Varkala resort town in Kerala, India

The sleepy town of Varkala is located in the state of Kerala in Southern India.  The town lies on India’s west coast and is about 50 km north of the city of Trivandrum.  The breathtaking cliffs lining the beach here makes for extraordinary sunsets.  The gorgeous beaches are some of the most sought after for surfing enthusiasts from all over the world.  The beach here is cleaner and less crowded in comparison to other beaches along the Arabian Sea coastline.  The resort area has two cliffs, north and south, overlooking the beach areas.  The main beach, called Papanasam, is between these two cliffs.  Folklore believes that this beach has holy waters which will wash away sins.  Another beach, named Black Beach is located further north.  There is a sidewalk along the cliff edge that allows travelers to access the different parts of this small resort town.

varkala, kerala, india cliff beach

 

Additionally, Varkala has lush greenery, coconut and banana farms in excess, beautiful backwaters, fishermen communities, great seafood and a sleepy vibe that the state of Kerala is known for.  Travelers can easily rent a scooter for about $5 a day and drive around the town as well as visit historical temples.  With yoga retreats and Ayurvedic massages galore, Varkala makes for a calming getaway (for all ages) from the maddening shroud that can sometimes be the rest of India.

Varkala, Kerala, India beach

Kerala is an extremely precious part of India with beautiful landscapes and backwaters in abundance. So, it is very important for us to be responsible tourists.  I believe in supporting the manual boats and canoes rather than the bigger houseboats as those are known to be encroaching on the delicate ecosystem.  The disposal of diesel into the water pollutes the marine life and the water that is used by the local fishing and farming communities.

kerala beach, india

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT KERALA:

The monsoon season runs between May and October, with the heaviest rainfall historically in June, July and August.  I, personally, love watching the thunderstorms over the sea, especially from up top of a cliff, so I don’t mind a visit during monsoon time.  However, for travelers short on time, it is probably best to avoid the rainy season.  Summer, from March to May, can be very humid and very hot.  The winter months from December to February offer warm and dry weather and are the most optimal time to visit.  December can be an expensive month to visit India ( in general) as it tends to be popular amongst tourists.  January is a good fit for those trying to catch dry weather, escape extremes of heat, and avoid expensive markups on hotels and flights.  The high temperature in January is still in the mid 80s (or around 30 degrees Celsius).

WHAT TO WEAR IN KERALA:

It is perfectly alright to wear bikinis/bathing suits/swim trunks while at the beach. However, I would strongly recommend covering up properly if moving away from the beach and/or climbing back up to the cliff area in order to be respectful of the local culture and also avoid uncomfortable stares. Wearing cotton shirts and comfortable trousers/skirts to go into town is a good idea to cover up appropriately while also remaining cool as the temperatures can get pretty high during the day.

HOW TO GET TO VARKALA:

The nearest airport is Trivandrum(TRV) and one can easily catch a taxi to Varkala for about $20. Alternatively, one can also take the train – Kanyakumari Express – to Varkala Sivagiri Station.  If you plan to fly into Kochi (COK), which is another city in the state of Kerala, the train ride south to Varkala is about 4 hours.  I would recommend the train, as the ride provides gorgeous views of the lush landscape.  At the time of this post, non-stop flights to TRV and COK are available from Mumbai, Delhi, and Abu Dhabi.  Cheap flights to India often involve at least one stop from the United States.  Non stop flights from New York and Newark are available to Delhi and Mumbai on Air India and United Airlines, which often save time, but are more expensive.

BEING SAFE IN KERALA:

Although Varkala is one of the chillest and safest towns in the area, it is always a good idea to be cautious.  The town goes to sleep quite early, so use caution if walking around after dark.  In fact, past sunset, there is not much to do in the evening hours.  You can hang out at one of the restaurant bars on the cliff, listen to the waves crash, and watch the fishing boats return home after a long day’s work.

WHAT NOT TO MISS IN KERALA:

Travelers can opt to take a quick day trip to the nearby Ponnumthuruthu Island, also called the Golden Island.  While in the Golden Island you can take a relaxing manual boat rides along the water.  The Golden Island is just 12 km south of Varkala.  Varkala is also famous for the Janardana Swami Temple, a two thousand year old shrine, which is often referred to as Dakshin Kashi (Benares of the South).  The temple is in close proximity to Papanasam beach.  While Varkala is usually visited for the beach and yoga, you may also want to experience the famous Kerala Backwaters.  The three most well known regions of Kerala’s backwaters are Astamudi, Vembanad, and Kannur-Valiyaparambu Backwaters (in districts of Kannur and Kasargod).  The backwaters near Astamudi lake are the closest to Varkala.

Floating through the Kerala backwaters
Floating through Kerala’s backwaters

Thanks to Archana
Thanks to Archana (former engineer, turned filmmaker, turned traveler, photographer, writer and dabbler at large) for sharing her travel recommendations with us!

Hanauma Bay, Hawaii

A day trip to this spectacular snorkel spot can be easily made from Waikiki.  Hanauma Bay on the island of Oahu is home to 400 species of fish.  It is known for having an abundance of green sea turtles and colorful parrotfish.  This is a protected state park, and it is against the law to mistreat the marine animals.  While snorkeling you should avoid touching or walking on coral heads.  These look like large rocks on the bottom of the ocean.   Additionally, having contact with certain marine life here carries the risk of cutting your skin which can then lead to an infection.  It is really expensive to rent snorkel equipment here- better off buying your own before visiting!  Your food options are limited near the snorkel area so consider bringing snacks and water with you.  The best time to visit is early in the day, as the sun goes behind the cove of the preserve in the afternoon.

Hanauma Bay

WHEN TO VISIT Hawaii:

November through March are considered Hawaii’s “rainy season.”  The rain, however, usually only lasts a few hours and the weather tends to be warm and pleasant in between.  Budget travelers may be interested in traveling during this time.  For a better chance at good weather and less crowds, visit slightly early in the summer months between May and June.  Late June into September is a popular time for families to travel to Hawaii so hotel and flight prices may be higher.  Hanauma Bay is specifically closed on Tuesdays.  Visit early in the day for the most sun!

WHAT TO Bring to Hanauma Bay:

Remember to bring a bathing suit, a change of clothes, a towel, sunscreen, snacks and snorkel gear.  There is a small entrance fee so bring some cash.

HOW TO GET TO Hanauma Bay:

Non stop flights to Honolulu are available from both JFK and Newark at the time of this post.  For those on a budget, one stop flights can be slightly cheaper, and usually stop in California.  Once in Honolulu, you can catch the #22 bus from Waikiki to get out here or rent a car.  There is a parking lot on site but it tends to fill up early in the morning, so plan accordingly.  Specific details regarding bus cost, shuttle options, entrance fee and parking can be found at the state park’s website.

 

Simi Bosnia
Thanks to guest blogger / travel enthusiast / doctor extraordinaire Simi for sharing her vacay hack with us!

 

 

Rosario Islands, Colombia

We took a lancha 1.5 hours from Cartagena to the Rosario Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Colombia.  Some of the islands are tiny and have just one house on them.  The largest

  in the archipelago is La Isla Grande.  You can take any boat (una lancha) out to the cluster of islands from Cartagena- but then find a local guide on La Isla Grande.  A speedboat can efficiently take you around the perimeter to get a close up view of the now empty and insanely vast vacation / party complex of drug lord Pablo Escobar.  Our guide, Marcelo, also took us to a nearby reef to snorkel 😎 with some really colorful fish.  This area was founded as a National Park in the late 1980’s to protect the beautiful coral reefs of this region.  This area offers some of the best snorkeling in the caribbean sea.  After a long day in the sun here, return to colorful Cartagena for dinner in the walled city.

Blue Beach, Vieques, Puerto Rico

Blue Beach (also known as La Chiva) on the Caribbean island of Vieques is quite aptly named.  Vieques, which used to be a US Naval Base, boasts some of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled beaches.  Because many of the island’s idyllic beaches are protected (no hotels can be built on the beach) you will need to rent an off-road vehicle to properly explore this slice of heaven. Remember you will have to bring everything with you- including towels, umbrellas and snacks- as this beach is isolated and not commercialized.  You can reach Vieques (which is part of Puerto Rico) by taking a short 18 minute flight from San Juan.

Vik, Iceland

The Icelandic village of Vik is about 180 kilometers from Reykjavik (about a 2 hour drive).  The basalt rock columns seen in this photo rise above the sea and provide a dramatic backdrop during sunset.  The folklore behind these striking columns is that they are former Trolls who were trying to drag their boats out to sea, but were caught by the sunrise.  Because trolls are creatures of the night, the daylight froze them into the columns you see rising from the Atlantic.  Vik is particularly famous for its black sand beaches – the black sand being the black basalt.  Another interesting find here is the Puffin bird- it can be spotted in the Vik beaches during its nesting season.

black sand beach Vik
The black sand beaches of Vik

BEST TIME TO VISIT Iceland:

Plan a visit in late June, July or August when the weather is the warmest and the days are the longest.  Summer travel, while more expensive, allows you to make the most of your time there.  During the longest days in the summer, the sun will set after midnight and rise again around 3 am!  If you want to get the best deals on hotels in Iceland, you may choose to travel in May or September.  Remember, because of Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole, the days become shorter quickly, leaving less time to explore Iceland’s natural beauty.  The near 24 hours of daylight plummets to 11 hours of daylight by mid September.  Although that is still plenty of time to explore, Vik is two hours from both Reykjavik and Jökulsárlón.  Thus, long drives between destinations, especially at night, is more challenging on poorly lit roads.

WHAT TO BRING / WEAR:

In the summer months you will need plenty of layers.  During the day the temperature could be 60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit (or about 15 degrees Celsius), but at night it can drop as low as 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  Bring waterproof boots as well.  Even though it may not rain, the beach at Vik is cold and damp-definitely not the traditional “toes in the sand” situation.  If you plan to travel off season, bring a winter coat, hat, and gloves.  Made obvious by the country’s name, it is cold here.

HOW TO GET TO Vik, Iceland:

The easiest way is by renting a car. Several tour companies will also offer tours from Reykjavik (379 kilometers away) to Jökulsárlón, which will stop in Vik along the way.  However, this will limit the amount of time you can spend here.  For the most freedom, rent a car, and plan to stay overnight in Vik.  Vik is located right off the Route 1 ring road.

The cheapest way to get to Vik is to hitchhike or take a bus.  Although I did not hitchhike, if there’s any country to try it in, this would be it.  There is one major road in the country and it has the lowest crime rates.  Another option is taking Strætó, which provides bus service in the capital and to other parts of Iceland.  Bus route 51 travels from Reykjavik (the bus stop in the capital city is called “Mjodd”) to Vik as well as Jökulsárlón.

WHAT NOT TO MISS IN ICELAND:

In addition to Vik, Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland’s most famous sites.  It is 2 hours from Vik.  Along Iceland’s southern coast, you will also find the striking waterfall of Skogafoss.  Closer to the capital city, is the famous Golden Circle route which covers geysirs, the Thingvellir National Park, and Gulfoss (another waterfall).

Me, Vik, and Twilight
Me, Vik, and Twilight

 

 

 

Sand Dunes in Michigan

This photo was taken in the underrated sand dunes of Northern and Western Michigan.  What so many travelers do not know is that Michigan’s landscape, particularly near Lake Michigan is anything but ordinary.  The dramatic sand dunes dive into the the enormous lake below.  Silver Lake Dunes is about a 3 hour drive from Detroit and will allow adventure enthusiasts to rent dune buggies.  Sleeping Bear Dunes is further from Detroit and more north but boasts close proximity to Traverse City which is a well known resort destination amongst Michigan residents.  You don’t need to head half way around the world to experience this landscape!

TAYLOR BAY, TURKS AND CAICOS

Taylor Bay on the island of Providenciales or Provo is one of the most spectacular sites on the island. The water is shallow, calm and clear for nearly a mile out. Turks and Caicos travelers staying on a resort on the Grace Bay side of the island will have to rent a car to get here. But it is well worth it. The bay is adjacent to Sapodilla Bay and although seemingly approachable when looking at a map, the parking is difficult. The roads leading up to the bay are lined with elite villas all on private property. So, while the beach is public, it’s access is limited due to parking limitations. What did we do? We strapped on backpacks with snacks, sunscreen, towels and water, parked the car in a safe and legal (we think) place, and used GPS on our phones to get us down there. It was so breathtaking, we did it again the next day. And the next. Happy travels! PS. There is little shade so bring a beach umbrella!