While visiting Washington DC earlier this week, we decided to go hiking at one of the nearby national parks. A uniquely American experience, I would strongly recommend taking a hike in any of the national parks. Americans make it a great marketing experience with big support to any visitors – they have a nice visitor centre with all amenities and officers on hand to explain everything about the park.
We chose to visit the Catoctin Mountain Park some 50 miles outside of Washington DC, in Thurmont Maryland, because it was a bit closer than the original selection of the Blue Ridge mountain, and had easier treks for the first time visitors. The drive itself was smooth with much less traffic than we had anticipated, and we reached the Catoctin Mountain Park in about an hour and fifteen minutes. My daughter mentioned that this was a smaller park in terms of area allocated due to its vicinity to Camp David with its high security. You can take a look at the following websites Catoctin Mountain Park and National Park Foundation – Catoctin Mountain Park
The officer at the visitor centre of the park took time to explain the various possibilities for trekking at the park, he also suggested we do the Cunningham Falls trail loop which will be a 2.8 mile round trip, followed by a visit to the Blue Ridge Summit via the Hog Rock. The map provided by him was helpful in understanding the route. We got ready for the trek and went into the dense park of tall trees with cool weather despite the blazing sun outside. It took all of around 2 hours for visiting Cunningham Falls at the end of this trail and return to the visitor centre.
On a scale of 1 to 5, probably this trek would rate at a less than moderate 2 in terms of difficulty. Mostly flat, with some climbing and ground undulations, combined with crossing some fallen trees, made it an interesting though not tough trek. I was wondering if I should have brought my Merrell shoes from Singapore – on this trip I was just wearing the usual walking/running shoes which do not provide good grip while walking on gravel. I have always had problems while coming down from an elevation, as I tend to slip on the gravel; further, going down causes strain on the knees.
The visitor centre brochures covered one dreadful aspect of the trek into this park which is the potential for catching Lyme disease which is an infectious disease caused by ticks. We were a bit scared after reading the printed material, but then chose to proceed anyway. You can read about this disease at Lyme disease .
It was good fun and is a nice bonding time with the family. When I was unstable at some point, my son would stand ready at my back to steady me and make me all right. There were many photo opportunities on the way and at Cunningham Falls. It was a good experience and we all liked the park and its trail that we undertook.
I kept talking to my family about how well the U.S. is organized in terms of infrastructure, provision of assistance (like the visitor centre), the helpful indicators provided while navigating the park, the interest that they create in children and also adults about the importance of such recreational activities (the visitor centre was full of young children when we visited), and the whole approach towards dealing with citizens/visitors which is imbued with a marketing flavour.
I believe that this is what we lack in many other parts of the world, and especially in India. There is rarely such guidance, infrastructure or marketing provided by the governments in many countries which probably have equally beautiful national parks or forests.
In any case, we decided to have such a national park hiking expedition during every visit to the U.S. or Canada in future.
Hopefully, you folks who are reading this post, will also love trekking and take a hike soon!
30th June 2017
Today is 31st December 2016 – the last day of 2016, the last weekend of the last month of 2016 – and the New Year’s Eve is not far off as I type this blog post. It is 12:20 PM in Singapore, lunch time now. I am nursing a chardonnay (sorry folks!) as I know I cannot drink this evening. Why is that, you may ask. Because I am going to drive to a party some 20 KMs away which is indeed a long distance in Singapore ! And, the police are very vigilant about drunk drivers – the punishment is jail, my friends. I am not going to touch any drink along with my dinner this evening. Just enjoy the evening get-together, and get back home safely.
However, I can write about wines, right?
This post is about a fabulous South African wine – Nederburg Pinotage 2014 (Winemasters Reserve). Reasonably priced, this is a great wine for connoisseurs of pinot noir, that ever so precariously balanced wine, which is unique in almost every aspect.
I loved this wine – it is a medium-bodied red, with excellent fruit flavours and a great after-taste. It is dark ruby red in colour, it is silky and crisp – a great addition to any cellar. I like this wine very much, and was tempted to go in for a second bottle, and had to restrain myself.
Well, wines are always good, and carefully chosen reds are especially very good. I would categorize this wine as very good. Try it and you won’t be disappointed.
Well, now we come to the end of 2016 year. It has been an eventful year, with several surprising things happening around the world. It was not a “bad” year, as some people tend to characterize it. I think it was a decent year, given the changes happening around the world. These changes are to be expected.
In any case, drink your wines (or, spirits) responsibly, and do not (for heavens’ sake) drink and drive this evening or even tomorrow or at any time. You do not wish to go to jail, or be the cause of horrible accidents. Plan the evening, and you can always find time to enjoy yourself with your family and friends. May be try taking a taxi, for a change. It is always safer. Better safe than be sorry, folks.
Cheers, and Wish you all a Great and Prosperous New Year in 2017 !
31st December 2016
This time I was really scared.
My son persuaded me to at least take a look at the ride video on YouTube. Take a look for yourself:
Well, my son and I went to the Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi last week, and I can tell you that the real experience of riding on the Formula Rossa was not any less scarier than the videos that you just saw. The website of Ferrari World is at Formula Rossa at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi
Formula Rossa is currently rated as the fastest roller coaster in the world with a top speed of 239 KMPH which is achieved in less than 5 seconds of extremely fast acceleration using a technique used on aircraft carriers to launch jet planes on a very short runway. For the initial run, I chose to sit on the very back row of the Formula Rossa – though my son objected. I told him that I need to get a “hang” of it! Even while sitting on the back row, the ride was instantly terrifying with a speed which I have never experienced in my life. My heart beat increased and my heart was pounding when we finished the ride. The air pressure on the face and body was immense. The cork screw turn from the very top was scary to say the least. But the best part was the initial acceleration and the steep climb up.
For the second time experience, my son insisted on sitting in the very first row (like sitting on the very edge of the nose of a fast speeding bullet). I asked for time to think and so went around on other rides and eventually came back to Formula Rossa ride. I agreed to sit with my son on the first row of the ride. And, it was the most terrifying ride I have ever undertaken in a theme park ride. I could not even move my hand, the air pressure was too much not allowing any movement (I wanted to hold the plastic spectacle wrapper which was holding my spectacle glasses). While I managed to keep my eyes open for the initial 4 to 5 seconds, I could not do so once the roller coaster climbed up on to its steep ascent of over 50 metres and then accelerated with heavy momentum on the cork screw. I tried to open for a sneak view but decided to keep it shut as the tracks were speeding towards us at enormous speed (!!!). I only opened my eyes towards the last 5 or 6 seconds of the ride, but came out smiling as the thrill gene in my body seems to have grabbed its rightful sync with the Formula Rossa!
This is a fantastic ride, and I would strongly encourage you to take the first row, if not in the first attempt. It is a great feeling to almost feel what a Formula 1 race driver would experience on the race track (and more). It is overall a fabulous experience and very much worth the visit to Ferrari World (which is located at Abu Dhabi, some 75 minutes car ride from Dubai).
Hold tight and enjoy the speed, acceleration and momentum of the Formula Rossa – the world’s fastest roller coaster as on date.
3rd December 2016
I am not that consumer-centric ! Ha Ha Ha !!
But I thought, sometimes it is crucial to recognize the few readers that I have who keep coming back for more. It is also that time of the year when we recharge our batteries, get together with our families and network with our friends as we herald into yet another exciting year.
I have always felt that this is the ideal time of the year for committing to do something new. Something more impactful in life. Something that will help one to recognize his or her importance and contribution to the lives of others. Something which creates new excitement. Something to look forward to.
It is a very important time for connecting with family and friend. I am planning to do exactly that. As I engage more in social and family conversations, I hope to get away from computers. Let me try !
I will be back to writing my blog from 2nd January 2016, which is the first Saturday of the New year. See you then. In the meanwhile, here’s Wishing You All a Merry Christmas and a Fantastic New Year ahead in 2016 !
19th December 2015
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 ?
31st December 2011
It is funny how most of us like to take a walk on the beach, but rarely get to do so in the midst of hectic schedules, though plenty of beaches are available in India. Walking on a sandy beach is a good stress-reliever and I used to enjoy it, but it has been more than 18 long months since I have been on a beach, though I live in a city with several beaches.
This time though, I decided to visit the Besant Nagar Beach in Chennai, though most visitors would normally like to go to the Marina Beach, purportedly the second longest sandy beach in the whole world, stretching for several kilometres (which is the first longest one ?). This is a smaller one, far from the maddening crowds at the Marina Beach.
The Besant Nagar beach has white sand with less crowds and at this time of the year has a pleasant cool windy breeze. The sand does not really stick to you, which is the way I like it. The beach was not dirty like most other Indian beaches, and has hardly any plastic strewn around it, which was again environmentally a good thing.
I liked it today as no hawker approached me and disturbed my thoughts or actions. Incidentally, on this beach the hawkers are all centrally aligned along a stretch leading to the beach front. I do not support hawkers at all on a beach, but no amount of protest is going to remove hawkers from any Indian beach. I do not patronize the hawkers at all, except may be the ones who are outside the beach area on the pavement. Consumption of any food or drinks should be prohibited on any beach.
A beach without plastic, without hawkers, without balloons – that is just a dream in India. But in any case, I liked the Besant Nagar Beach which was decent and met some of my criteria for being a good beach providing a decent environment for people who come to enjoy a beach.
I did not see any life guards on the beach (not surprising), but neither did I see any warning signs. The tides were a bit high, and people including families with kids were in knee-deep and some in waist-deep water, enjoying themselves. But again, that is the way it is in most Indian beaches, except may be in Goa. People could not care less about their own personal safety, they came here to get a free entertainment and they were not going to be dissuaded.
I saw a few well-maintained horses, and my son elected to take a ride for just about USD 1 per ride lasting some 5 minutes. We are allowed to take pictures, and the horse walks with my son seated on the horse along the beach and returns after a few minutes. A good stress-reliever, I guess.
The best thing about a beach walk is that one gets to forget his cell phone and his computer, gets to walk on a sandy beach with eyes focused on sea waves, with his face getting brushed by cool sea breeze. I believe that this is good stress-buster which is free of charge, and few other things can match its benefits, it is critical to switch off your cell phone though ! and, do not tolerate any disturbance of any kind !!
Enjoy the breeze and the sea ! It is free !! And, do not disturb the ecosystem !!!
25th December 2011
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.
27th November 2010