Five ever-charming destinations—from the doable to the daring
It is a quiet January night in Singapore. My wife and I have just finished a very good dinner at a steakhouse close to the river, and we have decided to walk off our rib-eyes by pushing our son home in his stroller. It’s not late, but the moon is up, the bars along the river are beginning to buzz and somewhere a band is beginning to warm up. It’s a warm night and we decide to cross the river on one of the pedestrian bridges along this stretch. Young Singaporeans sit in groups along it, quietly drinking and chatting and occasionally breaking into raucous laughter. We are not sure drinking is allowed in public. It’s Singapore! But the cops do not interfere. The kids drink and laugh and nod at us and smile at baby and we walk past without a care in the quiet night.
It’s funny that I should begin with a destination I could not bear when I was younger. Singapore’s sterility is legendary, and boring to the young traveller looking for adventure. But now, grown to fatherhood and a sense of my own responsibilities, I find that this island state is exactly what I’m looking for. Especially in winter.
Singapore is a short flight away and is reliably warm. If the heat bothers you, never fear: it’s reliably air-conditioned as well. The beaches are not fantastic, but they are very clean. The kids will just love the stuff that is available. The Singapore Zoo is world-class, and the night safari through it is as spectacular as everyone makes it out to be. The Jurong Bird Park is one of my favourite places in the entire world to spend an afternoon. Sentosa’s lineup of delights includes amusement parks and its own beaches, and a serviceable if not entirely satisfying ocean-themed park complete with dolphin shows.
But it isn’t just about the kids. The shopping is world-class, as is the eating. Singapore is a compact garden of delights for the foodie, from street food in the hawkers’ centres to fine-dining establishments scattered across the island. The nightlife is pretty good as well, and has an edge it lacked 20 years ago, when I first arrived. Plush clubs, visiting DJs, trendy lounges, loud expat bars and even a Bollywood-themed venue complete with dancing bargirls—think local Singaporeans dancing to Tu Mera Hero—compete for your custom. Now even visiting gamblers have a venue at the Marina Bay Sands and Resorts World in Sentosa.
But, and this is what makes Singapore so attractive to me now, is that it is all completely doable. The entire place is only about the size of Delhi, never mind the NCR, and the whole of it is well-serviced by public transport and affordable taxis. Neither the tot’s stroller nor the wife’s shopping, let alone your golf bag—Singapore has a wealth of superb courses—need bother you. It’s all catered for. And, when you are walking the family home from a superb dinner under an equatorial moon on safe pedestrian-only paths, you will know why I have come to love this place so much.
First, a pre-Christmas memory. We are in St Michael’s Church on Upper West Side in New York, where the church befits the prosperous parish it’s situated in. Monteverdi’s Vespers is on the playlist. It is a gorgeous work, and the sound of the period ensemble, complete with sackbuts and cornets, fills the space. And then a friend, a bass voice with a clear beautiful tone, comes in against the chorus of professional singers, and I see for myself how they achieved stereophony four centuries ago, by physically situating the chorus and soloists at opposite ends of the church, their combined and contrasting voices raising the roof in service of the Lord. I don’t know when I have been moved more. Yet I was not surprised, for what city better marries expertise with patronage than New York City? It was a world-class performance, and it was free. Now that’s the Christmas spirit.
But that’s the thing about New York City in winter. Many of its delights are free. A quick scan through your own mental images of New York delivered by the media should unearth a fund of winter shots: Salvation Army
Santas parked outside department stores, the enormous Christmas tree in Rockefeller Centre, skaters in the twilight, and happy—and beautifully dressed—Yuletide shoppers everywhere. This, of course, is not the whole truth. The goodwill of Christmas and the first snow evaporates quickly into the bleak depression of late winter, when cold-weary New Yorkers are ready to shed their layers and will bite their neighbours if given a chance. But it is also equally true that there is no place quite like New York from about mid-November till New Year.
The excitement of Thanksgiving is infectious. The kids coming home for their holidays, the big urban festival that is the Macy’s Parade, and finally the retail frenzy of Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving, when stores open early in the morning and crowds of shoppers officially kick off the Christmas shopping season, are all events that residents and tourists look forward to with equal anticipation. At least in November, some of the trees in Central Park will still have their flaming fall foliage, and the light of autumn will be revealed to be more than just the PR work of a poet. The bonhomie of the season extends all the way up to Christmas, with lots of neighbourhood festivities akin to India’s own Diwali melas. The musically inclined will love the profusion of sacred music on offer around the city. Dressy opera fans will be spoilt for choice, with the Metropolitan and City Operas hitting their mid-season strides. And, at the end of the day, it’s New York. Everything that you expect of this storied city is still delivered in winter: the food, the museums, the sports and the culture. And, for diehard shoppers, you have the grail of the post-Christmas sales. But remember. Leave before it’s too late. And someone bites you.
To be in Canada’s shadow and still be relatively warm in winter is anomalous. Thank the warming influence of the Pacific Ocean, a long finger of which, under the name of Puget Sound, laps gently against Seattle. This city, whilst famously rainy, gets hardly any snow. Good thing too. I have been for a New Year’s Eve sail where all I needed was a sturdy jacket, and ended that evening in an open-air jacuzzi. Granted, I was 21 at the time and there may have been alcohol involved, but still, for the Northern US, that is pretty impressive.
The warmth of Puget Sound is not the only locational advantage Seattle enjoys. Being up on the Pacific Rim means it has been exposed to all sorts of influences, even before Bill Gates and other nerds made this rainy liberal enclave their home. Seattle was, as befits its location and demography, a first mover in the local slow food movement. Foodies will love how the ingredients readily at hand, including seafood and a wealth of Pacific Rim tastes and even some slightly dodgy wine—you have to try it, but who says you have to like it?—come together in great meals. Coffee and beer are also staples here. Even though Starbucks was born here, there are lots of other choices. Speaking of beer, an entire vacation could happily go up in a sudsy poof just tasting all the local micro-brews. Of course, there is the nightlife. And there is all that great outdoorsy stuff you could be doing, with snow-capped peaks close at hand and the Sound still open to be boated, kayaked and sailed upon. And you will do it all in the crystal clear light and air of the Pacific Northwest, with some of the friendliest, best educated urban citizens anywhere for company. It’s not easy to get to, but there is no place quite like it in America.
This is admittedly a slightly counter-intuitive choice. I can vouch for how cold it gets in deep winter. In fact, one year I was there, it was so cold, I may have gotten out of bed, re-tied my turban and then gotten back in. Cold enough to get a headache. Add water so cold that it takes an age to heat, fires that warm your front but leave your backside frozen, and occasionally damp beds, and you’ve got a recipe for a disastrous winter vacation.
And yet. Imagine, if you will, brilliant sunlight in the clear cold air, which is of a sort that is almost painful to breathe. The fresh smell of pines strong upon the breeze, an utter absence of day-trippers from the plains, a town you seem to have to yourself. No Honey Singh shattering the silence. No picnic plates on road verges. Just miles of quiet walks, tea in the market and back at home, and nothing but birdsong and the whoosh of the breeze for company.
So, is the water too cold? Why wash if you are not meeting anyone? And even if a fire leaves you charred at one end and frigid at the other, it’s still one of the great feelings to be parked in front of one with a drink and a book and good company. I would advise that you learn from one of my mistakes, though. Ensure you do not stick your feet too close to the blaze. You may wake up the next day and find that your soles have melted. Also, firewood is impossible to find or buy in Himachal Pradesh. With good reason: depleting forest cover has been identified as a major threat by the government, and it is taking steps to deal with the issue. Stock up in the plains, or in Kalka. Or buy coal. It’s just as warm.
First things first. Rhinos are like goats in their profusion in this extraordinary park. The first one we saw, we were not even in the park. An enormous specimen was sitting by the side of the road, watching truck traffic go by. Used to being fobbed off with dubious pugmarks while tracking tigers, we were not quite prepared for the breezy “Oh, you’ll see tonnes” answer to our pre-breakfast question on rhinos. Our first entry to the park was the obligatory elephant ride. It was colder than we expected Assam to be, even in winter. It was freezing, and the first glimmers of sunlight had not burnt away the mists over the marshes. Our mount was a gentle female named Mamouni, who was put to flight by one enraged rhino mother, whose calf we had gotten too close to. Mamouni’s terrified trumpeting as she charged off is still one of my son’s fondest memories.
But there are more strings to Kaziranga’s bow than just rhinos. Wild elephants are found in herds, and occasionally close enough to be scary. There are wild water buffalo, great herds of barasingha in the swamps, boar and all manner of smaller mammals. And that’s just one drive. You lift your eyes and you see birds that have you bleating for your partner’s binoculars, and the storks and other winter visitors on the water bodies are a sight for sore city eyes. My wife saw freshwater dolphins in the Brahmaputra. Kaziranga also has a thriving population of tigers, apparently, though what we saw were, well, pugmarks. There are also leopards and other smaller felines, but good luck catching a glimpse of those in the waving tall grass.
Naturally, it has all been well documented. Even though Kaziranga is not easy to get to, it has ample tourist infrastructure. Which means that it is, for its location, quite crowded. But we were there at the peak of the holiday season, and it never felt crowded in the way that Corbett does, for example.
If you fly to Guwahati and drive down, do as we did and make a detour to Shillong on the way back. While the town itself is grossly overbuilt, it retains pockets of charm. Especially if you are in the area around Christmas, it’s worth a visit just to see the spirit displayed by the locals. Groups wander around carolling, each church has a programme, and mulled wine makes many appearances. While the town centre is a bit of a mess, there are beautiful drives to be had in the vicinity. And it’s certainly nicer than Guwahati. Drive straight back to the airport from here.