This Is How to Do Your Weekend Getaway at Yosemite

For One Travel. May 2018.

Whether you are a thrill-seeking mountain climber, long-distance biker, or just like to relax outdoors with the family, chances are that you will be able to find an amazing vacation that will satisfy your mind and body in the expansive 1,200 miles of Yosemite National Park. While the best time to visit Yosemite is during spring when the snow is melting and the waterfalls are at their full gushing glory, its massive granite mountains covered with glaciers, ancient giant sequoias, and vast meadows are spectacular year-round.

Start at the Gold Rush in Downtown Sonora

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Tuolumne County, California, acts as a gateway to Yosemite and High Sierra. In its heart lies the town of Sonora, which is famous for being a gold rush mining camp until the mid-1800s. This historic downtown is a good place to take a nostalgic stroll through time, imagining Mexican, French and American miners passing through the yellow Roman-pressed brick courthouse, the iconic Red Church, and the 19th century Opera House. The few walkable blocks are full of antique and country western shops, small international restaurants, and a few museums.

Sip on Fresh Hard Cider

tasting indigeny hard cider

Take a pause for a hard cider tasting at Indigeny Reserve for free. This family-run 160-acre preserve and apple orchard set in the breathtaking hills of Sonora grows 51 varieties of apples. Indigeny Reserve makes hand-crafted hard cider and apple brandy in oak barrels. You can taste hard ciders on tap and unique flavors of infused vodkas such as figs and tomatoes. Take a tour of the distillery or enjoy a bottle while sitting outside at the picnic tables under apple trees dating back as far as the early 1900s.

Fill Up on California Country Cuisine

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For dinner, head away from downtown Sonora to the Standard Pour for local and sustainable fresh casual food and brews. The restaurant sources all their cheese, meat, and honey from California farms and offers tasty dishes such as fried Brussels sprouts, salt and pepper rock shrimp, and avocado toast with cheddar and chili. Watch a baseball game on the big screen, enjoy the open-air patio, or mingle with fellow travelers.

Take a Snooze at Lazy Z

At night, stay in one of the spacious family cottages and cabins at the Lazy Z Resortnestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Rooms come with private kitchens and decks, while common areas include a rustic clubhouse filled with family heirlooms and a relaxing swimming pool surrounded by woods. The mountain retreat is great for nature lovers looking for peace and tranquility.

Soak in The Landscapes

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One of America’s most popular national parks, Yosemite Valley is home to deep valleys, rocky cliffs, and cascading waterfalls. Wake up early and plan to spend at least an entire day in the park unless you are camping overnight, but make sure to book your campsite months in advance. Make stops to see Sentinel Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Bridalveil Falls, Yosemite Valley, Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, and Merced River to capture some stunning photographs.

Just outside the park entrance is a new hotel called Rush Creek Lodge, which offers luxurious accommodations, a relaxing spa, saltwater swimming pool, game rooms, and event facilities. Even if you are not staying overnight, you can stop by for a casual dinner and crafted cocktails at The Restaurant at Rush Creek, overlooking a forest sunset.

Explore the Lesser Known Valleys

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While most people head straight to Yosemite National Park, the adjacent Hetch Hetchy Valley has one of the longest hiking seasons of any of the park attractions due to its relatively low elevation, and is often not as crowded. Besides hiking, you can go backpacking, bird watching, fishing, or visit the spectacular Wapama Fall. If you are up for a bigger challenge, hike the 16-mile round trip trail with 3,300 feet in elevation gain to reach Smith Peak. It’s the highest point on the Tuolumne side of the park and offers unparalleled views.

Written for One Travel. Published in May 2018.

 

How This American Woman Is Changing People’s Lives Through Travel

For CheapOAir Miles Away. March 2018

Kelly Campbell is a native of Indiana and founder of The Village Experience, a responsible tourism company. Kelly travels year-round taking groups of people to fund projects in Kenya, India, and Guatemala, improving the lives of women and children, and providing water to remote villages.

I caught up with Kelly at her home base in Lamu, Kenya, where she has been living since 2016. Lamu is a small island town northeast of Mombasa, best known for being a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

a street in Lamu

Away from the bustling cities, as a resident there is not much to do in the Arabic-influenced town except feeling the cool ocean breeze, watching picturesque sunsets while sailing in a dhow, walking through narrow historic streets alongside donkeys, or eating fresh seafood at local restaurants. Here’s what she had to say about using travel to help people, life in Lamu, and how she spends her downtime. 

What made you move to Lamu?

I first discovered Lamu in 2011 and immediately fell in love with Shela Village, a small beach community located at the end of Lamu Island. It has become the perfect sanctuary for me in between the many trips I run all over the world. I return to a haven of healthy vegetables, freshly caught seafood, flavorful cappuccinos, daily massages, and lots of downtime to read and sail to my heart’s content. This is exactly the setting I need to keep my sanity in between travels.

kelly at Shela_Village

What’s your favorite part about living in Lamu? 

Having the fisherman knock on my door asking if I’d like fresh caught lobster, calamari, fish, prawns, or crab. The answer is always YES!

What was your inspiration for founding The Village Experience? 

It’s my opinion that Americans need to get out into the world more and experience the richness, diversity, and beauty of cultures outside of their own. This leads to better understanding, breaking down of barriers, and tolerance towards different religions, among other things.

How are you supporting the local community in Lamu?

Since I first traveled to Lamu when tourism was at an all-time low, I connected to the local dhow captains, fisherman, hotel owners, and families that were all struggling with how to survive on an island dependent on tourism dollars. I heard from them about the difficulty of keeping and maintaining their Mozambique-style dhows when there were no people coming to the island for sunset cruises or Manda Toto snorkeling trips. I met fishermen who would go out to the sea and catch an entire boat full of tuna, snapper, and king mackerel, but have no one to sell it to. I spoke to the director of the Lamu Marine Conservation Trust (LAMCOT) about the obstacles the schools in the areas were facing since parents no longer had the income needed to pay school fees or provide nourishing food to their kids.

These encounters inspired me to work my hardest to promote tourism to Lamu. Lamu is a magical place where donkeys and dhows rule the transportation lanes, where Swahili architecture inspires visions of a bygone period, and where people are still genuine in their efforts to meet you and get to know you. They want you to love Lamu as much as they do. This was the safest and most peaceful place I had ever encountered in all my travels to over 60 countries in the last 15 years.

kelly on the Hippo_Dhow

I was determined to showcase Lamu in a positive image through multiple social media channels. The Village Experience offered several trips every year and word spread that Lamu was indeed as magical as I portrayed it to be. Now in 2018, we are sending people to Lamu almost every week — whether it’s individuals coming for vacation, couples wanting a romantic getaway, families looking for beach time, or groups of friends wanting to explore the islands. We work with local hotels, boat owners, women’s associations, boutiques, artisan workshops, and projects to support their development.

Our groups have raised money to support Safari Doctors (medical volunteers in rural communities) medical sails, build classrooms at Twashukuru, provide desks for Shela Primary School, distribute burkinis at the local women’s pool, install new mattresses at the girl’s orphanage in Lamu Town, and conserve sea turtles throughout the archipelago.

What other projects do you work with?

Women’s Interlink Foundation in Kolkata, India, works to root out human-trafficking, prostitution, and abuse against women by working on prevention, rescue, rehabilitation, and repatriation back into the community. The Village Experience has provided Women’s Interlink Foundation with dormitories and new playgrounds for the rescue centers, sewing machines for their tailoring program, administrative support for the entire street kids program, funding for their artisan development program, and we even built the entire Tribal Village Home Stay for their community-based tourism program in Shantiniketan.

Vamos Adelante in Esquintla, Guatemala works in 24 rural villages along the slopes of Volcano Fuego. Most of the communities survive on seasonal work from the coffee plantations and sugar cane fields, and employ children in their families to help bring in extra income. The Village Experience has assisted Vamos Adelante in building new classrooms, renovated current schools, constructing a recreational center, starting a women’s tailoring program, installing concrete floors/tin roofs/rain catchment systems for families in the program, and even providing a new cement mixer for the construction teams.

kelly working with the Safari_Doctors project

What do you do for fun when not traveling? 

I pack up my cooler with chilled white wine, fresh pasta salad, locally made bread, and imported chocolate, and go sailing with my friends on Hippo Dhow or The Gypsy Catamaran. There is something so relaxing and therapeutic about being on the water, especially the Indian Ocean. We sail through the channels, anchor the boat on Manda Beach or one of the local sand bars, and then swim, walk the beach, and enjoy our cooler.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away. March 2018

Travel: Here’s Why KERALA Continues to Be One of the Top Tourist Destinations of India

For Khabar Magazine print edition. February 2018.

Warm humid air, the smell of roasting curry leaves, voices sounding singsong Malayalam, coconut trees as far as I can see—I had arrived in Kerala, also known as God’s Own Country.

As soon as I landed at Kochi International Airport, I felt like I was no longer in the India I was so familiar with. Being raised in the north (Punjab), I could instantly see a drastic contrast in the environment and attitudes of the people. The two-lane highways in Cochin were lined with colorful shops selling everything from masala tea and banana chips, to 24K gold jewelry. But as thousands of vehicles drove past during rush hour, each gave way to the other in an orderly fashion with barely audible honking, a background sound I had been accustomed to until a few hours ago. In Kerala, traffic, people, nature—all hummed a similar tone of peace and harmony.

Kerala has been named India’s most advanced state (if not in the top two) in many respects. It is the safest, healthiest, most environment-friendly state with some of the best educational and agricultural prospects in the country. With high literacy (over 94%), equal opportunities for women, and very little poverty, Kerala has become the epitome of success for India’s development. It is no wonder that tourists from all over India and abroad who are seeking a calm and ecofriendly retreat head to Kerala.

My first stop in Kerala is Marari Beach, a 2-hour drive from Kochi, where I am greeted at my hotel by smiling staff members dressed in perfectly pleated saris and starched white mundus (a garment wrapped at the waist like a lungi). They offer me cold tender coconut water picked from their own front yard and usher me into a thatched-roof bungalow with a spacious bathroom that has a semi-open roof shower. I feel that I am at a luxurious fishing village, surrounded by nature, but equipped with modern amenities.

Set on 30 acres of beachfront covered with coconut groves, lily ponds, fruit trees, and a large organic farm, I feel instantly relaxed at Marari Beach Resort in Mararikulam. Many people come here for week-long wellness retreats indulging in daily yoga lessons, Ayurveda massages, and customized vegan meals to heal their bodies.

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(Left) A mouthwatering destination for foodies. Seafood Thali.

While listening to melodious tabla and flute played by live performers, I feast on my first Kerala meal of fresh grilled seafood, fragrant meat stews, appam (fermented rice pancakes), and a dozen homemade pickles from vegetables picked at the resort’s organic gardens. Abundant with spices, the cuisine of Kerala includes a wide assortment of vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes flavored with chilies, mustard seeds, coconut oil, curry leaves, and ghee. Most ingredients are grown locally, if not in people’s own backyard gardens. Even the spices and oils are harvested from neighboring villages, ensuring quality and freshness. The “50 Mile Diet” is a reality here as most meals are cooked with ingredients sourced within 50 miles of the resorts.

The next day, I wake up at the crack of dawn to stroll on a secluded beach, gazing at the power waves of the Arabian Sea, and to practice a few of my asanas with the very flexible resident yogi. Yoga is an essential part of the mind-body restoration and practically all resorts offer free yoga lessons.

After a breakfast of freshly made dosas, it is time to explore the neighboring town of Alleppey, popularly known as “Venice of the East” due to its intricate network of canals.

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(Right) A Hindu temple in Alleppey.

Alleppey—or Alapuzha as it has been renamed—is a great place to see the harmonious religious diversity of Kerala. It is believed that Christianity came to Kerala in the first century. Kerala is now home to the largest population of Christians in India. At Christ the King Church, I see statues of Jesus decorated with money garlands just like you would at a Hindu temple. Just next door, one can hear the Muslim call to prayer. There are a few Hindu and Jain temples around Alleppey that are also worth visiting. Colorful painted wood, stone, and metals are used to create multiple-storeyed pyramid style structures and compound walls.

I walk through the grand entrance (rajagopuram) and go in barefoot to pay my respects to the Gods at the majestic Kidangamparambu Sree Bhuvaneswari Temple. There is a feast, festival, or celebration taking place throughout the year, with processions and offerings at the temples and churches. Common to all religious communities is the harvest festival of Onam, which takes place for 10 days sometime in August-September.

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(Left) Usually there is a clash between commerce and natural beauty, since development cuts into the latter. The lush green landscapes of tea plantations, however, translate to great commerce as well.

I continue my journey, heading inland on a winding road through lush green cardamom hills and terraced tea plantations to the hill station of Thekkady. Many of the tea factories in the area offer tours and tastings, so I stop to pick up packets of green and black teas at wholesale prices. The small town of Thekkady is densely packed with spice shops selling freshly dried cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, and nuts. Nearby, there is a cardamom (elaichi) sorting factory and the largest cardamom auction house in the world. The aromatic seeds were first commercialized by the British who developed plantations, and India is now the biggest producer of cardamom in the world. It is hard not to stock up for the year on high quality spices sold at a fraction of store prices!

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(Right) Spice Village, the author’s lodging in Thekkady.

My lodging in Thekkady is aptly named, Spice Village, and is the oldest mountain village-style resort in the area. Surrounded by hills and backed by forest, the cottages are spaced around spice trees. A naturalist takes me around the property to introduce me to the variety of flora, and the monkeys and birds that hang around the cottages. Keeping true to Kerala’s eco-friendly nature, the resort grows its own food, filters and bottles its own water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. Local culture is also intricately tied into the visitor experience. In the evening, guests gather in the community hall to watch live performances of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam before retiring to Woodhouse Bar for a nightcap. The former home of forest ranger Mr. A. W. Woods is converted into a British-style pub with old black and white photos, antiques, and a 150-year-old billiards table.

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(Left) Crossing the river by old-fashioned rafts, to get to the Periyar Tiger Reserve.

We watch an exciting slideshow at the Interpretation Center – Tiger Club located at Spice Village, thrilled at the prospect of encountering tigers and elephants in the wild. Dressed in camouflage, leech-proof socks, and walking boots, I make my way to Periyar Tiger Reserve on a bus, then cross the river on an old-fashioned bamboo raft, and finally set foot into the forest. After a few hours of trekking through the serene sanctuary set in the mountainous Western Ghats, my ranger and I only see some wild dogs, giant squirrels, deer, langur, macaque, and mongoose. “Chances of seeing a tiger are very rare!” he informs me, though evidence of sighting exists in pictures back at the Tiger Club.

One cannot come to Kerala and not experience the backwaters, one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. Kerala backwaters are made up of five lakes and 38 rivers, linked by canals. The backwaters are an important part of Kerala’s infrastructure as they provide water for irrigation, access for transporting rice, and environment for aquatic life. Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake is my next stop. Many people come here to rent a houseboat or ketuvallam and cruise on the waters for a night, enjoying the cool breeze and eating fresh catch. Watching the architecture and design of the traditional Kerala houseboats is charming as you see these floating homes (equipped with beds and restrooms) make their way through coconut groves, water hyacinth ponds, and rice paddies.

I decide to stay at Coconut Lagoon, a heritage hotel located by India’s longest lake. Accessible only by boat, a water taxi brings me to the reception of the hotel, which is intertwined by lagoons and bridges. Each of the buildings is made of wood salvaged from historic homes from all over Kerala and reassembled on the property. The inside of the room looks like an intricately carved wooden houseboat. With spectacular views of the lake, rice paddies, gardens, and a bird sanctuary, it is hard not to feel completely relaxed.

02_18_Travel_Ayurveda.jpg(Right) Kerala is a popular destination for Ayurvedic massages, and detox and rejuvenation retreats.

If the scenery and organic food is not enough to comfort the senses, two Ayurvedic doctors (known as vaids) are available at the spa to diagnose and treat common ailments. Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicinal practices in the world and widely followed in Kerala. It is believed that the wet temperate climate, abundance of medicinal plants, and an abundance of Ayurveda colleges and researchers make Kerala an ideal place to consistently experience the benefits of Ayurveda. After a brief conversation with my doctor and diagnosis of my vata, pitta, and kapha, I am advised to get a four hands massage to help with my stiff neck and shoulder aches. Using a mixture of essential oils and extracts, two ladies gently rub the liquid in circular motion to release tension and relax my muscles.

To end the day, a local lady known simply as “Amma” pulls in her canoe to serve chai and snacks to the guests staying at the resort. She skillfully ribbons her homemade masala tea from one steel cup to another offering a magical show of sorts that entertains kids and adults. We sit on the green lawn, sipping on hot tea and gaze out at the calm waters. Being in Kerala for a week has slowed me down and infused the sense of tranquility that every vacationer seeks.

~ Written for Khabar Magazine. February 2018.

 

Abu Dhabi: The New Cultural Capital of the East you Need to Visit ASAP

For CheapOAir Miles Away. February 2018.

Abu Dhabi is the capital and second-largest city in the United Arab Emirates. Known primarily as an opulent business hub in the Middle East, this barren desert-turned-metropolis is not all about over-the-top hotels, gold suks, and designer shopping malls. With some of the world’s best museums, heritage sites, and year-round festivals, Abu Dhabi is emerging as a top destination for culture trippers. Here are just a few cultural experiences you shouldn’t miss out on when in Abu Dhabi.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi

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Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

France’s largest art museum and icon now has an extended location in Abu Dhabi (at least for the next 30 years), making it the largest art museum in the Arabian Peninsula! Focusing on universal human values, each of the 7 galleries of the Louvre showcases world civilizations, diversity of religion, travel, technology, and modern living — enough to keep you absorbed for a whole day.

Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District (expected to be completed by 2020) plans to have 8 museums, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabicontemporary arts museum, a performing arts center, and a maritime museum.

Arabic Poetry

Poetry is a big part of Arabic culture. Abu Dhabi-based reality TV show “Million’s Poet” attracted over 100 million viewers from across the world during its 8 seasons to see who is the most talented Arabic poet to take home 5 million dirhams (roughly $1.3 million) in prize money!

In its 5th season, Rooftop Rhythms is the Middle East’s longest-running poetry open mic art event. At the New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Arts Center, you can watch the UAE’s most talented and noteworthy artists and poets compete. NYUAD also hosts classical music concerts, international vocalists, folk dances, and film festivals throughout the year.

How to See Dubai on a Budget

Grand Mosque

Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque

Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

With marble domes, semi-precious stone inlay pillars, Swarovski crystal chandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpet, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is no less in architectural splendor than the Taj Mahal. Built by the UAE’s first president Sheikh Zayed, the mosque has become an iconic symbol of the city, extending a warm welcome to visitors from all over the world. Watch the Grand Mosque lit up at night and make sure to stop at the Etihad Modern Art Gallery on premise.

Yas Island

As if there wasn’t enough events and venues around town, Abu Dhabi has an entire island dedicated to entertainment! Home to the Grand Prix racetrack (which hosted the 2017 Formula 1 race), 4DX theaters, Ferrari World, and concert arenas, Yas Island is a one-stop entertainment destination for the entire family. The largest open-air venue in the Middle East, du Arena hosts street food markets, winter carnival, Oktoberfest, Broadway musicals, and performances by artists from Cairo to Harlem.

Abu Dhabi Food Festival

arabic food at the food festival, abu dhabi

Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

For 17 days in December, residents and visitors engage in a nonstop eating frenzy at restaurants, food fairs, farmer’s markets, and streets around the city. The Abu Dhabi Food Festival is the best opportunity to taste the diverse cuisine found in the city, be it a chef-tasting menu prepared by Italian chefs at Enrico & Friends, dinner at a secret location with 1000 other diners, or a traditional Emirati brunch at Al Fanar.

Al Fresco Movies

Emiratis love to watch movies outdoors and there are several movie theaters, parks, beaches and hotel rooftops offering al fresco screenings. Grab a cocktail by the pool, enjoy the star-studded sky and watch your favorite flick on the big screen. Veteran film experts introduce independent movies and conduct Q&A sessions at changing locations.

Pop-up Dinners

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Pic by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Fancy an upscale dinner with your friends with conversational pieces around? 40Mule is a new pop-up dining concept that brings international chefs to Abu Dhabi for curated experiences in unusual settings, such as shipyards, museums, and warehouses. Watch Michelin-star chefs cook 7-course meals on gas burners and network with fellow foodies from all walks of life.

Arabic Sports

While Abu Dhabi is home to some of the flashiest golf clubs, race car tracks and polo clubs, it is also a good place to watch traditional Middle Eastern sports such as camel racing, falconry, hunting with saluki dogs, and dhow (sailboat) racing. Take a tour of the world’s largest falcon hospital to learn about how pet falcons are trained and cared for at the Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, or watch young sailors race traditional pearl diving boats at the Marwah and Abu Al Abyad Traditional Dow Sailing Races.

~Written For CheapOAir Miles Away. February 2018.

When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

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Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

 

Why Kerala (India) Is Our New Favorite Place to Escape Winter

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

The lush state of Kerala, located in the southern peninsula of India, is touted as “God’s own Country.” With such a bold tourism slogan, you can expect the bar to be set pretty high. Well, Kerala does not disappoint. It’s filled with pristine beaches, houseboats floating in clear backwaters, spicy Indian food, and fun-loving people. It’s perfect for a yoga retreat, an adventure holiday, or an eco-friendly vacation. Now that’s a pretty divine package. If you haven’t added Kerala to your travel plans to escape the frigid winter, here’s why you need to do so right away.

You Can Relax, Rejuvenate, and Experience Life in a Fishing Village by the Sea

As soon as you arrive at the world’s first solar-powered Cochin International Airport, you’ll understand why Kerala is the most literate and advanced state in India. Take a chauffeur-driven car (it only costs a few hundred rupees –  under $5) to nearby Alappuzha District. Stay at Marari Beach Resort, a village-themed boutique resort located at the award-winning yet somewhat secluded Marari Beach. Recharge your energy levels with some fresh coconut water on arrival at this all-inclusive beachfront property. After checking in to an individual thatched roof cottage, take a yoga lesson, walk around the lily pond and gardens, learn how to wear a Kerala sari or pick your own vegetables from the organic garden for a cooking class. Enjoy a relaxing evening at the herbal spa. There is a resident Ayurveda doctor to consult and prescribe treatments based on chronic ailments like sinus, back pain, asthma, digestive disorders or even jet lag — all with natural herbs and oils.

ayurveda

To catch a glimpse of the daily lives of the locals, head to the nearby town of Alleppey, known as Venice of the East due to its intricate network of canals. Early mornings are great to watch fisherman easily maneuvering their white mundu (a long, wrap-around piece of cloth worn by men) and bringing in the catch of the day, and in the evenings, entire families strolling on the beach, playing games and snacking on street food.

Though most tourists come here to board a houseboat cruise, there are some must-see temples and churches in this historic town, and if you are lucky, you may even get to see a traditional ceremony, participate in a unique festival or, if you’re gutsy enough, crash a wedding (there’ll be a thousand guests so no one will notice!).

kerala church

It’s believed that Christianity arrived in Kerala in the first century. Kerala also has the largest Christian population of any state in India, so it’s not uncommon to see Christmas decorations throughout December as well as elaborate feasts being celebrated in remembrance of patron saints.

You Can Get Close to Wildlife, Enjoy Fine Tea, and Explore Exotic Spice Markets

The hill town of Thekkady is much cooler than the coastal areas, making it a great weekend retreat for travelers looking for an escape from the beach. It’s also home to Periyar Tiger Reserve. While you’ll rarely get a chance to spot a wild tiger, you can see elephants, wild dogs, giant squirrels, bison, sambar (a large type of deer), langur, macaque, mongoose, and a large variety of birds while trekking or bamboo rafting through the forests.

tea estate

The other big attractions in the area are the tea, coffee, and spice plantations dotted along the green slopes. Watch how tea leaves are grown and harvested, sample green and black teas, before taking some back home (they are super cheap at the factory outlets). Take a private tour with the owner at Abraham’s Spice Gardens to see hundreds of spices, fruits, and flower varieties, and crush your Instagram following once you post pictures of Vandanmedu, the largest cardamom auction center in the world. In the town, stock up on fresh and very affordable freshly dried spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and much more. Also, make sure to pick up deep-fried Kerala banana chips and raw cashews.

kerala spices

Spice Village is the oldest mountain village-style resort and offers traditional huts equipped with modern day facilities, each named after a spice tree. This eco-friendly hotel grows its own food, filters and bottles water, composts food waste, harnesses solar energy, and even makes its own paper. On-site naturalists are ready to escort guests around the property to educate them about the flora and fauna and how it is integrated into the eco-friendly mantra of the resort.

You Can Float on the Backwaters, Take in Some Culture, and Taste Some Amazing Food

Another must-visit destination in Kerala is Kumarakom, located on the banks of the Vembanad Lake. Most backwater cruises rent a houseboat from here for a couple of nights. These boats are fully equipped with bedrooms and a chef who sometimes catches fresh fish and prepares it for meals onboard.

Photo by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

However, if motion sickness is a problem, you can choose to cruise for a few hours only and stay at Coconut Lagoon, an eco-lodge accessible only by boat. These artistically crafted guest cottages, built with materials gathered from old family mansions all over Kerala, are architecturally inspiring. Here you can enjoy views of the lake from your front porch, row a canoe in the lagoons around the hotel, walk in the butterfly garden, or visit the bird sanctuary next door.

In the afternoons, a local lady known simply as Amma (meaning “mother”) offers homemade tea and snacks from her floating shop. There’s also a live musical performance every day with dancers wearing elaborate costumes and painted face masks, delicately expressing themes from Hindu mythology.

If you like spicy food, you’re in for a real treat in Kerala! Three restaurants at Coconut Lagoon offer a wide range of local specialties including a dosa (India stuffed crepe) station, seafood grill where the daily catch is displayed before dinner, and a buffet restaurant where you can taste a variety of homemade chutneys, pickles, and jams.

Photo by Sucheta Rawal/ goeatgive.com

Kerala cuisine is very distinctive from the rest of India and features rich coconut curries, fragrant meat stews, rice flour breads, jaggery sweetened desserts, and lots of shellfish. The friendly chefs are always eager to share recipes and give private cooking lessons, so you can recreate your experience in Kerala with your newly purchased spices once you get back home.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. December 2017. 

This Is Where You Need to Start Your African Safari Adventure

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Ready to explore the enormous continent of Africa but don’t know where to start? There are 54 countries in Africa, offering amazing opportunities to immerse in the culture, as well as view nature and wildlife. Most travelers flock to South Africa, not realizing it is farther, more expensive, and already packed with tourists.

If it’s your first time traveling to sub-Saharan Africa and your main goal is to see wild animals in their natural habitat, go to Kenya. The East African nation is well developed when it comes to tourism, with easily accessible flights to Nairobi.

Kiss Giraffes in Nairobi

Kenya Safari - Giraffe Center

The capital city is worth spending a day or two in. It will likely be your first stop in East Africa and will act as a gateway to other destinations around the country.

Nairobi is a bustling city with clogged roads and impoverished slums, juxtaposed to posh condos and luxury hotels. The large expat population (mainly working for consulates and NGOs) has paved way for a vibrant dining and nightlife scene in the city. Talisman, known as one of the best restaurants in Nairobi, is a fun place to grab a drink by the fireplace and taste globally inspired cuisine in an African-Arabic ambiance. Also, their Singapore chili soft shell crab is to die for. To take a break from the congestion, go to Amaniyajuu, a fair-trade restaurant and boutique located in a charming garden inside the city.

Kenya Safari - elephant orphanage

Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning. If you’re an animal lover like me, you may end up fostering a young elephant for a $50 donation. Head over to the Giraffe Center for the perfect Instagram photo opp kissing a giraffe in its natural habitat.

Walk with Zebras at Lake Naivasha

An hour outside of Nairobi is a freshwater lake located on the elevated Kenyan Rift valley. Lake Naivasha is home to over 400 species of birds as well as a sizable hippo population. Lake Naivasha Crescent Camp is a good base to glamp (luxury camp) on the bank of the lake and take a boat ride to spot pelicans, eagles, storks, and cormorants.

For a unique experience, get off at Crescent Island Game Park and freely walk among wild animals. Zebras, giraffes, gazelle, waterbuck, and wildebeest are free to roam around as the park is not fenced in. Here you can find more animals per acre than any other park in Kenya and it’s completely free to visit.

Watch the Big Five in Masai Mara

Kenya Safari - Masai Mara

Over 4% of Kenya’s total area is made up of wildlife reserves and the Masai Mara game reserve is best known for its wildebeest migration, where millions of animals cross the Mara river during the months of September and October.

Plan to spend at least two nights in the Mara to see the famous “Big 5” game animals – lions, rhinos, elephants, leopards, and buffaloes. Sekenani Camp, located right outside the park’s entrance, is easily accessible within minutes. Individual tents come with comfortable beds, hardwood floors, private bathrooms, and even bathtubs. Fancy a hot soak while hearing the lions roar in the background? You can do it here!

Kenya Safari - Lions in Masai Mara

Ride in an open jeep during a game drive through the park (which is not fenced in like many other reserves in South Africa), as thousands of zebras, giraffes, gazelles, wildebeest, and impalas pass by. Given the open terrain, it’s easy to spot animals in the Mara. I was thrilled to see over 70 lions, cheetahs, and leopards hunting, mating, eating, roaring, and snuggling like kittens – up close!

Race Donkeys in Lamu

Most travelers to Kenya choose to visit one of the beach towns in the Archipelago. Lamu is one of the oldest Swahili seafront towns and a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is where you can feel the Arabic influence on the architecture, food, people, and religion of the region. Walking through narrow streets dotted with hole-in-the-wall food stalls, ornate wooden doors, and modestly dressed women covered in veils, you may feel like you’ve gone back in time to the 17th century.

Lamu is also known as “donkey island”. No cars are allowed on the island, so all goods are transported on donkeys. As there are 6,000 of these beasts on the roads, there are also major donkey traffic jams!

Shela Village in Lamu is a quiet place to stay with renovated Swahili villas converted into rentable apartments. There are a handful of restaurants and you get to know most residents if you’re around for a couple of nights. During the day, enjoy secluded beaches, swim, snorkel, and taste freshly caught seafood, and at sunset, take a dow (traditional sailboat) with snacks onboard. The Lamu Cultural Festival held in August, with its donkey races, swimming, and dhow sailing competitions, attracts visitors from the mainland and abroad. The Village Experience, a socially responsible tour company, partners with local businesses and helps uplift impoverished communities around the area.

In Kenya, there are lots of opportunities to get up close to the animals and bring back lasting memories (as well as great Instagram shots). It is, no doubt, the best place to start your African safari adventure.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. November 2017. 

Creatively Traveling the World

For Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017.

Eight ways to travel safer, cheaper and make a difference.

Wish you could travel more? Perhaps a limited budget and time is holding you back. Or maybe you are waiting for a friend or spouse to accompany you on your journey. Travel is an important part of our lives, an experience that opens our minds, makes us more confident and helps us be creative. But it doesn’t have to be something only the rich or retired can afford.

Here are a few ways you can travel more frequently, for longer periods of time, without breaking the bank. You can even use some of these tips to even travel for free.

Home Exchanges – Remember the 2006 movie, “The Holiday,” with Cameron Diaz who lived in Los Angeles and Kate Winslet in London, swap homes at Christmas after bad breakups with their boyfriends? If you have a house, condo or even a rented apartment, you can swap with another traveler from a different part of the world. It’s a great way to save money on hotels and you get to experience what it is like to live in that country. Just register on home exchange websites such as HomeExchange.com and iLoveHomeSwap.com, indicate where and when you want to travel, and send a request to exchange a home.

House Rentals – If you are not comfortable with swapping your place to complete strangers, you can still rent a home or a room on your next vacation. Websites such as Airbnb.com, HomeAway.com, and VRBO.com allow you to rent directly from homeowners by the night, week or month, cutting out the middle man.  Hosts will often share the best local spots in the city to eat, visit and party, as well as which areas to avoid. Also, having access to a kitchen means you can save money on eating out.

During a solo trip to Italy last summer, I stayed with a couple in Naples through Airbnb. They mapped out my daily explorations so I would avoid the not so safe areas of town and be able to take a more scenic route. They even guided me to the best pizza places in town that the tourists didn’t know about.

Volunteer Travel – Many for-profit and nonprofit organizations organize one-week to a few months long volunteer tours that include lodging, meals and sightseeing for a small price. Volunteers Initiative Nepal charges roughly $10 per day to place with a host family in exchange for helping in the villages with construction work, teaching or health care. Vaughan Town covers your hotel stay and 3-course meals in charming resorts across Spain and Germany if you teach conversational English. By engaging in volunteer work you get to meet locals and other travelers, so you will never feel lonely.

I have volunteered abroad in a dozen countries through Go Eat Give and other organizations. What I the enjoy most is the ability to meet people from all realms of society and understand their issues on a deeper level. As tourists, we don’t get a chance to see beyond the pleasurable side of the destination.

Farm Stay – Many families are turning toward farm stays to have productive bonding time, teach the kids important values, be close to nature, and experience country living. Help harvest grapes, press olives, make wine, rear pigs, milk cows or make cheese in exchange for free food and accommodations in Italy, Canada, Australia, France and more paces. On WWOOF.net, you can find opportunities to work on organic farms in 120 countries.

Barter for Work– If farming is not your thing, but you still want to exchange your skills for room and board and have a culturally immersive experience, register at Workaway.info or HelpX.net. Some of the projects listed on the sites include developing a community center in Italy, running a hostel in Brazil, and dog-sitting in South Africa. By working abroad, you get to understand the local culture, practice the language and make new friends.

House Sit – This involves the least amount of work and gives you access to some of the most luxurious homes around the world, for free! All you have to do is keep the house safe and clean, water the plants, take care of the pets (if any), and enjoy the facilities. Look at HouseCarers.com, MindMyHouse.comand Trustedhousesitters.com for where you can go.

Work on a Yacht – Can’t afford a yacht but love to sail? At the sites FindACrew.net, CrewSeekers.net and DesperateSailors.com, you can find yacht delivery jobs around the Atlantic, Caribbean, Mediterranean and more, as well as captains looking for extra nautical help onboard.

Working Holiday Visa – If you are between 18-30 years old, you can get a working holiday visa in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, Ireland and Singapore. This allows you to work and stay for up to a year without having to apply for work permits or sponsorships. Working part time at a bar, restaurant or theme park means extra cash in the pocket to make your vacation last longer.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir magazine. October 2017 digital issue. 

Need a Unique Vacation? Train to Be a Yamabushi (Mountain Hermit) in Japan!

For CheapOAir Miles Away. September 2017. 

If you’ve been to Japan, you’ve probably been overwhelmed by enormous crowds walking through streets filled with skyscrapers and glistening neon lights, mechanical sounds of pachinko slots, and colorful plates of weird looking creatures passing around on conveyor sushi belts. Stepping out of Tokyo, you may have visited majestic Buddhist temples, Zen gardens, and the iconic Mount Fuji. But on your next visit to Japan, you can try a completely new experience that has only recently opened to foreign visitors.

You can sign up for a Yamabushi vacation.

What is a Yamabushi?

Yamabushi are Japanese mountain ascetic hermits who, according to traditional Japanese mysticism, are believed to be endowed with supernatural powers. They have also served as sendatsu, or spiritual mountain guides, since medieval times for pilgrims. Like Native Americans, they connect with nature by living in the forest and hiking for days. Their practice, known as Shugendō, evolved during the 7th century from an amalgamation of beliefs drawn from local folk-religious practices, embodied in Shinto, Taoism and esoteric Buddhism.

The Japanese people have been doing Yamabushi training for 1300 years. In fact, many Japanese take solitary retreats in the mountains to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life. While it was more popular among older Japanese men to embark on Yamabushi getaways, younger generations are realizing the importance of taking a break and connecting with nature. Many professionals go for Yamabushi to relieve themselves of stress and find better focus at work. It’s the Japanese alternative to a spiritual retreat!

Retreat participants train with a Yamabushi master and many find that, while they’re likely NOT to attain supernatural powers, they can resolve a lot of challenges, questions, or decisions in their life.

The Yamabushi retreat I attended, designed by the Japanese company Megurun and called Yamabushido, is the first of its kind to led by an English-speaking master, and included exposure to Japanese culture and cuisine, along with authentic Yamabushi instruction. Yamabushido’s 3 and 5-day programs run throughout the year and range from 150,000-300,000 Yen.

My retreat was run by a 13th-generation Yamabushi, Master Hoshino, and a business professional turned Yamabushi, Master Takeharu Kato, in the sacred mountains of Dewa Senzan in Yamagata prefecture, an hour flight north of Tokyo.

Discover the there’s more to Japan than Tokyo and read our post Small Towns & Cities of the Japanese Countryside You Need to Visit.

Prayers by Zen Buddhists. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

My Yamabushi training took place during an impending typhoon in the area. We spent a day at a Zen temple learning from a Buddhist monk how to maintain proper posture, meditate, and pray. Then we practiced applying focus and being in the moment through the art of calligraphy. During the next three days, we stayed at a pilgrimage lodge which provided very basic, shared facilities.

Dressed in all-white Yamabushi attire, we climbed the three sacred mountains of Deva in the pouring rain, each mountain symbolizing death or letting go, ascension into heaven, and rebirth or the future. We climbed what seemed like hundreds of steps, rocky boulders, and wooden paths across Mt. Haguro, Mt. Gassan, and Mt. Yudono, surrounded by towering beech and cedar trees.

During the hikes, we were encouraged to remain silent and feel our surroundings. We also stopped to pay tribute at the different shrines along the way and chanted the Heart Sutra at some of the pagodas and temples.

Hiking in Mt Haguro. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

Yamabushi training involves pushing one’s physical and emotional limits so that you can learn to put mind over matter. Waking up before sunrise, eating very little, hiking for hours, bathing in a freezing gushing waterfall, and meditating in a smoky room – are all part of the challenges one needs to overcome to graduate.

At the end of the training, we jumped over a small fire to represent rebirth into new life. Then we shared an elaborate lunch of over 15 dishes and sake with our masters while they commented on how they saw our progression during the program. Though our journey was mostly in silence, the masters could tell when we were struggling and what we needed to do to better in our lives.

Master Tak and Master Hoshino at graduation lunch. Photo by Sucheta Rawal

We finished the last day at a boutique ryokan in Tsuruoka, relaxing in the mineral-rich hot springs, and dining on beautifully crafted seafood dishes.

Don’t make a faux pas on your Japan! Read our post Watch Your Manners in the Japanese Countryside.

After the program, I felt stronger and accomplished. Others whom I spoke to told me they had renewed energy, a deeper appreciation and higher sensitivity to surroundings. Whether you are an avid hiker who enjoys nature or a city dweller looking to push your limits, Yamabushi training can be a wonderful experience, both spiritually and physically rewarding.

~ Written for CheapOAir Miles Away in September 2017. 

Why Georgia (the Country) is the World’s Best Kept Travel Secret

For CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.

While most people know of Georgia, the peach state in the southern US, very few are aware of Georgia, the former Soviet republic that’s tucked between Europe and Asia. The country is one of the oldest in the world, and has a rich culture that has managed to survive foreign occupation by Persians, Ottomans, and Russians.

Nowadays, tourism is beginning to develop in Georgia, so things are relatively cheap and uncrowded. Here are a few very good reasons to go to Georgia NOW before the secret gets out!

Diverse Offerings

The best way to see Georgia is by driving through the country. You’ll pass by lush green valleys, a sprawling wine country, the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, thick forests, and black sand beaches – all located within a few hours’ drive.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Walk around the capital of Tbilisi through its winding, narrow cobblestone streets, charming bazaars and cafés offering local cuisine, drinks, and hookah. Spend a weekend at one of the lakeside resorts in the Kvareli region. Enjoy the romantic town of Sighnaghi, which offers picturesque views of the Alazani valley and even has a round-the-clock wedding chapel. Find a quiet spot along the beaches by the Black Sea, or gamble all night at a casino in Batumi.

Ancient Sites With Interesting Stories

Georgia adopted Christianity as a country in the 4th century and even today is predominantly Georgian Orthodox. It’s believed that Saint Nino carried a cross made of grape twigs from Cappadocia (in Turkey) to Georgia, converting many of the locals. The first Christian church in the country was built in Mtskheta, Georgia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Due to its historical significance and numerous ancient monuments, the “Historical Monuments of Mtskheta” became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.

The Svetitskhoveli Cathedral here is said to house Jesus’ robe that was recovered after his crucifixion. The cathedral has also played an important part as a site for the coronation and burial of the kings of Georgia.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

About 45 miles away is Ananuri castle complex, another notable historic site that’s beautifully perched amidst turquoise river water and towering mountains.

The 14th century Holy Trinity Church near Gergeti village, located on a steep mountain cliff, is an iconic symbol of Georgia. It’s noted that, in times of danger, precious relics were brought here for safe keeping.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Vardzia, a spectacular cave monastery stretching along the slopes of the Erusheti Mountain and which once housed 2,000 monks, is another must-see.

You can witness Georgia’s rich history in many such monasteries, churches, and cathedrals that are spread throughout the country.

Tons of Fun for Outdoor Adventurers

Georgia is a great destination for those who are looking for active vacations on a budget. There are abundant opportunities for hiking, trekking, and skiing in the Caucasus. Drive through the Goderdzi Pass for high adrenaline off-roading, where you can also enjoy views of mountains covered with wildflowers, thick pine forests, and well preserved remote villages.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

In Gudauri, you can rent a room at a traditional B&B including meals for $30/night, while ski lift passes go for an average of $30/day.

Another beautiful and much easier drive is on Georgia Military road that runs between Tbilisi (Georgia) and Vladikavkaz (Russia). Passing alongside the Aragvi River, you can enjoy beautiful views of fertile green valleys, crystal clear rivers, and majestic snow passes.

Many travelers enjoy the comforts of an upscale mountain lodge, like at Rooms Hotel Stepantsminda ($100-150/night), before heading on to trek Mount Kazbek, the third-highest mountain in Georgia at 5,034 meters. Here, you can see snow-covered peaks year-round.

Kazbegi is also home to one of the world’s most spectacular marathon routes.

Unbelievable Food

Every meal in Georgia is a feast, called Supra. Fresh baked breads, assorted salads, and farmers’ cheese (called sulguni) are staples. Then comes badrijan nigzit, eggplant with walnut paste; khinkali, drum shaped dumplings with soupy minced meat, cumin and pepper; or shashlik, tender grilled pork.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

The Georgian national dish is khachapuri — bread stuffed with cheese. While it’s made differently across the country, the most popular one is adjarian khachapuri, baked boat-shaped bread filled with gooey, melted, tangy cheese, a whole egg yolk, and some slivers of butter.

Meals in Georgia last for several hours, with multiple shared plates and endless toasts. Dried and fresh fruits are always served for dessert. Of course, everything is fresh, locally grown, and oh so tasty!

A Very Old Wine Culture 

Georgians have been making wine for at least 8,000 years in traditional methods by storing grapes (including skin and seed) in large clay barrels (known as kvevris) underground.

As a result, the wine has a dense and robust flavor. This method has been listed in UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There are hundreds of varieties of indigenous grapes that aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

Kakheti is the most fertile wine region in Georgia, known for Kindzmarauli wine, a semi-sweet red variety. There are several local wine makers in the area. Winery Khareba is one of the largest winemakers and offers factory tours where they take you through their cold underground granite cellars. Pheasant’s Tears is an award-winning winemaker, producing artisanal natural wines, owned by an American-Georgian couple.

One of the monasteries I visited, Saint George Monastery of Alaverdi, has been making wines since 1011 AD and the monks residing there still grow and sell their wine for $50/bottle.

While in Georgia, also try Cha-Cha, a local distilled alcohol made from wild grapes. Due to its high alcohol content (45-60%) it’s also called “Georgian vodka.”

Pure Water Everywhere

The first thing you’ll find out when you arrive in Georgia is that, not only is it okay to drink the tap water, it’s actually good for you! Mineral water is Georgia’s number one export and you can get all these rich minerals for free straight from any tap.

At Azarfesha restaurant in Tbilisi, expect to find a “water menu” as part of the wine and beverage list. Originating from Georgia’s different regions, the water selections are described as “soft and silky”, “saline notes,” and with “lactose like sweetness.”

The capital of Tbilisi (meaning ‘warm water’) was first built around hot Sulphur springs. Even today, you can find dome-covered public bath houses in the old city where you can enjoy a hot bath and a scrub.

Image via Amanda-Villa Lobos/ goeatgive.com

Borjomi is another popular spa resort town known for its hot springs and mineral waters. People from all over Eastern Europe flock here to fill their bottles with Borjomi water, which is believed to have medicinal properties.

Written for CheapOAir Miles Away Blog. August 2017.