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Travellin' Light!

Anoothi Vishal  |  New Delhi 

Backpacking through Bohemia (though not slumming it out), staying in a tribal longhouse in Malaysia, or taking a cooking vacation in Tuscany, Anoothi Vishal suggests a few unusual holiday activities that you may like to take up this summer.
Our music columnist Craig Fernandes, young and adventurous and not just with regard to his music, currently in Australia, had this to say when I asked him about any unusual holidays that he or people he knew had recently taken: "I'm not so sure if this qualifies," he said, "but my brother and his wife, who live in a suburb in Mumbai, did sort of take a holiday in the Mumbai city (Churchgate) area in Bombay about two weeks ago."
What I had expected was more on the lines of, say, a stay with Aboriginals at the (that Tourism Queensland is promoting this season). Or, at the very least, a legit tour of those picturesque vineyards.
But I suppose "unusual" does have many interpretations. And if Craig's relatives spent a not-so-ordinary day living it up in a hotel and exploring their own city at their own pace, maybe that qualifies as well.
On the other hand, if this summer you are looking to move away from the tedium of package tours that jolly Indian families always seem to opt for, garrulously scouting for kadhi and gobhi aloo even under alien skies, there are several options available: From communal living in Malaysian longhouses to "backpacking" through Scandinavia (but not slumming it out) to gourmet cooking vacations in Tuscany, live out your dream.
Trupti Sethia, an 18-year-old student of mass communication based in New Delhi, did just that a few months ago. She went on a 25-day backpacking trip crisscrossing southern Europe "" to Rome, Venice, Florence, Munich, Switzerland, Nice and Paris.
Sethia and a cousin, not much older, decided to eschew the traditional family vacations they take every year "" to places like the "US and Australia, Mauritus and New Zealand" "" and go off on their own after chancing upon Backpacker Co. (www.thebackpackerco.com), a Mumbai-based travel company that encourages people to get away from the organised tyranny of package tours and explore local cultures, modes of transport and cuisines at their own pace.
"It was all great fun," says Sethia. "The best part was that we met people we wouldn't have otherwise, and even when the airline lost all our luggage and we were stranded with very little cash and no change of clothes, it was fun!"
Lost baggage may not be your idea of fun, particularly if you are moving cities and countries every two-and-a-half days, but Sethia's backpacking experience came with safety nets which can be comforting without being intrusive.
As part of the arrangements, Backpacker Co. put her in touch with a group of 10 people also making similar trips through the same countryside, at the same time. While no one was bound by anyone else's programme and everyone chose their own hostels (common dorms), "it was good to have some company," as Sethia says. Like-minded people moved around taking in sights, "eating wherever we wanted to" and often partying together night after night.
It, of course, helped that the group comprised mainly 25-35-year-olds "mostly professionals, a few students and some very rich people who wanted a different experience". They camped in Switzerland and beer-crawled in Munich, high on lager shots but when someone wanted to abandon the itinerary, they did just that. Sethia took off for Paris instead of Rome, while a fellow backpacker headed to Switzerland "when she didn't like the dorm in Nice". A hop-on/hop-off bus service every alternate day helped. The cost: Rs 1-1.5 lakh per person, all inclusive.
Antara, who works in a KPO in Gurgaon, also went on a similar vacation"" alone ""earlier this year to Italy. Except that she chose "deluxe" accommodation "" living in more upmarket hotels "" for two weeks, reserving the "adventure" of hostels for the last one week. "I saved a lot of money, besides there was time to do what I wanted. If I wanted to see a museum in-depth, I could do so on my own time without having to go shopping with anyone else."
She counts a more international profile of people, "not the usual Gujarati families", and visits to off-the-map places like Pompeii and Verona, as advantages of backpacking and assures us that there are, indeed, very few dangers lurking around for single women travellers.
Yogesh Shah, CEO, Backpacker Co., who founded the company three years ago as a labour of love (he and his wife Suchna, who used to fly Singapore Airlines, would take off on trips round the world "doing things ourselves" all the time till they made it their business) insists that backpacking is not at all about slumming it out, merely about independent travel. "A £20 hostel in Scotland is fairly plush," he says.
Many top honchos as well as enthusiasts from the world of television and films are part of Shah's 5,000-strong community. "And we have more women backpackers than men," he adds; "just now, for instance, I was talking to this lady who wants to go to Peru on her own." You could do the same.
Or else go for the Bull Run, the traditional festival in Pamplona, Spain, that's being offered up next. Besides, there's The Bohemian Trek, backpacking through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic, with some of the best Alpine drives in Europe, the best party spots, horse-riding over Transylvanian plains, Sarajevo city walks, the lot. Choose your pick.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, last year 8.33 million Indians travelled overseas. Of these, about 30 per cent "can be attributed to unusual or exotic travel", says Karan Anand, head-business development, Cox and Kings (India), one of the largest tour operators in the country. Anand points out that typically, "Travellers begin with closer and popular destinations like South-east Asia, slowly graduating to UK, US, Australia and other European countries.
Once they've exhausted these, the travellers, now bolder, look for excitement and atypical destinations. This could be in the form of unusual destinations or unusual experiences in a familiar destination." Some "exotic" destinations currently popular in this sense are Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, Peru, Morocco and Scandinavia, according to Anand.
Obviously then, while you can take package tours to Jordan or Machu Picchu, opt for castle stays in Ireland by way of unusual holidays, not to mention choosing plush Ferrari vacations, now being popularised by luxy tour operators whose tribe too is growing, there are other experiences that you may have to simply Google for.
Gourmet vacations is a concept that is hugely popular in the West, particularly with American tourists. So there are countless websites that you will find suggesting these in Italy, Morocco, Spain, France et al. Lately, India and China too, with their wonderful and elaborate culinary traditions, have made it to the map with more and more Western tourists seeking out local "master chefs" and kitchens.
However, if you are an Indian looking to spend time in a chateau "" because, of course, these too can be hired in Tuscany and Umbria and elsewhere "" and dabble in pastas and polentas, wine and music, a good place to begin would be the website www.cookingvacations.com.
Apart from classes held by chefs and wine experts (using only organic, local produce), food trips, vineyard tours and wine tastings, and marketplace visits throughout Italy are provided. The programmes are hosted at beautiful properties and include excursions to undiscovered areas, including villages and historical areas. You can also meet local people: artisans, wine producers, fishermen, truffle hunters and bakers.
According to Lauren Birmingham, representative of the company, their main clients come from the US, Canada, England and Australia, but, of late, Indians are making an appearance too. Bestsellers include packages such as the "Secret Garden Positano" "" cooking on the Amalfi Coast with a charming bed and breakfast in a garden perched on a cliff in a private estate and chefs taking you through the Med cooking style in the cantina kitchen. Daily classes start at $225 per day and full-week programmes range from $995-2,800.
There's nothing quite like armchair travel though and browsing through the Net for the benefit of this story threw up a rather interesting website by way of www.rareretreats. com that invites bravehearts to spend a night in an igloo (never mind ice hotels in Lapland, also deemed trendy), to the ultimate castaway experience on a secluded island (Cousine Island, Seychelles; you can book the entire island with its four villas for Euros 5,500, for a maximum of eight people), to stays in windmills and lighthouses and Bedouin-style tents. There's direct access to all the hotels' reservation systems.
Reservation is certainly available as Tourism Malaysia seeks to popularise its "quirky holidays" in India: Spend a night in a traditional Iban longhouse along the rivers of Sarawak and Sabah, home to one of the world's rare tribes. If you've done the KL/ Langkawi routine, this is the experience that may draw you to Malaysia again. Longhouses are really entire villages housed under a single long roof "" often decorated with skulls of ancestors "" where old rituals, forms of entertainment and way of living still exist.
Just a few of these houses are left and one of the most famous and interesting is Bavanggazo near Kudat. You can choose to stay here, participating in rice wine brewing, songs and dance and spiritual pursuits "" unless you chicken out and decide to stay in guest houses and resorts that have now come up nearby. In the rain forests, you go back in time. But are you game?

OTHER UNUSUAL OPTIONS

Night jungle walk in the old rainforests of Tamara Negara, Malaysia: Look for magic mushrooms that glow in the dark or go for a canopy walk. The skyhigh platform, hanging from treetops, is only about a foot wide. You have to literally catwalk because you may just topple over (though there have been no accidents so far). The views are amazing and the walk is not one long walkway but separated into six-seven walkways.

Kite Surfing in Spain: This is one of the latest extreme sports involving racing over water on a surfboard propelled by a kite. Experts can achieve speeds of 80 km per hour and leap into air to perform somersaults up to 40 m from the water's surface. Kites range in size from 5 sq m to 15 sq m. A small entry level kite costs 500 Euros and a top brand large kite can cost around 2,000 Euros.

The sport can be quite dangerous since surfers can be carried out into the Atlantic on a strong "levante" wind. A three-day course at one of the many licensed schools costs around 250 Euros. The Red Bull Skyride Tarifa is an annual event that takes place at Playa los Lances, Tarifa, during the summer, attracting the best kite surfers.

Safari submarine ride in Mauritus: Explore the Indian Ocean in complete safety. The Betty of Mascareignes takes you down 35 m to deep blue ocean waters. A rare experience topped with an on-board gastronomic lunch, champagne and canapes. The average cost of this experience is 3,500 Mauritian rupees per person for two hours.

Buddhist Temple Stay in Korea: There are more than 900 temples nestled in the mountains. Visitors can experience the life of Buddhist monks. Established in 2002, a Temple Stay is a cultural experience programme designed to help people understand Korean Buddhism. Other activities can be included "" making lotus lanterns, sutra prints from woodblocks, learning Buddhist martial arts (Seonmudo). Book on the official website of Korea.

First Published: Sat, June 07 2008. 00:00 IST
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