Travels with Melissa’s Aunties

Linda and Sue arrive!

We love visitors – totally, completely love them. Not only do visitors let us revisit familiar places to see them with new eyes, but they also give us the excuse we need to visit unfamiliar places. Travels with Melissa’s aunts Linda and Sue reminded us just how big and exciting our city is, how gorgeous the Galle Face views are in Colombo, how fantastic the Mahabalipuram rock carvings are, and how delightfully French Pondicherry is. We got to love those places anew, and we got to explore some new places too!

While in Bangalore, Melissa took Linda and Sue to see the central market, Tipu Sultan’s Summer Palace, the Bangalore Fort and and the Big Bull Temple. All four of us got to enjoy a day in the Nandi Hills at Tipu Sultan’s Summer Fort and the Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple.nandi-hills1

Our first stop out of Bangalore, took us to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We only stayed there for one night, but splurged on the beauty of the Galle Face Hotel, a historic site with beautiful ocean views and spectacular breakfasts.

Ah, the splendour of the Galle Face Hotel and the joy of putting your feet in the Indian Ocean for the first time!

While we had visited Galle with Rachel and Laurence last year, we hadn’t actually stayed in that charming old town – this time we spent two nights in the heart of Galle Fort and made the most of it: the sunset views from the wall, the historic buildings, the great shopping, and the kottu (amazing dish made from chopped up paratha and veggies). The Antic Guesthouse was the perfect base from which to relish it all.

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From Galle we headed to Yala National Park where we stayed at Cinnamon Wild, a jungle resort right on the edge of the park. We saw crocodiles in the lake, wild boar wandering around the grounds, and spectacular bird life everywhere. We were warned that leopards and elephants sometimes made their way down the resort’s paths and so were required to have an escort to get from our cabins to the main building where we ate after dark. Sadly, no such exciting thing happened while we were there, though. Our outings took us to the ruins of an ancient buddhist monastery that once housed 10,000 monks and on a safari where we saw many cool animals (but no leopards no matter how hard we tried to will them to appear).  It was all so enjoyable, sitting by the pool, watching the wildlife, sipping wine with a view of the lake, or just relaxing on our decks.

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It’s always hard to leave Sri Lanka, but we knew good times were ahead of us back in India. Last year we lingered in Mahabalipuram, but this year we made it an afternoon’s stop-off on the way to Pondicherry. The carvings are well worth the trip and easily viewed in a few hours, still arriving in Pondicherry in time for the evening promenade.

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Pondicherry was Tom’s last stop since he had to return to work (vacation is never long enough!), but Melissa and her aunties got to carry on to Rajasthan.

We arrived in Jodhpur and checked into our home for the night, although it turned out to be a spot we might not have chosen if we’d had a bit more information – it was far from the part of the city where all of the buildings are painted blue so we never got to see that. More of an issue, though, was the two flights of stairs to the room (not a favorite of Sue’s knee) and the fact that the restaurant didn’t serve anything that was sufficiently spice-free for Linda and Sue to enjoy it. A dinner of nothing but parathas only takes you so far. The next morning, we decided to find somewhere else to eat and discovered The Filos a mere 4 minute drive from our hotel. Such friendly service and delicious food – we highly recommend it for anyone traveling to Jodhpur! With only about 20 hours in Jodhpur, we couldn’t see much, but we did make it to Mehrangarh Fort. Mehrangarh is a 15th century palace carved into the cliffs overlooking the town and is a breath-taking marvel. It was a bit distressing, though, to see the handprints (some of them clearly of young girls) left by the fifteen wives of the Maharaja on their way to throw themselves on his funeral pyre, a practice known as Sati.

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After our delightful Filos breakfast, we were picked up Shayam who drove us 75 minutes into the desert to our next stop at Mihir Garh. Despite our intentions to drive straight there, we couldn’t resist a stop at an incredible place selling gorgeous textiles and other handicrafts of the region. We thought we’d be there for 30 minutes, but it turned into a nearly 2 hour spree. Poor Sue had tolerated as much shopping as she could stand at the end of the first hour and was practically begging Linda and Melissa to leave by the time we finally headed out of the store with plans already in place to return. We all agreed, though, that we found beautiful things. On the return trip, Linda and Melissa both ordered beautiful coats which we hope to see in San Diego along with all the other purchases.Textiles

Mihir Garh was amazing from start the finish. Melissa found a great deal online and proposed it to Linda and Sue, still thinking it might be an excessive splurge, but they were game! Everything about it was beautiful from the grounds to our rooms to our private pool, and everyone there was so kind. When we arrived, we felt like royalty with umbrellas carried by attendants to protect us from the sun as we walked through the entryway. At dinner, we met actual royalty when we were welcomed by the son of the current royal family who built the hotel. Everything there was designed by the family using products, handicrafts, and artisans from the area. This was a magnificent place to relax for a few days, reading books, drawing, and gazing out over the desert in between perfect meals by the pool.

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After a stop at the textiles place on the way back to Jodhpur, we boarded a train to Jaipur – every visit to India needs at least one train trip, right? In truth, sitting in the AC Chair Car is not so different from sitting in a standard Amtrak car back home, but it’s still pretty fun. We arrived in Jaipur after 9pm and were picked up by our hotel, the wonderful Pearl Palace Heritage. We expected to be somewhere a bit rustic, a bit basic, but still charming – well, it was plenty charming, but there nothing rustic or basic about it. Every room is decorated differently, every bit of hallway is ornamented, and we were in heaven. It was just a short walk to their sister property, the Pearl Palace, where Melissa and Linda had dinner at the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant the next night. They told us that they will be adding their own rooftop restaurant, swimming pool, and fitness center and I suspect that their prices will double when they’re done. Go now!Jaipur hotel

With only one full day to enjoy Jaipur, we hired a guide. We headed straight toward the Amber Palace, stopping off at the foot of its hill to admire an ancient stepwell before continuing on. It was a bit of a walk in a bit of a crowd, but with lots to look at. All was going well until we noticed that Sue was suddenly a bit green. The infamous Delhi belly had struck! She thought she’d be ok waiting for us in the first of the four levels so we found her a shady spot and Melissa and Linda continued on with the guide to see it all before leaving.Amber Fort

It was stunning, but our delay made for a stressful ride back to the hotel for Sue. Once she was safely in bed with the hotel staff racing around town to find ginger ale (so kind!), Linda and Melissa headed back out with the guide visit the Jaipur city palace and museum, the Jantar Mantar (18th century astronomical instruments built by the Maharaja in five sites around the region – Melissa and Jesse visited them in Delhi), view the water palace, and stop at yet another handicraft place where we saw gorgeous handmade carpets, among other things.

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The next morning, with Sue feeling a bit better, we started the drive to Agra, meeting up with a guide to take us to the Agra Fort. Although the Taj Mahal gets most of the Agra hype, the Agra Fort is pretty amazing. It’s huge and intricately ornamented (particularly the rooms built to house/imprison Shah Jehan who built the Taj Mahal, but was deposed by his son who wanted to protect the royal coffers from the plan to build a second Taj Mahal in black marble). From there, we got our first views of the Taj Mahal in the slightly hazy distance. In Agra, we opted for a charming homestay called the Coral Court, relatively close to the Taj Mahal which we planned to visit the next day for sunrise. On the downside, again two flights of stairs up to our room; on the upside, the kind staff served us dinner on the rooftop and we got mehendi (henna) on our hands!

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The next morning, Sue stayed at the hotel to continue her recovery (much to our sad dismay) while Linda and Melissa went to the Taj Mahal. Melissa was prepared to be underwhelmed after hearing so much hype for so many years, and was then completely awe-struck. Once you start taking pictures at the Taj Mahal, you can’t stop – every angle, every detail, every inch seems to warrant another photo, and then you need a few more because you know your photos simply aren’t doing it justice. What is there to say that hasn’t already been said? We’ll let the photos speak for themselves, even knowing that they undersell it.

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From there, all that remained was a drive to the airport in Delhi. No visit to India is ever long enough to see it all, but Linda and Sue certainly tried!