It was great spending a week with my parents at their off-the-grid home in Manitoba (read their homesteading blog). It was the first visit for Astrid and Emily’s first time being there in the summer (I think she prefers the mosquitoes to the -40 C and snow). The house is still under construction, but is looking great. Since Christmas, they’ve added gorgeous wood railings that my dad made (you can imagine how much work it is to sand and install all those spindles) and cork flooring on the main floor.
Last week my lovely wife surprised me with a Okanagan birthday adventure. We spent the day hiking in Kelowna and then retired to the luxurious Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon.
I knew it was going to be a good day when a rainbow lit up the mountainside as we drove through Abbotsford. I was a bit slow snapping a picture, but it was perfectly formed on both sides.
In Kelowna, we hiked along the Myra Canyon trail, formerly part of the Kettle Valley Railway. Half of the trail was still covered in snow, but it was still an easy hike with some epic scenery. The trail has some huge trestle bridges, most of them rebuilt after the devastating forest fire in 2003.
After our hike, we checked in at the luxurious Sparkling Hill Resort. I never knew this place existed before, but it’s damn fancy. Designed by the Swarovski family, the resort is packed with crystals everywhere, including the washroom signs.
The spa was the highlight, with so many little touches elevating it above the usual. The outdoor pool had fabulous views of the mountains and Okanagan Lake. The indoor pool played classical music underwater. There was a walking path with knee deep water that alternated between hot and cold to help improve circulation (it felt like torture). The steam/sauna area had a number of unique rooms, including the experience showers that simulated thunderstorms and tropical downpours, a rose scented steam room, a sauna with a bucket of rocks that were repeatedly heated and then dunked into cold water, and the igloo with ice to rub on your body. There were also some quiet areas to relax and enjoy the view.
It was a decadent birthday experience and a step beyond anywhere we’ve stayed before.
We spent the first weekend of March visiting San Francisco. We didn’t have much planned, except reconnecting with friends and eating good vegan food. It’s probably our last chance at child-free travel for a long time.
We didn’t do anything overly touristy, just explored some of the funkier neighbourhoods (like Castro and Mission), walked around Golden Gate Park, and hung out.
It was one of San Francisco’s rainiest weekends in the past few years, which was unfortunate for us but good for the drought-stricken state.
When the sun did come out, it was glorious. Perfect weather for running around the park.
Or hiking in Berkeley.
We got a tour of Google’s San Francisco office, which is a nerd fantasyland. I left with a serious case of office envy.
All-in-all, a very good weekend.
Before we even booked our flights to San Francisco we were planning where to eat. Our vegetarian friends have raved about the deliciousness the city has to offer. By the time we arrived we had 4 reservations booked for our 4 days in San Francisco. Three of the restaurants were totally vegan and one was vegetarian.
Here are our favourites:
Millennium Oakland – 5/5
We were really impressed by the inventive vegan food in this nice, cozy restaurant. It was easy to get to on the BART with an interesting looking neighbourhood around it (which we didn’t have time to explore). Everything was good, although the main courses outshone the appetizer and desserts.
Greens – 5/5
The first thing you notice about Greens is the beautiful dining room with giant wood sculptures and a stunning view of the Golden Gate Bridge. But the food alone makes it worth the visit. Everything has so many elements to it and yet somehow it was simple and delicious. We had to trudge through the rain and dark to get there. I’d recommend trying to go when it’s lighter out and you can see the bridge better.
Citizen Fox – 4.5/5
Currently only in a temporary location in the Mission with limited hours, it seemed like a fully-formed restaurant with great food, nice decor, and professional staff. We went for brunch and got to enjoy many breakfast classics that vegans usually don’t get to eat like eggs benedict, a reuben sandwich, and waffles with fried ‘chicken’. They even had a live band playing quietly in the corner.
Vik’s Chaat Corner – 4/5
This one wasn’t planned. Our Berkeley friend brought us here knowing we were nostalgic for our time in India. It was the most authentic Indian chaat house we’ve been to since being back. There was a simple menu with all the classic Indian snack options (like cholle bhature, bhel puri, and dosas) cooked up at different stations where you picked up your food. It’s located off-the-beaten path in an industrial part of Berkeley, but worth the visit at lunch if you’re nearby.
Gracias Madre – 3.5/5
We cook a lot of vegan Mexican food at home, so we were excited to try somewhere that actually served up cashew cream and vegan tamales. The food was good, but none of the flavours or dishes really stood out. It was the only place we went where none of us finished our meals (because of the quantity not the quality).
Emily and I spent the Labour Day weekend in Portland soaking up the vegan delights and the hipster vibe. We’ve been to Portland a few times now, but I’m still amazed by the quantity of funky facial hair, tattoos, ironic fashion, and (most importantly) the selection of vegan food.
Here were the best restaurants we ate at this time:
Harvest at the Bindery – 5/5
This is one of Portland’s newest vegan restaurants, and an instant favourite of ours. They served the best vegan brunch I’ve ever had. The BBQ pulled trumpet sandwich was bursting with flavour – highly recommended. The miso grit cake and biscuits were also delicious.
Portobello Vegan Trattoria – 4.5/5
Excellent vegan Italian dishes with perfect flavour and texture. It was great being able to eat pizza, ravioli, and an ice cream sundae for dessert, all without dairy or soy.
Vtopian Artisan Cheeses – 4/5
This is the future of vegan food. No one will miss dairy cheese if they can eat these creamy, rich, flavourful, cultured vegan cheeses. We couldn’t decide what to eat, so we had a cheese tasting platter with 5 different vegan cheeses. Our favourites were the chive & dill and the smoked gouda.
Boke Bowl – 4/5
Not a vegetarian restaurant, but they have plenty of vegetarian/vegan options. The caramelized fennel ramen bowl and the grilled eggplant steamed bun (which is basically an Asian taco) were really good.
Natural Selection – 4/5
Nice place for an upscale vegetarian dinner. We enjoyed our fancy 4-course vegan meal, but none of the dishes wowed us, even though the price was twice as much as everywhere else we ate.
Petunia’s Pies & Pastries – 3.5/5
Petunia’s is a cute, gluten-free and vegan bakery, only a few blocks from Pioneer Square. Our biscuits weren’t as good as the ones at Harvest (the lack of gluten was noticeable). We wanted to order waffles, but they only make them on weekends and a holiday Monday didn’t count.
Bonus: Ground Kontrol – 4/5
One of the cooler places we went in Portland. A funky bar/arcade with a mix of classic and new games, beers on tap, and a food menu surprisingly full of vegan options. It wasn’t gourmet, but our vegan frito pie was really tasty.
The rest of our time in Portland was spent wandering around the funky neighbourhoods, checking out Art in the Pearl, watching a prize winning movie at the film festival (For Love and Broken Bones), and shopping at thrift stores – Emily and I both picked up shiny new shoes.
More pictures from our trip and the train ride on Flickr.
Last year Emily won the grand prize in the FarmFolk CityFolk Win our Windfall raffle.
The prize description:
Enjoy a one night stay at Nita Lake Lodge in their beautiful Rainforest Suite with private elevator access, overlooking exceptional views of Whistler Mountain. Later that night, revel in Chef’s delicious tasting dinner for two in Aura restaurant with magnificent lake views.
On your way there stop in Squamish and take a Whistler Backcountry Tour with Sea to Sky Air. Fly over massive glaciers, sprawling lush forests, and glacial waters of Garibaldi Lake.
So, last weekend we got to enjoy a luxurious weekend in Whistler, staying in the huge Rainforest Suite at Nita Lake Lodge and flying around the Squamish Valley with Sea to Sky Air. Both experiences were world class. It was too much awesomeness for the two of us to enjoy alone, so we invited the Holdings to share some of the experience with us.
We had mixed weather for our flight, with snow, rain, and low clouds obscuring some of the peaks. But it was still an amazing experience. We were in a little 4-seater plane with our pilot pointing out the mountains and lakes below us. It was neat seeing places we’ve hiked to before, like Garibaldi Lake, Black Tusk, and the Chief, from a new perspective. The highlight was the 360-degree loop we did around Table Mountain.
The Rainforest Suite at the Nita Lake Lodge is easily the fanciest and largest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in, with a huge master bedroom, dining room with seating for 8, and full kitchen. The couch folded out so the Holdings didn’t have to use their sleeping bags (we came prepared). We took advantage of the hotels hot tubs and canoes. Our dinner at Aura was an amazing 5-course tasting meal.
More pictures on Flickr.
I’ve been feeling fatigued, gassy, and generally shitty for the past 2 weeks. I went and saw a doctor on Tuesday and had blood and stool samples taken. The results are in – I’m anemic and I have Giardia Lamblia (aka Beaver Fever) and Blastocystis parasites living in my lower intestine. Probably one last gift from India.
I’m looking forward to getting it treated and healthy again. My iron levels are 9 µg/L (normal level are from 100-300). I haven’t been able to run or play ultimate frisbee for the past 2 weeks. Even my short 3 km bike ride to work has been a struggle.
I’m been prescribed Metronidazole antibiotics for the next 10 days. Hopefully that clears everything up.
My biggest tip for someone backpacking through India: Be open to new experiences and learn to let your guard down. It won’t be easy. The most frequent word you will say is ‘no’, as you duck away from rickshaw drivers and merchants trying to sell you things you don’t want. There are people who will try to take advantage of you, especially in the heavily touristed places where you’re likely to start your trip. But once you get past that, you’re more likely to find genuinely hospitable locals who just want to spend time with you.
There is no scam when they offer you food, ask you personal questions on the train, invite you over for dinner, teach you to play cricket, share their religious ceremonies, or if you’re really lucky, attend a wedding. It took us too long to realize it, but once we did we met a lot of amazing people, and we got a wedding invite, but it was unfortunately 3 days after we flew home.
We also learned some more practical tips useful for anyone going on a multi-month trip through India.
You can’t bring everything you will need, so don’t. Most items are cheaper to buy in India than at home anyway. Clothing, toiletries (although we never tried to buy deodorant or feminine hygiene products), laundry soap, and food are all cheaper in India. That said, there are a few essential items you will want to bring from home.
Sleeping bag liner
Although it’s not essential, I’d recommend taking a few bills and coins from home. The Indians we met loved seeing Canadian money. Luckily we had $5 and $10 Canadian bills on us. I wish we would have brought some small coins to give to the kids.
We bought water in plastic bottles as we went, but hated all the waste that was produced. The one thing we wished we had packed was a travel water purifier like the SteriPEN.
Expect to do a lot of bargaining. We initially found it intimidating, but it gets easier as you learn what the prices should be. You will overpay at first. Packaged goods have a maximum retail price (MRP) labelled on them, which acts as the price tag. For negotiable items, like things you buy in the market, expect to be offered inflated foreigner prices.
Rickshaw drivers are the worst offenders for trying to gouge foreigners. There are some techniques to keep prices reasonable. If you’re at the airport or train station, look for the government regulated prepaid stands, but make sure the driver you get knows where you’re going. You should almost always ignore the drivers who meet you at the train and try to snag you before you have left the station. If they’re targeting foreigners, they charge way too much and often sell “sightseeing tours”.
We only had a rough idea of where we wanted to travel when we arrived in India. It’s a big country and every corner offers something unique to see. It’s a good idea to pick your travel itinerary based on the weather. There is a big difference in temperature between the north and south and the monsoons start and end at different times. We got really lucky with weather, starting in the south in December and slowly making our way north, with Rajasthan in February and ending in Delhi in April. There are also hill stations (like Darjeeling and Shimla) to check out if it gets too hot, but they can be frigid the rest of the year.
Here’s a summary of all the places we went.
Having a cellphone and a local SIM card is extremely useful. Getting a SIM card is a great introduction to Indian bureaucracy and the country’s love for paperwork. We got ours through Vodafone. I just show up at one of their stores with a copy of my passport and visa, a passport-sized photo, and an address from my hotel. It shouldn’t take long, but it does. The rates are super cheap, and 3G internet (2 GB for less than $5) was often faster than the hotel WIFI. The only annoying thing is the SIM card will only work for 3 months (Indian government regulation). After 3 months, your phone will stop working, any money on your account will disappear, and you will have to start the whole process from the beginning.
The best way to travel in India is by train. You can’t beat the combination of speed, price, and entertainment value. However, booking your first train ticket can be intimidating. You can visit a travel agent and pay a commision to have them do the work, but we prefered to book tickets ourselves online. Really short routes we went unreserved, medium length trips we booked about 2 weeks ahead, and most of the long distance routes we booked a month ahead. It is very difficult to get a reservation on and around holidays.
There are three invaluable sites when figuring out the train system – India Mike, India Rail Info, and Cleartrip.
India Mike has the best guide to the Indian Rail Network, amongst other things. Some of the content on the website is getting old and stale, but it’s still one of the best resources for foreigners in India. Any question you may have about traveling through India has probably been answered on this website.
The best website for figuring out the train schedule is India Rail Info, which also has an excellent app. The user interface is intimidating at first glance, but it’s packed with essential information – like the average delay (some passenger trains are routinely 6-8 hours late), how many tickets are available in each class, and it will let you search for foreign ticket availability.
Some extra information we figured out as we travelled:
– For overnight trains, you can choose between Sleeper (SL), 3 level air-conditioned (3A), 2 level air-conditioned (2A), or a private compartment (1A) with prices close to flying. We spent most of our time in very affordable 3A compartments, but also booked a number of super-cheap tickets in Sleeper class. Even though Sleeper and 3A officially sleep the same number of people (8 per compartment), you will find more people cramming into Sleeper (with families often sharing a single bed). 3A is generally more comfortable and the beds come with a pillow, sheets, and blankets (in Sleeper you have to bring your own). 3A is temperature controlled, so it is more comfortable when it is both hot and cold outside.
– Trains are given priority on the tracks based on their type. The fancy, express trains (the Rajdhani and Shatabdi Expresses) go the fastest and are hardly ever late. The slower passenger trains stop at more stations, have to pull over and wait for faster trains to pass, and are frequently several hours behind their schedule.
– Most trains reserve 2-10 seats for foreign tourists, which are great when you’re making last minute travel plans, but can be a real pain to book. They can only be booked in person at the major train stations. Again, India Mike has the best guide to Foreign Tourist quota tickets and a list of train stations where you can buy them.
– If the train is full and you can’t buy a Foreign Tourist Ticket, the next option is the Waitlist. We tempted fate on the waitlist twice and got lucky both times, but it was very stressful. If you are near the top of the waitlist, you might get a ticket when someone cancels, but most tickets are handed out 4-12 hours before the train leaves, allocated from unused quotas in special classes. You best have a good backup plan. There is also last-minute Tatkal tickets that go on sale at 10 am the day before the train leaves. The train station reservation offices are madhouses in the morning as people push and shove to get a chance at these tickets. We never bothered.
India has a great network of private bus operators that provide comfortable Volvo bus connections between most cities. Unlike the train, which can sell out weeks in advance, the buses were usually easy to book last minute. You can search and book tickets for most operators on a single website – Redbus. Some of routes are served by “sleeper buses”, which have horizontal beds (doubles and singles). Depending on the road conditions, the sleeper buses can be just as comfortable as the train and a great way to travel. There are government buses, which are cheaper and less comfortable than the private Volvos, and in some states they are the only option.
India has a great selection of budget hotels, but don’t expect Western cleanliness or service. Many hotel rooms won’t have towels, sheets, or toilet paper when you check in, but if you ask they will provide them. You won’t find a clock, telephone, hair dryer, or daily room cleaning but most hotel rooms will have a shower in the middle of the bathroom with a bucket to wash clothing, a Western toilet, and a fan or A/C. Sometimes you will find a TV, mosquito nets (especially in the south), and included breakfast.
We spent around 3000 rupees/person/day (full breakdown).
Almost all of our spending was in cash. Using a credit card was rare, especially outside of the major cities. Luckily there are a lot of ATMs that accept foreign cards. The best were the State Bank ATMs, which don’t charge any fees and are plentiful throughout the country.
The best source of reliable reviews was TripAdvisor, especially for hotels and attractions. For food, Zomato was the best for finding great restaurants – the curated “Legendary” lists never let us down.
Luckily most Indians speak good English, so you can get by without learning any other languages. We learned some tourist Hindi, but its usefulness was limited. Many states, especially in the South, have their own languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi, etc.). However, it’s always nice to be able to greet and thank people in their own language.
In our four months of backpacking through India, we made more than a few sacrifices to save money – choosing crowded, local buses over private taxis; eating at local hangouts instead of fancy western restaurants; and staying in some sketchy hotels. It was part of the experience and we don’t regret our choices, but it was also important to splurge occassionaly. We found a luxury hotel for our wedding anniversary and fancy restaurants for our birthdays. That might have been the extent of our of our splurging, if it wasn’t for a thoughtful gift from our good friends, the Holdings. Before we left, they gave us three upgrade coupons (with an awesome board game theme) and some money to ensure we weren’t always choosing the cheapest option, especially when we were feeling down. Here’s what we upgraded.
In Darjeeling, we upgraded to first class tickets on the toy train to Kurseong instead of another squished shared jeep.
In Kolkata, we ate a luxury meal at one of the top-reviewed vegetarian restaurants in town.
In Udaipur, we spent three blissful days in the country at Krishna Ranch.
India is a very cheap country to travel through. Our biggest expense was flying in and out. Surprisingly, even after over 4 months travelling, we paid more for our flights than accommodation or food.
So, how much does it cost to backpack through India? Less than $1000 per person per month. Our average daily expenses were $63 per day, and that includes everything – hotels, food, trains, a cellphone with a data plan, haircuts, toiletries, and all of our souvenirs. To put that in perspective, our rent alone in Vancouver costs about the same.
Two round trip flights in and out of India cost us only $1,236 each – we got lucky there. Pre-trip expenses like visas, vaccines, and a guide book cost another $342.20.
Our hotels averaged 1100 rupees or $22 per night. The beach hut in Gokarna was the cheapest place we stayed, costing only $5. We splurged to stay in a boutique resort for our anniversary in Darjeeling, our most expensive night but still only $55. The hotel in Mumbai was almost as much and not nearly as nice.
Trains were the cheapest and most atmospheric way to get across India. We travelled in the unreserved carriages a few times – which are unbelievably cheap but often very crowded. It cost us only $1 each to travel the 250 km between Jodhpur and Ajmer in unreserved second-class. Even our most expensive day train, the high speed train from Amritsar to Delhi, was only $16 a ticket. Our best value was probably the overnight train from Goa to Mumbai, when we paid $11 per bunk bed in a non-AC car. The average overnight train ride in air-conditioned carriages cost $20 each.
Our trip slowly got more expensive as we moved north. Our first 50 days through South India were the cheapest – mostly because there weren’t any expensive sights to see and we weren’t buying any souvenirs. Then we hit Mumbai, the most expensive city in India; Agra, with the Taj Mahal and other tourist traps; and Jaipur, where we paid too much money for an elephant experience. The most expensive part of our trip was the 4 days treeking through the Himalayas with porters and cooks, but it was worth it. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of our souvenir shopping happened in the last week of our trip.