Republic Day weekend Getaways from Kolkata

Take your pick from hiking in Garh Panchakot or an elephant safari in the Betla National Park or beachcombing in Mandarmoni or a shopping spree in Shantiniketan
A beautiful sunset at Mandarmani beach near Kolkata
A beautiful sunset at Mandarmani beach near Kolkata

BETLA NATIONAL PARK, PALAMAU, JHARKHAND
Located in Palamau, Jharkhand, Betla was one of the first parks to become a Project Tiger reserve. This area is famous primarily for elephants though the deciduous forests support a huge variety of wildlife. Tiger sightings are infrequent, but if you shed the obsession of seeing the &lsquobig cat&rsquo, and settle down to enjoying the jungle, then you will find Betla captivating.

How to reach
FLIGHT / TRAIN CAR Take a train or a flight from Kolkata to Ranchi (185km) and from there a taxi to Betla National Park.

Where to stay
The renovated Betla Forest Rest House (budget) has been receiving high praises. Also, Jharkhand Tourism Development Corporation runs Van Vihar hotel (mid-range). For more information, contact the Department of Tourism, Govt. of Jharkhand, F.F.P Bhawan, 2nd Floor, Dhurwa, Ranchi-4, Tel 91 651 2400981, e-mail info@jharkhandtourism.in.

What to see & do
Park safari
Take an elephant safari or a jeep safari inside Betla National Park.
Betla Fort
The 16th century fort is located deep inside the Betla forest.

SONAJHURI FOREST, BIRBHUM, WEST BENGAL
Close to the Ballavpur Wildlife Sanctuary in Bolpur, Sonajhuri forest is practically next door to Visva Bharati, Shantiniketan, and yet far removed from the din of the university township. The proximity of the Kopai river and tribal villages makes it ideal for some non-strenuous &lsquoconnecting&rsquo with nature. Sonajhuri is within easy walking distance of the sanctuary, which has plenty of birding opportunities, a watch tower and a lake. In winter, the climate is very pleasant and the local fairs held during this time add to the attraction quotient. The tribals are friendly to visitors, as long as one does not act excessively &lsquotouristy&rsquo.   

How to reach
CAR The Sonajhuri-Ballabhpur area is 165km from Kolkata down NH2, about 3 hours&rsquo drive. TRAIN TAXI A number of trains run to Bolpur from Kolkata the Shantiniketan Express (from Howrah) is the most convenient. There is an abundance of local transport from Bolpur station.

Where to stay
Kopai Resort (mid-range, tel 03463 228 279) tries to put on a &lsquovillage look&rsquo with low-roofed cottages resembling huts. Chhuti Holiday Resort (mid-range, from 1,772 chhutiresort.com) has a picturesque setting. Jiraan The Retreat (budget, from Rs 1,300 Tel 91 9333510012) is a pleasant farmstay, with stylish and comfortable rooms and leafy surroundings.

What to see & do
Visiting Visva Bharati
The campus is spread over a huge area. The buildings are not open to visitors, but there are campus tours organised by the university itself (Tel 91-3463-262751-56).
Batik shopping
The most famous products of Bolpur-Shantiniketan are batik-printed garments and leather accessories with bright embossed patterns.

GARH PANCHAKOT, PURULIA, WEST BENGAL                                    
West Bengal has several hidden gems that the tourism promotion blitz has missed. Maybe just as well, because it is hard to imagine Garh Panchakot, a place at the foot of Panchet Hills, as a crowded destination. Once ruled by the Singh Deo dynasty of Rajput origin, Garh Panchakot has a number of century-old temples and ruins. The Panchet Lake &ndash offspring of the Panchet Dam &ndash is a wonderful site for a picnic. Sit back and enjoy the emerald surrounding or go on short hikes, the choice is yours.

How to reach
TRAIN Take the early morning Black Diamond train from Howrah and disembark at Barakar or Asansol. From these stations, any local transport will take you to Garh Panchakot in an hour or so. CAR Garh Panchakot is about 260km from Kolkata, down NH2. After Asansol, turn left for Raghunathpur, reach Satbari and ask for Garh Panchakot.

Where to stay
Garh Panchakot Prakriti Bhraman Kendra run by the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation (budget, price on request Tel 91-33-2237-0060-061/2225-8549 wbfdc.com) is a comfortable place right in the proverbial &lsquolap of nature&rsquo. Among other options are Palash Bithi Lodge (91 9932610350), which is close to the government lodge, and Village Telkupi, an &lsquoeco-village&rsquo by Panchet Residency (mid-range, from Rs 5,500, panchetresidency.com) that has air-conditioned cottages resembling village huts. Panchet Residency also runs eco camps (budget, Rs 2,000 per head) on Panchet Hill.

What to see & do
Boating on Panchet Lake The Panchet Dam is about 3km from Garh Panchakot, and the lake created by the dam is good for a picnic and boat rides. The Maithan Dam on the Barakar river is 22km away.
Nature hike Garh Panchakot is ideal for easy hikes. Walk up Joychandi Hills, considered an extinct volcano, for panoramic views.
Temple visits The Birinchinath and Biharinath temples are nearby.

MONCHASHA, EAST MIDNAPORE, WEST BENGAL
This eco-tourism initiative within easy reach of Kolkata is one of the most successful in the state. Set up in the village Paushi, it is not just a resort, but an interactive experience with village life. Only about two years old, Mon Chasha sits by a river, its construction eco-friendly, made with locally sourced organic material. Coming here is sampling a slice of rural Bengal, but with every comfort available nearby &ndash and delicious meals cooked with traditional recipes.

How to reach
CAR Monchasha is 4 hours&rsquo drive from Kolkata down AH45, past Kolaghat. TRAIN CAR The nearest station is Contai (23km), and the resort provides a car pick-up and drop at an extra cost.

Where to stay
Monchasha (mid-range, from Rs 3,500, meals extra monchasha.khorlo.com) has only non-AC cottages, but these are naturally temperature-controlled, made of hogla (reed), bamboo and straw besides, it is still winter and so the lack of air-conditioners will not bother you. The sprawling resort is pet-friendly and a small allowance of Rs 500 a day is charged for a pet.

What to see & do
Fishing
Its location by a river makes Monchasha perfect for anglers, and angling is a major guest activity. Whether the fish bite your bait or not, you will have the thrill of anticipation.
&lsquoHammocking&rsquo
No matter how plush your own home, it cannot beat swinging from a hammock at Monchasha with trees all around.
Cultural activities
Guests take part in local crafts and music and mingle with the residents of Paushi.


Photo credit Abhijit Kar Gupta

MANDARMANI, EAST MIDNAPORE, WEST BENGAL
The Kolkata beach lovers&rsquo alternative to Puri and Digha, Mandarmani is the new rage, but it still retains a degree of &lsquonewness&rsquo in the sense that everyone has not been there yet. Plus the Mandarmani beach is, indeed, what it is cracked up to be &ndash long, clean, and vast enough to accommodate the legions of eager arrivals. The 13km beach is the longest motorable beach in India, and locals offer drives on the sand, but this considerably pollutes the beach, so is best avoided. Mandarmani is a great place for a long weekend, as there are few or no distractions from the endless bathing and beachcombing &ndash relaxing is the only thing to do.

How to reach
CAR From Kolkata, Mandarmani is a 3-4 hour drive past Kolaghat. TRAIN TAXI The nearest railway is Contai, from where local taxis go to Mandarmani. BUS An air-conditioned bus leaves from Esplanade at 7am. After that, there are non-AC state buses throughout the day.

Where to stay
Hotel Sonar Bangla (mid-range, from Rs 2,300 hotelsonarbangla.com) is a large property with smart rooms, right on the beach, and its best feature is a long paved &lsquopromenade&rsquo with shaded benches facing the whole expanse of the sea. Samrat Holiday Inn (budget, price on request Tel 91 8584029262 / 8584029263 / 8584029264, e-mail samratinnmandarmoni@gmail.com) is a small and comfortable place with basic rooms. The Sana Beach resort (mid-range, from Rs 3,650 Tel 91-33-25301030 / 64525172 / 91 9330633111, mandarmonihotels.com) has rooms ranging from &lsquocomfortable&rsquo to &lsquoserious luxury&rsquo and is as close to the water as it gets. Massara Resort (mid-range, from Rs 2,900 massararesort.com) has bicycles on rent and beach volleyballs.

What to see & do
Beachcombing With a beach this great so close to Kolkata, it has to be explored on foot. Far better than driving on the sand.
Water sports Mandarmani lays claim to having some &lsquonew age&rsquo water sports, such as water scooter and quad biking on the beach.

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