After nearly nine months of being cooped up at home, many of us are desperate for a short break.
But is it really safe to travel?
With loads of homework on where exactly to go, some planning, and the by now usual precautions, it can be safe.
Here are five experiences (all are driving holidays, to reduce exposure along the way.)
- Jim Corbett National Park, Uttarakhand (260 km from Delhi; about 6 hours by car)
- A weekend at Alibaug (drive + RoRo ferry; 1 hour from Mumbai)
- Munnar, Kerala (510 km from Bangalore; about 10 hours)
- Ramadevara Betta, Ramanagara (40 km from Bangalore; about 1 hour)
- Udupi, Mangalore (850 km from Mumbai; about 17 hours)
Keep the proverbial bubble intact
But first, the planning and the precautions. Which means,
1. a virtual recce of the hotel or resort for hygiene measures in place,
2. plan the stopovers with the same level of homework on which places have the best safety measures in place,
3. pack right.
- Take as many sets of clothes as days, so you don’t reuse any to avoid touch-based contamination. (On a driving holiday, you needn’t worry about the weight limitations of air travel.)
- Plenty of disposable masks (in addition to our regular masks) and gloves. Aim to have enough spare masks so you can hand it to anyone on your trip if they don’t have one. And wear a mask all the time when in a public place.
- Hand sanitizer, Savlon Ethanol spray and liquid (to disinfect touch surfaces) and the usual medical kit.
- A picnic meal and/or snacks for the journey.
- Mosquito repellent cream and sunscreen.
- Cricket and badminton gear, Monopoly and a pack of cards. Because it’s likely that the swimming pool, gym, and spa at the hotel will be closed.
A jungle retreat
Why Jim Corbett National Park: Reducing exposure along the way meant a destination no more than six hours away, which translated into a maximum of two breaks en route. Remember, each break means unnecessary exposure to the forces of Covid-19.
While most hotels are advertising their Covid-19 protocol, we preferred first hand, word-of-mouth evidence. We would not only hear how someone else’s experience had been, but also ask questions to resolve doubts.
That’s when we heard of Jim’s Jungle Retreat at Corbett. A friend had been there with her daughter in November, and she spoke of how fanatical the Retreat had been when it came to masks, hand sanitisers, and social distancing, the three everyday weapons against Covid-19.
Again, the Retreat has its own Maruti Gypsies for safaris and doesn’t depend on third-party vehicles. Read that as sanitised cars.
Corbett also fitted nicely into our driving framework: it is around six hours away from Noida where we live.
The travel experience: Having been to Corbett a few times earlier, we knew the route by heart, including the fact that there was a McDonald’s on the way. Having been to a McDonald’s in Delhi once a few months back, we were satisfied with their safety measures, including foot-pedal-operated taps in the loo.
However, we had no idea if it was still open (it was). So, we packed enough food for the way.
It took us around six-and-a-half hours to get to the Retreat (including a break at McDonald’s, the only one we took).
There we were greeted by guards who were wearing masks. At the reception, once our temperatures had been taken and our hands thoroughly sanitised (at their insistence, mind you) we were taken to our rooms, which, among other things, had a bottle of hand sanitiser.
That night at dinner we discovered that guests were not seated at adjacent tables, and after every cover, the tables and chairs were sanitised.
The following day we noticed that each and every staff member always had a mask on, including gardeners who weren't necessarily interacting with guests.
When we went on a safari, we found that the Gypsy had spare bottles of sanitisers stored. Better still, after presenting our photo IDs at the gates of the Corbett Reserve, our driver sanitised the IDs before returning them us.
It’s little things like this that matter and go a long way in reassuring picky guests. Of course, the property and the service is outstanding as well, but then, that's a different story.
Sea, sand and sun
Why Alibaug: Honestly, we didn’t think too much about the destination. We were looking for a place that was relatively close to Mumbai, within a couple of hours of drive time, that offered a safe and hygiene environment—and a much-needed opportunity to experience open skies, the sun, sea and sand. Alibaug fitted the brief perfectly.
The travel experience: We mustered up the courage to travel after a close friend returned from a 3D/2N trip with his family in Alibaug in November. We listened carefully to his experience, the do’s and don’ts and what to expect at every stage of the trip.
What made it really attractive was the spanking new RoRo (Roll On-Roll Off) ferry service run by M2M ferries, connecting Bhaucha Dhakka in Mazgaon and Mandwa jetty in Alibaug. What would have taken us at least three hours by road, now took barely an hour to cross over by sea. At its peak, the ferry is able to accommodate nearly 150 cars and 500 passengers.
Early Friday morning, we followed the directions on Google Maps and made our way to the Ferry Wharf dock near Mazgaon. The boarding process was smooth. In less than 10 minutes, we had checked in, parked our vehicles inside the ferry and moved up to the sprawling outdoor decks, from where we could enjoy the sights and sounds of the bay.
Two quick tips: Try to get to the terminal at least 45 minutes earlier. That way, you will be among the first cars to board and the first ones to disembark. Two, stay away from the plush AC section and stick to the open decks. It’s a lot safer and less crowded.
Now, since the restaurant is inside the AC section, we darted in, picked up coffee and some snacks and quickly moved back to the upper decks.
For the return leg, we were booked on the evening service on Sunday. And it was an entirely different experience, watching the Mumbai skyline and the city lights in the distance. And yes, masks are compulsory on board and thankfully, everyone complied.
Watch this video of the entire ferry ride.
Note: The price of a one-way ticket for our car and the four of us: Rs 2,300. Tickets and schedules are available online at https://m2mferries.com/
By 9 am, we were on our way to the Radisson Blu resort, supposedly the best option to stay in Alibaug. It was a 35-minute ride from Mandwa jetty. And the roads were in very good condition.
(Some friends later told us that they would have been happy to recommend options like an entire villa equipped with a swimming pool and a fully functioning kitchen which was available on rent. But honestly, we decided to play safe and pay a bit more for a good hotel that followed proper safety and hygiene standards.)
Things to do: Apart from spending quality time with the family, we managed to make two trips to the beach. I’d recommend the Varsoli beach which was quiet and relatively clean. And when we played a game of cricket on the beach, my friend’s 11-year-old son made us chase the ball (and in the process, helped me work up quite an appetite).
The trip to Kihim beach wasn’t very pleasant though. We chose the wrong time to go there. The beach was packed with people who had come to see the sunset. And the horse-driven tongas and the sports bikes were noisy. (Tip: Pick non-peak hours—and stay away from the popular but overly crowded Alibaug or Kihim beach.)
Most of our meals, including the buffet breakfast, were at the hotel. (Tip: Again, try getting to breakfast early, preferably at Aparanta, their multi-cuisine restaurant, and avoid the somewhat crowded Verandah restaurant.)
We did manage to fit in a nice, cosy dinner at the Boardwalk by Flamboyante, the lovely open-air restaurant near the Mandwa jetty, on our first evening there. (Tip: Remember to book a table on the phone. The last order is at 9:30 pm.)
There are other restaurants in Alibaug, especially serving delectable local seafood cuisine that we heard about too, but most of them were sticking to takeaway, not open for dine-in. Here’s the top ten list of restaurants in Alibaug. Best to call ahead and check if they’ve opened their doors for dining.
On balance, it was a relaxed trip with enough outdoor time for the families to hang around together, eat, chat and play. Seeing the blue skies, the sea and the sands was a huge relief. And if you plan well, you can cut out any attendant risk.
Destination: Outdoors in the Western Ghats
Why Munnar: It’s drivable from Bangalore, although it takes 10 hours each way. Rooms were available at Club Mahindra Munnar (they had flooded us with messages since October, about their safety precautions). And the opportunity to be outdoors in the global ecological biodiversity hotspot, the Western Ghats.
The travel experience: Kerala has a mandatory epass rule for visitors from other states. And you can stay in the state without quarantine only for 7 days. Tamil Nadu’s rule said that any out of state tourists need to get a pass. I got both done online. The process was simple, but collected a lot of personally identifiable information, which I reluctantly gave. No one checked these documents in Tamil Nadu or Kerala. It was just a data gathering exercise, from my point of view.
We needed an overnight stopover en route and we identified Radisson hotel in Salem. It had explicitly exhibited on their website the precautions it was taking. All staff wore masks and gloves. Sanitation was good. But the room was air conditioned which was a bit worrying. Breakfast and dinner were also served in AC rooms. Outdoor seating was not in service. So, we focused on eating as quickly as possible.
The drive to Munnar was superb. Fastag kept the traffic moving for the most part. The roads are very good. The climb from Bodinayakanur in Tamil Nadu to the Western Ghats provided us with sweeping views of the plains. As soon as we crossed into Idukki district in Kerala, we were greeted with foggy weather—a precursor to our days in Munnar.
Once we reached the top, we could see manicured tea estates interspersed with natural dense shola forests. An expanse of unending verdure landscape.
Club Mahindra was well prepared to handle a full house of members. They sprayed car tires with some chemicals on arrival (never saw this practice again!), there was a shoe cleaning tub, a fancy thermometer, etc. The reception staff wore masks and hid behind glass screens in the presence of guests. The housekeeping staff wore masks, but some of them let their nostrils show.
The restaurant didn’t offer buffet service. Outdoor seating was available and we chose that even during chilly evenings. Serving staff wore masks and gloves.
Things to do: We love the outdoors, so a trip to Eravikulam National Park (80 km/two-and-a half hours away) to see the endangered and endemic Nilgiri Tahrs was definitely on the cards. The Nilgiri Tahrs did not disappoint the tourists. At least one herd has taken well to human presence and can be found grazing around the walking trail. Naturalists would be disappointed with the predictable sightings of these rare and elusive mountain goats. I became a tourist for the day.
We’d also planned a more adventurous 14 km hike in Mathikettan Shola (‘mind confusing’ in Tamil; 20 km/45 minutes away) with the help of a company in Kochi. This hike is not well known even in Munnar. Hiking to Meesapulimalai and Kollukumalai are more popular. Club Mahindra’s travel desk told me it is dangerous to go hiking because of elephants and ‘cats’ that roam these jungles. With much trepidation, we started the hike. The Kerala forest department is very organized. They arranged for two guards to accompany us and show us the way.
The hike unfolded with a 4 km straight 15-20% degree climb. My legs were already ready to quit. We were hiking in an open grassland on a rocky surface and the sun was up and sapping our energy. We had 10 km more to complete. The guards (to whom I had given disposable masks before the hike), told me to remove my mask since it was hampering my breathing. I kept it on and compensated by taking more breaks. Reaching the top, we could see the vistas of mountains on all sides.
Then began the descent into the sholas, my favourite part of any hike in the Western Ghats.
The guard behind me was briefly on the phone telling his uncle in Tamil that he is grazing elephants. I’m not sure if he meant our gait and speed or if he was hinting about us walking into a tusker (we didn’t encounter any in the sholas).
The next phase of descent was through cardamom plantations. There was excellent bird life in the plantation but the family was hungry so we ignored the opportunity to watch birds and gave priority to reaching the destination for lunch.
I have been birding for over 30 years, but never experienced ‘organised’ birding.
Munnar is great for birding. But my preferred destination was Eldhose’s Birding Lodge at Thattekad (100km/3 hours away). It is world famous and difficult to get accommodation at short notice. I was elated when Eldhose’s daughter messaged me availability on my travel dates.
Thattekad has recorded over 330 species of birds—one of the best birding sites in the country. I could only manage to see about 40 species of birds in three outings, including many Western Ghat natives. The pride of Thattekad is the Srilanka Frogmouth, a shy nocturnal bird, which I was lucky to sight and photograph. One day was too short to explore the complete habitat. Another trip is necessary to do justice with a promise to make it less stressful for the birds.
- Bangalore to Club Mahindra, Munnar – 510 km (10 hrs)
- Club Mahindra, Munnar to Eravikulam National Park – 80 km (2.5 hrs)
- Club Mahindra, Munnar to Mathikettan Shola – 20 km (45 mins)
- Club Mahindra, Munnar to Thattekad – 105 km (3 hrs)
- Total toll paid ~ Rs 700
- Road conditions are good except for a few stretches. The Gap road between Club Mahindra and Munnar town is closed. A detour will add 35 km to the trip.
- The weather in Munnar: The temperature was between 12 and 20 degrees Centigrade; there was mild drizzle, misty mornings and evening, and sometimes dense fog.
- Thatekkad is in the plains and near the Periyar river, so it was warm and humid
A tryst with Sholay (sort of)
Why Ramadevara Betta, Ramanagara: About 40 km away/an hour from Bangalore, right on the highway towards Mysore with a deviation of 3 km inside lies India’s only vulture sanctuary. Rocky hills abound. It’s great for hiking and birdwatching. And offers a fantastic panoramic view from the top, with selfie spots galore for the trigger happy. Wildflowers, birds and critters, small lizards—there is plenty for everyone. From a nature lover, a bird watcher, a trekker, or someone who just wants to get away from the screen.
The movie Sholay was shot in the forest just behind—that place is off limits, though.
Best time to travel is October to February, when it has not rained recently.
Things to do: It involves a light trek, easy for most people. You can visit three temples, including one of Lord Hanuman, and Pattabi Rama temple midway through the trek. The hilltop has a short steep climb which has guardrails you can hold on to climb up—that’s the only challenging part which makes it accessible to those who are fit.
It’s a great place for spotting vultures, but for that, you'd have to arrive early, before they leave to forage. Other birds can also be seen around the hills and it is a good spot for birding.
Facilities: There’s a safe place under the shade of trees at the foothills to park your vehicles. The sanctuary is open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. The temple serves prasadam (free meals during weekends), which the devotees contribute to. The forest department charges a nominal fee at the entrance. There’s a toilet facility around the parking lot.
The place is sprawling, and has enough space for 500-1000 people to rest and have a peaceful time for a few hours. It is also very windy, making it relatively risk free for Covid-19. The only spots that have some amount of risk are the toilet facility, the guard rails which people hold to climb up the final ascent, and around the temple.
Getaway to a beach house
Why Udupi, Mangalore: We needed to get away from the city for the sake of our sanity! We hatched a plan with three close friends. The priorities were set straight—a scenic locale, which allowed for long walks, good wine and pleasant weather. We missed each other terribly. All we wanted was a fully equipped (we wanted comfort), spacious (we had been cooped up far too long), and peaceful property that allowed us to share conversations and drinks.
After two weeks of back and forth in early November, we zeroed in on the idyllic town of Udupi.
The travel experience: Before selecting our escape house, we spoke to every property manager, enquired about occupancy since Covid-19 and the safety measures that will be undertaken. We settled for a place that was about to re-open with us as first occupants, with daily sanitisation and a caretaker who would wear a mask at all times.
Safety was our top most priority so we decided that we would avoid public transport (it meant a 17-hour drive for us from Mumbai, and varying drive times for friends from Bangalore and Hyderabad).
And we’d all agreed to get tested closer to the date of departure. (As it turned out, one friend dropped out at the last minute because he tested positive.)
For the journey, we looked for “safe” places where we could stop to use the facilities. We could not find anything reliable. My husband Shashank loves long-distance driving. “We are not going to stop more than thrice,” he warned me. I armed myself with surface disinfectants, masks and sanitizers. And we prepared a picnic basket—cold sandwiches, a boozy Christmas cake and juice.
Once we reached, we plopped on the bed and enjoyed quality and uninterrupted sleep in many months.
Things to do: We thoroughly enjoyed having long stretches of beach almost to ourselves. Apart from sun bathing and swimming, we also took surfing lessons. We ate mostly at the guesthouse or at open-air restaurants. We made exceptions for famous local haunts—they were crowded, but we braved it with our masks on and sanitizer bottles handy.
The highlight of the trip was watching children play freely on the beach. Their carefree nature and joy of being able to play is something that was sorely missed this year.