Trip Tease

Here at Motoring, we’ve always believed that cars and motorcycles lead more fulfilled lives when their owners give them a chance to stretch their legs. Of course, travel does wonders to the owners as well – on your own, with a significant other, a bunch of mad friends or the entire family plus dog, cat and turtles, a motoring journey can be an eye-opener, a life-changing experience or simply a welcome break and loads of fun. 

For nearly two-and-a-half years now, we hardworking souls have been forsaking the aircon comfort of our office to lump out on beaches, lurk in forests, shiver on snowbanks, and generally take in the inimitable array of sights and sensations our vast country has to offer, across more than 50,000 km of highways, backways and no-ways from, as the cliche goes, Kashmir to Kanyakumari. Oh the dedication, the committment... 

Here then, at the start of the summer, when schools and colleges have disgorged their restless spawn, and your boss is too sapped by the heat to refuse you leave, we’ve compiled this travel guide – the best of our cross-country rides and drives from each metro, with pictures,summaries and quickfacts, across the next eight pages. We hope they’ll inspire you to head out and discover the addictive pull of the open road that’s hit us so hard.

Varanasi

You would surely have heard this famous saying: For history go to Rome, for salvation head out to Varanasi. If you haven’t, don’t worry, even we heard about it only when we wrote it. But seriously, Varanasi makes a very different kind of getaway. Hinduism, in all its myriad forms, is what you see here; from the pious, fatalistic devotion of ardent Hindus to new-age, fly-by-night faiths of the Westerners who form, it seems, a significant part of this city’s population. Varanasi’s setting lends itself to faith, situated as it is on the holy Ganges. Early mornings can be magical, with the sun’s golden light reflecting off the serene, motherly river; the hundreds of multicoloured boats, the sadhus in saffron and their matted hair, and the devout looking heavenwards, waist deep in water. Plus, there are alleys to explore and slapdash ‘classical’ music concerts to attend, and ghats to sit and contemplate life on. According to Mark Twain, Varanasi is older than history,older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together. But don’t take his word for it, hit the road to the City of Light now. 

 Varanasi is 773 km from Delhi. Take the NH2 or the Grand Trunk Road that leads along Agra, Kanpur and Allahabad. An early exit from Delhi will ensure you reach Varanasi by early evening the next day. The NH 2 or the GT Road is fairly decent all along, except for certain Jesus!  stretches near Etawah and before Varanasi. The Mall Road in Kanpur has some decent hotels to break the journey.

In a nutshell: Don’t wait till you pop, go now
Distance: 773 km from Delhi on the NH 2
Route rating: 6/10
Travel time: 2 days
Season: October to March
Other tourist attractions: Make a day trip to Sarnath, 10 km
northeast of Varanasi, for its Buddhist stupas and monasteries
Eat & drink: Sweetmeats and paans, chilled lardy lassi
Stay: Taj Ganges, Nadesar Palace (0542 345100), Hotel Vaibhav, Patel Nagar (0542 345056)
Tip of the trip: Meditate, reflect, contemplate...

Corbett

Human greed will probably have pushed forests into insignificance in another fifty years, which is why it makes it all the more important to experience one now. The Corbett tiger reserve – established in 1936 as India’s first national park by Jim Corbett – is among the few well-run reserves in our country. Corbett lies at the foothills of the western Himalayas in Nainital district. The Ramganga river that runs through the park divides the land in several ridges and ravines, and is instrumental in creating some of Corbett’s stunning scenery. 

The drive to Corbett from Delhi is an enjoyable one, due especially to some of the new pay-and-use stretches. While most people come to sight a tiger, we recommend you ignore that urge and just soak in the surroundings. Elephant-back or jeep safaris, the eerie quiet, a rustle here and a squawk there, and if you’re lucky enough, the roar of the lord of the jungle himself. More common wildlife include elephants, langurs, peacocks, deer, leopards, mugger crocodiles and wild boar. There are forest lodges inside the reserve (Bijrani and Khinanauli), the best place to stay at is Dhikala, which has a decently furnished jungle lodge deep inside the forest, and the restaurant which serves decent food. There’s no point in staying at one of the lodgings outside the reserve.

In a nutshell: Don’t miss the wood for the trees
Distance: Dhikhala is 300 km from Delhi via Hapur, Moradabad and Ramnagar
Route rating: 7/10
Travel time: 1 day
Season: November to June
Other tourist attractions: Nainital
Stay: For bookings at any of the
forest lodges, contact the reception centre at Ramnagar (05947 51489) or at Dehradun (0135 2744255)
Tip of the trip: Don’t expect to see tigers every time

Leh

A trip to Leh, up in the cold, lofty Himalayan moonscapes of Ladakh, will test you, torture you and take you up to the heavens. You’ll not be the same person again after a visit to this former Buddhist kingdom. The sheer solitude, soaring snow-laced mountains, vivid blue sky, biting cold and wicked hairpin roads make for one hell of a drive or ride. You’ll appreciate the hardiness of the ancient yak-train traders who made this journey on foot to Central Asia; Leh was but their halfway point. The capital of Ladakh, now a semi-autonomous district of J&K state (with a little bit munched by China) has its own charms – Buddhist prayer-wheels at street-corners, old palaces and the Shanti Stupa gazing on,boy-monks mingling with wild-haired westerners – but Mother Nature has the starring role in this unforgettable epic.
Leh is nearly 1,100 km from Delhi. The NH1 to Chandigarh is a world-class 260 km drive, and the NH21 to Manali is 330 km of smooth, winding two-lane too. Once you get past the Rohtang Pass, things completely change. The desolate and beautiful 480 km to Leh, crossing some of the world’s highest passes,must be done in at least two stages; the mid-way point is Sarchu. Not for the faint-hearted, but who dares wins.

In a nutshell: You’ll have something to tell your grandchildren
Distance: 1,070 km from Delhi via Chandigarh, Manali, Keylong and Sarchu
Route rating: 3/10 for the roads in Ladakh, 10/10 for the vistas
Travel time: At least 3 days
Season: June-August when the snows melt and the passes open
Other tourist attractions: The Nubra Valley is 150 km further, over the 18,380-ft Khardungla pass
Stay: Plenty of hotels in Manali and Leh, tent-camps at Sarchu
Tip of the trip: Carry warm clothing, raingear, Diamox for altitude sickness, vehicle spares and as many rolls of film as you can.

Pushkar

Take in Jaipur, with its elaborate, red sandstone palaces, but also go farther – 130 km – into a marvellous little town by a quiet lake. Go to Puskhar, on the edge of desert but also full of life and colour. As is with most places in India, even Puskhar is an important pilgrimage centre and has one of the few temples where Brahma is worshipped in our country. But there’s more to Pushkar than piety. The little town’s nucleus is the lake and its immediate surroundings, which are peppered in the evenings with a very cosmo crowd. And sneaking in through the strains of Rajasthani folk music will be the boom of a didgeridoo or rapid rhythm of a flamenco, all this by a picturesque setting; with old white-washed houses by the lake and the signature pink of twilight. Don’t also forget to get your Pushkar passport done (a red ribbon tied around the wrist after a puja is performed by the lake). Behind the lake lies an area crisscrossed by little alleys and full of shops hawking arbit stuff – perfect for generally ambling and browsing around. Pushkar also hosts an annual fair – a grand epic, according to the Lonely Planet – in November, but ensure you book your acco in advance as prices hit the roof during the fair. 10 km from Puskhar lies Ajmer, famed for its dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Moin-ud-din Chisti who came to Ajmer from Iran in 1192, and the annual Urs (the saint’s death anniversary).While the Delhi-Jaipur stretch on the NH 8 ought to be a blast, the next 140 km, also on the same highway from Jaipur to Ajmer will prove to be an irritating drive, with narrow potholed roads and truckie traffic.

In a nutshell: Lakeside view
Distance: 403 km from Delhi on the NH 8
Route rating: Delhi-Jaipur: 8/10, Jaipur-Ajmer: 4/10
Travel time: 1 day
Season: October to March
Other tourist attractions: Ajmer
Eat & drink: Continental cuisine and refreshing
papaya shakes
Stay: Pushkar Palace (0145 2772001), RTDC Hotel Sarovar (0145 772040)
Tip of the trip: Fancy a game of Poi?

Bodhgaya

Funny how one can find a place as peaceful as this right in the centre of chaotic Bihar. Bodhgaya is full of bodhi trees, its avenues are shaded, and the snout of the Mahabodhi temple rises awe inspiringly amidst the green canopy. Definitely a place one can’t afford to miss and an opportunity to just be. Its serenity apart, the little town is perhaps the most popular of all the holy sites linked to Buddhism and is much more of a working Buddhist centre than an archaeological site. Take off in the morning to the 3rd century Mahabodhi temple, and take a walk around the perimeter of the temple compound. Sit like the Buddha did under the bodhi tree, and watch the walk of life around you – pilgrims, tourists, monks and guides. Go around and take a look at the numerous monasteries – Tibetan, Thai, Japanese and Burmese, and should you have the time, sign up for courses on meditation and Buddhism that are usually conducted by various organisations between October and early February.

Bodhgaya lies at a distance of 445 km from Kolkata on the NH2. The road from the West Bengal capital to the Bihar border is a smooth, brilliant four-laner. It deteriorates a bit after that once you enter Bihar, but is very manageable. Bodhgaya is around 20 km after a turn off from the village of Dobbi on the NH2. While Bihar is supposed to be unsafe, we think that as long as you get off the roads before dusk, everything should be chill.

In a nutshell: Follow the middle path
Distance: 445 km from Kolkata on the NH 2
Route rating: 6/10
Travel time: 1 day
Season: October to March
Stay: Hotel Niranjana (0631 400475), The Embassy (0631 400711)
Tip of the trip: Stay a day at a monastery

Konark & Puri

35 km apart on the relatively unhyped Orissa coast, Konark and Puri offer two completely different temple experiences. In Konark, the colossal Sun Temple is not just a tribute to the Sun God, modelled after the chariot he rides across the sky every day, it’s also a bas-relief of daily life seven centuries ago. Guides will especially take deadpan delight in pointing out the Khajuraho-style erotic carvings amidst the battle and palace scenes. You’ll have to be content examining things like the giant 24-spoked wheels (which work as sundials), because you can’t enter the temple – it was sealed up by the British on safety grounds. Nearby, Chandrabhaga is a quiet and relaxed beach. A world apart is Puri, all congestion and sweat and faith at the teeming Jagannath Mandir, one of the four holy dhams of Hinduism. When the idols are taken out annually for the Car Festival in June-July, lakhs of devotees throng this small seaside town – spiritual or spectacle, it’s worth a try. 

Otherwise, it’s a serene place – sit at a bar by the beach and ask the wise old sea what it thinks of humanity.
The drive from Kolkata is a straightforward 480 km hustle down the NH5 to Bhubaneshwar. From there Konark and Puri are an equidistant 65 km away down pleasant two-laners lined with green fields.

In a nutshell:  Temples, beaches, the human drama
Distance: 550 km from Kolkata to Konark or Puri
Route rating:  6/10
Travel time:  1 day
Season:  November to March
Other tourist attractions :  Gopalpur-on-sea  is a
seaside hamlet 180 km from Bhubaneshwar
Stay:  OTDC at Chakrathira Road (06752-22562, Rs 200-1200) in Puri
Tip of the trip:  The Jagannath Temple priests are very insistent that you shell out donations

Gangtok

Grin and bear the Kolkata-Siliguri stretch, because what comes after that, en route Gangtok, is a classical mountain road, with brilliant scenery, hairpin bends, and the thrill of ascent. Gangtok in itself is a decent place, though it’s turning into an increasingly touristy one. We suggest you chill there for two days, enjoy the weather, take in Tsomgo lake and Nathu La, and then head out into Sikkim’s interiors, which is where the beauty of this hilly state lies. 

There are enough avenues for trekking and whitewater rafting and Gangtok is full of tour operators who specialise in adventure sports. There’s Yumthang – 140 km north of Gangtok - which is mostly peaceful and nearly devoid of touristy irritants. The valley can only be reached as part of a tour group.Gangtok is around 724 km from Kolkata via Siliguri and Darjeeling. The roads, as we mentioned earlier, in the latter part of the journey are winding, well-surfaced and provide for stunning views.

In a nutshell: Himalayan grandeur, Buddhist simplicity
Distance: 724 km from Kolkata on NH 34
Route rating: 6/10
Travel time: 2 days
Season: March to May, October to December
Other tourist attractions: Kalimpong
Eat & Drink: Chicken momos and chaang (fermented millet beer)
Stay: Hotel Tashi Delek (tashidelek@sikkim.org)
Tip of the trip: The further you get from Gangtok, the better

Kathmandu

Numero uno hippie destination in the free-love era, Kathmandu today has burgeoned into a busy metropolis, buzzing with Chinese bikes and Maruti taxis against a backdrop of distant peaks (including Mount Everest). But this historic capital of the Kingdom of Nepal, our northerly neighbour, retains enough of its past to mandate a visit. Walking through Hanuman-dhoka Durbar square, a complex of magnificent temples and palaces and a World Heritage Site, is instant time-travel, with clouds of pigeons and ornately decorated cycle-rickshaws milling around. Nearby, Thamel, a popular hangout with the hippies, is all narrow lanes and bazaars packed with character, while to the east of the city is Boudhnath Stupa, where streamers of prayer flags flutter from the grand octagonal structure. Of course, there are westernised shopping areas and some fancy restaurants and bars to comfort the 21st century traveller too.

From Kolkata you can enter through Raxaul in Bihar or Kakarbhitta in West Bengal. To get to Bihar, take the Grand Trunk (GT) Road (NH2) through Dhanbad, branching off to Patna and then to the border on NH28. The journey to Kathmandu from Birganj, via Hetauda, Narayangarh and Mugling,  is one of the better motoring routes around, with flowing
rivers and green foothills flanking a well-surfaced winding road built in collaboration with the People’s Republic of China.

In a nutshell: Exotic past, stylish present, open border
Distance: 500 km from Patna (which is 560 km from Cal)
Route rating: 8/10
Minimum travel days: 2
Season: October-March
Other tourist attractions : Godavari, with a shrine where the river apparently emerges, is 12km away
Stay: Hotel Royal Gorkha (977-1-255524, Rs 300) in Sundhara is great value for money
Tip of the trip: You don’t need a visa to enter Nepal, but carry valid photo-ID and original vehicle documents.

Pondicherry

Okay, so the sunny south of France is a few leagues ahead, but a 6000-km drive is not up everyone’s alley. At least South Indians, especially Chennai residents, can hop over to little Pondicherry, a 17th century French colony, instead. Walk the streets (sorry, ‘rue’) flanked by grand old French buildings with French signboards, westerners from nearby Auroville riding past you on bicycles and mopeds. Pause at a seaside cafe for a cup of coffee, or a bottle of rosé, and there’s a fair possibility that the owner might have French blood, or French citizenship,or a French wife, making for interesting
conversation. Food and drink is usually cheap and well-prepared. Drop by the serene Aurobindo Ashram, or head a few km out to pretty beaches.

Chennai to Pondy is a lovely 3-4 hour drive thanks to the brilliant East Coast Road (ECR). Recently redone, it’s now a smooth, wide two-lane road running along the sea, with proper road markings and signage, and not too much traffic.

In a nutshell: Tamil seaside town with French genes
Distance: 160 km from Chennai
Route rating: 7/10
Travel time: 3-4 hours
Season: December-February
Other tourist attractions : Mahabalipuram with its Shore Temple is 100 km away, towards Chennai
Stay: The charming Rendezvous restaurant on Rue Suffren has characterful lodging for Rs 1,500
Tip of the trip: How about a summer course at L’Alliance Francaise before you visit?

Bheemeshwari

Doesn’t matter if you don’t know a Mahseer from its bait (a ball of maize, actually), think coracle is a computer firm, and the only riverine reptile you’ve seen is the one on your t-shirt, go over to Bheemeshwari anyway. Situated in Karnataka’s Mandya district, Bheemeshwari is an ideal way to spend an extended weekend by the Cauvery,surrounded by thickly wooded forests. You could go river rafting, take rides on coracles, have a tipple on the river banks at night, or do what hundreds of anglers from around the world come to Bheemeshwari for – game fishing for the mighty Mahseer. And even if the famed fish ignores your dangling bait, fishing in itself is a highly therapeutic activity.

Jungle Lodge’s Cauvery River Camp is about 120 km from Bangalore and the state-run tourist company has fishing rights over a 12 km stretch along the Cauvery. The living quarters are comfortable (six permanent tents and huts with attached baths) and the food, prepared by the camp staff, is excellent.

In a nutshell: Bits and Pisces
Distance: 100 km from Bangalore via Kanakapura and Halgur.
Route rating: 6/10
Travel time: 3 hours
Season: December to March
Other attractions: Two more remote fishing camps, Galibore and Doddamakali, located near Bheemeshwari.
Eat: Riverine fish
Stay: Cosy huts or decent tents with all the basic amenities. Contact Jungle Lodges for complete package
(080-5597021/24, junglelodges@vsnl.com)
Tip of the trip: What’s a gilee? Learn more about such things at Bheemeshwari.

Munnar & Kochi

Munnar idles amidst a sea of green at a confluence of three streams 5,000 feet above sea level. Early in the morning, the cold nipping at you, put your feet up and wrap your hands around a boiling mug of tea – bless the soft Brits fleeing the heat of the plains! Short excursions take you to Mattupetty Dam, where you can go boating after a calm meal, to Anaimudi, South India’s highest peak, or to the swirling mists of Top Station on the Kerala-TN border, or to Eravikulam National Park to spot the elusive Nilgiri mountain goat, the tahr. Summer seems a long, long way away. And when you do have to descend, Kochi is but 110 km away. This quaint seaside town is a soup of international influences. There’s lots to see, from India’s oldest European church to fishermen dipping giant Chinese cantilevered nets into the waters as ocean dredgers pull out of port. Walking through the lanes of Mattancherry can be a wonderful way to soak up the town’s fascinating Jewish history, with a visit to the ornate synagogue; nearby the Dutch palace has some beautiful murals, portraits and old maps. God’s own country is a pretty cosmopolitan place, it seems.

It’s a bit of a drive from Chennai, being on the opposite coast and all, but not unmanageable. The NH45 to Madurai is clogged with trucks but in decent condition. You can then head to Munnar via Teni (160 km) or add Kodaikanal to the itinerary for another 140 km. Getting to Kochi from Munnar is a blast down to Adimali, then back on the NH47 to Ernakulam and in to Fort Kochi.

In a coconutshell: Variety is the spice of life
Distance: 600 to Munnar, 110 to Kochi
Route rating: Madurai to Munnar 7.5/10, to Kochi 6.5/10
Travel time: 2 days
Season: October-March
Other tourist attractions: In Kerala, everything’s nearby – Periyar sanctuary, the backwaters...
Stay: Munnar is all hotels, while Kochi’s best options are on Princess Street leading in from the beach
Tip of the trip: Catch a Kathakali performance at the KKC off the beach at Kochi

Hampi

By the river Tungabhadra, near the village of Hampi, lies the ruins of the mighty Vijayanagara empire. At its zenith, over 500 years ago, Hampi was probably among the richest cities of the world and a major trading centre. Even today, the city’s ruins (a World Heritage site), set among a landscape strewn with boulders, convey the pomp and the glory of yesteryears – the palaces, the zenanas and the temples. Make a trip to the Virupaksha temple, huff and puff up the Matanga hill, and window-shop in the erstwhile Hampi Bazaar. A late evening walk around the ruins followed by a peaceful bout of reading sounds just perfect. And if you have the time, head across the river for a half-day trip to Anegondi. The ideal base camp for Hampi is the little town of Hospet, 10 km away. Hospet offers guides, decent accommodation with ample parking facilities and restaurants.

Hampi is 354 km from Bangalore. Start off on the NH 4 and keep at it until Chitradurga. After Chitradurga, a right turn gets you onto the NH 13. National Highway 13, which leads towards Hospet, is not too trafficky and the roads, though narrow, are decent.

In a nutshell: Remains of the heyday
Distance: 354 km from Bangalore
Route rating: 5/10
Travel time: 1 day
Season: October to March
Eat & drink: Tasty dosas and chilled curd-water at
bare-basic eateries in Hospet
Stay: Hotel Malligi, Jabunatha Road (08394-28101, malligi@blr.vsnl.net.in), Hotel Mayura Bhuvaneshwari, Kamalapur (08394-51374)
Tip of the trip: Be there among the ruins when the Deccan sun sets.

Mandu

If you’ve done the western coast, and the hill stations around Mumbai and are looking for some place not too far north, try Mandu. Its got loads of history, a picturesque location, especially in the monsoons, and is, as yet, not overrun by the unrelenting demons of tourism (though perhaps we are contributing to the same by asking you to go there). Mandu, 100 km southwest of Indore, was the largest fortified city in the medieval world, and lies on an isolated outcrop separated from the tableland to the north by a deep valley. The City of Joy, as it was known back in time, was a pleasure retreat for the Khiljis, the Ghauris and the Moghuls. Walk around Mandu today and you’ll know that there was nothing else in the minds of its rulers apart from the pursuit of pleasure in all its forms. Go for long walks or hire a bicycle and take in the Royal Enclave, the Village group and the Rewa Kund group, with their grand Afghan architecture, elaborate palaces, and abandoned forts that offer comforting vistas. While its glory has vanished, Mandu, even today with its musty, dank palaces, possesses that sense of indolent decadence which made the city famous aeons ago.

The drive to Mandu on the NH3 – via Nashik, Dhule, Nandurbar and Kalghat – is an enjoyable one. The roads are smooth and there are a couple of neat four-lane stretches. But brace for the last stretch after the turn off from Kalghat. The road that leads into Mandu is the absolute pits and should be avoided at night.

In a nutshell: Live life king size
Distance: 560 km from Mumbai on the NH3.
Route rating: 7/10
Travel time: 1 day
Season: June to March
Other tourist attractions: Holy city Ujjain is 140 km from Mandu
Stay: Hotel Rupmati (07292 63270), Traveller’s Logde (07292 63221)
Tip of the trip: Get tipsy on mahua

Daman

Portuguese churches and forts, beaches, seafood and cheap grog doesn’t necessarily mean three squares in the crossword. Goa gets all the attention, but the little Union Territory of Daman makes an interesting weekend escape for frazzled Mumbaikars. 450 years of Portuguese rule have infused it with a sense of siesta, and left a fine
architectural legacy like the Fort of St Jerome. Greet the dawn over the jetty from its ramparts, or from the lighthouse across, watching the boats pull out,. Thank the lord for weekends at the impressive Church of Bom Jesus in Moti Daman, or head south to Jampore beach for some peace and quiet. There are plenty of small bars to knock back a few over a fish lunch, following which a nap is de rigeur. In the evening, you could stroll over to the noisy market building dating back to 1937 on Seaface Road’s only traffic junction, then take in the lapping waves of Devka Beach at sundown.

While its sibling Diu is further out along Gujarat’s coast across the Gulf of Cambay, Daman is readily accessible, a quick 180 km up the NH8 towards Ahmedabad and left at Vapi; a little over 200 if you take the scenic coastal backroads via Dahanu, Bordi and Umbergaon.

In a nutshell: Goa’s half-brother
Distance: 190 km from Mumbai
Route rating: 6.5/10
Travel time: 5-6 hours
Season: September-May
Stay: Hotel Marina (0260-254420) is an affordable (Rs 250) heritage hotel with wooden floors and period furniture; for an upmarket stay (Rs 1000+) there’s the 3-star Cicade de Daman (cicadededaman@nivalink.com)
Tip of the trip: Don’t make loud Gujarati jokes in the bars...

Gokarna

A little under four hours from Goa lies Gokarna, as good as Goa without the attendant touristy irritants (as of now, that is). Gokarna has been famous for aeons as a pilgrimage centre and is considered to be the Kashi of the South. But we figure you’ll want to go there for its deserted beaches and unconventional lodgings. While Om Beach is pretty famous among beach-bummers, Gokarna also has a cluster of other stretches of sand, and coves with mushy names – Half Moon and Paradise – that are as good as any you’d find along the western coast of India. While there are decent acco options in the town, the way to do it is to rent a shack or hut on Om Beach and live an amphibian’s life. Lager as well as food is available on most beaches.

Most of you probably don’t need any info on the Mumbai to Goa stretch on the NH 17, one of the best in India. The same highway leads out of Goa and winds past Karwar and Ankola into Gokarna. The route is a driver’s dream, with a large number of corners and sparse traffic accompanied by the blue Arabian sea. 

In a nutshell: Sea it to believe it
Distance: 750 km from Mumbai
Route rating: 8/10
Travel time: 2 days
Season: October to March
Other tourist attractions: Karwar and Dandeli wildlife sanctuary. The former is about two hours away and the latter,  five
Eat & drink : Sea food and beer, obviously
Stay: If you intend to stay in town and keep making day trips to the beaches (half an hour and Rs 75 bucks by hourly boats), go for the unpretentious but clean Gokarna International (088386-56622), 1 km into town. Also check out the KSTDC Samudra (088386-56236).
Tip of the trip: Spend midnight on the moss-pimpled promontory at Om Beach, with an insomniac sea tossing and turning on all sides

Ellora & Ajanta

A millennium and a half, and the famed Buddhist caves at Ajanta and Ellora never looked better. Thanks to Japanese assistance, these World Heritage monuments have acquired a layer of spit-polish that’ve done a world of good – restored wall paintings, interior lighting, relocation of polluting parking zones and hawkers. The 34 rock-cut temples and monasteries of Ellora are 30 km out of Aurangabad, past the ruined fort of Daulatabad and Aurangazeb’s simple tomb at Khuldabad. The piece de resistance is Cave 16, the stupendous Kailash temple, intricately carved out of one giant rock. If you aren’t left wondering how in the blazes this was achieved, you may want to rush to a doc to check if the left half of your brain is still intact. The caves at Ajanta (‘lonely place’), are even more awe-inspiring,  tucked away as it is all by itself and hanging precariously from a horseshoe-shaped cliff (you can get a great view from the Viewpoint about 12 km before the caves on the MSH8). You’ll invariably come across noisy youth trying out echo points, but otherwise, there’s an aura of peace and a lingering sense of the past here.

A 440 km run from Mumbai via Pune (with a fair bit of time-saving Expressway) and Ahmednagar (on the SH60) gets you to Aurangabad; the best leg is the 175-odd km from Shikrapur, sweeping through hilly topography. The 105 from Aurangabad to Ajanta on the SH to Jalgaon is also a good fast leg.

In a nutshell: Unlike Mrs Mehra’s History class, you’ll actually enjoy this
Distance: 470/575 km from Mumbai via Aurangabad
Route rating: 6.5/10
Travel time: 1 day
Season: Hot now, but off-season discounts mean you get aircon rooms cheap
Other tourist attractions: The meteorite crater at Lonar is 160 km east of Aurangabad
Stay: MTDC hotels at Aurangabad 
(0240-331513, Rs 750+) and Ajanta (Fardapur) (02438-4230, Rs 650+)
Tip of the trip: Both caves are shut on Mondays