Thursday, January 29, 2015

Dudhsagar Spa Resort, Goa Review

Dudhsagar Spa Resort is one of the few decent accommodation options very close to famous Doodhsagar waterfalls. I had contemplated staying here last August, but the then tripadvisor reviews had turned me off. I booked  in another resort but because of interstate permit issues for my self-drive rental Thar, I had to change my plans. 
Recently during Tata Motors SOUL Drive, we were booked in this resort. We spent two nights here and this post is my review of the place.

One of the primary complaint about the Doodhsagar Spa resort was that it is so close to highway and there’s lots of noise from trucks that carry mining outputs. Yes, it is close to highway, but I understand there’s some ban on mining, hence number of trucks on the road has greatly reduced. My cottage was not the closest to the highway and I didn’t get disturbed by traffic noise in the night. (It could also be because I was tired, even rocket launch might not have woken me up) There are a few tents which are very close to highway and because of their perforated walls, noise might infiltrate to spoil your sleep. So where possible ask for a cottage/tent far from the highway. 
The other complaint about the resort was food. Which I agree. There weren’t much options compared to a 2-3 star hotel buffet. For example, there was white rice with only Dal. No Sambar, No Rasam, No curd rice- these are often standard offerings in a buffet. Taste was fine. In Sevia Payasam (Kheer) there were very very few cashew nuts and dry grapes. Usually in a serving we get a few cashew/grape but here we had to scramble the entire utensil for a piece of cashew. I am also told they enforce a mandatory Rs 2000/Rs 2500 dinner on special occasions. Luckily our stay wasn’t one of those special occasions. There are hardly any other options even if you’re willing to drive 5-10kms. Unlike say a Club Mahindra resort, there is no microwave or some mini kitchen where one can probably cook noodles or other basic stuff. So guests will be at the mercy of whatever Resort has on offer and at whatever cost fixed by them.

Campus is reasonably big. There are few adventure sports provisions, a small pool (3-4 feet deep) with mandatory dress code, a spa, a billiards table and few other amenities. Room service was average. On day 2 when we came back at 12.30 in the afternoon, rooms weren’t cleaned. We were told cleaning will happen in the afternoon/evening. Even at that they didn’t replace the towels. Only after calling them, fresh towels were provided. No fresh snacks/soap etc were provided on day 2. I had challenges getting right temperature in the shower- it was either boiling hot or room temperature despite keeping the knob at 50-50 position. With great difficulty I could get the warm water.

Also be advised that this resort is on the other side of a toll booth, which means each time you exit resort to enter Goa, you will have to buy a toll ticket.

Because there’re not much alternatives to stay closer to Doodhsagar falls, this resort may be considered if you’re very particular staying closer to Karnataka Goa border/Dudhsagar falls. If not, it might be more practical to stay in Madgaon/Panjim area and drive to Doodhsagar falls.
Nearby: Tambdi Surla temple *

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Doodhsagar waterfalls visit by Road

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This was my second visit to Doodhsagar waterfalls. Last August I’d gone there by train- the falls was at its best post monsoon and we had real close look and great time [Read my first trip details here]. This time, by Jan End I had another chance to visit the falls- this time by road, offering a different view, thanks to Tata Safari DriveWithSOUL event. 
We went to Doodhsagar falls Taxi Stand, which is close to Kollem railway station (from where we’d boarded the train last time). From here, private vehicles are not allowed till the falls. Partly because the road is bad and involves crossing couple of streams, mainly because local taxi mafia is very strong and is hell bent on protecting their revenue earning opportunity at all costs. There are over 400 taxis with forest department permit to take tourists to Doodhsagar falls-usually only half of them get business on weekday and may be one third on a weekend. With roads closed between June to October, they need to earn their bread during rest of the year, with one trip in two days on an average.
 View from August 2014 visit for reference

The waterfalls is about 12 kms from the taxi stand, having to cross 2 water streams and a checkpost. There’s a camera entry fee of Rs 30 per still camera and Rs 150 for video camera. No charges for mobiles. Almost all cameras are capable of shooting videos- so this excess fee for video camera should be abolished in my opinion. The drive took about 45 minutes, often inducing back pain to those sitting in the back.  On the way driver showed us a temple and also tried to pickup a stranger saying he is from forest department... Passengers objected that there's no space, then driver proceeded without him.

Drive also showed us the path under the railway line from which Bike Pilots would join the road during monsoon season. (Since road will be closed that time due to high water levels in the streams, bikers take tourists to waterfalls from a different route that only two wheelers can use.). Also we noted that the vehicle had No audio system- driver said if installed they get damaged within weeks due to poor road conditions.
Once near the falls, there’s another 10 minute walk to the falls area. Tourists are given 1 hour time to return to the falls, which people seldom comply. (It takes 10 minute walk to the falls and another 10 minute to come back, with only 40 minutes at the falls, not counting time it takes to change dress, queue at the bio toilet and so on. That is too short a time at a magnificent falls after coming all the way and paying hefty fee to the taxi guy. I think they should give about 2 hours minimum- because anyway the taxi guy is very unlikely to get another ride same day. As I observed, most of the people take 90 mins or more, taxi drivers crib that it is too late, in hope of getting some good tips. 
The Dudhsagar falls, in its bottom view, was obviously not as full and overflowing as it was in August. But nevertheless it was eye-catching. Below are some photos of the Doodhsagar falls. We got to see two goods trains crossing over while we were at the falls.

Beware of monkeys in the area. 
Two changing rooms- one for men and another for women are set up near the falls. A bio toilet is also available.

Nearby: Mahadev Temple, Tambdi Surla *Three Kings Church, Goa * 

Experience: Tata Safari SOUL Drive to Doodhsagar falls

Automobile companies are fast realizing that Sales is Not the end of their responsibility. Car owners wish to stay in touch with the brand while brands need to listen to their customers and keep them engaged and entertained, besides addressing  their concerns, if any.
Safari convoy while returning to Bengaluru- Location spotting by Srihari
Tata Motors has taken a right step in this direction, with their new initiative, called S.O.U.L, which stands for Safari Owners United League. The objective of SOUL Drive is to bring the Safari owners and their families together, help them build a bond with each other (and the brand), provide a platform to discuss their vehicles, customizations, long drives and issues, if any with each other and/or Tata Motors. 
I got a unique opportunity to attend the recent most S.O.U.L event, held in Goa this Republic day long weekend. The DriveWithSOUL event involved vehicle owners driving to Goa from their respective cities on Day 1, everyone visiting Doodhsagar waterfalls and indulging in beach activities on Day 2 and long drive back on Day 3. This post shares my experiences and observations during the drive. It would have been convenient for me to fly to Goa from Chennai and then join the event, but I wanted to be part of the road trip, hence took a night bus to Bengaluru and joined them by road.

On Day 1 I teamed up with other fellow bloggers who were invited- Rumana and Arjun in Bengaluru, after an overnight bus jouney. Then we headed towards Goa in a Tata Safari Dicor sent by Tata Motors.  Little later we were accompanied by Raghu and his wife in his white Safari Dicor. Raghu has been driving his Safar for over 6 years now and is one of the members of Bangalore based SUG-Safari Users Group- who frequently team up and indulge in excursions with their beloved Safaris.
Group pic on the way to Goa- Myself, Rumana, Arjun, Mr & Mrs Raghu & Balu
I took the wheel for most part of the drive- the long stretch till Dharwad is nice and wide but heavily tolled. I guess we paid around 600-700 Rs in toll total, more than Rs 1 per km. After Dharawada it was ghat section, where driving is more fun. We arrived at the resort- Doodhsagar Spa Resort, few minutes before 3PM, just in time for food counters to close.
Music with Rambola
Evening was relaxed time where participants indulged in one or more of the activities-such as ziplining, Yoga or a visit to Tambdi Surla temple. Surprisingly there were No brand promotions- where participants are assembled in a room and features of the car are explained. I saw this Ghatam like musical device- called Rambola for the first time in action. With some music and barbecue dinner, we ended Day 1 in anticipation of action packed Day 2.  

Day 2 was the real action Day. I woke up early and took a count of Safaris in the parking lot. There were 31 of them, mostly from Karnataka, Maharastra and Telangana. Few had eye catching modifications-like the Maxxis Mudzilla tyres on this one or the roof mounted lamps on the other. Many accessories were for sale- owners could opt for full body orange wrap, DRL, Roof bar, mood lighting and so on- owners could tick the ones they wish to buy in the printouts kept in the room and Tata would ensure that they reach their respective cities and get fitted on to the SUVs.

Maxxis Mudzilla offroad tyres on a Safari

We drove to Doodhsagar falls parking lot. From this point we were taken to the waterfalls by local taxis, crossing streams and muddy roads for about 12 kms. I had visited Doodhsagar falls last August by train [Photos and full details here]- that was from over the bridge and when the falls was at its fullest. This time the visit was to the bottom of the falls. More details about visiting the Doodhsagar falls by road here in this post. We spent about an hour at the falls, clicking pics and taking a dip. Refreshing fresh water cheered everyone up. Back to the resort, it was time to head to the beach post lunch.  

This time, I got to drive the Safari Storme- my first time behind the wheels of Storme. It was noticeably better than the dicor I'd driven the previous day.

We drove to Sernabatim beach in south Goa where beach activities were planned. I had a JetSki ride here, of which I made a video footage using headmount. You can watch the video here.

While returning from the beach I got to interact with a Tata Safari owner from Hyderabad. He said he and his friend drove a dozen different SUVs but found Safari to be best bet. While he was very pleased with the vehicle, he also suggested that Company should set up regular service camps in each city, where any issue not resolved by local dealer could be addressed by Tata Motors Engineers. 

Later in the night, Safri owners thanked Ms Sonal, Mr Dan and others from the event management company, 70 EMG (Event Management Group). These folks are last to exit a scene and first to be in for next activity- with their amazing energy levels, skillful coordination and planning they made the event successful and memorable.
Daniel from 70 EMG
My interactions with Tata Motors officials gave me some good insights on the direction company is headed. I learnt that there were prototyping and testing done to try if a Safari variant could be launched with front facing 3rd row seat and bucket seats in second row. This was felt not viable due to space constraints. So Safari with bucket seats/front facing 3rd row seat is unlikely for now. I asked if Tata would borrow technology from JLR for its SUVs- while there was no straight YES/NO answer, it was clear that the two brands are coordinating very well for mutual benefits and cost savings. I also learnt that Full Throttle event has been stopped.

Day 3 we headed home in a convoy of 8 Tata Safaris. Let by Srihari in the first Safari and swept by Mahesh in the back. We left the Resort at 6 AM, had breakfast at Dharwad, lunch at Kamat Sira and then reached Bengaluru by about 6PM. It took 12 hours for the return journey compared to 9 hours it took for the onward journey.
Tata motors also conducts various city events where Safari owners meet up for breakfast and drive to nearby destinations. SOUL drive was a natural extension to it. Similar to the South Drive we had to Doodhsagar falls, there was a North SOUL Drive, at Corbett, covered by fellow blogger- Prasad NP (better known as DesiTraveller). Follow him for North Updates. I am told there are many more such events planned in Future.

Events like this indirectly help in brand promotion also. A large convoy of Safaris would turn heads everywhere we went. While many events often focus on owner alone, SOUL drive is also focused on families, so that wife & kids get to appreciate their husband's choice of car, interact with other families and get to indulge as much as the owners do.

All in all, it was a long weekend well spent. Thanks to Tata Motors and Blogadda for inviting me to be part of the experience. I will publish couple of separate posts on Doodhsagar falls visit, Doodhsagar Spa resort. Video footage also will be published after sometime, once I manage to edit them.

Video is now live: Watch it below:

Similar: Landrover experience  * Zoomcar Safari Dicor photoshoot  * Safari EX 4x4 Review

Friday, January 23, 2015

Boutique hotel Zone Coimbatore by the Park

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Zone is a new boutique hotel in Coimbatore, by the Park group of hotels. 
I had the opportunity to be one of its first few guests, along with few other bloggers and journalists who were invited. In this post, I am sharing The Zone’s unique features that we could experience during our stay.

Zone has an Orange+ Gray theme to inspire youth and cheerfulness. One thing I noticed was that all the letters in the logo was connected. Even on the glass walls or visiting cards of the staff had multiple orange dots connecting one another. This signifies connectivity.

When I checked in, I was given a welcome drink, which to my delight was my favorite Tender coconut. I said I don’t need the straw and drank it upside down, much to the amusement of the staff and some extra work to them to clean few drops which fell on the ground. But I like this initiative of serving tender coconut instead of some soft drinks.

Elevator has a map of all places of interest nearby. The mirrors in lift walls give impression of perpetual motion. I liked this thought and execution. 
Main restaurant is called Bazaar. Serves food in an ambiance that is made to feel local.
A mobile food cart (similar to ones we find on the streets, but fully hygienic) is the main attraction at the Bazaar. Two prestige induction stoves replaced what would have been a kerosene stove or a LPG stov in roadside carts. Unfortunately we couldn't see this cart in action.
Live samples of the ingredients used are kept outside, which also helps people connect more with their food.

Just the sight of the pickle jar was enough to increase my appetite... (I think using traditional pickle jars would have been more better).

Lobby area is well designed with octagonal overhead lamps, a gaming area, a highly decorated auto selling ethnic stuff, a 24x7 business centre (with a Mac and a windows computer). It is great to have business centre open all the time, as many other hotels keep it open only during day time.

Baggage tags at the hotel are also very friendly. They say "It's mine- take care". So touchy.

The rooms at Zone Coimbatore:

Zone has about 56 rooms spread in 3 floors. There is only one Super special room (The Suite), which can be seen below. This room has large living area apart from a super premium bedroom.

Standard rooms

Rooms are fairly high tech. You can play your contents on the hotel TV by connecting your device to hotel TV via USB or HDMI port etc. The power outlets support multiple formats, which is very useful for international travelers who may not have India specific power adapter.
Rooms have safety lock, ironing table and ironbox. The light switches for the main lamps were sort of hidden, but hotel staff usually show them to the guest upon arrival, so this should be fine. Switches are very sleek and modern looking. A gentle tap is enough.

When I checked in at about 4.30PM, I asked if I can give my cloths for laundry. I was told it will be collected only next day and will be delivered by 7PM. This meant if I am checking in at 5PM and wish to check out at 5PM next day, I can't get my cloths cleaned in this 24 hours. When I took this up with hotel authorities, I was told that such special requests can definitely be addressed if there is a need. 10 AM to 7 PM is the standard laundry timings. Express service can be arranged on demand. Good.

WiFi is free for all guests in Zone. Another good initiative, because many hotels charge in thousands for a day of connectivity.

On the top floor there will be a Gym, a roof top restaurant and a pool. But these were not yet open to public pending regulatory approvals, so we couldn't check them out. They should be opening anytime soon.

On Day 2 we had some activities- wherein Chef Kumaran explained the concept of tastes, omelettes and so on.

I was taught how to make a smoothy! I added  2 strawberries, some curd, milk, sugar, oats and few other stuff and stirred it in the mixer- first in course grinder and next in fine grinder. It was a good experience, though I wish I could add few more spoons of sugar.

The hotel campus of Zone Coimbatore is located in the main road but the location was very clean and quiet. Zone is about 8 kms from Coimbatore airport, about 15-20 minutes drive.

The park group of Hotels has planned a series of Zone hotels in multiple cities- including Mahabalipuram, Jaipur and other cities. Best wishes to them. You can follow Zone By the Park on twitter here and on their website here 

Update: Read Dinner experience at Zone Chennai *