5 Star service in the Lodge from Hell!

Luxury AccomodationI lift up the pillow and a nest of beetles scurry away from the light.

I do the same with the next pillow, sending more beetles scuttling away in to the darkness.

I quickly brush them away before The Boss spots them and throw my own clean bed sheet over the whole bed, pillows and all.

The pillow is the same shape and consistency as a bag of cement and within 10 minutes I have a throbbing headache.

The bed too short for my height so I am forced to lie at an angle with my feet hanging over the side. The room bathed in a dim glow from the fluorescent yellow street light outside the window as I listen to late night wedding revelers returning noisily to the rooms next door, shouting at each other in Tamil despite their proximity and the late hour. I wouldn’t be getting much sleep that night.

Earlier that evening after a fruitless search for some quality accommodation in this small rural town we finally settled for the best of the rest and took a tiny room in a lodge down a noisy side street. It’s wedding season and everywhere is booked solid in a town that is not big enough to warrant a hotel of any kind.

The room qualifies as luxury accomodation as it has AC and a TV. One thing it lacks though is hot water. With hand signals and a few words in English and Tamil we explained to the owner that we wanted hot water to bathe in and he explained that he would supply us with an immersion rod, an electric element which you suspend in a bucket to heat the water. It needs to be suspended using a wooden stick so that you don’t get an electric shock but it is surprisingly effective.

Immersion heater

By 8pm it hadn’t arrived so I climbed down the narrow stairway to what functions as the reception. The lodge owner was still there juggling calls on his two cell phones.

“Hot water, hot water” I asked him.

“9 o’clock coming” came the answer. “Fresh piece.”

As good as his word, at 9 o’clock there was a loud banging on the door.

The elderly watchman, barefoot and clad in a white vest and dhoti, handed me a plastic bucket, a wooden stick and a brand new immersion rod still in it’s box.

Closing the door, I looked at the price stickers still on the bucket and the immersion rod box. The total cost was Rs650.

The rent for the room was only Rs600!

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Reconnecting with Nature at The Tamara Coorg

A sharp crack fills the air as if the sky is being rendered in two. A deep rolling boom follows and water starts trickling through the trees to fall on the balcony suspended above the coffee plantation.
We are in a little slice of heaven, a retreat from the chaotic madness of the Indian cities, set high on a tree-clad hillside in a 176 acre coffee estate, far from the teeming crowds, the constant honking, the diesel fumes, the dust filled air.
My wooden cottage juts out from the hillside, on stilts 20-30 feet above the coffee plants below. The French windows open wide, the fragrance from the acres of white coffee blossoms below filling the room. Honey Bees pausing from their work of pollination fly into the room , take a couple of laps, before heading back outside into the soft rain now percolating through the shade giving silver oaks, jackfruit and rosewood trees towering above.
It’s our anniversary, and to compensate The Boss for another year tolerating my foibles, my idiosyncrasies, my moods, I have taken her away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the drudgery of the daily routine, and we have come here to The Tamara Coorg.

We left Bangalore early yesterday morning in an effort to beat the traffic but it seemed like everyone had the same idea, the roads filled with cars, each crammed with extended family members, brothers, sisters, their wives and husbands, and children sitting on laps or standing in the passenger foot well clinging on to the dash-board.
As is usual in India the drivers dispensing with all safety considerations, instead focusing on beating the car in front, a subconscious urge to arrive first overriding any thoughts of self-preservation or protection of loved ones.
Seven hair-raising, butt clenching hours later we turned off the main road for a 4 km drive up a single lane concrete road winding up into the hills. We wound down the windows and turned off the a/c to allow the fresh air and bird song into the car.

Greeted with garlands of jasmine and glasses of cold coffee we were then, formalities over, transported further up the hillside by electric buggy to our room.

The Tamara Cottages

Each cottage is built from imported Canadian pine and stands high on stilts reminding me of my childhood in New Zealand where ‘Pole Houses‘ are common given the hilly terrain. Not a tree was cut down to build each cottage and every effort has been made to retain if not improve upon what was there before construction. This is refreshing in India where the calls of commerce usually override any concerns for the environment.

After freshening up we walked 500 meters up the hill-side to the open air restaurant called The Falls, for lunch where a lovely buffet was served. The sky opened up and rain poured from the heavens, the smell of the wet jungle wafting through the dining hall.

Retiring to our room we sat, stomachs full, and looked out over the lush green hills, listening to the rain and the distant rumbles of thunder. Reveling in the tranquility, the peace, the satisfaction, that only being in a natural environment can bring. Thoughts of the city far away, our eyelids grew heavy with sleep, as we relaxed and breathed in the pure air, gazing out on the now mist shrouded hills that form the landscape of Coorg.
As evening approached the temperature dropped and the rain eased off, the sound of falling water replaced by birdsong, the shrieks of Mynahs, the pu-cock call of the Barbet, and the musical warble of the wrens and tits flittering from tree to tree.

We headed back up to the restaurant for dinner where a candle-lit corner table awaited us, specially decorated in honor of our anniversary. A chance remark to the executive chef at lunch time regarding Coorgi food, resulted in a dish of Pandi (Pork) Curry with Akki Rotis (rice bread), a dish this region is famous for, made especially for us. What followed was a lovely meal, accompanied by the sounds of crickets in the trees nearby and the twinkling lights of fire flies, like little fairy lights in the foliage above.

Returning to our room after dinner we found another surprise. Housekeeping in our absence had decorated our bed with flowers in the shape of a heart.

Rising before dawn the next morning we hiked high into the hills, accompanied by the resort guide, a local man with an encyclopedic knowledge of birds and their calls. Climbing high into the hills, the sounds of civilization soon replaced with the staccato hammering of woodpeckers, and the strangely human tune of the Malabar whistling thrush. Flattened bamboo and piles of dung marked the path of the wild elephants that had passed through before us, and our guide stopped frequently to show footprints of deer and other wild animals.

Cresting the final ridgeline we halted in our tracks, stunned by the view that opened up before us. Jungle clad hills and valleys still shrouded in morning mist and clouds stretched out before us as we gazed awestruck at the beauty before us. Unusually for India not a sound or sign of human habitation reached us as we sat perched high on the hillside, cool breezes wafting over us, birds of prey hurtling past us in a break neck dive into the valley below.

Coorg Landscape

In a grassy patch just above the tree line on the hillside below us a movement caught our eye. Looking closer we spied three Sambar deer, heads swiveling in our direction, ears erect, as our excited whispers somehow reached them. Watching as they moved gracefully across the hillside and back into the jungle we said an inward prayer of thanks to the universe for allowing us to reconnect with the natural wonder of our beautiful planet. A connection that sadly we have lost in our so-called civilized city lives.

Coorg Jungle

The joke is on me!

Sometimes my sense of humour gets me into trouble.
After a wonderful lazy lunch at the Polo Club in Bangalore’s Oberoi Hotel, I handed over my docket to the Valet parking attendant, and said with a grin “mine’s the blue one over there”.
The poor chap took me seriously and rushed over to the Porsche Cayenne that I wished were mine and proceeded to try and open it with the key of my way more moderately priced SUV. I had to rush over and stop him before he damaged the lock.
What I had intended as a joke ended up embarrassing both him and I!

Room Service confusion

So I am working from my hotel room, and too busy to go out and get some lunch. I decide to order room service and press the number for in-room dining.
“I would like to order some lunch, please”
“What would you like Sir?”
“I would like the Thai Red Curry Chicken please”
“Certainly Sir. It will be there in 30 minutes.”
5 mins later my phone rings.
“Sir, the Thai Red Curry Chicken you ordered”
“Yes”
“Do you want Chicken or Beef?”

 

Welcome back, Your Highness!

I am planning a drive up to Mumbai at the end of the month. It is over a 1000 kms so I plan to break journey half way. My regular readers will remember that the last time I did the trip I had a less than pleasant experience with the Hotel in which I stayed (posted here). Not wishing to repeat the experience I have decided to loosen the purse strings and go a bit more upmarket.
Discovering that the Taj Hotels Group have opened a new hotel in Belgaum, I have decided that this will be a good place to lay my weary head after 500 kms of dodging slow moving goods vehicles, wandering livestock, and the inevitable motorcyclists heading the wrong way down the highway.
Taj are renowned for their excellent hotels so I decided to join their loyalty program as I am always keen to pick up some loyalty points for later use. While filling in the online application form I was delighted to learn that there were a few more interesting options under Salutation other than the usual Mr., Mrs. or Miss. I scrolled through the options which included such titles as Wing Commander, Admiral, and Professor
I couldn’t help myself and within 10 minutes I received a welcome email from the Taj Inner Circle Loyalty program addressed to “Your Royal Highness Prince_____”
(I had thought about Maharaja, but as I am not Indian I didn’t think I would be able to carry it off)
The Boss was hugely unimpressed and urged me to change it as she said she will be so embarrassed when I check in.
I should think that would be the least of her worries. I am sure she will be much more embarrassed when she checks in and they greet her with “Welcome to our Hotel, Your Holiness!”

 

Mattress Hopping in Hong Kong! – The adventures of a Gigolo?

Deuce Bigalo - Male Gigolo

No I’m not a Gigolo, but that is not to say that I won’t consider any reasonable offers! (Just don’t tell The Boss!)
On my last trip to HK I indulged in a bit of what people in the travel hacking business call mattress running/hopping. Not as exciting as you would first think but it certainly has it’s rewards.
I am a member of the loyalty program for IHG Hotels Group which includes hotels from the Holiday Inn Express up to the Intercontinental. The Boss and I recently had two free nights in the Intercontinental Bangkok paid for by loyalty points (mentioned here) so I was keen to replenish my account.
Knowing I had at least 4 nights in HK I logged on to the IHG website and looked through their promotional offers.
Normally a stay earns points at the rate of 10 points per USD$1 spent so it takes a bit of spending to get enough points for a free stay in a decent hotel. Traveling for work, I was only given a budget for a cheaper hotel so staying at the Holiday Inn Express for the equivalent of USD$173 per night would only get me around 7000 points. A free night at an Intercontinental starts from 35,000 points so 7000 points is not going to go very far. Another tricky condition that can catch you out is that whether you stay one night or 3 at the same hotel it is considered as 1 stay.
When looking through all the promotional offers I found that there were bonuses available for 3 stays. There are two Holiday Inn Express’ on HK Island so the devious side of my brain kicked in and I booked the first night in one, the second and third nights in another, returning to the first hotel for the final night. Luckily having lived in HK I know the two locations well and HK public transport being excellent knew that transferring between the two locations would be simple.
I also found that there were a number of other bonus point offers I could qualify for so I registered for them all, gleefully anticipating the points haul I would accumulate, but in fact getting a bigger kick out of manipulating the system.
So the second day in HK I checked out of the hotel, jumped in a taxi and was at the 2nd hotel within 15 minutes. Left my bags with the concierge, spent the day in the office and returned in the evening to check in, repeating the process again on the 4th day, returning to the first hotel. the staff welcoming me back with a smile and thanking me for staying with them again.
Two weeks later the points arrived in my account.

The final total?
40,724 points!!
Enough for 1 free night in the Intercontinental Bangkok with some left over. IHG also have the Points Breaks promotion every couple of months where Hotels around the world are offered for only 5000 points per night. Sometimes there are gems like the Intercontinental Fiji or the Intercontinental Hanoi Westlake.
So for a minor inconvenience of changing rooms every couple of days I now have enough points for 8 free nights in fancy hotel. And the best thing is it didn’t cost me a cent personally!

I flew to Bangkok for Lunch!

I flew to Bangkok for lunch!
I’ve always wanted to be able to say something like that. I remember as a kid reading about the fabulously rich arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi and how when he got the urge for pasta he would jump in his private jet and fly to Italy.
Apart from the private jet part, I almost did something similar.
Late last year The Boss and I had spent 3 months in Bangkok as a prelim to moving there. After 3 months we had come back to India to renew our visas planning to return to Thailand after a month, however a family member’s poor health had scuttled those plans and we remained in India. We had, though, left 2 suitcases full of possessions in a friend’s apartment and when it looked like we wouldn’t be returning anytime soon, had to organize a way of reuniting ourselves with our belongings.
Sending them by unaccompanied baggage or by courier was ridiculously expensive and I soon discovered that it would be cheaper for both of us to fly there, pick up the bags, satisfy our craving for Thai food and fly back again.
So the plan was hatched to catch the night time flight to Bangkok, arrive in the morning, pick up the bags, spend the day roaming Bangkok, stuff ourselves with every eatable we could find, and fly back in the evening.

But then I thought, why rush back? I had some hotel loyalty points so I booked us in to the Intercontinental for a free night (35,000 points) and off we went.
Normally when we go to Thailand we stay in pretty inexpensive hotels as you can get a nice clean place for not too much money. Although when we stayed for 3 months we were lucky that it coincided with a  Grand Mercure  50% off flash sale and we managed to get a serviced apartment for that period at a ridiculously cheap rate.
This would be the first time in a luxury hotel in Bangkok so I was pretty excited. I was feeling very proud of myself that we were staying for a night for free until I heard the young Arab gentleman beside me booking himself into a suite for 6 nights!
We arrived early morning so we were lucky a room was available and the check-in staff also upgraded us to the executive rooms. One look at the massive room they had given us on the 29th floor and Executive room at Intercontinental Bangkokwe decided to book another night!Executive room at Intercontinental Bangkok
I cannot recommend the Intercontinental highly enough. The staff are superb, the rooms are wonderful, and the location is excellent, right next to the Chidlom Sky Train Station, and walking distance to the major malls.
The executive rooms come with access to the lounge on the top floor. This is normally included in the price of the room but as we were staying free, we would have to pay extra. At first we wondered if it was worth it at THB1500 per person, but discovered it included breakfast, afternoon tea, and happy hour so decided to splurge. Reading the instructions and noting that a smart standard of dress is required; we dressed carefully and arrived for breakfast. The first person we saw was eating breakfast in her pajamas, and then we saw two other westerners, in un-ironed clothes and running shoes, their hair in the same shape it was when it was crushed against their pillows 15 minutes earlier!

View from the Intercontinental Bangkok
The views at breakfast were stunning. The lounge is on the 37th floor and there are no tall buildings around so one is afforded panoramic views of the city.
Breakfast was good, afternoon tea was ok, but the real value comes at happy hour. Unlimited drinks and snacks from 5.30pm til 8pm! I discovered they had a lovely New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and then sat back watching the sunset and ensured the New Zealand wine industry would not be going out of business any time soon. The Boss sipped on her fancy umbrella-adorned mocktail and filled up on satay and chicken samosas.
Thirst quenched and Tommy’s voracious appetite temporarily quelled, we entered the lift. A Singaporean guest stood inside and was staring at me intently. Assuming he was admiring my ravishing movie star good looks, I was disappointed to hear him say after about 30 secs of scrutiny “I thought you were Edward Snowden and I wondered how you had got here from Russia!”

The Great Decline of The Travel Inn!

Pic Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomhilton/

Pic Credit Tom Hilton

While travelling in India it is often difficult to find a good standard of accommodation away from the big cities. Although things have changed tremendously since I first visited in the mid 90’s, with many decent hotels coming up in the cities, in the rural areas, clean comfortable accommodation is often scarce. When you do find somewhere you tend to hang on to it as your favored place to stay.

The Boss and I travel quite frequently by road between Mumbai and Bangalore, a distance of about 1000kms, and after the first couple of times doing it non-stop, a 16-18 hour drive, and being physically wiped out for a couple of days afterwards, realized that it was probably a good idea to break journey half way.

Fortunately a couple of years ago we discovered, in Dharwad, approximately the mid-point of our journey, a Hotel called The Travel Inn. Functioning a little like the highway motels we are used to in the west, The Travel Inn was a clean comfortable pit stop, which provided good food and even charged for only half a day if you left within 12 hours of checking in. A perfect respite on our long drive and one we used every time we passed through.

On our recent drive back from Mumbai (posted here) we again decided to break journey at The Travel Inn. Arriving early evening we checked in, while simultaneously reading the various framed certificates on the reception wall. Certificates announcing compliance with ISO: 9001, water quality, and low carbon footprint. Suitably impressed we took our keys and waited while a small army of boys ferried our bags from the car to the rooms. After surveying the twin bedded rooms, confirming that there was hot water, “yes sir, 24 hours hot water”, and asking for a couple of pillow cases to be replaced as they were, let’s just say, not as white as they should be, we decided to freshen up before dinner.

The first order of business was to give my niece her bath as when leaving Mumbai we had just plucked her out of her bed in the early morning and put her in the car still fast asleep.
Turned on the hot water tap … no water. I don’t mean no hot water, but no water at all! Quick call to reception. “Sir, after 15 mins it will come, then please waste 5-6 buckets of water”
15 minutes later, sure enough water started to flow from the hot water tap, at first luke warm and clear, then as it got hotter it changed colour at first orange then darker and darker until a reddish brown liquid poured out into the bucket. Another call to reception. “Don’t worry Sir. Just waste 5-6 buckets of water”.
I emptied the first bucket together with the 5 cm layer of brown sediment now coating the bottom and proceeded to fill another, repeating the process 5-6 times, before sure enough the water flowed hot and clear from the tap. My 6 year old niece, who had before been watching the process in horror and with understandably some fear of the bath to come, finally relaxed and summoned up enough courage to have her bath.

We had a reasonably pleasant dinner in the cool open air dining area ( Dharwad, being slightly elevated, has a very agreeable climate year round), the highlight of which was overhearing the staff briefing in which the manager, demonstrating his ISO: 9001 compliant management style, said he would slap the staff in the face if he caught them carrying out some (unknown to us) misdemeanor again.

Back to the room. Time for the Boss and I to partake of the 24 hours hot water and have a shower. Turned on the hot tap…again no water. Quick call to reception. “Sir, after 15 mins it will come, then please waste 5-6 buckets of water” Familiar now with the procedure, I waited as bucket after bucket of brown liquid flowed out.
Glancing across to the sink I read a helpful sign stuck to the wall “Save the planet. Save water”
60- 70 litres later, the water finally clean enough (but sadly only luke warm) we showered, changed and decided to watch a bit of TV.

Following an exhaustive 10 minute search for the remote, another quick call to reception. 2 minutes later, a knock on the door, and a boy stood there with a handful of TV remotes. By now doubtful, I asked him to wait while I tested the remote. The remote seemed to be working, a light flashed at the end of it, but no response from the TV. 5 minutes of fiddling with the cables and plugging it into different power sockets ensued, and then the boy admitted defeat and walked out with the TV under his arm, replacing it a short while later with a functional one.

By this time dissatisfied, disillusioned and disappointed, the Boss and I decided to sleep so we could leave as early as possible and spend the minimum amount of time in what once was a pleasant overnight stop. Hearing a shriek from the Boss I turned around to see that she had folded back her bedcovers to get into bed and discovered a set of muddy footprints between the sheets.
I turned to my bed and wondering what I would find, folded back my covers to discover a profuse scattering of hairs, some of them suspiciously short and curly!