Off The Hammock
- Spiritual Holidays Yoga holidays widely available, from fancy to basic, also check out Tushita meditation centre at Dharamshala, Tureya Ashram and Karuna Farm at Kodaikanal and Vipassana meditation courses at Igatpuri (www.dhamma.org)
- Volunteer Vacation Visit a beautiful place and also help the locals—teach English, build shelters, help clean up trek trails. Check out Ecomantra, Journeys with Meaning, www.ecotourism.org.
- Connoisseur Trails Plenty there, from cheese and coffee tours, Darjeeling tea estate visits, to Nasik wine trails
- Culinary Tours Rushina's Masala Trails, also holidayonthemenu.com. Nimmy and Paul in Kochi (www.nimmypaul.com) offer classes in traditional Kerala cooking at their homestay.
- Adventure Tours Paragliding, scuba diving. Check out Get Off Your Ass in Bangalore, Temple Pilots in Mumbai, www.diveindia.com and www.laccadive.in
- Photo Journeys You need to own or rent a DSLR camera for these tours. Check out www.earthtoskyphotosafaris.com, www.photographyonthemove.com and www.phototours.in. Also, Light & Life Academy in Ooty for their weekend course in photography.
- Rural Holidays Book your stay through websites like traveltocare.com, namastay.in, www.rusticholidays.co.in and www.grassroutes.com
- Hobby Holidays Pottery at the Andretta Pottery & Craft Society in Himachal or painting at Cholamandal Artists' Village in Chennai, short-stay getaways like Hide-Out and Art Escape. www.brokencompasstours.com offers bespoke holidays to offbeat locations that revolve around activities like music, dance, tribal art.
It is a bit incongruous to see well-heeled south Mumbai denizens with Gucci shades propped on their heads and Louis Vuitton bags slung on shoulders crouch near a small patch of tilled ground. But here they are, on a wintry Sunday, chanting the Gayatri mantra solemnly as their children, all students at the posh B.D. Somani International School, sow seeds into the loose soil. A little later, they wash their hands in refreshingly cold water drawn from a well and plonk themselves down on the cool mud-plastered floor and savour a slow-cooked vegetarian feast made on a woodfire chullah.
They could afford to take off for the weekend to expensive resorts. But instead, these 17 families have come to Hide-Out, a charming organic farm retreat just two hours from Mumbai. “As a rule, I look for nature-based, educational weekend breaks, especially when I am travelling with my son,” beams Kajal Vasa, one of the mothers who planned the trip. For her, such holidays are the best way to keep her son Rahil grounded and teach him things he wouldn’t ordinarily pick up at school.
Even a year or so back, travellers like her were a rarity. Holidays were supposed to be about kicking back and dissolving into puddles of nothingness once you reached the destination. Now, though the hammocks are still very much around, the idea, increasingly, is not to lie in them all day. In other words, ‘vocation vacations’ are finding favour. This developing trend has encouraged Hemant and Sangeeta Chhabra, who started Hide-Out as an organic farm 23 years back, to slowly transform it into a holiday retreat offering learning experiences in a warm, friendly environment. We’ve had Warli art camps and also photography workshops,” says Hemant. An acupressure expert, he also plans to host long-stay workshops on alternative healing and yoga.
In the last month itself, Hemant has had about 200 guests come to his farm, booking their stay through websites like namastay.in and traveltocare.com. Most are working professionals who thoroughly enjoy doing something far removed from their usual sphere of activities.
It’s the same spirit that propelled Sudipta Dhruva, creative head of The Ideas Box, a production company, to book herself and her office colleagues for a week-long trip to Goa at the Art Escape. “When I saw that they had pottery and painting workshops, that sold the place for me,” she says, confessing to having grown tired of the ‘standard’ Goa experience. Staying in plush bamboo huts near the beach, the group had lazy breakfasts at the restaurant, toddled into the studio space for some creative time playing with clay and colour before wandering off do their own thing. “People came in as they wanted to and it felt nice to learn something new with no pressures,” she says. With musicians jamming in the premises, experimental flavours being rustled up in the kitchen and Patachitra painters and Baul musicians dropping in, the whole space reminded her of a ’60s art commune. That sort of description is music to the ears of Darryl Noronha and Vinesh Iyer, who created Art Escape for the precise purpose of giving harried city folk the space to explore their creative, artistic selves, usually buried under work and more work.
Many city-dwellers do seem to be chafing at the constraints, both of urban life, and of the conventional holiday. Sudipta Moitra, a freelance writer, went on a photography safari because it was the only way she could indulge her hobby. “I’m a huge shutterbug. But when I was in the city, I had no time, and on holiday my family would complain if I spent too much time taking pictures,” she says. So, slinging a rented DSLR camera on her shoulder, she went on a Photography OnTheMove tour to Hampi with 15 other amateur photographers. “It was a complete revelation. In the morning, we had theory classes. Then we’d shoot extensively among the intricately carved ruins and then there were evening reviews that analysed our frames. I learnt how to make the camera do what I wanted it do in five days flat!” she exclaims. Another co-traveller, architect Vikram Ponappa, found the trip—“everything you’d want on a normal holiday with the bonus that you got to concentrate on photography with a bunch of like-minded people”—so inspiring that he has now turned to professional photography.
Say cheese Cheese-making farmstay at Acres Wild in the Nilgiris
Santosh Kumar, owner of the travel firm Get Off Your Ass, which organises the OnTheMove tours, sounds upbeat when asked about the future of such vacations. “Our tours make people see a place with new eyes. We’ll go to Goa during the carnival or visit Alleppey for the boat races and our instructors will show our guests how to search for visual frames that most people miss,” he says. His other hobby holiday packages include paragliding workshops and biking tours, and they are being snapped up too.
In fact, the offerings in this genre of vacation seem to be getting more and more varied by the day. There’s Manickdeep Masih’s music tour, conceived and organised with his guru Ustad Shujaat Khan (daily open-air riyaaz sessions in the morning and evening and long chats on music), at the secluded Kanatal Resorts, a swish wellness spa, two-and-a-half hours from Dehradun. There’s a cheesemaking farmstay in the Nilgiris, at Acres Wild run by filmmaker Mansoor Khan and his wife Tina, which cheese aficionado Harjith Singh dubs a ‘fabulous experience’. “The cheese-making sessions were unbelievable,” he raves. “Tina has a real passion for the subject and so her classes were really engaging and fun.” It had him so hooked that a few months later, he was off on a similar holiday to learn about his other indulgence—coffee—visiting a plantation to learn how to pick, roast and grind the beans. All to better appreciate the flavours in the cuppa back home.
With gastronomic pursuits becoming hip, food blogger Rushina Munshaw Ghildiyal’s Masala Trails couldn’t be better timed. These holidays, sweeping across the culinary landscapes of Calcutta, Hyderabad, Kochi, Goa, Mumbai, Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan, are unabashedly palate-centric. From elaborate meals in royal palaces, to meandering through old spice markets for ingredients, from cooking in traditional kitchens to jotting down age-old recipes, they help travellers discover places through their taste buds. “After the interest shown, I plan to start a message board for people who have gone on a Masala Trails journey because they want to discuss recipes and techniques and even culinary stories of the region,” says Rushina.
The chief attraction of such speciality holidays seems to be the unspoken promise that you will discover something new about yourself or the place you are visiting. In fact, travellers are braving hardships, too, in search of such insights. Shreyas Yoga Retreat, on the outskirts of Bangalore, has a ban on smoking, alcohol and non-vegetarian food. “Two years back, this blanket ban meant most of our guests were foreigners. Now we have seen a spurt in the number of Indians who want to learn yoga, shelling out Rs 14,000 a night, for our double occupancy rooms,” says Balaji, CEO, Shreyas Resorts. Other trips are even more gruelling, like Ecomantra’s volunteer vacations in and around Mumbai in tribal hamlets and the more ambitious Journeys with Meaning to Ladakh and Kashmir, conceived by Vinod Sreedhar. Travelling over 18 days by long road routes (to cut down on their carbon footprint), living at basic homestays and meals, the group cleans up trek routes picking up plastic garbage, works on local volunteer projects and talks to locals about the problems they are facing. “They learn about everything from responsible tourism to local politics,” says Sreedhar, who has gone from just nine people on his first fledging trip to Kashmir last year, to fielding up to 180 enquiries this year.
For the new city-bred traveller, it’s a return of sorts to an older idea: knowledge is the greatest holiday souvenir of all, worth going that extra mile for.