Falling off the map

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By A clutch of young travel entrepreneurs is going beyond off-the-shelf packages to offer truly unique holidays, says Sushmita Biswas
  • Published 8.01.11
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Thailand scores high with holidaymakers who travel with Broken Compass

Where are you heading on your next vacation? Are you taking the road more travelled or are you willing to strike out in a new direction? It could be a driving holiday to one of the undiscovered beaches in the Konkan. How about tracking a tiger with your favourite filmmaker or going on a trail in the Himalayas with an ace photographer?

A crop of young and passionate travel entrepreneurs is going beyond off-the-shelf packages and offering holidays with a twist. The idea is to offer more services than those offered by travel agencies. “It’s time to redefine the concept of a holiday and promote responsible tourism. This way, travellers understand the rich cultural, spiritual and artistic landscape of a place better,” says Ram Badrinath, who runs the Mumbai-based Soulitudes with wife Shobhana Jain. He mostly offers group tours, promoted on Facebook.

Here’s looking at some of the off-beat travel companies that are offering unique travel experiences.

(From top) Avani Patel and Manjari Verma of Broken Compass; Tourists on a nature walk in Ladakh
Vinod Sreedhar of Journeys with Meaning

CREATIVE CALL

Ever thought of going on a jungle trail with your favourite filmmaker? How about attending a classical concert in the lap of nature? Soulitudes offers all that and more.

The idea of setting up their company came to Badrinath and Jain during their travels in Europe. Says Badrinath: “The first few years of my career I wanted to leave India, but today I want to spend the rest of my life discovering its beauty.”

They have arranged unusual trips like a 4-night/5-day jungle trail with noted filmmaker Shyam Benegal in a boutique jungle camp in Bandhavgarh called Churhat Kothi. The package included daily sessions on filmmaking with the director, who attended open-air screenings of his films and even accompanied everyone on jungle trails. The trip was priced at Rs 15,000 per person including accommodation, meals and activities.

Another was a 2-night/3-day trip to a resort in Sonapani, Himachal Pradesh with musician Raghu Dixit. It was priced at Rs 6,000 per person per night and threw in an open-air musical performance by Dixit, along with a jungle walk and kite flying.

Next trip: A 3-day trip in March to Churhat Kothi with dhrupad singer Uday Bhowalikar. Look forward to a jungle safari with the artiste and candlelight dhrupad sessions. The package includes stay, meals and village walks and is priced at Rs 30,000 per couple. Also on the cards is a photography tour to Ladakh. Prices and itinerary are being worked out.

ON THE ROAD

How about a customised driving holiday with your family? That’s exactly what Mumbai-based Harshit Merchant and his wife, Anjani, are doing under the banner of their company Exoterra Adventures. Merchant, 43, with a motorsports background helps customise driving trips to lesser known locales in the Konkan, Kumaon, Goa, Rann of Kutch and Ladakh. “In India, the concept of a driving holiday is still new. The best way to see any country is to do a road trip and take the road less travelled,” says Merchant who accompanies guests on all the trips.

Yogesh Shah and Suchna Hegde Shah of Backpacker Co
The Blueberry Trails specialises in tours to lesser-known destinations like Dang in south Gujarat

Merchant leads a convoy of cars (not more than 15 at a time) with fun activities thrown in like treasure hunts and navigational contests. Travellers can bring their own automobiles or one of their choice can be arranged.

“We fit the cars with GPS and keep a back-up driver,” he adds. And you don’t have to worry about breakdowns and minor mishaps because the organisers take care of things like flat tyres and keep medical kits handy. “We avoid taking highways and take detours along smaller roads,” says Merchant.

Their trips have included a 5-day driving trip to Uttarakhand (ex-Delhi) at Rs 16,000 for two. Their first stop was at the Hideaway Riverview Resort in Jim Corbett National Park, where guided walks with a naturalist were organised. Next they headed to Sigri Village near Nainital followed by a stay in Ranikhet.

Another memorable expedition was a 5-day trip to Dapoli in the Konkan (ex-Mumbai) at Rs 3,500 per person, per night. This included sightseeing, a picnic near Kuda Caves and a trek to Sreevardhan Fort. All their road trips are exclusive of air/rail fares and fuel costs.

Next trip: Another Dapoli trip is on the cards later this year. Other driving trips will be to the Northeast in May (ex-Guwahati). Prices and itinerary are being worked out.

AS YOU LIKE IT

(From top) Anu and Sudeepta Sanyal of The Blueberry Trails; Harshit Merchant of Exoterra Adventures, which specialises in customised driving holidays

Would you prefer a more leisurely holiday or one that gives you a huge adrenaline rush? Manjari Verma and her partner Avani Patel of Broken Compass, Mumbai, customise itineraries based on a person’s travel profile and budget. Verma used to work at the ad agency &M, while Patel, who’s a marine biologist, worked for a travel company. “We left our cushy corporate jobs to follow our passion of travelling. We guide people towards off-beat locations,” says Verma.

There are group tours and individual tours. Clients first fill up a travel questionnaire (so the duo can gauge the travel psyche of a person). They either offer end-to-end solutions where the entire trip is customised or travellers only consult them for thorough research on where to stay, what to eat and activities to look out for, following which the traveller does the bookings. The minimum charge for research-based consultation is Rs 8,000.

Broken Compass is just a couple of months old. Says Verma: “Everybody does customisation. But our forté lies first in gauging the travel psyche of an individual and then customising the trip. So, if a couple were to travel, we see to it that both can meet their individual preferences on the same trip.”

They customised a specifically high-end 9-night/10-day trip for a couple and their kid to Thailand. It was priced at Rs 5 lakh where they stayed in villas on Phi Phi Island (40km from Phuket) and went on an elephant trail in Krabi.

They also sent a honeymooning couple to Sri Lanka for 7 nights/8 days, where they visited Nurelia (Sri Lanka’s highest mountain), a beach trail in Beruwela and Colombo. The couple wanted a relaxing holiday. So they had chauffeur-driven cars, candle-light dinners and went for village walks. Priced at Rs 1.2 lakh for the couple, the cost included airfares.

Next trip: They are organising cycling trips in and around Mumbai with a cycling enthusiast and also guided photography trips with a photographer. Prices and itinerary are being worked out.

A DIFFERENT SHADE

Vinod Sreedhar’s company, Journeys with Meaning, was launched in 2009 with the primary aim of raising awareness about ecological issues and community life in India. Sreedhar, 35, has been organising trips where travellers interact and stay with locals and understand their daily lives. He has done seven trips to different locations in both Kashmir and Ladakh.

He says: “We opt for homestays and organic farms. Guests eat local food and I encourage them to take local transport like jeeps and buses to reduce the carbon footprint.” Sreedhar accompanies the travellers on the trips and good environmental practices are high on the agenda. He adds: “At the end of each trip, we even collect garbage like plastic bottles and carbonated drink cans which callous tourists leave behind.”

Charges for these trips are based on actuals (includes accommodation, food and transportation). But people can pay more at the end. Sreedhar says: “It’s not a profit-making venture. At the end of the trip, if a traveller feels that it was a value-added experience, he can pay any amount he likes.”

An 18-day trip to Ladakh is priced at Rs 16,000 per person. It starts from Leh, from where travellers do a two-hour trek to a village called Hemishukpabhan, camping en route at Yangphang village. Activities include river rafting on the Indus and a visit to Pangong Lake. The trip is rounded off with a visit to local organisations, where you interact with volunteers to find out more about Ladakhi lives.

The 12-day Kashmir trip (priced at Rs 13,000 per person) started from Srinagar. Travellers stayed in houseboats, interacted with lawyers and Kashmiri Pandits to understand the prevailing political situation and also met the volunteers of APDP (the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons) in Srinagar. There was also an overnight village trip to Kreeri in Baramulla District.

Next trip: A 10-day Meghalaya trip from Guwahati to Shillong, priced at Rs 17,000 per person. Sreedhar will also tie-up with local NGOs for a tree-planting drive in Shillong.

DO THE NEW

How about going on a beach trail to some of the quietest beaches in the Konkan? Blueberry Trails, a travel outfit set up by sisters Sudeepta, 26, and Anu Sanyal, 24, in Mumbai, organises such experiential travel holidays in off-beat locations in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Ladakh. Their last trip was to Maral Beach in Maharashtra’s Konkan belt. Travellers put up in a homestay and were served homemade seafood.

Activities included cycling to the nearby village and sightseeing, a boat ride at night and dolphin spotting. Priced at Rs 3,500 per person for 2-nights/3-days, it included travel from Mumbai, stay, food and activities. “We try to discover a new place which is non-touristy and then recommend a travel itinerary. We have a good local network in place so travellers can put up at homestays and eat local cuisine,” says Sudeepta.

Next trip: Coming up is a 3-night/4-day forest trail in Dang, south Gujarat, in January. Priced at Rs 5,000 per person (ex-Mumbai), it includes travel in an air-conditioned car, meals and stay. Also coming up at the end of this month is a 2 night/3-day camping trail in Panchgani. Priced at Rs 3,000 per person, it’s inclusive of stay, food and travel.

EASY ON THE POCKET

How about backpacking to Europe? Started by Yogesh Shah and his wife Suchna Hegde Shah, the Backpacker Co is a Mumbai-based travel outfit which does such tours. “Both of us have travelled to various European countries, stayed in hostels and sampled local cuisine. For people with reasonable budgets, the only way to really see Europe is by backpacking,” says Yogesh.

He says that Indians with an adventurous streak are recognising backpacking as a great way to travel cheap. Travels happen in groups of seven to eight people. “We get a lot of women travellers who feel safe travelling with us,” he says. One can look forward to cycling and culinary trails in France and even wine trails in Tuscany.

Next trip: On the cards is a 15-day backpacking trip through Eastern Europe, starting from Munich, to Prague, Kraków, Budapest, Bratislava, Ljubljana, Salzburg and Vienna. It will be priced at Rs 99,000 per person. It excludes airfares but includes accommodation in hostels with full-service kitchens. Transfers between destinations will be via local trains and buses.