A Goan sojourn

Travel is really what keeps me going and my family likes it too. Of late, with college going children, it is somewhat difficult to plan family vacations but we do what we can. On the other hand, it does give Lipi and me enough flexibility to plan our travels. We have been going to Goa every year since 2014 and have just come back over the weekend from another trip which was both relaxing and rejuvenating.

Why do we go to Goa so often? Well, for starters, it is a great place for visits and we have a Timeshare with Karma Royal who have most of their resorts in Goa. Since 2014 an incremental motivation is our son Ronju being there for his college in BITS Pilani, Goa campus. It has made sense for us to take our week in Goa so that we get to meet him briefly as an added bonus. Karma has 4 resorts in Goa, so we can rotate these as desired.

This year, we went to Goa between 5th and 12th August. As is my wont, I planned the trip way back in February and this resulted in us getting a good unit in Royal Palms as well as getting air tickets at very decent rates. In fact our total air fare came to less than 9000 Rs. The unit was practically free, though we have to pay a great deal of maintenance on it for having this ownership. As Ronju would stay with us for a couple of days, we took a one bedroom unit this time. It was spacious with a separate sitting area, kitchen, bedroom and washroom, apart from the two balconies. The resort is near Benaulim beach and is landscaped quite well, with a nice swimming pool, restaurant and bar.

Coming back to the actual trip then – we started on 5th and spent some time in the Plaza Premium Lounge before boarding our flight. Our credit cards allow us to do this and it helps us to avoid having overpriced and often, not so good, meals at airports. In this instance we had a pretty decent late breakfast which was still being served there. The flight only took an hour and we were soon in Goa airport. We booked a pre-paid taxi, picked up Ronju who had come there and were soon on our way. It was a good ride and I always find the localities in Goa quite interesting, especially that most of them have a lot of greenery. The check in was smooth, us being members and all, and we settled into our unit which was to be our home for the next 7 days.

The first evening we went to the Benaulim beach which is our favourite haunt. The beach has two good restaurant, namely Johncy’s and Pedro’s. We normally prefer Johncy’s as it is closer to the beach and offers both great food and views. After an early dinner, we went to the local superstore to stock up provisions for breakfast etc. The final stop for me was a liquor shop, every locality of Goa is dotted with these. The rates are great there, was able to buy 500 Ml Kingfisher cans for 50 Rs and a bottle of Blenders Pride for 475 Rs.

Ronju was to go off on Sunday evening so we made a trip to Kolva beach on that day. Unlike Benaulim, where the crowd is less, Kolva is a pretty happening beach with multiple shops and water sports options. We were unable to catch the sunset courtesy the dark clouds but it was a good way to spend the evening. Later on we went for a longish walk towards Margao and had dinner at a local Goan Cafe. A great thing in Goa is that the food is almost universally good, whether you eat at a high end restaurants or in a beach shack. Also, almost any restaurant worth it’s ilk is automatically a bar too.

Once Lipi and I were on our own, life settled into a rhythm for the next 5 days. I would wake up early and go for a morning walk along the beach while Lipi luxuriated in the knowledge that there was no real need to get up if one did not want to !! I always find walking along the beach, listening to the sound of the relentless waves rather relaxing and there are few better ways to spend time. We would normally have breakfast in our unit though one day we broke the routine and went to Pedro’s for brunch. The Spanish omelette there with Ham, potatoes and onion is simply divine though their Hot Chocolate could do with a lot of improvement, greater quantities of chocolate being one of them.

After breakfast we normally went out for some sightseeing or just relaxed in the resort. One day we hired a car and went off to Agonda and Palolem beaches which are about 40 Kms from the resort. These are probably the best beaches in Goa, especially Palolem which extends over a large area. The restaurant called Silver Sands is placed quite strategically and we had great views of the sea while sampling Golden Fried prawns and Goan fish curry for lunch. Apart from the beaches, the journey itself was a memorable one, long winding roads through Goan villages, forests and some hilly terrain too. This was a case of both the journey and the destination being equally worthwhile.

Another day we went to the Bigfoot museum which is a must see for anyone visiting Goa. This is an open air museum having a model of a typical Goa village with life size statues. You get to see the various facets of their daily lives and the commentary is both crisp and lucid. We probably learnt more about life in Goa from the museum than we ever would by reading books etc. Most importantly, it is really something one can enjoy and completely challenges the drab way in which most of our museums are presented. The Old Portuguese Mansion, next to this museum is also worth seeing. You will get to know a great deal about how Portuguese noblemen lived in Goa. The distinction with how the Britishers  lived is quite evident. Interestingly, many such houses dotted all over Goa are still lying empty as their owners neither stay in them nor have they disposed off these. We rounded off our museum visit with lunch at Nostalgia, a speciality Goan restaurant.

Among other activities at the resort, I introduced Lipi to playing Pool one day. She acquitted herself rather well and will get better with practice !! The wi-fi in the resort was good so we could post all our pictures rather easily on Facebook and I also got to do some work. Lipi too was able to order some stocks when the market fell precipitously over the week we were there. At other times I may have got worked up about my portfolio declining badly, but when you are in Goa you tend to take a relatively laid back look at such things. I did manage to catch some cricket and the hyper debates on TV too.

All too soon, the week came to an end and we were to travel back to Hyderabad on Saturday. As our flight was only in the afternoon, we combined a trip to the Bogmalo beach and Naval Aviation museum with the airport drop. Bogmalo beach is relatively less known but quite nice, we saw it for the first time in this trip. We had Kingfisher strong, Watermelon juice accompanied by vegetable pakodas as we watched the sea for the last time in this trip. It could have been rather poignant but we will be back soon.

The Naval Aviation museum is one of it’s kind in Asia and outlines our Naval history in a great manner. The aircraft ¬†shown are real ones and have a glorious history, especially with relevance to the 1971 war, where the Navy played a decisive role. If you are in Goa do not miss this and be sure to look at the photographs and the models too.

Our return was good and uneventful and we were back on a Saturday afternoon to Hyderabad. This was a really good trip with all the ingredients in a great cocktail of experience – family time, good food, great beaches, culture, history etc. We will now wait for the next travel.

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Vizag & Araku valley – a journey less traversed

The beauty of travelling in India is you find hidden gems every once in a while and this is an absolute bliss for any seasoned traveller like me. I first came across Araku valley in the year 2004, courtesy an article I read about offbeat train journeys in India. At the time I could not take the Vizag – Kirandul passenger as it was booked fully and travelling with 2 young children without reservation was not practical. We did visit Jagdalpur, Araku Valley and Tyda by road but missing on the train journey was a regret.

Life, however, does give you a second chance often and when both children, now college going and young adults, were home for a couple of weeks at the same time, a rare occurrence by itself nowadays, I thought it would be a good idea to plan a short trip. Given the time constraints, we could only go for 4 days or so and I was thinking of where to go. A news item stating that an air-conditioned chair car coach in European style has been added to the Vizag-Kirandul passenger helped to make up my mind.

The plan itself was simple, given that there is nothing I love doing better than making travel plans. It gives me a great high to anticipate the travel in the future. In this case, as we had only 4 days due to my Consultancy work and Ronju’s internship, I decided to fly to Vizag. We got really good rates for the air tickets, around 12000 for the 4 of us. As we had to take 2 rooms for 3 nights, one in Vizag and 2 in Araku, that turned out to be quite expensive. Here too, I was happy to book the AP tourism property in Rushikonda beach, as last time we were not able to see the beach properly due to the Tsunami, which happened on the very day we were in Vizag.

On the starting day of the trip we reached Vizag early in the morning, both the flight and the journey to our resort with Uber being good ones. Vizag is one of the cleanest cities in India and is also blessed with a great location, the roads to our resort skirted the Bay of Bengal for quite a while. The AP tourism facility at Rushikonda beach has a great location too. The Deluxe rooms we had booked were at a higher level and the full length windows provided us with amazing views of the sea. If you have a plan to visit Vizag this is the place to be – you could literally sit on the sofa and look at the sea all day. Getting down to the actual beach proved to be a good exercise for all of us, Ronju showed that he is both the youngest and also the fittest in our family currently. The beach is nice with some activities for water sports available. We took a speed boat ride which was quite an exhilarating one and we did not really mind the fact that we got drenched a bit.

After a pretty good lunch at the restaurant and the customary rest that Lipi must have in the afternoon, we took an auto and went over to Kailashgiri hills. You can go up this place by a cable car and there are a lot of gardens, eating joints and most notably huge statues of Shiva and Parvathi there. While most people come from a devotional standpoint, the views of the Bay of Bengal from these hills are simply stunning. You will probably not get better views of the Bay than this and the myriad hues of the sea are all depicted in a brilliantly resplendent manner from the viewpoints here. Evenings are the best times to be here, we had some rather good snacks before getting back to the hotel. An early dinner was important as we were to travel to Araku the next morning.

The transport to the Vizag station next morning was an Auto and we got to see the city a bit more, along with some nice morning views of the sea reflecting the morning sun. At the station, our coach fulfilled all my expectations. It had great seating, large windows throughout for best viewing, good air conditioning and also nice catering to boot. The journey which followed is definitely unique in several ways, even for someone as well travelled as I am. The train chugged it’s way along the Eastern Ghats and at times through it, by way of the numerous tunnels that have been dug. The tunnels came in all sizes and were always having the element of surprise. In between we were treated to the exquisite natural beauty of the Eastern ghats, both the hills and the valleys being covered with a lot of greenery. On the way we crossed a few stations at great height, in fact one of them ,Shimhachalam, is the highest in India. The train has to go at moderate speeds due to the terrain and this gave people a lot of opportunities in clicking some nice photos.

The resort in Araku had very nice views of the surrounding hills too and our two rooms were side by side with fairly large terraces. One word of caution here – Araku is a small town and you will not have many food options. The resort only had a vegetarian thali option for lunch, though dinner was slightly better with Chicken dishes being available. In the late afternoon we went to see the Tribal museum that has several items dealing with how the different tribes in AP live. The models of the houses and other facets of their culture have been depicted really well. This place is a must see if you are in Araku. We also saw the Coffee Museum which captures the journey of Coffee from the planting to the brew that we consume in a nice manner. Of course, the restaurant there was an oasis in the otherwise limited options of food around !!

Next morning we visited the Chaparai water flow , a short ride away from our resort. This place has the water rushing through different levels which are not high enough to be called a waterfall. The flow of the water is strong and the sylvan settings make it a nice place for spending some time. Thereafter we went to the Padmanabha gardens which is also a must see location if you are in Araku. The sheer numbers of trees and flowers there are amazing and the maintenance is quite commendable. Lunch this day was humdrum again, though we managed to get some chicken fry in a local joint. For dinner, a hotel guy had arranged some Bamboo chicken for us. This is an unique preparation and speciality of this region. The chicken is marinated with spices and put into hollow of Bamboo stems, which is then put into an oven. The overall result is quite nice and we were glad that we tried it out.

The final day was hectic and long. We started from the resort after breakfast, visited Ananthagiri hills and the waterfalls there, travelled further to Borra caves and then made our way to Vizag and the airport. Borra caves with the stalactite and stalagmite formations are again a must see. You will need to have good fitness levels to reach all parts of the cave and I was happy to be able to do so.

Our wait at the airport was long but interesting as India put it across South Africa in the Champion’s trophy match. We reached Hyderabad past midnight, weary but very happy about how the trip had gone.

It was everything a great trip should be – travelling with the whole family which is a rarity nowadays, travel novelty such as going in the new coach commissioned to Araku, great natural beauty, a relatively offbeat location, new food samplings such as Bamboo chicken and significantly cooler climes.

Travel is an elixir for the weary soul with regular activities and even a short trip, if planned well, can rejuvenate the body and mind. The current one has been particularly good in that regard.

Funding my daughter’s marriage

Now that my daughter Rinki is going to be 23 soon, it is time to start thinking that she will get married in a few years. Of course, given the fact that she is in the second year of her BM program at XLRI and will probably work a few years before getting married, I think we are still looking at another 4 years or so, maybe 5. However, given the kind of expenses it entails one must plan for it in advance.

As my regular readers will know well I do not have separate portfolios assigned to specific financial goals. I simply have 3 portfolios of Debt, Stocks and MF where I invest in and take out money from these as and when needed. So far this has really not been needed as I have always had enough to spend from my active income. This is true even in my current state of Financial independence but may not remain so at the point of time my daughter gets married. There is thus a need to plan for this.

In general, my idea always had been that I will pay for my children’s graduation, no matter how much it cost, and also a reasonable amount in their marriage. Post graduation was something I wanted my children to fund themselves, normally through a bank loan or even taking some money as a loan from me. I did not see much point in paying high interest rates to the banks. This will burden the child with high EMI and restrict his or her freedom to make the right choices.

Based on all of these, when Rinki got admitted to XLRI we took a 12 lacs loan even though the course fees were in the range of 22 lacs. The idea was that I will pay much of the first year fees and she would get it paid by the bank in the second year. Total costs for the first year was 10.5 lacs and we took only 50000 from the bank. This was needed to keep the loan valid. In the second year the fees to be paid are as follows – 4.71 lacs in June, 2.5 lacs in August and 2.5 lacs in November. Right now we have paid the first 4.71 lacs through our own resources – Rinki had some internship money from her Summer stint in GE, one of the FMP I had earlier done for her reached maturity and a FD I had done some years back matured now. Under ordinary circumstances I may have needed the money for my expenses but as my active income is going well in 2017 the flexibility is quite a lot more.

With the above backdrop and the assumption that Rinki is likely to get a job which will pay her at least the median salary in XLRI, I have worked out the following plan with her

  • We will try to restrict the bank loan to 4.5 lacs or so.
  • In the first year of her job, she will pay back the loan in full. Along with the interest this may come to 40000 per month.
  • Assuming that she gets a take home salary of 1.2 lacs per month and needs to spend about 40000 on regular expenses, she will still have 40000 left as surplus in year 1.
  • From year 2 the surplus is obviously a lot more.

What about the money I have paid for her PG education? It will amount to about 14 lacs and I do not want her to pay it back to me. I have asked her to invest it in a portfolio of 4-5 MF over the next 3 years @ 40000 per month. Over this period the amount of the corpus will be 17.4 lacs and in 4 years it will be about 20 lacs. This is the amount I plan to utilise for her marriage. Yes, the costs may be more and if so, I will fund the gap.

What if she decides not to get married at all or get married later. Well, in the first case the money is her’s to use in any manner she wants to. In the second case, the money will remain invested and we will be using it as and when she gets married.

For my son the issues will be simpler as the marriage expenses are likely to be lower. Also, like I did for myself, I am hoping he will be able to foot the bill to some extent, if not for all of it like I did. That is way down the future though, at least 8 years if not more.

A life plan must precede a financial plan

With the increasing readership of my blog, I get a lot of requests to either make financial plans for people or to review an existing financial plan that was made by someone for them. What strikes me as amazing is that people by and large focus greatly on their financial goals and almost take their life goals for granted. This flies in the face of the obvious reality – your finances are there to support your life goals and therefore must come after you have thought through your life goals.

The first thing which surprises me is that people project their lives for the next 30 years or so without having the ambition to do more with it. Let us say you have passed out of college and got a job. While it may be a job which you like, you may still look at ways and means of improving it. An IT person who started his career just 5 years back may already be finding himself in the cross roads. There is no guarantee that your current job will last for 10 years, let alone 30. It is therefore imperative that you fix your life goals based on your current skills, future skills you may need to acquire and the kind of work you want to do. It may be necessary for you to take up your first job for many reasons, but there will be equally good reasons as to why you may want to do other things.

The same goes for people who are in their mid career with a family. Yes, changing your life direction may be more difficult now but it is not impossible by any means. I had a friend who was a hotel manager for 10 years, worked in Rediff for another 10 years, went on to do an MBA abroad and is now a professor in an US Business school. Note that the latter career moves were all done when he had a family. Another friend of mine who is from an IIT and an IIM, went to the US recently to pursue a second MBA as he was not happy with how his career was shaping up. In his case too he took his wife and a young daughter to the US. There is no doubt that these people had to go through a lot of tough times but they were clear as to what they wanted to achieve.

Changing careers are getting much more common nowadays than ever before. I just came to know of a Doctor, who practised for 7 years after his MBBS and has now got into IIM Ahmedabad for their one year Executive program. He wants to be associated with Health care but not as a practising Doctor and felt that an Executive MBA will give him the opportunities that he is seeking out.

The problem with financial plans is that they are done assuming people will proceed in their lives linearly. They will start with a job, increase their salaries every year, get married, invest and increase their investments, plan their finances, home buying and have other goals such as children’s education, marriage and retirement. This does not at all cater to real life and real people. For example, I started working at 24 and always wanted to retire at 45, or at least be financially independent by then. If I had been to a financial planner, he would probably have told me that I needed to work for 35 years and early retirement was just not possible in India.

The logic can get extended to any particular passion you have in life. Earlier it was difficult to take up your passion due to lack of resources and opportunity. However, many people nowadays want to take up their passion after they have fulfilled most of their responsibilities. I know of people who have taken up travel, reading, teaching and several other interest areas at a relatively late stage in life and have done very well in them.

So the point is your life plan must be dynamic in nature to fulfil the aspirations you have. We will not meet all our aspirations but there should be a clear and concerted attempt to do so. The financial plan must adapt to your life journey not the other way round. You need a financial planner who understands this.

How does one go about doing this? Let that be the subject of another post.

An Italian odyssey

Writing this post is an anticipated event for me as, even before we left for our Italy trip, I got a lot of requests from several quarters to do this. I will directly start with the trip itself as I have already covered the planning of the trip as well as my thoughts and experiences with the tour operator Kesari in other recent posts.

We started off from Hyderabad on 5th May morning as we had to join the group for the night flight to Abu Dhabi and Rome. Though the wait in the Mumbai airport was somewhat long, we were quite impressed with the facilities, the only jarring point being the food costs. We connected with the Kesari representative on the appointed time, collected our hampers and checked in early. The tour leader welcomed us and wanted us to meet her before the transit from Abu Dhabi. The flights were largely uneventful, though tiring as usual. Breaking it up into two flights is a good idea as long as the layover is manageable. We reached Rome in the early morning. Immigration was a rather long process and freshening up in the airport with hordes of people wanting to do the same took it’s own time. We boarded the coach after that and the trip was well and truly underway.

We had a pretty comfortable coach which we would be using for the entire trip, the tour leader was articulate and knowledgeable and the visit to Pompeii was fulfilling a long time desire. The ruins of Pompeii are maintained rather well and we were lucky to have a good guide who spoke English very well. She explained the times of 2000 years back with a lot of imagination and some of the things such as the water pipe of those years, the stepping stones on the streets so that people could cross when they got waterlogged in the rainy season, the roadside eateries with ovens for cooking the food and a brothel with the services menu drawn on the walls were the highlights for me. As was Homer’s Odyssey drawn as fresco’s on the walls of an erstwhile commercial place.

In terms of sheer heritage, history and scale few places in the world will beat Pompeii. Our own Hampi is great too but it is not as old as this. Moreover only 25 % of the city has been excavated and that itself boggles the mind. A near perfect experience was made even better by an excellent 3 course lunch in a good restaurant.

Day 2 of our Italy trip was very different from the first. From history and heritage of Pompei we landed in Sorrento and Capri, with all it’s natural beauty of the sea and hills. The views all over were quite captivating and the sheer cliffs rising practically right from the sea. Much of Sorrento is perched atop these cliffs.

The highlight of the day was travelling to the highest point of the island in a chair lift. It is literally a chair hung from a cable. As we sat there, the mist rolling in from the sea quite engulfed us as the chair passed through some greenery with the sea to our right and the hills to the left. A surreal experience is probably not an exaggeration in this case. While I was sorry to miss the Blue Grotto, a cave with the blue reflection from the sea water, this was somewhat made up by the views from the highest point of the island – particularly, the myriad hues of the sea, I myself could count some six colours.

Day 3 of the Italy trip started with a whistle stop tour of the Naples square. Quite an impressive place with the Galleria and the Opera house, which was built way back in 1737.

Next stop was Rome and we spent the afternoon in Vatican City. I had always been interested in it and my keenness had grown over the years after I followed the Dan Brown novels. The Vatican museum was a treasure trove of Italian Renaissance creations and it was rather overwhelming in some sense. The Sistine chapel is definitely the crowning glory of Michaelangelo’s painting career and the vivid colours were remarkable just for their longevity as well as the artistic brilliance.

The Basilica is probably the most famous example of a Christian Church and the richness in terms of conception and execution is simply incomprehensible at first take. Finally, the square which finds mention in so many novels for the Papal conclave and election, the news of which is conveyed by the colour of the smoke through a chimney, was a fitting end.

Day 4 of the trip was dedicated to Rome. We saw the Trevi fountain in the morning and it was a great sight. It is maintained very clean, even though a lot of shops are around.

The Rome orientation done from the bus was rushed but we did get to know a lot of unknown stuff about the city. The Time elevator ride was a great experience and the show has been conceived very well.

The Piazza Venezia is a magnificent structure and I went and explored it on my own. Finally the Colloseum was a fitting finale to the day. Even with much of it being in ruins, it is easy to imagine the grandeur it had in the past and our guide was brilliant in conjuring up the visions of gladiators going at each other full tilt in a filled Colloseum with the spectators baying for blood.

Rome is truly a city where the past and the present live in complete harmony and we have been fortunate to witness it. Though I have posted pictures for each of the above and some of them are quite good, one will need to get a real experience to understand this.

Day 5 of the trip was spent in San Gimignano and Pisa, both of which were exceptional.

San Gimignano is a very well preserved medieval town and it got the award of an UNESCO heritage site in 1990. It is a living city but the structures of the past are all preserved. Walking through it you get the feeling of being transported to a long past age. Definitely worth a visit, even for the brilliant natural beauty of Tuscany surrounding it.

Pisa is of course known for the Leaning tower and seeing it in front of us was an amazing experience. The Square of Miracles has several other great structures such as the Baptistry and the Cathedral. As with most Italian structures these are very well maintained.

Day 6 of our trip was mostly dedicated to Florence with a worthwhile viewing of the Ferrari museum in the afternoon.

Florence is probably the best example of architecture and sculpture seen anywhere, though Italy and Europe will have close rivals. The Cathedral is undoubtedly the high point of the walking tour we had. The two domes and the Bronze door were just amazing. The main square with the replicas of David and Hercules will please any art lover. Finally, the Alexander point offers a great overview of the City landscape.

The Ferrari museum is a veritable feast for the eyes to any sports car lover. Just to see so many of these together is great and gives you a feeling of elation.

The 7th and final day of the trip was for Venice, aptly called the Queen of the Adriatic. The whole experience was great from the approach by the boat, the walk through the markets and over the bridges, the church of St Marks and finally the Gondola ride through the canals.

Venice is different from all other places because of it’s unique ecosystem and the way it has been preserved over the years. Yes, the motor boats have made it more noisy and a tad more polluted but, in today’s day and age, a place sans any surface transport is great by itself.

The memories of Venice will stay with us for long. In all ways it was a high point of our visit to Italy. I have been to several places over the years but for the sheer diversity of natural beauty, history and heritage this tour has been an unique one.

Coming back from such a trip is always laced with a tinge of sadness but the memories will last us a long time. The return journey was more tiring as we were not really looking forward to the Hyderabad heat after the salubrious climate of Italy.

For the interested reader, my recommendation will be to go through the pictures I have posted in Facebook. To be candid though, no picture can do justice to the real experience of seeing the statue of David, the waters of Capri or the Sistine chapel among many others. You really need to visit Italy if you love history, heritage and culture.

For me, it was the only major country in western Europe where I had never been and I will now be looking at Scandinavia, Africa and South America as possible next destinations for my travel.

My experiences with Tour operator Kesari

A lot of people have contacted me on my blog and Facebook and wanted to know more about my experiences with Kesari, the tour operator I had chosen for our Italy trip. Let me try and address all the queries in this post.

To begin with, this is the first time I was looking at an end-to-end tour operator. So far we had been to Thailand, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Netherlands, France and Australia and in all these travels we had booked the travel and the local tours mostly on our own. I am a firm believer that you should have a certain flexibility when you travel, for there may be things you want to do on your own and a group tour can be constraining in some ways. However, the reason we wanted to do this travel through a group tour was simple – it was difficult to cover all the places we wanted to see on our own within one week. If I was staying in Rome for 3 days I would definitely do it on my own but as we wanted to see Italy properly in the current trip a tour operator with a group tour was a better option. It also gives you the option of just enjoying the trip while the tour leader takes care of all the necessary arrangements.

Once we had identified the places we wanted to see, there was really only one tour that covered them all. It was Flavours of Italy by Kesari. When we contacted them with our queries, they were very prompt in their responses and we were quite satisfied with the inputs we received. The fact that they were covering all the meal costs and had local guides for the important tours was a definite plus point. As we were booking early there was a reasonably good discount that we got. Once we paid the 2.71 lacs as a one time fee we got into the process of arranging for the visa documents etc.

During the period between January and April we continued to interact with Kesari for purposes of visa documentation and application. They helped us with validating all the documents, taking appointment with VFS and keeping us updated about the reservations as well as the travel regulations that had come into vogue newly. The Tour leader sent us a WhatsApp message with details of how we had to meet in Mumbai and how things will proceed from that point. Kesari also provided us with the following for the travel :-

  • A stroller and a shoulder bag which were very useful during our travel.
  • A raincoat and a cap
  • A snacks hamper with Tea/coffee sachets
  • An Electric kettle
  • A power adaptor suited for Europe

From the time we checked in at Mumbai for our first leg of the flight to Abu Dhabi, our tour leader was in complete control of the situation. She got us to the transit flight in Abu Dhabi and once we were in Rome, guided us through immigration. Having travelled abroad frequently, these were no issues for me but there were many who were going out of India for the first time and were happy to get the kind of guidance she provided.

Over the next 7 days the tour leader was omnipresent in everything we did and she also let people do their own things if they so desired. The whole itinerary was managed very professionally – be it the hotel check-in’s, the meals, the transportation, the local guides and all the crises. For example when we went to Capri it was told to us that the Blue Grotto ( an underwater cave ) was not possible to visit due to the high tide in the seas. While many of us were disappointed at this, our tour leader took stock of the situation quickly and arranged an alternate activity of a chair lift ride, which we liked a lot. Through the long coach rides, she played the perfect hostess and got the group to know it’s members and to play games that were of common interest. She also had an plethora of stories, movies and music to keep people occupied.

So was it all good then? That rarely happens in real life and I would have liked to do some things had I done it on my own. For example, I would have definitely seen some museums in Rome and Florence. However, to be fair, that would have been impossible to squeeze into one week. On the whole, I think the itinerary planned out by Kesari was a really good one. Each day was an unique experience and if the objective was to give us the Flavours of Italy, I think the tour did achieve that.

The best part of the tour was definitely the tour leader and how everything was managed well. We could just focus on enjoying ourselves without worrying about any of the logistics. The worst part was we had to move as a group to see everything and sometimes that caused issues of timing and coordination.

Overall, I am happy to have taken the tour and may repeat it with the same operator in the future. If you have enough time and money along with an inclination to plan your own travel, you can definitely do so. However, most people do not have the above luxury and for those a group tour with a standard tour operator can be a great option.

Our travel to Italy – The plan

As all my readers will know by now, travel is one of the aspects I and my family are really keen on. We try to do it as much as possible and look for all possible opportunities to travel both within and out of India. A lot of my readers and connections in Facebook have asked me to write a travelogue on our recent Italy trip. However, I think it will be a better idea to do a few posts on it, this is the first of the series.

To begin with, after our last significant tour to Australia in 2014, our idea of the next trip out to Europe was really in 2018. The Australian tour was on a big scale as we took out two weeks for it and also had significant expenses – in the range of 6 lacs for both of us. The plan to do an European tour in 2018 was to celebrate our 25th wedding year. The reason I wanted to advance it in 2017 was that we wanted to get away from the Hyderabad heat in May for some time. Also, while our Australia trip was a great one, 2 weeks at a go is difficult, especially when I am working as a CSO in a company. After we took a fundamental decision to travel in segments of one week, it was easier to think in terms of a holiday outside India every alternate year. My wife was obviously quite pleased with the advancement and we got down to searching for places.

Our first idea was to look at South Africa but there were some difficulties involved in it. This was a place where we wanted to travel with our children and that was tough in 2017, due to their academic and other engagements. Also, both the trip costs as well as the time needed for it were more in the range of 12 days or so. Finally, we were unable to go in March etc as there was a little gap after our Kumarokom vacation in February. Based on all of this and the need to get away in May, we wanted to look at Europe for a week. Over the months of December and January we did extensive search of several tours in order to see which one would be suitable for us.

In terms of Europe, the following aspects were important for us:-

  • As we had already seen Amsterdam and Paris we wanted to avoid tours that spent time in these two cities.
  • We were good with the idea of Switzerland but here again, we would prefer the children to travel with us.
  • Eastern Europe or Spain were good options.
  • Italy was another good option.
  • We wanted to go with a tour operator this time as we had to cover several cities in the span of a week.

On going through all of the above, it seemed that a trip to Italy covering all the major cities over a week would be a good idea. We searched for such offers from all the reputed tour operators and settled on the Flavours of Italy tour by Kesari. It was covering all the places we wanted to cover – Pompeii, Capri, Vatican City, Rome, Florence, San Gimignano and Venice. The one advantage with Kesari is that they give you an all inclusive cost, so what you spend extra is only on indulgences and shopping. We got a Bonanza offer, similar to an Early bird thing, which came to 2.72 lacs for the two of us. On the flip side all Kesari tours start from Mumbai, so we had to make that arrangement on our own.

Once we decided on the tour and paid the money, the rest of the activities were coordinated very well by Kesari. I am sure a lot of readers might want to go on similar trips , so I will do a separate post on that. It will be right to say that the entire plan went smoothly and in the end we were really happy that we had chosen Kesari.

As far as the experience of the trip goes, for both Lipi and me it was a dream come true to see the places we have read so much about and seen so much in movies and news. We did manage to get away from the Hyderabad heat in a nice manner too.

But more details of our Italy trip in a future post.