The Natural Wonders Of Canada’s Most Bustling Metropolis – Toronto

Visitors to Toronto, a city of 2.7 million, tend to head for its iconic attractions — the CN Tower, say, or the Royal Ontario Museum.

But Canada’s largest city is also becoming known for its forests, beaches and bike paths. “The City in a Park” has become its unofficial slogan as Torontonians embrace the surprising swaths of nature in the urban landscape — 20,000 acres, says Richard Ubbens, Toronto’s director of parks.

“Sometimes you forget you’re in the city,” he says.

And that’s just the land designated as parks. Toronto’s popular ravine system, a natural greenspace network that runs along nearly every river and stream in the city, is another 27,000 acres of quiet forests and waterways — nearly 17 percent of the city’s total area — where you’re as likely to encounter a great blue heron as you are another human.

Whether your thing is bird-watching, outdoor yoga or swimming at any of the city’s 11 pristine beaches, Toronto has something for nature-lovers of every stripe.

Toronto Waterfront

Spadina Wavedeck

Spadina Wavedeck

Toronto is more than halfway through a 25-year plan to transform a 2,000-acre strip of its downtown waterfront from a postindustrial wasteland to an outdoor playscape.

The areas completed to date are centered along Queens Quay, a hopping promenade lined with world-class parks, bike paths and boardwalks such as the whimsical Spadina WaveDeck, lit from below at the end of the day.

Rent a boat to explore the small bay — with paddleboats, kayaks and even sailboats (lessons included) available, there are options for everyone — or take a nap in one of the complimentary rediners at Sugar Beach at the east end of Queens Quay, a great place to watch the boats go by. This is also the jumping-off point for many Lake Ontario boat tours and the park on the Toronto Islands, an 820-acre playscape just offshore.

Rouge National Urban Park

Canoeing in Rouge National Urban Park

Canoeing in Rouge National Urban Park

Toronto is surrounded by a green- belt, a wide swath of protected forests and working farmland, which includes this newly formed conservation area, Canada’s first urban national park, located on the scenic Rouge River. While it may not display the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies, the Rouge River corridor is home to more than 1,700 species of plants, animals, birds and other critters, including coyotes, deer and spawning salmon. The 20,000-acre natural wonderland holds extensive hiking trails, canoeing opportunities, Toronto’s only campground and a pristine beach, all less than 20 miles east of downtown. Admission is free.

Getting Down… Into Toronto’s Ravines

Toronto’s transit system, known as the TTC, will deliver you to many of the city’s parks and natural areas via subway, streetcar or bus. Even parts of the greenbelt are accessible via GO Train, the regional rail system. But finding your way into the city’s labyrinthine network of ravines and the steep stream and river valleys can be daunting. In most cases, roads and transit lines cross over the ravines — they’re hiding down below. Hopping on a bike is your ticket to explore them.

About $11 gets you a three-day pass to Bike Share Toronto shows the locations of Toronto’s 200 bikeshare stations. Many are found along the Martin Goodman Trail, a multiple- use path along the waterfront that stretches for miles in both directions from downtown. Head east for a mile and you’ll find the Don River, one of the city’s largest ravines, where numerous well-marked trails take you up various side ravines.

About 4 miles west of downtown along the Goodman trail, you’ll come to the Humber River, the access point to Toronto’s other major ravine network. From midtown, the Kay Gardner Beltline trail, a shaded bike path along an abandoned rail line, connects you to the trail along Moore Park Ravine, a fun downhill route to the Evergreen Brick Works.

High Park

Scenic walking path in High Park

Scenic walking path in High Park

Situated amid several chic neighborhoods in the city’s West End, this is Toronto’s answer to Central Park. The 400-acre space is framed by a pair of glacially carved valleys. One is home to a large off-leash area for dogs; the other is a complex of ponds and wetlands renowned among bird-watchers.

In between are athletic fields, a swimming pool, zoo, an environmental center for kids, extensive forests and hiking trails and a formal Japanese garden along a cascading stream. Parking is free and abundant, and you can access the lakefront bike path — which stretches for 30 miles from one side of the city to the other — at the southern end of the park.

Evergreen Brick Works

evergreen brick works market

Farmers markets at Evergreen Brick Works

Located on the site of the Don Valley Brick Factory, which supplied much of the material with which Toronto’s early 1900s skyline was built, the repurposed Brick Works has quickly grown into a world-renowned environmental center famous for its urban ecology programs.

Abuzz seven days a week with farmers markets, outdoor education programs for kids and nature-themed events and festivals, the site boasts a farm-to-table restaurant, gift shop and extensive boardwalks and trails through the former quarry, now a wetland preserve.

Evergreen Brick Works is also one of the gateways to Toronto’s beloved ravine system.


A Fascinating Journey Up To Mississippi

Lifeblood to the Native Americans, battleground for the Civil War and Civil Rights movement, birthplace of the blues and inspiration to Mark Twain — a journey up the Mississippi from sea to source tells a multitude of stories.

Why is it that men are so concerned with the beginning and end of everything – when it’s the middle that really matters? Terry Larson’s question hung in the still, humid Minnesota air waiting for an answer. But aside from the odd splash from our oars, and the audible hiss from the underside of

our canoe as we skimmed over the long grass, all was silent.

In truth, my canoe guide’s question wasn’t directed at me. It was a query first posed to an explorer called Henry Schoolcraft by an elder of the indigenous Ojibwe tribe back in 1832. Then, after centuries of searching, the headwaters of the fourth longest river in the world – the Mississippi – were about to be revealed. But the question still felt pertinent even today, given my arrival here was the culmination of a two-week journey along the river from sea to source.

Rolling on the river

If I thought it was warm in Minnesota, it was positively own-like where I had begun, in New Orleans, Louisiana. Famous for its annual Mardi Gras celebrations, the waterway continues the party theme and I arrived to see renovated steam paddleboats cruising the banks below the French Quarter, music blaring from their decks.

I opted to start my exploration by bicycle, meandering the city’s many neighbourhoods, from Frenchmen Street, where soft jazz riffs oozed from half-open doors, to the tree-lined Garden District, and on to Lakeview’s flower – festooned houses and the buzzy-vibed Treme by Armstrong Park. But no matter where I pedalled, it seemed water was never far from people’s minds, and no more so than on the edge of the Lower Ninth Ward where the devastation from the rising levels caused by Hurricane Katrina more than ten years ago was still being repaired.

I left the city heading south and determined to reach the outlet of the mighty Mississippi, to begin my journey proper. Along the way I stopped to take a tour of Honey Island Swamp. The community here is made up of ramshackle over-water homes that, just three months before my visit, suffered metre-high floods.

“It’s just a fact of life,” said our skipper as he pointed out the bald cypress trees that rose out of the water, their peculiar roots piercing the swamp in spiked dusters all around them. ‘These trees grow 90ft [27m] tall, won’t rot, survive most hurricanes and actually thrive in the water – that’s why we use them to build a lot of the houses. Things adapt here, they survive.”

He wasn’t just talking about the people. The bayous and swamps in Louisiana are home to a hardy range of turtles, wild boar, deer and alligators, perfectly adapted to the conditions. The latter watched us as we floated, some following slowly in our wake, others basking in the sun on upturned logs. “They were once on the endangered species list,” our captain explained, “now they’re thriving.”

Spurred on, I continued to Venice, the official end of the Great River Road and the Mississippi, which splays out here into the Gulf of Mexico in wide channels. Unlike its Italian namesake, this is no picturesque, canal-threaded honeypot; instead it’s a collection of boatyards (this is the jumping- off point for many commercial fishing companies) and staging areas for the oil rigs offshore.

Made up of a mix of backroads, federal routes and state highways, the Great River Road is not a single stretch of tarmac, but actually runs on both sides of the Mississippi for most of the way. From Venice, I decided to stick to the west bank, heading towards Baton Rouge.

At this point, the river is over a muddy kilometre in width and 45m deep. Years of flooding and receding has made the surrounding soil rich in minerals and fertile land for farmers. Back in the early 18th century, though, sugar was king and this far south plantations stretching thousands of acres lined the banks. Nowadays, while sugar is still a big industry here, plantation tours are arguably just as vital.

I visited Laura Plantation first, a brightly painted Creole home once owned by descendants of French colonists from Louisiana. Here the guides told of the equally colourful goings-on behind dosed doors, where masters fathered children by their slaves, who were then brought up alongside the owner’s families.

Next up was Whitney, which focused on the slaves’ story instead. Bronze statues of children were poignantly positioned around the estate, as we learned of the tragic methods by which their owners would ‘break’ and punish them.

I ended at Oak Alley Plantation, where a line of trees funnelled the cool air from the water down to the imposing white house at its centre. It was a beautiful spot to watch the sunset, but it made me think about how the river offered not only an easy way to bring the slaves in, but was also an obstacle preventing escape.

“When I first came here, I cried fora full 55 minutes,” said Kathe Hambrick-Jackson, owner of the River Road African American Museum further north in Donaldsonville, where the plantations morphed from sugarcane to cotton production. “I stood on the riverbanks watching tourist boats come in, and realised this was the same spot where the slaves would have been offloaded.”

Kathe later turned her reaction into something positive, setting up a museum to remember the lives of the slaves and to help their descendents trace their roots. What’s more, she told time the story of one slave who managed to escape by using the river, stowing away on a boat headed for the gulf, finally ending up in Liverpool, England, a free man. Maybe the water wasn’t a prison after all.

In the past, the Mississippi itself has even been known to make a break for it, and to this day is prone to changing course. To try and stop this, several measures have been put in place, most notably the levees (man-made banks) that funnel the water in different directions and were a constant companion on my journey.

At the pretty town of St Francisville, where the tourist steamboats were docked for the day, I spotted rows of concrete stabilisation mats, designed to stop erosion. In geology, when a river changes course, as they often do, it leaves visible marks called meander scars. But not all scars are so easily seen with the naked eye.

Crossing the state line into Mississippi, I visited Natchez, the oldest town on the river, complete with a hearty helping of antebellum homes. But it was only when I dug deeper that I discovered this had once been the territory of a Native American tribe of the same name. The Natchez people were displaced in the early 1700s, after trading relations with the French settlers soured. Nowadays, there is no trace of them to be seen – no visible scars of the past.

The river has often found itself at the centre of major events in the history of America, right from the moment a retreating glacier formed the Mississippi, long before the Natchez lived here. Later, around the time of the 1811 earthquakes, a rift pulled apart the land to form a valley that nearly split the continent in two.

And fifty years on from that, the divide was realised politically, as the American Civil War (1861-65) saw a nation turn on itself: north versus south, Yankee against Confederate. At its heart was the debate over the abolition of slavery, but when it came to the river, it was all about trade and control.

 

“Controlling the river meant controlling the power,” explained David Maggio, my guide at the Civil War battlefield site in Vicksburg. “This town was the last plug in the river stopping trade.” The Yankees besieged it, forcing the Confederates on top of the bluff, and after around 10,000 deaths on both sides, they effectively starved them out. Once it fell, the Mississippi’s waters re- opened and the giant gunboats – designed upriver in Cairo to patrol them – became obsolete.

With so much toil, heartache and fighting, it seems not entirely coincidental that this is the delta where the blues was born, and still thrives. From Clarksville, where the former cotton worker McKinley Morganfield (aka Muddy Waters) lived, to Elvis’s Graceland in Memphis, you can’t stop for a plate of grits and biscuits in the Deep South without hearing a thick baseline and a two-step beat.

The further north I headed, the more the focus switched from people and power to nature and the outdoors. I stopped fora boat ride at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, a pocket of water formed by the 1811 quakes now coated in verdant duckweed and topped with butter-yellow lotus flowers. As I drifted across its surface and the ranger pointed out egrets, red wing blackbirds and ospreys nesting in the trees, I mused how this was one of nature’s prettiest accidents.

Life on the Mississippi

For a short while I cut through Kentucky, just long enough to spy some evidence of Native American influence on the river. Resembling an easily missed cluster of small grassy lumps, Wickliffe Mounds was actually one of the earliest settlements of people living along the Mississippi. Predating colonisation, they were already gone by the time the French arrived in the 18th century, but a 1930s excavation revealed a treasure trove of tools made from the very day that makes up the riverbank.

Crossing into Illinois, I drove through what looked like a ghost town. Formerly palatial hotels stood crumbling, school buses lay abandoned and overgrown, but the name was familiar. It turned out this was Cairo, the namesake town of one of the vessels I saw at Vicksburg that used to control the Mississippi in the early 1800s. A faded mural nodded to it, but a decline in the steamboat industry meant that this town’s glory days were well and truly in the past.

But not all river towns met the same fate. Both Sainte Genevieve in Missouri and Galena in Illinois were communities I visited where someone had recognised that their respective wooden long houses and red-brick main streets were worth preserving. With the former offering wine tours of its seyval grape vineyards and the latter boasting riverside watersports and good food, both were thriving.

Further north, the unmistakable Gateway Arch signalled that I’d reached St Louis. It was from here that the 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition to push west began, the river acting as a gateway to the new frontier, new opportunities and new hope. Fitting, then, that it was here, on the opposite bank in East Alton, that I learned just how important the Mississippi remains to the current US economy.

“It’s still very much used as a trade route,” said Andrea Gregory, a ranger at the Great Rivers Museum, where the second and largest of the 29 locks and dams that line the river going north is located. ”

A hopper barge three barges wide and five in length can carry more than a thousand trucks can. They also use less fuel, so they are better for the environment.” We walked up to peer over the lock, which was now helping a group of three kayakers (and some stowaway pelicans) drop down into St Louis. ”

In spring, fertiliser and coal head north to help farmers begin their harvest. In the fall we get those harvested grains back, and in summer, as you can see, it’s mainly recreational traffic,” she explained.

I became one of the latter at my next stop – Hannibal. If the name sounds familiar, the white picket fence will certainly jog your memory, for this town was the basis for the fictional St Petersburg, home to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn characters.

It was here that ‘jumped on the paddle steamer – named after the author – to see the islands, the port and the water from his books come to life.

Shallow Pleasures

From literary creations I moved onto something more tangible – and unusual – crossing the border into Iowa and Effigy Mounds National Monument.

Here, created by the native peoples of the Mississippi, are a number of huge earthworks shaped like giant animals. “No-one really knows why they are here, and as they were designed to be seen from somewhere high up in the sky, you can’t always tell that you’re walking past one,” explained ranger Michael Douglas, “but you will know it. I don’t know how, but you will.”

I pulled on my hiking boots and started my hunt. Hummingbirds flitted in front of me as I strolled through the woods to emerge at a viewpoint where the river seemed to seep uncontrollably out through tightly knitted pockets of green below.

I continued and found myself stopping for no particular reason. I looked to my left and slowly realised the raised grassy mound was in the shape of a giant bear. Michael was right.

For the last leg of the River Road, I criss-crossed between Wisconsin and Minnesota. Every year, 10,000 migratory birds also follow the waterway here, heading for warmer temperatures. The most recognisable of these is the bald eagle, and I watched in awe as they majestically circled above the outskirts of Minneapolis-St Paul.

It was here that I made what would be my penultimate stop and, as time was tight, I chose to swap four wheels for two with a Segway tour of the city. At the river’s only waterfall, a hydroelectric plant has been set up to harness the power of the water. But, as my guide informed me, there is a force that they are finding much harder to control: Asian carp. As such, all locks north of this one have temporarily been dosed off to the southern parts of the river.

When I finally took to the water again – with my canoe guide Terry – it was much further up the liver, and it was hard to believe the same waterway that had taken several minutes to cross on a Segway was now a shallow and easily navigable sliver.

On my final day, I began the short walk to the headwaters. Noticing some steps descending into the water, I took off my shoes to tread the final kilometre in the river itself. As I rounded the final bend I thought back to the question Terry had posed.

Here, at the source, as I was about to reach the end of my journey, I think I understood what he meant. For centuries man has lived off the river, battled over it, attempted to control, guide and contain it, but the Mississippi has kept churning and meandering regardless.

For the river, this was neither the beginning nor the end, it would always be the middle of a journey – one that is truly never-ending.


Madhya Pradesh Is The Flawless Gem of Mandu

It was sudden, quick and completely unplanned. Clothes, maps, guidebooks, blurred memories and bittersweet nostalgia in our bags and minds, we were ready to drive to Mandavgarh, Madhya Pradesh, India.

I rummaged through the guidebook desultorily. Shoddily printed images of forts and lakes, and pages full of information on rulers who had left their footprints or rather their tombs behind. I wasn’t impressed. But my father promised it would be wonderful.

This did not sound like my idea of a perfect road trip destination, given that I had been dreaming of the classic Manali-Leh road trip, say, or even Goa. But this place, Mandavgarh
aka Mandu, which my father visited some 25 years ago in his youth, didn’t feature on my list.

After a long drive uphill on dusty village roads, we finally reached our destination. The first fort I visited had me convinced that I was in for a surprise. I perked up.

Perched along the Vindhya mountain ranges at an altitude of 2,000ft, Mandavgarh was originally the fort capital of the Parmar rulers of Malwa.

Towards the end of the 13th century, it came under the control of the Sultans of Malwa, who named it Shadiabad, or ‘City of Joy’. The rulers built exquisite and grand palaces like the Jahaz and the Hindola Mahals, baths and pavilions, all as refined as those times of peace and prosperity.

Each of Mandavgarh’s structures is an architectural gem: the massive Jami Masjid, and Hoshang Shah’s tomb, which is said to have provided inspiration to the builders of the Taj Mahal centuries later.

The monuments scattered throughout the town have minimal ornamentation and decoration on their façades. Though luxury may have been disdained in the buildings, they do not lack for dignity or grandeur.

Mandavgarh is a commemoration in stone of existence and art, and pays homage to the love shared between the Sultan of Malwa, Baz Bahadur, and his beautiful consort, Rani Roopmati. Often called the ‘Hampi of Central India’ for its treasure trove of ruins, Mandavgarh is one of the most archaic places in Madhya Pradesh, yet is still appealingly off the beaten path.

The green colour soothing the eyes as far as one can see down the Nimar valley, and the little droplets of rain caressing my imagination, Mandavgarh managed to take my breath away. With a content face I looked at my father. He smiled and was unable to hold back: “I told you so.”


Riding Through the Rockies on Canadian Rail Lines

Canada’s magnificent Rockies unfold in a blur of grays, whites and deep greens through the panoramic windows of the train car on a 19-hour rail ride from Vancouver, British Columbia, on the Pacific Coast to picturesque Jasper, near the Alberta/British Columbia border. The gentle sway and rumble of train travel is inspiring, especially onboard VIA Rail Canada or Rocky Mountaineer, the two non-charter lines operating in the region.

VIA Rail’s comfortable Sleeper Plus cabins – which range from single berths with Murphy beds to cabins for four – create the romance of being lulled to sleep by the clickety-clack of the train at night. If you choose this option, you’ll also get access to a special viewing car, white-linen dining with meals made with fresh, local ingredients by top-star chefs and the ability to roam the train.

In the morning, breathtaking vistas of forests and powerful river canyons surround you. On my trip, I stood in the glass-topped Panorama Dome car and watched with fellow travelers as the awesome peaks of the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges rushed by; we marveled at the way the dramatic scenery shifted from Fraser Valley’s verdant fields to British Columbia’s rocky, desert- like interior.

Fraser Valley, BC, Canada

Fraser Valley, BC, Canada

The train slows for passing freight trains, letting its passengers get a better look at the scenery, which, in warmer months, may include the occasional brown bear lumbering off the tracks. (The bears feast on grain dropped by passing freight trains.)

We traveled in winter (VIA Rail operates year-round) and were lucky enough to see the majestic snowy peak of Mount Robson — at nearly 13,000 feet, the highest point of the Canadian Rockies — which is often invisible and veiled in fog.

Mount Robson

Mount Robson

Other highlights included a view of the cascading, 300-foot-high Pyramid Creek Falls (you can only see the falls from the highway or a train; they are not accessible otherwise) and Yellowhead Pass, a natural route across the Continental Divide used by fur traders and gold prospectors in the 19th century. I was amazed — and saddened! — by how quickly we arrived in Jasper National Park (at roughly 4,200 square miles, the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies).

A trip through the Rockies can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you might as well make the most of it. From Jasper, a separate train can take you northwest to Prince George in central British Columbia and on to coastal Prince Rupert, just south of Alaska’s panhandle; both are small logging towns whose charm will win you over.

For an even more luxurious trip through these beautiful landscapes, you can opt for VIA Rail’s Prestige Class service, available on The Canadian, a four-night, three-day route across Canada between Vancouver and Toronto, with stops in Edmonton and Winnipeg; you can make any of these cities your final destina­tion. It is by far the best way to see this vast country. Highlights onboard include dedicated service by a Prestige concierge and a cabin with a large lounge area that transforms into a comfortable double bed, private bathroom with a shower, flat-screen monitor with video selection and minibar stocked with your choice of beverages and snacks.

Unlike the Vancouver-Jasper trip, The Canadian’s passage through the Rockies includes only a brief, 45- to 60- minute stop at Jasper, enough time to stretch your legs but not to see the town or the park.

VIA Rail provides short stops at select train stations where you can disembark briefly while the train refuels.

inside rocky mountaineer

A train trip through the Canadian Rockies includes spectacular views, visible through panoramic windows in certain cars

If disembarking, sightseeing and staying overnight in a hotel is your preference, book a trip on the popular Rocky Mountaineer instead. This Canadian rail company offers several routes through the Canadian Rockies with several trips departing from Seattle. For an additional charge, you also can add a seven-day Alaskan cruise to any route that starts in Vancouver.

Onboard the Rocky Mountaineer — which travels from April to October — you will enjoy white-linen meals and unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages in your dining or lounge cars. The GoldLeaf upgrade provides exclusive access to breathtaking glass-domed cars and an open-air vestibule.

Choose a Journey through the Clouds tour package, and you can opt for a scenic look at Jasper National Park, with time to explore the town of Jasper on your own, followed by a motorcoach trip through awe-inspiring scenery to Banff National Park. You’ll travel along the Icefields Parkway to the Athabasca Falls and the Columbia Icefield, where you will ride on an off-road bus into the middle of the Athabasca Glacier. A stop at stunning Bow Lake precedes a visit to the mesmerizing, turquoise Lake Louise. Here, an overnight or dinner at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise is highly recommended.

Lastly, if taking a trip back in time is more your speed and you’re traveling with 30 of your closest friends, the Royal Cana­dian Pacific, which once carried Sir Winston Churchill, is available for private bookings.

Royal Cana­dian Pacific train

Royal Cana­dian Pacific train

It’s not cheap, but the wood-paneled sleeping cars with private lounges and patios may be worth the $29,000 to $59,000 price tag.


Mythological and Geological Experience – Dhanushkodi

On the southern coast of Tamil Nadu is a thin sliver of land, which protrudes into the sea like a needle pointing towards Sri Lanka. This is Dhanushkodi, accessible from the mainland through the island of Pamban, better known as Rameswaram. Famous for its temple, Rameswaram is also frequented by the curious who travel here to see the ghost town of Dhanushkodi.

Just 10-odd-km long, Dhanushkodi has an importance in Indian mythology that is far greater than the land mass it occupies. It is here that Rama is said to have built his bridge to cross into Lanka. Dhanushkodi, from its tip, lies less than 30km from Sri Lanka.

Satellite images and geographical studies show that from that tip there exist a number of sandbanks, reefs and shoals that trace a fairly continuous line all the way to the Sri Lankan island of Mannar.

This geographical feature is referred to as Adam’s Bridge (most of India would call it Rama’s Bridge). Some historical accounts state that, till the 15th century, this ‘bridge’ was almost completely above water and could be crossed by foot, until sections of it were washed away by a cyclone in 1480.

We set out from Rameswaram to explore the famous tip of Dhanushkodi. The narrow road is lined by a thin strip of sand and then the sea. In parts there are low bushes and thorny shrubs, followed by the endless sea in myriad shades of blue. After driving for about 20km, the road ends and regular vehicles can go no further. From this point you transfer to a 4×4 minibus, as the journey is now over a series of sandbanks. And this is where it gets quite surreal.

We pile into the minibus, packed to capacity with a mix of pilgrims, day trippers, screeching children and the odd curious person like us. The bus is a modified Mahindra vehicle that has seen better times. It smells of kerosene fumes, and features metal benches and windows simply stuck into place.

We sit next to the driver, and perched on a box over the gearshift is a man who barks the usual questions to us in a mix of Tamil and broken English. Where you from? What you do? Why only two of you? No children? Our conversation thankfully ends swiftly due to our limited shared vocabulary, and we stare out of the window.

We meander along a narrow strip of beach, rocking violently from side to side, as waves lap at the wheels. Small birds splash around in the shallows, as eagles glide above, occasionally diving towards the white foam as they spot a catch.

Every so often the driver veers sharply into the water which elicits whoops of excitement from the children and shrieks from the women. At various points in the journey the water is halfway up the wheel and splashes into the cabin from the holes in the rusted floor.

While there may have been a good reason for the driver to steer off into the water, it is not evident to us, and we surmise that this is a way for him to alleviate his boredom, and also perhaps provide the passengers with some excitement.

The sky turns grey, the wind picks up and the clouds start pelting us with rain. There is pandemonium as people attempt to shut their windows and children start yelling. We encounter a couple of bikers stuck in the sand. Our driver grins malevolently and curses at them in Tamil with a “you-should-have-taken-my-rust-trap-you-morons” expression.

The bikers glare back but cannot do much else as their macho Enfields rev, sputter and die, filling the air with fumes and sand.

After 45 minutes, we reach the ghost town of Dhanushkodi. Half a century ago a cyclone swept this tiny hamlet,
killing most of its occupants and submerging large parts of the village. It has been uninhabited since. We walk among the ruins, clutching our jackets around us to protect against the rain. A few odd structures remain—a large stone gate, the façade of a church, railroad tracks, courtyards and walls of broken homes.

But we see beauty in devastation. Dhanushkodi was once a bustling village, and the rail tracks from Rameswaram extended all the way here. Work is underway to restore parts of the old tracks, and build a better road to Dhanushkodi (it has since been completed). Vendors desultorily sell tea, biscuits, seashells and trinkets.

The dark grey skies and slow drizzle add to the melancholy as one reflects on the unpredictable fury of nature. What must it have been like to live here, so far from anything else, so close to land’s edge, at the mercy of the ocean?

What would have possessed the inhabitants of Dhanushkodi to persist, on this thin sliver of land, with what would surely have been an omnipresent threat of annihilation hanging over their heads? We left with all sorts of thoughts swirling in our heads, and hopped back into the van for another bumpy ride back to the cold comfort of civilisation.


Listening The Silence of Luckdown

The year is 1857. There is darkness all around. The silence is deafening, after the torturous sounds of shelling, screaming and wailing. This is the silence of the soul. A month has gone by like this and so have the men with whom he had shared food, shelter, laughter and sorrows.

Of the 3,000 people seeking shelter about half are still alive; the rest surrounded him in the form of mangled bodies and decomposing corpses. How he wants everything to end. How he wants some food and water. How he hopes for a white-light saviour.

Sitting under a tamarind tree soaking up the winter sun of January in the manicured lawns of the British Residency in Lucknow, this story plays itself out cinematically in my head. A figment of my overwrought imagination, yes, but surely not so far from the truth of what might have ensued during the siege of 1857.

Over the years, Lucknow has earned a special reputation, for being at the intersection of cultures and laid-back grandeur. But this glorious history is stained red. Celebrated across regions for nawab, adaab (respect), kebab and shabab (beauty), surprisingly few know of the dark deeds hidden behind the ruins of the colonial walls of the British Residency, located in the heart of the city.

The construction of the Residency began in 1775, after the capital of Awadh was shifted to Lucknow from Faizabad. Built over 25 years, its original purpose was to accommodate the British resident and his staff.

The construction of the monument was started by Nawab Asafuddaula and was completed by Nawab Saadat Ali Khan, both rulers eager to have amicable relations with the British. As time passed, more buildings were added to the complex and soon the Residency occupied the highest elevation and became an imposing landmark in the city.

Of all the military engagements in the Revolt of 1857, Lucknow played a central part—the siege at the Residency proved to be the longest and most intense. Continuing for an estimated 90 days, more than 2,000 people living inside the complex died and it took the British armed forces to finally crush the revolt.

Now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India, the complex is an important historical landmark of the city. While the Bailey Guard Gate still stands tall and imposing, the buildings and structures inside are heavily damaged. Some were razed to the ground due to the shelling.

The 1857 Memorial Museum presents a visual account of the revolt. Featuring lithographs, photographs, paintings, documents and preserved objects such as swords, guns and cannons, the exhibit depicts the significant events as well as portraits of local heroes.

The museum also exhibits a scale model of the original buildings. The basement of the building is where the besieged colonisers attempted to take refuge from the mutineers.

Away from the chaos of the beggars and ice cream-wallas on the main road, entering from the Bailey Guard Gate, the atmosphere of the place is overpowering. Spread across wide expanses of well-kept lawns, the Treasury House and Dr Fayrer’s House are the first two structures that present themselves on either side of a red path that winds to more such monumental ruins ahead.

The buildings, pockmarked by bullets and cannon balls, present a conglomeration of architectural styles and influencing cultures. While retaining the Nawabi style of architecture, they also display British classical styles. Since the initial structures were constructed by the Nawabs, they feature arches and a hint of a labyrinth as seen in the city’s other famous landmark, the Bhulbhulaiya of the Bada Imambara.

However, an exploration of later buildings reveals Gothic elements characterised by pointed arches. Corridors that stand without roofs reflect perfect symmetry, rib vaults and flying buttresses.

Next to Dr Fayrer’s house is Begum Kothi, which served as the residential quarters of the Begum of Nasir-ud-Din Haidar. Behind it lies the mosque and imambara where she used to worship. A final stop must be at the cemetery, which tells its tales of sorrow and bereavement. Of all the headstones, the most visited is of Sir Henry Lawrence.

When the siege began, the British were led by Lawrence but he was killed in a few days. His tombstone honours his last wish: that it read, “Here lies Henry Lawrence, who tried to do his duty. May Lord have mercy on his soul.”

For a place that echoes the horrors of a great mutiny, the Residency is today a serene place with beautiful old trees, glorious gardens and crumbling ruins.

The red walls enclose a favourite place for youngsters to take their endless selfies and for couples to enjoy an undisturbed cuddle. Occasionally, one can even see a pre-wedding photo-shoot in progress. Lucknow’s Residency is an island of history, offering modern-day tranquillity against a backdrop of violence.


Write Your Own Story in Mussoorie

I am sitting in a quaint, stone-floored cafe overlooking a verdant ravine in the Himalayas. The 7,700-odd feet lend coolness to the sunny September afternoon. I am writing on a piece of paper at the back of which our helpful Mussoorie hotel manager has drawn a rough map.

The map shows the road through Landour Bazaar. Past pucca stalls of greengrocers, past the tired looking bakery with pink- and yellow-iced pastries of uncertain vintage. Becoming narrower, the road climbs steadily even as the buildings on either side hem it in and reaches a fork. The right branch goes towards Dhanaulti. The left branch loops around, climbing further between old houses and reaching the brightly coloured Doma’s Cafe. Behind the cafe is Ruskin Bond’s house.

At this point I could safely leave the reader, saying, Mr Bond, like his namesake in espionage, needs no introduction. But the temptation to talk about one’s favourite author is too strong. ‘Gentle reader’, as he often addresses millions like me in India and across the world, creates an understanding that is unique. A favourite with children, I was introduced to his writing in my thirties, when a friend lent me Rain in the Mountains.

In his world, geraniums quivering in the breeze, birds on the hillside, are celebrated. A constable trying to get his boss’s literary efforts published to cage a transfer, or a schoolmaster helping out failed students with pass certificates are recounted with loving detail. To these I have returned time and again. Each time rediscovering the mint-fresh beauty of the Himalayas.

I have for long harboured a desire to meet my favourite author. Mr Bond is truly living his dream, amid the mountainous locales he has been writing about for 65 years — for he just turned 82. So I booked tickets, packed my bags with my favourite Bond classics, Love among the Bookshelves and Tales of the Open Road, and convinced my husband to come along. For Landour was full of ghosts, if the writer is to be believed.

We reached Mussoorie at twilight. Our hotel on the top of a hill on Oaks Road was like an isle of peace. Lights glittered in the Doon Valley and atop Depot Hill lay spread a bird’s-eye view of Ruskinland at its bewitching best.

That morning I woke from a fitful sleep at 4.30am. Would I be able to meet the author? Ruskin Bond is not a recluse. But to live as he did required the temperament of a hermit. So was it a good idea to disturb such a person in his reclusive abode? Sleep eluded me. I got up and emerged into the cool mountain morning.

Climbing down a rough pathway on the hillside, behind the hotel I found myself facing the Wynberg Allen Girls School. When he left his job in Delhi, initially Bond lived in the Maplewood Lodge on the hillside below the school. I remembered the stories told about the quiet abode, the window seat, the huge half-burnt maple tree where woodpeckers toiled through the day. But Maplewood proved as elusive a sighting as the Himalayan thrush, whose dulcet tones I could clearly hear.

We started for Landour at about 9.30am in the rain-washed sunny morning. Doma’s Cafe is easily found. Painted blue and white, the windows festooned with Tibetan prayer flags, it dominated the landscape. The author’s home, Ivy Cottage, adjoins the café. With whitewashed walls and arched windows, the edges picked out in bright red, described by the writer in many of his anecdotes, the cottage is unmistakable.

I stood there taking it all in. Climbing up the famous red steps, my heart thumping, I rang the bell. Rakesh (Mr Bond’s adoptive son) answered the door. “Mr Bond is sleeping, resting,” he said. I looked at him, too overcome to protest. But my husband disclosed the story of our quest: “We have travelled all the way from Kolkata, only to meet Mr Bond for two minutes.” “Come back in the evening,” Rakesh relented.

Thus brushed off but not discouraged, I set out to explore the place where most of Ruskin Bond’s essays are based. We took the road which goes to the right, leaving Ivy Cottage behind. To our right the steep fall of a gorge, with graceful tall pines and deodars, ‘tree of the Gods’, rising up from the valley below.

I am no poet, so I fall back on Joyce Kilmer: “A tree which looks at God all day/And lifts her leafy arms to pray….” Moss and lichen festooned the trees like giant green streamers. Remnants of the morning rain glinted on the shaggy branches.

The woods gave off the sweet scent of conifers. I could understand why the British chose this pristine spot and made it a home for their battle-weary soldiers. Soon we reached Char Dukan, the town centre with the bank, post office and a few shops.

It also has St Paul’s Church, the quaint little structure which leaps at you when you search for Landour on the net. St Paul’s is tidy with polished woodwork. I browsed amid pews and wondered if Mr Bond came here to pray.

From here we climbed to Lal Tibba. Pine needles padded the path, muffling our footfall. At a humble café at the top, we were ceremoniously ushered on to the terrace. Silvery white clouds floated in the azure sky.

The resident photographer, dozing in the sun, approached us, “Nice photo?” When we politely declined, he receded to his corner without demur. Perhaps it is the tranquillity of the mountains. It humbles you and makes you more receptive of what comes your way.

We continued, crossing Rokeby Manor, home of Pahari Wilson, who made his fortune by introducing apples and the Lan dour Language School to India. Lunch was bun omelette and cheese toast at Anil’s Café, after which we headed to Sisters Bazaar.

I was keen to explore this place as Bond had lived there for some time before moving to Ivy Cottage. But instead of the peaceful surroundings, he found the mountains buzzing with writers—published or aspiring to publication.

From retired brigadier to reclusive actress, they, by their combined literary efforts, tried to put Bond “out of business”!

Sisters Bazaar got its name from the Dormitory of the Nurses, built circa 1827, to care for the wounded soldiers of the British Empire. The bazaar is a quiet narrow street and is home to Prakash Stores which finds mention in many of Bond’s essays. I bought apricot preserve and honey-roasted almonds. Evening still far away, we decided to while away the cool, lazy mountain afternoon at Chardukan. This time I chose Ivy Café.

Which brings me back to where I started. I am penning my impressions of Bond country as I saw it —from Landour Bazaar with the peanut vendor in the windy corner, who always has hot crisp peanuts to quiet St Paul’s Church. I am again waiting to meet Mr Bond.

Soon it was time to retrace our steps. I rang the bell a second time to await my destiny. A lady opened the door, “Mr Bond is not back yet. Come after half an hour, he may come back by then.”

As we went down the steps, I cast back in my memory, to think if I ever wanted something so much and it did not happen. The eternal optimist in me could not think of a single instance.

At our final sortie, my husband rang the bell. As I stood two steps below, I could see someone in a dressing gown coming to the door with slow, deliberate steps. The door opened. A kindly face beamed at us. Ruskin Bond!

“We have come from Kolkata. My wife is an ardent admirer of your books,” my husband said.

I suddenly found my tongue too, “Sir, please keep writing the good stuff that we so love to read. Thank you for writing.”

“That I have to do,” he thanked us, signed the books and posed graciously. I told him that we walked in all the places I had read about. “I do not walk much these days,” Bond said wistfully.

As we thanked him and went down the red steps, I suddenly realised how much this meeting meant to me. Joyful and content, we took the road leading back to Mussoorie. The sunset revealed a wonderful rainbow.

Next morning it was time to head back to the plains. But deep down there was a kernel of peace. As we passed through the dusty roads and negotiated our way past thundering trucks, the mind kept wandering back. To a quaint village tucked away in the hills, lost in the mists of time.

A man looking at the tall deodars, blue pines, at foxes dancing in the moonlight, at an old kitemaker snoozing in the sun and putting it all in his writing. Silently I wished Mr Bond well. May he continue to weave his magic.


The World’s Best Paella – Barcelona

Barri Gothic, or the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona, can be the setting for any noir film your imagination can dream up. As I walked down a narrow cobbled lane on a chilly December night, I couldn’t help thinking that a trench coat and fedora would have been more appropriate than my jacket and muffler.

A lit cheroot would also have been suitable. Along with a steely gaze and gravelly voice. And a double-crossing femme fatale with a Beretta.

A low growl from my belly hauled me back to the present I had lost track of time photographing the nooks and corners of Barri Gothic. It was only when I heard shutters being downed that I swiftly headed towards an eatery near my apartment. It was small but served delicious fare at prices that didn’t make my eyes water.

But I arrived only in time to say buenas noches to the owner who had just finished padlocking the café. He directed me to a square where I was certain to find some restaurants open.

I found myself at a brightly lit plaza that wore the demeanour of a wealthy man who knows that recession or not, he’d always be in business. Only one restaurant was open. And it looked like it had a Michelin-star or two. Members of the swish set were enjoying their tapas and wine.

A lady in red was plunking at a piano in a desultory manner while smiling brightly at no one in particular. I risked a glance at the menu displayed helpfully on a wooden stand: a meal here would blow a hole the size of Barcelona in my travel budget.

I then hurtled down an alleyway inhabited by caterwauling cats and mysterious shadows. I was a bit desperate now. It was then that I spotted Felip standing below a neon sign that declared it to be a cafeteria. Before I could ask whether it was open, Felip bowed, clicked his heels and threw the door open. But not before he cast a glance up and down the street.

It was mildly thrilling. I might have been meeting a key witness who would likely have died before the evening was over because he had the poisoned rabbit stew that was meant for me.

Dapper Felip looked like he had also just finished casting for a period film. He fixed a goggling eye and a twitching eyebrow on me and recommended the house speciality paella, the one dish that everybody knows is Spanish.

“I had paella for lunch. Can you recommend something else?” I asked, mindful of ‘beggars and choosers’.

“You haven’t had my paella,” Felip declared haughtily, “It’s the best paella in the entire Catalan region.”

“Is Catalan paella different from Spanish paella?”

Felip looked like he’d had an appendectomy without anaesthesia. His voice almost trembled as he said, “Catalans are not Spanish. We have our own language, culture and cuisine. We were arm-twisted to become a part of Spain. But soon we’ll be independent. Madrid is nothing compared to Barcelona.”

Felip went on for at least 10 minutes on how Catalans were more enterprising, hardworking and successful than the Spanish. He ended with, “I am a proud Catalan and I’d like very much to serve you our special Catalan paella”.

I was too hungry to discuss this further. I weakly nodded consent Felip clicked his heels and marched off. I finally got a chance to look around. Despite the humble signage outside, the place was quite large. And empty. There was not even a waiter in sight. Then I heard a woman’s voice. A matronly woman appeared holding a plate of grilled potatoes and another with shrunken eggs (I learnt later that they were quails’ eggs).

“Tapas,” she smiled. Tapas or appetisers are a staple of Spanish/Catalan cuisine. They could be cold or hot and range from fried chorizo, seafood, quails’ eggs to mixed cheese and olives. I started wolfing them down. The potato cubes had enough salt in them to rival the Dead Sea. The woman decided that she had exhausted her social manners for the day by saying “tapas” and smiling and retreated to a corner to watch TV.

Felip returned. He waved at some imaginary diners, stumbled against a chair and somehow regained his balance before his nose harpooned a quail egg. But he gathered himself together and announced that the special paella would be served now. He cast a glance at the woman who was obviously thirsty. She was downing copious amounts of the house sangria. Felip clicked his heels and again marched off.

The Catalan paella was good. Hearty. No complaints, except that I found four mussel shells but only two morsels of mussel meat. But was it the best paella I had ever had? Hard to say, considering I had eaten paella exactly thrice before. Felip, however, was having none of that ambivalence. He kept repeating, “Best paella, no? Catalan paella” I nodded vigorously.

The talk show had changed to a news programme. An anchor was laughing hysterically. As I scooped up the last of the paella, Felip presented the bill with a flourish. I winced. But then I reasoned with myself. This was no ordinary dish. It was the best paella in all of Spain. A bargain, really.


The Spell of Books in The Last Bookstore, L. A.

The sign in front of the building in downtown Los Angeles was intriguing. On the glass window was written: “We buy and sell books and records”. Peeping through the window, we could see an array of books in shelves in a big hall. Naturally, we had to enter.

The first thing that strikes you when you enter The Last Bookstore is the size of this place-22,000 sq ft spread over two floors. Located in a heritage building—in what once housed the Citizens National Bank and is now known as the Spring Arts Tower—we are in a place where books are a passion.

The white columns inside rise 25ft to the vaulted ceilings. Original marble tile floors feature the sort of uneven wear that makes the place more charming. The cashier’s desk catches our eye. The base is supported by books.

This is the third avatar of The Last Bookstore, which was started in 2005 by Josh Spencer, who used to sell books, CDs and other stuff on eBay from a building in the Old Bank District When he moved the store to its current location, two bookshops in Los Angeles had announced closures that same month, and down-town’s Metropolis Books went up for sale.

Spencer didn’t go into this business with any strategy and he’s aware of the risks. “People look at all this,” he told Los Angeles Downtown News, “and think we’re rolling in the dough. They don’t realise I’ve used all the debt I can, from everywhere, to open this. We’re doing okay, but not great”.

He added: “Whether we last will depend on if the community supports us. Right now, they’re supporting us.”

We walk into the Arts & Rare Books Annex, anew addition. Specially created for books on arts, architecture, photography, design or about anything related to arts, there is a gold mine waiting for you here. The coffee table books on arts are sold at throwaway prices. Thrillingly, we see a first edition of Lolita and one of The Jungle Book! Collectors’ items such as these come with a hefty price tag.

One of the great things about the place is the way the books are arranged. It is beautifully done, like any good library in America, and finding a title is not difficult. At many places we see the sign: “If you could not find it, ask us for it”. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable.

We come to the central hall. Stray beams of light come streaming through the tall glass windows. Chairs and couches are placed in the centre of the store, though a sign warns: ” Please note: we are not a library. I hour time limit for chairs & couches. No sleeping. You damage the books, you buy them.”

This message, however, doesn’t detract from the store’s warmth and larger message: that all are welcome.

We continue our browsing. We pick up the 1935 edition of the classic The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections by A. Edward Newton for $3! (It sells at $33 on Amazon.) We had to resist the temptation to buy more than once as we were mindful of the flight back to Bengaluru after two days.

Walking and browsing inside the store is a treat We look up to see an astonishing installation, ‘A Wave’, made of books. Hung from the ceiling, it is fabulous.

We take the stairs to the first floor which has books on history, politics, sports and other subjects. Even as we climb up, we notice another fascinating installation: a printed paper roll hung from the ceiling in an uneven pattern.

But the best is yet to come. As we enter the floor, we see a hole with books neatly arranged around it — here’s your photo opportunity! There is a book kept for you to read when your picture can be clicked from the other side of the hole. Then we pass through a ‘Tunnel of Books’. Yes, it is indeed a tunnel created by books arranged overhead!

We walk down and head straight to the records section. Stacks of vintage LPs of all the famous musicians you can name! We hearken to the sight of the beautiful Self Portrait by Bob Dylan. We also notice old LPs of a few Bollywood movies.

As the name suggests, The Last Bookstore maybe one of the last of its kind. With books being sold online, many bookshops have closed their shutters. As Spencer says, it is the love of the people which is sustaining his passion. A passion for books. By a book lover for other book lovers of the world.


A Blissful Treat in Montego Bay Beach Village

Morjim beach is one of the most beautiful beaches in North Goa to relax and unwind. It’s a poets’ paradise with sky changing colors and sun setting in. Located south to Ashwem beach, this secluded beach provides you harmony and tranquility on its silvery sands under the golden rays in midst of the sound of the waves.

The serene atmosphere on the shores of the beach is enhanced with the sight of a majestic sunset, when the beach shines with the last bits of rays and the sky becomes a spectacular sight in itself.

Imagine waking up to the sight of this alluring beach with cool breeze flowing in. Surrounded by greenery and the ocean; well trained and congenial staff, freedom to just be, it’s location on a road less traveled makes Montego Bay Beach Village an absolute delight.

The serene feeling that you will get here is something that you won’t get to experience anywhere else. Nestled in the midst of lush green locales, one can escape the hustle-bustle of city life.

Log Cabins, Luxury Tents, Casa de Mudancta, and a Beach Villa spread over an area of 100,000 sq ft of beach front property, in a coconut grove bordering the white sands of Morjim beach, you have various options for everything you require. The hardest decision you’ll have to make while staying here is beachfront or poolside.

A charming ocean front property, Montego Bay is 20 minutes from Calangute and 30 minutes from the Capital City of Goa, Panjim. A sanctuary for the discerning traveler, it is also popularly known for fresh sea food and authentic goan dishes.

More reason to cheer as the Bar overlooks the beach and serves a wide array of exotic cocktails. Ayurvedic massages and treatments are provided to release body aches and pains. Also have a yogic instructor for those interested in practicing yoga on the beach while staying. If you love your pets then get them along as this resort is pet friendly.

Montego Bay Beach Village is not only an ideal getaway to unwind but also a venue for creative weddings, theme birthday parties, corporate dinners and social gatherings. This exclusive resort has the power to magically dismiss the stress that builds up on our souls and makes for a heavenly holiday. This is bliss.