Travel fitness: Top 10 spots for yoga around the world

You can run, walk, hike, climb, swim, surf, and scuba your way to new experiences, but even the most active traveler needs a brief moment of zen every now and again. For those who need more than a few seconds of “Om” to get through their day, check out some of these top spots of yoga around the world:

1. Present Moment Retreat – Troncones Beach, Guerrero in Mexico
If you happen to be down in Guerrero don’t miss the chance to visit the Present Moment Retreat for a yoga vacation you won’t soon forget. Complete with a private beach for meditating and yoga workshops by the ocean. You’ll have the privacy of a deserted Island and the accommodations of a five star hotel. With it’s diverse yoga, meditation and healing workshops this is the perfect place to reconnect your mind, body and soul.

2. Himalayan Institute – Honesdale, PA
You don’t need to be familiar with founder Swami Rama to benefit from the many programs offered at this retreat, set in the rolling hills of the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. You can choose to stay for a weekend, a week, a month or even a long residential stay, where you will encounter a serious approach to hatha yoga, Ayurvedic medicine, eastern philosophy and meditation. Expect zero luxuries other than vegetarian meals, a peaceful setting and authentic, carefully crafted treatments.

3. Esalen Institute – Big Sur, CA
The Esalen institute with its 400 plus workshops, is designed to maximize the human potential. Located in the Santa Lucia Mountains on 27 acres of Big Sur Coastline this retreat offer the perfect atmosphere serious retreaters. Esalen’s unique blend of Eastern and Western philosophies give it a dynamic insight that opens the mind and cultivates the soul. Most people experience Esalen through a weekend or five-day workshop, where you can pick form subjects such as Yoga, somatics, dreams, shamanism, biofeedback, hypnosis and more. You can enjoy the hot springs and bodywork by appointment.4. White Lotus Foundation – Santa Barbara, CA
Founded by the accomplished Ganga White, this mountain oasis sits on ancient canyon grounds-considered sacred by the original inhabitants, the Chumash Indians-overlooking Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean. Personal and group retreats are available year-round with themes like Spirit Dance, Yoga Retreat, and Sacred Breath. A retreat will include any or all of these: daily Hatha yoga classes, hikes in the oak and manzanita forests, meditation within canyon walls, breathing exercises, bodywork, dips in the waterfalls, massage, music, dance, philosophical discussions, a visit to the underground Hopi style “Kiva” temple and vegetarian meals.

5. Sivananda Ashram – Sierra Foothills, CA
One of several Sivananda Yoga Centers around the world, this Sivananda Ashram is on eighty acres of Sierra foothills in Northern California. Founded by Swami Vishnu Devananda, a pioneer of yoga in the Western world, this Ashram is open year-round to practitioners of all abilities. You have a choice to stay a day, a weekend or a month with daily programs and wellness classes that include daily yoga classes, the swami’s five points of yoga (proper exercise, breathing, relaxation, diet, positive thinking/meditation), women’s health, positive thinking, vegetarian cooking, Ayurveda, meditation or a silent retreat.

6. Shambhala Mountain Center – Red Feather Lakes, CO
This Tibetan Buddhism-centered retreat caters to both begins and in-depth practitioners with many programs on yoga, Buddhist meditation, Shambhala warriorship training and much more. Being located on 600 acres in the Colorado Rockies, your surrounded by seemingly limitless natural beauty and an array of animals you might encounter. Besides practicing yoga, you can enjoy a walk in the Botanic Gardens, or a evening massage, a morning Vipassana Insight meditation, or poetry reading. The Shambhala Mountain Center is also home to The Great Stupa of Dharmakaya, the “largest and most elaborate example of Buddhist sacred architecture in North America.”

7. Kalani Oceanside Retreat – Big Island, HI

This island retreat has a lushes setting that borders the ocean and tropical jungle. Incorporating a healing and joyful spirit, guests can enjoy skilled instruction in yoga, healthy vegetarian, creative writing, and Dolphin Dance. There is a year-round Introduction to Yoga retreat offered for those who have wish to begin their spiritual quest. Accommodations cover all budgets, from the colorful Tree House with ocean and horse pasture views to the friendly cottage and the campsite.

8. Satchitananda Ashram – Buckingham, VA
At the 1,000-acre Satchitananda Ashram Yogaville in the Virginia countryside guests enjoy yoga classes, meditation, three vegetarian meals a day, Saturday evening satsang and a visit to Lotus (the Light Of Truth Universal Shrine), an oasis for contemplation and prayer dedicated to world peace and all faiths. The kind of Yoga you will find here combines various branches of yoga such as Hatha, Raja, Bhakti, Karma, Jnana and Japa, to form a scientific system that incorporates your mind, body, and spirit in a most efficient way. Guests stay in air-conditioned dorms, private rooms in two guest houses or campgrounds on a quiet, wooded area. Weekend workshops and programs on anything from Thai Yoga Massage to structural yoga therapy or vegan and vegetarian cooking are also available, as well as teacher certifications.

9. Ashiyana – Goa, India
Located in the land where yoga was born, Ashiyana is more of a personal growth center than simply a yoga hideaway. There are special silent retreats lead by a master that enable guests to look within to glean the nature of the true self. Regular clinics are scheduled throughout the year for various types of yoga-Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Motion Yoga, teacher training and more. If you prefer to practice at your own pace, you can also plan a yoga holiday that eliminates the structure of a formal retreat and group involvement.

10. Ibiza Yoga – Benirras Beach, Ibiza in Spain
On the northwest coast of Europe in a quiet corner of the island people will find an oasis of calm tranquility to practice Ashtanga-based yoga. They can enjoy vegetarian meals and the peace of mind need to ‘find themselves.’ The accommodations of Villa Roca, Villa Palmas, Benirras Beach Apartment and the Pagoda Garden are tasteful and down to earth, and you cannot beat the sunsets.

Your guide to luxury rail travel

Trade a plane for a train, and experience genuine luxury. Hitting the rails in style has been gaining steam around the world, according to the Wall Street Journal, in Asia, Europe, Russia and Africa. In a sense, this is becoming the new “cruise,” without the worry of being pinned on a boat by that insurance salesman who’s intent on saving your financial life.

Many of the luxury train excursions seek to offer upscale accommodations with incredible cuisine and constantly changing scenery. Here a few ideas to get you started.

The Ghan (Platinum Service) connects Adelaide and Alice Springs in Australia and is named for the camel drivers that once used the same route (the rail service was extended to Darwin five years ago). In September, the upscale version of the trek was offered. You’ll have plenty of elbow room and privacy, but it will set you back close to $4,000 for three days. And, you have to get yourself to Australia to take the trip.

On the Thai Explorer, a route of the Eastern & Oriental Express, you can relax in a Presidential Suite or the lesser but still comfy State Compartments, or enjoy the open air section of the observation car at the end of the train. You’ll track through northern Thailand, with plenty of time to explore the stops along the way, but you’ll pay for the privilege. Four days for two guests in the state department costs $5,120.

If driving in India’s Karnataka state intimidates you (and it should), give the Golden Chariot a try. You can ride the train from Bangalore to the beaches of Goa. Launched early in 2008, this luxury rail alternative features massage rooms, gyms, comfortable beds and wireless internet access. Of all the alternatives reviewed by WSJ, this is the most cost-effective. Eight days costs approximately $4,000.

[Via Wall Street Journal]

Where spices come from. A tour of a spice plantation in Goa

If you’re in a region of the world where spices are grown, take in a tour of a spice plantation. On last Tuesday’s episode of Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern went to a one in Goa.

Here is a video of a tour of a spice plantation in Goa (there are several) that points out the highlights of the various spices and how they are grown. The text captions tell what you’re seeing. Along with the close-up shots, are views of the entire plants. In the mix, there is a demonstration of how to climb a tree, and the food shots will make you hungry.

Here is a link Goa’s spice plantations. Make sure that food is part of the bargain. You are guaranteed shopping time.

Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern: Goa, the spice of life

From the first shot of Goa in this week’s episode of Bizarre Foods, I could smell the aromas. And that’s a good thing. Although Zimmern said that the food in Goa is different than many parts of India, in New Delhi where I lived for two years, every spicy, sweet and sour taste that Zimmern mentioned could be found. That’s because New Delhi was filled with people who started out somewhere else. For those who like taste variety, India is heaven, and Zimmern once again showed how.

What I liked about this episode is that anyone heading to Goa can find the food that Zimmern ate without spending much money. He went to simple places in each location he visited. And, although he did touch on the unusual foods, it was mostly the cooking methods and not weird ingredients that carried the episode. Goa became an inviting backdrop for eating pleasure. Instead of thinking, “Oh, gad!” I wanted a bite– or twelve.

In Goa, a state colonized by the Portuguese, and described by Zimmern as a hippie hangout in the 60s and 70s that still teams with tourists, Zimmern walked through Mapusa Market as the camera panned and periodically lingered on sacks of spices followed by piles of various fruits. Along with the variety in the smells and flavors of the bounty is a vibrant color palate which is probably why camera shots of spices were popular throughout this episode.

First up– a lesson in curry. As Zimmern pointed out, curry is a blend of spices that goes much further than what Westerners know as curry powder. In India, curry is called masala. When the tasting started Zimmern honed in on a couple of dishes that make Indian cuisine unique.

Pickled mango was one of them. Mango, a usually sweet fruit is turned sour by being kept in salt. One of my favorite relishes, mango pickle is often found on restaurant tables similar to how a bottle of ketchup is a condiment in the United States. My favorite Indian restaurant in Albuquerque, New Mexico when I lived there was the Indian Kitchen. There was always a jar of mango pickle at the ready. I’d eat it like candy.

For his market grazing, Zimmern also sampled bora berry, a small light brownish-yellowish fruit, about the size of a grape that he said was “slimy goo, sour and disgusting.” Must be an acquired taste. As the guide who was showing Zimmern around said, children love them. Passion fruit Zimmern liked.

At a sausage seller, he sampled chouricos, a sausage made of pig meat that includes organs and is mixed with hot spices and stuffed inside pig intestines. Instead of intestines, Zimmern said guts. Using pig intestines as sausage casing is actually not that unusual. Say guts and it sounds gross.

The next dish, mackerel soaked up to a year in masala sauce, is unusual. Zimmern offered to eat it raw, but the guide told him absolutely not. It’s fried first and she sent him off to Republic Noodle, a small restaurant near the market to be cooked before he became sick for sure. “This could have been my last Bizarre Foods,” he quipped.

The cooked mackerel wasn’t fabulous. “This smells like lime soaked in ammonia,” he said before taking a bite. “Wow. That’s sour and fishy. You can’t even cut this thing with a knife.” Sounds like a food to stay away from unless you’re really, really, really hungry. Still, for people who live through monsoons, this method for preserving foods comes in handy.

In Panaji the capital of Goa, the architecture reflects the Portuguese colonial influence–so does the cuisine. Vindaloo, a signature dish of Goa, reflects the influence. I’ve eaten chicken vindaloo many times, but didn’t know it came from the Portuguese. Vindaloo, as Zimmern pointed out, is a way of preparing a sauce that includes vegetables, various spices, vinegar and red hot peppers, making it one of the hottest dishes in Indian cuisine. He ate his version at the restaurant in the Hotel Venite. “Spicy. Tomatoey. Strong vinegar backbone. Boy, that’s some serious warm heat,” he declared. Vindaloo can be made with pork, fish and beef as well.

Zimmern’s meal also included hilsa fish roe. The roe–fish eggs–were in a ring that had been steamed, chilled, sliced, and rolled into corn flour. “This is absolutely the definition of dry mealy food,” said Zimmern before he ate a bite of vindaloo as a chaser. Throw some mango pickle on the roe and it might be good?

At another restaurant, Mum’s Kitchen, there is the concept of making Indian food as Indian moms might make it. The idea is to “make sure the right way to do something doesn’t disappear” by adding a mother’s touch into the dishes.”

Here chicken can’t get any fresher. The chicken is killed on the spot and is plucked, cleaned, cut up and cooking in minutes. Zimmern pronounced the dish, chicken xacuiti delicious. Since it’s from marinating chicken in a masala mixture of cumin, curry leaves, coconut and red chilies, I’d second that. It didn’t sound weird, and besides, moms cooked it.

Even the most unusual dish on the menu, Bombay Duck, was tasty despite sounding awful. The duck isn’t duck, but a type of soft boned fish with lizard qualities. The story goes that the name comes from the British who said the fish’s smell reminded them of a crowded train car of the Bombay line.

Next on Zimmern’s Goa jaunt was a trip to Calangute Beach. Here, wood-fired tandori ovens are used for cooking which gives meat and bread a smokey flavor. At one simple restaurant, 100 yards off the ocean with jet skis in the background, Zimmern ate tandoori-style fish after mentioning that there are miles and miles of beaches in Goa, so fish is a-plenty.

Zimmern’s eating at this beach made me want to head to the Asian food store closest to my house to buy a bag of Indian snack food. After eating a chick pea sandwich, Zimmern sampled a snack mixture of puffed wheat, chick peas raisins and spices.

As he said, “Even the simpliest food are seasoned so well. You feel like the most humble foods have been transformed.” If you’ve never eaten Indian snacks, buy some, but be careful about the hot factor. The packaging will say if a food is hot or mild. If it says hot, believe it.

Another tasty treat with a wicked kick was the deep fried chili fritters with chili puree on top. Don’t do what Zimmern did and glop on the puree. “That was a really dumb idea. In a little while I’ll have to peel my taste buds off that cloud up there,” Zimmern said about his mouth explosion.

To get away from the tourists, Zimmern suggested Arambol Beach where you can sunbath with the cows. With white sand beaches and the ocean offering a place for relaxation, shack-like restaurants were the setting for Zimmern’s fish feast. Fish is cooked up on a propane grill.

The flat spiny pomfret that Zimmern ate is a white fish variety that is cross-hatched before it is grilled so that will come apart in pieces making eating it with ones fingers easy. The king prawns were also grilled. At this point, I’m thinking, shoot yes, that I’m hungry.

Next stop was Sahakari Spice Farm where there are at least 100 different types of plants. This section was a great lesson in where the ingredients in spice bottles come from. As this section illustrated, in addition to jazzing up food, spices also foster good health.

The man giving Zimmern the tour said that black pepper acts as a laxative and cinnamon takes care of cholesterol, for example.

The farm was also a place for highlighting the labor intensive harvesting practices, like when the guy shimmied up coconut and betel nut trees to get the good stuff.

To get to his next eating place, Zimmern took a ride in a rough hewn wooden boat on the Mondovi River where sand bars makes travel tricky and in spots crocodiles infest the waters.

In a private home, Zimmern ate sorpotel, a dish common to weddings. With pork as the main ingredient, it was cooked in a large pot over an open fire nto a dish flavored with Kashmiri chili, onions, ginger, cardamom and cinnamon. Yum. (Except I could do without knowing that blood is used for a thickening agent.)

The last part of this episode was my favorite and worth its own post. Stay tuned for Andrew Zimmern’s trip to the Ayurvedic Natural Health Center which made me laugh out loud. It involved oil, heat, a broken chair and cow’s urine.

(photos of market and Zimmern from Bizarre Foods Web site.)

Are tourists safe in India?

The recent death of British Scarlett Keeling in Goa has had significant coverage in the international media over the last month. In fact, it has opened a new and dangerous chapter on tourism in Goa — one of India’s most visited states — is a tourist safe there?

For those who haven’t followed the story: 15-year old Keeling was drugged, raped and left to die in Goa. What’s worse is that the Indian police treated her death as an open and shut case of a tourist drowning, which has now been revealed as a conscious decision by local authorities to cover it up a) because they were involved b) to not hurt tourism in the state.

It saddens me to think that the case only reopened because of the noise made by Keeling’s mother, and its prolific reporting in international media that probably put pressure on Indian officials to come clean. Indian media criticizing the police for not being able to protect tourists efficiently was perhaps not enough. It gives grieving insight into the corruption festering in the Indian government.

According to a Reuters report: At least 126 foreign nationals have died in Goa in the past two years, 40 of them British. Of these, it is said that about 10-12 cases that were declared drowning cases are suspicious, and further to the Keeling story, they might be opened again for investigation.

All this makes me wonder: how long has the Indian police in Goa been getting away with crime? Why is a British woman (rather than an Indian) responsible for helping uncover local corruption? How many stories must be in the closet?

I regained some hope when I read this morning that the Indian police in Goa arrested 40 people in an overnight crackdown on suspected drug traffickers in Goa, and, that the Indian government would like to take action by employing ex-military personnel to protect tourists in beaches around the country.