Scrumptious, Scenic and Sporty Australia: Eat, See, Cricket. Repeat. 

Discovering destinations through sport creates an emotional connect to the place and its people that few other activities can match.

It has always been the husband’s dream to watch a match in every cricket stadium in the world. Factor in a business trip to Australia, the World Cup with India playing well, plus the fact that I never miss a travel opportunity and well, we were off.

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A waving Indian flag at MCG

Aside from the prospect of engaging in “sport tourism” for the first time, Australia’s scandalous history and ongoing status as the playground for Master Chefs give it unique appeal. The trip taught me a very important lesson: pay attention to proverbs; they are true. So true, that I was inspired to create some of my own variations.

Though there are some incredible places in the country and a host of wonderful activities for all age groups, our trip focused on food, fun and sport in two lovely cities. A taste of Sydney, with a touch of Melbourne.

Travel tip: Americans can enter more than 150 countries without visa. Australia is not one of them.

Well begun is half done; pick your destination. 

Work and cricket clearly motivated our visit to Australia. But, before setting off, we had a crucial decision to make: If visiting Australia for the first time and travelling to both Sydney and Melbourne, where to spend more time? Sydney or Melbourne?

Research, expert opinions and pictures left us nothing but confused and the husband conveniently left the decision to me. Fortunately, while reviewing the events calendar, I discovered that the annual food festival – Taste of Sydney – was taking place around the same time as our visit and the choice was made. Except for match day in Melbourne, we decided to explore Sydney.

FYI: Sydney is much larger and has relatively more of an “Australian” feel than Melbourne, which is kind of like a small big city that is decidedly more European in its bearings and personality.

Standard does not equal special

Despite their added character, boutique properties are often overlooked for the tried-and-tested comfort of chain hotels. In Sydney, stay at the wonderfully wacky and swanky QT Sydney.

Stylish Gowings Bar at QT Sydney
Stylish Gowings Bar at QT Sydney

The location is fantastic – smack in the middle of CBD’s shopping zone and next to the State theatre, the hotel and its Gowings bar are always buzzing. Although there are hotels far more luxurious than the QT, it’s charm, character and style add that “je ne sais quoi” to the Sydney experience. Not to mention, the interesting ‘outfits’ worn by the doorwomen.

Where there is a will, there is a way; if you want to eat it all, you can.

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A Taste of Sydney

There are so many fabulous eateries in Sydney that it is virtually impossible to cover them in one trip. However, a great way to eat your way through the city without breaking the bank, is to visit during ‘Taste of Sydney‘. The event is held in the lovely Centennial park, with tents pitched for restaurants, vendors, drinks, gourmet treats and live demonstrations.

While we had several nibbles and tipples, the most memorable ones were: purple potato gnocchi with wild mushroom, pine nut, chilli and salted dried ricotta by Popolo, carrot, yoghurt and liquorice by Cafe Paci, organic vegetarian celery gratin, pickled black walnuts and Granny Smith apples by Ananas, Tiramisu ice cream with marsala jelly, coffee soaked Savoiardi biscuits and cocoa nib tuile from Otto Ristorante.

Beer break at 'Taste of Sydney'
Beer break at ‘Taste of Sydney’

It’s not just the memory of the food that stays with you, it’s the whole experience…gourmet food in a beautiful park, on a lovely sunny day, with lively music. Bliss!

Tip: Pre-check the menu to ensure there are sufficient options to meet your dietary preferences, approximate cost of ticket and prioritize dishes.

Dining suggestions (vegetarian-friendly):

For fine dining on the waterfront, try Chef Matt Moran’s Aria at Circular Quay. Ask for a table by the window.

For live band music in a relaxed ambiance, head to the oldest pub in Sydney – The Fortune of War (165 yrs and counting). One of few pubs open late on Sunday in The Rocks, it makes up for with character, crowd and entertainment what it lacks in aesthetics. 

Drinks in the Prohibition Era at Palmer & Co.
Drinks in the Prohibition Era at Palmer & Co.

For delicious Chinese food served in a classy ambiance, head to Mr. Wong’s in CBD. Top up your drinks by taking the elevator down to Palmer & Co…a bar modeled after Prohibition era Chicago

For light meals with a view, head to the aptly named Opera bar

For a quick bite, stop by one of the many outlets of Sabbaba falafel

For comfort food served with a view, hop on the ferry to Manly for pizza at Hugo’s followed by dessert at Max Brenner nearby. Don’t forget to request for a table facing the water.

For the love of pancake, head to the nearest Bill’s for the best ricotta pancakes in the city!

For a memorable gourmet experience in CBD, head to Jamie Oliver for dinner, and follow it up with drinks at The Baxter Inn


 Never judge a book by its cover…or a bar by its door.

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The Whiskey Wall at The Baxter Inn (Image Source: TimeOut Sydney)

If there’s only one bar you can go to in Sydney, make it The Baxter Inn. One of the world’s best bars, it is hidden behind an obscure and nondescript door of a rather shady narrow alleyway.

…But once inside, the dinghy alley gives way to a classy up-scale underground tavern, complete with a backlit wall lined with hundreds of bottles of whisky. Talented bartenders whip up incredible concoctions and classics.

Tip: Ask the bartenders to surprise you and prepare to be amazed at how accurately they gauge drinking preferences.

All that glitters is not gold, but it may still be priceless

The glittering Sydney skyline is a treat for sore eyes. No matter which angle we saw it from – and we saw from many – it was always stunning.

To be specific, we saw it glinting in the morning sun, sparkling at sunset and twinkling in the night from:

  • Atop Harbour Bridge: a view made possible via Harbour BridgeClimb, a 90-min overpriced, but perfect, exercise. The pace was a bit like a brisk walk, but not vigorous enough to cause breathlessness. The facts are fascinating, feat amazing and views fabulous.
  • Outside Sydney Opera House: a view of the afternoon sun or sunset with the Harbour bridge and city in the backdrop is lovely.
  • Upon Mrs. Macquaries chair: the best view in Sydney is from a little rock bench carved by convicts. Located by the Royal Botanical Gardens, the bench offers a gorgeous view of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Sydney Opera House in the same frame. One, which is even more beautiful at sunset.
  • Over water: a great view of twinkling city lights is from the ferry that crosses from The Rocks to Manly (or vice versa) in the night.

So much sparkle could have been blinding, if it wasn’t so beautiful. Priceless.

The early bird gets the worm…and the early spectator gets the seat.

The husband and I are not Opera fans, but we love plays and decided to catch one at the infamous Sydney Opera House. We picked a show that had received great reviews, “Suddenly Last Summer”, and combined traditional theatre with live video. Paired with a tour of the architectural marvel and topped off by a drink at the Opera bar, it had the makings of a perfect evening.

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The Sydney Opera House

…And it almost was. The tour was vera fascinating (highly recommended) and we loved hearing the story behind how one of the city’s most iconic structures was engineered. The Opera Bar was lovely, but then came the show.

We had procrastinated for buying the tickets, thinking we could buy them on the spot. As it was, the show was standing room only and we ended up watching the play on our feet for a good 90 mins. While the rest of the evening was still enjoyable, it would’ve been far more enjoyable if we had simply booked our seats early.

Tip: Book your seats in advance. Popular shows – even those that may be long-running – can sell out quickly.

Who travels for love (or cricket) finds a thousand miles not longer than one

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Living the dream at the Sydney Cricket Ground

Gastronomy and drama aside, the sole reason for our visit was our (well, mostly the husband’s) love of cricket. Though we spent a longer time getting to Australia than in the matches, the trip was totally worth it. The grounds, crowds, weather, sledging and beer, contributed to one hell of a cricketing experience. Great matches may be played anywhere, but great viewing experiences come with watching the game in world-class venues.

We saw two quarterfinal matches: South Africa vs. Sri Lanka in Sydney and India vs. Bangladesh in Melbourne. Watching cricket from both the Sydney (SCG) and Melbourne Cricket Grounds (MCG) is a cricket lover’s dream come true. Both grounds are incredible, but while the SCG is more of a heritage structure and traditional cricket ground, MCG is a massive stadium.

The spirit of the game extended beyond the stadiums. It was in flags that waved in the most unlikely of places, strangers that hi-fived each other and became friends, or strangers that sledged each other for fun, or TV anchors and cameramen that we bumped into and chatted with (one kind cameraman actually paused his shoot to help us figure out our new camera). Or the lone man that ran across the ground mooning the crowd. All of these elements that add, and in some ways, create, the unique match-viewing experience.

But most of all, it was the crowd. SCG saw a mix of colours, but the sheer number of Indian supporters meant MCG was blue. The noise generated was as loud as that on home ground. Even though the MCG was partly empty for the India-Bangladesh match, the sound level in the stadium made it seem fuller…especially when India won the match and Rohit Sharma hit his century (which seems to happen whenever I’m in the stadium so, maybe I’m the lucky charm!). One of the highlights though, was listening to the national anthem reverberate across the stadium. It was enough to give us goose bumps.

No words can adequately describe the rollercoaster of emotions that accompany a good match, but suffice it to say that I’ve rarely felt as alive as when sweating in the sun, screaming my lungs out in support and cursing the poor opposition.

Slow down and smell the roses…or the ocean

Besides watching a winning game of cricket in the fabulous Sydney stadium and eating our way through the city, we decided to simply enjoy our destination.
For a change, we opted to do the simple things and didn’t try to see and do it all:

  • Drive around the coastline: A friend took us for a drive around the non-touristy parts of the city, so we could get a flavour of how the locals live. It was nice to simply follow the road without being stuck in a traffic jam.
  • Walk from Bondi to Bronte coastal walk: A fun and beautiful walk, that we did backwards (from Bronte to Bondi). Stunning views of the coastline and uninterrupted views of the ocean mixed with some random activities. We spotted Dolphins, worked out in an open air gym, caught a game of boules (Clovelly Bowling Club) and planned our burials (should we decide against cremation) at a cemetery with a stunning view. We followed it up with a hearty meal at Bill’s that likely replenished all the calories burnt during the walk!

…Sometimes, you just need to slow down and enjoy the moment.

Beyond a game…

There are people that travel for sport because it is trendy or fashionable and there are those that do it for the sport itself. Whatever your reason, you must travel for sport at least once in life. Discovering new spaces through sport creates an emotional connect to the place and its people that few other activities can match.

If cricket does not appeal to you, pick your passion. The beauty of sport is how it allows complete strangers to bare and share all emotions with complete abandon for that brief period of time when all is forgotten except what is unfolding before the eyes.

But, while you’re at it, don’t forget to take a step back, soak up the sights, strike up some conversation, savor the cuisine, and slow down and breathe.

Majestic Rajasthan: Reliving History in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

Incredible fortresses, luxurious living, sumptuous feasts, extravagant celebrations, haunting melodies and haunted tours make for an experience of a lifetime.

There are some places on earth where history comes alive. Where the past and present co-exist. Where wild sands are tamed and nurtured. A land of royal palaces, imposing fortresses, mesmerizing desert sands, brave warriors, brilliant colors, vibrant festivals, haunting melodies and sumptuous feasts. The ‘land of the kings’ – Rajasthan.

No state in India is as vibrant, exotic or majestic as Rajasthan. There are some truly incredible places to explore, but vast distances and limited connectivity mean that one trip is seldom enough to see them all.

This past Diwali, the sun, moon and stars aligned for our family to explore Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer together. Timing was perfect, occasion was perfect, itinerary was set, and off we went with toddlers, in laws, nephew and Samsonite showroom display in tow. Despite the long journeys and assorted age groups (<15 months to >60yrs), we had a fabulous time and even managed to come back charmed and rejuvenated!

Here are some recommendations for how to do it:

#1: Live life king size; sometimes, the property is the experience.

Rajasthan has some of the most beautiful heritage properties in the world, so going luxe was almost a foregone conclusion. What surprised us, was how much the properties contributed to the overall experience. These weren’t simply places reserved for crashing after exploring outdoors, these were spaces that compelled you to reserve time for themselves as well.

Our first property, Trident, Jaipur, a nice but slightly older property, with the kind of service that turns a good property to great. From having a kids club and convenient garden/play area to entertaining the kids to catering to our every food whim, this property surpassed all expectations. There was the time when one of the waiters surprised us with the infamous Rawat’s pyaaz kachori when he learnt that we wouldn’t have the time to do so. Or the time when, on request, the chef prepared a fabulous and elaborate Rajasthani thali, complete with freshly made desserts.

Our property in Jaisalmer, Suryagarh, was simply out of this world. From the start, the property surprised us. An impressive feat, the ‘hotel’ is actually a massive yellow stone fortress that arises like an oasis in the desert. From the minute we saw the grand entrance, to long after we entered our lovely chamber, we were floored by the sheer size, scale and beauty.

We celebrated Diwali in style, awoke to a beautiful vista before us, complete with a peacock on the terrace. We had breakfast in a lovely courtyard surrounded by peacocks, rabbits, turtle and various charming, but unobtrusive, pets of the property. There was even a magician in traditional Rajasthani garb, a little ‘farm’ where the property grew some of their own vegetables and herbs, as well as ample space for kids to run around and be free.

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Breakfast with peacocks

The benefit of a great property is also the level of access and depth of local knowledge. We enjoyed sunset dune-bashing with Lama tours (one of few companies to have staff trained in Dubai and SUVs instead of open jeeps) at one of the non-touristy sand dunes, hotel-arranged sunset camel safari to the quieter side of touristy Sam sand dunes, ATV rides, visit to the Jaisalmer fort, the bustling market and ancient Jain temples, a haunted tour, luxurious spa treatments and amazing local cuisine prepared by in-house chefs. The boys even visited Jaisalmer War Museum and Laungewala War Memorial, where they paid homage to heroes as well as discovered military vehicles. The whole family was thoroughly fed, spoilt, pampered, entertained and very grateful.

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…As we had already been to Jodhpur before, the husband and I opted to take the kids to Reggie’s Camel Camp Osian. Those seeking an exclusive luxurious experience, might want to opt for the incredible Umaid Bhawan Palace. The kids were super-excited about staying in tents as well as dancing around the bonfire at night, while listening to live traditional Rajasthani music. Since the baby was having a little too much fun driving us crazy by going in and out of the tent, we opted to head for Mihirgarh first thing in the morning. An interesting experience, but probably best done with companions older than 5.

An hour outside of Jodhpur, the little fortress of Mihirgarh, has been on my wishlist as it is one of few Relais et Châteaux (properties that combine luxury and gastronomy) properties in India. Owned by relatives of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, the small but beautiful all-suite property made up with room size and service what it lacked in scale. Our room was more than 1100 sq ft with a living area, large bathroom with Forest Essentials toiletries, balcony with a table for two, terrace with a jacuzzi and some lounge chairs to sit back and take in the beautiful surroundings.

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A Bishnoi woman churns butter as her brood looks on with amusement

We took a jeep safari and spotted the rare black buck by off-roading en route to the Bishnoi village (a tribe that lives in harmony with nature, uses no electricity or modern equipment and uses cow dung liberally) and experienced a glorious sunset from the sunset terrace. Food is definitely a highlight, with the menu serving as a formality: whatever the belly desires is dished up by their talented chef. For our last meal, he prepared traditional Rajasthani specialties – dal (lentils), baati (baked hard and dense round breads), churma (deep-fried baati crushed and mixed with sugar or jaggery), green tomato and papad (lentil wafers)-methi sabzis…absolutely delicious.

Tip: In Mihirgarh, ask for the upper level rooms. The lower level ones are a bit too close to the trees/flowers, so there could be some unwanted visitors in your plunge pool. For those interested in glamping, they also have another property with luxury tents nearby.

Where family time is concerned, it is as important to spend time together as have time apart. Staying in luxurious properties is a great way to strike this balance: sharing unique experiences strengthens the bond, while large rooms and superlative service ensure sufficient space, rest and relaxation. Maybe we would have seen the same Rajasthan from other properties, but probably not. We would certainly not have enjoyed the trip as thoroughly or felt as rejuvenated or loved each other as much by the end of it.

#2: Break it Up

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Pause for Poha at Pokaran

Travelling with two toddlers to a remote place is challenging under the best of circumstances. To go from Mumbai to Jaisalmer, requires a 2.5hr flight to Jodhpur followed by a 4-6hr drive (depending on chauffeur, traffic and halts) to Jaisalmer. A whole DAY of travelling. Then, the husband came up with a brilliant idea: why not fly to Jaipur, spend a couple of days there, take the overnight train to Jaisalmer and on the way back, break our journey with overnight stay at Osian (desert camp) and Mihirgarh (a wish list property outside Jodhpur) before flying back to Mumbai?

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Journey to Jodhpur

My first thought was of course of the ‘less-than-hygienic’ train toilets, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing it became. So, armed with hand sanitizer, soap and a large toilet roll (along with our assorted bags), we took the plunge.

The plan worked wonderfully – we had a blast in Jaipur, slept through most of the train ride, enjoyed the sights whilst awake, stretched our legs at Pokaran station and stayed at unique properties.

Tip: Those who enjoy luxury rail travel, should consider the über luxurious ‘Palace On Wheels’. Also, I recommend the following – when going from Jaisalmer to Mumbai, stay overnight at Manvar tents (better located than Osian) before heading to Mihirgarh (highly recommend a 2-night stay) or skip it all and stay overnight in Jodhpur.

#3: ‘See’ less to do more

Travel with kids can best be described as a “balancing act”. We wanted to make the most of our time in Jaipur, while continuing to have happy kids. So, we planned our itinerary around them, but while ensuring our top priorities were met.

We decided against hardcore sightseeing and opted for a brief overview instead. We managed to:

Sample local specialties: we picked up some local grub from LMB in Jaipur market on our way from airport to our hotel (Trident Jaipur) – a 15 min detour that was enough to get a feel of the bustling market beautifully and brightly lit up for Diwali.

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Decorating ‘Chanchal’ the elephant at Elefantastic

Discover a unique experience: The highlight of our trip, was the day spent with an elephant. Elefantastic (a superb option for families and animal-lovers), is of the best kept elephant farms I have seen. It was very green, clean (no visible piles of poop) and organized (on schedule). All families had an elephant to themselves. We fed ‘our’ elephant (who preferred the kids’ stuffed parathas instead of hay), decorated her using harmless natural colors, bathed her and went for a ride in the nearby village until the little one protested. The kids not only enjoyed interacting with the elephant, but also loved chasing chickens and splashing in muddy puddles (a Peppa pig-inspired fantasy).

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Royal feast at 1135 AD

Have a lovely meal and catch the sound and light show: we wanted to see the 8pm sound and light show at Amber fort, so we planned this on the same day as Elefantastic. The kids were tuckered enough to be lulled by Amitabh Bachchan’s lovely baritone, so the husband and I managed to enjoy a fantastic Rajasthani thali at the commendable 1135 AD restaurant in the fort. Frequented by numerous dignitaries  celebrities over the years, the restaurant is decorated in deep red and gold, with sparkling chandeliers, flickering candlelight, live music, and rich food that reflects its royal heritage. For a moment, we were transported to another time.

Tip: Keep the hotel car/taxi when visiting Amber fort. We let ours go and ended up on unfamiliar, unpaved, roads in a bone-jarring never-to-be-repeated auto rickshaw ride as no other mode of transport was available. Those who understand Hindi might want to watch that version of sound and light show as it is recorded in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice.
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View of and from the Nahargarh fort; the site of a scene from the movie  ‘Rang de Basanti’

Enjoy stunning city views: The boys monkeyed around the hotel garden with the monkeys, and burnt off a suitable amount of energy, before we headed to Nahargarh fort to watch the sunset over the city. It was recommended to us as the place where locals go for the view, especially during Diwali. Though the fort itself was not very well-maintained, the views were lovely. What was truly wonderful, was the bird’s eye view of Diwali lights and fireworks across the city from the restaurant within.

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City lights from the Nahargarh fort restaurant

By the time we boarded the train to Jaisalmer, the boys were blissfully knocked out! All in all, we had a great 2.5 days in Jaipur. I would have loved to go for tea or dinner to Rambagh Palace, take the kids to Chokhi Dhani and shop a bit, but there’s always next time!

 

#4: The best travel stories live beyond comfort zones
(Warning: not for the faint hearted.)

In our quest for finding unique experiences, we opted for the ‘Chudail (Banshee) Trail’, a Suryagarh signature experience that took us on a haunted trail. The husband, mother-in-law and I were the bravehearts that went on this tour in the pitch dark of night with our car headlights and guide’s torchlight as the only light sources for miles around.

Our first stop, was a mysterious lake in the middle of the desert that – for unknown reasons – has maintained the same water level since centuries. Surrounded by tons of holes dug to unearth the water source, the lake has seen the death of many. I was fine with the spirits, but the thought of slithering snakes and creepy crawlies was unnerving. We hopped back in our vehicle and whizzed off to a cemetery that was far less fascinating.

Our third and final stop was the highlight of the tour – a visit to the cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara. Apparently it, along with 84 other villages, was abandoned overnight a few hundred years ago. No one knows where the inhabitants went, but they cursed the village so that anyone who inhabits it dies.

As experiences go, this was the creepiest and most unusual, making it a great story to share.

#5: The most memorable experiences might be the most surprising ones

If anyone had told me that the highlight of my trip was watching a transvestite dance, I wouldn’t have believed them. But, the Diwali celebration at Suryagarh was – like the property itself – outstanding.

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Stage set for Diwali puja

What started as a simple, tastefully, handled prayer in a beautiful setting by the owner, morphed into a binge-fest of mithai (sweet meats) freshly prepared by an in-house halwai (sweets chef), which moved onto a celebration with sparklers and fireworks, and flowed into live Sufi music performance followed by an unforgettable dance performance by Queen Harish and her troop, finally ending in a dining extravaganza.

The earthy and soulful music echoing off the massive fortress surrounded by nothing but inky blackness, has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever experienced. Only Wordsworth’s words can describe it: “…The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.”

I was thankful just to be there, in that space, at that time and in that moment.

When celebration of an occasion becomes a celebration of life, life is beautiful.

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Reflections of Rajasthan

Whether it is the bespoke luxury of boutique fortresses such as  Suryagarh and Mihirgarh, or the convenient luxury of a Trident hotel, or the unmatched royal luxury of an authentic Taj palace, Rajasthan’s heritage properties beautifully recreate the magic of a bygone era while delivering unique and unusual experiences.

The palaces and fortresses are almost as much a part of the experience as the land itself…allowing one to get into character by setting the scene. Rajasthan, while wonderful in itself, viewed from the lap and through the lens of luxury, is an experience of a lifetime.

…After all, what better way to discover the ‘land of Kings’, than to live like one?