Mararikulam Beach Resorts - Abad Turtle Beach, CGH Marari Beach Resort, Carnoustie Beach Resort - Comparative Review

We got a chance to check-out the three most popular beach resorts in Mararikulam recently. Below is a comparative look at the three options: Abad Turtle Beach, Marari Beach Resort (Casino Group Hotels), and Carnoustie Beach Resort. To reach these resorts from Ernakulam area, take a Right from NH-47 about 10KM after Cherthala at Kalithattu Junction and drive ~3KM until you hit Mararikulam Beach Road (66 - Alapuzha-Arthunkal-Chellanum-Thoppumpady Road). Within the first kilometer to the Left, Marari Beach Resort comes on the Right and a little further down is Abad Turtle Beach. Less than a kilometer to the Right is Carnoustie on the Left. All three properties have similar basic amenities (gym, sauna, security, pool, beach access, A/C) but the service levels and sophistication are where they differ.

Abad Turtle Beach is the most economical among the three options. A beach cottage can be had for just under Rs 5000 (~$100 - the 19.92% in taxes are additional) on sale pricing online (regular pricing is Rs 8000 - ~$160). The online interface is however problematic - in some cases, the confirmed online pricing is not honored when checking in - there is a 50% charge for kids over six years, but that is not included in the online confirmed rate - the Terms & Conditions talk about it but reading that requires an additional Click and so is easy to miss - this can result in a very unpleasant first-impression as you will be asked to pay 50% more than the quoted rate. They have Beach Cottages and Beach Villas - cottages have a shared wall while villas are independent. The villas are located nearer the beach and that is an advantage as well. Pricing is around Rs 1000 per day higher for the villas. There are a total of 29 suites (three beach villas and 13 duplex cottages) spread over 13 acres. The beach villas are separated by the beach by a narrow strip of private land - beaches in Kerala are mostly government property and as such are not completely private - the beach area near this property is usually empty - two Abad staff members (life guard and security) are always present and they double-up to help with beach cots and such - a security personnel guards the entrance to the property from the beach as well. The villas/cottages have a very simple old-Kerala design that cannot be termed luxurious. Each villa/cottage has a sit-out in the back and some have hammocks in the adjacent yard area. The facility is fairly large with a butterfly garden, organic vegetable farming area, butterfly garden, and other open areas (mango, papaya, and sappota trees aplenty). The estuary invades parts of the property as well. Outdoor activities offered include a shuttle badminton court (around one-third smaller than a regular court), a basketball hoop attached to a tree, and bicycle rentals. The pool is nice (60ft x 24ft, 3ft to 4ft progressive depth - open to 7AM to 7PM, also a kiddie pool - 2ft dept, heavily chlorinated - goggles a must) although it cannot really be termed "an infinity pool" as the water body adjacent is smallish and so the visual effect of the pool merging with water-body that extends to the horizon is diminished. The restaurant is adjacent with seating for around 30 people (temporary seating is arranged around the pool when required). The restaurant service is pretty good - lunch is ala carte and dinner is  buffet (Rs 400 veg, Rs 500 non-veg, kids free) most days. Most of the guests choose to hang out in the pool area, the beach, or the ayurvedic wellness center. The wellness center has a doctor and unless you are pre-booked for a wellness package (7 to 28-day options at rates between 1000 and 4300 Euros depending on season and duration), you end-up calling several times to get an appointment - single massage session pricing varies between Rs 500 and Rs 1500 (~$10 to ~$30). The facility also has an indoor games room with a ping-pong table and a few other choices.
Marari Beach Resort is Casino Group’s flagship property. The facility consists of 52 villas in 25 acres of land. Standard villas are 400sft with a furnished verandah and private garden. The design is styled after the traditional fishing villages of Kerala with a thatched roof - they are however luxuriously furnished. The bathroom design is unique with a built-in traditional Kerala village style open-air courtyard with a fruit tree. Deluxe villas offer a private swimming pool and can accommodate a couple of additional people in the separate sitting area - they are ideal for families with kids. Most everything on offer at Marari Beach Resort is larger, better, and more professionally done compared to Abad Turtle Beach. With that level of service comes a higher cost - the best price online for a standard garden villa (400sft) for two comes to around Rs 8000 per-day (~$160) excluding taxes. For that, some of the upgrades compared to Abad Turtle Beach include:

  1. Authentic thatched-roof villa design with bathrooms that are reminiscent of old Kerala style bathrooms that are open to sky. They also have modern amenities such as AC, safety deposit box, minibar, full-length windows, etc but no TV. The airy design is prevalent in all buildings,
  2. Olympic-sized pool and beach-side dining option,
  3. Club-house format with several activities to choose from: live music, yoga classes, ayurvedic massage services, library, etc.
  4. Occasional folk art, music, dance, cooking, etc demonstrations along with active participation from staff,
  5. Outdoor activities such as lawn tennis court (clay) and volleyball court,
  6. Unlike Abad Turtle Beach which does not serve any kind of liquor, Marari Beach Resort stocks a full array (wine is served only by bottle and is quite expensive).
  7. Options to experience local village life without compromising on the comforts of a resort: bicycle rentals (to go around the area and possibly taste the local brew - toddy), roam around the public beach area, early morning bird watching trip, and the 4PM Chai service.

Carnoustie Beach Resort excels in opulence and extravagance. The property is very new (about one year since the grand opening) and the upkeep at this point is exceptional. There are 40 villas (some not operational yet) that vary in size from around 1100sft for the AKUND Deluxe Villa to over 2500sft for the PUNAG Pool Villa. The deluxe villas start at Rs 20,000pd (~$400) while the pool villas start at Rs 30,000pd (~$600) and goes up to Rs 60,000pd (~$1200) depending on size. There is a full-fledged Ayurvedic Spa, premium bicycle rentals, and beautifully manicured lawns on offer. The property is blessed with an excellent staff that will honor your every need as best as they can. Also, the food is excellent and a great deal of effort has went into providing a 5-star experience in this department. The resort however has several disadvantages:

  1. They are yet to get a bar-license and although their brochure mention they have a bar onsite, it is not true. Food in general is very good, but there is only one restaurant open, although they mention there are three in the brochure.
  2. The property cannot be viewed as one with a proper semi-private beach access. The access requires going past a road to the other side and the beach area itself is a more public area compared to the beach areas at Abad Turtle Beach and Marari Beach Resort.
  3. They mention all credit cards are accepted although if you try to use American Express they will not accept it.
  4. The villas are exceptional and there is a butler for each one. There is however a downside: the beds and pillows are hard as a rock!
  5. Possibly because the resort is very new, there is a general lack of activities compared to the other two resorts and service levels can be very slow (check-in, out, restaurant, etc): pretty good brand-new bicycles, the recreation room, some indoor games, library, the wonderful spa, and a fully-equipped gym facility (no AC) just about sums it up. Some classes are offered occasionally as well. In the evenings, there is live entertainment, but the quality is questionable.

Overall, Abad Turtle Beach is our choice if you are looking for a reasonably economical family-oriented choice. The resort offers a lot of the options at Marari Beach Resort (except bar service) in an understated manner at a better price. Marari Beach Resort is a great option, if you do not mind spending somewhat more for an overall better experience. Carnoustie Beach Resort is suitable for folks looking to be pampered by a great staff in an impeccably opulent setting.

Cautionary Note: The private land between these resorts and the beach has many trees, one of which is Othalam - it is a very poisonous fruit that is known as one of the preferred choices for suicide in the area - for visitors, this is really a hazard that should be marked, as the fruit can be easily mistaken for a mango.

Last Updated: 06/2013. 

Mysore Trip Report - Chamundi Hills, Brindavan Gardens, St. Philomena Church

Chamundi Hills is around 12KM from the Mysore city center. One could either use public transportation from Mysore bus stand or use your own transportation - buses to Chamundi Hills are very frequent. The hills are at an elevation of around 1,000 meters affording panoramic views of Mysore City and vicinity from several spots. Getting there by car is fairly straight-forward and there are plenty of direction markers to guide you. We had an early Breakfast at Parklane (mainly South Indian options - Masala Tea is an indigenous version of regular tea served across the country - it has a lot more milk and is spicy - we found it OK although it is definitely an acquired taste) and left for Chamundi hills by around 8AM  - the roads were practically empty once we were out of the city area. On approaching the hills, there are directions for Nandi Bull - the road is narrow but the marker clearly seems to indicate the road is accessible - but, a guy at the diversion said it was one-way and so we opted to visit the temple first and took a diversion (one mile) to Nandi Bull on the way back.

The name Chamundi comes from Goddess Chamundeswari who according to legend killed demon Mahshasura, the king of the area covering present-day Mysore. Chamundeshawari Temple in the same area is dedicated to Goddess Chamundeswari. The main attraction for tourists is the 1,008-step stone stairway that leads to the top of the hill. The statue of Nandi the bull is enroute - the steps and the bull were first constructed and erected around the mid-seventeenth century by Dodda Devaraja Wodeyar, the Monarch. Rather than climbing all the steps in one go, an alternate path is to climb till Nandi statue and then go down the road from there to the other side of the hill and climb to the top from that side. The Chamundeswari Temple and Mahabaleshvara Temple are at the top of the hill. There is also a humungous statue of Mahishasura at the entrance to Chamundeswari Temple - it features Mahishasura holding a sword in his right hand and a cobra in the left. Rajendra Vilas, the summer palace of the royal family is nearby although it is currently out-of-bounds to tourists.

We got back in the city around noon and had lunch at RRR, a low-key restaurant next to Parklane Hotel - their Thali lunch is pretty good. Brindavan Gardens is around 20KM North-East of Mysore on a lake and dam area across the Cauvery River. There are plenty of buses running that route from Mysore city - get in any KSRTC bus that go via KRS. Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) reservoir is next to Brindavan Gardens and the name KRS is more familiar to locals - so, for directions when visiting by car, it is best to ask for KRS rather than Brindavan Gardens. Our childhood memories of visiting Brindavan Gardens had etched an image of experiencing the most beautiful garden we had ever seen. In this regard, the experience this time around was rather disappointing. The picturesque setting is just as we imagined, but upkeep is sorely lacking. Also, there is a lot of local crowd that make it a very loud public play area. The park is open from 6:30AM to 9:00PM and the gardens are lit M-F 7:00-8:00PM and S-S 7:00-9:00PM. Curiously, video recording is prohibited in the gardens, definitely a legacy restriction that is still sticking due to slow government action. Cauvery Irrigation Department, a Government of Karnataka enterprise is responsible for maintaining the place. The main garden area is spread on 60 acres and is designed in a Mughal style in a terraced fashion. The distinct features of the garden include topiaries (mainly animal designs created from clipping shrubs), musical fountains and the lake with limited boating facilities. The gardens also feature 75 acres of fruit orchards and two horticultural farms on an additional 35 acres. The Arabithittu Wildlife Sanctuary area adjoins the gardens and it attracts a large variety of local and migrant birds. One option when visiting Brindavan Gardens is to go for an  overnight stay at Royal Orchid Heritage Hotel that overlooks the garden - the rooms have a balcony with stunning views of the garden. The hotel rates are fairly high (Rs 6,500 onwards) and service and upkeep are not up to the mark, but overall, the location makes up for a lot of the shortcomings.

St. Philomena Church is located within the city and is on Asoka Road.  It is around 2KM from Parklane Hotel on Harsha Road. We stopped by Mahalaxmi Sweets on the way (Asoka Road) to load up on Mysore sweets - it is a great gift item. The church constructed in 1936 has an impressive Neo Gothic style that was inspired by the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. It honors Saint Philomena, a martyr of the Roman Catholic Church. The church hosts a relic of the saint in a catacomb below the main altar. A distinct feature of the church compared to the Cologne Cathedral on which it was based is the incorporation of local culture into the designs - female statues are dressed in saris! The Neo Gothic design is well represented in the main structure with twin spires, each reaching a height of 175ft and the main hall featuring stained glass windows depicting scenes from the birth, Last Supper, Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ. The church is open to visitors from 8AM to 5PM.

Mysore Trip Report - Palace and Zoo

There are a couple of ways to reach Mysore from Ooty - a longer (25KM more) and more scenic route via Gudalur and a shorter but tougher (for the driver) route via Masinagudi with  36 hairpin bends. From Coimbatore, the best bet is to go via Sathyamangalam as the traffic is far less that way. Although the Gudalur route is scenic and easier to drive, it takes quite a bit more time as the road has several potholes and speed-bumps. Pykara Reservoir and Falls (open 10AM to 5PM) and Shooting Hill are both on the way within the first 15KM from Ooty. Gudalur-Madumalai Tiger Reserve on the Tamil Nadu side and Bandipur Tiger Reserve on the Karnataka side are both on this route as well. Several Safari Lodges dot the area. It is common to see all kinds of wildlife on this drive. Deer and monkeys are the most common but we also saw several peacocks and wild-boar. Good restaurants are rare in the 150KM stretch although once you get near Mysore there are options - for basic vegetarian fare, Kamath Madhuvan around 3KM before reaching the city limits is a good option. Pugmark Restaurant at Bandipur Safari Lodge and other similar options also exist.

Our reservation was at Parklane Hotel at Sri Harsha Road. It is an off-road in the area around Mysore Palace. The traffic is terrible within Mysore city but both Sri Harsha Road and Parklane Hotel are well known and so it is fairly easy to get guidance from locals - the only caution is that a lot of the people on the road are travel guides over-eager to “help” any tourist asking for directions. Parklane Hotel is a very good option when touring Mysore because of its location, and excellent overall service. There is plenty of parking on the street in front but the vehicle needs to be moved in the night to avoid ticketing - limited parking in the front of the building is available to guests and we had no trouble getting a slot there. Check-in was a breeze - they collect the full payment upfront and provide a complementary toiletry pouche along with the keys. There is a smallish indoor pool on the fifth floor - the shower area is not well maintained. The hotel has an excellent restaurant with a nice seating area on the terrace in the 2nd floor.

It is walkable distance to the South Entrance of Mysore Palace from Parklane Hotel. We chose to take an Otto(tuk-tuk) instead for around Rs 50. The palace is open all days between 10AM and 5:30PM. As the most popular tourist destination in Mysore, the place gets crowded very quickly and so your best bet is to arrive early. Ticket pricing is Rs 40 for Indians and Rs 200 for others. One has to go in bare-foot and photographing inside the palace is not allowed although you can click to your hearts content in the palace grounds. A palace was first constructed in the area in the 14th century and the current palace was built in the late 19th century and expanded up till around 1940. The palace is popular due to the vast opulence seen through-out, its wonderful murals, other paintings, and overall architecture. The design of the main building is described as Indo-Saracenic: a combination of Hindu, Gothic, Muslim and Rajput styles of architecture. The royal wedding hall and the Public Durbar are the most impressive areas of the main building. The palace grounds also houses twelve temples. A not-to-be-missed experience of Mysore Palace is illumination - the whole palace is illuminated for an hour on Sundays and government holidays between 7PM and 8PM. A good way to experience this to the fullest is to hire a taxi/otto for an hour to go around the palace  - the fare runs upwards of Rs 200.  

Mysore Zoo is an outstanding but underrated facility. The setup and maintenance are comparable to other great zoos of the world. It was established in 1892 on just 10 acres and opened to public in 1902. Over the years, the zoo was expanded several times with the most significant one being the 150 acre acquisition of Karanji reservoir in which a sanctuary for birds was set up. The Zoo Authority of Karnataka, an autonomous organization has managed the zoo since 1979 and they do a wonderful job - funding mostly comes from the meager entrance fees: Rs 25 for adults and Rs 10 for kids. The hours are 8:30 to 5:30PM (Tuesday holiday). It is around 3.5KM of leisurely walk around the zoo - another option is to go with a group in a battery operated vehicle for Rs 100. It took us around two hours to cover the zoo on foot. The facility hosts around 1500 animals and has the distinction of being the first zoo in the country to host gorillas and penguins. Captive breeding of many rare species is an area of expertize at the zoo - they have successfully bred the white tiger and many elephants.

It can be fairly exhausting to cover these two attractions the same day but with good planning it is very doable. We returned back to the hotel by early evening, took an early dinner, and then hired an otto (tuk-tuk) to experience the illumination - a fitting finale!

Global Public School (GPS) Review - Ongoing Update: R2I - Schooling for Kids

Our kids completed six years at Global Public School (GPS), Chottanikkara (Kerala, India) at the end of March 2016. We considered changing schools after the second year with the idea that the kids will probably be ready to grow out of the NRI oriented Global Public School (GPS). Ultimately decided to stay put as there was no clear winner with respect to choosing a better school - Global Public School (GPS) is by no means perfect, but the alternatives just did not seem to guaranty enough of an edge to warranty another major change for the kids.

Below are things that the kids and us like about Global Public School (GPS):
  1. The staff in general are fairly accommodative of student and parent requests/needs. The service levels have gone down compared to the time when our kids joined, but they are still satisfactory. 
  2. Parent volunteering is thankfully still a foreign concept at Global Public School (GPS). There was a minor scare in this regard at the start of the 2012 school year, but it died down quickly, possibly due to lack of parent response. 
  3. Global Public School (GPS) continues to have individual teachers for each subjects. The school suffers from substantial turnover and it is not unusual for a Science teacher to end up teaching Hindi in lower grades. Even so, the approach is much better overall compared to having the same teacher for all subjects. 
  4. Covering the curriculum in the classroom is still a priority at Global Public School (GPS). With certain subjects, the teachers end-up rushing through chapters in the final months, but it is still better than not covering portions at all.
  5. For high school, the expertise of teachers are woefully low. The only viable option is to go with tuition. For that, there are options as retired college professors who have deep knowledge and interest in the subject are available.  The only downside is the multiple chauffeuring that comes with that. 

Below are things we came across over the last six years that can be considered as downsides with GPS:

  1. Quality of teaching at the highschool level is a concern as teachers lack expertise in the subject matter. The vast majority of the students get by with tuition support and the teachers encourage this to some extent.  Note: This is not a GPS specific problem as all schools have the issue, although some are better than others.
  2. There is a certain level of favoritism so much so that kids openly discuss certain students as being favored - kids of GPS teachers and other staff, kids of well-known politicians, movie/sports personalities, highly successful businessmen, etc receive favored treatment for competitive school activities including academics. For example, it is not uncommon for a kid to come home and say they were placed first for a certain competition only to be displaced by favored kids for the first three positions when the official results are announced and prizes distributed. The same thing happens with class tests, although the despicable activity is more subtle. Note: This again is not a GPS specific problem. All schools have this issue, although the abuse level varies. There is no real solution to this problem as money, time, and influence can buy most anything in our society and kids are getting exposed to it. In that sense, it is better that they themselves know of the problem so that they are equipped to deal with it in time. 
  3. The choice of textbooks are a concern. With CBSE, through Grade 8, the school has a choice of choosing the books to use in the classroom as long as they adhere to CBSE guidelines. For higher grades, there is a defined set from which the school can choose. GPS changes textbook vendors every year for grades below 9. The books used in the 2010 school year were pretty good but for 2011 they switched to using Exceed. There was some marketing hype surrounding that, but the books were horrible - many of the pages were verbatim copies of Wiki pages from the Internet. Thankfully they changed text books for the 2012 school year - while those textbooks were not perfect, they were fairly adequate. The pattern has continued. With each change, the price of the book package for the school year goes up substantially - 30% has been the average per year. It seems the school goes on changing books based on which publisher spins the best story for a particular year. 
  4. Door-to-door transportation was advertised as a great convenience when we joined in 2010. The service level has gone down substantially with this. Currently, our kids are picked up in front of our housing-community (a public road) and dropped off there as well. That means, they need an escort back and forth for safety reasons. At the start of the 2012 school year, they had asked us to wait at a junction 500 meters away, which was even worse, but after complaining a few times, they agreed to alter the route a little bit. 
  5. Fees have gone up at double the rate of inflation in the last seven years. The pattern is a little disconcerting. Please see below for a comparative spreadsheet of Global Public School (GPS) fees for the seven years covering 2010-11 through 2016-17 school years.
  6. Swimming is still part of the curriculum. Breakfast/Lunch is also provided as needed. Service levels for both of these have gone down - the number of swimming classes per year goes down in some years due to various avoidable reasons and the quality of the menu for breakfast and lunch has gone down as well. The children also find it irritating that portions given for students are strictly controlled and any wastage is not tolerated while the chechees ignore all kinds of abuses by teachers (gross food wastage, taking a lot more than their share of pappads, meat, fish, desserts, etc). 
  7. The two-hour optional extra-curricular activity is somewhat less useful than it sounds. Our children went for the program only in their first year. The reason had to do with the fact that the sessions are focused on giving an introductory level of training in the activities - so, to get to the next level, outside training is still necessary. 
Below is a look at fee increases at Global Public School (GPS) over the years. For the sample, middle school fees and the lowest transportation fees (up to 15KM) were used. Lower grades have marginally lower fees while higher grades have substantially higher fees:

Notes: Registration, Admission, Caution Deposit, Security Deposit, etc are additional one-time fees when a student is admitted. Please see our previous update with 2010 data for an idea. Also, for Grades 10, 11 and 12, for a day scholar, fees are quite a bit more as day boarding is compulsory for those grades.

Related Posts:

1. Global Public School (GPS) vs Bay Farm Elementary - Comparative Review: R2I - Schooling for Kids.
2. Global Public School (GPS) Review - Three Year Mark Update: R2I - Schooling for Kids.

Last Updated: 04/2016.

2013 Tax Filing - TurboTax Usage Experience

The filing went really smooth again this year and we had the added benefit of TurboTax offering to complete the FBAR forms - this is a form that needs to be filed separately with the Department of Treasury every year by June 30th, if you have foreign accounts whose total value at anytime exceed $10K. TurboTax also helps with the 8938 form (to report foreign assets $400K or over for outside US residents and $50K or over for US residents). As before, previews before filing are available but not at an obvious location: to access the screens, click on Tools in the upper part of the screen and then go over to "View Tax Summary". On the side of the resultant screen, there is a button for "Preview 1040" which lets you look through the actual 1040 form before filing. Below are a few glitches we encountered:
  1. In the 1099 screens, TurboTax asks what portion of the total dividends reported in 1099 are foreign dividends for which taxes were withheld - this is not obvious and some 1099s do not have the info and so you end up having to manually calculate this. 
  2. Clicking through the foreign earned income exclusion screens was also a breeze although there were a few issues: For our level of income, there were a large number of screens that did not really apply to us and so was a drag. Also, there is a section on "deductions related to Foreign Earned Income" were the first item is pre-filled with "self-employment tax" filled with a link that says "this may need adjusting" - the design was probably better if it was not pre-filled but instead a suggestion was made to consider taking that deduction.
  3. If you did file with TurboTax last year and you had 1099-MISC forms, there is an area of confusion this year: After entering the income, this amount shows up as zero. Clicking on it shows the following message: "1099-MISC Income" Income reported on 1099-MISC may flow to other areas, such as your business, and will be displayed there. Here are the rest of the entries: "EMPTY". In essence, the amount now shows up only in the "Business Items" as compared to both places last year. 
  4. Related to IRA transaction details, TurboTax asks for the total IRA value and says it should be in the 5498 form. For us, only Fidelity sent us the forms and for that it was zero as all of it was converted to Roth IRA. So, it was not obvious where to get the number from. We basically downloaded all our IRA year-end statements and added them up to get the amount. 
  5. 1099 amounts less than $10 are not transferred over when importing and so you will have to do it manually. 
  6. Downloading 1099s from vendor sites worked smoothly although the interface was not uniform. Specifically, the TD Ameritrade interface was especially clunky as the box titles say account number and password but you are expected to enter the account number in the 1099 physical form (which is different) and the document id of the 1099 as the password. 
  7. Certain transactions such as Commodity ETF disposals for expenses and options transactions are not handled well by TurboTax. Both of these areas will involve some amount of manual labor to get them right: for the former transactions, the cost-basis lowers by the total disposal amount and that needs to be calculated and tracked and the expenses per calendar year can be reported as investment expenses under 1040 Schedule A. For the latter transactions, 1099 physical has unreported Options Transactions section that may be of some help to get them reported correctly. Options transactions will get reported properly in the 1099 forms from next year onwards and so the problem should go away then. 

Related Posts:

  1. Turbo Tax to TaxACT switching experience - 2014 Tax Filing
  2. 2013 Tax Filing - TurboTax Usage Experience
  3. Turbo Tax Online Price Increase Over The Years - A Comparison.
  4. Online Tax Filing – TaxAct, TaxCut, Turbo Tax – User Experience Review.

Last Updated: 03/2014.


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