A Foodie's Guide To The Taste Of Kerala

We covered foods of Punjab last week, and now it's time to fly a thousand miles south to Kerala’s coconut based cuisine, one of India’s most delicious, if you don't mind a little spice to light up your palette. You may choose to plan an exclusive gourmet trail across Kerala and neighbouring states with our India travel experts, but even if you don't, food will form a very large part of your overall South India experience. An overview: Kerala food is famous for its coconut in (almost) everything, and includes a number of food types not eaten much elsewhere in India, such as cassava, a staple right alongside rice. Whilst seafood tends to dominate, the large number of Christians and Muslims in Kerala means that beef is never far away. Some parts of the state, including Travancore and Northern Malabar, however, specialise in vegetarian dishes, using a lot of bitter gourd and plantain. Tamil influences are apparent across Kerala with the popularity of idli, sambar and dosa, very popular as breakfast foods. Malabar has drawn on the biryanis of the North, but has transformed them into the popular Thalassery Biryani, which reflects Thalassery’s ancient and medieval trading links with the middle-east. By contrast South Kerala’s food shows the influence of Syrian (or St Thomas) Christians believed to be India’s oldest Christian community. Here you go. Take our word for it; these are must-try dishes that are an imperative part of your Kerala vacation experience. Tip: if spice is not your thing, emphasise that you prefer your food medium or non-spicy. To omit that would be like saying, “Challenge accepted.” Don’t say we didn’t warn you. First, a little crash course in pancakes (excellent probiotic substitutes for garden-variety bread), designed for the entire oeuvre of Kerala gravies . Puttu: Popular in the north of the state. If you don’t see it on the menu, ask for it; a little fermented food is a great way to beat the tropical heat, light, probiotic, nutritious and tasty. It’s just a cylindrical steamed rice cake cooked with coconut shavings, usually served with a gravy of black chickpeas. Appam:A showstopper in its own right. Just another rice pancake, in a different avatar, soft and thick in the centre and crispy paper-thin at the edges; enhances any gravy, any stew, any meat or vegetable. Great to have on any lunch or dinner table; keep them coming until that last drop of gravy is mopped up. Ghee Dosa with Kerala Style Sambar: It is not a wonder that Dosa is listed among 'World's 50 most delicious foods' (CNN Travel), right up there with Spain’s paella and Mexican tacos. Made from fermented rice and lentils, it’s the ghee (clarified butter) in which it is lightly roasted to a crisp that makes it one of the world’s finest comfort foods. Idi-appam: Another innovation from the ‘appam’ family. Aka Noolappam, this one’s made of rice flour, salt and water. Its thicker texture, made from interwoven 'straws' makes it a better sponge for gravies and curries. On to the main course:Nadan Kozhi Varuthathu aka Spicy Chicken Fry: We wouldn’t really put chicken up on any must-eat list, but it’s the way it is cooked in Kerala that will make even the most hardened disbeliever of chicken weep with joy. Soft, succulent pieces stir-fried in onion, garlic, chilli, vinegar and garnished with coriander. Remember the tip we gave you about anything in Kerala that has the word ‘spicy’ in it. Kerala Prawn Curry: After you’ve had this, you may want to try the recipe back home. Without going too much into detail, it’s simply prawn curry garnished with chilli, salt, pepper, stirred in a whole lot of coconut milk (with traces of jaggery), and finished off with curry leaves. Kallumakkaya Ularthiyath or Mussel Stir Fry: It’s true; everything that comes from the sea tastes delicious. Mix it up with shallots, garlic, chillies, turmeric, other ground herbs and spices, a healthy fistful of grated coconut, and we dare you to remember where or when these succulent little molluscs tasted better. Erissery or Pumpkin and Lentil Stew: Healthy, nutritious, vegetarian! Mop this up with any member of the appam family. Balances out an overload of non-vegetarian food Naadan Beef Fry or Kerala Style Beef Fry: Another dish that will make you weep with joy. And with spices, if you underestimate your chilli tolerance. Soft and succulent, these morsels of fresh beef are cooked in a paste of aromatic herbs, black pepper, ginger, garlic and mustard seeds, and topped off with the ubiquitous curry leaves. Travellers have been known to have pleasant and recurring dreams of this dish. Kerala style Fish Moilee/Moily: A rare occasion where a dish in Kerala is delicately spiced, with a tangy coconut, kokum combo (kokum, folks, is a delicious member of the tamarind family, used in ancient Ayurveda as a natural astringent, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacteria and anti-carcinogenic agent). And it tastes delicious. Kerala Oysters: The piece-de-resistance of coastal cuisine! Large, plump, bursting with zinc and other goodness. Perhaps the only dish the Kerala chefs decided to leave well enough alone, no spices except for lime and tabasco, to be had straight up. Just so you can compare these to any oysters anywhere else in the world, and give your nod of approval.Vegetarians, don’t feel left out; there are lots of vegetarian versions of all of the above curries and gravies. But if you really wish to deep-dive into traditional pure-veg Kerala food, then the sadhya is for you. Served on the religious occasion of Onam, the joyous harvest festival celebrated all over Kerala (approximately August-September on the English calendar), this is the full-on gastronomic (vegetarian) experience, that, for full authenticity, we recommend you eat with your hands. Don’t worry; spoons and forks are an option as well.And finally, a dessert to cool off the palette.Payassam:A bowlful of sweetness, composed of milk, coconut extract, sugar, cashews and dry grapes. Perfect for restoring the slightly scalded taste-buds. Well, there you have it. Spicy, passionate, varied, and a treat for the senses, much like the state that inspired it. Bon apetit!  

Beyond Sushi: An Essential Japan Food Guide

Japan is home to arguably the finest cuisine in the world, and our local Japan experts can customise an incredible food and drinks itinerary for you. Japanese cuisine is more than just fresh, high quality ingredients; it is equally known for its meticulous artistic presentation that pleases the eyes as much as the palette. Like many of the world's illustrious cuisines, Japanese food celebrates and highlights the flavours, textures and colours of seasonal produce.If you are in Japan, chances are you've had your fill of sushi and ramen already; they’re all the rage, brimming over with nutritional goodies and that all-important feel-good factor, but there is way much more to authentic Japanese cuisine than just raw fish, sticky rice and meaty broths.Here’s a look at other prize-winners of Japan’s food scene that deserve mention and are often overlooked.UdonThis thick wheat noodle, often hand-rolled (not to be confused with ramen) comes in many varieties. A bowl of Udon noodles can either be served cold with a dipping sauce, stir-fried, or most often in a hot, mild broth made of mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine), dashi (a traditional Japanese soup stock made from kombu - dried kelp, skipjack tuna flakes, and irikoniboshi – baby sardines/anchovies), and soy sauce. It's most usually topped with fried meat or seafood, scallions and kamaboko (fish cakes). It's a great meal for any time of the day, wholesome and nutritious; udon outlets may not be as numerous as ramen outlets, but keep your eyes peeled and you will find them. If the ‘best udon bowl’ is something you’re looking for, then Yamamoto Menzou in Kyoto is the place to experience these sleek, smooth handmade noodles, rolled and cooked to perfection.TonkatsuWhether you wish to eat it with Japanese curry, over a bowl of rice with egg and vegetables katsudon-style (a hybrid dish, which pairs the tonkatsu and its sweet, vinegar-y sauce with a rice bowl), or just by itself, this breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet is a prize-winner. Tonkatsu is made with all-purpose pork loin,but in Japanit is made with kurobutapork from Kagoshima that is specifically bred for the making of Tonkatsu, giving it a whole different level of tender juiciness.The dish is very common in Japan as a quick finger-food snack or a full meal. Strongly recommended with cold beer (or cold sake) on a warm summery day.TempuraTempura is a tasteful blend of vegetables and seafood. But what makes tempura different from other fried fare is a) its unique batter made from beaten egg, flour and cold water, and b) a substantially lower grease-quotient despite being deep-fried. Chilli oil or spices may be added in its preparation. Dip these golden bites into tentsuyu(dipping sauce)with grated daikon(winter radish) or sprinkle a little matcha salt on them. If you’re in Tokyo, make sure you visit Kondoto get the best tempura dining experience, where chefs prepare everything in front of you, served directly from pot to plate.Fugu fishEating fugu is regarded as a luxury, and we recommend everyone try it at least once in their life. It has an indescribable taste. It's mysterious, it's delicious (we emphasize, it’s really delicious!). This authentic dish requires not only authentic ingredients but also authentic skills. Fugu can only be prepared by highly trained chefs with a minimum 3-year apprenticeship under a masterchef. Fugu contains a colourless lethal toxin called tetrodotoxin, found mostly in its organs. Serving it up is a composite work of art. The 6 deaths per year attributed to it are largely due to untrained, domestic preparations. In the hands of an expert, you are more in danger of death-by-falling-piano than by eating this marvelous dish.Matsusaka BeefJapan loves beef in any shape, or form. Boiled, grilled, or fried, the Japanese just can’t get enough of cow. While you may have heard of ‘Kobe beef ‘, the most popular beef around, there is another variety considered by food critics to be superior in flavour: the mouth-watering Matsusaka Beef.These are typically cooked at high heat to bring out the full-range of flavours and nutrition. Head to the Wadakin in Matsusaka, well-known throughout Japan and widely considered the home of Matsusaka Beef. Here you can dine in a tatami mat room with your very own cook and a charcoal fireplace in the center of the table.YakitoriThese skewers of grilled meat are made from different parts of chicken, beef or pork such as the breast, thigh, skin, liver and other succulent organs and cooked over charcoal. The best yakitori is served at specialty restaurants, known as yakitori-ya, but it can also be found at other restaurants across Japan, such as izakayas (local Japanese-style pub), and at festival food stands.Sata AndagiWe couldn’t forget dessert now, could we? Try the Sata Andagi – Japan’s answer to a good doughnut. This famous and delicious Okinawan sweet is as delicious as it is simple: a batter of flour, sugar and eggs rolled into balls and deep fried, a staple at food stalls and festivals. Fresh out of the fryer and eaten piping hot, these sugary delights are on most dessert menu, served with fresh fruit or a scoop of yam ice cream. Oddly enough, some restaurants also pair them with spicy veggies.OnigiriOnigiri is a famous Japanese snack that has gained popularity all around the world. It is rice, mostly shaped into a triangle, or into a ball, and stuffed with ingredients like umeboshi (pickled plum), ikura (salmon roe), karaage (fried chicken), kakuni (braised pork), and shiozake (flakes of salted salmon). You can find them at convenience stores and food-sections of malls; look for them at train stations, they’re the ideal snack for when you’re on the go.Sake Tasting & BreweriesIf sake is an acquired taste, then the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have acquired the taste and those yet to acquire it. Going on a private sake tour through Takayama's breweries (considered an important highlight of Japan) with a local expert is the best way to discover the different varieties of sake through tastings and explanations. In many parts of Japan, you can also visit a sake brewery to learn how it is made, along with all the factoids about its fascinating traditions you never knew and didn’t know whom to ask.So pack your chopsticks and celebrate thousands of years of food artistry by diving into one of the world’s most elegant, eclectic and harmonious cuisines. 

Travel tips for Peru

Peru is a land of contrasts, of windy lofty peaks and warm sultry plains, ancient civilizations and large modern cities, a blend of cultures from ethnic Indian, colonial Spanish to a mélange of Asian influences. We don't want you to miss out on anything this Andean country has to offer; here are a few first-timer tips to help you blend, belong, and get the most out of your Peruvian vacation. But before we get started, its important to realize that your trip itinerary matters just as much as your personal preparation. Get in touch with our operators to create your own custom trip or, browse our Trip Ideas and leave the rest to us!  Learn basic Spanish words
While most tour guides and hotel staff will be able to communicate in English, locals such as taxi drivers are less likely to understand you. Read up on some basic Spanish words & numbers, or perhaps consider having a phrasebook handy and you will enjoy a better, more immersive experience in Peru. 
Following are some very basic phrases that you may find helpful: 
EnglishSpanishHelloHolaGood MorningBuenos DiasGood AfternoonBuenas TardesGood NightBuenas NochesDo you speak English?Hablas ingles?I don't speak SpanishNo hablo españolThank youGraciasWhere is...?Donde Esta?How much does it cost?Cuanto cuesta?Do you have vegetarian dishes?Tienes platos vegetarianos?SorryLo sientoExcuse meDisculpe Keep cash handyWhen travelling, cash is king. Whether you are shopping for souvenirs, buying groceries, eating at a street stall or taking public transport, you can never go wrong with having some loose change on you. Even the places that advertise their acceptance of VISA & MasterCard often prefer to settle the dues in cash. Some businesses may accept dollar bills, but usually in smaller denominations and only if they are in prime condition; keeping Peruvian Soles handy is definitely the better option. 
  When to Go 
 Peru has both high mountains and low-lying coastal areas, creating a vast variation in weather throughout the country. The coastal region has a generally mild climate, pleasantly warm in the summer, and not uncomfortably cold in winter. Note that summer is low season in the rest of Peru, down in the Amazon and up in the Andes, but the beaches and Lima city still attract tourists. The forest region (Amazon Basin) is hot and humid all year round with a fair amount of rain – the typical traits of a rainforest. The highlands are naturally cooler, and the dry summer months from May to September are the best time to visit the region and trek to Machu Picchu. The rains begin after this and last well into March, making hiking a dangerous and tedious task. Altitude Sickness 
 Many areas in Peru are situated at a height (with Lake Titicaca at a staggering altitude of 12,420 ft.) and altitude sickness can be a very real thing. To make sure you acclimatize well, take things slow for the first day or two. Don’t overexert yourself, push back on the alcohol & tobacco, and get lots of sleep. Staying hydrated is also one of the top tips to beating the altitude (and the heat!) along with sipping the country's famous Coca Tea or “Mate de Coca”. Some locals swear by chewing on coca leaves to keep altitude-related ailments at bay, so give it a go! 
If you do experience serious altitude sickness however, consider descending to a lower altitude altogether. 
  Layer Up 
 As mentioned earlier, climate can vary significantly in Peru. While you may need to bundle up in the Andes, you may brown yourself to a crisp down on the coast. This makes it very important to have several layers, rather than one thick winter jacket, enabling you to be comfortable in any and all weather changes that Peru may throw at you. Consider carrying a waterproof jacket or umbrella along as well, just in case. Wear comfortable shoes, preferably sneakers, especially if you intend to explore Cusco and Machu Picchu. 
  Don’t skip Lima 
All flights fly in and out of Lima, but the city often tends to be overlooked as anything more than a convenient point of entry. Lima is gorgeous; the city has plenty to offer, especially if you’re a foodie. It is not for nothing that it is regarded as the gastronomical capital of the Americas. The knockout architecture, both colonial and modern, is a bonus. Don’t skip Lima. 
  Ceviche & Pisco 
 With Lima being the gastronomical capital of the Americas, it is no surprise that the Peruvian cuisine is an absolute delight. But the most famous dishes have to be the Ceviche - raw fish marinated typically in lime juice - and Pisco – a traditional Peruvian wine brandy, usually served with key lime juice, sugar, egg whites & Angostura bitters, the whole concoction known as the Pisco Sour. Non-drinkers need not fret - Peru offers great non-alcoholic beverages too - try the Chicha Morada: a Peruvian summer favourite made of purple corn. Vegetarians can also expect to find Ceviche made of vegetables, along with plenty of other options in the land of 3,000 types of potatoes! 
Check out our Flavors of Peru trip for the true foodie experience in Peru. Inca Trail 
 The Inca Trail isn’t easy. But if you are a fit, can-do kind of a family, then it is nothing short of a once-in-a lifetime experience you will be talking about for a long time to come. This long hike to Machu Picchu lasts four days, and we think the sweat and effort is most definitely worth it. The views are simply stunning, and the bonhomie you will share with other trekkers is palpable; indeed, a potential to make friends for life. You can also hire a porter to carry your personal belongings, thereby supporting a local family, and making your hike easier! There is also the option of scrapping the hike altogether and taking the train. 
If you do intend on doing the hike without porters however, consider training a little in advance to amp up your fitness level. 
 There you have it, the secrets to a great Andean getaway. Peru has it all, whether you wish to just eat, drink and relax, or embark upon a great adventure with a local travel expert in Peru; the home of the ancient Inca civilization is definitely a must visit. 

Things To Do With Kids In Iceland

Remote and aloof, shrouded in myth and legend, Iceland may not, at first, jump out as the ideal destination to take the kids for a vacation. But can that be really true in a country whose citizens secretly believe in elves? Read on to find out why Iceland rocks as the perfect kid-friendly vacation spot: 1) The Blue LagoonThe poster-child of Iceland, much like the Taj Mahal for India; no travel brochure or website is complete without it. Touristy, yes, but we cannot emphasize how much your trip to Iceland will be incomplete without it, especially if you are traveling with kids. It’s just a massive swimming pool, really, except it’s all bubbling geo-thermal ground water, clean, organic, with a loamy bottom, and fairly bursting with therapeutic goodness. If it wasn’t for a few man-made buildings around (changing rooms, restaurants and toilets)... ...you are, for all intents and purposes, in an all-natural mini-lake smack in the middle of lava fields. While the kids frolic in the warm waters (with or without floaties), there are convenient pool bars for the adults to swim up to and have a brew or two under that great big Icelandic sky. Try the face-packs (arrayed by the side of the pool, or just dive down to the bottom and scoop your own)... ...a goodie-filled gloop of silica (excellent exfoliation) and nourishing algae that will wipe off all ravages of flying and jetlag.2) The Fuss About A Foss: Iceland's Iconic Waterfalls Take the kids out to the majestic waterfalls of Gulfoss and Seljalandsfoss. Gulfoss is enormous, considerably more spectacular in summer with all that glacier-melt roaring down, tumbling off ledges, putting up a grand show of mass and power, clouds of mist and arcing rainbows that are fleeting and ephemeral, leaping from rock to crag. If Gulfoss spreads itself out more laterally, cutting furrows and terraces into Iceland’s lava bedrock, Seljalandsfoss is all height and plummet, with the added advantage of being able to walk around and stand behind the relentless power-curtain. To truly understand the delicate, volatile beauty of Iceland in the larger scheme of things, head out to Thingvellir National Park (once the seat of an ancient Viking parliament). Just metres below the bedrock, the tectonic plates of Europe and America are moving apart at about 2 cms a year......a bit like Iceland’s being forced to make a geological choice. Geology lesson aside, it’s a marvelous place for long but easy treks through Iceland’s outdoors. 3) An ATV Ride Over Lava Fields (Icelandic Pony Options Available As Well)Explore the gorgeous and surreal landscape of Reykjanes Geopark, a UNESCO site that is staggeringly beautiful as well as important. All of Iceland’s young geological turbulence is contained here, its skittish and volatile volcanoes, geothermal springs just waiting to gush out and erupt, and get this: you can actually see the mid-Atlantic Ridge which is for the most part, underwater (this is the only place on earth that it emerges above sea-level). Apart from the geological hoopla, what all this means is, spectacular terrain for off-roading for the whole family! Hop into a little ATV buggy that seats four......and tear over the undulating landscape of lava fields and drop-dead gorgeous scenery; a perfect mini-adventure for you and the kids, along with a BBQ at the end, truly a highlight of your Icelandic vacation! If you aren't that much of a petrol-head, and you like your ride quieter, then hop onto a delightful and calm-demeanored Icelandic pony... ...for a romp over the wild landscape.4) Puffin Love In The Westman IslandsA land as wild as Iceland, this far up the latitudes, must be explored for its unique wildlife that is suited to its mad topography. Travel to the Westman Islands off the south coast, a group of 15 islands of which only Heimaey is inhabited (with approximately 5000 super-friendly humans and mega-colonies of puffins). Go on short hikes if you must (the terrain demands it), but definitely take a boat ride past its towering craggy cliffs; you may spot a whale, but you will definitely be mesmerized by the thousands of puffins that call this rock face home. For something that will make your kid’s heart soar with happiness, visit the Sæheimar Natural History Museum and Aquarium. Have the young ones meet and hold rescued puffins and pufflings (even more cuddly than adults), and learn all about their rescue and conservation. 5) Voted The Most Fun For Kids: The Slakki Petting ZooWe saved this for last, but it is ranked as the most fun for kids, hands down, from all the other fun stuff that they can get up to. Head out to the petting zoo at Slakki, 100 km south from Reykjavik. The feeling of holding and touching ponies, baby rabbits, baby arctic foxes......in addition to rescued puppies, kittens, turkeys, goats, geese and ducks, is an unbeatable experience for the young ones (even gruff-mannered adults have been known to suffer serious heart-melt). While the kids romp and play, there is also a spectacular indoor golf facility with an entire mini-golf course. Animals, natural beauty and mom-and-dad pastimes, all under one roof; nobody does it better than Iceland.Get in touch with our local travel experts and plan your Iceland vacation with your family right here.

5 Endangered Animals You Should See Before They Are Gone - 2

On the occasion of Earth Day, we continue last week's post by celebrating 5 more animals bravely putting up a fight against all odds. Conservation is a team effort and every little bit counts. Our travel experts are in on it, raising awareness through these curated trips, centered around threatened species in their homelands. The realization has dawned on all of us, that ultimately we are ensuring the survival of our own species by saving these beauties. 1) The OrangutanEvery time you look at a photo of an Orangutan, you can’t help but smile, if for no other reason than this great big orange fur ball with its awkward gait and a variety of freakishly human emotions in its startlingly intelligent eyes reminds us of ourselves, or someone we know. Little wonder, then, that Orangutan translates literally as ‘People of the Jungle’. Adorable. In reality, these magnificent beasts are not actually suited to a terrestrial existence at all, hence their awkward gait. They prefer life 100 feet above ground, where the air is nicer, the food abundant, and days are one big happy routine of swinging, swaying, sleeping and munching. In fact you might not even know they existed, these largest of tree-living mammals......lofty, regal, arboreal and airborne, until the destruction of their habitat brings them crashing down to earth. From almost a quarter million of these healthy, happy swingers barely 100 years ago, we are now down to a fraction of that number; in the answer to the question 'why' lies the measure of how difficult the road ahead might be. Two words: Palm oil. Can’t chuck a pebble in a supermarket without it landing on something made of palm oil. Instant noodles, ice creams, detergents, cosmetics, shampoos, soaps, the entire universe of snacks......every chip, scoop and dollop of these contains palm oil, straight from the forests of Indonesia, once called the ‘Emerald of the Equator’ and now reduced to half its tree-cover. The only way to fight back is to preserve their homes, and WWF is doing just that. In 2015, they rescued more than 100,000 acres of Sumatran forest that was earmarked for destruction. Our travel experts in Indonesia are equally committed to conservation, raising awareness through guided Orangutan-spotting trips in the forests of Sumatra and Borneo. We cannot urge you to stop eating snacks and buying soaps and detergents, but let us do all we can to turn the numbers around on these lovable and goofy People of the Forest. Status today: Endangered. Because of excessive deforestation, a total population of 230,000 Orangutans 100 years ago has been reduced to 40,000 (Borneo Orangutan), and 6000 (Sumatran Orangutan).  2) Snow Leopard Up in the remote crags and cliffs of the majestic mountains that cleave Central Asia into north and south, the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakorams, lives an animal that is a knockout, a traffic-stopper, a supermodel of the animal kingdom. A smoky-grey coat patterned with the most elegant rosettes, the lush fur on the belly almost 5 inches thick, making it softer and cuddlier than the softest duvet. Those eyes... ...a gleaming grey-green that seem almost lit from within. Then that magnificent tail as long as the body that seems to twitch and flick with a life of its own......fat and lustrous with fur that it wraps around itself to keep warm like a scarf or a muffler. And this animal does not roar (even when it looks like it's roaring)... ...it merely mews and hisses, depending on whether happy or aggressive. Just a little ol’ puddy-tat, really, one that can make even the most philistine of aesthetes weep at its beauty. Unfortunately, their numbers are down to 4000 in the wild due to the usual reasons: poaching, and trapping and killing by local shepherds in retaliation for attacking their livestock which accounts for almost 55% of leopard fatalities! Cue to WWF and other concerned bodies stepping in, surveying the situation and trying to offer up solutions. They have their work cut out: the elusiveness of the cat itself, the remote and inhospitable terrain, poverty and ignorance of humans that live there. A couple of first good first steps are already underway: poaching is down, and now funds are being generated to compensate herders for livestock.Travel to the remote reaches of the magnificent Spiti Valley to see this elusive creature; you may also enquire about a trip to the Hemis National Park in eastern Ladakh, known for its densest population of snow leopards. You will also be inadvertently contributing to the charity trust set up by our experts for the twin purposes of educating and uplifting the locals which (we hope) will have a knock-down effect on rising numbers of this mountain beauty. Status today: Endangered. Numbers are estimated at 4000 left in the wild, with barely 500 in India, and the rest scattered over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Southern Mongolia and China.  3) Blue Whales Did you know that the primary reason for hunting baleen whales from the 17th to the late 19th century was to power lamps and light up homes in the entire emerging western world? We are talking hundreds of thousands of Blue Whales, Humpbacks, Grey and Right Whales, all part of the baleen family (filtering krill and plankton through ‘baleens’, soft, bristly teeth-like structures in their upper jaws). Mercifully, kerosene came along, followed by the wonders of electricity, and the demands were less, but by then habits and livelihoods were established and the killing continued until the mid 1960s. Of all the baleens, it was the Blue Whale population that was hit the worst: just from 1900-1960, an estimated 360,000 Blue Whales were wiped out. We are talking the world’s largest creature that has ever existed, larger than the largest dinosaur, as long as a jumbo jet...with a tongue that weighs as much as a full-grown elephant, its heart as much as a car, and get this: a grown man can swim through its main veins and arteries! Their heartbeats can be heard 2 miles away underwater (confirmed by submarine sonar operators), and their hauntingly beautiful singing can be picked up from over a thousand miles. Even their just-borns are larger than the largest adult mammals: the babies weigh 4 tons at birth and are 25 feet long! What an animal! Read Moby Dick (or watch the movie), and you will understand how fleets and armadas of whaling ships went about their business back in the day, taking almost half a million to an estimated 10000-25000 Blue Whales roaming the oceans today. Although still endangered, their population is slowly on the rise (very, very slowly), thanks to anti-whaling efforts of the worlds’ governments. You can snorkel with these amazing behemoths off the coast of Sri Lanka at Mirissa from the months of November to April (the weather gets rough after that). Status: Endangered.Approximately 10,000-25,000 of the beauties are estimated to swim the oceans today. Still on the endangered list, but the trend is upward! 4) Madagascar Lemurs Indigenous to only Madagascar, lemurs are probably the most endangered mammals on the planet. Cute as buttons with perpetually startled eyes, and tiny hands that resemble a human’s, these simians/primates shocked the animal-conservationist world only very recently, literally making them bolt out of their chairs, yelling, “What?!!” Because, get this: while the world thought these little fellows were cavorting happily in the canopies of Madagascar’s prodigious rain-forests (and kids all over the world laughed and clapped as the Monkey King did his thing in ‘Madagascar’), they were actually being wiped off the face of the earth en masse. After the startled conservationists collected themselves and did a recount, the numbers were beyond staggering: out of 101 lemur species, 22 are critically endangered, 48 are endangered and the rest are categorized as ‘vulnerable’, eco-speak for any-time-soon-if-nothing-is-done. On the critically-endangered list is the beautiful Indri, seen in the Andasibe National Park, as lovely as its name, the largest of all lemur species......sacred to the people, and considered a 'brother' to humans (though actually, DNA-wise we are very, very distant). Not to be outdone, the world’s smallest lemur is also on the list, the Madame Berthe's Mouse Lemur, weighing in at just 30 grams. This tiny chap, just a little longer than your finger, was discovered only in 2000, and in an eye-blink of time it’s going-going-almost gone. Then there’s the Blue-eyed Lemur, a startlingly beautiful specimen with, you guessed it, almost Aryan blue eyes. The worst-off is the Northern Sportive Lemur, rumored (with bated yet hopeful breath) to number just 18 left in the wild! This is all new. Conservation efforts have just swung into place, like literally January 2017, and they are 2-fold: Halt illegal (and egregious) logging of the rainforests. Halt poaching. They’ve even announced a World Lemur Day (October 30th)! Pretty scary, pretty shocking, but you can do your bit for these tiny little champions by choosing the right travel expert in Madagascar who gives back to the forests from every trip booked. Every little bit is going to help.  5) South African Penguin One can hardly blame the BirdLife Foundation for discovering too late, that the loveable African Penguin, with its flappy appendages and Charlie Chaplin walk had already tumbled to the ‘endangered’ spot, even as they were collecting and collating data on the other countless bird species on the planet. Look away for an instant, and something is on its way out, that is the lesson conservationists are learning today.From 1956, when the first full census of the African Penguin was conducted (over 150,000 pairs counted), we have been losing them at a rate of 90 birds a week, for 60 years! Every little reason adds up: excessive commercial fishing off the Cape, particularly of anchovy and sardines, the penguin’s staple food. Compounded by seagulls and seals attacking egg nests before they can even hatch. Same seagulls and other predators snapping up the young before they can protect themselves. Today, the only hope is to breed these beautiful birds in sanctuaries, feed the young till they can hunt and eat, and only then release them into the wild. And all the while, fight tooth and nail to cordon off areas as no-fishing zones, so that abundant food is available for the rehabilitated birds. Head out to Boulder's Bay... ...to see these conservation efforts first-hand; your money will go towards ensuring these creatures live to swim and waddle another day. Status: Endangered.From 150,000 breeding pairs barely 50 years ago, we are down to just 10,000-15,000 breeding pairs. Sanctuary breeding and restriction of commercial fishing seems to be the only hope. Tough road ahead for all these gorgeous animals, but as we have seen, just as humans destroy, so also they conserve and they turn things around. It is not easy protecting the planet (from ourselves), and we salute every little effort to achieve this impossible task. Which is why we are giving away 5% of every trip booked from our Earth Day Collection to support wildlife conservation efforts globally.

Travel Tips - Travelling to India for the first time

India is magnificent and maddening, fascinating and frustrating, wonderful and weird, truly a travel destination like no other. It is a vast land of epic mountains and magnificent deserts, steaming jungles and endless beaches. It's a place of thriving cities and quiet picturesque villages, a place of splendid architecture and scrumptious cuisine, diverse cultures and a history that tumbles back into the mists of time.For first time travellers, India can be an intimidating experience. Your first and most important step would be to choose the right travel expert to show you around, who will decipher this sub-continent for you as only a local expert can. That puts you in safe hands from the get-go, arrival to departure.But even so, as every savvy traveler knows, nothing trumps street-smartness.Here are a few essentials to keep in mind when you’re visiting India.ImmigrationYour operator will appraise you of this in the planning stages, of course, but it is very likely you will need a visa, which you can obtain from your closest Indian consulate. Make sure to apply for a visa a few weeks prior to your expected departure date. Bureaucracy is an indefinite thing, and it may vary from country to country, city to city, ranging from dazzlingly quick and efficient to, well….not.AccommodationUnless you absolutely prefer to wing it on your own from place to place, booking on the fly and taking what comes, we strongly urge you to leave this in the hands of an expert. Accommodation in India can be a minefield; there are guest-houses, there are lodges and literally thousands of unbranded hotels that don’t seem to conform to any international standards, grades or stars. Also, in India, location is everything. Plus, you will be availing of huge discounts that only a well-connected travel expert with a vast network can offer. Very often, a smaller boutique hotel that you might not even have heard of will be a way better option for your needs than a branded international chain with a galaxy of stars. There are no rules here; let someone who knows pick and curate for you.Personal BelongingsIt is a good idea to keep your belongings in a hotel safe. Avoid carrying all your cash (and/or your passport) with you all the time. For the most part, Indians are an honest bunch, extremely friendly and hospitable, but with a population of approximately 1.2 billion, exceptions are just around the corner.Avoid Travel BurnoutIndia is vast, and can be a see-saw of climates and temperatures that you will have to prepare for, especially when traveling over multiple states, regions, and climate zones. In summers, temperatures in the plains can hit upward of 105 degree Fahrenheit, which might cause fatigue to first-time visitors. There is no need to rush through cities and towns, stay a while so that you absorb more of the distinctive flavour and spirit of the place. Pad your travel days; have realistic expectations about how much you can see. Always have a “Plan B”. Whatever changes occur in your initial plan will build a whole new experience. This will open a door of a different India for you. Again, we cannot emphasise the benefits of having a travel expert who will steer and guide you through this.TransportationEven if you are a road-tripper who loves getting behind the wheel, forget about driving. Traffic is chaotic, and traffic rules are virtually non-existent. You can usually rent a car along with a driver at a very good price. Private taxis can even get you from one city to another. Alternatively, you can also navigate from state to state using air, train or bus (depending on time and your requirements). Train and bus journeys, when chosen carefully and booked in advance, can be joyous and immersive experiences of the true India you would never get from air-travel.Dress ModestlyPeople dress conservatively in India. Covering arms and legs is a simple gesture toward respecting this. Generally, Indians are tolerant towards foreigners who aren’t familiar with their culture. But you can make a good impression by removing your shoes before entering someone’s house. Cultivating this habit is very important when entering a sacred space, like a temple.Mind your Feet and HandsFeet are considered to be unclean in India, so if you accidentally touch something with your feet it’s appropriate to quickly make an apology. Likewise, eating or passing objects with your left hand is considered unpleasant. If unsure of local customs, try to emulate what the locals are doing. Or simply ask. Indians can be very gracious with information; a much preferred route to finding out the hard way.FoodA dodgy stomach is not uncommon for first-timers in India. However, that shouldn’t stop you from savouring the mouth-watering local delicacies. With a little research, even street-food can be hygienic. Make sure to pick items that are only fully cooked. Ironically, stay away from fresh salads (unless in 5 Star hotels of repute). Never drink from the tap. And make sure any water you drink is either boiled, or has definitely passed through a filter. Check your mineral water bottles for intact seals before you drink them.ShoppingWhen it comes to bargaining, India reigns supreme. Everyone does it and you should not be an exception, particularly while shopping at a local street market. A good starting point is a half of what they initially ask. Chances are, it won’t be a princely sum anyway, and you are doing it more for sport, and just so you don’t get completely rooked. Essentially, this is no different from any other non-first world country all over South America, Africa, Asia and even parts of Europe, so this is where your keen street-smarts come into play.Health and SafetyPack medications and insect protection. Bring any prescription medicine you currently use as well as anti-diarrheal medication, dehydration salts, and painkillers. A broad-spectrum antibiotic might also be a good idea (even though pharmacies in India will sell them to you without prescriptions), but only in emergencies; we don’t recommend self-medication, certainly not with the very real fears of Superbugs these days. Make sure you either wash your hands regularly or use disinfectant liquids to kill germs.Culture Difference Yes, your first time in India will be more challenging than travelling to some other countries, but it is totally worth it. The diverse religions and cultures can be vast and puzzling, the cultural void between India and the rest of the world is huge. We advise you to embrace it and learn about the country and its rich and varied heritage. Also, if you like your personal space a little too much, be prepared for a bit of attitude adjustment. Yes, your spatial sense will need a little recalibrating. And we hope you don’t mind being stared at; Indians like to stare, but they mean nothing by it (for the most part) and will quickly tire of it if you ignore it.Chances are, your chosen experts will steer and guide you through all of the above, with several pointers of their own, because no-one knows their patch of earth like they do. Even so, it never hurts to bewell prepared with an open mind for your very first visit to India. Start planning your first trip to India here.