Strawberry Overdose

A Couple of Days in Mahabaleshwar

It was the summer of 2019. We had to visit Mumbai for a family obligation. But a long weekend lay just a few days later. We packed our bags for a week-long trip with a couple of days thrown in for sightseeing around Mumbai.

Now, it was May. Most of India sizzles this time of the year. If there was any scope for a cooler climate, it was in the Western Ghats. (Back in 2017, we cruised on these Ghats during monsoon. Read about our splendid experience here.)

Mahabaleshwar is a hill station tucked away in these Ghats. It is not too far from Mumbai either. So, we rented a self-drive Jeep Compass from MyChoize & left for the Strawberry Town.

Mahabaleshwar may be unknown to many in India but it is an oft-frequented paradise for Mumbai & Pune dwellers. We hoped the weather would be pleasant if not cool. Having visited Panchgani earlier, we knew the hill station would be enchanting – green hills, sunsets & juicy strawberries.

What we also sought was some quiet & peace with maybe a wee bit of hiking thrown in. This blog post is an attempt to see if Mahabaleshwar lived up to our expectations.

Affair with self-drive continued

Day 1

En route Mahabaleshwar, we halted at Pune for lunch at a restaurant called Dhonewada. A wada is a traditional mansion; the restaurants with the names ‘wada’ serve the local food in a setting reminding you of an old house. Here, despite the heat, we hogged on Malvani cuisine.

Food is such an integral part of travel. & it is a good teacher too. Now, we know, when traveling in Maharashtra, if we crave for Marathi cuisine, we need to look out for a ‘wada’.

As we entered Mahabaleshwar, we crossed the Venna Lake. The Lake is surrounded by hills & trees. It is dotted with boats called shikaras. We saw hordes of tourists taking boat tours & enjoying the breathtaking views.

There was an equal number of tourists thronging the eating joints lining up the lakeside. We did not stop here as the Sun had already begun its downward journey & we still had to locate our resort, Forest County Resort.

Our accommodation was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was dark. Driving through the forest with no streetlights & without a soul in sight made delicious shivers run down our spines. Anyhow, we reached safe & sound (boring!) and called it a night.

The road to Forest County Resort

Day 2

The day of our Strawberry Overdose!

N had a few work calls but there was no cellular network in our resort. So, we made our way to the Mahableshwar main market after breakfast, parked in a designated spot, & while he attended his calls, P took in the daily humdrum of locals.

Strawberry OD begins!

Travel is possibly the only thing that teaches us that we are not so different from each other. We wake up, scramble to find roti, kapda & makaan (food, clothing & shelter), spend time with loved ones, & sleep.

All of us experience happiness & sadness, pleasure & pain, magnanimity & pettiness, kindness & cruelty etc. It is just that the degree varies & so does our audience.

N broke P’s reverie & we made our way to Mapro Garden.

Green gardens of Mapro Garden

Mapro Garden

This Garden is known for its strawberry produce. It was founded in 1959 & has grown manifold since then. One of the things we loved seeing there was the family – like feeling amongst the employees. Mapro also supports the education of their employees’ children.

Behind the visitor areas are large farms where one can do strawberry picking in season. It was not really the strawberry season when we visited. So, instead of picking strawberries, we roamed around & watched an AV on strawberries.

Fresh Strawberry Icecream

Strawberries are not the only berries produced in Mapro Garden. You can eat your way through blueberries, mulberries & raspberries too. The food park stocks delicious berry products – jams, marmalades, sauces etc.

All that talk about strawberries & seeing so many strawberry products & cutouts made us crave for something strawberry. We headed to the deli & picked a strawberry ice-cream. It was different from the ice cream we get usually – so creamy & fresh! What could be a better way to chill?!

That reminds us of the weather.

Braving oppressive heat

It was quite hot during the daytime. We had not expected this. We knew it would be warmer compared to monsoon, but this time of the year was oppressive! The nights remained pleasant though.

The Western Ghats are delightful in the rains. That is also the time when it sees the maximum influx of sightseers. If you do not mind the crowds (after 2020, this seems unlikely for some time to come), then visit during the rainy season. If you do mind, choose the winter months. & if you are crazy like us, anytime of the year is good!

Coming back to our trip, we wanted to capture a beautiful sunset. We left the strawberry paradise & headed to Lodwick Point.

Drama In The Sky

Lodwick Point

It is not far from the main Mahabaleshwar market. We drove to the Point, parked our car & started walking to the actual point & to the Elephant’s Head Point beyond. This is about a KM long but easy walk through a forested trail.

Domeshwar was rechristened Sydney Point & further renamed Lodwick Point. General Lodwick was the first British officer to climb the hill in 1824. The Sun had started its descent & there was literally a drama in the sky.

The Elephant’s Head Point gets its name from its resemblance to an elephant’s head. Here, we were at the end of the mountain range – a perfect spot to take in a 360-degree view. But the Sun soon captured our attention. It worked its magic as it set.

No Caption Needed

The mist began to rise too. In the valley below, we could spot terraced farms. The serenity of that moment & of the scenery was such that a nature lover could not help appreciating its charm. There were a handful of other sightseers here & they seemed to be in awe too!

We soon realized we should leave before it got dark as the hiking trail might become unsafe. It being a forested trail, there was always a chance of wild animals. & it went from romantic to eerie in minutes. On the hiking note, it is a little bit of an uphill climb. So, wear comfortable shoes & have a bottle of water handy.

The Forested Trail
Going from romantic to eerie in minutes…

Just before complete darkness, the sky turned magenta. Like it was in as much love with us as we were with it…

The Sky Was Magenta!

We then arrived at Le Meridien for our drinks & dinner fix.

Le Meridien

Strawberry Margarita

Longitude 73

We continued our strawberry fixation at Longitude 73 with a Strawberry Margarita which was delicious. We also opted for a Cucumber Wave Cocktail which was refreshing. The ambience was perfect for a sundowner while the decor was chic.

Our server ensured we never felt unattended to.

Chingari

A delicious prawn biryani dinner followed at Chingari, the Indian restaurant in Le Meridien. We loved the ambience. Nice music added to the dim lighting. Our server made us feel at home & was a pleasant fellow to chat with.

We left Le Meridien feeling impressed by it – quiet location, ample parking, lush green compound, the grand staircase, beautiful architecture, & dim lighting.

Last Day

The morning we left Mahabaleshwar, we sighed a last time at the hot but blue sky. We spent a little time admiring the flowers at our resort.

On our way out of Mahabaleshwar, we stopped at Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana.

Wilson Chikki, Fudge and Baba Chana

While this shop is known for its chikki, we picked up Chocolate Walnut Fudge & Garlic Chana from here. Best decision ever! The Fudge was absolutely melt – in – mouth. & the Chana was tangy. We have become fans of the unbeatable fudge. The store is large & you will be spoilt for choice.

We then stopped at Bagicha Corner.

Bagicha Corner

We first bought Strawberry Crush & Strawberry No – Sugar Jam at the shop & then got a Mulberry with Ice – Cream made at the restaurant. The Ice – Cream was a perfect way to re-live childhood. Take a glass, layer the bottom with a large helping of fresh mulberries, add a scoop of mulberry ice-cream, repeat the mulberries & the ice-cream layers, & top it off with a 🍓 syrup. Yum!

Once home, we used the Strawberry Crush in our shakes & they tasted divine.

We stayed a night in Pune on our way back at JW Marriott Hotel. We had carried a bottle of Strawberry Wine from Mahabaleshwar & continued our strawberry fixation.

Strawberry Wine

In the evening, we went to Paasha for a round of drinks.

Paasha

We were mesmerized with the view the lounge offered. We sat inside but next to the windows & soaked in the city view. We drank Mojito & Pina Colada, both made well. The service was equally good. Perfect for a date night!

We then went to J1 for dinner.

J1

A small parking is available. The exterior itself made us feel we were in for a good time. We luckily got a table without hassle. The service was exemplary. We had Chicken Rassa, Ghadichi Poli & Mutton Sukka washed down with Kokam Sharbat.

It is difficult to decide which was the best dish. Everything was finger-licking good. The Rassa was quite aromatic while the Poli was a different take on the usual flatbread. We would love to dine here again.

& this brought our Mahabaleshwar trip to an end.

Accommodation

Upside Down Flowers

Mahabaleshwar

Forest County Resort

True to its name, the Resort was inside a forest. By the time we reached, it was night & the route had seemed a little scary. But the Resort itself was well – lit & seemed welcoming. The room was a cottage. It was sparsely furnished – just the basics. But the AC worked fine which was a relief.

For dinner, the first night, it seemed nothing was available except Dal Khichdi. The breakfast buffet was decent however – Chhole Bhature, Fried Egg, Omelet, Sabudana Khichdi, Uthapam. But the breakfast area was quite cramped.

The location may be a consideration for many, especially if you do not have your own vehicle. The resort is almost half an hour away from the Mahabaleshwar town & public conveyance may not be easily available.

Also, we did not get a cellular network in the resort.

View from our cottage

We give it

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pune

JW Marriott Hotel

Breakfast Buffet Love

We stayed for one night, but the hospitality & luxury made us wish we were staying longer. The check in was smooth. Our room was superb with a panoramic city view. It was comfortable & had all the amenities we would need for our stay (& more).

The hotel had pleasing interiors. All the staff members greeted us with a smile. We absolutely loved the breakfast buffet at JW Marriott. It was a finger licking, substantial breakfast.

We give it –

Rating: 5 out of 5.
A short video of all the driving that we did!

Strawberry Overdose Let's Go Sightseeing!

How can you spend a couple of days in Mahabaleshwar? This episode tells you how. Also available as a blog post: https://letsgosightseeing.blog/2021/06/03/strawberry-overdose/
  1. Strawberry Overdose
  2. 10 Reasons Why We Love The Mountains

Mashobra

& Beyond To Chail, Fagu, Kufri & Theog

March is that time of the year when the bitter cold has ended but the merciless Delhi Sun is still at least a month away. Being the winter lovers that we are, we wanted to hold back a slice of the frost & this made us think of Himachal Pradesh over the 2019 Holi long weekend. Mashobra had been on our radar for ages. So, why not?

Not a marked trail. Finding our own path. Guessing which turns to take…

We took the Shatabdi to Chandigarh. After road, train is our preferred transport mode. From Delhi, places like Ajmer, Bhopal, Dehradun, Himachal Pradesh, & Uttarakhand get good connectivity.

It took us barely four hours to reach Chandigarh. We had booked a MyChoize self-drive from Chandigarh. Over the last couple of years, our best discovery & adoption have been of self-drive car rentals in India.

Rather than abandoning destinations because they are too far or because they do not have proper connectivity or rather than depending on local taxis, this is a much better alternative.

MyChoize self-drive car in magical, snowy Theog!

We have tried many self-drive service providers till now but MyChoize & Revv have come up tops among all. The company guy delivered the car to us at the Chandigarh railway station, checked our papers, completed the formalities & handed over the car to us. The entire process would have taken 15 minutes at most.

We then drove from Chandigarh from Mashobra halting at HPTDC The Pinewood, Barog for lunch. The hotel was on the highway with ample parking available. It had a nice garden. The building was reminiscent of the British Raj.

It was drizzling which added to the ambience. The Chicken Masala & Mutton Biryani were delectable & adequate in portion.

Step out for a walk through a forest trail…

We then continued to Mashobra. We had booked Khanabadosh for our stay; more on it later.

The First Evening

It was evening by the time we reached. As we were in a village called Purani Koti in Mashobra, there was not much to do once the Sun set. Moreover, we had had an early start to the day; so, we were happy to lounge in the cosy living room of our home-stay.

Our kind of place!

We had not expected the chill to hit us; so, we were happy to sit next to a blower & sip on warm tea. Geetika, the friendly owner of Khanabadosh had kept her home & hearth warm. Blankets, blowers & shawls strewn here & there helped us ward off the chill.

We scoured the well-stocked library to find something suitable to read. A house with books is a house we love! Geetika gave us company in the evening. We chatted away until the real owners turned up – Sultan & Gabbar. Being dog lovers, we were pleased as punch to greet the two Golden Retrievers.

The evening culminated in a dainty dinner served by the warm Kalam Singh, fondly called Pen Singh.

Fascinating bit about mountains – difference in temperature between Sun & shade

The First Full Day

The cold did not go away in the morning but became bearable. We stepped out of the warm cottage gingerly. The garden was full of colorful flowers, a Buddha statue & knickknacks. A wreath donned the front door. Christmas feels!

Geetika shared with us the concept of Khanabadosh. It is a wandering house. Every three years, she packs up her bags & moves to a new destination. Our dream life… Sigh!

Weeping Willows have been a part of our childhoods, thanks to them featuring in umpteen stories. We’d a vague image of a willow in our minds… Finally a chance to see it!

We basked in the Sun while cuddling with the two pooches but soon managed to tear ourselves away from them & stepped out for a walk. There are umpteen forest trails near Khanabadosh but be ready to huff & puff.

Those who know us know well that we’re dog people. These two gentle giants were absolutely cuddly…

We chose a trail that took us through an unforgettable pine forest. It was not really marked; more of finding our own paths & guessing which turns to take. Clearings in the forests brought spectacular vistas which made the huffing & puffing worthwhile.

We spotted a blue sky, a cat, birds, children playing cricket, lots of greenery, our first Weeping Willow, village folks at work, & wildflowers! We have heard people ask – “What’s there to do in the mountains?” We agree. The whole point of mountains is you do nothing; just surrender yourself to nature…

Happiness is… A blue sky!

On turning back, we opted for the road instead of the forest trail. Purani Koti was exactly our kind of place! Few people, more animals… But we are cognizant of the problems remote areas bring.

It is easy to get enchanted as a sightseer, but different to live there!

After the tiring walk, we recharged our batteries with an expedition to Fagu & Theog. We drove on till Theog, turned back & halted at Fagu for lunch. We were first surprised, then thrilled to see snow on the mountainsides in March – end!

Opt for roads through forests…

Charles Dickens has captured March well – “It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold: when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade.” Anyhow, the snow transformed Fagu into a magical world.

The crisp spring air did us good. We stopped at HPTDC The Apple Blossom, Fagu for tea. It had an excellent location & ample parking. The hotel gave a ~360-degree view of the Himalayas.

An expedition to Fagu & Theog

While we waited for tea, we walked around taking in the snowy sights. The tea was good too! We chose to have lunch at a roadside kiosk & returned to Khanabadosh for more doggo love!

King of this jungle! It watched us curiously for a while & then stealthily moved away…

The Second Full Day

For a change, we woke up to see the sunrise. Purani Koti was yet to come to life but little birds were up & about. The feathered creatures were proving the saying ‘The early bird catches the worm’.

Sultan & Gabbar had stirred too & were off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

These little ones were up & about even before sunrise.

Later in the day, we headed to Chail. Kufri, as usual, was a mess. Dirty & overcrowded! We still do not understand what fun tourists derive from riding mules!

Once we crossed Kufri, we began to spot the snow-capped Himalayas. This mountain range has been our source of happiness for decades. Every time we visit the Himalayas, we understand better how people become spiritually enlightened here.

Our first stop was HPTDC The Chail Palace – a childhood favorite! The humble Palace holds its charm. The green lawn outside is a perfect spot for tea while sunbathing. The opulent interiors are full of artifacts of the bygone era. Time travel!

Time travel!

We had Hot Buttered Rum in the Royal Bar followed by lunch at the palace restaurant. The Fruit Cream & Saag Mutton were appetizing. The service was great. Lunch time is crowded as day visitors drop in. Plan your day/ time accordingly.

In the past, we have stayed in the Maharani Suite & in the log huts. The Maharani Suite, of course, was exceptional. We would love to return for another stay.

Our next stop was the Chail Cricket Ground. It is the highest cricket ground in the world, but we doubt regular matches are played here. It is inside a cantonment area; you’ve to fill in your details in a register to enter. & the moment you step inside the cantonment, smooth roads appear. The Cricket Ground, unfortunately, can be seen only from its gate.

Just so you know we’re not fibbing!
Rhododendron – synonymous with Himalayas…

On our way back to Mashobra, we spotted snowy peaks & rhododendrons. The Himalayas are our happy place! The drive to Theog & Chail had been appealing. Soulful music added to the allure!

The Last Morning

Morning scenes made our hearts grow fonder of Mashobra. Sultan came up to say a sad goodbye while Gabbar showed his anger by keeping his back towards us. I so miss these beautiful doggies… Sadly, Sultan died this February. Now, Bruce Lee gives company to Gabbar.

Wildflowers… Enid Blyton books would be full of their mention.

We drove back to Chandigarh stopping at Falcon Cafe Lounge, Panchkula for lunch. The lounge had a relaxed vibe. There was a birthday party going on but because it was a separate area, it did not trouble us.

The Arabic Hummus Chicken Sandwich, Juicy Chicken Burger, Paan Ice cream & The Great Chocolate Shake were good. The service was great too.

At the Chandigarh Railway Station, we returned our MyChoize vehicle & caught the Shatabdi to come back to Delhi NCR.

Maybe it was spring, maybe it was winter. If the weather hadn’t confused me enough already, the trees complicated the matter further…

Accommodation

When researching accommodation options for Mashobra, we were torn between Khanabadosh & Mahasu House. The latter was tried & tested by friends, & highly recommended, but the former had doggies! That clinched the deal for us.

Being frequent travelers, Khanabadosh was out of our budget, but Geetika was generous & gave us a discount; we adjusted some too. We knew then that we had made the right choice as things started falling in place.

Bird lovers, please help identify. Is it a Brown Thrasher?

All our interaction took place on email. Geetika was prompt & clear in her answers. She kept in touch with us till the day we traveled. On our actual travel day, we used Google Maps without any hassle to reach Khanabadosh.

Geetika’s home was a ground + 2 expansive yet cosy building made of stones, reminding you of the English countryside mansions you read about in childhood. A quick tour, a warm chai, & scores of conversations quickly made us feel at ease.

Of course, we were dying to meet the pooches – Gabbar & Sultan. What affectionate rascals they turned out to be! Gabbar, the naughty one, kept us regaled throughout with its antics. While Sultan taught us the meaning of love all over again.

Bird feeders! Geetika has made her home welcome not just for people, but for animals & birds too.

Over the next couple of days, Geetika gave us great ideas on where to go & what to eat.

Our post would be incomplete without a mention of Kalam Singh – the pocket-sized dynamite who fed us till we exploded, & still had a long face we did not eat enough. Isn’t that the feeling you’ve at home? Not for a moment we felt we were in a stranger’s house.

Nothing we say about Kalam Singh’s culinary skills (or managing skills) would do justice. We hogged on parathas, omelettes, chicken, fish, & myriad kinds of vegetables.

Sultan & Gabbar off on their morning walk with Kalam Singh.

If you like bird watching, you can keep an eye out in the garden of Khanabadosh around sunrise. We saw many little feathered creatures. The decor was outstanding. Geetika has painstakingly collected artifacts from her travels. These gave a richness to her home without ever seeming ‘too much’.

Shawls were kept here & there if you suddenly felt a chill. A bowl full of chocolates at the door ensured we gained a few pounds, as if Kalam Singh’s food were not enough.

Our room was comfortable with enough blankets & a heater. Khanabadosh is a home-stay in the truest sense. It is Geetika’s home & she has opened it to strangers. Moreover, Khanabadosh welcomes animals & birds too. Yes, it is pet-friendly!

Feathered things proving the saying – The early bird catches the worm.

We cannot wait to visit Khanabadosh again at its new location.

Tips For Visiting

  1. Chandigarh to Mashobra is 122 KMS & took us ~five hours with stopovers.
  2. Mashobra is barely 10 KMS away from Shimla yet has a completely different character. Instead of staying in the bustling Shimla city, make Mashobra your base. You can easily visit Chail, Fagu, Naldera, Shimla, Shoghi & Theog from here.
  3. Mashobra is a sleepy little town. Please do not expect ‘touristy’ activities here. Instead, expect a lot of calm & nature.
  4. If you like hiking/ walking & bird watching, then Mashobra is the place for you.
  5. Mashobra gets snowfall in winter. For the winter chill & snowy magic, go from October to March. But even during the rest of the year, the weather is pleasant.
  6. Mashobra can be reached via –
    1. Jubbarhatti airport, Shimla
    1. Kalka Railway Station
    1. Shimla bus stand
    1. Well connected by National Highway 5
  7. Please be prepared for patchy connectivity. Disconnect!
  8. Do not feed the wild animals & birds.
Linesmen at work!

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MANDAWA

The ‘Open Air Museum’ In 12 Hours

We had been to Churu earlier. When we were drawing up our itinerary for the Rajasthan road trip, we knew we had to include another Shekhawati town. Mandawa was our fourth & last destination.

We left our Jodhpur hotel after breakfast. Jodhpur to Mandawa was close to 330 KMS. We did not halt anywhere except when needed. The road was terrible; it affected our mood negatively. But we found our solace in spotting birds along the way. We managed to click an Indian Roller & a Black Drongo.

Here is a blogpost on Mandawa.

The Evening

Art Worthy of a Museum

We were at our hotel in Mandawa by early evening. Tired from our journey, we sat under a tree & sipped on steaming masala chai. Then, we were out sightseeing. Our hotel provided us with a guide who took us around the town.

It is not just Marwar & Mewar that are rich with history; Shekhawati has its fair share too. The region is unique. Shekhawati towns are full of havelis that once were homes to rich business families. The businessmen constructed their havelis & baolis with painting on the walls, called frescoes.

The region reminds of cultural amalgamations with fresco themes ranging from Hindu motifs to Rajasthani women to Europeans wearing hats. Religion is an extremely common fresco theme. Scenes depicting Lord Krishna, His childhood antics, His Leela with Radha etc. are found commonly in the frescoes.

Frescoes depicting Lord Krishna are common.

On the other hand, when the Mandawa merchants returned from their Europe travels, they would get these frescoes made to give an idea to the local populace about life abroad.

Today, the havelis lay abandoned as the business families are now settled in Kolkata & Mumbai. A few havelis have been converted into hotels. A few others have been restored with caretakers allowing sightseers to visit. Sadly, we saw only a few caretakers take active interest in care taking.

Sightseeing is now the only way to ensure that the havelis do not remain abandoned. But, even with sightseeing, most havelis need TLC. We wished the owners would take charge. We call all Agarwal’s, Birla’s, Chokhanis, Goenkas, Jhunjhunuwalas, Ladias, Nemanis, Saraf’s to please restore their ancestral residences in Shekhawati.

The unique Shekhawati region!

A little love, a little renovation & a whole lot of old-world charm.

Now, there are no specific sightseeing ‘spots’ in Mandawa though Chokhani Haveli, Ladia Haveli & Saraf Haveli are a few of the splendid ones. The havelis are located close to each other & in narrow alleys. The best way to see the town is on foot.

So just walk around the town & see the havelis & the frescoes. You can enter a few of the havelis to see brightly colored rooms.

Look up!

Our first stop was a water well. Mandawa & its surrounding areas have several open & tube wells, highlighting the scarcity of water in this region. We could imagine the importance of the wells by seeing how beautifully the well was constructed.

Next, we explored the havelis. We discovered something new at every turn.

We climbed to a haveli rooftop & saw Mandawa Fort in the distance. It is now run as Hotel Castle Mandawa by Rajasthan Tourism.

Cultural Amalgamations

At one haveli, a bright green & yellow door caught our eyes. The door was a tourist magnet; it gave us decor goals. We saw more such beautiful doors.

Given that many havelis are neglected by their owners, it was heartening to see Saraf Haveli in good shape. It is a great example of Shekhawati art.

At one haveli, we came across evidence of Mandawa’s trading past. The town was once important, lying on the route between Delhi and Gujarat, and China and the Middle East. How did a Burmah-Shell Oil Storage & Distributing Co. of India Ltd. board find its way here?

In need of a little TLC

An enterprising caretaker had taken to selling goods (which we believed come from the haveli) to tourists.

The Kedar Mal Ladia Haveli is called ‘Golden Haveli’. It has a golden painted room which was a result of competitions to build the most opulent Havelis. Even the main gate leading inside is grand. It is fair to call the Golden Haveli a one-room museum.

A form of stained glass greeted us. This was another exquisite part of the Shekhawati havelis. Belgian Glass was embedded in the doors. We saw scenes from Indian scriptures come alive on the walls. Little gold remains on the golden room frescoes, but colors make the room lively.

Each fresco stood out in its own way.

The ‘gold’ paint has peeled off in places. But it gave us an idea how the room would have looked when it was intact.

In a few havelis, the frescoes date back to the 18th century. & naturally, these transported us to the days of yore. Mandawa is 360 degrees of art. Decoration exists on every conceivable part of the walls. Do not forget to look up as even the underside of arches have art on them. The attention to detail is astounding.

Ceiling frescoes seemed like carpets above our heads. How did people manage to paint entire tapestries on the ceiling? The outer walls have fine decoration. The inner walls are equally attractive.

A Ceiling Carpet

An interesting bit is that only the rooms in which visitors were entertained were painted. The private quarters would be kept plain.

If architecture/ art/ heritage/ history interest you, you will enjoy the havelis & kothis. The lapse of time has not taken away the grandeur. We were out of words to keep describing the frescoes. Each stood out in its own way.

After the visual extravaganza, back at our hotel, we found tourists gazing at frescoes & restoration here. We lounged by the pool enjoying a local shisha & ended the day with a homely dinner.

City – life Frescoes

The Morning

It was time to head home but only after a hearty breakfast at our hotel. Mandawa to NCR was ~290 KMS. We halted at Indulgence, Manesar for lunch. It is a food court having multiple restaurants inside its campus. Even though the campus is big, the parking is inadequate. We had to park on the side of the road itself, which is not ideal as NH8 is a heavy – traffic, high – speed highway.

Having said this, the inside is made quite well. There are food joints for every kind of palate. It is a family – friendly place. Washrooms are available & were clean. We filled our stomachs at Berco’s, Burger King & Giani’s.

So attractive!

Painted havelis & carts pulled by miniature donkeys were just a couple of sights that made Shekhawati a tourist’s paradise. The entire Rajasthan road trip was about experiencing calm in different ways. Every time we visit small cities, life magically seems to become simpler.

After an art & heritage filled road trip, we knew we would sleep easy for some time to come. Before the travel bug infected us again.

Accommodation

The Mirror of Our Dreams at Mandawa Kothi

After the bumpy ride, our accommodation in Mandawa sprang a surprise on us. Knowing that it is a small town, we were not expecting much in terms of hotel quality. But our minds were blown off by the Mandawa Kothi. Everywhere we looked, we saw art.

We thanked God for the person who decided to restore this century – old ‘Kothi’. It would have been heartbreaking to lose such art. This boutique hotel has old world charm coupled with modern amenities. Living in places that echo with history is always an enchanting experience. By staying at Mandawa Kothi for a night, we became a part of its history.

Walking under its arched gates was memorable. We had to cross three gates/ doors to get to the main living area. (We love how old houses had the concept of multiple sections.) Mandawa has been a favored location for Bollywood. A gate in the Mandawa Kothi featured in a prominent scene in the movie Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Tourists gazing at the frescoes & restoration at Mandawa Kothi

The parking is right in front of the entrance. Mandawa Kothi has just six rooms but all have been carefully restored & upgraded with modern amenities. Our room was beautiful & spacious. There seemed to be just a handful of young men managing the hotel but ever so efficiently.

Sad, we stayed only for a night; wish we had more time at Mandawa Kothi! It felt like a home away from home.

Recommendations

Such attention to detail!
  1. Getting to Mandawa
    1. You can easily do a long weekend road trip from Delhi NCR.
    1. A train to Churu is available from Delhi. Churu to Mandawa can then be done by bus/ cab.
  2. Make your way to Mandawa between November & February. You will not be disappointed.
  3. If you visit Mandawa in winter, do remember the nights can be cold. Do not forget your woolens.
  4. Take a guide with you for the fresco sightseeing as s/ he will be able to point out details you would not notice otherwise.

Beat The Heat! – 2

A few folks reached out to us to know more about the three destinations we recommended in Part I to escape the Indian summer. Glad we could be of help! But, three destinations are inadequate for six months of the intense north Indian summer. So, we bring three more long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in the Himalayas, yet are quite different from each other!

Dharamshala

The home of the Dalai Lama & the Tibetan Government in exile is technically not a long weekend destination, i.e., three days will be insufficient to do justice to it. But something is better than nothing!

Fly to Gaggal, or take a train to Pathankot, or drive down to Dharamshala, the serene Himalayan town is more accessible than ever before.

We have a soft spot for all things Buddhist. Thus, liking Dharamshala came naturally to us. If you are of a spiritual bent, you will benefit from a visit to the Namgyal Monastery, the largest Tibetan temple outside of Tibet.

If, instead, you are one who prefers the outdoors, you can take the long but picturesque walk to the Bhagsu Waterfall. But, let us caution you – the waterfall & the Bhagsu Nag Temple can get crowded.

And then, there is always the option of sit back & sigh at the stunning views of the Himalayas.

We stayed at Sterling Dharamshala but we believe there are better options available like Hotel Norbu House and The Divine Hima. We drove from New Delhi to Dharamshala which became a little tiring as the distance is >500 KMS.

Our original trip of fours days had to be cut short by a day due to an accident. It only makes us determined to return to Dharamshala soon!

Jim Corbett National Park

OK, this is an uncommon choice to ‘beat the heat’ as the Jim Corbett National Park itself attains temperatures of 40+ degrees Celsius. But this is the best time to spot the big cat. Thanks to the extreme heat, many watering holes dry up, forcing the animals to congregate at the few that remain. Thus, summer turns out to be a great time to spot most animals near water bodies, including the tiger.

If you are like us (hate summer), let us reassure you that because of the greenery, the Park still remains bearable. Safaris take place in mornings & early evenings. So, take out the broad brimmed hat, slather on the sunscreen, put on the glares & head to Corbett.

And, again, if, like us, you dislike crowds, fewer tourists visit the Jim Corbett National Park in the summer, making it a more private experience for those who do.

You can get from Delhi NCR to the Park in about six hours, eight in case of traffic.

In our two visits, we stayed at Kanwhizz HUM TUM Resort (yes, that was its name but now it is called La Perle River Resorts), and The Riverview Retreat. Both are on the banks of the River Kosi but we recommend The Riverview Retreat. You can walk to the river and spend time in solitude, listening to the sounds of nature.

Kanwhizz HUM TUM had cabanas next to the Kosi. We enjoyed a candlelit dinner in one of the cabanas.

candlelit dinner, river kosi, kanwhizz
Great way to end day – Candlelit dinner by River Kosi at Kanwhizz

Be careful of the scams operating in Jim Corbett National Park in the name of safaris. Agencies like Travel Tiger Track can cheat you by showing you zones like Sitabani (hardly a wildlife reserve) in the name of tiger safaris. No permit is needed for this ‘zone’. Private vehicles are allowed. There is a tea stall inside where visitors can not just have tea but biscuits, mixtures & instant noodles. Smoking is allowed too. No guide is needed to visit Sitabani.

Around sunset, visit the Garjiya Devi Temple, located on the other side of the Kosi. You cross a foot over bridge to get to it. To get to the shrine, you will climb steep steps. The shrine is small but the idol is beautiful.

Little Bambi
Little Bambi

Pangot

Falling under the Nainital district & the Naina Devi Himalayan Bird Conservation Reserve, Pangot (or Pangoot) is a village known for its bird watching. Its beauty lies in its picturesqueness. The village, though barely 15 KMS from Nainital, is fairly remote.

Pangot is a birdwatcher’s paradise, courtesy the hundreds of bird types found here. Oak & rhododendron forests attract the eye. If you like all-weather destinations, this is the place. Like most of our other recommendations, please do not expect a list of things to do/ see in Pangot. It is a place of calm & quiet. So, if you love nature, make your way to this village which, along with birding, offers scope for activities like mountain biking too.

Pangot is a village; expect limited number of accommodation options. We stayed at The Nest Cottages which we liked for its location. Away from ‘civilization’, you can enjoy solitude. Your neighbors are birds, dogs & monkeys.

The cottages are standalone, reminding of English novels with their slanting roofs & wooden interiors. Excellent service, home style vegetarian food. The owner is a sweet old man, lovely to converse with.

We did not have to step out of the property to see birds; many kinds greeted us right in the common area. Hardly any network & an erratic TV meant tranquility. Did we mention they have a well-stocked library?

Another accommodation you can consider is Jungle Lore Birding Lodge.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Pangot in about seven hours, nine in case of traffic. Do not forget to halt at Nainital to do some boating at the Naini Lake or to have a delectable meal at Sakley’s Restaurant & Pastry Shop.

Beat the Heat!

Come April & the Sun starts its mercilessness on the hapless souls of the National Capital Region. Right till September, it becomes a matter of hot, very hot & unbearably hot. In these six months, at least one getaway is needed to cooler environs.

Aren’t we thankful that the Himalayas are a stone’s throw away? So, to help you tolerate the weather, we bring three relatively unknown, long weekend getaways from Delhi. All the three are in Uttarakhand, in the Nainital district, yet are as different from Nainital as chalk from cheese!

Jeolikot: It was a never-heard-of-before village for us till we made our way here. Jeolikot is located close to Nainital, & yet, is far removed from the chaos that Nainital can be during the tourist season. It is a great place for flower lovers & lepidopterists.

jeolikot, mist
Misty Jeolikot

Visit Jeolikot for a picturesque view of the Himalayas. It is not a place where you rush around to ‘see’ spots. Rather, grab a book, or put on your favorite music, or carry a board game, sit facing the mountains, grab a cup of ‘chai’ & life is sorted.

outside, cozy, morning tea, sitout
Outside our room, a cozy spot to sip the morning tea

Located a little down the hill from the main road, The Cottage is a cozy home stay reminiscent of the bygone colonial era. Its red roof exudes an old-world charm. The shimmery blue & white porcelain crockery make up a large part of the decor. A decor you will be tempted to take home!

To top it, Ms. Bhuvan Kumari’s impeccable hospitality & warmth. Over mugs of tea, she regaled us with stories ranging from leopards to winter soirees. The best part – dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

greet, dog
Greeted by ‘Nanhi Bai’

We tried to get to Nainital but, being an extended weekend, we could not get past the traffic jam. Instead, we turned towards Bhimtal, had lunch at a dhaba from where the Bhimtal Lake was faintly visible, & returned to the calmness of Jeolikot.

bhimtal
Spot Bhimtal in the distance

We recommend – do not bother with Nainital & the like. Head out for a stroll in Jeolikot itself. You will come across giggling kids, grazing horses, plenty of flora, & wild berries. Try the Chicken Roast at The Cottage, and pick up souvenirs from Kilmora.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Jeolikot in about seven hours, nine if there is traffic.

Sattal, little known, picturesque
Sattal – So little known, & thus so picturesque!

Sattal: A village deriving its name from the lake it encircles, Sattal is near Bhimtal, but is less known. True to its name, the ‘lake’ is actually a combination of seven lakes, each quite pristine. Forests surround the lakes.

mind, reel, gorgeous
Our minds reeled with all the gorgeousness.

Given the ecosystem, birds thrive here, making Sattal a paradise for ornithophiles. We spent our time birding. Ask for directions to get to the bird watching spot, the Studio. It is a downhill walk, with no restrooms in the vicinity. As birding is a time-consuming activity, this is something you need to be aware of. Also, note that bird watching needs a lot of patience & silence. You make one movement/ sound, & the bird would have flown off.

It was our first birding experience; we were lucky to spot jungle myna, blue whistling thrush, grey wagtail, red-Wattled lapwing, oriental turtle dove, orange flanked bush robin, grey-headed canary flycatcher, black bulbul, verditer flycatcher, white throated laughing thrush, slaty-headed parakeet, ultramarine flycatcher, Himalayan bulbul, & black headed jay.

Located in a nearby village called Suriyagaon is Naveen’s Glen, an estate comprising apartments, cottages & villas. It is run by Ms. Nitya Budharaja & her family. The rooms have been done up warmly. A personal touch is evident in every aspect of Naveen’s Glen.

Naveen's Glen, garden, bloom
Naveen’s Glen garden in full bloom!

To top it, there is an absolutely stunning view of the sunset from the garden. We spent many minutes chatting with Ms. Budharaja, getting recommendations from her for bird watching & for food.

sunrise, sunset, Jo Walton
“There’s a sunrise & a sunset every single day, & they’re absolutely free. Don’t miss so many of them.” – Jo Walton

The best part – again dogs! When we visited, there were three adorable & friendly doggos.

It does not snow in Sattal; so, it is accessible throughout the year. You can get from Delhi NCR to Sattal in about six hours, eight in case of traffic. Naveen’s Glen is located off the main road, the last few kilometers are devoid of human habitation. But, do not worry – you are on the right track.

Nathuakhan, Dusk, changing colors, amaze
Nathuakhan Dusk – The changing colors amazed us.

Nathuakhan: Falling under the Ramgarh block, Nathuakhan is essentially a village. & therein lies its beauty. It offers appealing views of the sun caressed Himalayan ranges which are dotted with soaring trees of pine, birch & many others.

clear day, snow-capped mountain, entice
On clear days, the snow-capped mountains entice…

The mountainous terrains, fertile valley and dense cover of abundant forest make Nathuakhan a place to rest and enjoy solitude away from the city buzz. The mountains may get your creative juices flowing; so, whatever your artistic inclination, carry it along.

Summer, Flower, wilt
Summer had arrived. Flowers had started wilting.

If you like to work your limbs, there are a number of walking trails nearby. Keep a lookout for members of the feline family. For those who like their poison on-the-go, Nathuakhan has a country liquor store with few English brands available. So, if you have superior tastes or are fussy, we suggest you carry your alcohol.

Country wood cottages augment the beauty of Nathuakhan. Bob’s Place is one such. It is nestled away from crowds, provides comforting food, and does not compel one to do anything. Bob’s Place has standalone cottages erected in a multi-level manner. The highest ones command a view of snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. The lower ones have sit-out areas but the view gets diminished by the foliage.

Our cottage had a fireplace, a blanket and a heater. The food we ate did not taste any different from what we eat at home. The ‘poha’ we had for breakfast was quite different though, and wonderfully so. It was made with ‘khada garam masala’. People who have eaten the Indian-style meat can identify how good this would taste. The ‘masala chai’ was free-flowing too. Special mention of the chicken fry we got as our finale dinner. Do ask for it when you head to Bob’s Place.

You can get from Delhi NCR to Nathuakhan in about nine hours, eleven in case of traffic. Do not forget to pick up shawls, stoles, herbs and pine needle decorations from Kilmora, and fruit spreads from Himjoli.

(You can read our full blog post on Nathuakhan here.)

So, go ahead & beat the heat!

All Hail the Hail Stones!

Less than three weeks after our road trip to Nathuakhan, we hit the road again! The One above was being kind. So where to this time? The weather was turning warmer; we needed to escape to the mountains. But we had just been to Kumaon. Driving on the same roads and seeing the same region was not exciting.

The fact that even the hills were sweating made the search more excruciating. Apart from Kumaon, we had either Garhwal or Himachal. Garhwal still brought back memories of the devastating landslides & floods that hit it. Himachal, of course, was a tad too far away.

After days of Googling, we chanced upon a place called Kanatal. Sounded suspiciously like Nainital, Bhimtal etc. However, surprisingly, it was neither in Kumaon nor had a ‘tal’ (lake). It was located in Garhwal, quite close to the Tehri dam.

Kanatal-50
All of it had been painstakingly painted…

The weather here seemed salubrious; it seemed away from the hustle-bustle of the typical hill stations. With a belief in what Paulo Coelho said, “Everything that happens once can never happen again”, we opted for Kanatal.

Three of our friends were keen to head out too. It was a long weekend for all; well, there was no reason needed to holiday. But now we had to find a place to stay – something that fit in with my love for home stays. There were not too many options in Kanatal. The most appealing property, The Terraces, was quite expensive. We did not have the inclination to splurge. When you travel as much as we do, you do need to keep it frugal.

The other options we got were of camps. A big no! The ninth or tenth search result threw up the name of Saur Cottages. Sounded interesting! So Saur Cottages are a home stay – like accommodation run by DueNorth, a group promoting tourism adventure in Uttarakhand. They aim to foster rural development, heritage communities and local crafts in the natural environment.

Kanatal-103
There’s no greater joy than to be able to distinguish…

The Cottages are located in Saur Village, which is about five kilometers from Chamba on the road that leads to Tehri dam. The cottages themselves are restored ‘pahari’ (mountain) houses with extensive use of bamboo, mud, stone & wood.

When we saw the pictures online, we knew this was where we wanted to stay. We left Delhi NCR in a Mahindra XUV 500 at almost 9 am. The roads were buzzing with activity already; we knew it was going to be a long day, long drive.

We drove amongst buses, bullock carts and cycle rickshaws. It was only the promise of what awaited us in Uttarakhand that kept us energized. We looked out of the window to the children playing in the mud, the village elders having their ‘chaupal’ under the banyan tree, the village women going about their daily chores. In the midst of this, a few brand names dominated the semi-urban and rural landscapes – Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Airtel, Idea and Vodafone.

Kanatal-109
Reflecting on the day gone by…

Entering Uttarakhand always brings a smile on our faces. We crossed the Ganges at Haridwar with a silent prayer on our lips. We saw hundreds of vehicles parked – folks were washing away their sins.

The road till Rishikesh had been jam-packed. It seemed a whole section of NCR was off river-rafting. It eased up after Rishikesh. Three of our passengers had their Google Maps open. All three gave contradictory directions. It was quite amusing.

Once we crossed Chamba, we kept our eyes open as a narrow road took us to the Saur Village. If we continued on the main road, we would end up in Badrinath. Not sure if we were feeling so religious then!

Kanatal-122
Wisps of yellow radiated even amidst showers

The narrow road came under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. About 12 kilometers on this road brought us to the very pit of the valley. Nestled amongst lush green terrace farms & protected by mountains on all sides, sat pretty the picturesque village of Saur.

It was a forgotten village, abandoned by its inhabitants and dying a slow death, before DueNorth took it up and started the restoration work. DueNorth had restored one of the village homes to a set of cottages where tourists could stay. Additionally, it works to improve the livelihood of the village people, specifically women, through local produce & handicraft.

At almost the end of the road, we left the car and walked down to the cottages. This was a descent through vegetable gardens; we could already feel a part of the place. We peeped into the cottage that was to be our home for the next two days. It was rustic in every sense and in a good way.

Kanatal-131
I may not be pretty but I stand out…

Orange-colored with wooden frames supporting it and a roof thatched with bamboo, the cottage had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a sit out. Descending to the basement brought us to a large bathroom, the size of which was comparable to a flat in Mumbai!

The rooms had mellow lighting and furniture made of bamboo and pine. Innumerable blankets were plopped on the beds; so we knew it was going to get cold.

We ended up chatting with the cottage in charge about our travels to Uttarakhand. She told us about her work with the village women, teaching them to use pine needles in crafting products. After our chat, we pulled out our woolens, and settled in.

Kanatal-132
Stop & smell the flowers while there are any

It was getting quite cold; we were enjoying it. After a hearty dinner, blissful sleep followed!

Day two, we headed to the Tehri dam. We had heard a lot about it, especially how it saved lives during the floods of June 2013. And prior to that, the extensive debate on it being a threat to the environment and it displacing people from their homes.

Well, there will always be two sides to any story. We do not have an opinion. We just wanted to see the architectural marvel that it was. The dam is on the Badrinath road and 45 minutes away from Saur Village.

Kanatal-137
The gentle reminder of our insignificance

Close to the site, we started seeing the sparkling blue water. It reminded of our first glimpse of Pangong Tso. Our excitement had known no limit. It was almost the same this time. Turning around curves, we inched closer to the dam.

At the same time, the temperature was dropping furiously; it had started drizzling. None of us had rain coats and at best, flimsy sweaters. At the gate of the dam, we were stopped. We did not have the permit to go inside. Such a dampener!

But there were other tourists; they pleaded their way in. We were happy to follow suit. We were told by security to go till the bridge and return. We were almost freezing. The wind was harsh; the rain was soaking through our sweaters to chill our bones.

Kanatal-43
She toiled away trying to make ends meet…

At the bridge, unfortunately, the dam gates were closed. So, on one side was the water filled to the brim, and, on the other side, was the machinery visible for us to see how the water ran its course.

After shivering for a few minutes and being scolded by the security guard at the second check post, we headed back. It had been a good visit. We were assured of the good work being done by Tehri.

In the past, the dam had stopped the river from unleashing its fury on Rishikesh and Haridwar. At least, some damage was prevented. We shuddered getting reminded of those images on television. But we do not blame nature.

Kanatal-101
Geography lessons came alive

It was wholly and solely the folly of human beings. If you usurp what belongs rightfully to Mother Nature, She will stake Her claim sooner or later.

What was the plan for lunch? The thought of The Terraces came to our minds. We could not stay there due to it being prohibitively expensive but we could certainly have lunch there. So we found The Terraces on Google Maps and drove on.

About 20 kilometers from Tehri dam but in a different direction is the town called Kanatal. It is high up in the mountains and experiences snowfall in winters. The legend says there used to be a ‘tal’ (lake) but it is dried up.

Kanatal-113
The road led to Saur & ended its purpose there…

The Terraces was certainly a beautiful property. Perched high on the mountain, it commanded a view of many peaks. Unfortunately, it was clouded and raining. A sumptuous lunch in the warm restaurant warded off the cold for us.

The best was yet to happen. We could feel it, though it was impossible to feel anything beyond the cold. On our way back to Saur, we saw vehicles covered in a layer of white. We were excited. Just a little ahead, we discovered the secret.

It was raining hailstones. Or should we say it was hailing cats and dogs? Hail stones as big as pebbles hit our car, making a metallic sound. Hail stones as small as grains of rice fluttered into our outstretched palms. We had not seen a more spectacular scene.

Kanatal-45
The laws of attraction spare none…

The road was covered in sheets of white, making the path a tad slippery. We had felt this excited when we encountered snow for the first time, en route Khardungla. We sensed the same flutter of excitement. The road covered in white brought about a sense of awe.

There was a renewed respect for nature. How easily nature transforms water to ice, to snow, to vapor, to mist-each with its own beauty! Moreover, how easily we plain – walas get excited seeing snow and ice. The mountain folk are probably sick and tired of these but we transform into kids.

We slowed down and took in the spectacle. We clicked photos to capture this for eternity. However, more than the pictures, it is the memory that will keep us company.

Kanatal-105
Diamonds might adorn a neck but they would never be this beautiful…

As we descended into the valley to get to our cottage, the hail stones converted to a drizzle. The sky had opened up; the valley was a mix of green and white – green where the water had washed off the dust, and white where the hail stones had settled. This was a brilliant time to click photographs.

The temperature was dropping rapidly. By night, it was 3 degrees Celsius. We were unprepared for this kind of cold. We snuggled into the bed under two layers of blankets. It was our last night here; the shower of hail stones had made our holiday worthwhile.

We also shopped! The small room beneath our cottage had the handicraft goods created by the village women. Pine needles earrings, baskets, table mats, table runners, cloth dolls, cloth key chains – it was an interesting assortment but was clearly the work of people who were still learning. The finish was not that great but given the softies we are, we ended up buying quite a few things.

Kanatal-117
We might be broken but we were not shattered…

Morning gave no hint of the weather the night before. It was bright, sunny and warm! It was time to return – to monotony, to the daily grind, to the banal existence. Holidays should be the rule, not the exception. Well, we should not complain. We take holidays at every opportunity we get.

One last magic awaited us before the road ended. On our way back, with the sky completely devoid of clouds, we saw an entire Himalayan range, sparkling a brilliant white. We had murmured that sitting in the valley, we had missed out on ‘views’. But here they were – tall, grand, gleaming, white, covered with layers and layers of snow, and inviting. Sigh!

 

We recommend an itinerary for five days, four nights to Garhwal:

Delhi – Mussoorie – Saur Village – Delhi

Day 1: Depart from Delhi early and arrive at Mussoorie by tea time. Spend the night at Pine Hill exploring the premises, specially the club, reading at the library or sipping a local brew in the sit out

Day 2: Spend the day sightseeing or trekking. Mussoorie may be overrated but once in a while, it is okay to be a part of the hype!

Day 3: Checkout and head to Saur. Check in at Saur Cottages. Take a walk around and experience village life at its best

Day 4: After breakfast, head to Tehri dam. Good to get a permit beforehand. Head to Kanatal from Tehri and spend the day soaking in the beauty of the yet-undiscovered hill station. Back to Saur for dinner

Day 5: Checkout and head back to Delhi

Recommended time to visit: Pretty much all through the year. It snows during winter in Mussoorie and Kanatal, so be prepared for the cold!

Recommended eats: Thukpa soup at Mussoorie; Rhododendron juice anywhere

Recommended buys: Shawls from Mussoorie, pine needle decorations from Saur

 

We are planning our next holiday in Himachal Pradesh. Any recommendations?

 

Images courtesy our talented friend TB

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