5 Best Family-friendly Hotels on Hilton Head Island

Travel+Leisure. February 2021.

Whether you’re planning your first multi-generational trip or Hilton Head Island is your longtime family vacation tradition, here’s where to stay to keep everyone happy.

A summer vacation on Hilton Head Island is an annual tradition for many families. Pristine white sand beaches, miles of bike paths, and endless outdoor activities make a trip to the largest barrier island on the southern Atlantic seacoast an ideal destination for all ages. Hilton Head has a number of beachfront resorts that offer enough amenities to keep the entire family entertained. There are conference centers, spas, multiple pools, kids clubs, and a variety of dining outlets. Wherever you stay, you’re sure to create happy memories and return to vacation with another generation.

The Westin Hilton Head Resort and Spa

From private cabanas by the pool to family portraits on the beach, The Westin offers a personalized experience for those looking to stay within their pods and celebrate special occasions. ADVERTISING

Don’t leave Fido behind — dogs are welcome here too and there is a dedicated dog park on property. 

As a wellness-focused brand, The Westin Hilton Head Resort and Spa offers families a variety of ways to stay active, eat healthy, and learn about the environment. The concierge can tailor runs, walks, and yoga for the entire family, as well as arrange for discounted golf, tennis, pickleball, golf, and foot golf at the Port Royal Plantation. Outside Hilton Head’s kiosk at the hotel rents out bikes and electric bikes to ride on the island’s 60 miles of bike paths. The Westin also offers room packages that extend a visit to the remote Daufuskie Island, only accessible by ferry, where you can horseback ride on the beach.

Marriott Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa

At Marriott Hilton Head Island Resort and Spa, kids have their own hotel check-in area complete with step stool to reach the counter. The largest resort on the island, Marriott boasts 513 guest rooms, an 18,000-square-foot ballroom, an Olympic-size pool, and a 10,000-square-foot spa with 16 treatment rooms. 

Arts and craft activities center around the expansive pool deck that has closer beach access than any other resort on the island. With the backdrop of a DJ spinning live music, kids can engage in hands-on interests such as sand castle building, shark tooth necklace making, life-size chess, basketball, pickleball, and more. Every July, renowned master sand sculptor John Gowdy conducts sand sculpture seminars where he trains young people in building artistic sand castles. You can also see his extensive sand castle displayed in the Marriott’s lobby. 

The hotel is located on seemingly endless Palmetto Dunes, which has 11 miles of lagoon system and over 100 miles of bike trails. It is common to see families riding tandem bikes, kayaking, and canoeing, unless they are teeing off on one of the area’s three PGA golf courses. If the weather is bad, walk over to the On The Mark indoor archery center that caters to families and kids, helping them build confidence and promoting mental and physical health.

Sonesta Resort Hilton Head Island

Located in the gated Shipyard community, Sonesta Resort on Hilton Head has a great program for toddlers and young families to safely enjoy a beach vacation. From its swimming pool, water fountains, and pool toys to its extensive Kids Club, there are nonstop events listed on the activity board each day. During the summer, there are half- and full-day kids camps that include outdoor sports and arts and crafts as well as meals and snacks. Plus, there’s a make-your-own ice cream bar and a snow cone happy hour to look forward to.

You can also see some of the island’s wildlife at Sonesta’s lush lagoon. Kids can check off a punch card and win a t-shirt when they spot the local wildlife, such as sand dollars, jellyfish, horseshoe crabs, egrets, and cormorants. They can also observe resident turtles sunbathing by “turtle beach.” 

In the evening, families can watch a dive-in movie on the big screen, or gather around the firepit for s’mores. And when parents need a night out on the town, the concierge at Sonesta can arrange for a private nanny service to watch the little ones in the comfort of their hotel room. 

Omni Hilton Head Island Resort fire pit

CREDIT: COURTESY OF HILTON HEAD CVB

Omni Hilton Head Oceanfront Resort

The Omni Oceanfront Resort is located in the quiet Palmetto Dunes area and offers classic and modern oceanfront suites with private balconies fitted with a living room area, spacious bedrooms, kitchenettes, and connecting doors. Boasting the largest resort rooms on Hilton Head Island, all guestrooms have a mini-kitchen with a microwave, refrigerator, and dining table. 

A live DJ keeps the resort-style atmosphere lively throughout the day, while vocalists entertain dinner guests on the outdoor patio. Kids camps run from Memorial to Labor day, packing the days with leisure activities such as tie-dye, turtle hunts, biking, and paddle boarding. The open outdoor areas serve as a common ground to play pickleball, corn hole, life-size chess, and ping pong. 

The Sea Pines Resort

Located along 5,000 oceanfront acres, Sea Pines is one of the most upscale family-friendly resorts on Hilton Head. A broad range of accommodation options include spacious vacation homes and villas and a romantic inn. Lowcountry adventures offered at the resort include tennis, horseback riding, boating, volleyball, and unique eco-adventures such as geocaching, dolphin watching, and alligator wine and cheese boat tours. There are also scheduled golf championships, culinary festivals, arts workshops, and ghost crabs hunts on full moon nights at this notable resort. 

~ Written for and published by Travel+Leisure. All rights reserved.

Hotels in the Time of Covid

Khabar Magazine. Nov 2020.

The hotel industry, like restaurants, has been battered during the pandemic. How are South Asian-owned hotels dealing with the crisis? What changes have they made to reassure guests and employees? As travel slowly picks up, what’s the new normal going to be like at your next stay in a hotel?

Like most people, I started this new year with a list of resolutions and aspirations. One of them was to visit my hundredth country and all seven continents. For the past several years, I have been traveling internationally at least once or twice a month, crisscrossing the globe, and was scheduled to enter the travel centurion club by mid-2020. I traveled to Antarctica and Europe in the first couple of months of the year, but by mid-March, the future of travel started to look uncertain. Countries were closing borders, visas were getting suspended, and conferences and festivals started cancelling.

As with everyone in the travel industry, my life too has been greatly impacted by the pandemic. The stay-at-home order left me grounded for over two months, and virtual travel was just not satisfying, personally and professionally.

As soon as Georgia reopened businesses, I took my first overnight trip to Lookout Mountain, a small hilltop destination located at the border of Georgia and Tennessee. Staying at a hotel, with a looming infectious virus, was daunting at first. I debated whether it was safer to continue to stay at home or to go out and support the economy. Cabin fever had left me restless and after considerable research, I decided to venture out. What I learned was that the hospitality industry had quickly set new standards in cleanliness after consulting with CDC and other organizations.

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At the River View Inn in Chattanooga, I had to wear a mask when entering the reception area, where  a plexiglass divider separated me from the attendant. There were arrows on the sidewalks, and signage throughout the property, reminding guests to keep six feet distance from each other and to wear masks in public areas. The rooms had been sanitized and inn capacity was capped to about 60 percent. Sit-down breakfast service was suspended and replaced with fruit and granola bars to take away in the morning. The new experience was a bit strange, but it felt good to get away from the usual routine of cooking meals every day and attending back-to-back Zoom calls.

Since May, I have stayed at a number of bed-and-breakfasts inns, boutique hotels, and resorts around the U.S. All of them seem to be cleaner than ever, holding heightened standards to ensure safety of guests and employees. In Duck, a beach town on the Outer Banks in North Carolina, Sanderling Resort enforced touchless check-in and check-out with online forms and keys handed out in parking lots. A reassuring note hung on the door knob stating that no one had entered my room since it was sanitized. Remote controls and door knobs had been wiped down. Enough towels and toiletries were left in the room for the duration of my stay to avoid interaction with housekeepers. Other places, like the Marble Distillery Hotel in Colorado, did not utilize keys at all. They simply emailed me a door code to enter my room. I never had to speak to a staff member during my two-night stay. And at Home in The Tropics B&B in St. Thomas, a QR code guided me to neighborhood attractions and restaurants, instead of maps and brochures.

The impact of Covid-19 on the travel industry has been surmountable, despite the heavy blow. Hotels in particular have had to adjust their businesses overnight. Approximately 40-50 percent of the hotels in the United States are owned by South Asians, according to the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), a trade association that represents hotel owners. Hotels are categorized by ownership (chain, single owner), target markets (airport, extended stay, resorts), and by level of service and number of rooms.

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Budget and value or economy hotels such as Motel 6, Comfort Inn, and Americas Best have the lowest room rates and offer good value for money. Mid-range and business hotels such as Marriott and Holiday Inns cater to families, business travelers, and affluent travelers. Brands such as Mandarin Oriental, Langham, and Ritz-Carlton fall into the category of Luxury Hotels. Generally, Asian Americans dominate the motel ownership in small towns.

 Adapting to new standards

Because hotels are termed as an essential business, they did not close during the lockdown, yet maintained operations even without any guests.

Navid Kapadi, a partner at Atlanta-based Peach State Hospitality, owns three Choice Hotels franchises located near Atlanta airport. The mid-grade hotel brand caters to leisure travelers who are on road trips through the Southeast and are looking for a night to break their journey. When the shutdown was announced, he panicked. “It was very concerning as we didn’t know what to expect. We had never expected anything like this and didn’t have any guidance on how to deal with it. All of a sudden, cancellations started pouring in.

The first week was extremely tough!” says Kapadi who has been in the hotel business for about five years. His staff immediately sprang into action, partnering with Eco Lab to make sure all their cleaning products were up to date, deeply sanitizing every room, and cleaning the facilities more often. They rearranged the lobby to allow for social distancing, spaced breakfast tables six feet apart, installed plexiglass barriers and sanitizing stations, and put up signs stating only two people could enter the elevator at a time. Further, they implemented daily temperature checks and retrained all their employees.

Not all hotel segments experienced the same level of concern. “Our properties play in the monthly and weekly, long-term, affordable housing segment. Our occupancy has actually gone up during this time. During recession, people are looking for housing where rents are lower and utilities are included,” says Ali Jamal, author of the upcoming book Can-Do Real Estate and CEO of Stablegold Hospitality, which owns and operates seven locations in the Atlanta metro area and two in North Dakota. Jamal claims his top-line revenues during the crisis have been better than he had expected.

Like everyone else in the industry, Jamal did not know how much of an impact Covid-19 would have on the economy and the hotel business. But there’s always a segment of the population that depends on affordable housing, in a flexible format that hotels offer. This has led to a steady and consistent business for him, as well as for other hoteliers in this space. Still, Jamal felt the economic challenge of his customer base and worked with each one of them to offer discounted rates up to 50 percent and flexible payment options to ensure they had a roof over their heads.

Managing financial crisis

New safety measures are now required to reinforce confidence, but put a strain on the hotel’s resources even as revenues dwindle. “We have had to cut back expenses on planned upgrades and other investments, and redo our budgets for the next year,” says Kapadi. Not serving breakfast has reduced costs but hardly enough to offset the added expenses, while occupancy still remains low.

Sam Patel, who owns a Travelodge in Forsyth County, Georgia, and a Red Roof Inn in Richmond Hill, Georgia, also saw considerable impact on his business, but decided to take advantage of the Small Business Administration Economy Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) and Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). “It allowed us to retain our staff, pay our mortgage, and keep operations going,” he says. Being a smaller hotel, Patel was able to reduce operation costs in the interim. He shrank employee hours, scaled back on ground maintenance, and turned off the lights and refrigerators in unused rooms to save on utilities. Patel also consulted with other hoteliers in the area and concluded, “We are sustaining with the help of government loans but are uncertain about the future. Perhaps we would need another stimulus package, or many of us will need to shut down permanently.”

Prioritizing people

Another major issue that hoteliers are facing during the pandemic is having enough staff return to work. Employees face the same health risks as the customers do, if not more. Being on the frontline of cleaning rooms after each customer, they have more chances of being exposed to the virus. Kapadi adds, “We still have a lot of work, but it’s been challenging, getting staff to return to work. Many of them prefer to receive unemployment, and are afraid for their health.”

Meanwhile, Jamal has not only been able to avoid furloughs, but has hired additional staff to meet demand at his extended stay properties. He also gave out full bonuses to all his managers regardless of their hitting targets.

The new normal

Travel has slowly resumed and many people are resorting to road trips and choosing destinations close to home. “This time of the year, we are typically at 80-100 percent capacity, but now we are at 40-45 percent,” says Kapadi, who has seen increased traffic on the highways in the past few weeks. He can’t predict when his business will return to normal, but is hoping to see more guidelines for the hotel industry.
Patel feels more skeptical. “Though road traffic has increased, people are choosing to skip staying overnight in Georgia, due to our recent spike in cases.” He believes that the state has earned a bad reputation for the way it is handling the virus, which is resulting in guests driving further to stay in neighboring Tennessee and South Carolina.

Across the nation, as vacationers book accommodations, they are not just price sensitive anymore. They are asking questions about what the hotels are doing to ensure health and safety. Hotels need to assure clients that their room is perfect. Each one is expected to observe the new norms that may include touchless check-ins, temperature checks of guests and employees, health screening, reduced room capacities, and extended cleaning procedures. Staff and guests are required to wear masks and limit interactions. Housekeeping, happy hours, and buffet breakfast have also been put on hold.

An uncertain future

There is much uncertainty in the travel space right now, and usual business travel is not likely to return for many months. Lack of a vaccine, increasing unemployment, and fluctuating virus cases are not good news for hoteliers. They believe that big chains that have larger operating costs are more exposed and are going to continue to face challenges, while smaller economy hotels may be able to sustain themselves longer. Major hotel operators Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., Hyatt Hotels Corp., and Marriott International Inc. have already laid off thousands of employees and have not seen a major uptick in bookings.

Dos and don’ts for your next hotel stay

If you decide to stay at a hotel during these times, make sure to check the city/state travel website to get latest updates on travel restrictions and safety measures. Call the hotel or check their website to see what procedures they have in place and how prepared their staff is. Ask basic questions about cleaning, social distancing, wearing masks, etc.

If you see something that you are not comfortable with, make sure to point it out to the manager so they can rectify it. Also, carry your own PPE (personal protection equipment) such as masks, hand sanitizers, and disinfecting wipes with you when you travel. It is a good idea to wipe down high-touch surfaces such as remote controls, air-conditioning switches, and door handles yourself. Lastly, don’t expect the same level of services and amenities as before. Many hotels have closed access to pools, spas and gyms, and are limiting room service, turndown service, late checkouts, or sit-down breakfasts. They too are anxious and worried while trying to survive, not knowing how bad it can get.

~ Written for and published by Khabar Magazine. All rights reserved. Pick up a copy of the November 2020 issue to read more.

How to Get Out of Aruba’s All-Inclusive Mode and Truly Experience the Island

Cuisine Noir. August 2019.

Aruba is a Dutch-Caribbean island known for its beautiful white sand beaches, tropical sea breezes and dry temperate climate. With a strip of all-inclusive resorts and vacation rentals, it is a popular destination among honeymooners and summer vacationers. The “One Happy Island” is also emerging as a cultural getaway.

Downtown Aruba and the capital city of Oranjestad, mainly cater to cruise ship passengers. While docked, they spend a few hours walking around the bright pink and yellow buildings filled with designer stores and friendly bars. Time your visit to early morning or late afternoon to avoid the rush.

Downtown Oranjestad in Aruba
Pictured: Downtown Oranjestad | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

Manchebo Resort and Spa, one of the smaller boutique and eco-friendly resorts, is located only 2.5 miles from the main street. Here you will find modern Dutch-inspired décor across spacious bedrooms with unobstructed views of the Caribbean Sea from your private balcony. Manchebo has one of the best beaches on the island.  With only 72 guest rooms, you will always have enough space to lie under a beach umbrella, sit by the pool or grab a seat at the bar. Free yoga and Pilates classes, as well as a Balinese spa overlooking Eagle Beach, attract locals as well as guests to the resort.

The on-site restaurant, Ike’s Bistro,  offers Caribbean as well as vegan menus paired with top-shelf mixed drinks using local ingredients, such as mangoes, lychee and cashews. The rooms come with picnic coolers so you can fill them with snacks and drinks before heading out on an adventure around the island.

Shop for aloe-made products at the Aruba Aloe and crafts handmade by artists at Cosecha Aruban Craft Design & Heritage for original souvenirs to take back home.

Cosecha Aruban Craft Design and Heritage
Pictured: Cosecha Aruban Craft Design and Heritage | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal
Island Adventure

The best way to explore Aruba is by driving around its 20-some miles. Most of the roads are well maintained, but it is recommended to use a four-wheel SUV in certain areas, including the famous Natural Bridge, Natural Pools and Arihok National Park.

From Oranjestad, head north to the Carolina lighthouse for a 360-degree view of the island and get your bearings. Nearby, Boca Catalina and Hadicuran beaches are good pit stops to swim or snorkel.

As you make your way to Paradera, take a hike at the giant tonalite Ayo and Casibari Rock Formations. The Alto Vista Chapel on the horizon is said to be the first church to be established in Aruba around 1750.

Casibari Rock Formations in Aruba
Pictured: Casibari Rock Formations | Photo credit: Sucheta Rawal

To learn about how stray donkeys are rescued and kept off the streets, visit the Aruba Donkey Sanctuary. Home to 150 donkeys, this volunteer-run nonprofit allows visitors to feed the affectionate donkeys or observe them from a covered porch.

Head to the restaurant Zeerover in the town of Savaneta for a late lunch.  The local catch that is sold and cooked by the pound by the fisherman who caught it that day. This casual oceanfront kitchen is a favorite hangout to eat, drink, shoot pool and meet friends.

Local Charm of San Nicolas

San Nicolas is the second largest city on the island, around a 30-minute drive from Oranjestad. What was once a bustling town fueled by ample employment by a Venezuelan-owned refinery is now sparse with a few residents and old shops. The main street of the city recently got a facelift thanks to global artists who participated in the Aruba Art Fair, creating colorful murals inspired by the island’s culture. Each year more stunning murals replace decapitated buildings with artwork that brightens up San Nicolas, aka ‘Sunrise City,” because the sun rises on the eastern side of the island.

How to Get Out of Aruba’s All-Inclusive Mode and Truly Experience the Island

A few locally-run restaurants are in the area, including Charlie’s Bar which has an eclectic display of memorabilia that the owners have been collecting for more than 80 years. Nearby, Baby Beach is a shallow, family-friendly beach, where you can find Arubans with family and friends, especially on the weekends.

To see kite surfers in action, head to Boca Grandi and for body surfing and bodyboarding, watch the waves at Nanki. Hardly any tourists make it out to these parts of the island, so you will mostly find locals relaxing at the peaceful Roger’s Beach.

~ Written for & published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

How to Have a Romantic Getaway in Saint Lucia

One Travel Going Places. July 2018.

Fancy walking barefoot on fine white sand holding your partner’s hand, sharing a sensual couples massage listening to tranquil ocean waves, or relishing a slow private sunset dinner on the beach? Head to the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia, one of the most popular spots among honeymooners and romantic vacationers. It’s well-preserved natural beauty, luxury resorts, fine-dining options, and relaxing spas are perfect for those looking for solitude and romance.

Here are the best ways to enjoy a romantic getaway to Saint Lucia…

Read the full post on One Travel Going Places.

Hotels That Give Back to Communities

For Cuisine Noir. June 2018.

As you start planning your summer vacation and look for hotel deals online, be an informed traveler and select properties that are sustainable. Many hotels and resorts take pride in investing their profits in the local community by training and employing the native population, building schools, organic farms and other socially responsible projects. Check out these hotels where you can not only have a luxurious stay but feel good about it too!

The Good Hotel, Guatemala

Photo: Sucheta Rawal

The Good Hotel in Antigua, Guatemala strives on a socially responsible business model where 100% of the profits are invested into the local community. The Good Group trains unemployed and single women to work in the hospitality sector and hires them to work at their hotels. They also provide education to low-income families.

Located on a quaint residential street in Old Town Antigua, a UNESCO world heritage site, the colonial home turned into a Scandinavian-style upscale hostel is decorated with locally sourced products. The café, set in a tropical garden, offers fresh, organic, and homemade breakfast and fair-trade coffee. The Good Group also has a hotel in London and is opening soon in Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, and Rio.

eXtreme Hotel, Dominican Republic

Photo: eXtreme Hotel

The eXtreme Hotel Cabarete is extreme both in its adventure offerings, as well as its commitment to social and ecological responsibility. The solar-powered hotel employs locals and minimizes its carbon footprint by hanging laundry, taking advantage of natural cooling and ventilation, using low-wattage light bulbs and low-flow water taps in the bathrooms, and planting 2000 trees on its organic farm. More than 70 percent of the hotel staff is Dominican and they partner with a Dominican-owned kite school and farm-to-table restaurant. Located on Kite Beach in the town of Cabarete, eXtreme is known for kite surfing, SUP boarding, yoga, horseback riding and beautiful beaches.

Hyatt, Jamaica

Photo: Kari Herer

Playa Hotels & Resorts’ all-inclusive resorts in Jamaica — Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall and Hyatt Ziva — run the Granville 404 Project, a local children’s school located near Montego Bay, with 404 kids. Some of the initiatives include turning a dirt field into a soccer field, creating a garden to show the children how to grow their own food, a farm-to-table program, Spanish language studies, and a sick bay.

Hyatt Zilara is an all-inclusive adult resort in historic Rose Hall overlooking turquoise blue waters of the Caribbean Sea and the lush peaks of the Blue Mountains.

Hyatt Ziva is a family-friendly all-inclusive resort with swim-up pools, beach access, spa, golf, and 13 restaurants and bars including a Moroccan teamed rooftop lounge. Guests can bring donations, purchase items at the gift shop such as chocolate bars made on the property where the proceeds go to the project or volunteer while vacationing.

Hotel El Ganzo, Mexico

Hotel El Ganzo in Los Cabos is an arts-inspired sustainable boutique hotel featuring its own underground recording studio and artist in-residence-program. Guests can enjoy live musical performances and curated visual art exhibitions with a backdrop of the Sea of Cortez.

The El Ganzo Community Center, which stands across from the hotel, offers a free arts program giving children of the local village an opportunity to engage with the creative arts and the world-class artists who visit El Ganzo. Additionally, El Ganzo is a partner of Kind Traveler, a booking platform where guests get exclusive hotel rates by donating to their choice of top-rated charities. At check-out, guests can donate to the El Ganzo Community Center.

For Cuisine Noir. June 2018.

How You Can Enjoy AND Make a Difference in Guatemala in Just 1 Week

~ For CheapOAir Miles Away. April 2018

Guatemala is the heart of the Mayan civilization. From ancient ruins and colorful villages, a charming UNESCO city, to beautiful lakes surrounded by volcanoes, there’s a lot to see and savor in this Central American country. Besides being a popular tourist destination, it’s also emerging as a place that engages eco-travelers, Spanish language students, and offers plenty of opportunities to give back to the community.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away

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.

 

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.

Read the full article on CheapOAir Miles Away Blog