Bombay: The Ultimate Destination – Part 2

Yes, I know you have all been waiting anxiously for the follow-up to Part 1 of my very personal guide to Bombay. Some of you even threatened to hold you breath until the column was published. But no need… Here is goes. So, last week I took you through the ins and outs of the preparations necessary to truly appreciate and live your visit to Bombay to the maximum. This week, I’ll try to stick to the cold, hard facts. Keep in mind that typically I am not your girl for a lot of sightseeing, but even that in this city is not your average, corny and overcrowded with tourists in boy scouts outfits kind of deal. As far as shopping goes, there are a few choice destinations and a lot of side places to hit. I say, stick to the basic, high end shops and browse through only a couple of staples road markets. And for food and nightlife, well, as is true in NYC, the trendy places change almost weekly, so I’ll try to point you in the right direction but I suggest also doing a little investigating yourself. Go ahead, ask that cool looking guy sitting in the lobby of your hotel smoking a cigarette. Or approach that hip looking Indo-chic girl with her mobile glued to her ear. It might not only get you going to the right spot, but with a bit of an entourage as well… Do check out Bombay Part 1 for details on where to stay, required reading before heading to Bombay, etc.

SIGHTSEEING

Perhaps this is true of most seaside cities, but I believe there is nothing like Bombay seen from a boat. And the best kind of boat is one of those inexpensive launch tours that take you to Elephanta Caves from the Gateway of India. There is something magical about viewing the Taj Mahal Hotel disappear in the distance… It just feels like Bollywood all the way. Never mind that most films on or about Bombay use this location in the pivotal scene of the movie. Off the top of my head, I know Irfan Khan gets beaten up here while John Abraham falls in love, in different movies of course. Then, the Muslim girl/Hindu boy love story of Mani Ratman’s “Bombay” is cemented right in front of the Gateway of India and even 70s heartthrob Shashi Kapoor is seen walking out into Apollo Bunder in an important scene of the Merchant and Ivory classic “Bombay Talkie”. Is it any wonder that taking this short day trip always takes me to a different world?! The way to do it is quite simple, though not always painless. Get yourself down to Gateway of India, around 9 to 10 a.m., possibly on a weekday. I have done it on a weekend as well, but it’s a lot more crowded and once at Elephanta, you might have tons of Indian tourists taking your photo in front of the carvings… Mindboggling. Anyway, find a hawker that seems cuter/smarter/louder/more personable than the others. You’ll have plenty of choice and whatever is your preferred standard of selection, go for it! Then, pay for your round-trip ticket, should less than 200 rupees (I paid around 150, but prices change almost weekly…) and have someone from the boat help you onboard. THIS is the tricky part, as the boats are all tied together, and usually the ticket you’ll have bought will be for the very last one… six other launches off. So, arm yourself with nerves of steel – and BTW, a nice pair of rubber soled shoes doesn’t hurt on this occasion – and jump from boat to boat to boat, until you can get a seat on your chosen vessel. I usually sit in the back, since it makes for a good view going out, and is less windy and noisy than the front of the launches. Once at Elephanta, there is a minimal entry fee to pay, and about 150 steep steps to climb up to the caves, laden with various peddlers of every useless souvenir you can possibly imagine. If you are thinking “Your Name on a Grain of Rice” and “Miniatures of Hindu Gods on Bodhi Tree Leaves” then you are absolutely right!! But the sellers’ bantering does help pass the time and acts a bit like an Ipod on a long run: distracts you from just how far you still have to go to get to your goal. Caves aficionados claim that Elephanta’s aren’t as beautiful as many of the other ones throughout India. But the greatness of these caves doesn’t lie only in their Hindu significance – they are said to be the abode of Lord Shiva and the Trimurti of Elephanta is truly worthy of its Unesco World Heritage title – rather in the whole experience. A simple day trip from Bombay, and one is transported to a faraway world, filled with confrontational monkeys, guards with long sticks and even longer mustaches and countless families enjoying a day away from the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s a must-see on any visit to Bombay. Once you have spent the day beholding the beauty of the caves and have set foot on dry land again, then treat yourself to a drink inside the Taj Hotel. Try out either the Harbour Bar or the Sea Lounge for some overpriced – albeit WELL worth their price – drinks.
So, on day 1 of your sightseeing tour of Bombay, you will have hit FOUR different attractions. WOW! On a different day, I suggest passing Flora Fountain, on the way to Colaba Causeway for shopping. I also would try to ask the taxi driver to show you Shivaji Terminus – renamed from the English Victoria Terminus – which today is still one of the busiest train stations in India. Working upwards from South Bombay, check out Chowpatty Beach after 5 p.m. which is around the time when your tummy will be needing a snack. Try to steer clear of anything that might have been sitting around for too long, but go instead for a hot, buttery Pav Bhaji, a soft bun filled with spicy potato mixture, the safest – and possibly the tastiest! – of options. If you are staying in Juhu, a similar experience is Juhu Beach, though Chowpatty is the original fun spot and must be experienced at least once. Oh, almost forgot about Crawford Market… It’s an interesting outing and the architecture is quite impressive, but don’t spend too much of your precious time there. In Breach Candy, on the other side from Chowpatty, check out the Mahalaxmi Temple, one of the most famous Hindu temples of Bombay. On the road up to Bandra, you’ll notice Haji Ali, and impressive mosque which boasts a dargah – tomb – built in 1431. The days to visit are any when the tide is low, as the narrow, rail-less passageway is swept by the ocean during high tide. The popular worship days are Thursdays and Fridays, though be prepared for large crowds as it is estimated that as many as 40,000 pilgrims visit the shrine weekly and the highest concentration is on those two days. Up in Bandra, check out Mount Mary’s Catholic Church, to complete your idea of how religiously diverse this city really is. If you are lucky enough to stay in Juhu, then finish each and every one of your afternoons in this city by taking a leisurely walk on Juhu Beach. Drink some fresh coconut water, eat some roasted corn – insist on one that is cooked fresh for you – and even sit at one of the seaside stands to taste a dosa or some pav bhaji, while watching families stroll and young hotties jog. Truly, even for a demanding girl like me, Bombay never runs out of fun!

WHERE TO EAT

I have a few favorites, but I cannot guarantee that they are the hottest or hippest spots. I like them for a pleasantly light dinner and a drink, since I usually fill up on snacky foods while in Bombay. This is the city of street food, though always take great care to avoid cold snacks and food that may have not been cooked fresh in front of you. It sounds harder than it actually is. I also have another very personal secret. I use Gentian extract right before all my meals, while traveling. It is bitter – the main ingredient in Angostura Bitters, which are quite common in the West Indies – use only about five drops on you tongue and swallow. It is supposed to get your gastric juices flowing, so that even if something tainted comes into your system, the natural acid from your stomach will kill it. I can guarantee that I have never suffered from “Delhi Belly”‘ while in India. Hey, that’s an achievement in itself! And, while my family in Italy was afflicted by a full day of “Driving the Big White Bus” and also, hum, riding it, because of some tainted mussels, I watched TV, unaffected by the devastation. Girl Scout’s honor. OK, back to restaurants. So, for brunch, try out the JW Marriott. Their brunch is famous city-wide and don’t be surprised to sit among some big name local celebrities, even if you won’t be quite sure of who they are. It’s a divine brunch, but do not be afraid to be a bit tough with the hostess when she insists that the window tables are already taken. A simple “I wish to sit by the window and I know something IS available” will do. Magically, a spot will open up for you. There are also some fantastic new restaurants at the Taj Mahal Hotel, including one each for Moroccan food and Nouveau Indian cuisines. The Oberoi‘s coffee shop and their frontier food spot Kandahar are also great spots to see and be seen. Indigo, on a narrow side street near the Taj is also fantastic and can be an all night spot, the kind where you have dinner and then stay over for drinks and a cigar afterwards. Olive Bar and Kitchen is a similar deal but up by Bandra, which makes it easier for those who decide against a hotel stay in South Bombay. Check out their review on World’sBestBars.com which – by the way – is a great source of information for bars around the world. This concludes my food section. Now, on to my very own forte – SHOPPING!

SHOPPING

There is no shortage of shopping venues or beautiful things to buy in Mumbai. The dilemma I face each and every time I am in the city is just how many places I can hit, so as to be home in time to get ready for dinner and then step back into the evening traffic, which means it will then take me a good hour just to go around the corner… But there is an organized system to my madness and it goes something like this: hit South Bombay one day, hit Bandra’s high shops the next and then, if you still need more, hit the Santa Cruz market and even Linking Road – on foot – the third. On the first day, stop at the Oberoi Towers Shopping Center, which should take you the good part of a morning. Make sure to check out the two separate Amrapali jewelry shops, one for silver and costume jewelry, the other for gold and gems. Also find the couture purse shop Cheemo, Ritu Kumar’s Label and the shawl shop with the best quality and prices – #31, Khazir Sons. When feeling peckish, there is a lovely spot to sit and have a veggie burger and the likes. It’s called the “Gourmet Shop and Snack Bar” and it is directly across from the Citibank branch, to the north of the complex. Alright, now onto a taxi and to Colaba Causeway. You’ll feel a lot like Hugo Baumgartner – see “Required Reading” in Part 1 – navigating your way through the crowds of the arcade, but do look out for some of the best bindi, adhesive mendhi designs and stick-on tattoo vendors you will ever encounter. Metro shoes is an institution, as is now a totally anticlimactic Lacoste shop. There used to be a couple of young men selling bootleg DVDs, CDs and t-shirts of the latest Bollywood hits, but the last time none of them were around… Anyway, for CDs and DVDs, there is always Linking Road. Once you have checked out each and every stand on the Causeway, then walk towards the ocean and get to the Taj Hotel fairly easily. You won’t need a taxi for this, as it is literally around the corner. In the Taj, stop, relax, have a tea or a drink, and check out their shopping arcade. Nothing to write home about, mostly because of the very high prices, but the bookshop, Nalanda, stands out as one of the best for good literature, in English. By now, it might be time to retire to your hotel, or you could check out Crawford Market if you so desire. It is still a “wet market” so be prepared for an assault on your senses.
On your next shopping day, check out all that Bandra has to offer. I mean, Manish Malhotra, Ritu Kumar and FabIndia all have shops here. It’s a bit of an in and out with having to jump across from place to place. But well worth it if you are looking for something in particular. Shopper’s Stop has great supermarkets around Bombay and one in Bandra. The Bandstand is a good place to chill and walk a bit in the late afternoon, and Linking Road has loads of shoes and a couple of good music/movies shops. On the way back to Juhu, you could ask the rickshaw driver to drop you at the Barista, on Tara Road. Yes, BTW, when moving from Juhu to Bandra and back, do use rickshaws. Much more fun and truly inexpensive! Then, if staying at the Marriott, walk a couple of steps and you are HOME! So, I am all shopped out, and you? If you still have some steam, look for Rocky S, Rohit Bal and various other hot designers of the moment. Their shops are scattered at opposite ends of Bombay, but worth seeing if you know their wares. All that is left for me to say is… N-joy!

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