If it’s the perfect season for an off-land adventure, this array of on-land options is no less dizzying. Take your pick
RANN OF KUTCH
The largest salt marsh in the world is a geographical wonder, turning marshy during the monsoon and then back to original white for the winter. A visit can be tricky because there are no hotels or civil amenities near places of interest. Hire a local guide to take you around by taxi. Travel to Ekal ka Rann, 80 km from Bhuj, to get a glimpse of the white desert. You could spend the night at a temple complex. Wake up early in the morning to watch a stupendous sunrise over an unforgettable horizon. In the winter, it is a rare place that you can actually spot pink flamingoes—though it may take a bit of a wait. Make your way back to spend a night at Chobari Village, interact with the locals, and acquaint yourself with the work of local artisans before you get back to your usual city life.
In the middle of the Eastern Ghats of Andhra Pradesh, Araku Valley is a biodiversity hotspot. The valley, which is inhabited by various tribes, is famous for its lush gardens, waterfalls and streams. It is a splendid family destination. If you love flaura and fauna, you will enjoy a visit to mulberry silk farms and the botanical gardens. Trek up the hills to see the ancient limestone Borra Caves. A variety of scenic spots offers ample space for family activities to make this a relaxed holiday. While there is a tribal museum in the area, you may prefer to spend time in the company of local Tribals on your own. As many as 19 tribes live in the region, and their dhimsa dance is popular with tourists. Their silverwork too.
Known for coffee plantations, this dreamy place is not a town but a district known as Kodagu. Full of teak forests, lush green valleys and majestic mountains, Coorg makes for an idyllic vacation spot. You could go trekking, angling or golfing. The big attractions of the area are the Abbey Falls and Honamaney Kere, a temple dedicated to Hanuman, but the charm of Coorg lies in its natural beauty, the thin mist that envelops the place, the rosewood and bamboo trees that tower over you while little waterfalls and brooks gush by. You have your senses suffused by fragrant lemon grass, coffee, cardamom, nutmeg and orange. Trek through acres and acres of organic farms, visit the Talacuvery-Brahmagiri peak, go from Kakkabe to Malma and Thadiyendanmol to catch some surreal sights. Or just sit back in a luxury resort and unwind.
Once upon a time, it was a French colony. If you travel through the old town, you will be struck by its Rues and Boulevards that are lined with bakeries, and it is for this alone that you should visit this charming place. Stay in the old town and take the heritage walk or rent a bike if you will. Start the walk at the north end of Goubert Avenue, the seafront promenade, and head south past the French consulate and Gandhi statue. Turn right at the town hall on Rue Mahe Labourdonnais and stroll through Dumas, Romain Rolland and Suffren streets. Check out the Puducherry Museum for French era furniture juxtaposed with Pallava and Chola sculptures, old coins, French artefacts and pottery excavated from Arikamedu, an ancient seaport a few kilometres south of Pondicherry that saw trade ships set sail for the Roman Empire back in the 1st century BC. Go on a catamaran fishing trip, spend your evenings at Rocky Beach or just cycle along the sandy beaches that dot the coastline. Take part in the cultural activities hosted by Auroville, the Aurobindo Ashram. Although Puducherry is losing its French feel, it retains every reason for you to drop by.
‘The Golden City’ of Jaisalmer is an exotic desert fortress. Located on the outer reaches of the Thar Desert, it offers a 12th century fort experience like none other, with its inner bazaars, havelis and hotels throbbing with life that seems straight out of olden times. Local arts and crafts are a hot draw for tourists, and it’s advisable to haggle until you get your bargain. Jaisalmer also has its Desert National Park that offers sightings of blackbucks, desert foxes and chinkaras amid the landscape’s rolling dunes and crags. Hire an autorickshaw or car to get around, and spend an evening watching the sun go down into the desert at Sunset Point. Sit by the lake and take in the sheer magnificence of the place. A camel safari is a must-do—and you could go on an overnight one as well, with a desert camp to stay in.
DUDHWA NATIONAL PARK
This one is strictly for nature lovers. The park, which opens to tourists mid-winter, covers 490 sq km of land and has a buffer zone of 190 sq km as part of a reserve forest. Close to the Indo-Nepal border, it is one of the few remaining examples of a highly productive Terai ecosystem. Home to some of India’s most endangered species, it has grasslands, marshes and rosewood forests. Rhino and tiger sightings are frequent, and the park is also home to leopards, alligators, fresh water dolphins and over 350 species of birds, apart from a variety of deer—including the extremely rare barking deer. Around half the world’s swamp deer are found in this region and are easily spotted. Take an elephant safari and check into a guest house in the middle of a forest. Visit Nepal for a day if you like to shop, and see the 19th century Surat Bhawan Palace on your way back. Spend some time visiting villages of the local Tharu tribe for a brush with a lifestyle unchanged for centuries.
Want to be marooned on an island in complete comfort? Try Agatti, the only Lakshadweep island open to tourists. There are only two hotels on the island, so advance booking is necessary. Of the two, Agatti Island Beach Resort boasts of a good beach and lagoon that is relatively shallow and makes for a perfect swim. After you’re done with marvelling at Agatti’s pristine beaches, you can spend your days bicycling along the road that runs through the island and discovering picturesque spots for a picnic. Go scuba diving, snorkelling, kayaking, sailing, glass bottom boat rides, water skiing, deep-sea fishing and sea excursions to closeby uninhabited islands like Thinnakara, Parali and Kalpitty. Lakshadweep’s coral reefs are something you should not miss for a completely unforgettable vacation.
ORCHHA, MADHYA PRADESH
Orchha is ideal for those who want to get away from the commercial trap of tourism in India. A sleepy small town, it is surrounded by 16th and 17th century palaces and temples on the banks of the Betwa river and offers a peek into the lost age of maharajas without the grandeur of Rajasthan. It allows you time and space to breathe history and revel in some nostalgia of a time long lost. Visit the exquisite Jehangir Mahal for a grand view of soaring temple spires and cenotaphs. Look at the Bundela paintings and relish the vibrant murals of this age-old town. Take a walk to the The Oonth Khana (‘camel shelter’), where the king’s camels were once housed, and climb onto its roof for an amazing view of history. The ruins behind the fort complex are a must-see. It is easy to find places to stay in the area, the food is delectable, and the bazaars offer a superb shopping experience, since the region is well known for its textiles and weaves.
It’s hard to beat the home of Hans Christian Andersen if you want to experience a fairytale European winter. This old town is big enough to be an exciting metropolis but has a cosy feel to it that makes it safe and easy to get around. It also happens to be the happiest country in the world, according to UN’s 2013 ‘World Happiness Report. Unlike the hustle-bustle of most commercial cities, the Danish capital offers an entirely relaxed experience. Bicycles are a preferred mode of transport, and the morning air on the streets is filled with the scent of freshly baked bread. Visit the Tivoli amusement park around Christmas. For a great walk, start at Kongens Nytorv and Nyhavn and head up the pedestrian street of Strøget in the direction of Rådhuspladsen. There are cultural spots aplenty along the way. Also drop by Christianshavn for its café-lined canals, Christiania for a hippie detour and Vesterbro for a mixture of ethnic shops and trendy pop culture. No Copenhagen trip is complete without a trip to Hamlet’s castle in Helsingør and the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde.
It might be Asia’s gambling capital, but there is much more to this small Portuguese colonial-era town than casinos and nightlife. Macau is a place of stark contrasts. While one side of town offers an outlandish display of wealth with its Las Vegas air and fake beaches and canals that offer gondola rides at the Venetian, the other side is steeped in history with its small pagoda style houses and architecture. The latter is where most of its charm lies. Walk through the old city for a glimpse of Chinese life as you’ve never seen before. Almost an hour away from Hong Kong by ferry, it makes for a perfect getaway at this time of year.
Frankly, you can’t visit Dracula’s lair on a sunny day, can you? Try a day with grey skies over a snowladen landscape. Transylvania in winter is perfect for a gothic adventure. Bran Castle, close to the city of Brasov, is advertised as ‘Dracula’s Castle’, though Vlad the Impaler, the man behind the myth, stayed here only a few nights. The Saxon fortress town of Sighisoara is an essential stop on any tour, especially for a hearty vampire experience. Other medieval castles, elegant palaces, Saxon fortress-churches and crumbling ruins in the region add to the appeal. Visit the magnificent Corvin Castle at Hunedoara or Prahova Valley, known both for its wine and skiing. There are also natural parks to check out. The Retezat National Park has over 300 species of flora and 50 mammal species including brown bears, wolves, lynx, foxes, deer and chamois. For a glimpse of the old world, head for villages such as Biertan and Viscri.
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL
Even the most seasoned traveller will find Rio exciting for its golden sandy beaches, lush mountains, eclectic nightlife and, of course, football. The city, which is also called Cidade Maravilhosa (‘The marvelous city’), bustles all through the year, but is enjoyably relaxed in summer—as it is now in the southern hemisphere. December is a month of revelry, which often spills over to the first week of January. The city hosts its famous carnival, one of the most eclectic celebrations in the world—with street parades, balls at night and a spectacular Samba School Competition. Don’t miss the parties and firework displays on popular beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema.