Where the streets have no name
New Zealand, we said a couple of weeks ago, is where all the action is. The youngest country on earth—as it likes to call itself because of the ongoing geothermal and volcanic activity—is also a spectacular destination for adventurous drivers. Imagine miles of traffic-free roads, wide open spaces and all kinds of conveniences for road travellers and you’ll just be scratching the tip of the pyramid of reasons to do NZ by road.
To make the idea even more irresistible, Thomas Cook takes out the drudgery of flight bookings, car rentals and insurance by bundling them in a new package. Focused on South Island, the six-night/seven-day deal kicks off in the city of Christchurch and then plots your way through Mount Cook—NZ’s highest point—adventure capital Queenstown, the scenic route of the West Coast and into the glacier township regions of Franz Josef and Fox. Perhaps more than any other country in the world, NZ is geared to gift visitors with unforgettable experiences—and whether it’s bungee jumping in Queenstown or cruising in Lake Wakatipu that gets your adrenalin flowing, the freedom of being able to do it at your own pace will make it a truly unforgettable holiday.
Port of call: The MSC Fantasia
There’s a catch of course: The package is available for just three more days, till 31 March. And it can be availed of only this May. The six-night/seven-day self-drive package costs Rs69,990 per person and includes ex-Mumbai return economy airfare on Singapore Airlines, New Zealand visa fees, three-star accommodation with breakfast, car rentals and insurance.
Best of all? Your Indian driving licence is valid in New Zealand. And they even drive on the left of the road. For further details, contact Thomas Cook on 1-800-2099-100.
The bag on your back
You’ve been hearing about it: that this is the best possible time to “do” Europe, when continental currencies are floundering and the rupee is relatively rock steady. Yet you’re not quite in the mood to splash out. Ever thought of backpacking? Suchna and Yogesh Shah, the wanderlust-y couple heading The Backpacker Co., have a brand new summer itinerary that’ll encourage you to brush up your basic history and Hungarian. Based on the concept that travellers need guidance and not obsessive handholding, they plan a basic schedule and then leave plenty of time in which you can do your own thing. So, if you’re repelled by the idea of visiting the human-bone church at Kutna Hora and just want to read a book on a park bench, you can, without fear of sour looks and short-changing.
The tour covers Prague (Czech Republic), Olomouc (Czech Republic), Auschwitz (Poland), Krakow (Poland), Zakopane (Poland), Budapest (Hungary) and, somewhat anti-climatically, Zurich (Switzerland).
To add on some completely different flavours, you could start from Athens and the fabled Greek islands of Mykonos and Santorini before joining the Prague party. Cost: Rs1.05 lakh (Prague) and Rs1.59 lakh (Athens and Prague), including ex-Mumbai airfare, visa and insurance charges, hostel accommodation, some tours and entrance fees and all on-ground transport. For more details, visit www.thebackpackerco.com
On Land and Water
Cox and Kings has some never-before flexi-deals that give you the freedom to decide how you spend your holiday and your money. Whether it’s Lucerne-Interlaken-Geneva/Zurich; London-Glasgow-Edinburgh; London-Paris; Nice-Monte Carlo-Paris; Rome-Florence-Paris; Prague-Vienna-Budapest or Athens-Mykonos-Santorini, seven days and six nights at each of these combinations are yours for the taking at Rs39,990 (without airfare) or Rs56,990 (including flights).
We suggest, though, that you go for either the Mediterranean or the Scandinavian deals which, for the same fare structure, throw in seven nights on a cruiseship and an additional night in Barcelona or Copenhagen, respectively. On board the MSC Fantasia (Mediterranean) and MSC Orchestra (Scandinavia), expect open-air jogging decks, fitness trainers, personal grooming salons and entertainment
options galore. Try not to wear yourself out having a good time on board though, because the Fantasia docks at Barcelona, Marseille, Genoa, Naples, Palermo, Tunis and Palma de Mallorca. In Scandinavia, the halts include Copenhagen, Kiel, Stockholm, Tallinn and St Petersburg. Log on to www.coxandkings.co.in for information on all the deals.
Ups and downs in the valley
Where does conservation end and responsible tourism begin? At Ecosphere, a four-year-old collaborative effort between the local community of the Spiti valley in Himachal Pradesh and diverse professionals, which was recently awarded the 2008 Responsible Tourism Award by Wild Asia, they know there are no easy answers.
Lounge spoke to Ishita Khanna, one of the founders of Ecosphere, who was voted MTV Youth Icon 2008. Edited excerpts:
What is the focus of Ecosphere’s tourism initiative?
Ecosphere’s tourism initiative started in 2004 and it was formally adopted by the organization in 2006. It began with home stays and then expanded into other programmes. Home stays benefit only a few families, which tend to be slightly better off anyway. We look to not just create new cash- based livelihood opportunities but do this in a way that is conducive to the local environment and helps locals adapt to the effects of climate change, such as drought, soil erosion and flooding.
One with nature: Khanna enjoying a yak safari. Ecosphere
You offer yak safaris. How does that tie up with your ideas?
Yaks free-graze over the summers and we came up with the idea of yak safaris as a way of putting them to use. Visitors like to go and see pasture lands, and yaks come in handy in areas where jeeps can’t go and for those who can’t trek at low-oxygen altitudes of 12,000-16,000ft. There are a number of trekking routes and we also offer camping in pasture lands.
Ecosphere says 50 households in five villages have benefited from your programmes in 2005.
Yes—this is primarily through the income from home stays, but that is not all. Local architecture is fast disappearing in Manali and in places like the Spiti headquarters as well—and, with it, the cultural feel of the area, which is a big reason why a tourist goes there in the first place. We select only traditionally built houses for home stays. And, at least in the villages where we work, the building of concrete guest houses has stopped.
Responsible travel is not just about fair income for the locals. We plough back the money we get into conservation work. Villages have also invested their earnings by doing things such as building garbage dumps.
You’ve taken up the locally reviled Himalayan wolf as well.
According to the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, the critically endangered Himalayan wolf is the oldest surviving wolf species in the world, going back 800,000 years. It is also one of the most hated animals in Spiti as it kills livestock en masse—in 2007 alone, wolves killed 180 heads of livestock. Nature trails, we hope, will bring about an attitudinal change: Boys who hunted wolves now escort tourists for wolf-sightings, thus forging an economic linkage.
Has Ecosphere also established a fossil centre?
Spiti is geologically very rich as it was under the sea at one time. Our fossil centre in the Langza village in Spiti valley is also part of an awareness-building drive among locals. We are developing mud fossil replicas for tourists so that they don’t take away actual fossils.
We’re also working on an English-to-local-dialect dictionary, eight sheets of paper meant to facilitate communication with tourists. Most people in Spiti know Hindi (so that’s an advantage).
How does sustainable tourism fit in with Ecosphere’s overall goals?
Ecosphere’s main objective is to develop sources of livelihood that are conducive to the area’s nature and culture. Spiti opened up to tourism in the mid-1990s and our goal is to link up tourism to conservation—of wildlife, the local environment and even culture.
For instance, we have developed the solar shower and solar geyser, which are useful for both locals and tourists. There are designated bathing areas for women. We have designed solar-passive houses (“passive” because the heat is trapped and stored for night- time, when the temperatures go down) where fuel wood consumption for heating in the winters has come down by half. It involves simple techniques such as painting the outer walls black, and attaching greenhouse structures made out of poly sheets and wood frames to rooms.
Ishita Khanna will give a talk, Spiti Ecosphere: Travel, Adventure, and Conservation in the Himalayas, at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, at 7pm on 2 April.