Have a weekend to kill? Beaches and mountains on the edges of Kolkata beckon
If you’ve visited a Bengali household, chances are you’ve spotted a terracotta horse in there somewhere. These are Bishnupur’s specialities. Bishnupur, in the Bankura district, lies a few hours of a bus ride away from Kolkata. And besides the clay horses, it’s also known for its temple structures, relics from the 16th century onwards. These are signature Bishnupur with intricately carved facades and terracotta tiles.
There’s also a small museum that displays artefacts of folk art and music – both of which are in abundance in Bishnupur. The former in fact translates beautifully into another speciality of Bishnupur, the Baluchuri saris, intricate silk weaves that depict scenes from epics of Ramayan and Mahabharat. The Bankura Hotels are modern and well equipped. A tourist or a new comer to this place will not have any difficulty during the stay.
2. Mandarmoni Beach
The seaside resort town of Mandarmoni is West Bengal’s fastest developing getaway and it helps that it’s just a couple of hours away from Kolkata. It’s essentially a slow and sleepy fishing village – but then that’s the big draw for fish-loving Bengalis. Fresh catch – mostly river-fish from the river delta that meets the sea – is fried on the beach and sold with a generous sprinkling of salt and masala. Biting into the crisp, fried bits while being windwhipped on a sandy beach is blissful.
There is a handful of resorts and guest houses all ready to accommodate weekenders. If you’re inclined towards a bit of adventure, there are spots that offer parasailing, kayaking, rock climbing and zip lining. Leave the rush and chaos of Calcutta city and stay in any of the Mandarmoni Hotels. They are away from the the noise and ideal for a family vacation.
3. The Sunderbans
West Bengal’s river delta has extensive mangroves and an intricate maze of waterways. The groves give way to low lying brush forests, where the Royal Bengal Tiger roams in free abandon, while the sandbanks are where crocodiles sun themselves. Boats leaving from Sajnekhali (a few hours from the city centre) on safaris where you spend the day chugging through the water looking for any black-and-yellow stripes running through shrubbery.
The boat owners are also excellent chefs who whip simple and homely dishes for breakfast and lunch. As the sun dips, you will be dropped off at one of the many tourist lodges that line the mangroves. If you have the urge and the confidence to explore the wild, you must stay in one of the nature friendly Sunderbans Hotels. You can enjoy solace and proximity to nature during your stay here.
4. Mulkharka Lake
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West Bengal is a state with diverse and pretty breathtaking natural reserves – and yes almost all of it is accessible for a quick weekend break. One of these is Mulkharka Lake near Siliguri. To be honest, there isn’t much beyond the lake, but the lake itself is a fantastic site. On clear days, the peak of Kanchenjunga is reflected perfectly on its surface, and all the legends about this cool, calm surrounding seem plausible.
Especially the one about a bird who lives around there to clean the lake, and therefore you’ll never find a leaf on it. It’s a trekker’s paradise with crisp air and walks through occasional misty patches. There are a few homestays to crash in and the local fare is delicious and homely. Surf the hotels listing online for Siliguri Hotels. Check the amenities and facilities and book after you make sure it is worth the money you are investing.
5. Shantiniketan Complex
Bengalis revere poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore as god, and Shantiniketan, to them, is nothing less than pilgrimage. The town itself was once a tranquil space, where Tagore set up his university. Classes were held under banyan trees, and education included lessons in dance and art alongside maths and physics. Today, the university lies in disrepair, holding on to its reputation, but the town itself draws in more and more tourists with passing years.
There are a number of small hotels, lodges and guesthouses and the market place is always thronging with sharp bargain hunters. Some of Bengal’s most beautiful handcrafted items are found here, including intricate katha-stitched shawls and saris. There are many options among Shantiniketan hotels. Online booking may help you save some bucks too.
6. Digha Beach
Before Mandarmoni, Digha was the reigning beach getaway of West Bengal. Weekend breaks, summer holidays, and winter trips meant the entire city of Kolkata practically descended on Digha. Ever since the British slapped on the title of ‘Brighton of the East’ on the town, it’s drawn a massive number of revellers. With just cause. The beach here is a massive one, with a jetty that’s packed with food and souvenir stalls.
This is not a resort/luxe getaway – it aims to please the masses, so long weekends mean crowds and noise. However, you do get the best fresh seafood here – you can watch a fresh catch of massive prawns being hauled in, and then eventually fried as dinner. Don’t wait any longer. The sooner you book into one of the Digha Hotels, the greater chances you have of getting the expected facilities at affordable rate.
South 24 Parganas
The mangroves of West Bengal have given the state a number of beautiful beaches. Bakkhali, located 125km from Kolkata, is one such, where the hard sand also makes the beach here perfect for cycle rides. Head to the watch-tower here to see the land stretch into the sea. If you see a mass of red moving along the beach, don’t be alarmed. The carpet of tiny red crabs is a signature feature of the beach.
It’s a relatively under-developed region so don’t expect swanky hotels and resorts here. But the waters and beaches are clean and serene, and the food at the few hotels are good. There’s also a crocodile park a few kilometres away from Bakkhali. Check into any of the Bakkhali Hotels and plan the next day’s tour through the parks and other attractions.
Darjeeling is West Bengal’s most popular hill station and as far as weekend breaks go, a bit far. You’ll need a flight/longish train ride and/or a drive to get there. However, when the temperatures spike in Kolkata, the hills are a welcome relief and worth the trek. Like most Indian hill stations, it has a town square around which a Mall Road winds down. There’s beautiful colonial architecture and stunning Tibetan temples and monastries to visit.
In addition, you have tea gardens producing some of the finest teas in the world. Visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which also holds a mini zoo and has often been the starting point for most of Everest expeditions. Enjoy the beauty of the cold regions and take time to visit tea estates and other nature friendly locations. The Darjeeling Hotels booking can even be done online.
Despite the distance, Gangtok is extremely popular with Kolkata residents. Tibetan monstaries, a zoo, and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, with its rare Buddisht artefacts, are major draws. The Emchey Gompa is one of Sikkim’s most fascinating places – the monastery is located in what looks like an enchanted forest, and the founding monk was supposed to have some phenomenal levitating powers. Gangtok is also a mini shopper’s paradise, with a well-stocked and acclaimed tea shop, an underground cheap Chinese wares market, and a colourful handloom emporium. Opt for Gangtok Hotels that are in the vicinity of prime locations that you are planing to visit.
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You might think that Puri beach is the biggest attraction here, but it’s the 850-year-old Jagannath Temple that’s the star of the town. Jagannath is said to be the lord of the universe, and the temple here is one of the four main pilgrimage sites for Hindus in India. Puri beach is busy, full of stalls selling pipli or colour applique work and hot snacks. Skip it, and head out instead to the gorgeous Sun Temple at Konark.
For a more relaxed weekend, try the Chilka lake where you can go boating and spot some beautiful fresh-water dolphins. If you have a fixed budget for the travel expenses, then book into one of the affordable Puri Hotels for the stay. Make sure it is comfortable so that the rest of the journey turns out to be smooth.
Kolkata is surrounded by a number of small villages and towns like Tarapith, Kumarpukur and Tarakeshwar that are quaint spaces largely defined by their dominant temples that draw in the crowds. Tarapith is particularly known for its Tantric temple.