I love mornings to walk out and around in a city to explore it's streets. It's the time of the day when even the busiest of the streets are calm and still waking up to the day ahead.

Varanasi is no different. Though the ghats get active fairly active even before sunrise and there are multiple things to do early in the morning there, including a visit to the traditional akharas where men practice Kushti, the rest of the city gets up a little bit late, especially in the famed narrow lanes. 

Here is a photo-story from these streets of Varanasi, of a day that is about to start, on a winter morning :)

varanasi holy city early morning photography
On the way to somewhere...
varanasi holy city early morning photography
Some shops do open early, even if though customers are rare at this hour
varanasi holy city early morning photography
Catching up on the new early in the morning
varanasi holy city early morning photography
An empty street, can do with some cleaning though...
varanasi holy city early morning photography
Hello! Sharing early morning pleasantries :)
varanasi holy city early morning photography
Their day has almost started :)
The Chota Imambara was built by the third Nawab of Lucknow, Muhammad Ali Shah, in the year 1838. For those who don't know, an Imambara is a place of congregation of Shia Muslims, and in Lucknow these also house the Tazias built during Muharram.

Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Inside Chota Imambara
Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Chota Imambara from outside
Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Chandeliers inside the Imambara

Lucknow has tens of public Imambaras, but two areas expecially famous - the Bara (big) Imambara and the Chota (small) Imambara. Bara Imambara is an absolutely stunning piece of architecture unlike any in the world, and has become not just the pride, but also the symbol of Lucknow's Nawabi heritage. It's an honour it completely deserves, but the place has become so famous that the Chota Imambara is unfortunately forgotten and only a fraction of visitors even make a visit here. I feel the only way to change this is by sharing the delicately stunning beauty of Chota Imambara and showcase our to the world :)



The actual name for Chota Imambara is Hussainabad Imambara, but most know it by its colloquial name. The complex not only consists of the Imambara, but has many other places to see as well. Let's see what these are:

Naubat Khana: a large and beautiful ceremonial gate welcomes you to the Imambara complex. It's painted yellow on the outside and white front the inside, just like most of the complex, and really sets the expectations high.

Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Gate to Chota Imambara

Chota Imambara: the meeting hall is the principal building here and is located in the central position. It has a large open hall filled with chandeliers imported mainly from Belgium. The Nawab was certainly rich and it shows - there is a wall clock from Paris, the Crown replica is studded with precious gems from all over, and the opulence is simply unmatched.

Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Beautiful walls of the Imambara 
Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Inside the Chota Imambara
Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
More chandeliers...
Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Belgian glasswork...

During the annual Muharram procession, Shia Muslim families make Tazia which are then taken out in a street procession and later buried. In some cities these are immersed like in Ahmedabad, but in North India they area often buried. Some of the most important ones are kept bets on display and buried the next year. A caretaker is around and can tell you more about the place, though it's difficult to know where the history stops and legends begin. The stories are interesting nevertheless.

The chandeliers here used to be lit up and works fill the entire space with glittering light. This is why the British called it the 'Palace of Lights', though it was certainly not a palace or a place to live.

Mausoleum of the King and his mother: the Imambara building is flanked on the two sides by two white buildings which look a lot like mini Taj Mahal. These are actually the mausoleums for the King and his mother and the design was actually inspired by the iconic Taj Mahal.

Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Mausoleum of the king

It wasn't uncommon back then to plan your own mausoleum while you were still alive to make sure your resting place would be comfortable. The Mughals did it, and so did the Nawabs.

Mosque: just as you enter the complex on the left is a small and very beautiful white mosque. If you compare any of these with the Bara Imambara, the scale is much smaller, yet the detailing in work is not second to and in the neighbourhood.

Hammam: right after the entrance on the left is the Shahi Hammam - the royal Bath. India had a lot of influence from the Turkish and Persian civilizations, and perhaps this also came with them. With the kings, the hammams also disappeared and I have never really seen a public bath in India (this wasn't public for sure, and meant for the royal family only).

Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
Caretaker of the Imambara

Satkhanda: outside the Imambara there is another very unique looking building, which looks unfinished. On further investigation I found it was an unfinished watch tower which was originally meant to be seven storeys high. However when the King, Ali Shah, died it was abandoned with only three storeys in place.

If you are visit the Imambara, it's also worthwhile to make a short trip the nearby Jama Masjid. Though for non-Muslims the interiors are not accessible, but the stunning facade certainly makes up for it :)

To reach:

You can easily drive up to here, though parking might be a difficult. If you are already at Bara Imambara, just walk to the Chota Imambara Road take a rickshaw. I directly came here from my hotel in the cab - both Ola and Uber have good service in Lucknow now.

Chota Imambara heritage photo lucknow
On the main road outside the Imambara

Here's a map for reference:



Fee:

Entry fee: Rs 20
Camera charges: Rs 5 (photography is allowed everywhere)
Entry fee (foreigners): Rs 200
It's the season of marriages and honeymoons in India, and if you are planning one right now, here's a great list of topmost honeymoon destinations for 2017 in India. Whether you are a romantic at heart or an adrenaline junkie, India is literally full of destinations for every need. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but is meant to tickle the romantic side of your heart to look beyond the obvious and do something hatke.

honeymoon destination place india 2017
Top honeymoon destinations in India for 2017

Just to make it easier to digest so much information, I have broken down the list into rough categories - romantic destinations, adventurous destinations, chilling-out destinations and off-beat destinations.

Romantic destinations 

1. Kashmir: The valley of Kashmir is by far my most favourite destination in the world, and most likely I will myself spend my honeymoon there. There is so much to do there that it's impossible to list out the places, but a good list would include Srinagar, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Patnitop and many more places. Whether you stay in the cities or wander into the mountains, your honeymoon will be memorable!



2. Agra and around: Agra is pretty clich├ęd when it comes to romantic travels, but I would still recommend the city, especially if you have never been there. A visit to Taj Mahal early in the morning is simply an unparalleled experience and can't missed when you are with your soul mate. Looking for something more than Taj, here's a post on Baby Taj!

3. Houseboats of Kerala: The laidback backwaters of Allepy in Kerala are serene, quite and stunningly beautiful. Also these Houseboats are private and give you lots of space to explore each other :) Also check out this guide from Kerala: Couple travel guide for Kerala

4. Manali in Himanchal: Mountains are romantic. Period. The lush green mountains of Himachal, the cool and crisp air, and long walks in the forests all make for Manali a great honeymoon destination! Again do not limit yourself to just Manali, but explore the areas around as well, each excursion will be rewarding.

5. Khajuraho: The erotic carvings at the Khajuraho group of temples are a prefect inspiration to try something new and exciting! It's a world heritage site and the town also has some really nice hotels to stay in. Explore the temples, explore each other and enjoy this lovely town!

A photo posted by TRAVELviaus (@travelviaus) on


Adventurous destinations

1. River rafting in Indus: River Indus have our country its name and most of us are probably descendents of the people who made up the Indus Valley Civilization. So it's really interesting to go back to our roots and explore the river like never before. Rafting in the Indus is internationally renowned and if adventure is your thing, this might probably be the best way to bond with your loved one!

2. Great lakes trek in Kashmir: This trek in Kashmir is the ultimate mix of mild adventure with a heavy dose of romance. Such is the trek that people who barely know each other fall in love, so images what this would do to the newlyweds? Magic :)

3. Scuba in Andamans: This is well known to the adventure enthusiasts in India, but maybe it's time that couples also start exploring it. Together. Plan for a week of scuba adventures and if you like, become a trained scuba couple divers with a one week course. After that all your vacations can be under water gazing at the life there, holding hands and exchanging glances.

A photo posted by SHAKTI (@thetribesmen) on


4. Skydiving in Mysore: Though I am yet to try skydiving in India, I can vouch for the unparalleled experience of skydiving and the feeling of weightlessness. If both you and your partner are up for it, do try it out, and one such option is in Mysore. A few of my friends have done it here and loved the experience. If Mysore is a bit far for you, find something safe close home and go for it!

5. Tiger safari in Madhya Pradesh: the heart of India is also home to tigers and the state has numerous Tiger reserves which provide an excellent opportunity to bond in a forest over fear of the big beast! From Panna to Bandhavgarh (Read more: Tiger Safari in Bandhavgarh), there are some very nice and rustic resorts which provide luxury in the lap of nature.

Chilling-out destinations

1. Goa: Now Goa is certainly my all time favourite destination for a relaxed vacation and with your loved one it's even more magical. Take long strolls on the almost empty beaches of south Goa, take bike rides together through the villages of the state, and ride the waves into the sunset. And if water is not what excites hot, here is an alternate guide - Goa Beyond Beaches.

2. Lakshwadeep islands: It's one of the most beautiful parts of the India, people are only now waking up to these lovely islands. Which is great for honeymooning couples because it allows for lots of privacy. Many travellers come here for adventures, but it's a great place to simply relax and chill as well.



3. Coorg in Karnataka: Do you love coffee? Then how about waking up early morning in a small villa right in the center of a coffee plantation? I spent a few days in one such small house and the memories and smell of the coffee is still fresh with me.

4. Pondicherry: Pondicherry, or Puducherry as its locally known, was a French Colony which became a part of India only in 1954, and a huge French influence can be seen even today. Lanes with old colonial houses are perfect for walks and and an occasional coffee, while the long coastline is the perfect place for the morning and evening. Auroville Ashram which is a must visit, and so is staying at an old house-converted-to-homestay. A perfect place to just relax.

5. Palampur in Himachal Pradesh: One of the least known and underrated hill stations of Himachal Pradesh, Palampur in Kangra valley is just perfect for you if you want to relax and explore each other in the lap of nature. Dotted with cafes, old temples and monasteries, the town would soon explode into a popular tourism destination, so visit it before it changes completely!

A photo posted by Ritesh (@framing__moments) on


Off-beat destinations

1. Tawang in Arunanchal Pradesh: The small town houses the second biggest Buddhist monastery in the world and is surrounded by gorgeous pristine lakes. The lakes freeze in the winters and you can literally walk on some of them. An extremely safe town, it's perfect for long walks in the evening into the forests. Strong recommended!

2. Hampi in Karnataka: the capital of Vijaynagar empire, Humpi, now lays in ruins. However, for an exploratory couple its a perfect place as the place is not usually crowded, and there's so much to be discovered all here. Buy a book about the place and travel on foot - getting lost is perfectly fine! And if your want some adventures, do the coracle boat ride in the river.



3. Pangong Tso in Ladakh: A trip to Pangong Tso is borderline adventurous, but if you go in off-season the place is perfect for a honeymooning couple. It's rather cold so you would want to stay close all day long, and you will have the entire place to yourself all day long. Why? It's still not mainstream to spend days here! So go for it :)

4. Loktak lake and beyond in Manipur: It's the largest fresh water lake in North East India and also happens to be stunningly beautiful. Manupur as a state itself is relatively unexplored, and this can be the best reason to pack your bags and plan a romantic getaway where no one else wanders!



5. Rann of Kutch in Gujarat: when I visited Rann of Kutch for the first time now than a decade ago, it was like at first sight. The white salt desert is so unique and completely breathtaking. Visit Bhuj, Dholavira, Kala Dungar and other places which are barely known outside the state. Trust me, it would surely be a unique experience!

Tips for Couple travel!
Let me finish this post by sharing some personal tips on fun travels for couples. These are some cool tips to keep your couple travel fun!

Read more: Tips for traveling as a couple
JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa is Marriott's only resort in India and the five star property is a top-most draw for tourists looking for an experiential stay in the Himalayas. I was invited recently by Marriott to visit the resort for a review. Here is the story of my stay.

Lunch at the farm at JW Marriott, Mussoorie
Entrance to JW Marriott
Lounging area, I spent my afternoons with coffee here :)

It was already dark when I reached and after the day long flight cancellations due to the legendary North India fog, I was ready to hit the bed early. However, there was a something way more exciting than sleep was waiting for me - dinner with chef at Teppanyaki Grill, the Asian fine dining restaurant, at the grill table and I had the pleasure to eat food made specially to my taste. In fact I got this feeling of being special not just on this one occasion, but through my stay; and this is something each guest can expect from this luxurious resort in the lap of Himalayas.



My first meal pleasantly surprised me, and over the next few days getting these little delightful experiences almost became a habit for me. And I enjoyed each one of these to the fullest, and waited for the next one in anticipation. Maybe I can recount some of these curated experiences which are available to all the guests, and go far beyond what a typical report offers. In fact most of these experiences actually take you out of the property itself and let you come close to the local way of living.

My experiential stay:


Hike to Dalai Lama's first home in India - Happy Valley
When Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet, he made Happy Valley near Mussoorie his first home and stayed here for an year. The place is still alive with Tibetean culture with almost 5000 Tibeteans living here. I was there on a rather special day and got to witness a cultural show at the Buddhist school by the school children.

Hike to the Happy Valley in the morning
Happy Valley is a lovely hike away from Marriott and this can be done with a hotel guide any morning. I would recommend starting at the break of dawn and witnessing the sunrise during the trek. The experience is surreal :)

Getting intimate with the local culture - food and visit to a Garwali village
To me this is the most essential part of a trip - getting close to the locals and their way of life. I got a great introduction to it through the local food which I relished to the core. Made by Garwali women from a nearby village in Marriott's kitchen, the food is certainly authentic and tastes better than anything else you would eat here.

Garwali thali at the hotel
Visit to the local village Bhatoli

We followed up this trip with a visit to a small village called Bhatoli, to meet a family as well. The man of the house was out, but the lady made some really good tea and chatted about her life's dreams. I was both surprised as well as impressed by her ambitions, and we both also bonded about our pahadi blood :)

Winterline at Jabarkhet
What's a winterline now? This was the same question that I had when I heard about this natural phenomenon. Well its actually a clean line see in the sky when the sun rises or sets during the winter months of Mussoorie. The colors are vivid and it has to be seen to be believed.

Winter line at Jabarkhet

Though it can be seen from most of Mussoorie, the best place to get an unforgettable experience is actually from a forest and the one I recommend is called Jabarkhet. Just let the hotel know you want to do this, and they will organise it all for you. A drive for about 45 minutes followed by a short hike will take you to the best spot to see this!

Lunch with a view in a farm
Fancy eating lunch in a farm overlooking the mighty Himalayas? Well, you can do this at a small lovely farm that Marriott manages for an old woman in a nearby village.

Nursery on the way to the farm


Sip a glass of wine and enjoy the chilly breeze as you gaze at the mountains ahead. It's amazing how much of a difference a simple change of location makes to the food you eat. Carry some warm clothes as the sun can be deceptive and it can get cold rather quickly right in the middle of the meal :)

Spa with a local touch
And finally, there is no better way to end a day but with a relaxing and luxurious massage. I chose to try out the massage inspired by the local heating techniques at the Cedar Spa by L'Occitane, and it was just perfect! This is especially needed if you take up all the activities I have mentioned above :)

Spa

Facilities at the hotel

Food:

JW Marriott Mussoorie is the only Marriott resort in India and every effort has been made to make it special. There are a bunch of eating options and I tried them all.

JW Cafe: Showcasing a vibrant open kitchen and outstanding all-day restaurant dining, JW Cafe is a great place to begin or end your day here in Mussoorie. Our menu offers a selection of local and global dishes.

Wisteria Deck: An exquisite Italian meal awaits you here in Mussoorie. Wisteria Deck provides quintessential Italian cuisine like wood-fired pizza, as well as casual outdoor seating and an extensive wine list.

Trout House Grill & Bar: Trout House Grill & Bar offers a European twist on traditional Indian fare. Our on-site restaurant boasts fresh seafood, locally sourced produce and a full bar.

Teppan: Take a culinary journey through Asia at Teppan. Savor skillfully crafted Chinese, Japanese and Thai favorites at our signature restaurant. You'll be enthralled by our knife-wielding chefs' authentic Teppanyaki-style cooking methods.

Rooms:

My room at the resort was exactly as I expected - prefect! There are two types of rooms and they are both special - rooms overlooking the valley and the rooms overlooking the walnut forest. You can let the hotel know what you prefer and they will surely be able to accommodate your needs.

My room
View from my room

Other facilities:

There is a lovely heated indoor pool along with a fitness section. I know I should have spent sometime here, but I spent burning calories climbing the hills outside. There is also a kids' play area with some games which can tempt an adult as well :)

Yoga classes also happen in the morning. Check for schedule when you check-in.

Lounging area at the terrace...

How to reach?

Mussoorie is easily accessible by a short road-trip from Dehradun which has an airport connected well with Delhi. If you do not want to fly, it's also a great drive to come here. Be prepared for some traffic jams on the highway though, especially on the weekends.

Just an area to walk...

Dehradun is also well connected by overnight trains from Delhi and they are an affordable way of travel.

My visit to Mussoorie ended much before I was ready to go back home. I know will miss the cool air, the pristine blue and clear skies and hikes in the Himalayas, and all the luxuries I enjoyed at the resort. Oh, but I am already making plans to revisit Mussoorie soon again :)



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Disclaimer: I was invited by JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa for the experiential stay. Needless to mention, all the views expressed are my own and based on my personal experiences. 
Located in Northern California, Mount Tamalpais is the highest peak in the Marine County and is one of the most popular hiking and camping site for the residents of San Francisco. The mountain is full of hikes and trails, and one of the lesser known, but super fun trail is called Cataract Creek Trail. The trail takes you to the Alpine lake and later to the popular East Summit.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
A waterfall at the Cataract Creek Trail
Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
Waterfalls are very common as you walk in to the forest

History of Mount Tam

Locally also known as Mount Tam, the mountain has a rich history and cultural significance from the time the original inhabitants of the area of San Francisco, Coast Miwok people, inhabited here.

The mountain was revered by the local population and it was believed that an evil force lived on its summit, due to which it was a forbidden land. This was done to prevent settlements on the mountain and to keep it as it was. However, this didn't prevent the Europeans from coming here.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
Lovely trail...

Once the Europeans came, the population of Coast Miwok people started to quickly decline due to the diseases introduced by the foreigners. With time they were also converted into Christianity by various missions, one of the most well known being Mission Dolores. A smallpox epidemic in 1837 decimated most of their population, apart from other diseases bought in by the Spanish and the Russians.

My visit to Mount Tam

I knew nothing about such an interesting history of the place when I went on an impromptu hiking trip with my friend over a weekend. He picked me early in the morning from home and we quickly drove through San Francisco and onto the iconic highway CA 1.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
The Golden Gate as we started the drive from San Francisco
Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
The winding roads which are a favourite with the local cyclists

Even as we were going up on the meandering roads this highway is famous for, I could see many cyclists zooming past us at scary speeds. It might sound odd, but I had never seen mountain biking before this and was both scared and impressed by it. It was much later that I learnt that this very land is actually the birthplace of mountain biking.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
And here are the fast ones on two wheels!

We drove deeper into the woods and soon reached the parking spot for our car. It certainly looked that we wild get a ticket for parking as there was no car at all there, but Abhi was confident as he had come here earlier. And I guess he knew parking signs I could not even see!

The hike was a bit odd as it started off with a steep ascent which went on for quite sometime. I usually don't get tired so easily, but despite the cold weather, I was soon panting and wondering where this hike was going. It was all very pretty with water stream on our left and a few waterfalls as well. Thankfully we found flatter ground soon and even met a few more hikers who were happily enjoying their meals on the wooden benches.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
I miss views like these...

Now there are numerous trails within the area though it's impossible to do them all. Abhi was keen that I see the lake the region is famous for and we walked towards Alpine lake. It was nice and muddy and looked dangerous. We were unsure about swimming so didn't get into water at all.

Of course hiking to the summit (west peak) was on our agenda, though the very top of the hill now had a big dome which houses a weather station. However, what's more popular is the East peak which is famous for great views of San Francisco as well as the ocean.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
That's Abhinav :)
Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
Family eating lunch in the woods
Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
Well, you can try crossing that :)

To reach East Summit

There are multiple routes through which you can reach the summit, if that's what is the objective of the trip. The easiest is to drive almost all the way to the top of east peak where an old railway station used to be. It's car park and the actually summit is a short hike from there.

Or, the other more adventurous trail is the one which we took - the Cataract Creek Trail. Take the Fairfax-Bolinas road from Fairfax, and you will be rewarded with a lovely winding road over the next 8km. Parking is available by the side of the road though it's not really marked very well.

Cataract Creek Trail trek hike tips blog california
From the top...


Here is a map for better reference:



There can never be enough sunset shots, can there be?

Sharing one more from Malawi, Africa :)

sunset malawi africa lilongwe
Sunset in Malawi



Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib is located in the North Indian state of Punjab, and is an important pilgrimage for the Sikhs from the region and beyond. Located at a distance of only about 30 kilometers from the state's Chandigarh, it's easily accessible and you can drive here in less than an hour, provided there are no traffic jams.

Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
The upper story of the Gurudwara
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
Gurudwara from outside, the langar if to the left
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
Another view of the beautiful Gurudwara

I was at Bindrakh to capture life in a weekly village flea market and it was absolutely out of question to go back without a visit to the gurudwara which was located right next to the market. Also it was already afternoon and so we also decided to eat our lunch at the langar. As expected the food was simple yet very fulfilling. For those who do not know, a langar is a community kitchen and dinning area which is present with every single gurudwara in the world, and it serves food to everyone and there are no charges for it. Whether it's the Golden Temple in Amritsar, or Hemkund Sahib in the Himalayas, or even the one in old town Barcelona, each one serves food. Many Sikhs, and often others too, consider volunteering at a langar  an important part of the pilgrimage.

The village Bindrakh is not just famous for the Gurudwara, but also for Surjit Bindrakhia, a famous Punjabi singer. In fact he is so famous that he is also often known as the greatest voice of Bhangara, which is no mean feat!

Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
Symbol of Sikhism - Khanda
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
That's my friend wandering around...
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
The beautiful green fields around
Gurudwara Bindrakh Sahib punjab india
Right on top of the Gurudwara...

Also if you are in Bindrakh already, drive down to a nearby village Manakpur Sharif and visit the famous dargah of Sharif Hazrat Hafiz Muhammad Moosa Chishti Saabri. Trust me, you won't regret this visit at all :)

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