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!

Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

The stunning Cliffs of Moher, on Ireland’s west coast, reach a maximum height of 702 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.  This is not the place to be a careless idiot-unless you want to plunge quickly to your death (vacayfail).  Even in the summer, it can be windy, and there is no one stopping you from getting right up to the edge of the cliff (at your own risk, of course).

Cliffs of Moher Saya
I’m smiling, but I was actually terrified while taking this photo. It was a pretty stupid idea and I wouldn’t do it again.  To get up, I slithered my way backwards until I was far enough away to stand up safely.

We arrived here by car from Galway (just under 2 hours) and spent about 2.5 hours here.  Even on a cloudy day (plenty of those in Ireland) the scenery here is remarkable.  The history of the Cliffs of Moher dates back at least two thousand years.  The name comes from a 1st Century BC fort that use to be where the Moher Tower stands now.  The Cliffs of Moher are named after the old Irish word “Mothar” which means ruined fort.  Admission to the paths to walk along the cliffs (at the time of this post) is 6 Euros, which includes parking.  You can visit between 9 am and 5 pm year round, with extended evening hours in the summer.  There is also a visitors center with bathrooms and some limited food options.  You may find cheap flights to Ireland by flying into Shannon airport, rather than Dublin.  Shannon airport is on the west coast of Ireland and is a convenient gateway to Ireland’s west coast.

At the top of the photo you can see how small the people are walking along the cliffs, giving you a sense of how high you really are above the ground.
At the top of the photo you can see how small the people are walking along the cliffs, giving you a sense of how high you really are above the ground.

 

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT THE CLIFFS OF MOHER:

June, July, and August for the best weather and most frequent bus service (if you do not plan to rent a car). May and September for less crowds and mild weather.

WHAT TO WEAR:

Comfortable walking shoes to walk along the paths, and multiple layers in case it turns chilly. This area is always windy and it may rain so bring a raincoat!

HOW TO GET TO THE CLIFFS OF MOHER:

The easiest way is by renting a car from either Galway or Limerick. Several tour companies will also offer tours from Galway, and Limerick if you do not want to rent your own car. Some companies will even offer one day trips from Dublin. However, keep in mind that Dublin is 3 hour drive from the Cliffs of Moher, so a tour company offering to take you to the Cliffs and back to Dublin in one day means you will be leaving very early, spending little time on Ireland’s west coast and returning very late at night to Dublin. It is really best to spend a few nights on Ireland’s west coast to explore other areas. If you are traveling in a group and can split the cost of car rental, renting a car, and spending a few nights on the west coast, is the most efficient and painless way to visit the Cliffs.

The cheapest way to get to the Cliffs of Moher, especially if you are traveling alone, is by public transport. All major cities in Ireland are connected by rail, but to get to the Cliffs you will need to take a bus from the rail station. The train journey from Dublin to Galway is 3.5 hours. From Galway you can take a bus operated by the Bus Eireann Company. They offer more frequent service in the summer months so be sure to check the schedule before planning.

WHAT NOT TO MISS:

The Cliffs are amazing, but you also should explore the Ring of Kerry as well as the Gap of Dunloe which are also on Ireland’s west coast. Dunguaire castle, which sits beside a small lake, is a great place to take some photos of a real Irish castle. It is about an hour from the Cliffs, but it is en route to Galway, so is a nice way to break up the journey. Head north after leaving the Cliffs on N67 and take the road north for approximately 50 Km and the castle sits right off the side of the road as you approach Kinvarra (just past the intersection of N67 with R347).

Dunguaire Castle
Built in the 16th center, Dunguaire Castle sits on Galway Bay, and it is open to visitors April to mid October from 10 am to 4 pm.

 

The Matterhorn, Switzerland

The Matterhorn in Switzerland is one of the world’s most recognizable mountains.  To view the summit, you must travel to the town of Zermatt.  After reaching Zermatt, a separate ticket needs to be purchased for the red train (in the photo below you can see the train behind me) that will take you to a higher summit where you can enjoy unobstructed views of the mountain.  Remember to stay hydrated at high altitudes!  Zermatt is easily accessible by train from Interlaken (about a 2 hour train ride) or Geneva (about 4 hours each way).  Zermatt itself is really touristy and not charming but viewing the Matterhorn is well worth the journey.

Saya Matterhorn

WHEN TO VISIT Switzerland:

The best months are the summer months for clear weather.  However, these are also the busiest months for tourism.  You can save a good chunk of money and avoid the bulk of the crowds by visiting slightly off season in May or September.

WHAT TO WEAR IN Switzerland:

Zermatt is at an elevation of 5,276 feet, and the viewing point of the Matterhorn is even higher.  Remember to bring layers as the temperature may change quickly.

HOW TO GET TO Zermatt:

The town of Zermatt does not allow cars, so the best way to arrive here is by train.  The Swiss rail system connects Zermatt to Interlaken and Zermatt to Bern in just over 2 hours by rail.  Hotel prices in Bern tend to be slightly cheaper than those in Interlaken.

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!

 

 

Iceland’s Best Waterfall

A two hour drive from Reykjavik along Iceland’s southern coast will take you to Skogafoss-one of country’s most famous waterfalls, and, in my opinion, it’s best.  Because the coastline has receded seaward in this area, the highlands meet the lowlands, allowing visitors to walk right up to the falls.  It is also easily accessible, as there is car park a short walk from the base of the falls.   The waterfall’s enormous drop creates a consistent spray, so it is very common to see a single or double rainbow on a sunny day.

Me, Skogafoss, and a double rainbow
Me, Skogafoss, and a double rainbow

Skogafoss was also the backdrop for scenes in the movie Thor: The Dark World.

Skogafoss

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, travelers will have nearly 24 hours of daylight.  If you want to get the best deals on hotels in Iceland, you may choose to travel in May or September.

skogafoss double rainbow

WHAT TO WEAR IN Iceland:

In the summer months you will need to wear layers.  The temperature can vary between the high 60s during the day to the mid 40’s at night.  Bring waterproof boots, so you can walk right up to the falls.  Off season travelers will need winter clothing to keep warm while sightseeing.

HOW TO GET TO Skogafoss:

The easiest way to arrive at Skogafoss is by car.  It is under a two hour drive from the capital city and can be easily done as a day trip.  The cheapest way would be to hitchhike or take the bus.  Strætó provides bus service in Reykjavik 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 Skogafoss, Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland’s most famous sites.  It is 2.5 hours from Skogafoss.  Between, Skogafoss and the glacial lagoon lies the seaside village of Vik.  Stop here to enjoy the black sand beaches.  Closer to the capital city, is the famous Golden Circle route which covers geysirs, the Thingvellir National Park, and Gulfoss (another waterfall).

Iceland’s Glacial Lagoon

One of Iceland’s natural wonders is Jökulsárlón which means “glacier river lagoon.”  It formed when the tip of Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (part of the Vatnajökull glacier) began to retreat from the sea in the 1930s.  Large pieces of glacial ice break off the glacier to form create the striking icebergs floating in the lagoon.

Iceberg in glacial lagoon

The lagoon was the backdrop for scenes from the James Bond film Die Another Day and most recently the new Bollywood film Dilwale.  The lake developed just over 60 years ago and has doubled in size since 1975.  Global warming is real, people.  It takes over 4 hours to reach this area from Reykjavik so you can either leave very early, or make an overnight stop in the seaside village of Vik.  Once you arrive at Jökulsárlón, jump on board a boat to weave you between icebergs in the glacial lagoon.

glacial lagoon iceland

BEST TIME OF YEAR TO VISIT Jökulsárlón :

Plan a visit in July or August when the weather is the warmest (relative to the rest of the year) and the days are longer.  If you want to get the best deals on hotels and airfare, travel a bit off season in early June or mid September.  Remember, because of Iceland’s proximity to the North Pole, the days become shorter quickly.  Summer travel, while more expensive, allows you to make the most of your time there (nearly 20 hours of sunlight in the summer!).  By mid September, the temperatures drop and the days shorten to 11 hours making driving late at night more challenging on poorly lit roads.

WHAT TO BRING / WEAR:

In the summer months you will need plenty of layers.  Although Reykyavik may be pleasant during the day, the area surrounding the glacial lagoon will still be chilly and wet.  Bring waterproof boots as well.  If you have trouble sleeping, the constant daylight in the summer months may drive you crazy.  So bring a sleeping aid, if you think you need it.

HOW TO GET TO Jökulsárlón Lagoon:

The easiest way is by renting a car. Several tour companies will also offer tours from Reykjavik (379 kilometers away) which takes away the hassle of driving, allowing you to enjoy the scenery along the way.  Depending on how many people you are traveling with, renting a car may be easier as well as more economical.  The lagoon is located just off the Route 1 ring road.

The cheapest way to get to Jökulsárlón is to hitchhike.  Apparently, backpackers do this safely here, as Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.  It is also possible to take the bus (route 51) to the glacial lagoon from the bus station in Reykjavik (called “Mjodd”).

WHAT NOT TO MISS:

On the way to Jökulsárlón, be sure to stop by for a meal or an overnight stay in Vik.  Vik is about 2 hours into your 4 hour drive from Reykjavik to the glacial lagoon.  The black sand beaches here are truly unique, and the sunset here borders on magical.  Another interesting site to note is the volcano Eyjafjallajökull.  Uhh… What?  Don’t waste your time trying to pronounce it – just know that it is the volcano that famously erupted back in 2010.  It is located 30 minutes by car away from Vik en route to Reykjavik.  Just follow the Route 1 ring road back to the capital.

Vik, Iceland
Vik at Sunset