India – Mumbai – Morning trip to Elephanta Island, afternoon stroll downtown

Elephanta Island monkeysOne of the must-see sights near Mumbai is a half-day trip to Elephanta Island. Protected by UNESCO it is famous for its 6th century cave temples, and boats make regular round trips from the Gateway of India all throughout the day. Amish, our guide, had other commitments that day, so instead we were accompanied by Mobin, who ensured we got on the right boat and kept us company during the crossing.

leaving the Gateway of IndiaThus it was that for the third day in a row, we visited the Gateway of India! You really can’t see it too often, though, in all its sunshiny glory. The boats depart directly behind it, from an area that looks as though a mish-mash of boat-parking skills were employed to get the boats in that particular arrangement, all jostling for position in a higgledy-piggledy sort of way. Nevertheless, you trust in your guides and in your Captain, and slightly nervously get on board. The boats are all the same style and shape, with a covered downstairs and an open air upstairs. We plumped for upstairs, oil refineriesso you take some rather steep and narrow steps up through what appears to be a gap in the roof and emerge on top, and hope to find an unbroken plastic chair to sit on. The trip across to the island is a little over an hour, and two main sights can be enjoyed en route. The first is the majestic Gateway of India, seen as it was designed to be seen, from the sea, gently getting smaller against the horizon as your journey progresses. Also as you near the island, you get quite close to some oil refineries, and with a good lens you can get some interesting pictures; if oil refineries are your thing, of course.

Land train to the cavesYou know you’re arriving at the island when you see this massive long jetty spurring out into the sea. I’m not sure why the boats dock so far away from the island itself, other than to give passengers a long walk, or more likely to pay for a trip on the little land train that takes you to the “village”. The village is basically a row of stalls, selling the usual tourist stuff, no outstanding purchases to be made, but exotic nonetheless, and colourful canopies over the walkway produce atmospheric light effects as you walk through. By now Mobin had introduced us to our guide on the island, Avinash. He actually lives on the island and knows the caves like the back of his hand – and why wouldn’t he, he takes people round them every day of his life.

Ticket officeThe first thing they tell you when you start walking round the island is to beware of the monkeys. What, you mean those cute tiny little things who jump around in the trees and look so adorable? Yes them. They go for your food, they go for your water. If you’re not careful they will knock them out of your hands, scavenging little so and so’s. Whilst we watched some monkeys cavorting in the trees, Avinash got our tickets: 10 rupees for Indians, 250 rupees for foreigners. At least that was written on the board in numbers. When we went to Prague in 1997, the cost to get in to the Old Jewish cemetery was very expensive for tourists and ridiculously cheap for locals, but the actual amount payable was written out in words, in Czech, so 99% of the tourists couldn’t tell that they were being ripped off. We had a Czech friend though, who got us in as locals, and we had to spend the next half hour not making eye contact with anyone or speaking, or else we would have been chucked out as undesirable aliens.

ShivaMeanwhile back in Mumbai, there are three major temple complexes at the Elephanta site. The main, extensive, area has hundreds of extraordinary old carvings of Hindu gods, many of them still in superb condition. The star attraction is the three headed statue of Shiva, which is breathtaking in its grandeur. Avinash took us all round the complex and explained who each of the gods were, and in what guise they were appearing – as you may know, Hindu gods get up to all sorts of exciting and unexpected activities. Alas I can’t remember the intricate details today. The overwhelming feeling is that you’re in a place of great history, superb artistry Temple complexand creativity, and that man, 1500 years ago, chose this natural environment as a home for his devotion to his gods. It’s a great place for photo opportunities too; not only of the sculptures, and the light and shadow effects created by the sun beaming into the darkness (if you were a little kid it would be the most brilliant place to play hide and seek), but also outside in the sunshine with the banyan trees and the monkeys. Ah yes, the monkeys. Guess who forgot the warning about the little buggers and had his bottle of water grabbed right out of his hand? I guess I was lucky not to get scratched and then spend the rest of the week worrying about rabies.

Another cave viewpointAfter a detailed guided tour, and then a more relaxed, independent walk around the complex to discover little nooks and crannies you missed the first time round, and to try some more experimental camera shots, it’s time to head back to the land train and the boat back to BOM. On the way back we got chatting to a very nice Indian couple who recognised our accents, and they talked about their lives spending half the year in India and half in UK – seems like a pretty good lifestyle. Arriving back at the Gateway of India, Mobin was just taking us to our car when we bumped into Amish taking an American chap on a tour of the city. They were both obviously enjoying their day, and it was a cue for a lot of teasing conversations as to who was the best guide! Guys, you’ll just never know…

lunchBack at the Oberoi and time for a late lunch. We decided to hit the Eau Bar because we didn’t really want a huge meal, just some Indian snacks and a refreshing glass of white wine. I tell you, that is such a glorious experience. The snacks were like Indian tapas – utterly delicious, and surprisingly filling. With the view over the bay, the terrific service and contented tummies, we were in seventh heaven. There were only two other people in the bar – an English couple who, from the loud conversations they were having on their mobiles, we deduced were obviously going to attend a big Indian wedding later in the afternoon; and they were pre-loading for Dutch courage!

local walkWe could have just flumped down afterwards and rested – every day that week it was between 32 and 34 degrees so it was hot, but not so much that you couldn’t go out and do things – but instead we decided to go for a little wander around the district by ourselves. I had my Eyewitness Travel book of India, and a couple of relatively useless maps taken from the hotel room. We planned a very simple circuit around the hotel and thought we’d see what happened.

Nariman PointThere’s a path at the water’s edge that takes you to the farthest tip of Nariman Point. So we wandered down there, and discovered that it’s the place where everyone likes to be seen walking. Young families, groups of friends, students; they all clamber about on the concrete blocks that are scattered at random to the side of the footpath as an additional barrier between it and the sea. Lots of soft drinks and ice creams get consumed along that stretch. We doubled back up, walked further along the water’s edge until we turned right onto Madame Cama Road. This takes you past the back entrance to Churchgate cricket ground where we saw members of a ladies’ cricket team (either England or New Zealand we think) getting on board an official World Cup 2013 bus.

Oval MaidanFor the sight of more cricket, we walked on, until we got to the Oval Maidan. It’s a large expanse of park in the middle of the city – you couldn’t really call it green though, as the heat of the sun has made the grass brown. And on this empty patch of land, as far as your eyes can see in both directions, take place dozens of cricket matches. Some of the players were wearing traditional white, but the majority were just in shirts and jeans. It was great just to watch people enjoying themselves, and if you were ever in any doubt as to how much your average Indian loves cricket – this will make it abundantly clear.

Traffic!On the other side of the Maidan is the Rajabai Clock Tower – by day looking more like part of a Victorian railway station or church tower; it stands out as a very refined looking piece of architecture. We negotiated some busy roads – traffic not only nose to tail but nose to side as well, there’s not a lot of space on those roads for that many vehicles – until once again we made our way to the Gateway of India. Still busy with tourists, locals and tradespeople, we noticed a number of guys sitting by the side of the square with loads of containers – we never did find out what that was all about. Perhaps you know?

container guysWe spent a little while people watching and reflecting on the terrific day we’d had. From there it was just a simple wander back to the hotel for a rest, a shower and a quiet evening. We decided to return to the relative informality of the Oberoi’s Fenix restaurant, which was very relaxing, and later on we heard the call of the Eau Bar yet again, where we swapped Northamptonshire Cricket stories with our knowledgeable wine waiter. Tomorrow was to be another fun-packed day, going round markets and meeting the real Bombay people.

If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit

India – Mumbai – City Tour

India is GiretWhen you’re in a foreign country – and I mean exotically foreign, rather than Magaluf or Ayia Napa – even the most mundane aspects of travel can be fascinating. Our first stop on our daylong city tour was to get the car filled up with fuel. In the UK this is hardly an eventful experience. You get out, unscrew the cap, stick in the nozzle and pull the trigger. You might have the excitement of pay at pump, or you may choose the more traditional pay in kiosk. That’s about it.

Petrol StationIn Mumbai, however, things are different. You all get out of the car. One man fills it with fuel, another cleans it, another ushers you into the kiosk to pay. When you come out, the car has been reparked by yet another, who will provide any other automobolistic services you require. They will check your tyre pressure, your screenwash, your oil – and it’s all free and done with a friendly, eager to please attitude. How very different from the UK Tesco experience. It seems like good value too – diesel was 53.69 rupees per litre – that’s about 64 pence. Of course, it’s relatively expensive in comparison to the average wage.

Reliance TowerWe were driving out of central Bombay towards the north. One of the first things you see is an extraordinarily shaped tower emerging out of nowhere. It looks like one half of a huge jigsaw puzzle that ought to slot into another jigsaw-tower to make one complete tower block. It’s 26 storeys, if I remember rightly, and it’s worth about $2 billion. Yes, billion. It belongs to the owner of the Reliance Company, and the most extraordinary thing is that only six people live there. So, no need to bump into each other if you don’t want to.

Dhobi GhatFrom perhaps Mumbai’s smartest location to one of its most hard-working. It’s a short distance to the Dhobi Ghat, which covers a vast area of the town, and from its best viewpoint you can actually only see a fraction of it. Rows and rows of gleaming washing extend almost to the horizon in this incredible laundry village. Colour-co-ordinated lines of clean clothes join corrugated iron shacks where a vast team of skilled laundrymen and women process tons and tons of washing. It comes from hotels, hospitals, private residences; and also from clothing companies as it gets washed here as part of the manufacturing process. People work hard here; but as a result they earn a good living, and to have your own laundry set-up in this complex is quite some achievement.

Dhobi Ghat detailIt’s an awe-inspiring sight. You could gaze at it for hours as there is always something new to see. Strong men beating wet fabric against the sides of stone walls to get the dirt out; whole families taking turns to wash themselves in large urns of soapy water; guys carrying large laundry bags up and down steps to and from the street as they deliver the goods through all stages of the process. And, amazingly, all those rows of washing lines, crammed full of clothes, and not one clothes peg in sight. The secret is they twist two ropes together to form one line so each item of clothing can be trapped in the grip of the ropes. So much industry and hard work going on all around you, it’s the most unlikely, but extremely popular, tourist sight in Mumbai. Completely mesmerising.

Hanging GardensFrom gritty reality to a haven of peace. Our next stop was the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Garden, better known as the Hanging Gardens, originally opened in 1881. Its welcome sign on the way in prohibits “Playing outdoor games like cricket, football, kite flying, strenuous exercises, running, etc; sleeping, drinking liquor, smoking, misbehaviour etc; feeding to animals and birds; bringing pets; plucking of flowers and trees; bringing and eating outside eatables; and littering”. Apart from that, you can have a good time. It’s positioned close to the Zoroastrian Towers of Silence, which as non-Parsees you’re not allowed to see – and that was fine by me. Instead you have such delights Where's the Old Woman?as landscaped lawns, a bandstand, exotic flowers and a Pillar of Friendship. It makes for a good place to rest for a bit after some heavy duty sightseeing. There are also fabulous views over the bay, which our guide, Amish, had tried to show us the previous evening. Just alongside the park is a children’s play area with a rather superb enormous Doc Marten, where the Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe lives. OK, you have to suspend a bit of belief there, she’s not actually real. The place was thronging with groups of schoolchildren, all very neatly dressed in their blue uniforms; most of whom behaved extremely demurely; just a few came out with the usual “Hello! How are you! What’s your name!” to which you reply “Hello! I’m fine thank you! My name’s Chris! What’s yours?” to which they simply giggle hysterically. Must Not Frighten Schoolchildren.

Gandhi HouseThe next port of call on our day trip was the Gandhi House, or to give it its proper name Mani Bhavan. This was Gandhi’s headquarters from 1917 to 1934. It’s a very absorbing little museum, which includes his bedroom, dozens of display cabinets with models re-enacting significant moments of his life, and also a large library and study area containing thousands of documents pertaining to the great man. The terrace off his bedroom has a charming view over the street and is where he was arrested in 1932. It’s definitely worth half an hour or more of your time, and you do get a good sense of history and privilege to be in the place where he spent such a lot of time.

SamratThen it was definitely time for a long leisurely lunch. Amish took us to the Samrat restaurant, which was a busy and delicious place that did a good range of vegetarian food (always the best bet in India). We sat upstairs and ordered a selection of goodies and did our best to eat them the Indian way, with consequently very messy hands, which in itself was good fun. An excellent choice for locals and tourists alike.

Gateway of India by dayNot very far to retrace our steps from last night to visit the Gateway of India in the daylight. The square was still awash with people, and the Gateway itself looked very imposing and formal. We would return to the area the following day, as it’s the departure point for boats to Elephanta Island. It was nice just to wander around, and it’s a great place for people-watching.

Masala teaAmish wanted to take us to a little stall where he said you get the best masala tea in town. There you will find the most skilful tea maker in the world, and the queue can be worryingly long, so in order to be able to serve all his customers he has to work really hard and really fast. Masala tea ought, by my taste buds, to be the most disgusting thing in the world. I like my tea with very little or no milk, clean, plain and simple. This masala tea is milky, spiced, complex, and completely delicious. No wonder he has such queues. As befits distinguished overseas guests we were served our tea in posh cups. All tea’d up, we returned to the hotel for a much needed afternoon nap.

Valentine’s Day dinnerWhat I didn’t tell you, gentle reader, was that it was Valentine’s Day. Traditionally Mrs C and I like to do something to mark the occasion – go to a restaurant, or maybe take a day trip somewhere exotic. Well, there we were in Mumbai, you can’t get much more exotic than that. I had asked the hotel in advance if they were having any particular Valentine’s Day events – and they weren’t. I don’t think it’s very big in India. Nevertheless, they suggested that we have a private dining experience by the pool. Sounded like a good idea to me. Thus it was that later on we turned up at the poolside, all scrubbed up and looking lovely, to enjoy our second vegetarian thali of the day. We had a special menu printed up in our name, and rounded off a superb meal with a fab bottle of Crozes Hermitage. That’s the kind of thing the Oberoi really excels at. It was great!

If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit

India – Mumbai – Getting there and an evening tour

Taj Mahal in 2006Back in 2006, Mrs Chrisparkle and I discovered India. Not in a “Dr Livingstone, I presume” sort of way, rather in our first visit we did a week’s trip visiting the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur and staying at the Oberoi hotel in each location. It was somewhere I had always wanted to visit, and despite some Delhi belly, I can’t tell you quite how much both of us loved the experience. The Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, the Taj Mahal, the Palace of the Winds, Fatehpur Sikri…we came home, delighted to have identified a new playground in the world, where we could return again and again and again, and always find new things to do and areas to visit.

View from outside the OberoiBut it took over six years for us to go back. There had been plans in the meantime for revisits, but they always came a cropper for one reason or another. But in February we finally got on board that BA plane bound for BOM. We got an excellent deal at the Oberoi by staying a full week, which included complimentary return airport transfers (and they were extremely complimentary), free wifi (which was as reliable as Cyprus voting for Greece at Eurovision), and a delicious, substantial breakfast. We chose to have a city view suite, which ended up being part city and part ocean, and it was absolutely terrific.

Taj Mahal HotelI cannot recommend the Oberoi too highly. As you may already know, gentle reader, Mrs C is a coeliac so we normally try and establish in advance the ease or otherwise of her getting something to eat. I had sent the Oberoi one of those “contact us” emails to explain the situation, and I received a really friendly and helpful reply from Mr Mayan Dhawan, Assistant Manager of Food and Beverage, who explained precisely what and where we could eat and how they would take great care of Mrs C’s requirements. Not only did they do that, but this kind gentleman met us on several occasions during our stay, personally attended to us in the restaurants and liaised directly with the chefs, whom he brought out to speak to us, so that we could all be certain that there were no dietary misunderstandings. Absolutely superb service.

Journey in from the airportBut first let me take you back to Mumbai airport. When you emerge from Customs you suddenly enter a throng of people all waving their taxi credentials in your face and you desperately hope that your transfer reservation hasn’t got fed up waiting. Not a bit of it. Travelling Oberoi style means your driver is fairly obvious – he was the only one in a crisp white uniform with gold brocade. He guided us to our limousine. It really was a proper limousine. Not an Essex hen night stretch kind of thing, but a really classy spacious vehicle where you could stretch out, read the paper, drink ice cold water, and feel incredibly relaxed as the hustle and bustle of Mumbai carried on outside the comfort of your four tyres. It’s so luxurious that it’s almost – but not quite – embarrassing. Mrs C wanted to discourage our driver from putting on his crisp white peaked cap – but she didn’t, and he did. I know it was a privileged way to arrive at the hotel. And I loved it.

Champagne Afternoon TeaWe checked in with good time to unpack, take a nap and then explore the hotel. We had already arranged in advance with a tour company plucked from the internet some excursions scattered throughout the week, and the first of those was to be “Mumbai by night”, from approximately 6.30 pm to 8.30 pm, that evening, then back in time for dinner at the hotel, as we didn’t quite feel bold enough to risk the local dining experiences yet. Our afternoon exploration culminated in that delightful experience, the Champagne Afternoon Tea. Champagne, followed by sandwiches and scones and cream and jam and then tea. We could have had more champagne, but, as I am sure you realise, “moderation” is our middle name. It was also impressive that they were able to provide gluten-free sandwiches, although alas not scones. So I had to scoff Mrs C’s. We were comfortably seated beside a picture window overlooking the bay by Nariman Point, a perfect setting for such a refined activity.

View from our roomWe thought we would have plenty of time for our afternoon tea before our guide arrived, but it was served in a rather leisurely manner, so we were more or less just wiping the last crumbs from our mouths when he appeared. Our guide was Amish, and little did we know that within a week of our being in Mumbai we would become firm friends. All we had to do was to get our stuff together and join him and our driver for an exploration of Mumbai at night.

Gateway of IndiaFirst stop, and actually it’s within very easy walking distance, was the Gateway of India. This iconic monument, designed to be seen best from the sea as you approach the city, stands at the edge of a smallish square crammed with people. At night it’s the general meeting place for downtown Mumbai – or Bombay, as Amish pointed out was strictly more accurate – full of youngsters, families, traders, tourists; anyone and everyone is there. It’s atmospherically lit up and its orange glow looks as warm as the Mumbai sun.

RajabhaiAfter fifteen minutes or so drinking in the atmosphere, we got back in the car and drove up to the old Bombay University building. From the outside it looks like an Anglican cathedral, and the Rajabai clock tower to the side looks like it should contain church bells. It’s lit beautifully at night, with constantly changing colours that make it stand out like a beacon, and the gargoyles clinging to the side of the building are very reminiscent of Oxford.

Victoria TerminusAnother short drive took us to the night-time glories of the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. No one in Bombay knows what that is, but if you say Victoria Terminus, they all go “ahh!” and nod with understanding. This magnificent railway station was completed in 1888 and two million people use it every day. Over the course of the week we would go back to revisit these places by day, but at night they have a special magic. It was enough at that point just to appreciate its grandeur from the outside.

Busy roads round Chowpatty BeachWe dropped down to Chowpatty Beach to get some delicious malai and kesar pista kulfi from a food outlet actually on the sand. It’s an area where loads of locals gather for some informal evening eating, and it was really lively and fun. The kulfi was to die for; even Mrs C partook of some.

Queen’s NecklaceThen we drove up to catch the view over Marine Drive and the bay – the Queen’s Necklace – from the Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Garden, but unfortunately it had closed early; we would see the daytime view the next day. But Amish was keen for us to get a good view of the bay by night so we found the bridge that crossed the main road to get to Charni Road Station, and halfway across looked out to get an amazing view of the lights sweeping round the bay.

Saifee HospitalWe then followed the bridge into the station and just carried on walking until you could go no further – unless you were to descend on to the platform. On the other side of the road is the overwhelming sight of the façade of the Saifee Hospital. By day it’s an attractive but not outstanding building; by night it takes on massive proportions and actually left me speechless when I opened my eyes to look at it.

Wedding receptionsWe made our way back to the Oberoi along Marine Drive, but took time to park up to check out a couple of the extraordinary temporary structures along the way, built to house wedding receptions. Indian weddings are humungous affairs, and these edifices range from the grandiose to the ultra-plush. Vivid colours, brash decorations, and full of bridal parties and wedding guests having a good time. Some are in use; some are under construction; whatever, drive past a couple of days later, and they’ve all been replaced by different ones.

Marine DriveWe returned to the Oberoi and decided to have a simple meal at their Fenix restaurant. I had a pizza – very tasty indeed. We then decided to have a nightcap in the Eau Bar. This is a delightful place to which we would become comfortably accustomed. A jolly trio bash out some standard hits whilst extremely friendly yet courteous waiters offer you excellent wines at remarkably reasonable prices. Just writing about it now makes me want to go back!

Bombay SunsetBut we couldn’t stay up long. It had been a very – very – long day; and the next day we would be meeting Amish again for a daytime tour of the sights of the city – the Dhobi Ghat, Pherozeshah Mehta Garden, Gandhi House, and the Gateway of India, all rounded off with the best Masala tea you could imagine. Tell you about it soon!



If you would like Amish to help you discover Mumbai visit