The Wonder of Western Australia: A Guide to Perth and the Surrounding Area

CheapOAir Miles Away. May 2019.

Most travelers to Australia may have overlooked Perth, the fourth largest city in the country and the capital of Western Australia (WA). The large modern city, which you can get to via plenty of cheap flight deals, has a good mix of urban and natural vibes and is known for its sporting events, trendy restaurants, pristine beaches, national parks, and wine country.

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What is Your Travel Style?

Khabar Magazine. May 2019.

As I checked into a charming Italian villa converted into a boutique hotel, nestled on top of a hill on the Amalfi Coast, I wondered how I would spend two summer days in this romantic location by myself. I stood on the purple-bougainvillea-wrapped white balcony of my room, with a glass of champagne in my hand, staring at the blue waters and rocky beaches of Positano, feeling at peace with myself. In that moment, I really didn’t want to talk to anyone or go anywhere. I just stayed at the hotel—reading, writing, eating, and soaking in the views for the rest of my trip.

Travel teaches you that being alone doesn’t make you “lonely” and you can enjoy your own company, as much as the company of others.

Until my late twenties, I had never been on a vacation without my parents or my spouse. One day I told my husband that I would be going to Dubai to visit my sister-in-law, and he was shocked. I had not even traveled to India by myself until that point.

The reason I started traveling without my family was mainly because of conflicting schedules. I wanted to travel more, but my husband’s corporate job only allotted a couple of weeks of vacation a year. I had a strong desire to see the world, a flexible schedule, and the resources to make it a reality.

Since then, I have traveled solo and also with friends, apprentices, and groups—to parts of the world I didn’t even know existed. On lone adventures, I hiked through the forests of Japan, slept in yurts in the Gobi Desert, and listened to lions roar from a camp in the Masai Mara.

On the other hand, I have also slept in a house with two dozen volunteer travelers in Morocco, and sailed in the Galapagos on a private yacht with 20 colleagues, who soon became friends.

When people ask me if they should take a trip alone or with a group, to book a package tour or go with the flow, my response is usually, “It depends!”

Depending on the destination, duration, budget, and your personality, you may prefer one travel style over the other. I personally feel all of them can be rewarding as long as you set expectations beforehand and have a flexible attitude.

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(Left) Samar Misra, the solo traveler.

Samar Misra, a graduate student at Alabama A&M University, frequently travels alone. His last trip spanned over two months, taking him to UAE, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore. “It allows me more flexibility and freedom to travel alone. I am not chained to certain activities that my family and friends may like,” he says. On his last trip to Rishikesh, Misra, on an impulse, decided to join a group of extreme adventurers and jump off a rock into the river (with a life jacket on), something his family would not have done or approved of.

Mishra grew up in a household where most family vacations would involve visiting relatives in India and traveling around the country in large organized groups. “There is value in family vacations, too. I have vivid memories of my cousins, uncles, and aunts going to the Taj Mahal. We still reflect on and laugh at incidents from that trip!”

Mishra usually books his trips himself through various websites, apps, and with the assistance of friends. “I have a basic idea of where I am going, and may book some of the flights, but the rest I fill in as I go,” says Mishra. He enjoys wandering around neighborhoods and seeing how the locals live, something he wouldn’t be able to do with a restricted itinerary.

Travel also makes us more resourceful. As a vegan, Mumbai native Lakshmi Jagad prefers to rent a home through AirBnB so she has access to a kitchen. “It is sometimes difficult to find restaurants that cater to us, and we like to keep expenses low, so we cook at least a few meals while traveling,” says Jagad referring to vacations she took to Guatemala, Morocco, Greece, Peru, and Canada, with her husband.

While traveling with a tour group, it is more difficult to exercise dietary constraints, but more travel agents nowadays accommodate dairy free, gluten free, vegan, and vegetarian requests if you let them know ahead of time. “We went to the Isle of Skye in Scotland with a group and booked the trip through a local agency. We told them we are vegan and it wasn’t an issue at all!” Jagad assures.

Tour operators can also help with communicating cultural differences that you may not be able to deal with on your own. “For example, you may go to Vietnam and ask for a vegetarian dish but realize their version of vegetarian includes seafood and eggs,” Mishra adds.

Speaking for myself, when I was traveling through Japan for ten days, staying at ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) in the countryside, it would have been almost impossible to figure out cultural norms on my own. It was only through my tour guide (who spoke fluent Japanese and English), that I discovered you had to take your shoes off before entering the hotel, put on robes called yukata in the correct fashion, bathe in anonsen (community bath house), and follow certain dining etiquettes. Given that no one at the inns spoke a word of English, I wouldn’t have been able to check in to my room or order food without a hired guide.

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Gaurav Bhatia (right) likes to travel alone and connect with locals.

Atlanta-based ESL teacher, Gaurav Bhatia, has discovered another way to travel—he goes alone on self-planned trips where he’s always surrounded by locals. Bhatia communicates with native Spanish speakers he finds through italki.com (a video-chat language platform) to practice his language skills. “I remember the first night I was in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I was treated to a Christmas dinner by my host and her family, and I instantly felt at home,” Bhatia recalls about his last trip.

The language exchange program allows travelers to meet locals, have one-on-one conversations and stay at people’s homes for little to no cost. Bhatia only books his flight and boarding, unless a local host offers a place to stay. Then it’s up to his new friends to show him around their city. These loosely planned vacations allow Bhatia to have chance encounters and deep conversations with strangers, learning about their country, beliefs, and way of life. He has been to Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala to visit his language partners and often spends his entire time with them.

When traveling alone, we are often forced to strike up conversations with strangers. I have found myself befriending people at airports, restaurants, hotels, tours, taxis, etc. whom I normally wouldn’t have noticed, had I been busy talking to a companion. It seems people also feel more comfortable talking to you when they see you are alone, and often go out of their way to help you.

While walking through the busy streets of Istanbul without a map or smart phone, I often got lost and asked strangers for direction. To my surprise, most people didn’t just tell me where to go, they would walk me to my destination, chatting along the way. On one such instance, I randomly met a newspaper publisher whom I keep in touch with till date. The next day, I joined my group for a ten-day tour of Turkey and did not experience any such random interactions with strangers, though I also didn’t lose my way again!

Tour companies and operators offer value and convenience for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time shopping for deals and booking each aspect of the trip individually. Although Divya Pahwa, travel agent at New Delhi-based Explorers Travel Boutique, who focuses exclusively on group travel, says, “Many South Asian clients will speak to one or more travel agents first to compare costs and then book directly online themselves.”

Many South Asians are using websites such as AirBnB, MakeMyTrip, Goibibo, and Yatra to book hotel, air, and sightseeing packages.

I knew Russia was not a place I wanted to visit on my own, because of logistics, language barriers, and safety, so I decided to book a group trip that focuses on volunteer vacationing. The company arranged to pick me up from the airport in Moscow and had made reservations for a comfortable stay at an apartment in Yaroslavl with four other women, where we had healthy and delicious home cooked Russian meals. During the day, we would be escorted by an English-speaking guide to meet other women, visit orthodox churches, tour the city, and never had to worry about the planning aspect. On the one evening that the five of us decided to go out for dinner on our own (without the tour company or guide), we struggled to find the right bus and order at the restaurant as the menus were only in Russian and the waitress didn’t speak a word of English!

Some people prefer package tours with a little flexibility. During our 2-week Mediterranean cruise, my husband and I declined all the shore tours offered by the cruise line. Instead, as soon as our megaship docked at the port, we leisurely walked for miles savoring the smells and sights of the city. As a couple with common interests, we decided to skip the long lines to enter historic sites and museums. Instead, we opted to stroll through gardens and markets, taking long afternoon breaks at outdoor cafes, as one does in Europe. Though all our meals were included onboard, we wanted to experience authentic local flavors. We would find a small neighborhood bakery in Marseille serving warm flaky croissants, the best gelato corner in Cinque Terre, and mouthwatering and cheap seafood paella with Spanish wine in Vigo.

In Morocco, I stayed at a house with 20 other travelers from around the world, who had signed up for an organized volunteer vacation. We had a set itinerary, home-cooked meals, and some sightseeing activities included in the package. Yet, they had also provided for free time to the volunteers over the weekend. Talking casually over breakfast, some of us decided to rent a van and travel from Rabat to Merzouga, a small town in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian border, where we camped under the star-studded African desert sky. It was a long exhausting drive into wilderness, not something I would have done alone. But my new companions gave me the confidence which led to one of the most memorable trips of my life!

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(Left) The author and her husband on a road trip in South Africa.

Most recently, we rented a car in South Africa for a 10-day vacation. My husband drove on the left side of the road, along the winding scenic roads of the Western Cape, as I navigated from the passenger seat. It allowed us to plan each day as it came, stopping at different cities, as and when we wished. Though we had a basic outline of what we wanted to see, our plans never worked out the way we thought. We took a detourto visit a wild cat sanctuary which pushed us back 3 hours, met up with a friend at the beach cancelling the rest of the evening, and turned a Sunday brunch into an all-day event at a vineyard.

Whether you are thinking about traveling alone or with family and friends, doing it yourself or hiring a travel agent, there are pros and cons to each. Traveling in a group is more affordable, structured and brings joy in sharing, while traveling solo offers more flexibility, honest interactions, and can be personally empowering. One needs to experience all forms of travel for they teach us something different about ourselves and our interactions with the world.

~ Written for & published by Khabar Magazine May 2019 print edition. All rights reserved.

You Can Snow Ski, Sleep in a Houseboat, and Play at the Highest Golf Course in the World in the ‘Switzerland of India’

Travel+Leisure. April 2019.

Snow covered mountains, lush green valleys full of wildflowers, and cozy wood cabins aptly stamp Kashmir as the “The Switzerland of India.” Jammu and Kashmir — India’s northernmost state — is a popular destination among Indian travelers and slowly being discovered by the rest of the world because of its rich culture and captivating scenery changing with every season.

Continue reading on Travel+Leisure website.

Girls’ Getaway to America’s Oldest City, St. Augustine

Cuisine Noir Magazine. April 2019.

Best known as the oldest European settlement in the United States, the charming town of St. Augustine, Fla., is a well-kept secret. It’s rich history, Spanish-style architecture, European-style promenades and beautiful Florida bay, make it idyllic to treat your mom or escape with your girlfriends this spring or summer.

St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument in the plaza
Pictured: St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument | Photo credit: St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau

Getting to St Augustine is easy. Just fly into Jacksonville and take a 45-minute cab ride to the city. Once in St. Augustine, you don’t need to drive. The 144-block city filled with B&B’s, restaurants, museums, shops and homes, is accessible on foot and by the Red Train trolleys that stop at major attractions.

Stay at the family-run Bayfront Marin House Inn, a cozy home with porches and hammocks to relax and enjoy a view of the gardens and the bay. Mingle with the owners and other guests over a free cocktail hour offered every evening. Alternately, splurge at Casa Monica, a luxury hotel set in a Moorish Revival-style building built in 1888 in the heart of the historic district. Even if you are not staying at the hotel, stop by for a glass of chilled sangria and spicy Kessler calamari at the Mediterranean restaurant, Costa Brava. The Moroccan inspired interiors and artwork spread throughout Casa Monica are worth looking around.

The Birthplace of African-American History

St. Augustine is the birthplace of African-American history. Fort Mose (two miles north of St. Augustine) is the site of the first free African settlement legally sanctioned by the Spanish in what is now known as the United States in 1738.  It is also the headquarters of the first Black armed soldiers commanded by a Black officer, who actively engaged in military combat with English colonists from the Carolinas and Georgia. St. Augustine was one of the few places in Florida to enforce emancipation during the Civil War. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled to St. Augustine and was arrested on the steps of the Monson Motel (now the Hilton St. Augustine Historic Bayfront). It is believed that King’s arrest along with demonstrations he organized are what led to Senate passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

St. Augustine is also the longest European inhabited city in the United States where you will find descendants of its original European settlers still running establishments. As a result, excellent quality restaurants are serving international cuisine with a Florida twist. Taste the best Majorcan clam chowder at Catch 27, French escargot in white wine at Cafe Alcazar, Polish pierogis at Gaufre’s & Goods Inc, authentic Cuban sandwiches at La Herencia Café and fried green tomatoes at The Floridian Restaurant.

Fried Green Tomatoes at The Floridian Restaurant in St. Augustine, FL
Pictured: Fried Green Tomatoes at The Floridian Restaurant | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Eat and Drink St. Augustine

Have a southern brunch of Mayport shrimp and grits on the porch of Preserved Restaurant, located in a Victorian home, once occupied by Thomas Jefferson’s great-granddaughter and ran by James Beard-nominated chef Brian Whittington. Head a block over to see the first stop (#101, 79 Bridge Street) on the ACCORD Freedom Trail in the Lincolnville neighborhood, which was settled by freed slaves and played a significant role in the Civil Rights movement.

Take a tour of Florida’s first distillery set in a former ice plant from 1917. Here you can learn about the process of making spirits and taste bourbon, gin, rum and vodka at the St. Augustine Distillery. Make sure to check out The Ice Plant, a cool bar upstairs known for its handcrafted cocktails and a breezy patio overlooking the city.

Guests at the Ice Plant in St. Augustine, FL
Pictured: Guests at the Ice Plant | Photo credit: St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra & The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau

Award-winning San Sebastian Winery, celebrated for their premium, sparking and dessert wines from muscadine grapes offers complimentary wine tasting tours. A great way to round up the afternoon is by learning how to make chocolate during a Whetstone Chocolate Factory tasting tour.

You may not find any “magic water” at the Ponce de Léon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park, but it’s a good place to indulge in some history and nature. Stroll through the lush 15-acre park among majestic peacocks and stop at the open-air exhibits featuring Timucua civilization and the Spanish conquests.

Perhaps a better way to detox your mind and body is by spending time in a sensory deprivation floating tank at the St. Augustine Salt Spa. Inspired by the world-famous Polish Wieliczka Salt Mine, this is the first 5-star halotherapy (salt therapy) health resort in Florida featuring a salt cave made with imported Polish and Himalayan salt, infrared sauna and float tank therapies. Plan to spend approximately three hours to enjoy all the amenities.

The Lightner Museum, housed in the former Alcazar Hotel, has an eclectic collection of items including art from Africa. The interior of the hotel once had the world’s largest indoor swimming pool in 1888 and is now used for weddings and events.

African Art at the Lighter Museum
Pictured: African Art at the Lighter Museum | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

An entire weekend is not enough time to visit St. Augustine’s many museums, art galleries, and boutique shops. A guided tour of the Flagler College, former Hotel Ponce de León, known for its Spanish Renaissance architecture and a prestigious guest list, is a must. Tours are usually sold out so book in advance.

For more information for planning your trip to St. Augustine, go online to www.visitstaugustine.com and follow the city’s adventures on Facebook,Twitter and Instagram.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine.

What to See and Do along South Africa’s Garden Route

CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2019.

If you’re looking up cheap flight deals to the Rainbow Nation and are on the lookout for a unique experience once you’re there, the Garden Route South Africa could be your answer! The 190-mile stretch allows for many opportunities to check out wildlife, hike, swim, eat, and drink along the scenic coastal drive across the southern Cape. Starting in Cape Town, there are many small towns worth visiting along the Garden Route, including Hermanus, Agulhas, Mossel Bay, Oudtshoorn, Knysna, Plattenberg Bay, and Port Elizabeth. If you want to see it all, plan for two weeks. Here are some must-see places to stop at for a sustainable vacation.

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Hundreds of Dogs in Colorful Costumes Are About to Take Over San Antonio — Here’s How to Join Them

Travel+Leisure. April 2019.

In San Antonio, you can parade through the 2.6 miles of tree-lined streets in Alamo Heights with more than 800 of your four-legged friends, both of you dressed in colorful costumes, to raise money for charity.

The 21st Annual Fiesta Pooch Parade is a fur-friendly 4K walk that takes place during Fiesta San Antonio, a celebration of San Antonio’s rich and diverse cultures.

Continue reading on Travel+Leisure’s website.

Why Moldova Is the Country You Need to Visit Right Now

CheapOAir Miles Away. March 2019.

Moldova is a small country in Eastern Europe bordered by Romania and Ukraine. The post-Soviet state has suffered from low GDP, unemployment, and slow growth in tourism. Yet, it has much to offer to travelers who want to get off the beaten path and enjoy historic monasteries, scenic national parks, and good food and wine.

Continue reading on CheapOAir’s Miles Away blog.

Black African Businesses Emerge in Soweto

For Cuisine Noir. March 2019.

What to see and do in the birthplace of the South African Revolution

A 30-minute car ride from the urban sprawl of Johannesburg to the suburbs of Soweto makes you feel as if you have traveled to another country. The scenery changes from glass skyscrapers, planned roads, upscale boutiques and acclaimed restaurants to rows of colorful houses, children dancing behind fenced yards and piles of accumulated garbage.

Black African Businesses Emerge in Soweto
Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

If you have heard of world leaders Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, you may already know that they both lived in Soweto, practically across the street from each other. Soweto, or the South Western Township, was created in the 1930s when Black Africans were forced away from the city to separate dwelling areas under the infamous “Urban Areas Act,” making Soweto the largest Black city in South Africa. Today, it is still the largest township located on the outskirts of Johannesburg, with a population of 1.5 million.

Eyes on the Future

My Uber driver is a Black African by the name of Doctor Siphamandla, who is in his mid-20s. He’s not a doctor as one may suspect. “My grandfather named me Doctor, perhaps because he had a bigger vision for me,” Siphamandla clarifies. He tells me that he was born and brought up in Soweto and loves everything about the place. “The people, the food, the nightlife—it’s a vibrant place!” I’m curious about the visit.

During our commute, I ask him what he thinks about the future of South Africa and he says he feels very confident. “I have not seen or experienced apartheid. I have only heard stories from my family. So, I cannot tell you what it felt like. All I know is we are too focused on the past, on Mandela, and have to move on.”

Born after 1994, Siphamandla falls under the category of “Free Born,” meaning those born in free South Africa. Once we arrive at our destination, I see how Soweto is moving on. There are international travelers —Whites, Blacks, Asians, Hispanics —all lined up to go inside the former home of Nelson Mandela, now a museum. It is a small one-story brick building with only two rooms, filled with original pieces of furniture, certificates and pictures. Everyone wants to take a photo in front of the house, raising their fists as Mandela did, to show their support towards his cause.

Across the street, restaurants and bars are serving Soweto beer and traditional braai. Souvenir shops on Vilakazi Street sell African crafts, colorful gowns, and bags with Mandela’s face on them. Many bankers, chefs and entrepreneurs have returned to Soweto to open modern cafes, jazz clubs and breweries. Nearby, Morara Wine and Spirits Emporium, Soweto’s first boutique wine and spirits shop, hosts book clubs and poetry gigs with more than100 South African wine labels.

Orlanda Stadium in Soweto, South Africa
Pictured: Orlando Stadium | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

The Orlando Stadium is home to the Orlando Pirates FC of the Premier Soccer League, one of the best teams in the country. In 2010, Soweto hosted the FIFA Soccer World Cup drawing the attention of more than a billion soccer spectators from all over the world.

Many travelers prefer to stay at the 4-star Soweto Hotel and Conference Center so they can enjoy nearby attractions, including Orlando Towers. The two disused cooling structures loom over the township offering a lift ride to a viewing platform, bungee jump, power swing, and internal swing.RELATED: Ntsiki Biyela Uncorked: South Africa’s First Black Female Winemaker Delivers

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum gives a stark perspective into Soweto’s recent past. During the Soweto Uprising of 1976, police opened fire on 10,000 students marching against the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than their native languages. Disease, hunger, civil unrest, and violent riots were a part of everyday life in Soweto until the country abolished apartheid had its first multiracial elections in 1994.

Reconciling the Past for a Promising Future

The next morning, I meet with Charles Ncube, my guide from Kgokare Tours, an all-Black-owned tour company. Ncube is one of the 12 tour guides featured in South African Tourism’s new ‘Meet Your South Africa’ campaign where locals show insights into their communities. He is in his 30s and speaks 11 languages. “When you live in Soweto, you have to speak to everybody in their own language,” he tells me, referring to how the shanty town was initially divided by different language groups, including, Sotho, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Zulu and Xhosa.

Typically, when you go to museums, you expect to see things that happened to generations before us. At the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, I realize how recent the history of South Africa is. “I remember having to walk through Black-Only marked staircases and going to Black-Only restrooms at the airport when I was a teenager,” Ncube, who is almost my age, tells me.

Tour guide Charles Ncube of Kgokare Tours in Soweto
Pictured: Tour guide Charles Ncube | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

One of the exhibits at the museum is about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), where witnesses of gross human rights violations during apartheid were invited to give statements about their experiences and face their persecutors. “It was in the middle of the night when some White men came to our house and took my mother. We never saw her again,” Ncube explains in one of the documentaries.

This year as South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy, people like Ncube and Siphamandla have different experiences from the past, but the same hopes for the future. They both see tourism as a way to enhance their economic situation. They want to see more Black African entrepreneurs and transforming neighborhoods like Soweto.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir. March 2019

Atlanta Airport Guide: How to Make the Most of Your Time at the World’s Busiest Airport

For Travel+Leisure. Feb 2019.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport aka ATL is the world’s busiest airport by passenger traffic and number of flights, accommodating an estimated 104 million passengers a year, traveling on almost 1 million flights. Most passengers connect through ATL, making it an entry point into the United States and a global gateway to Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and South and Central America.

Here’s a list of ATL maps, transportation, parking, food options, and more. Continue reading on Travel+Leisure’s website….