very simple – how to extract more money from the tourists assigned to them. This happened almost daily.

Yatra’s coordination and logistics arrangements were a far cry from what they had promised at booking time. Nothing went as per their announced program schedule. I spoke to many of the co-passengers and the feeling was that they had been shortchanged by Yatra. It is absolutely critical to ensure that package tourists who have come together for a certain purpose are provided with the committed service and satisfied at the end of the tour. I was surprised that even the feedback form was thrust into our hands by Yatra reps while just entering the airport for the return flight to Mumbai, asking us to fill up what looked like a shabby form. I did what most others did – the forms went into the dustbin.

Well, all this does not take away the fabulous experience that we had at The Andaman. It is a must-see place.

I am appalled at the poor service that Yatra provided, and I would challenge them on this count. There was no service quality measurement. Repeated complaints on the agent assigned fell on deaf ears. The hotel could not find our bookings. The pick-up vehicles turned up late. Anything extra we wanted to do resulted in a hefty bill, even within Port Blair. The structure of the program left a lot to be desired – Yatra claimed that it was a 7-day tour program, but 3 of the days were wasted, either as free days or travel days. In Havelock Island, Yatra did not make good arrangements.

So, all in all, Yatra did not deliver. We decided that we would not recommend the Yatra package to anyone in our circle of friends. We would now only plan for any trip on our own, not as part of a package tour, which does not meet our requirements and deliver even the commitments made at the time of the booking.

Avoid Yatra and avoid package tours.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
27th November 2010
Mumbai

ITC Royal Gardenia


I do not wish to promote any brand of any product, I do not think the value of the brand goes up or down because of any endorsement or lack of it. I am yet to meet a person who bought a product because a cricket star endorsed that product.

However, when I see some good product or service, I wish to mention about it. Just a mention will do in most cases, as people in the know already know most probably about the product or service !

In this post, I thought I will mention about the architectural beauty and service level at the ITC Royal Gardenia hotel at Bangalore. I just stayed there for less than 10 hours last week, but was obviously sufficiently impressed with it.

I felt that the price was a tad too high, so from the value quotient the hotel may not score high. Its location at the heart of the city is probably the cause for the pricing, but nevertheless the ITC brand has more than manifested itself in its royal display I should say. The amenities were excellent, the restaurant was very good, the service was impeccable, and the check-in/check-out was smooth.

However, the point to note in any city is that one does not get to choose the hotel – the location of one’s business meetings does matter a lot if one does not wish to spend hours navigating the maddening traffic. While I felt that this time around, the Bangalore traffic situation has improved, others did not agree. Well, I thought – for the residents to feel that there is some improvement, there got to be a real vast improvement, as compared to occasional visitors who see every improvement as some real improvement !

Well, try this hotel – it is located well and it is an interesting architecture which would leave you somewhat mesmerized.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
12th Sep 2010
Mumbai

Customer Service Paradigm


“Customer Service” is a funny thing – customers have a problem and require support service from the product or service provider, the issue or problem is registered/recognized at the service provider end, there is some promise of action, but mostly no resolution. Customers finally give up after some wait. Normal situation and outcome. Period.

Followups are generally futile. Do not waste time. Period.

Having experienced poor and less-than-adequate service both at Singapore and India, I am quite skeptical about customer service in general. Companies seek info’ and feedback from users/customers, but I guess they really do not use the inputs.

So, was I surprised recently about customer service ? You bet !

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the fluffy towels at Taj Ambassador Hotel in Delhi this week. I had given the feedback to them couple of months ago on the poor quality of the wash and bath towels. And, they seem to have taken positive action and fixed the problem !

That is real customer service, to be experienced by the same user. I have not yet commended them but will do so next time when I land at Delhi.

Great when your feedback and suggestions are implemented.

Do big and great companies ever do this ? Rarely. You will be surprised if they really execute on the customer feedback. One poor example – telecom companies.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
12th August 2009
Mumbai

Goa’s Famous Beaches


If only Goa/India has the marketing mind of a Singapore, or Malaysia/Indonesia/Thailand, it would be one of the world’s best sea resort destinations.

Goa’s beaches are better than that of a Bali or Phuket, or Langkawi by miles. In fact, I was surprised to see pure white sand on the Colva Beach in South Goa. With its wonderful coast line of a couple of kilometres atleast (as far as I could see), Colva Beach is easily the best beach in Goa with less crowds and great looks, combined with less commercialisation of the beach. Actually, I believe Colva Beach alone is 20 Kms long !

Ofcourse North Goa is going to sneer at this remark. North Goa boasts of such world-class beaches such as Dona Paula, Calangute, Vagator, Anjuna and Baga. We saw all of these, and we were quite impressed with Baga and Calangute for sure. There were more tourists and heavy commercial activities in almost all of these beaches (except Vagator).

More crowd means more youngsters and more action ! But, we did not like the crowded beaches. Furthermore, there are no proper places to change after a swim in the sea. One has to depend on the poorly maintained “public” changing rooms of the Goa Tourism Department, which are crying for a better infrastructure and better facilities. There are so many well-heeled tourists out there in the beaches, I am surprised that the tourism folks haven’t felt the necessity for more and better quality facilities ! This is the same story everywhere in India wherein the administrators in charge do not, or refuse, to feel the pulse of the population or users.

So, finally our vote goes to Colva Beach, followed by Calangute Beach. The challenges of enjoying a good vacation in Goa are well known – Goa is pricier than a Bangkok or Phuket, so Indian tourists were moving away from Goa ; infrastructure and facilities are of a poorer quality and poorly maintained as compared to other world-class destinations mentioned here, problems posed by taxi unions especially in South Goa, no road signs for long stretches keeping the tourists guessing where they are going to arrive, highly commercialised beaches leading to pollution and unmanageable crowds, high prices everywhere, etc.,

Goa has to work harder to earn its rightful place in the world map. It may be there already based on past glory, but legacy influence is no longer adequate as the mix of tourists is changing from predominantly Western to more of Indian tourists, who have come to expect more value for money, more quality for any premium prices that they are forced to pay, more service for anything they shell out, and five-star quality that they can get abroad for roughly 70% of Goa prices !

All the best to Goa, nevertheless ! It is clearly one of the best beach destinations of the world. India and Goa Governments need to do more to preserve the beaches and enhance the infrastructure.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
13th June 2009
Mumbai

Royal Goan Beach Club at Royal Palms – RCI Resort


With that grand sounding name, a hotel guest would have expected a lot. Atleast a lot of palm-fringed beaches. And, resort style surroundings.

But what one gets is indifference at the entry point from the security guards who just stare at you, from the receptionist who does not seem to care about the milling crowd waiting to be registered, from the housekeeping who do not respond to requests for hours together, et al. It is difficult to list all the troubles with this resort, its only saving grace is the swimming pool.

But the worst trouble that a guest faces is when he arrives on his own transport, and when he leaves on his own pre-arranged transport. The taxi drivers’ union at the gate (and also at the gates of the other South Goa resorts such as Taj Exotica, Club Mahindra, etc.,) harasses the guests. The security guards and the bell captain’s boys seem to be cooperating with the taxi drivers rather than appropriately servicing the hotel guests. This is nothing short of ridiculous. The hotel management is apparently completely indifferent to the hassles their guests go through.

I had pre-arranged my car for the entire trip using my friend of all times – the “internet” ! Nice clean Innova car to ferry the family wherever we wish to. But when we arrived at the resort we were appalled. It was pouring rain, and the security guard at the gate refused permission to disembark in front of the gate, and help take our baggages inside. There were taxis parked right in front of the gate, allowing no elbow space for anyone. This is what you call the “free-wheeling but indifferent Goanese culture” which does not care about tourism and hotel guests. It is my guess that 50% of Goan economy is based on tourism. If there are no tourists, many small time businesses would collapse in no time. I was told by our driver that Goa has been facing problems in tourist arrivals after the 26/11 terror attack in Mumbai, and after couple of murders involving foreign tourists. No wonder ! Combine it with antagonistic taxi drivers and indifferent hotel managements, Goa should look forward to a booming tourist-driven economy !

We had problems everyday, as the taxi drivers heckled at each hotel guest walking out, and shouting at the top of their voice about the taxi services they offered. It used to bother me the first couple of days, but then I decided to completely ignore them. Many taxi operators block your way, and start speaking to you, but I completely ignored them and kept walking towards our pre-arranged taxi which was parked a full 50 metres away for fear of getting harassed by the taxi union members.

When we left the resort, the same problem recurred. The bell boys refused to carry the baggages to our car, stating that they can only take the baggage if the taxi is from the pool outside ! We carried our baggages outside the hotel, but the taxi drivers barred the way, which led to trouble. I continued walking, ignoring the shouts of the taxi drivers, and asking them to leave open the road for us to walk !

Is this not ridiculous ? We have stayed at the Ramada, and Park Hyatt before – we had no such problems. I can only conclude that RCI made a serious mistake in having this useless “Royal Goan Beach Club at Royal Palms” in its list of time-share resorts. This is the first time we stayed at a RCI Resort and it was totally lousy experience. May be we need to rethink about RCI itself. Club Mahindra resorts are much better, though I believe they have the same taxi union problem at their South Goa resort.

We enjoyed Goa itself when we went out to see the places and the beaches (separate blog post coming !), but did not like or enjoy this RCI Resort. May be the Goa Tourism Department of the Government of Goa should take heed of the tourist complaints like this, and take necessary clean-up action. One positive suggestion is for the taxi union to enter into a formal contract with each one of the resorts in South Goa, have the hotel publish the rates before the guests arrive, and give an option for them to choose. For example, we were very clear we wanted only a Toyota Innova air-conditioned SUV. The taxi union does not have such a car – they have mostly sedans and Maruti vans which we do not prefer. You cannot force your guests to take what you have, even if they do not prefer.

South Goa needs to learn more about how to treat tourists in a welcoming, non-threatening and non-abusive manner.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan
13th June 2009
Mumbai