Friday, October 25, 2013

So you're traveling to India...

Tips for Americans in India

A friend and former colleague of Tabitha's contacted her the other day for tips on traveling to India, since she was planning on attending a conference there.  This wasn't the first time we'd been asked a similar question, and fortunately, we had previously prepared a "guide" for our American friends and family who were attending our wedding in Tabitha's home country.

Rashtrapathi Bhavan, New Delhi (kinda like the White House, I think)
This is what we came up with.  First, a few disclaimers:
  • I've only been to India twice, for about a month cumulative time.
  • I was with a native Indian (my wife), who I have quizzed endlessly on differences between here and there, and who speaks two of the most common languages.
  • Unlike some other trips, we planned heavily for both.
  • Despite Tabitha's best efforts, I am largely still an ignorant American.
On our trips we made the most of our time, visiting Chennai, Delhi, Agra, Bangalore, and Kerala, and I'm sure we could spend another month at least before we had been to all of the "must see" places.

So here's our unofficial travel tips.  I've edited it somewhat to make it more general to India, and not just Chennai.

General stuff:
  • You get what you pay for! I will say this again, but the general idea here is that cost generally equals benefit in India.  I feel like if you're an American, you have probably learned the hard way that there is an optimum price point beyond which you're paying too much for too little.  Whether it's the "extended warranty" or the endless list of possible upgrades on that new car you're looking at, you've probably grown cynical of diminished returns.  While I'm not saying you can't find a way to waste your money in India, I am saying that point of diminished returns is much higher, especially when it comes to services (e.g. tour guides) and hotels.  Keep this in mind.
  • Consider getting an international SIM card online or an international plan from your phone company.  India has recently become very restrictive of distributing numbers/SIM cards, even to Indians, and having a phone can really save your day.
  • India is not a homogeneous culture.  At the time of this writing, there are 28 states and 8 territories in India.  I say, "at the time of this writing," because it seems like they're making more every day.
  • There are thousands of minor languages and dozens of major ones.  Because of the British influence, most people at least understand English (so don't think your comments or discussions are private!).  In tourist areas, almost everyone will speak English.
  • The Taj Mahal truly is a wonder of the world.  Unless you're making several trips to India, take the opportunity to see it. 
The Taj Mahal - Don't miss it!

Preparing for the Trip

  • Be safe, be smart.  Just like in the US, there are places that are not safe for, let's say "blog-reading people."  Poverty and crime are a problem, so always be aware of your surroundings and trust your instincts.  
  • Plan your day out in advance. Stay oriented. Know where you're going, how to get there, and how you're going to get back. If you have a phone, make sure you have the number of a cab company.  For the worst case, have the name and number of your hotel so they can send you a car.
  • Stay in tourist-friendly areas.
  • Check for travel advisories for the state and city you're heading to.
  • A note about beggars and street vendors: They’re everywhere in public. Don’t make eye contact, and don’t engage.  A polite “no thank you” or even shaking your head is engaging.  If you give anyone money, you will attract many more, instantly.
  • It’s better if women don’t go out alone.  This was true before the recent headline events involving both tourists and Indian women, and it's probably even more true now.
  • Clothing: Keep in mind that India, despite its Westernization, is still a conservative country, so it's best  to dress appropriately.  As a tourist, curious people will stare at you anyway, so my best advice is don't give them too much to stare at!
If you want to ride a horse on the beach, this is your man.  If you don't, he's still your man.  He really wants you to ride that horse.

How to get an Indian Visa:
Some of the police in India are a little more than just traffic cops.
  • List of vaccines
  • Note that most cities are not rural areas, so unless you are planning on visiting rural areas, you can avoid getting the rural vaccines. It is still a good idea to get the Typhoid vaccine though.
  • You will also need a prescription for an anti-malaria drug.  There are a few, so get the one that has the least side effects (seriously, read the side effects).  It make you sleepy, so I take it with dinner.
It's just like the US...  just a little different.
Credit cards and Money:
  • Most places take credit cards.  Make sure you’ve notified your CC company that you’ll be in India.
  • That said, you should still have local cash on hand.  If your hotel has a cashier they will probably exchange for you.  We were surprised that a local credit union in the US had worse rates than the 5* resort we were at in Kerala, but your mileage may vary.
  • Most consumer goods cost roughly the same in India, maybe a little cheaper.  Handmade things and services usually cost less.
  • A beer at a nice restaurant in India will cost about the same as a beer in a nice restaurant in the US.  A massage, on the other hand, would be much cheaper in India.
  • When we were there, roughly 1000 rupees = 20 USD.
This could be any mall in the US, but it's not!
  • Power in India is 220-240V.
  • Most of your small electronics will do this range, but your plug will be wrong.  You’d need an adapter in these cases.  Read the power brick to see – it should say something like 120-240V.
  • Most of your big electronics won’t do this range.  
  • If your device doesn’t do 240, then you’ll need a converter.
  • But any kind of converter you get will need to be rated to handle the current.  This means that using something that pulls a lot of juice, like a US hair dryer, won’t be worth the trouble.
In the lobby of the Taj New Delhi
Notes about hotels:
  • You get what you pay for! As I said before, this applies to almost everything in India, but the price difference between a barely adequate hotel and a 5* hotel can be as little as $20 per night.  Unlike the US, where affordable (i.e. not cheap, not luxury) hotels are pretty much all the same, so you might as well shop around or make a reservation "sight unseen" on a site like Hotwire, a relatively small amount of money makes a big difference in India.  I cannot emphasize enough: make a list of the best hotels in the area you're staying (Tripadvisor is great for this) and then look for a good deal on those.
  • You will probably get better rates over the phone (i.e. call the hotel in India)
  • They often have “specials” for early bird rentals, or extended stay (3+ days)
  • American hotel chains that are usually 3* are often 4 or 5* in India – check the ratings through a site like
  • The breakfasts at 5* hotels are great.  It’s worth trying to negotiate that into the price of your room.
  • Hotels can negotiate prices and amenities.
  • Many hotels will keep your room stocked with bottled water for free.
  • The best places (e.g. Taj hotels) will learn your patterns and even try to anticipate your schedules.  It's a little creepy at first, but then you may come to like it.
A small sample of  the breakfast buffet at the Lalit Ashok in Bangalore
Good hotel brands:
  • GRT Hotels and Resorts
  • The Residency Group
  • Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces
  • Hyatt Regency
  • Radisson Blu Hotels and Resorts
  • Courtyard by Marriott
  • Trident Hotels
  • Chola Group of Hotels
Rooftop dining in Bangalore
Airline Tickets:
  • For airline tickets, try to shop around for tickets before buying them.
  • Setting up a daily alert from Kayak or Expedia is a good idea and fare changes usually occur on Tuesday nights/ Wednesday mornings.
  • Sometimes travel agencies can get better deals.  Tabitha has used Travel Universe before.
  • Try if you need domestic tickets in India (i.e. you’re travelling around the country after you get there).  They have a US office to help people plan flights in India. 
Tour guides enrich your experience, run interference for you, and make sure you see the best stuff.  Our guide in Agra had a graduate degree in history and cost about $70 for the entire day, car and driver included. 
Tourist Attractions and Guides:
  • If you’re planning on doing any real touristy stuff beyond shopping, e.g. going to a historical place, it’s best to get a guide, especially if it’s half a day or more.
  • They’re not very expensive, they keep you from getting accosted at the tourist places, and they interface with all of the tickets and security people for you.
  • This is especially true if you are traveling to get there - it's better to have everything booked ahead of time and a nice person holding a sign with your name on it when you off the plane or train,  rather than getting accosted by "guides" looking for people who didn't plan.
  • If you’re going to the Taj Mahal especially, we used a good company: Travel Bureau India. We also used their services in Delhi and they were good.
Dining at a Greek restaurant on the 13th floor in Bangalore
Eat, eat and eat! :D
  • There are so many amazing restaurants in every major Indian city with a wide variety of cuisines. 
  • Again, like so many other things, you get what you pay for.
  • Remember not to eat street food (since the water they use to cook the food is of questionable quality) and no matter what, always ONLY drink bottled water. 
  • When in doubt, the better hotels and resorts usually have excellent restaurants.
Stick to beer!  Kingfisher is the most common brand.  Blue is my favorite.
Bars/ Pubs/Drinking:  
  • Most (anywhere nice/good) places will only serve 20ml of liquor in a mixed drink (less than a shot).  For this reason, we suggest sticking with beer and wine.  
  • Indian whiskey is also fairly decent; at least drinking it straight you see how much you’re getting.
  • Liquor stores aren’t like in the US.  They’re basically a desk that you walk up to.  They’re shady, so it’s best to avoid them.
Every bar I've been to gives you tasty snacks when you order a drink.

Shopping for Souvenirs:
  • If you go to enough shops in a city (or really in the entire country) you'll start to notice that most tourist-focused shops have the exact same sort of carvings, weavings, tapestries, etc.  If you have the time, therefore, it's good to price-compare.
  • When walking into any shop, expect more attention than you're accustomed to.
  • Like many countries, if you focus too much on any one piece, they'll assume you want to buy it.  
  • Trust your instincts when haggling.
  • If you can find them, handicraft shops with actual fixed prices exist.  In Chennai, Victoria Technical Institute ( VTI) is a state run store where most of the revenue from sales goes back to the local artisans. Prices here are labeled and non-negotiable.
An auto-rickshaw ("auto") seen from inside an auto

How to get around in the city: 
  • Traffic in India is insane.  Don't even think about driving.
  • Unless you love to bargain with local auto rickshaws, taxis are the easiest and most affordable way to travel.  Good hotels will have cars available too, but they'll be something like 2-5 times as expensive.
  • Cabs should have a meter, whereas the “autos” meter will probably turned off, and they’ll bargain with you for the price.  If you take an auto, you will always pay more than a local, sometimes a LOT more.
  • Your hotel should be able to call you a cab.
  • Many drivers will try to take you to shops to buy souvenirs, because they get a kickback from the shop owner. It is absolutely ok to forcefully say no.
  • If you like your driver, get his contact info (his phone number, not the company's) so you can use him again.
  • Avoid local buses and trains, as they will be extremely crowded.
A meter in an auto.  1,000 Internets to any American who can get a picture of one of these that's actually on!

So that's our list of tips for Americans in India.  How did we do?  What did we miss?  Add your comments below!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Kayaking the Clinch River

Kayaking the Clinch River

So Tabitha and I joined a group centered around water sports in our area.  This past weekend, we had a chance to join twelve other locals for a 10 mile trip down the Clinch River.  I brought my little waterproof camera along for the ride.

Perfect weather
Our trip took us through the Clinch Mountain valley.  The weather was perfect, with a high near 80, plenty of sunshine, and a gentle breeze.

Us in our rented rubber ducky
We don't have any gear of our own (yet), so I was very happy that we were able to rent an inflatable tandem kayak, pfds and paddles from one of the meetup organizers.  I had some experience with a canoe, and with both of us in the same boat it was a good way to get acclimated and comfortable with a kayak.

Two-person inflatable kayak was a challenge to keep moving
The kayak was a beast to keep moving.  It's my understanding that sitting lower in the water as it does makes it slower and more cumbersome.  We got quite a workout just keeping pace with the group.

Veterans Memorial Bridge
We launched in Norris just below Wear's Dam and took out at the Veterans memorial bridge in Clinton.  It was really convenient to have an organized group that had the shuttling back and forth all figured out.
It's true!

Our trip was timed to take advantage of the release schedule of the dam, so that we would both have high water levels and a strong current to help us along.  The release was also what made the water so chilly, and while the inflatable was self-bailing, I was sitting in a puddle most of the trip.  Fortunately the weather was warm, so I didn't mind too much.

Helmets optional!
The river was considered a Class I described by the organizer as "smooth water; light riffles; clear passages, occasional sand banks and gentle curves. The most difficult problems might arise when paddling around bridges and other obvious obstructions."

Clear water
The scenery was exceptional, with clear water down to the bottom at times, beautiful trees, rocks, and hills all around and very little sign of man.  It made me consider how lucky we are to live so close to such places.

Good bunch of people!

The best part of the trip, however, was the excellent company the meetup group provided.  Everyone was friendly and welcoming, and we didn't get any pressure or judgement from anyone, which isn't always the case when you invade the space of others' hobbies.  The fourteen of us, with clearly different backgrounds, all joined together to share a relaxing journey down a lovely river at the perfect time of year.

Stopping for a snack
Overall, it was quite an experience.  The kind that made us want to do more of this activity, and perhaps integrate kayaking into our future travel adventures.

Friday, October 11, 2013

The Acadia iPhone App Is Amazing. (Now go there so you can use it.)

The Chimani::Acadia App

I know there is a shutdown on right now, but whether you're sneaking into national parks to enjoy the empty roads or simply planning a trip for after the stupidity ends, you might want to check this out.

So there we were, in Bar Harbor, when we were inspired to check for Bar Harbor apps on our phone.  And lo, the App Store gods did smile upon us, for we hit on a wonderful app by a company named Chimani.  What follows is my review of this app (on the iPhone - an Android app is also available) and how it helped us make the most out of our time in Acadia.

Chimani::Acadia in the App Store

After downloading from the App Store, open it up.  The first thing you'll notice is there are several pages of buttons for an impressive quantity of features.

A staggering quantity of features
The big thing we used this app for was the "what to do" problem.  There is some good information on the official website for the park, but it's simply not as well-organized or as detailed as Chimani::Acadia.

Open the map, click on a place (e.g. Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail) and see its details

You can open the map and every single data point for the entire park is presented to you.  Click on one, and you can zoom in and read all about it.  It also does a good job showing you the "related" stuff that's nearby.

Related to the Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail - how to drive there, and surrounding trails.

You can also browse by activity, like Hiking, and by area, like Park Loop Road.

Browsing hiking locations by area

With GPS enabled, the map can show your current location (didn't get a screenshot when I was there, but it puts the standard blue maps dot on the screen - you get the idea).  You can also chose to download the data for use offline (~400MB) and still have access to all the information anywhere in the park, which is very useful since most of the park is without cell service.  Together, these were the two most useful features for me.  When navigating around the area, I actually found myself using this app more than the Google Maps app.

On the map screen, click the little button on the top right to download the map data for offline use.  Click the bottom right to show your current location.

Chimani::Acadia is excellent for planning tomorrow's activities as well.  For example, with trail descriptions and difficulty information for every hiking trail, together with an interactive map that uses your current location, it's an excellent resource for picking your next light walk or strenuous climb.

Trail description, difficulty, distance, and time.

Let's say you don't want to be too far from your car - it's great for that too, with an auto touring feature, and parking locations throughout the park.

Auto routes and parking information - no problem

Similarly, it has features for biking, boating, swimming, camping, fishing, birding, restrooms, lighthouses (yes, lighthouses!), and other stuff, all nicely categorized.

Fact: All of the best apps have lighthouse features.

In Acadia, there is so much to do, and after I started looking at the map and browsing all of the activities, I was a little overwhelmed at first.  But, I realized that as you're perusing for your next fun jaunt, you can add them to your Favorites.  What does that do?  It allows you to view your favorites all in one place and then view them (and only them) together on the map!  This is a great way to parse through the crazy amount of options, figure out what you want to do and group and plan your activities in order.  Greater efficiency = (more things done + more free time), right?

Add your favorites, view your favorites, and see them all on one map!

When researching this article, I realized something else - Acadia isn't the only park that Chimani has an app for.  Now I'm not saying that the next national park I visit must have a Chimani app, but I may start checking out the other park apps, and I'll probably learn something about a park from them that I won't want to miss, so it's likely to end up that way.

In conclusion, the Chimani::Acadia app is truly fantastic.  Now go there so you can use it!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Acadia Isn't All: The Places Around Acadia NP

When you're not in Acadia... could still have an entire vacation in the surrounding area.  By now you've read our post on Acadia, but there was really so much going on, we had to make it two (okay, three) separate entries. Here are some of the experiences we had outside of Acadia.

Bar Harbor

Bar Harbor Inn
Bar Harbor is the bigger, more well-known harbor town in the area.  It's full of shops and restaurants, and has a nice ocean-side park space that people hang out in.  Food prices are pretty high, especially for the more attractive places near the water.

Speaking of the water, there are plenty of options for tours of all sorts by boat, including whale watching, deep sea fishing, and a pretty neat looking four-masted schooner.  Tabitha and I had taken our first sailing lessons earlier in the summer, so I've been nursing a growing fascination with sailboats.  Despite us having not planned ahead, Tabitha worked her magic and found a company that still had a couple seats available.  We had the choice between the much larger schooner and a small, antique converted lobster sloop. 

"Tabitha" can be hard to spell
We of course chose the smaller one, and I think we made the right choice.  The person sailing the boat (captain?) was a 20-something-year-old young woman, who clearly knew her stuff.  She was friendly, knowledgeable, and happily answered even our most ignorant questions.

Hosting the sail, I think it's called

The weather was excellent: partly sunny, with enough breeze to move us along but not so much that we couldn't use the full sail.  The sloop was originally a working lobster boat from before the days of diesel, and had a larger-than-normal sail so that the lobstermen could move about even when there was little breeze.

Full sail.  Nice.
What that means typically is that she has to run with a partially-furled sail most of the time.  The boat was made in the early part of the 20th century (I think she said in the 1910s) and had been modified with a small diesel motor for low speeds and to accommodate passengers.

The trip was a 1.5-2 hour tour (thankfully not a three-hour tour - I hear those can be rough), and you could bring a cooler with food and drink.  Sipping a beer on a boat, in the sun, on the water, was simply fantastic.

Four-masted schooner

We saw some harbor porpoises, seals, and quite a few birds as we sailed around the harbor and its islands.  We liked the tour enough that I'll provide a link to it here: Chrissy Lobster Sloop Cruises.

Trying to find an unobstructed view of the harbor was difficult.

The Boston Yacht Club was also in the harbor, which our captain said is a rarity since yacht clubs usually anchor in other nearby harbors that have better shelter, like Southwest Harbor.

This boat is so special it has a big boat with a couple little boats to follow the boat!

Judging from the radio chatter, the harbormaster was much busier than he was used to, and we were able to see quite a few insanely expensive-looking boats as we sailed in and out of the harbor.

Bar Harbor Brewing

Switching to our brew-tourism mode, we made a point to stop in "Bar Harbor Brewing" seen above, and were surprised that this was really just a little shop, a storefront affiliated with Atlantic Brewing Company.  They were nice enough to direct us to the Atlantic Brewing Company base of operations further inland. 

Atlantic Brewing Company

Atlantic Brewing Co. Storefront

Despite the beauty of nature all around us, we couldn't make it through the trip without making the trip to a local microbrewery.  From Bar Harbor Brewing, we traveled directly to Atlantic Brewing Company.  Atlantic has a surprisingly good barbeque restaurant on site called Mainely Meat.  There they serve all of the main Atlantic brews plus a few of their seasonals as well.  The food quality was above average, with generous quantities, and reasonably priced as well, so we ate lunch and celebrated the place as a win while we waited for the next Atlantic tour to begin.

Fermenters have a nice window

Atlantic is a pretty small brewery, but their beer is very solid.  Among my favorites were a blueberry ale that tastes so genuine and unassuming that it solidly blows that Atlanta-based blueberry beer out of the water, a high-gravity honey Belgian that totally rocked our socks off, and a delicious coffee stout.  Don't get me wrong; their "regular" beers were great, too.

On the Atlantic brewery tour

Atlantic's brewhouse is a smaller shop with a handful of fermenters in the 30 BBL range.  It seemed like an open, airy building that I couldn't help but think would probably only work in a cooler clime.  Despite the small size, it's amazing what they are producing.  The tour itself was fairly standard, but you did get to taste most of their brews, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic, most of which we had just tried at lunch.

Their bottling setup.  Don't laugh; we've been to breweries small enough to hand-cap.

On the tour we learned that they had some quality issues in the past, perhaps due to transportation, so they scaled back their distribution area and regrouped.  For the local folks, that is great news.  For those of us way outside their distribution area, it really is a shame.  There are several of their beers that would become regular go-tos for us particularly because of their uniqueness and quality.

Fantastic Blueberry Soda

The skill with which Atlantic incorporates local, fresh ingredients into a widely-varied lineup impressed me the most.  They also make the most sensational blueberry soda I've ever tasted.  We had to snag a six pack and bring some back with us!

Bass Harbor

Bass Harbor

Bass Harbor is west of Acadia, and let me assure you the beauty of the area pervades here as well.  Checking the map for a good place to view the sunset, we settled on Bass Harbor lighthouse, which was fortunate because we also had a friend who asked us to take pictures of lighthouses.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse

The lighthouse was a small affair, but high on a cliff.  The view was excellent, but there were several families who had the same idea as us.  It took me a while to get a good clear shot of the lighthouse.

Watching the sunset at Bass Harbor Lighthouse

This lighthouse is still owned by the US Coast Guard and occupied by a Coast Guard officer and his family.  Pretty cool gig, I figure.  We were actually standing a few feet from their front door.  Most of the kids of the other tourists were playing on their lawn, despite the signs.

With a sign like this I would not be able to resist yelling at kids to "get off my lawn!"

Some of the other folks claimed to have seen a whale, or maybe a dolphin, in the water.  I missed it, but I did snap a quick picture of a bald eagle as it flew into the sunset.  As he flew by before I took the picture, we could see his white head.

Bald eagle at sunset

Some friends were camping in the Bass Harbor area, and we met them at a local restaurant named Cap'n Nemos.  We had previously driven by the place while touring around Bass Harbor, and Tabitha's exact reaction had been something akin to exclaiming, "What is THAT?"  It was all the more ironic that our friends suggested meeting up there the next night!

"What is THAT?"

The decor on the inside of Cap'n Nemos was even more eclectic than these outside photos.  But I didn't take pictures, so you'll have to go see it for yourself!  The food was good, standard Maine fare (I think everyone ordered some variant of fish or shellfish and thoroughly enjoyed it).

Oh, it's Cap'n Nemos

For a local-looking place, the prices were the same as nicer places in Southwest Harbor that we'd eaten at, but the service was good, and we definitely had a good time.  The most popular drinks were the Atlantic Blue and blueberry habanero margaritas. When we walked out after dark, they actually had a little firepit going with people hanging out outside.  Knowing we had a busy day the next day, we didn't stay, but that was something you don't normally see, at a place that was definitely something different.

Wonderland Beach

A friend of Tabitha's is from Maine, and he recommended a nice little hike with a beach that's not very busy with tourists.  Knowing it was a short hike, and on the water, we decided to check it out one day near sunset. 

Wonderland trail to the beach

It's a short hike on a nicely-graded path of about a mile or less to the beach.  As you grow near, you can see the water through the trees.

Wonderland beach - practically deserted

The beach was rocky, with shelly sand at spots.  Plenty of tidepools await on the rocks.  It's more the sort of beach that you go for a walk rather than a swim.

Wonderland beach at sunset

Southwest Harbor

We stayed in Southwest Harbor and there we also dined three of the nights.  Southwest Harbor made a great base for our trip.  It's a pretty little town that's central to most everything: about a 30 minute drive from the main Acadia activities, about the same to Bar Harbor and close to Bass Harbor in the other direction.

Our room at Cafe Drydock & Inn

When traveling to touristy areas, we have come to realize that hotels, while convenient, are often expensive and generally lacking in any character.  For that reason, we often compare hotel prices with local bed and breakfast type places.  

We didn't realize it had a mini fridge - bonus!

In this case, we ended up staying at a nice little inn that cost about the same as a standard hotel room, but it was located in the heart of a nice little New England town, with plenty of food and shops right outside the door.
Remodeled bathroom was excellent

The place was called Cafe Drydock & Inn.  We had a great stay there, and the restaurant was excellent as well.  We saw the bartender making some blueberry martinis with real Maine blueberries, so we had to try some.  They were fantastic!

This is what a Maine blueberry Martini looks like.  To taste one, you'll have to go to Maine!

Coming next...

Next, there is an awesome app for Acadia, and I'll discuss why.