Travels

  • Five Days in South India

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Day 1

    I flew from Bangalore to Madurai before embarking on a two and a half hour drive to Chettinad where I stayed at the Visalam Hotel.

    In February, when the weather is pleasant in South India, I traveled to Chettinad and Tamil Nadu to explore the Hindu temples of Madurai and Thanjavur. The exquisite Chettiar cuisine was another reason for my visit! I flew from Bangalore to Madurai – a short non-stop flight on Jet Air. Unfortunately, the airline didn’t transport my bag to Madurai so I was forced to go shopping. Equipped with local, colorful clothes, I was excited! After an easy, two-hour drive from Mudurai to Chettinad, I arrived at Visalam Hotel. It is a grand, 75 year-old house that has converted to luxurious simplicity. The rooms are very large and one could feel the heritage, art and architecture of olden times.

    Day 2

    Today, I explored Chettinad on a bullock cart.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    After a delicious steaming local South Indian filter coffee, we walked around the village and admired the abandoned mansions that lay still with its history of the past. Later on, I took a bullock cart ride and stopped by some local structures. Its architecture of open court yards, tall steel pillars and beautiful tile work was impressive. It seemed that time has stopped here and I was living in the past. The Chettiars – a caste of traders and bankers – built these mansions beginning in mid-19th century and ending just after India’s independence. Most of these homes are looked after by caretakers now – the Chettiars long gone from them. This place is so unlike any other part of India. The region is also full of beautiful boutique hotels, local tours and cooking classes. I was lucky enough to also visit the cotton weavers, the Athangudi Tile Factory and a Shiva temple.

    Late Morning, I visited Chettinad’s capital of Karaikuddi. I enjoyed a lunch with a 75 year-old doyen of Chettinad culture and cuisine at Bangala Mansion. Her mansion was full of guests from all over the world enjoying the cuisine!

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    I drove to Thanjavur and enjoyed a culinary session and cultural performance at Hotel Svatma.

    From Chettinad to Thanjavur – the drive was about three hours. Welcomed by tall trees and the beautiful fragrance of jasmine, I arrived at Hotel Svatma. The hotel has a spiritual feel with an indulgence of luxury. In the afternoon, I took part in a culinary session with a local chef. I learned to make the South Indian snack of paniyarams and a traditional South Indian sweet sheera. In the evening, I enjoyed an amazing dance performance of Bharat Natyam. The young dancer had traveled six hours from Chennai to perform! That night, my lost bag (completely intact!) arrived at the hotel. I was more than delighted!

    Day 3

    Today, I visited the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple and a tour of the Thanjavur streets.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The morning began quietly with the local, in-house priest chanting the Vedas. My guide for the day took me to the 11th century Brihadeeswarar Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage monument. The temple was built by the Chola Empire. Of its sculptures, the most distinct ones are those of Shiva’s 108 dancing postures. Following this, I visited the bronze-casting and bronze gallery. Afterwards, we walked the Thanjavur’s streets to explore its cultural heritage. I met the Tanjore painting artist and explored Bommai Kolu – the wooden and clay dolls. I even bought a clay doll as a souvenir since they are locally crafted.

    Day 4

    I explored the 16th century Nayakar Palace and visited the famous Meenakshi Temple.

    Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    The breakfast at Svatma was a wonderful spread of East and West cuisines. Omelets for the western palates and fresh, thin rice and lentil pancakes (called dosa) for the ones who want to try the local fare. An easy drive on a well-paved road was a comfortable way to reach Madurai. After checking into the hotel, I went to explore the palace and then the famous Meenakshi Temple. Many people were there for prayers and blessings. The architecture of the temple is stunning.

    Day 5

    On my last day, I participated in an interactive walking tour for an authentic experience of the local lifestyle in Madurai.

    I loved the early morning tour of Madurai. We went to small streets where our guide, Karthik, took us to off-the-beaten-path back streets and fruit and vegetable markets. The city was waking up to the hustle and bustle of the local Tamil morning traditions. My favorite stop was the flower market – the scent of roses and jasmine filled the air. After some leisure time at the hotel, I caught my flight to Bangalore.

    Local Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Local Produce Market | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    Roses | Photo Credit: Bela Banker

    I was born in Bombay (now called Mumbai), and have lived in the USA for more than 30 years. I have a passion for travel, for exploring, learning new cultures and being in new places. I love India and like to introduce all our clients to the colors, sounds, scents, traditions and food found throughout India. I customize all India trips and take our clients off the beaten path, where they can touch the heart and soul of the country. Other than travel, I love to read, cook, hike and spend time with my four boys.

    August 10, 2018 • Bela Banker, India, Travels • Views: 2175

  • The Wonders of Rotorua

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    My husband Kyle and I visited New Zealand for the first time in December, fulfilling my long-held dream of seeing this beautiful country. Like many visitors before me, I was amazed by the diverse landscapes, crystal-clear waters and welcoming people. However, there’s one particular place I fell in love with: Rotorua.

    Rotorua is the spiritual heart of the North Island, home to a thriving Maori community, beautiful forests, lakes, rivers and, most famously, a unique geothermal environment. This is a must-visit destination for those seeking a glimpse of the Kiwi lifestyle, hospitality and culture.

    The drive from Auckland to Rotorua takes three hours, though I highly recommend taking your time to enjoy the scenery along the way. Tune into a local radio station to listen to some delightfully quirky talk shows, and don’t forget to stay on the left side of the road!

    Exploration

    In Rotorua, nature is never far away. Walk along the edge of Lake Rotorua, and you will find yourself in carefully-preserved native woods that seamlessly coexist with the surrounding streets. In the summer, this green microcosm is fragrant with manuka flowers, though the lake itself smells vaguely of sulphur. Keep walking, and you will come across the sulphur springs themselves, bubbling from beneath the ground and emitting steam. These alkaline and acidic waters, along with the mud, have been used by generations of the local Maori for a variety of medicinal purposes. If you don’t mind the “aroma,” consider visiting Kuirau Park mud pools or the Polynesian Spa.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    A short drive away from city center, you will find the majestic Whakarewarewa Forest, or “The Redwoods.” This mixed landscape of native ferns and North American redwoods is a perfect setting for hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Kyle and I are road cyclists who have never been on a mountain bike before, so we decided to find a nice beginner trail and give it a try. Having the lush forest scenery all around made me feel like I was riding in a more ancient time. The canopy provided enough shade to keep us cool. I would recommend these biking trails to anyone from novice to expert.

    Another fun experience is taking the Skyline Gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha for some walking trails with truly amazing views. You can even take your mountain bike into the cable car with you! In addition to hiking and biking, kids-at-heart can take a luge ride down the mountain.

    Adventure

    The next item on the agenda—whitewater rafting—was the most exhilarating experience during our stay in Rotorua. Although we have never done it before, our choice fell on the fast-moving Kaituna River with its Grade Five rapids and three waterfalls.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Our guides provided thorough instructions before we set off on the river. In no time at all, we were paddling along the river into the canyon. The fern-clad cliffs towering over us were alive with bird calls. The sun peeking through the thick canopy filled the canyon with green light. Where the river slowed down, we took time to marvel at the surroundings. When it picked up speed, we paddled according to the guides’ commands. Our support team included a kayaker scout and a lifeguard raft, so tackling the rapids and the first two waterfalls felt perfectly safe—even for beginners.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Yet even with the expert guidance, I couldn’t stop my heart from racing when we approached the mighty Tutea Falls. Were we going to flip over? Our guide didn’t think so. The lifeguard raft that went ahead descended without screams. Somewhat reassured, we got down to the floor and braced ourselves, as our raft slowly approached the waterfall and tipped over the edge.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Immediately engulfed by the rushing water, we were in the most sensory-deprived free fall I’ve ever experienced! For a split second, my ears, nose and mouth were full of water; there was no light or sounds, only immense downward pressure. Then it was all over. We were at the base of the waterfall, safe and upright, with everyone managing to stay in their place. I would do definitely do this again in a heartbeat!

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Culture

    No trip to Rotorua is complete without meeting the Maori people and learning about their heritage. We visited Ohinemutu Village, a living Maori community that has resided on the shores of Lake Rotorua for 800 years.

    We met our guide on the Marae (meeting grounds), and set off together on a walking tour of the village. It was fascinating to see a living community where homes with modern conveniences coincide with traditional buildings. We learned the history of the tribe, including how they adapted the geothermal energy and biochemistry of the hot springs to heat their homes and treat all kinds of ailments, from common colds to joint inflammation.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    With great enthusiasm our guide answered questions on how the tribe handles matters of life and death, marriage and family, religion, local politics, civil rights, and even appearances of Maori actors in Hollywood movies. I felt so privileged to have this knowledge shared with me. Next up was the Mitai Maori Village, a reconstructed traditional village with an outdoor theater for cultural performances. This is a large group tour, with a Hangi dinner and conert where charismatic hosts act out a traditional way of life.

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Photo Credit: Tamara Demchenko

    Rotorua: There’s Something for Everyone

    In Rotorua, there’s something for everyone, from cultural immersion to active adventures. So between landing in Auckland and pushing your physical limits in Queenstown, consider experiencing this geothermal, natural, and unique wonder!

    I am a native of Minusinsk, Russia, with a passion for all things travel, design and languages. My favorite part of exploring new places is encountering their unique nature, wildlife and beautiful landscapes. My travel experiences also inspire me in my design work, as I look for solutions that are creative and user-friendly. Outside of work, I enjoy adventuring outdoors, classic literature, and skiing.

    June 29, 2018 • Articles, New Zealand, Travels • Views: 3236

  • Best Brekkie Spots in Bondi Beach

    Porch and Parlour

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Porch and Parlour typifies the “local Bondi” breakfast scene – gorgeous customers, beautifully presented food and a chilled-out, bohemian ambiance. The cafe specializes in healthy, wholesome choices. Try and grab a seat at the wooden tables outside for a sweeping view of Bondi’s glistening waters from its north end. A favorite of many is the green brekkie bowl. This bowl is packed with an antioxidant-rich mixture of kale, silver  beet, spinach, coriander, mint and parsley. Quinoa, two soft-boiled eggs, avocado and a slice of lemon are also served with the bowl.

    Trio

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Set on the bustling Campbell Parade, Trio has perfected brunch. Elegant touches, like the seamless white tablecloths, glass water jugs stuffed with fresh mint leaves and polished silverware allow this restaurant to stand out amongst the plethora of eateries along Bondi’s main strip. The menu is brimming with savory and sweet options, and caters to all sorts of eaters. Prime position is out on the sidewalk, which allows you to take in the panoramic views of Bondi Beach. If you can’t get a seat outside, the floor-length windows allow the sea breeze to waft in.

    Brown Sugar

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    Photo Credit: Kathryn Fischer

    This small eatery whips up tasty brunch items with a Mediterranean twist. The black and white checkered floors, dark lacquer tables and chalkboard walls create a contemporary, casual vibe. My top choice from the Brown Sugar menu is the black stone eggs: a fluffy English muffin topped with a hearty slice of bacon, broiled tomatoes and a free-range poached egg. It comes with crispy golden hash brown balls, which knock traditional, bland breakfast potatoes out of the park!

     

    Though I was born and raised in Philadelphia, a city that values tradition, my path of life has been not so standard. I’ve lived on the East and West coasts of the United States, and have ventured over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, studying food and wine in Italy, and working in the travel industry in Australia. Travelling across the globe has allowed me to recognize my true passion: helping others experience this beautiful, yet varied world that we live in. I have a wandering soul that continually urges me to visit new countries, meet new people, and learn new things; I love to adventure to faraway destinations, discovering unfamiliar cultures, and tasting their local cuisine.

    June 11, 2018 • Articles, Australia, Destinations, Kathryn Fischer, Travels • Views: 3790

  • Sky, Land and Water in New South Wales

    BridgeClimb

    Climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge in New South Wales – all the way to the top. You start at street level and then ascend above the cacophony of traffic and city sounds. On the way, your guide will tell you about the structure you are climbing, about its unique and storied history. At the top there is only a soft breeze and a vast, soundless horizon. From here you can hold the Sydney Opera House in the palm of your hand and, if dusk is approaching, watch the sun melt into the water.

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    Explore Chippendale and Redfern

    Few tourists venture into Chippendale and Redfern – neighborhoods that were once slims but are now undergoing an urban revitalization. The architecture is eclectic, the neighborhood’s gritty past pushing up against a future that is smooth and sleek. Locally owned shops line the streets offering everything from coffee to exotic furniture. Wall murals are commonplace and each tells a story. Explore the past, present and future in these relatively unknown but electric areas.

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    From Pot to Plate

    Step on a boat in Byron Bay and venture into the past, experiencing the traditional cultural and hunting practices of the Aboriginal people. At the Terranora Lakes, you leave the boat and wade in the water up to your waist with a spear, trying to spot fish in the clear water against a lush green island backdrop. On the muddy shores, you can find crab to catch. Then, the guides cook them over an open flame. You step back on the boat and are driven to the pots of crab, eating oysters along the way. When you reach the pots, you hail them up one by one and lunch is served.

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    Photo Credit: Max Wasserman

    My passion for travel was triggered by a trip overseas to Italy and it has not faded since. I have always been fascinated by world history and working at Swain Destinations has provided me with an opportunity to see how places with inauspicious beginnings, like Sydney, Australia, have been transformed into cultural and economic hubs, with tourism as its main driver. I enjoy knowing that I play a part in that. When I am not working, you can find me reading and writing and watching films.

    May 23, 2018 • Articles, Australia, Destinations, Max Wasserman, Travels • Views: 2082

  • Insider Tips for South Africa

    My Favorite Lodges

    Selati Pool | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Selati Camp

    Selati Pool | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Selati Camp

    Safari Deck | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge

    Safari Deck | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge

    The Sabi Sabi Lodges are located on a private concession in the Sabi Sand Game Reserve. This private reserve has been offering amazing safari encounters for 35 years. Clients also have a choice of four very different and luxurious accommodation options. They have a romantic, vintage feel at Selati Camp. The truly traditional feel of today at Bush Lodge. The more intimate Little Bush Lodge and Earth Lodge symbolize a new era of lodges for South Africa! A stay at any one of these lodges will offer superb, personalized service with a phenomenal close-up encounter.

    Suite Exterior | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Little Bush Camp

    Suite Exterior | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Little Bush Camp

    Fire Pit | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    Fire Pit | Photo Credit: Sabi Sabi Earth Lodge

    Tintswalo Safari Lodge is located in the Manyeleti Game Reserve. This little gem offers guests totally luxury in a magical setting. Each of the suites has a different African explorer theme bringing in a colonial feel with an extra touch of elegance. Guests are often treated to a view of elephants wandering into camp for a drink of water. You can even have an elephant visit during lunch or tea!

    Exterior | Photo Credit: Tintswalo Safari Lodge

    Exterior | Photo Credit: Tintswalo Safari Lodge

    Safari Dining | Photo Credit: Tintswalo Safari Lodge

    Safari Dining | Photo Credit: Tintswalo Safari Lodge

    Some Quick African Tips

    • Safaris are a major part of any itinerary to South Africa, therefore, it is important that visitors understand they are watching wild animals. Rangers will always give you a briefing before heading out on your first game drive, so be sure to listen and adhere to their guidelines!
    • Never call out to the animals to attract their attention and remain seated at all times.
    • It is always a good idea to take a small backpack to keep your camera, sunscreen, bug spray and other essentials.
    • Always listen to your rangers!
    • No visit to Cape Town is complete without a trip on the Cable Car to the top of Table Mountain. Try to visit first thing in the morning and always check to see if the cable car is running as the weather could affect this. Since it can get windy at the top, be sure to bring some type of jacket. And don’t forget your camera – the photo opportunities are excellent!

    Howzit! I was born in Durban (South Africa), where I started my travel career in 1998. I worked for one of the largest Inbound Tour Operators in Southern Africa before moving to North America in 2006 to work for Swain Destinations. Apart from traveling, I love getting to know people from different walks of life and learning about history and cultures.

    May 23, 2018 • Africa, Anne Ferguson, Articles, Destinations, Property Highlights, Travels • Views: 3748

  • Get Festive in New South Wales

    Vivid Sydney

    Sydney Harbour | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    Sydney Harbour | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    The weather in Sydney in May is absolutely beautiful and the addition of  Vivid Sydney enhances your stay. Vivid Sydney is the world’s largest festival of light, showcasing innovation and creativity across the iconic city. The Sydney skyline, harbor, Opera House and bridge all come alive with bright light installations each night during the festival. This spectacle of light and music transforms the city into an artistic wonderland. You can even view from a private boat on the harbor! I would add an extra day in Sydney to experience it.

    Crystallise Light Installation | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    Crystallise Light Installation | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    Magicians of the Mist | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    Magicians of the Mist | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    New Year’s Eve in Sydney

    New Year's Eve Fireworks | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    New Year’s Eve Fireworks | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    It was my first New Year’s Eve in Sydney, and knowing I would soon be climbing the bridge, sailing under it and seeing the world’s most spectacular fireworks display, had my adrenaline surging. The evening begins cruising around Sydney Harbour for a few hours enjoying champagne and the view. Then, they serve dinner after the first round of mesmerizing fireworks. Finally, right at midnight, the second round of fireworks begins which lasted much longer. The finale could not be put into words. New Year’s Eve in Sydney exceeded my expectations.

    Sydney Harbour Fireworks | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Sydney Harbour Fireworks | Photo Credit: Ian Swain II

    Opera House on New Year's Eve | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    Opera House on New Year’s Eve | Photo Credit: Destination New South Wales

    Handa on the Opera

    Sydney Opera House | Photo Credit: Opera Australia

    Sydney Opera House | Photo Credit: Opera Australia

    Imagine sitting on the edge of the park in the Royal Botanical Gardens, with Opera Australia performing on a floating stage and the famed Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge as the back drop. Each year the performance changes! I suggest taking the VIP package with access to the lounge before and during the intermission. This is not an event to be missed!

    Hosh Carmen Dancer | Photo Credit: Opera Australia

    Hosh Carmen Dancer | Photo Credit: Opera Australia

    Madama Butterfly | Photo Credit: Opera Australia

    Madama Butterfly | Photo Credit: Opera Australia

    This self-described “true blue Aussie” was born in Brisbane and showed a true knack for entrepreneurship. After meeting and marrying Linda, an American with a penchant for international travel, they started Swain Australia Tours (now Swain Destinations) in 1987. Over the course of the next 10 years, Swain Destinations became the largest seller of South Pacific travel on the East Coast.

    May 23, 2018 • Articles, Australia, Destinations, Ian Swain Sr, Travels • Views: 2533