Cinnamon Hotels – Integrating Travel With Culture

One of the things I am mindful of when traveling is picking accommodations that are sustainable. Even if I’m staying at resorts or chain hotels, I do some research to check what kind of programs they have in place to support the local community, culture and the environment. I’ll also check hotels that rent by the month to see what type of tourists/ residents it’s attracting. For example, in the UK, various hotels accommodate the community by offering weddings at their accommodation, bringing everyone together in affordable but classy ceremony. For example, wedding venues high wycombe offers just that, with an ideal setting and hotel chefs creating the menu. This is what I mean, accommodation that can offer so much more than just a bed to sleep on. So when Sri Lanka based Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts invited me to experience some of their hotels around the country, I was excited to see how they integrate the local culture and cuisine into their luxurious hotels.

Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts offered a diverse range of accommodations from beach front to rustic jungle lodges. Here are some cultural activities you can do at each of the hotels:

Cinnamon Grand Colombo

Located in the heart of the capital city of Colombo, Cinnamon Grand is a luxury hotel with 13 eateries, spa and shopping center. From here, you can also walk to the beach and Spa Ceylon next door. I watched traditional masked dances here and ate at a mile long buffet of authentic local dishes served in clay pots, including hoppers, crab curry, beet root curry, tempered banana flowers, fish ambulthiyal, coconut roti, homemade pickles, and fresh cut mangoes. The dinner experience created in one of their gardens felt as if I was attending a Sri Lankan wedding!

Cinnamon Bey Beruwala

The South West Coast of Sri Lanka is home to the first Muslim settlement on the island, established by Arab traders. This also gives inspiration to the Moorish decor of Cinnamon Bey, with bright spacious rooms overlooking the Indian Ocean created by Channa Daswatte, one of the island’s most talented architects and creative minds.

I was mesmerized by the men wearing white blouses and loose pants twirling at lightening speeds as they welcomed us with the traditional southern dance. Then, the chef took me to the Beruwala fish harbor, a local fish market to pick the fresh catch where you can see fisherman coming into the beach at sunset, and served it for dinner at the Rock Salt restaurant. I visited a mask museum and watched craftsman make wood masks, a few hundred year old tradition. In season, you can visit the nearby Kosgoda turtle hatchery.

Cinnamon Wild Yala

Bordering Yala National Park, the rustic cottages at Cinnamon Wild Yala are a great place to see wildlife. I could see buffalos and monkeys right outside my room, and even heard elephants at the watering hole at night. You can walk to the tiny fishing village and hike on the sand dunes. There are also bird watching and night safari tours you can do in the area.

During the day, I went on a jeep safari into the national park, which is said to have one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. Because of the constant tug between wild leopards attacking farm animals and farmers encroaching on forests, Cinnamon Wild built protective fences and cages for domestic animals. This has helped the leopard population thrive.

Cinnamon Citadel Kandy

The resort is ideally located away from the bustling city of Kandy, on a green hill by Mahaveli River, the longest river in the country. It has an open lobby, an expansive pool, and restaurant with great views of the tropics. Nearby, visit the famous Temple of the Tooth Relic, visited by Buddhists from all over the world.

Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon

This was my favorite property because of its artsy style with colorful murals at the reception and sweeping views of the ocean. The white beach dotted with coconut trees is perfect for snorkeling, surfing or just relaxing. I used Hikka Tranz by Cinnamon as a base to explore the UNESCO town of Galle with its Dutch colonial buildings, boutique shops and trendy restaurants. Also, I saw my first blue whale at a whale watching experience from nearby Mirissa.

Nature Trails, the wildlife and nature based tourism arm of Cinnamon Hotels and Resorts creates experiences for nature and adventure loving travelers, taking them into the natural world of Sri Lanka, celebrating the endless wilderness, admiring the natural heritage and showcasing the true essence of Sri Lanka’s rural beauty, its people and places while treading lightly off the beaten tracks of this magical island.

Beyond The Beaches…Seven Must Have Experiences in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is not like other islands where all you do is lay on the beach and snorkel in the sea. Sure there are plenty of places to do that around Sri Lanka, but it is also a country full of rich cultural activities. Here are some experiences you should not miss during your visit…

Get an Ayurvedic Massage

Ayurveda is an ancient medicinal practice based on natural plants and roots. Because Sri Lanka is abundant with natural resources, spices and flora, it has used ayurveda to prevent and heal diseases of the eyes, skin, breathing, digestion, and mental health for thousands of years. One of the best places to experience ayurvedic treatments is Siddhalepa Resort where you can consult with an experienced doctor, receive massage treatments based on his/ her prescription, and enjoy organic healthy meals. The Siddhalepa Group has hotels in Wadduwa and Mt. Lavinia in Sri Lanka, as well as in Berlin, Sliac and Bad Homburg. They manufacture over 400 kinds of oils, balms, elixirs, cosmetics and teas, so make sure to pick up some gifts to take back.

Shop at an Open Air Fish Market

Fishing is the main occupation for locals in southern Sri Lanka. It is interesting to see fisherman carrying their large nets on wooden boats heading out into the sea early morning, and returning to the shore with their fresh catch at sunset. The chef from Cinnamon Bey Beruwala hotel showed us where he gets his daily catch from and we picked our dinner together at the market. If you are lucky, you can also see stilt fishing, where fishermen perch balancing on poles, careful not to cast shadows in the water, as they skillfully draw spotted herrings and mackerels from the shallow waters.

Watch Traditional Mask Dances

The ancient traditional of dancing wearing devil or spirited masks was another way of chasing away health and mental issues. Rituals would start at night and go on until sunrise to chase demons out of the human bodies. These masked dances were also performed during comedy shows and for entertainment. You can see how the intricate and colorful masks are handcrafted of very light wood in the village of Ambalagodan. At Cinnamon Grand in Colombo, I also watched live mask and fire dances.

Take a Safari

The Sri Lankan safari experience is very different from what you may have experienced in Africa. There are dense tropical forests with thick canopy, so it’s difficult to spot leopards (though they exists). Yala National Park is one of the best places to spot wild elephants, deer, monkeys, wild boar, buffaloes, peacocks and other exotic bird species. Plan to spend at least half a day in an open air jeep to get a good view of the local animals.

Go Whale Watching

The warm waters of the Indian Ocean along the coast of Sri Lanka make for one of the ideal places to sea whales in the world. From Mirissa, a charming coastal village in the south, embark on a whale watching cruise early in the morning and spend a few hours looking for the world’s largest mammal, the blue whale, with experienced guides. The best time to see whales in November to April, though you may be able to spot them year round in Sri Lanka. For whale watching along the Pacific Coast of America, san diego whale watching will make for a fantastic and unique day out.

Feed and Bathe Elephants

I am strictly against riding elephants as in most cases the animals have been captured, trained and abused to make a profit. But at Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, baby and adult elephants who have strayed away from their packs, found on the roads, or orphaned and brought to live freely in an open space. They seem to be well taken care of. Some of the elephants who previously worked and interacted with humans are allowed to be fed and bathed by visitors, for a small fee. I enjoyed feeding chunks of pineapples and watermelon to a charming lady, with the assistance of a local guide. Please remember you cannot touch, ride, or even go close to wild elephants as they are very dangerous.

Cruise Down Madu Ganga River

The Madu River area is a swampy marshland covered in mangrove forests and abundant in wildlife. You can spot over 100 species of birds, reptiles, butterflies and molluscs when cruises on a boat safari through the river. Additionally, you can visit locals living around the river who live on cinnamon and fishing industries. Stop to visit an open-air fish spa, watch how the locals peel cinnamon, weave palm leaves, purchase cinnamon soaps, tea, oil and spices directly from the source.

Gifts That Give Back 2018

Each year I put together a meaningful holiday shopping guide especially for you. These are gifts that are tied to causes and help people around the world not only during the season of celebration, but all through the year.

So get your holiday shopping off to a great start with these gifts that give back.

Layered Cuffs 

These Kayan style solid brass hammered cuffs are made by refugee designers by hammering brass into a carved buffalo horn mold, which gives them their unique size, shape and textured quality. The founder of the jewelry site Akamae, Cara Boccieri lives and works with refugee communities in the Jungle on the Thailand Burma border.

Oofos Sandal

These are my favorite slippers to wear around the house and to run errands in. Revolutionary OOfoam technology absorbs impact to reduce stress on feet and joints and provides great support for arches. For every pair of shoes sold OOFOS donates 3% directly to breast cancer research.

Rise & Grind Crew Pullover

Can’t beat the soft comfortable fabric on a cold winter day. This rise and grind crew pullover didn’t even make it to my closet as I keep it on all day long!  United By Blue is a sustainable apparel and lifestyle brand with a big focus on waterway conservation. For every product sold, they remove a pound of trash from the world’s oceans and waterways. 

Give Thanks Charm

The delicately sculpted sterling silver charm with a message of thanks is a must for charm collectors. Chamilia, a Swarovski company supports WhyHunger, a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to ending hunger and poverty by connecting people in need to nutritious, affordable food through its “Give With All Your Heart” program.

 

LifeStraw Go Water Bottle

These cute water bottles are portable filtration systems perfect for camping, traveling or even school. New Go 2-Stage Special Edition bottles support public lands alongside the Conservation Alliance and also natural disaster victims through the Safe Water Fund. With every LifeStraw product purchase, one child in a community in need is provided with safe drinking water for an entire school year.

Fringe Basket

Moms will find this artisanal machine washable basket a fun place to store away toys, clothes and magazines. Portion of Lorena Canals’ proceeds helps finance the education of children in Northern India and make lives easier for moms in the community where their products are made. Recent projects include a nursery for 104 street kids in the state of Haryana in India.

Elephant Tote

Passion Lilie, eco-friendly, fair trade apparel company based in New Orleans, LA designed this beautiful elephant cotton tote using eco-friendly materials. Use it for groceries, gym or travel. Purchasing the product empowers artisans in India by creating dignified employment opportunities.

Artisana Arrow Blanket

From the first moment I spread this blanket, not only did it brighten up my living room, my cat did not leave the comfort of its warm and soft alpaca wool. The vibrant colors and artistic pattern remind you of the Andes. Each purchase helps support the weavers and craftsmen and their families in Ecuador.

Soul of Africa Canvas Shoes

Global barefoot shoe company VIVOBAREFOOT, in collaboration with Belgian co-creation brand Akaso, created Soul of Africa Ababa shoes for men and women, showcasing a unique body-painting art of Kara people in Ethiopia. The Kara tribe is one of Africa’s most authentic tribes known for their abstract body painting. This initiative provides local employment and training in Africa. It’s estimated that one fully finished product made in Africa creates five jobs along the supply chain.

LALF Limited Edition Tee

Having recently visited The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) in Nairobi, I love the new vegan, organic and sustainable clothing brand LALF (Love Animals, Love Fashion). LALF donates 25% of every piece sold from this collection to DSWT, which includes dedicated anti-poaching units, a rehabilitation program for orphaned elephants, actively working to conserve wilderness areas, and much more. 

Buddhi Box

Whether for a mom who needs a little Zen in her life, a sister the yogi, or your BFF who loves to try out new products, BuddhiBox is an easy, unique way to please even the pickiest ladies on your list. Get a monthly, quarterly or one-time BuddhiBox, filled with ethically sourced, made in the USA, cruelty-free products such as essential oils, healing crystals, mala beads, and jewelry. A portion of the proceeds are donated to a different charity every month, and this month’s benefactor is Feed the Children.

Use code buddhibox15 for 15% off all subscriptions and any sale items on Buddhi Box.

Corc Yoga Mat 

These yoga mats are durable, non slip, hypoallergenic and lightweight. Corc Yoga products are made from sustainable, organic cork, not rubber, which is gently harvested from trees in Portugal. Cork trees are the only trees capable of regenerating bark allowing for steady production from a 100% renewable, recyclable and biodegradable source. Additionally, Corc Yoga donates a portion of every sale to support the mental health crisis in Portugal.

Beaded Jewelry

BeadforLife empowers women by training them to create bead jewelry from recycled paper, earn an income, and lift their families out of poverty. These trendy bracelets make for meaningful fashion statement and cost only between $8-40. So go on and stuff your stockings!

Marula Oil

Marula oil is the trending super product this year full of antioxidants, fatty omegas, collages and oleic acid. It soothes sunburns, heals burns, moisturizes cuticles, tames frizzes, soothes lips, heals acne and reduces stretch marks and scars. All ingredients are produced by female-owned businesses and co-ops, and production of Vegamour marula oil provides jobs for women in Namibia.

Save 20% with code BLACK20 on Black Friday at Vegamour.

If you like to entertain, this handmade hamsa dish set with one large plate and six smaller serving or dipping plates is perfect for serving nuts and appetizers. When placed together, the plates create a bright, colorful hamsa hand that symbolize peace, prosperity, and protection. Each piece is made by local women for a fair wage in Neapolis, Tunisia, a city that’s been making renowned ceramics for centuries. And Kamsah supports the region even further, giving 10% of its profits to causes that benefit its artisans.

These beautiful brass necklaces won’t just make a fashion statement, they will spark a conversation. Each proceed benefits Love146, an international human rights organization working to end child trafficking through holistic, trauma-informed survivor care and prevention education. They operate two safe homes in the Philippines and care for survivors in the UK and the United States. They also have a robust prevention program called “Not a  Number,” which is currently in use in 20 states in the US, and in Madagascar and Liberia.

Growing Roots Sustainable Snacks

Instead of purchasing cookie-cutter gift baskets for your office crew, get certified organic, vegan and gluten free snacks that support urban farm initiatives across the country. From Pineapple Coconut Rum, Maple Bourbon and Coconut Curry to Cocoa Chipotle, Growing Roots snack bites and clusters are the perfect delicious, plant-based snack for any season. I am even adding them to my breakfast granolas and homemade salads!

Discover Three Thousand Year Old History in Sri Lanka

When you think of Sri Lanka, you may picture a tropical island dotted with sandy beaches, wildlife reserves filled with elephants, coconut groves, spice and tea plantations. Surely, the small island located just south of India merits all these, but there’s also three thousand year old temples, palaces and caves to explore.

Here are some places in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka that are must see:

Rangiriya Dambulla Cave Temple

This UNESCO World Heritage Site also known as the Golden Temple of Dambulla, dates back to 1st century BC. Burial sites in the area indicate that prehistoric Sri Lankans lived in these cave complexes 2700 years ago.

You must ascend over 100 stone steps to see the complex of 5 caves carved into a 160 meter rocky hill. Inside you can see 153 Buddha statues, three statues of Sri Lankan kings and four statues of gods and goddesses, along with various cave inscriptions. Every inch of the roofs of the caves are covered with colorful murals (many still intact) covering an area of 23,000 sq. ft. You will feel insignificant in the presence of one of the largest statue of Buddha spanning 15 meters located inside the first cave.

Hotel Tip: Stay at Habarana Village by Cinnamon in Habarana for luxurious village style retreat near the spiritual sites. The hotel organizes village tours including bullock cart rides and traditional meals by the river. 

Sigiriya

Also know as Lion Rock, this ancient rock fortress is the iconic image of Sri Lanka in posters and tourist brochures. According to the ancient Sri Lankan chronicle the Culavamsa, this site was selected by King Kasyapa (477 – 495 CE) for his new capital. You can see this example of urban planning by climbing up the  massive column of rock nearly 200 meters (660 ft) high. On the way, see a gateway in the form of an enormous lion, the palace ruins, painted frescos, and a swimming pool. On top, enjoy spectacular views of the canopy and gardens surrounding the complex, with giant white Buddha status propping in the green.

Hiking Tip: The best time to climb Sigiriya is early morning when it’s not too hot or late afternoon so you can see the sunset. The best photos of the rock are aerial shots, but you must obtain permission to fly a drone prior to your visit. 

Anuradhapura

Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Anuradhapura was the first capital of Sri Lanka from the 5th century BC to 9th century AD. The ancient city, has 16 square miles filled with monasteries.

Pay respect to the oldest historically documented tree on earth (over 2,200 years old). The Bodhi tree is considered to be the island’s oldest Buddhist shrine, as Buddha got enlightened under it (the sapling comes from the original tree in India). A large white stupa as well as small alters surround the complex. Look for impressive white ‘dagabas’ (relic chambers), stone carvings, rock sculptures and more.

Temple Visit Tip: It is necessary to cover arms and legs; remove shoes, hats and sunglasses when visiting holy sites in Sri Lanka. You will find the locals typically dressed in white, a symbol of purity. While it’s ok to take photos inside the temples, it’s illegal to take a picture with your back towards Buddha. 

Mihintale

This is where Buddhism was first introduced to Sri Lanka and is therefore regarded as the cradle of Buddhism. On this rock are many shrines and dwellings, originally used by monks. A grand stairway of 1,840 steps made of granite slabs 15 feet wide, leads to the summit from where one could get a splendid view of the surrounding countryside.

Polonnaruwa

There are mostly ruins of temples, palaces and stupas to be seen in this medieval city, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a brief perspective at the museum, visit the Royal Palace complex including the Kings Palace and Audience Hall, the Quadrangle with its concentration of ancient heritage and the spectacular Gal Vihare complex of four massive images of the Buddha, cut from a single slab of granite. Some of the best examples of the Hindu influence – the Temples of Shiva, intricate statues of Hindu Gods, fascinating Buddhist temples, the Lankatileka and Watadage, the Galpotha, the Lotus bath, the Kiri Vihare Dagoba and the remains of a former Temple of the Tooth are other impressive sights.

Temple of the Tooth

This is one of the most important shrines for Buddhists and pilgrims from all over Sri Lanka come to the hill town of Kandy through the year, offering trays of lotus flowers and sweets, as they pay respect to the tooth relic of Lord Buddha. While you can’t actually see the tooth (the door encasing it is opened once a year), you can admire the beautiful carvings and splendor of the palace-turned-temple located on the lakeshore. Spend some time walking the temple ground, listen to the drummers dressed in traditional costumes and peek into the museum for some historical facts. There are two ceremonies performed each day so make sure to time your visit accordingly.

Kandy Tip: Kandy is a popular tourist town, mainly because of this temple, access to hiking areas, trendy restaurants and lots of shops selling tea, gems and souvenirs. Stay at Cinnamon Citadel by the river and reserve a special Sri Lankan curry lunch overlooking the city at Theva Residency.

The above sites can be visited in 2-3 days and give valuable insight into the belief system of the Sri Lankan people. If you are the kind of traveler interested in ancient history and culture, add Sri Lanka to your travel list.

Booking Tip: To avoid the hassle of making hotel reservations, public transport and finding guides, contact The Holiday Place for a custom made itinerary in Sri Lanka. They can arrange a private driver with knowledgeable guide, tickets to the monuments and hotel reservations. 

Do you have a travel tip for Sri Lanka? Post your comments below…

Five Tips for Traveling to Moldova

I have a few friends from Moldova here in Atlanta. But many others have never even heard about this tiny country in Eastern Europe. So the biggest question I get is: “Why would you want to go there?” My response – why not!

Moldova got a bad rep after Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven named it “the least happy nation on the planet” and travel writer Eric Weiner recounted his miserable account to Moldova in his 2009 book – The Geography of Bliss. He said the post Soviet country was full of poor, sad people that never smiled. Yes, Moldova suffered during communism, still has a very low GDP and is the least visited country in Europe, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go visit.

Besides, I found the people in Moldova to be quite friendly and happy (not LOL or gregarious). They joked, laughed and enjoyed time with family and friends as people do in any part of the world. They also complained about the cold weather, job shortages, and political distrust as we do out here. I dined with several locals, went sightseeing with them, as well as stayed with a Moldovan host at his cozy apartment. Everyone was welcoming and eager to show me around their country.

However, being an informed traveler will make your experience richer and more enjoyable. Here are some things to know before you plan a trip to Moldova.

Don’t Touch and Go

Most people stay in the capital of Chișinău,and get disappointed because it’s not the most beautiful European city. There are a few museums, lakes and parks, but 1 day is enough to cover them. Moldova is a small country but many of the attractions are far from the capital and require all-day trips. Plan for at least 4-5 days in the country if you want to see it well. Some of the places to add to your list are Milestii Mici (largest underground winery in the world), Tipova monastary (oldest), Saharna (pilgrimage site), Orheiul Vechi (cave monastery), Monastirea Curchi (largest monastic complex), Codru Natural Reservation (forest with wildlife), and Transnistria (a breakaway unrecognized country).

The Food is Really Good

Moldovan cuisine has not surfaced on the global scale but you will definitely not be disappointed with the food, which has influences of Turkey, Georgia, Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Think grilled meats, rolled dolmas, roasted vegetables, creamy polenta, steamed dumplings, fresh salads. If you like pork, cheese and bread, you will be in heaven. The soil in Moldova is very fertile so produce is fresh and plentiful. I had the sweetest apples ever!

The national dish is Plăcintă, fried pastry stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, eggs or mashed pumpkins, eaten as appetizer, snack or side.

Locals typically eat a big lunch and small dinner of cold cuts, salad and bread. Sample to seasonal fruit compotes (homemade juices), divin (Moldovan brandy) and wine.

Search for Good Wine

The country is full of wineries and you may want to do a few wine tastings/ winery tours while you are there. In fact, Moldova is one of the largest wine producers in the world (ranked in top 20). But most of the wine they produced was for a discerning Russian market and was not the best quality. Things are improving now as Russia banned Moldovan wines (political play) and Moldovan wine makers upped their game to appeal internationally.

One of my favorites was Mimi Castle, a relatively high end producer of dry red, sparkling and sweet whites. Definitely have a wine paired dinner at their beautiful restaurant set inside a historic castle. Chateau Vartely also makes some nice ice wines.

Save Some Money

Compared to other cities in Europe, you will feel rich in Moldova. A nice dinner with wine will set you back $20-30 for 2 people. Wine bottles cost $2-3, and young wines even less than that. A wine tour runs about $8 and a top of the line exclusive tasting of 10 wines less than $60. Many of the wineries have hotels attached to them so look for a wine/ stay/ meal package.

Fall is Ideal for Festivals

My friends in Moldova told me summer is the most boring time of the year as nothing much is going on. Fall is the best season to visit Moldova because of the leaves changing colors and lots of events going on. The Moldova wine festival, officially named “National Wine Day“, takes place in Chisinau during the first weekend in October at the end of the grape harvest.

I attended Tulburel Young Wine Festival at Mold Expo where families gathered on a Sunday to eat, drink and dance. Exhibitors from all over Moldova and surrounding countries brought their unlabeled young wines for tasting (some of which were decent). There was also food, honey, candy and crafts.

Moldova is pretty easy for tourists to navigate. There is no visa required to enter Moldova (even though its not part of EU), rental cars are available at the small airport in the capital and roads are easy to drive on except for a few bumps and a short rush hour traffic. Most people speak English and are polite. They respect each other and expect you to show up at the appointed time (even at restaurants and wineries). It is also extremely safe and affordable.

What to Eat and Drink on a Polish Food Tour

Living in Atlanta, I have not had much exposure to Polish cuisine. My limited knowledge is of sausages, pierogis and cabbage stews. So when I recently visited Krakow, I decided to get the aid of experts at Delicious Poland to embark on a food tour to learn more.

About 6 food enthusiasts met our guide Maciej near the Jewish old quarter known as Kazimierz for a 3.5 hour long walking/ eating adventure across this beautiful historic city. 

Our first stop was Przystanek Pierogarnia, a family-run take-out place specializing in the famous local delicacy, pierogi or stuffed dumplings. These are softer than Italian ravioli and served with fried onions and sour cream, not sauce. We sampled the most traditional pierogi ruskie (cheese and potatoes), pierogi z kapustą i grzybami (sauerkraut and mushrooms) which is eaten for Christmas, pierogi ze szpinakiem (spinach), and pierogi z sliwkami (plums). The fruit pierogis, though sweet, are not considered a dessert. They are made with seasonal fruits and are served as part of the main course.

Next we sat down at Zalewajka restaurant for soup, which is always the first course in Polish cuisine. Zalewajka or sourdough soup is traditionally served on Easter and on the 2nd day of a Polish wedding. It is made with eggs, sausages and vegetables and often served in a bread bowl. We also had barszcz, a special kind of beet soup made from pickled beets, garlic and sourdough bread, paired with ground beef and pork stuffed pierogis. You can add boiled eggs or beans to make it heartier. This soup is great in a mug on a cold winter day.

Next, we walked to Plac Nowy, the heart of Kazimierz with it’s trendy bars and a square with hole-in-the-wall food hatches and open-air shops. Zapiekanka is one of the oldest fast food dishes in Poland that originated during the time of communism when there was not much to eat. It was basically a toasted baguette topped with mushroom, cheese and ketchup, though there are many more variations available now. The footlong zapiekanka is the perfect snack while beer hopping!

You wouldn’t think of finding a cool bar inside a Jewish prayer house, but Hevre is just that. Remnants of original paintings can be seen on the old stone walls against a lively bar atmosphere. Maciej tells me according to Polish belief you can’t trust someone until you have had a shot of vodka with them. So we cheer “nostrovia” as we drink Żubrówka, a yellowish Polish rye vodka made with Bison grass for an earthy herb flavor. Served cold, the liquid goes down smooth, leaving notes of coconut, vanilla and almond in my mouth. We also taste Soplica Pigwa, which is vodka made with quince, a uniquely Polish distilled spirit similar to moonshine.

Contemporary beer making is also catching up among young people in Poland, and a female beer maker is behind Ursa Maior. Named best home brewer in Poland, Agnieszka Łopata got her Ph.D. in environment protection and brews Belgium and serves Rejwach na Kazimierzu (a Belgian Summer Ale) and Drapieżnik (Session IPA), among many other varieties in the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland. Go downstairs to the cozy basement decorated with eco friendly tables, paintings and light fixtures created by anonymous artists.

Of course, you can’t avoid sausages in Poland, so we are offered plates of high quality kielbasa szlachecka (country style farmers pork sausage with pepper and garlic), kiełbasa Krakowska (Krakow’s sausage), and oscypek (smoked sheep’s cheese) to snack along with our beers.

Our last stop and the main dinner is at Kuchnia u Doroty, where we again go to the basement restaurant for traditional Polish dishes. The main meal of the day for Polish people is lunch (called obiad) so this place is generally packed on weekend afternoons. Similar to latkes are placki ziemniaczane z gulaszem or potato pancakes served with Hungarian goulash and sour cream. This is a dish in itself and quite delicious! Bigos is the national dish of Poland, aka hunter’s stew made of leftovers. Add ham, bacon, mushrooms, plums, cabbage – any bits left from the week. The more ingredients, the better it tastes! Gołąbki (or little pigeons) are similar to Mediterranean dolma. These are cabbage rolls stuffed with rice, mincemeat and spices, topped with homemade tomato sauce. No meal is complete without a buraczki or shredded beet salad, and homemade plum juice (because plums are in season in October) or kompot to wash down.

Just when I have no more room in my belly, Maciej introduced me to racuchy, his favorite childhood dessert that his grandmother would make for him. The crispy warm apple fritters dusted with powdered sugar and served with a sour cream dipping sauce reminds me of funnel cake. I could eat a plate of these but restraint myself to leave some for the other guests 😉

Delicious Poland is a small family-run business that offers traditional Polish food tours, cooking classes and vodka tours in Krakow, Gdansk, Wroclaw and Warsaw.

Must Buys Shopping List From Kashmir

The northernmost state of India is often in the news for political turmoil and instability. But it is also one of the most resourceful and artistic parts of the world.

Growing up in the city of Chandigarh, my family would often buy products from Kashmiri vendors going door to door, carrying wool carpets, pashmina shawls and embroidered tunics in the back of cycle rickshaws. We thought their stuff was so exotic! It was a prized possession to own a handwoven a Kashmiri carpet even 30 years ago.

During my recent visit to Kashmir, I was able to put a face to the goods. I visited weavers living and working in their one room shacks; watched how they sat on the floor for hours at a time, working on the same carpet for up to 3 years. It was laborious and caused eye and back problems, yet that was a skill passed on from generations that employed them. I had a new found appreciate for the craft.

Here are few things you must buy from Kashmir:

Saffron (kesar) – Kashmir is one of the few places in the world that grows saffron and you will have to travel to a saffron farm near Pampore Fields, a few miles out of Srinagar. Watch fields filled with purple flowers blooming in October. Saffron is used in many Kashmiri dishes and desserts. Every household and shop in Kashmir will serve guests kahwa, green tea made with saffron and almonds.

Dried Fruits and Nuts (mewa) – Most families in rural Kashmir own fruit and nut farms, which they sell to wholesalers to sustain themselves. Walnut trees are abundant in the Kashmir valley, producing some of the finest quality organic nuts in the world. Kashmiri almonds are much smaller than California ones, but are richer with nutrients as they have more Omega 3s. Also, you can buy golden raisins, dried apricots, blueberries, and more.

Cashmere (pashmina) – Pashmina has become a household name but the fine wool textile was first woven in Kashmir and is known as “soft gold” because of it’s high value. The wool from Changthangi goats found in this region is hand spun and woven to make fine cashmere stoles (shawls), scarves and carpets. It requires a lot of patience and skill to make these products, and many Kashmiris rely on their livelihood from sales abroad.

Copper (tamba) – Mined locally from the mountains of Aismuqum in the Lidder valley of Kashmir, copper is used to make kitchen utensils and home decorations. In Old Town Srinagar, you will find shops stacked with bowls, ladles, pots and plates along with decorative water jugs. Also, most traditional Kashmiri dishes are still cooked in huge copper pots.

Wood Work – Intricately carved walnut wood furniture is an important craft in this part of the world. You will see wood balconies walking through Lal Chowk or Badshah chowk, as well as wooden beds and chairs at homes. Traditional Indian cricket bats are also manufactured in Kashmir from the wood of the willow tree, and are considered to be of the highest standard preferred by international sportsmen.

Papier-Mâché – This handicraft was brought to Kashmir by the Persians and makes for affordable gifts and decorations. Made at home and at small workshops, artisans use paper pulp to make vases, bowls, boxes and trays.

Jewelry – Kashmiri women wear lots of heavy pieces of silver chokers, long dangling earrings and headdresses, which you can find at most jewelry shops. Also found locally are Kashmiri Lac (resinous substance) necklaces, bracelets and hairpins. If you can lay your hands on it, buy the rarest sapphire in the world – Doda Sapphire, which is only found in Kashmir.

Kashmiri handicraft stores and Government run emporiums are found throughout India. But if you want to meet the artists and buy good directly from the source, plan a visit to Kashmir by contacting Go Eat Give.

My host in Kashmir during my visit in August 2018 was Ahad Hotels and Resorts.

You Have to Eat These 15 Dishes in Kashmir

If you love grilled meats, fresh breads, fragrant rice dishes and curries rich with spices – you will love Kashmiri food. Kashmir is the northernmost state in India, bordering with Pakistan to its west and China to the east. The food is influenced by Persia, Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. However, it is unique in itself.

Here are some dishes you must try during your next visit to Kashmir.

Kahwah – Traditional green tea brewed with saffron, and topped with chopped almonds. You can add sugar or honey as needed. Every hotel, shop and home will welcome guests with a cup of hot kahwah. While the best tea I tasted was at someone’s home in Srinagar, I liked the variety of breads served alongside at Hotel Heevan in Pahalgam. You can also order high tea outside in the lawn overlooking the Lidder River.

Girda – A typical Kashmiri breakfast consists of nun chai (salty pink tea) along with a piece of fresh baked bread such as girda (round yeast bread), lavas (unleavened bread), baquerkhani (puff pastry pictured above), and tsot. In downtown Srinagar, you can find old bakeries elaborately stacked with breads early in the morning.

Nadru – Because of the many lakes around Kashmir valley, lotus is grown in abundance. The locals cook lotus root in a verity of dishes and these thinly battered and fried lotus root cutlets sprinkled with garam masala are delicious. Serve them as an appetizer with a creamy walnut chutney. Try it at Welcomehotel Pine-N-Peak in Pahalgam. I also had lotus root cooked in yogurt sauce (nadru yakhni), which was a simple, light and tasty vegetarian dish.

Kashmiri Pulao – Kashmiri rice is very different from traditional Basmati. It is thicker and shorter locally grown variety, which is rich in starch and nutrients. Rice is a staple in Kashmir and cooked in different kinds of pulaos and biryanis. This is the most common one, cooked with a bit of saffron, spices, nuts and dried fruits. You can eat it on its own or pair it with a curry. The best one I tasted was at Dilkusha restaurant in Pahalgam.

Rajma – The red kidney bean stew is common in most of India, though the Kashmiri rajma is different. The beans are darker in color, smaller and of heirloom variety. It is less spicy, and cooked with tomatoes and red chilies to add a deeper red color. The riverfront Hotel Heevan in Pahalgam cooked this especially for us.

Saag/ Haak – Unlike what most Indian restaurants serve as saag, in Kashmir saag refers to a variety of greens including cabbage, broccoli, kale and kohlrabi. These are cooked with lots of mustard oil and dried red chilies. At Ahdoos restaurant in Srinagar.

Gucci – These local morel mushrooms are found only in the damp forests, sort of like truffles. They cannot be grown and cost up to $500/ kg when discovered in season. The flavor is very earthy and dry, but this gucchi and peas curry is a must try with flaky parathas. Order it at Lolaab in Pahalgam.

Dum Aloo – This dish originated from the traditional Kashmiri Pandit cuisine. The small potatoes are deep friend, and then simmered on a low fame with about a dozen spices. Try it at Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar.

Seekh KebabNo meal in Kashmir is complete without meat, mostly lamb. You will often find a variety of kebabs, meat curries or rice biryanis. These spiced ground lamb skewers are a popular appetizer at Cafe Chinar restaurant in Srinagar. Make it a meal with thin roomali (handkerchief roti).

Waza Chicken – A Wazwan is a multi-course meal in the Kashmiri Muslim tradition prepared in copper utensils by a traditional vasta waza, or head chef, with the assistance of a court of wazas, or chefs. These dishes are typically cooked at weddings and parties, but available at restaurants as well. I tried the waza chicken – fried chicken, cooked in in red curry at Dilkhusa restaurant in Gulmarg, as well as a few other places.

Kokur Yakhni – The bone-in chicken pieces are simmered in yogurt and garnished with fennel and lots of dry mint. The sauce is a bit runny with lemony flavor, and pairs well with steamed rice. Heevan Retreat‘s Dilkhusa restaurant in Gulmarg.

Kofta – Though kofta (meatball) is a popular dish in Kashmiri cuisine generally made with lamb or goat, I tried a version with fresh fish at Fortune Resort Heevan’s Earthen Oven in Srinagar. The local snapper was minced, shaped into balls and steamed, floating in a creamy sweet and spicy sauce.

Kashmiri naan – This flatbread is very different than the garlic or butter naans you may have had before. Though baked in a traditional tandoor (clay oven), it is more like a pizza that you can eat it by itself. This one at Ahdoos restaurant in Srinagar was topped with cashews, raisins, coconut and cocktail fruits.

Kashmiri Halva – Most of the time in Kashmir I was too full with my meal to think about dessert, but my waiter at Heevan Hotel in Gulmarg insisted that I try their Kashmiri halva, and I am so glad that I did! Cooked with ghee (clarified butter), sooji (semolina) and water, topped with almonds, raisins and coconut flakes, this was one of the best halvas I had. I recommend ordering this for breakfast as it is quite rich.

Phirni – Now I had phirni many times before and my favorite was a thick white color rice pudding served chilled in a clay pot at some muslim owned restaurants in Old Delhi. But the Kashmiri version I had at Fortune Resort Heevan in Srinagar was made with semolina instead of rice, runny and served warm. It was also yellow from the saffron.

Of course there are far more dishes in Kashmiri cuisine that I didn’t get to try, so this is by no means a comprehensive list. It’s just a good starting point for your next visit to Kashmir.

Have you tried a Kashmiri dish not listed above? 

Meaningful Ways to See Elephants

If you are traveling to Asia, you are probably very excited at the prospect of seeing, even riding elephants. But do you know that around 75% of the world’s captive elephants have been illegally captured, with over 3,000 used for entertainment in Asia alone?

PETA, whose driving force is that animals are not ours to use for entertainment  is highlighting that elephants used for rides are often forcibly separated from their mothers as babies. They are then immobilised with tightly bound ropes, and gouged with bullhooks or nail-studded sticks during “training.”

Please do not accept elephant rides!

Many tour companies are pledging not to promote cruel elephant rides, and if you see someone offering an elephant ride, I urge you NOT TO ACCEPT.

There are some other ways in which you can still enjoy seeing elephants sustainably by visiting small sanctuaries and spotting them in the wild.

Crossing the river at Periyar National Park

Periyar National Park, South India

Periyar National Park in Kerala is one of the most well-preserved natural habitats I have visited. Here you can see the Indian Elephant, a subspecies of the native Asian elephant, in the wild. Take a walking safari at sunrise or sunset and you will most likely spot the elephants hanging out near the river.

The Elephant Transit Home and Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to a population of up to 4,000 endangered Sri Lankan elephants. While many travelers opt to visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, there are some concerns about the treatment of the elephants and ethos of the orphanage.

This is a rehabilitation center for orphaned and injured elephants, with a strict no-contact policy. Visitors here can observe the elephants in a natural atmosphere and see how they interact with one another during feeding time

Pranburi, Thailand

There’s chance to get off the beaten track in Thailand and discover the Wildlife Friends Foundation – an organization rescuing and rehabilitating sick or injured elephants.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Elephant Nature Park is located in Northern Thailand outside of Chiang Mai. This park is dedicated to caring for elephants who have endured mistreatment in camps and circuses with more than 35 elephants currently cared for.

Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

Visits to the Minneryiya or Kaudulla National Park gives travelers the opportunity to climb the Sigiriya Rock Fortress, before taking an elephant safari. A jeep Safari in Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park with Rickshaw Travel comes as part of the Elephant‘s in Buddha’s Garden trip.

Adopt an elephant at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage

Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, Kenya

Watch baby elephants rescued from all over Kenya at Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage as they are fed every morning from 10-11am. There is no physical contact with the elephants though they may come close to you on their own during playtime.

For a $50 annual donation, you can even also foster a baby elephant and receive newsletters with rescue stories.

World Elephant Day

The annual World Elephant Day (12 August) is dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world’s elephants, as many fight to change this fate.

There are two species of elephants: African comprised of two different species (forest and savannah), with less than 400,000 remaining worldwide, and Asian, with less than 40,000 remaining worldwide.

While they are similar in physiology, they are too biologically different to interbreed. Recent scientific findings suggest that the forest-dwelling African elephant is a genetically distinct species, making it a third elephant species. (Courtesy Rickshaw Travel in Travel Alliance Bulletin)

How To Do a Cheese Themed Dinner Party

Have you hosted a wine and cheese party before? I have! Honestly, I thought of everything I could cook using cheese – lobster mac n cheese with cheddar, Gougeres (cheese puffs) with gruyere, baked brie en croute, arancini with parmesan, and much more. At the end of it, I felt heavy and couldn’t eat cheese for a while!

So when I got an invitation for a cheese-themed dinner from Tillamook Creamery, I got to check it out.

Tillamookis a farmer-owned cooperative dairy brand from Oregon and #1 natural cheese brand in the west. About 100 families are part of the Tillamook County Creamery Association, that have lived and worked on the farm for generations. They have been making award-winning cheddars since 1909 and their products are now available in grocery stores in Atlanta.

Two top chefs created a collaborative dinner at Better Half, a notable restaurant in downtown Atlanta. Surprisingly, the menu was not very cheesy at all!

We started with a housemaid rum punch and tasting of Tillamook Cheese – 9 months aged sharp white cheddar, mild and creamy pepper jack, complex special reserve extra sharp cheddar, robust vintage extra sharp white cheddar, and slightly sweet cape meares cheddar.

The 5-course Pacific Northwest Meets Southern Flavors themed dinner was created by Chef Doug Adams (Executive Chef/Owner of Portland based Bullard, Finalist on season 12 of Bbravo’s Top Chef), and Zachary Meloy (owner/ chef of Atlanta based Better Half).

Passed appetizers included crisp hush puppies and cheese filled taquitos. The first course was a tomato salad with colorful and sweet Georgia tomatoes served on a bed of dill buttermilk and vintage white cheddar. Paired with 2017 Rodney Strong Pinot Noir Rose, the dish was refreshing and light.

Second was an innovative version of ravioli. A thin sheet filled will pepper jack, set on eggplant puree, and topped with shaved pickled fennel and tomato caramel, it was a great blend of sweet, salt and crunch in every bite. We enjoyed 2015 Poggiobello from Italy with this.

For the meat course, there was slow smoked beef rib melt (which Chef Adams flew with him from Portland), as an open face sandwich on toasted homemade bread with jalapeños and sweet onion jam, and of course extra sharp cheddar. Some of us opted for a vegetarian version, where grilled eggplant was replaced by the beef. With a full bodied Chilean 2015 Lapostolle, it was simply delicious.

Have you tried melted cheddar on apple pie? Playing a twist on this southern tradition, the chefs created a fresh fig and honey tart, and topped it with crumbled medium cheddar and pink pepper ice cream. The cheese and pepper were a bit too savory for me, but the tart was incredible. 2016 Boundary Breaks Riesling was a great alternative to sweeter ports often served with dessert.

Of course we couldn’t leave without Better Half’s signature truffles – coconut and condense milk balls; along with a spiced moonshine made with fresh young coconut. Tillamook generously gave us some coupons to get their cheese from a neighborhood grocery store so I can reinvent my own cheese themed dinner party 🙂

If you are visiting Oregon, head over to Tillamook Creamery, a 2-hour drive from Portland to see how Tillamook Cheese is made. There’s also a Food Hall serving tempura battered cheese curds, fried chicken and cheddar biscuits, and pimento cheeseburgers. The ice-cream menu offers tasty flavors like caramel toffee crunch, Oregon dark cherry, Udderly chocolate, and malted moo shakes.

You may find a deeper appreciation for life on the farm and thank the many farmers that labored to create the delicious cheese sitting in your refrigerator. There are more cattle than humans in Tillamook and a great place to explore the Oregon Coast.

Got any cheese based recipe ideas to share? Post a comment below so we can all enjoy…