Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Blue Matsya

Blue shuttered windows and a lighthouse! I fell in love with the Blue Matsya when I saw photos in a blog around 2 years ago. Looked so serene, loved the creativity in the d├ęcor of the beach house, and the personal little touches that Swati, the owner has brought into it. It’s a self contained rustic two bedroom beach house right on the beach miles from civilization. It’s between Udupi and Mangalore and around 40-45 minutes drive from both places.

Footprints on the sand. View of Blue Matsya at Kaup from the beach

Lighthouse view from the upper terrace next to the bedroom

Swati has installed wooden slabs on the stairs that gives it a rich and warm look and instead of a railing attached ropes to anchors and there's a tiny library in the nook below the stairs. Books that visitors leave behind at the Blue Matsya

Those looking for room service, luxury of a hotel, or television this is not the place for you. What appealed to me is the solitude and the rustic touches of the beach house that made it so homely. Our neighbors were mainly fisherfolks. We made our own tea, did our dishes, lugged the deck chairs in and out depending on the rains, and locked up every night. So much like home but I do know that's not what everyone looks for.

Blue shuttered doors leading to the veranda with a sea view where we plonked ourselves on loungers and spent hours gazing at the sea

Fishermen homes. Our next door neighbors who visited us and regaled us with tales of the sea. Wonderful, warm, and friendly people

To get there we took a direct flight from Hyderabad to Mangalore. If you have time, you can drive down too but after umpteen trips on the road, didn't seem too appealing at that point of time so we took the easier route. There are also trains to reach Mangalore or Udupi.

As soon as we arrived, Sarsuakka the next door neighbor who helps Swati manage the beach house as she lives in Mumbai, served us a lovely south Indian breakfast. Since it is a self contained guest house with a fully equipped kitchen, you can cook your own meals too but we opted to eat the local cuisine and ordered out. A few times, Ramanna, the next door neighbor who is also a fishermen bought us prawns and fish and his wife served us some delicious home cooked meals using the traditional Konkani recipes.  We just couldn’t get enough of the fabulous coastal cuisine. Our sustenance was fish, fish and more fish. If you live by the sea, well, what can you expect! J

Catch of the day by Ramanna, the fisherman and caretaker of Blue Matsya. Fried fish cooked by his wife Sarsuakka

We took one day to do some sightseeing but then figured we didn’t want to go traipsing around at all coz the beach house is so fabulous wanted to make the most of it. After all how many places have such rooms with a view. Even the loo had a fabulous view.

A loo with a view

It was a luxury having the whole beach house to ourselves and no television, no laptops. Felt good to be disconnected from the world for a few days and the constant sound of the sea was music to the ears. We fell asleep to the sound of the sea, woke up to the sound of the sea.

Watching the sunset through lazy coconut palms at Blue Matsya

The next four days were spent mainly lounging in the deck chairs gazing at the sea, the fishermen, the sunsets, the trawlers, long walks on the beach, visiting the lighthouse, and generally lazing around. J

Kaup beach from the rocks near the lighthouse

Sunset view of the lighthouse

The views from the lighthouse are absolutely fabulous. Gets crowded during holidays when everyone flocks to the beach and the lighthouse but week days especially mornings and during the day, you pretty much have the beach to yourself.

Superb view of the coastline from the lighthouse. Waves crashing on the shore and the rocks. Blue Matsya in the distance

Close up of the Blue Mastya from the lighthouse

The one day we took out for sightseeing included a trip to Udupi, Manipal and Maravanthe. First, we visited the Krishna Temple at Udupi which is famous as it’s the only temple where the lord has its back to devotees. The story goes that a poor man who was Lord Krishna’s devotee was not allowed into the temple. The man refused to give up and found a small opening at the back of the temple from where he would pray to Lord Krishna. Moved by his devotion, Lord Krishna turned to face him and turned his back for ever.

The pond within the Krishna Temple complex

We also visited Manipal, a hilly and pretty University town and then headed to Maravanthe which is 65 kms away. The roads to Maravanthe were really really terrible but the beach is picturesque and makes up for the drive. You have the fabulous coastline of the Arabian sea on one side and the river on the other side. The road slices through the river and the ocean and sometimes during the monsoon we heard that the road gets flooded when the sea meets the river. But I did feel that since we are already staying in a fabulous beach house, the tiring trip to Maravanthe through dusty broken roads was something we could have skipped.

Joy and I relaxing after the temple visit

The Blue Matsya is so fabulous, homely, warm and welcoming I haven’t had my fill. There's loads of places to visit and things to do which we couldn't as it was monsoons and the sea was stormy. Would love a boat ride to see the dolphins, visit St. Mary's Island off Malpe beach and so on. I do need to go back again and again even if it's just to rejuvenate away from the stressful city life.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Mesmerizing Bali

Where do I begin about this amazing amazing land! I had read so much about Bali and expected it to be just another beach destination. However, this was one holiday that surpassed my expectations in every respect, the beauty of the place, the culture, the food, the people, I just haven't got enough and need to go back someday. Not only to old familiar places to do things a little differently or spend more time but even to cover all those places I couldn't the first time round. Hopefully, am a bit travel wiser and prepared for the second trip whenever that is. :)

There is just so much to see and do in Bali. So much packed into this tiny tiny island. There are gorgeous islands with national parks where you can indulge in watersports and go diving and snorkeling to view the awesome marine life and fauna, most famous being Menjangan and Gili Islands.

Menjangan Island

If you are looking for cooler climes you can head to the mountains of Kintamani and climb a volcano or canoe at Lake Batur.

Mount Batur from the base of Lake Batur

You can relax in the midst of stunning coffee plantations such as Munduk or gaze at beautiful green terraced rice fields that dot the landscape all over, or visit one of those charming temples by the sea at Uluwatu or Tanah Lot, or chill in the numerous sandy beaches near Kuta, Seminyak and other areas of Bali.

I will give several disclaimers coz I know that not all travellers have the same experience and so what may have worked for us, may not be something that you liked or are looking for. Again, there were many things that I may have planned differently which hopefully will be useful for first time travellers while planning their itinerary around Bali.

Most folks head to Kuta, Seminyak, or Ubud to stay as soon as they land at Denpasar and that is what I would recommend after a long international flight. We instead headed to Lovina which is a 3 hour drive crossing rice fields, coffee plantations, and the mountains. A beautiful drive but very very exhausting after a long flight. It was the best stay of our entire trip but for those looking for nightlife and the city buzz, Kuta may be the best place to head.

Lovina is a laidback and sleepy hamlet that was ideal for us weary city folks. We stayed at the Gino Ferucci villa which was convenient because it was right at the harbor where the boats head out in the morning for the dolphin rides. Lovina is famous for the boat ride at sunrise to view dolphins and though you may or may not see dolphins, it's a wonderful experience.

Boats at the Lovina Harbour ready to set sail for dolphin gazing

The gorgeous sunrise

The swiftly changing colors of the sky during sunrise

So many boats out there to catch a dolphin

The villas are gorgeous with their own private pool, zen garden, entertainment and dining area, kitchenette equipped with cooking stove, microwave, and the service was excellent.

A self-contained home away from home. And for those worrying about the cost, we paid INR 5000 per night with breakfast included at Gino Ferucci. It was a steal but you do need to scour online for travel deals. If you are customizing your own holiday, you can try Agoda, DirectRooms, MakeMyTrip and several others.

If you are going on a packaged tour, then your travel agent should provide you a list of options. Am a finicky traveller and prefer to plan my own trips, so I read a lot of online reviews on Trip Advisor too before finalizing on hotels or places to visit. I also read over 36 blogs before I shortlisted a few that were a must see for me and ignored the things that didn't interest me such as Indian food in Bali. :) When travelling Joy and I prefer trying the local cuisine but I do understand the need of vegetarians coz most places we visited had none or limited vegetarian fare, so it was a little tough for our vegetarian friend.

About hotels, depending on the area you want to stay, you should be able to find decent, clean accommodation even for INR 2000 per night. If you don't find any, contact me and I will see how I can help through the numerous new friends I've made this trip. :)

Next day, after the dolphin ride, we headed to Menjangan Island, a diver's paradise.

Approaching the gorgeous Menjangan Island. Menjangan means "deer". The locals gave the name after spotting a herd of wild deer swimming towards the island.

The sea around the Menjangan Island was of two shades. Green near the island where it was shallow and we could see the corals from the crystal clear waters, deeper shade of blue where the ocean dipped and where the divers dived.

Ganesha temple at Menjangan Island. There was a ceremony that day and boat loads of people arrived from the mainland in their traditional costumes to give their offering.

The marine life and coral at the ocean floor is truly spectacular and unique.

This island is where diving first started on the island in 1978 under the sponsorship of the Indonesian navy. A rickety bus arrived to pick us up from our hotel filled with a few other tourists from Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Belgium. We stopped enroute to pick up snorkeling and diving gear and then it was a one and a half hour adventure through the beautiful countryside till we reached the Labuhan Lalang harbour from where we took the boat to Menjangan Island. The boat ride takes around half an hour and is really scenic as you can view the coastline of the Bali Barat National Park and the east Javanese volcano Prapat Agung in the distance on a clear day.

Next, we headed to Kintamani to climb the active volcano Mt. Batur. Again, from Kuta, Seminyak, and Ubud, they organise a day trip of a coffee plantation, Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave), and Kintamani for a glimpse of Lake Batur and Mount Batur but after reading travellers reviews decided that we must do the trek so for that it made sense to set up base in Kintamani. We stayed at The Ayu.

Besides us, there was only one family from Europe staying there. We assumed maybe because it was off season but our guide later told us that only those keen on the trek visit Kintamani. Visitors come on day trips and leave the same day.

It's like a sleepy hill station so not much to do. Even the restaurant at the hotel serves dinner only till 9:30 pm. Fortunately, we were exhausted after the sightseeing and trip enroute from Lovina and since we had the trek planned and needed to wake up at 3 am, we crashed after an early dinner.

We set off at 4 am the next day. It was pitch dark and several of the flashlights didn't work which made it even more challenging to scramble up the mountain in complete darkness. It was a tough and exhausting 3 hour climb but the view at the peak was totally worth it.

After having breakfast cooked in volcano steam at the makeshift hut at the peak, we headed to one of the craters, an exhilarating one hour trek past smoking fissures and through slippery lava clad path.

I made sure I didn't venture too close to the crater after hearing that a Swiss tourist had fallen into the crater 4 years ago and died. Then began the tough descent down. We finally reached our hotel at 11 am after a 7 hr trek.

Our guide told us it's easier for the Swiss tourists but it's tough for people from the plains like Netherlands and of course for those with unhealthy city lifestyles. If you do plan to climb a mountain, try and build your stamina and exercise atleast 2-3 hrs a day months before the trip. Don't just land up from your stationary desk jobs like Joy and I did and decide to climb a volcano. :D It's painful.

From Kintamani, our last destination was the bustling Kuta where all tourists head. Enroute we stopped at Ubud, visited Goa Gajah, a coffee plantation, and even the Ubud Art village. It was a bit unsettling for me adjusting to all that hustle bustle in Kuta after the serenity of Lovina and Kintamani but yet Kuta is a must stop for every traveler to Bali.

Legian Road is the most happening road for all tourists. Restaurants, shops, pubs, the nightlife is fantastic for those looking to party. Sky Garden is the most popular spread over 5 floors with 8 different night clubs playing varied music. Mbargo and Paddy's Pub are other popular places. The whole street is buzzing all night. There are numerous open air karaoke bars and restaurants, people are dancing on the streets, there were even fire jugglers entertaining the crowds outside Paddys. The energy is just fantastic.

During the day, you can shop for interesting souvenirs or head to Kuta beach from Legian Road. Some of the beaches you must cover are:

Dreamland Beach: The most gorgeous sandy beach I have ever seen.

Padang Padang beach also known as Julia Roberts beach because several scenes from Eat, Pray, Love were shot there. It's interesting because it's like a hidden paradise. You need to walk between these close rock formations and the moment you step out, the view is just fantastic.

A must visit are these gorgeous temples for the sunsets; Uluwatu and Tanah Lot. I would recommend that you go early around 3:30 to 4 pm so that you can walk around the cliffs and explore before you settle down for the sunset pics. :) The shots you get when the sun is up are different from the sunset ones.

Uluwatu is a Balinese sea temple in Bali. Built in the 11th century, the views from the temple are spectacular. We stayed for the Kecak dance that is held every evening in the amphitheater at 6 pm. After the balinese dance enacted at GWK Cultural Centre, did not really find the Kecak dance very interesting but the backdrop of the sunset from the amphitheater was spectacular. It was a packed house with tourists from all over the world.

These monkeys at Uluwatu can be a menace. They snatch anything and everything so keep your stuff safely. They snatched a lady's sunglasses from her head and cameras too. They threaten humans so keep a safe distance and ignore them.

The Kecak Dance begins where they enact the Ramayana

Packed house while watching the sun set over the ocean at Uluwatu

The next day we head out to Tanah Lot. Tanah Lot is a Balinese temple formed on a beautiful rock formation by the sea which has been shaped over the years by the ocean tide. Poisonous sea snakes are believed to guard the temple from evil spirits and intruders.

Sunset at Tanah Lot

Bali provides Visa on Arrival for most countries and that includes India, which is really convenient. You have to pay an entry fee of $25 (they accept dollars) and while leaving the country, there is an exit fee too of IDR 200,000. Note that this exit fee is accepted only in Indonesian currency, so do keep this amount handy.

And before I end, our trip wouldn't have been this splendid if not for the wonderful, friendly, helpful people we met.
- Dwi and his wonderful team at Gino Ferucci who ensured we had a wonderful stay and taught me  a few Balinese words.
- The restaurant owner and chef at Lovina who was so warm and welcoming and started talking about the Ramayana when we mentioned we were from India. I had the best meal there and this is where I fell in love with Balinese music.
- Gede, the best tour guide ever who didn't let me give up on the Mount Batur trek and encouraged me till the finish line at times even helping me through the difficult stretches.
- Made, our driver and guide who gave us so many insights into Balinese culture and patiently took us wherever we wanted even though it was last minute detour and planning on our part,
- The staff at Ibis Suites in Kuta especially Saubhagya (loved his name) who was the Receptionist, Tour Guide, Driver a bit of everything,
- And lastly this interesting woman cab driver from Timor Island who dropped us to the hotel from Kuta beach just half an hour before we had to leave to catch our flight back.

Memories to last a lifetime. Hope to go back some day.