A trip to India is not complete without visiting the country’s capital of cool, where “cosmopolitan” feels a little too straitjacket to describe the pulse this city beats to. With over 18 million residents, the hustle and noise are relentless. The car horns provide a constant backdrop to the energy that is exhibited from those who are just trying to survive to those who are displaying cutting edge western brands.
Getting to and from the Airport
You are always at your most vulnerable when you first arrive in a new location. Never wanting to rely on the security that a highly overpriced hotel car will cost you for a man with sign with your name on it at Arrivals, we would recommend getting a prepaid taxi. The booth can be found just inside the main arrivals hall, and a trip into Colaba (the main tourist spot) will set you back around 750 rupees plus another 55 rupees for the new bridge toll. Don’t be concerned that the luggage loaded on the poor excuse for a roof rack will at some point join the highway floor – a combination of physics and good luck will keep it there. The 25 km trip will take somewhere between 1 hour (bad traffic), 1.5 hours (very bad traffic) or 2 hours (normal traffic). Prepare your ears for the constant horns, your eyes for last minute weaving and a will for peace of mind.
Where to stay?
There are many options in Mumbai from cheap guest houses to luxury hotels. For us, there was only 1 choice – the historic and legendary Taj Mahal Palace. Steeped in tradition, this phoenix has risen from the ashes following the horrific terror attacks in 2008. With all visible scars removed and the security significantly heightened the hotel has been restored to the splendor of the colonial age. The magnificent architecture is only matched by service levels we have never experienced before. From check in to check out, no staff member can do enough to make you feel like a visiting member of the British Royal Family. The rooms are exquisite, the food divine and the price tag reasonable if you stay outside of peak season (December to February).
The good news is the must-see sites of Mumbai can be viewed through a good walk. Starting at the historic Gate of India, where the British departed India in 1946, you can take some great photos of the Taj Mahal Palace. There are obviously the usual touts, tourist tack sellers and everyone else you can think of trying to claim some of your dollars. Unless interested, just say no and walk on.
Next stop is the Prince of Wales Museum (locally now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), which offers some wonderful colonial architecture. Carrying on heading up the road through the bazaars and financial district to the Victoria Terminal (aka Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), the largest train station in Asia and a World Heritage site. Take a peek inside and try to avoid being carried away by a sea of people in a hurry.
Turning back you can take a walk to the Rajabai Clock, which is set inside the University grounds. Following the 2008 attacks you cannot enter the grounds, but the impressive views can be seen from the nearby park where you can also enjoy watching several cricket matches at any hour of the day. Watch out for flying balls!
Head back to Colaba Causeway and indulge in some shopping, but make sure you haggle. Electric Bombay, FabIndia and Good Earth offer air conditioned options if looking for fashion, local attire and handicrafts.
Where to eat
For lunches, Indigo Deli offers an upmarket deli option with Perrier water to suit. Cafe Mondegar provides a more down to earth offering with hundreds of options from around the world.
We chose to dine on the rooftop at Indigo, and the food matched our elevated position. Local seafood meeting Indian spices made for a mouth-watering combination. We went for a local Indian wine, Sula, which served as our bottle of choice for the rest of our trip (we quickly worked out drinking imported wines would bankrupt us).
Watch out for
December to February are considered the coolest months in Mumbai, but with that brings the bigger crowds and higher prices. We chose to visit in late March and we started to feel the heat rise to a bearable high 30s, with significant humidity. We were warned to avoid the months of June and July when near 100% humidity and high 40s heat can drive many to the edge in a city that is often already there.
Crossing the road is like riding a roller-coaster– thrills, adrenaline, fear, surprise and relief. Our best approach was to cross with a few locals to create a large mass for drivers to swerve around.
It’s hard not to stand out like a walking dollar sign, and for that many will want to talk to you. Wear a money belt, and say no while on the move. Most will give up at this point. Avoid anything that sounds too good to be true – you can only be scammed if you are greedy (quote from Hustle).
Go for It
Go in with your eyes and heart open, and you will leave Mumbai feeling exhausted, overwhelmed but alive with the energy and vibrancy you have just been a part of.
With so much to do in Las Vegas from partying to shopping, shows to fine dining, it can be hard to decide how to spend your time there! Our 3 day schedule which we put together for a mid-week break might give you some ideas of what can be achieved in a few days if you sacrifice a little sleep – and gives you a few tips on things to avoid too.
Day 1 (Tuesday)
• Check In at MGM Grand – We stayed at the MGM Grand via a great midweek deal with Allegiant Air. With modern room designs, amazing pools, a great casino and enough restaurant options to last you a month, your only concern will be not getting lost in this giant complex!
• Lunch at In and Out Burger – a cult Californian burger chain, this super cheap lunch option comes with secret codes for crispy fries and thousand island sauce. Highly recommend getting a taxi given its location on a major intersection unless you like dodging cars at high speed in the heat!
• Shopping at Fashion Show Mall – Vegas is littered with shopping malls but the biggest of them is the Fashion Show Mall next to Treasure Island. Worth bringing a spare bag to take your purchases home with!
• Walking the Strip – You can’t visit Vegas without walking The Strip and admiring the sheer scale of the hotel resorts! Suggest you carry water and be prepared to be offered show tickets every 20 meters! Our favourite push back line was “saw it last night”……
• MGM Pools – you should make time each day to enjoy a few hours by one of the MGM’s many outdoor pools. With only 12 days of rain a year, and an average temperature of 40 degrees in summer, you are almost guaranteed warm sunshine! You are allowed to take in your own drinks (no glass), or the poolside bars offer refreshing cocktails. The main challenge is working out how to keep them cool!
• Roller-coaster at New York New York – if you love the thrill of being thrown around at high speed, then a roller-coaster that goes through the New York New York casino is probably a must do. Cost is $14 per person for a 2-3 minute ride.
• Gambling at…anywhere – You can gamble whenever you want, and when you do the drinks are generally free! We tried to give ourselves a time and budget limit as the casinos have no clocks and they pump oxygen in to keep you awake! #DontChaseThoseLosses
Day 2 (Wednesday)
• Buffet Lunch at Wicked Spoon (Cosmopolitan) – Vegas is famed for its Champagne Brunches but these tend to be only on the weekend. An alternative midweek choice is the elegantly decorated Wicked Spoon at the Cosmopolitan which serves to 2pm each day everything from eggs benedict, to roast meats, to Asian sides to a very impressive dessert selection. $26 per person including soft drinks makes this a must do! #Stuffed
• MGM Lazy River – the best way to recover from a 4 course buffet brunch is to head to the ¼ mile long lazy river at the MGM Grand. Make sure you hire a tube for $10 (half day) and enjoy a relaxing ride with a cool beverage in hand! Watch out for human dams (guys trying to pick up girls in their tube by blocking the river) and powerful waterfalls which will dent your beer can, and knock the sunglasses right off your head if shoved under one!
• Drinking game in a taxi…or anywhere – so if you forget your ID to pick up your show tickets, you might spend a bit of time in a taxi going back to get it so why not make the most of your time by grabbing a few drinks and playing some drinking games – recommended the Name Game! As visitors from Canada with its super strict drinking rules, the option to enjoy a beverage anywhere, whether in a taxi or walking down the street – is pretty exciting in itself!
• Cirque Du Soleil – you can’t go to Vegas and not take in one of the legendary shows, which sell out fast. We booked Mystere at Treasure Island a couple of weeks ahead of time for around $100 person including all the booking fees. Our great centre seats were fantastic value for money and the amazing Cirque Du Soleil acts did not disappoint – although we still can’t work out what the plot was all about.
• Senor Frogs Yards – we decided to ensure we did not go thirsty on our nighttime walk along The Strip so used a 2-1 voucher to buy a yard of pina colada each from Senor Frogs, as well as throw a few token shapes on the dance floor. You get to keep the foot long glasses and the hangover!
• Bellagio Fountain – the fountain runs every 15 minutes, but is most spectacular at night. Last show is at midnight so arrive early to get a good spot and the classic “I was here” Vegas snap!
Day 3 (Thursday)
• Gondola at Venetian Hotel – a good way to recover from a sore head is to take a 12 minute ride on the Venetian Gondola. There are 2 options – indoors (signposted) and outdoors (not very well signposted..). $18 per person. Staff are super friendly and will sing on request!
• Lunch at BurGR at Planet Hollywood – Gordon Ramsey has taken the humble burger and turned it into a mouth-watering treat at a reasonable price. The hog burger with its English cheddar and apple butter along with the hand cut truffle parmesan dusted fries were sensational, and left you wanting more!
• Wet Republic at MGM. This “day club” runs from Thursday to Sunday with world class DJs playing to packed pools. Entry is $20 for men and $10 on Thursday. There is a dress code and security check! Don’t forget your ear plugs, this place is loud!
• Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill at MGM – situated on the casino floor Wolfgang Puck Bar and Grill restaurant offered wonderful flavours with the Halibut being the stand out dish.
• The Mix at The Hotel – if you want to see a phenomenal Vegas view with a great cocktail in hand, The Mix on the 64th floor of The Hotel at Mandalay Bay is your perfect spot. Leave your fear of heights at home, don’t forget your camera and make a visit to the bathroom for the best washroom view of your life.
• Tiesto at Hakassan nightclub (MGM) – a world renowned DJ playing one of Vegas’ latest and hottest clubs meant we were more than happy to fork out $50 for men and $30 for the girls on tickets. However, with a 1 hour wait for the ticket line and a dance floor which could only be accessed by those paying extortionate prices for table services this place was more about image than dance music. We left after a couple hours after being only able to dance in the packed gangways with no view of the main stage. Overpriced and over-hyped. #Avoid.
• Checking out – always make sure you check your bill, and don’t be tempted to do an express checkout. It took the super unfriendly and unapologetic front desk assistant 3 attempts to get our bill correct. The MGM has great rooms, a superb central location on The Strip and fantastic outdoor pools, but the front desk service on check out was less than ideal.
Top Tips for Vegas
– Get taxis where you can as it takes longer than you think to walk given the maze of lights and walkways. Budget around $10 per taxi
– Plan a bit in advance – the hottest shows and clubs sell out
– Sleep when you get home – there is just too much fun to be had!!
Earlier this month I was lucky enough to be invited on a flying visit to Montreal. Montreal might be in the same country as our hometown of Vancouver, but from a political, linguistic, cultural and culinary perspective, it is very much French, making it the perfect Canadian city escape.
I stayed at the Hotel Le Germain. Perfectly located on Mansfield Street in the heart of Downtown Montreal, it’s ideally located for business meetings and not far from the shopping of Sainte-Catherine Street. A boutique that is trendy without being pretentious, the rooms are superbly designed with chic but understated décor and extremely comfortable beds. The service was exceptional during my stay, and every single one of the staff I met could not have been more helpful.
The hotel’s restaurant, Laurie Raphaël, is highly acclaimed for its locally inspired menu of appetizer size specialities. The subtle flavours of my halibut, with polenta stuffed zucchini flower were particularly noteworthy, as was the progression of selected Québec cheeses. The flawless service continued with our server at Laurie Raphaël whose knowledge of the regional cheese producers and wine list was highly impressive. A note of caution, however – this isn’t your usual hotel restaurant to enjoy a quick business dinner. You will want to give yourself a couple of hours to really enjoy the experience.
My second dinner in Montreal was equally memorable. On the recommendation of the hotel’s concierge I headed over to Brasserie T, the sister restaurant to a veteran of the Montreal restaurant scene, Toque! You can’t miss the location – a modernist structure with bright interior design, in the centre of the Quartier des spectacles. Tonight it was buzzing and I was lucky enough to jump a queue of 10 people waiting for tables, having secured myself a spot at the bar. Tonight I kept my menu choice traditional –an excellent steak frites, followed by crème caramel. Brasserie T is known for its quality ingredients, and in simple dishes like this, it really shows.
Friends who know the city had told me I was particularly lucky that my trip coincided with the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, and they were absolutely right. After dinner, we caught a free concert by Canadian singer Kellylee Evans. I am no jazz expert, so it would do her voice a disservice to describe it as anything other than soulful and beautiful. But the relaxed atmosphere, with couples, families, tourists and locals all dancing and enjoying the music really captured the cultural vibe of the city, and was refreshing coming from Vancouver where, post Stanley cup riots, the fun police are always lurking at city outdoor events ready to pour out any “festive” spirit you may have!
The next morning I had a few hours to enjoy the city before catching my flight, so I headed to Vieux-Montreal, for me the City’s must-do. Strolling along the riverfront and through cobbled streets and squares, I could easily have been in one of the small French towns of childhood vacations. Top tips for Vieux-Montreal. Le Magasin General is a gorgeous independent gem full of unique accessories, jewellery, décor and gifts. And believe it or not, perhaps my favourite meal of the trip in a French city was in fact Italian! BEVO Bar and Pizzeria is a trendy new take on a firewood pizza restaurant, with a terrace perfect for people watching over lunch. Since moving to Canada I have found a really good thin-crust pizza hard to track down. This one nailed it, with simple flavours, delicious fresh mozzarella and basil and perfectly crisp dough.
A 36 hour visit was nowhere near long enough to enjoy this amazing city, but it was enough of a taster to ensure I will definitely be back for a longer visit!