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Our long awaited 'Incredible India' experience

Our long awaited 'Incredible India' experience

Old Feb 7th, 2013, 09:04 PM
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Our long awaited 'Incredible India' experience

After dreaming of visiting India for years, finally we made it, and not only was this our first trip to India (well, with the exception of 2 weeks on a beach in Goa, a very long time ago), but after years of travelling around the world, often with the help of all you wonderful fodorites, I’ve finally got around to writing my first trip report.

We are a couple in our 40's with no kids and our aim was to experience India, but at a pace that didn’t leave us needing another holiday at the end of it! The keys for us were to experience the local culture, wander the markets, enjoy the food and take in the sights. We enjoy seeing the odd temple or palace but are not hugely into history or museums, but we are massive photographers and this was a huge part of our trip.


ITINERARY


Kolkata – Oberoi Hotel - 3 nights
Varanasi – Radisson Hotel - 2 nights (Changed to 1 night mid-trip)
Delhi – The Imperial Hotel - 1 night (Changed to 2 nights mid-trip)
Agra – ITC Mughal Hotel - 1 night
Jaipur – The Raj Palace - 3 nights
Jodhpur – Ajit Bhawan - 3 nights
Udaipur
 - Leela Palace - 3 nights
Mumbai – The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel - 2 nights

Thursday 20th December 2012
BRISBANE - SINGAPORE - KOLKATA

Finally, the day had arrived for our India trip. Our day started at 5.30am with a taxi to Brisbane Airport. It hadn't actually sunk in that tonight we would be in Kolkata! The Singapore Airlines flight was on time and ran smoothly, service and food weren't bad, then we had 3 hours to kill at Singapore Airport, so we took a walk, had some food, and it wasn't long before we were boarding our Silk Air flight to Kolkata. Again the flight was good, the service was fine and it was only 3.5 hrs, so after years of dreaming of going to India, at 8.45pm we landed in Kolkata. Only then did it begin to sink in. We were actually here. We got through immigration and customs in minutes, our cases came out pretty quickly and in no time at all we were in the arrivals hall, where our driver from the Oberoi was waiting for us, with a smile, a bottle of cold water and cool towel. Lovely! Within minutes we were making our way into the traffic heading for the city. We were very tired but exhilarated at having arrived and kept grinning as we looked out the window. The streets were busy with people and traders and food stalls, and the traffic was chaotic, even though quite late at night. The city was more ramshackle than I had imagined - no big skyscrapers here. We were so engrossed in everything that the drive flew by and in no time at all we were pulling up outside the stunning white colonial style building of the Oberoi Grand. We were taken to our room to check in (we had been upgraded when I had previously emailed the manager requesting a higher floor non-smoking room). The room was lovely, with a very comfortable bed, just what we needed after 21 hours travelling. We unpacked, showered and went to bed, although it took a while to fall asleep we were just so excited to be here.

Friday 21st December 2012
KOLKATA

We woke at 5am this morning, which was partly because we were eager to see the city, and partly jetlag. So we headed to the gym, which felt great after the previous day's traveling, then after showering, and having a wonderful breakfast, we ventured outside. Our hotel really was in the midst of everything - on a very busy street with lots of traffic and honking horns, and traders selling there wares up and down the street. It was only 9am so still pretty quiet. We took a walk up to the Maiden where boys were playing cricket, then walked the back streets to the New Market. We were pretty jet lagged and everything felt a bit overwhelming, so we decided to get a car and driver to take us round to get our bearings. Having taken a walk, despite my intention to dress modestly in three quarter pants, a t-shirt and sandals, I felt like a stood out like a sore thumb so changed into my walking trousers and a shirt, and took off the sunglasses, thereby deeming most of the clothes I had brought with me unsuitable for the rest of the trip! We booked a car with the concierge and at 10.30am we set off. It was a brilliant idea. For 2 hours he drove us round, starting with Eden Gardens Cricket Ground which Mr V desperately wanted to see, he took us down to the Ganges where we watched people praying and bathing in the filthy water, it was incredible to watch, then we drove past the Writers Building, around the streets, over the Howrah Bridge, taking photos along the way and just sitting grinning as we watched the scenes outside pass by. Then he took us to Mother Theresa's home, where we went inside and saw her tomb, which was quite moving. Our last stop was the Victoria Monument, and the driver was pretty shocked that we didn't want to go in, just photograph it from the outside, philistines that we are! When we got back to the hotel at lunchtime we really felt we'd packed such a lot in already. The car and driver for that morning was definitely a good call.

We decided to have lunch at the hotel and as we took a table outside near the swimming pool this was our first chance to test how helpful the hotel would be in catering to Mr V’s gluten-free needs as a Coeliac, as the menu consisted of sandwiches, pizzas and pasta ... we needn't have worried! After handing over a coeliac card, we ordered vegetable fried rice (which wasn't on the menu), then the chef came out to assure him that they would make anything he liked and assured him gluten free bread was now being made and would be ready for his future meals at the hotel. The lunch was delicious and very relaxing sitting by the pool and the weather was still warm. I decided to relax with my book by the beautiful pool in the afternoon, but the heat went very quickly. Jet lag and a busy morning got the better of us and we decided on a quick nap in our room at 4.30pm but we both fell fast asleep and didn't wake until 7.30pm! We headed downstairs to the Thai restaurant, which we hadn't thought to book, and they had no tables free until 9.30pm - so much for our quick meal and early night! When we finally got a table in the restaurant it was lovely. We had fantastic food and wonderful service, and Richard, the Food and Beverage Manager couldn’t have been more helpful. Finally, we headed to be after a wonderful first full day in Kolkata.

Saturday 22nd December
KOLKATA

We had an early start today (which wasn't a problem due to our jet lag) so we could head off to the flower market at 6am. This was so worth it. Not really a market as we think of it, more little muddy tracks with hundreds of flower sellers setting up shop, under the Howrah Bridge. Not another tourist in sight, although we were fairly conspicuous by the white suited peak capped Oberoi driver who insisted on showing us around, which was actually great as we felt very safe taking our cameras out and getting some fabulous pictures, what a great experience. We headed back to the hotel for a shower and breakfast.

Next we went for a walk into the old part of Kolkata. Fantastic! Dusty streets, filled with people, cars, motorbikes, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, bikes, cows. We wandered past street stalls selling all kinds of food, watched men bathing at water outlets on the street, and marveled at all kinds of businesses, from the man sitting on the pavement hand-cutting keys to the man at the typewriter providing office services. We wandered for a couple of hours until we were hot and tired and headed back to our hotel. I was so hot and dusty I decided I wanted a swim and had to do it before the temperature dropped in the afternoon, so by 11.30am I was by the pool with my book and the sun was still warm. The pool, however, was not. Despite this I braved the ice cold water which after a few minutes felt refreshing. Mr V joined me but it was too cold to stay in for very long. We dried off and ordered another delicious vegetable fried rice lunch. We decided to have some time relaxing as we were still very tired, so spent the rest of the afternoon reading by the pool which was lovely. After last night's experience at dinner we decided to book a restaurant and chose the hotel's multi-cuisine restaurant La Terrasse for 9pm, as we wanted to go for a walk in the early evening to Park Road. When we headed out of the hotel we were shocked at the noise from outside, there were people everywhere! As it turned out there was a march going on with thousands of people involved. They were protesting for stronger punishments for crimes against women, after a brutal rape and beating by 6 men in Delhi had left a girl in intensive care. There had been similar marches escalating into riots in Delhi in recent days. We walked, or rather shuffled our way through the crowds past all the street traders to Park Road, which had all the Christmas lights on. We had a look around a great bookshop, Oxford Books, but beyond that there wasn't a lot to see. It was a nice thing to do on our last evening in Kolkata, but we were back in the hotel at 7pm, so we brought our dinner reservation forward, and went at 7.30pm.

Dinner in La Terrasse was a highlight, and mainly due to the wonderful service we received from Richard, the Food and Beverage Manager. He welcomed us like family and when we said we wanted to try some of the Bengali Specialties he asked us to let him choose. Mr V had decided to go vegetarian for the trip but I didn’t find that so easy, so decided to use my judgement and go vegetarian if eating anywhere that I felt unsure about and eat meat in the 5 star places. We had a mixture of vegetarian starters which were delicious, followed by a Bengali lamb curry with mace and black cardamom, with Poori bread for me, and a Bengali Vegetable curry, with ridge gourd, potatoes and poppy seeds for Mr V. All were absolutely delicious, and this remains the best meal we had on the whole trip (and we did have lots of wonderful food elsewhere). As all of their contained gluten, the chef prepared a beautiful complimentary fruit platter for us. It was a lovely meal to have on our last night in Kolkata. Our Oberoi experience was exceptional, with the overriding feature being the warm and caring service, unusual for a big chain hotel. They have a no-tipping policy which means you get great service because that's what they do and it also makes a great place to find your feet. Kolkata was wonderful, a great place to start our adventure, and the Oberoi made it all the more special.

Next: KOLKATA - VARANASI
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 02:30 AM
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Waiting for more. Thanks for writing.
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 06:59 AM
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Reading along and enjoying.
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 08:43 AM
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Cant wait to hear about the Mumbai part as we are going there in a few days!!
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 01:08 PM
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yes, joining in here too. so far a great start to your first TR.

we spent a fortnight in Sri Lanka last year and although we would like to go back there some time, we also felt that we are probably ready to try India, so I'm so interested to read about your first experiences there.

hope you don't mind if I ask you a few questions along the way? the first one is did you use an agent to help you book the trip, or DIY using this and other forums?
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Old Feb 8th, 2013, 02:11 PM
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great start.. reading with interest..
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 04:26 AM
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Annesherrod - I doubt I'll get to the Mumbai part before you go, so if I can offer one recommendation, take a look at http://www.realitytoursandtravel.com/ we asked them to customise a private tour to cover all the bits we wanted which included a short tour of Dharavi slum, a visit to see the Dabbawallas, Dhobi Ghat and a tour of the markets. It was truly one of the best things I have ever done. I was in two minds as to whether to go to Dharavi but it was done in a very sensitive manner, no photos were allowed, and 80% of the profits go back into providing education for the residents of Dharavi. I was worried it may feel too intrusive, or that I would find it distressing but it was exactly the opposite. Such a positive and humbling experience, and our guide was wonderful I can't recommend it highly enough. a great way to end our stay in a truly fabulous city.
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 04:34 AM
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Annhig - more than happy to answer questions

We did Sri Lanka in 2006 and loved it - India is definitely the next step. I made all of the hotel and flight bookings myself. I used Fodors and Tripadvisor to help make decisions on the hotels, and wherever I could get the best deal on the hotel's website I used these. Two of our eight hotels I used hotel booking websites as they had the best deals. I booked all of the airline tickets directly through their respective websites. I booked a car and driver from Delhi through Rajasthan through Castle & King (thanks to recs on here) and they were excellent. I got C&K to book our train tickets from Delhi to Agra and also arrange tickets for moonlight viewings at the Taj. For me the planning is as almost as much fun as the holiday, so to have someone else do it would have spoilt it for me ;-)
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 08:30 AM
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Wonderful start ..... You did India the right way.
Sounds like you enjoyed your trip.
Isn't that what travel should be about?

Looking forward to more.
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Old Feb 9th, 2013, 10:18 AM
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I like your travel style. We've been to India a couple of times (plus a brief stop on the way to Bhutan) so I look forward to reading more...
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Old Feb 16th, 2013, 06:51 PM
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Thanks Violet! Kolkata is one of my "must-see" India places Glad to rad all about it!!
Looking forward to the whole repot, including the change from 2 nights to 1 in Vanranasi
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Old Feb 24th, 2013, 02:18 AM
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Sunday 23rd December 2012
KOLKATA - VARANASI

The airline had brought our flight forward by 3 hours, so we had a pretty early start, breakfast then drive to the airport, although we still managed lots more photographs along the way. We got to the airport and walked past all the empty bag screening counters for every airline until we got to ours … yep, JetKonnect had the longest queue ever - not a good start. Eventually we got through to join the (again ridiculously long) queue for check-in, whilst all the other airlines had much smaller queues. We needn’t have worried about missing our flight though, as it was delayed! We eventually took off an hour late, and realized that we had to fly over Varanasi, up to Lucknow then back to Varanasi, so it was a much longer flight than it needed to be. We were now feeling thankful that we had no more flights booked with JetKonnect! Compared to Kolkata Airport (which felt old and run-down) Varanasi airport is surprisingly new and modern. We had arranged through our hotel (Radisson) to be collected, and were met by our driver, Sam. The drive to the hotel was interesting and such a contrast to Kolkata. Apart from being colder (and a bit foggy), we were struck by how rural it felt, and enjoyed taking pics on our journey to the hotel. Our plan with Varanasi was based on arriving at night, doing both the sunrise and sunset boat trips on the Ganges the following day, then fly to Delhi the next day for 1 night before heading to Agra. Because the airline had brought our flight forward we arrived in Varanasi at 4pm and Sam suggested we would have time to go to the Ganges for sunset that evening. We liked Sam immediately and as we only had a short time in Varanasi we agreed to let him take us to and from the Ganges and arrange a boat for us. We checked into the Radisson, piled on as many layers of clothes as we could (it was getting really cold) then raced out to meet Sam in time to head to the Ganges for sunset. It was a half hour drive through the crazy, noisy busy streets of Varanasi, but we were driving slow enough to take loads of pics on the way. Sam dropped us off and we were met by Raj (Sam’s friend, guide, and local gangster). He walked us through the chaotic streets and markets, which we were glad of, as it really was like a rabbit warren, and while I’m sure we would have found our way down to the river somehow, I’m not so sure we would have found our way back! Raj took us to our boat and we were rowed down the Ganges, towards the burning ghat. It was incredible. For so many years I’ve seen these pictures of Varanasi, but to actually be in a boat on the Ganges felt surreal. When we got to the burning ghat we watched for a while, it was peaceful and very moving, then we came back up to watch the Aarti Ceremony and bought candles to light and float down the river. We watched part of the ceremony from the boat then Raj took us ashore to a great spot to see the ceremony from close-up. We walked back through town, which was buzzing, marveling at all the food stalls, people, dogs, cows, rickshaws and activity on the way. The whole experience was just incredible.

As soon as we got back to the hotel we showered and changed for dinner. The streets of Varanasi were filthy and after our trip down there and boat ride, we felt grimy. This is where our idea of a nice clean hotel to retreat to should have kicked in, but the Radisson just wasn’t up to scratch, the public areas were fine but the rooms (we had booked a business class room) were old and tired. The bathroom smelt of damp, the towels were threadbare and it had a shower curtain which I spent my whole shower trying to avoid touching. We knew it wasn’t going to be the Oberoi, but it was supposedly a 4 star, so we were disappointed. Dinner at the hotel's barbecue restaurant, despite the slightly strange decor and the waiters wearing boiler suits, was really good. The food was great, service brilliant and they had already made gluten free bread for Mr V.

Having already packed our sunset Ganges trip in, that only left the sunrise one which we would do the next morning. We decided that we didn’t need to stay for 2 nights and the thought of an extra night at the Imperial Hotel Delhi v’s a second night at the Radisson was much more appealing. It also meant we’d have a full day to see Delhi instead of a few hours, and we wouldn’t be travelling on Christmas Day. Varanasi was very dirty, but it had to be experienced and we loved it. I definitely wouldn’t have missed it out, but we’d seen what we wanted to see and were happy enough to move on so made the necessary hotel and flight changes, then headed to bed for an early start the next morning.

Monday 24th December 2012
VARANASI - DELHI

Sam collected us at 5.45am and took us to the Ganges, which as it was early, only took 15mins. Raj met us and took us to the boat through much quieter streets than the previous night. We were on the boat before dawn, but even though we had wrapped up in several layers we were still frozen. This time we went down the Ganges in the opposite direction in time to watch the sunrise. It was so peaceful at that time in the morning and incredible watching the river and the ghats come to life as the day dawned. We got off further down where we watched people bathing, praying, brushing teeth etc. It doesn't matter how many photos you can see of this, nothing can prepare you for the feeling of actually being there, it was incredible. It was still very quiet even though the sun was up, but it was nice just wandering. Then we got back in the boat and made our way back up the river. We took a walk through the tiny alleys of the old town, which was fascinating. The biggest challenge was trying to avoid walking in the cowpats and dog poo, which was everywhere. I'm not sure we would have wandered down some of those alleys by ourselves and we got some great photos, so we were glad to have Raj with us.

Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel for breakfast, then Sam picked us up and took us to Sarnath to see the Buddhist temple and museum. This was a lovely thing to do and such a contrast to the dirty, noisy streets of Varanasi. It was a very peaceful rural setting, so we wandered around for a bit before heading back to the hotel for a quick lunch, then it was off to the airport and goodbye to Varanasi.

Our flight to Delhi was with Spicejet, they were much better than JetKonnect and only ran 15mins late. We arrived in Delhi at 5pm and were met by Castle & King. Unfortunately the riots in Delhi had escalated and most of the streets near our hotel were closed off by the army, so as a result we had a 2hr journey to our hotel. By the time we arrived at the Imperial Hotel at 7pm, we looking pretty bedraggled and tired, and I’m sure we smelt of cowpats! But Wow. What a hotel! We had been upgraded to a Grand Heritage Room which was beautiful and most importantly, after Varanasi, had a stunning bathroom. After showering and unpacking we felt human again. We had dinner in the wonderful Indian Restaurant, Daniell’s Tavern. Stunning restaurant, amazing food, wonderful service, it was just perfect. Finally it felt like Christmas Eve!

Tuesday 25th December 2012
DELHI

Had a lovely slow start to the day. After a wonderful breakfast, we walked to Connaught Place for a wander around the shops, bought a few things then got back to the hotel in time for Raja, our driver from Castle & King to pick us up and take us out for the afternoon. Temples, mosques and historical monuments don’t hold much interest for us, so the only place we really wanted to see was Old Delhi. As we were nearby though, we decided to visit Jama Masjid Mosque, but were pretty underwhelmed, so didn’t stay long. As it was just across the road, we decided to take a look at the Red Fort. We were impressed by the size and scale of this place, it was huge, although we didn’t go in as we really wanted to spend our time in Old Delhi taking photographs. Then we moved on to Old Delhi, which was fabulous. We took a cycle rickshaw for an hour through the streets and alleys, now this is what we came to India for! Bumping and jolting our way through these narrow passages crammed with shoppers and cycle rickshaws was such an experience, and the photos we got were fantastic, we loved it! We arrived back at our hotel at 4pm, in time for our Ayurvedic Massages we had booked at the Spa, leaving us nice and relaxed for our Christmas Day dinner at the Hotel’s renowned Spice Route Restaurant. Like everything else at The Imperial it was flawless! Beautiful décor, fantastic food and lovely service. A truly memorable Christmas Day.

Next: DELHI – AGRA
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Old Feb 24th, 2013, 04:16 AM
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I'm enjoying following along, remembering our stays (and excellent dinners) at both the Radisson in Varanasi and the Imperial.
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Old Feb 24th, 2013, 01:24 PM
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I'm following along as well and enjoying.
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Old Feb 24th, 2013, 01:59 PM
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reading along and loving the detail..

our flt to varanasi was thru lucknow---it was easy, but i think your decision was a good one..

xmas dinner---wow!!
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Old Feb 24th, 2013, 02:35 PM
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Very much enjoying your report!
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Old Feb 25th, 2013, 08:43 PM
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Looking forward to reading more of your great adventure.
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Old Feb 26th, 2013, 07:16 AM
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Great report with excellent detail. I have a feeling that you would have wanted to stay in Varanasi for longer if you had stayed right on the river.
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Old Feb 26th, 2013, 03:44 PM
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Great report! We got back from India a week ago so this is bringing back memories. We also stayed in the ITC in Agra - I was pleasantly surprised that it was a pretty good hotel with more personality than I expected.
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Old Feb 28th, 2013, 04:01 AM
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Thanks guys, will get more done this weekend.

Crosscheck, I'm not convinced ... While we loved the experience of being down on the river, (I might have come across as a bit negative, but I truly wouldnt have missed it for the world) the only thing which could have tempted me to stay longer would have been a better quality hotel, and in particular, a more modern and clean bathroom, and I'm not sure we'd have got that on the river. I actually liked the location of our hotel, and found it almost a relief to escape the crowds and the filth of the town. It didn't take all that long getting back and forward and the drive to the river was interesting anyway.

In all fairness, this wasnt our sole reason for leaving Varanasi early, we already felt we would barely see Delhi, so the idea of an extra night there, in additon to not spending Christmas Day travelling just made a lot of sense. I don't think I would have originally booked for just 1 night, for fear of loving the place and having to leave before we were ready, but we really felt that the time we had there was ample, and with the exception of our hotel being a bit grotty, we loved our visit to Varanasi. If I was recommending to someone who hadn't been, I'd probably suggest 2 nights only because some people might prefer more time there than us, but if someone was short of time, then provided you had decent flight times in and out I think 1 night would still be very worthwhile, and for some people, may well be long enough.
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