Sula Vineyards is a place I’ve had on my radar for a while, ever since I found out from my friend, N, that Sula had a resort where I could relax, soak in the sun, and drink wine all weekend long. http://www.sulawines.com/ The problem is, it always seems to be booked. This year, 20 minutes after I landed from home leave (barely exaggerating here), I went to their website, only to be disappointed again. Every single weekend for the entire 2015-2016 school year seemed to be booked. Bummer.
Undaunted, I decided to send them an email. Within the hour, I heard back – yes, they had some availability, and would I like to reserve a villa, since there were three families vacationing together? That sounded like a good idea, and my friend, R, pointed out that it would actually be cheaper than if we all booked separate rooms. After a few more emails back and forth to figure out the tax deduction (one of the few perks of a diplomat left), we had a reservation. Once they realized that half our party consisted of children, they offered us the Luxury Villa at a reduced price because “we have a corporate event that weekend, and you would be more comfortable there”. Translation: “We know the DBs and our other guests would be more comfortable with you there”.
Our third family, B’s, backed out, so they got the booby prize of watching the DiploDog for the weekend. Even though it was kind of pricey for two families at about $750 for two nights, we decided to stay at the Luxury Villa.
R purchased train tickets, so early morning on Friday, we left for the train station.
The train was really cool, and I highly recommend it. First, you have more room for the DBs to spread out, and um, “sit”. Second, you can get high-quality chai at any time. The chaiwalla must have offered us about 83 cups of tea. I had two. DiploDad had 34 or so. I don’t get it – still, three hours and 34 cups of tea later, I was dying and he didn’t even have to look at the nasty train toilet. Unfair.
Passing through the stations, we saw a side of India we didn’t usually get to. Beautiful landscapes. Quaint villages. Mountains.
And crazy people.
This is apparently normal everywhere. I thought it was just in Mumbai, where the commuter trains were packed. Nope – if it’s a commuter train anywhere, you just hang on out the side. It’s like what I used to see in Africa with people hanging out the side of an old VW van bush taxi, but on a much larger scale, and no visible chickens lashed to the roof. Visible.
We arrived in Nasik, and got off the train.
R: So, is the car from Sula picking us up?
Me: Um, I didn’t actually get that far in my planning. . . .
No worries – we figured we could get a taxi, so we exited the side exit and headed for what to us was the logical pickup point for public transportation.
R’s husband, G, speaks Hindi, so he disappeared off into the crowd to try and find us taxis. Not finding any nearby, he continued to wander off further and further into the crowd. In the meantime, we were having another “giraffe moment” and attracting some attention. Especially DD, who attracts every single holy man beggar, panhandling priest, and itinerant nun. After fighting off a few folks offering rides and a Sadu who wanted financial assistance,
G returned with grim news: no taxis.
G: “Would an autorickshaw be OK?”
Me, DBs and R’s son: YEAAAAH!!!!
DD and R: (insert eye roll here)
So we climbed into two autorickshaws – DD, me and DB2 with 3 suitcases in one and R, G, their son S and DB1 in the other.
It. Was. AWESOME.
First off, it was 18 km to the vineyard. So we had to stop to fuel up.
After getting petrol, we continued on, taking turns racing ahead. In our rickshaw, we were making jokes about being “Rickshaw Ganstas”. In their rickshaw, cops and robbers was the theme of the trip, with whomever was out front being the robbers. After 15km or so along the roads and highways, we came to the inevitable country road and the road became bumpy(er?).
We finally pulled up in front of Beyond by Sula, into a lovely, lovely parking lot overflowing with Mercedes SUVs, large pricey sedans, and the occasional nationalistic Mahindra. For those of you who don’t get the irony (and if it’s not ironic, shut up, I don’t CARE), the autorickshaw is the cheap transport of the rabble. My kind of ride, baby.
We checked in and were given a lovely glass of sparkling Sula wine, and the kids got a pear cocktail. Sula Beyond’s main resort is lovely, with an infinity pool, an open-air reception and atrium, and a large terrace overlooking the vineyard.
But we weren’t staying there. We had sent the rickshaw guys packing after so many curious looks, so we were a little surprised when they said they didn’t normally have a car available. We knew that the Luxury Villa was 1.2 km away from the main house, and while that posed absolutely zero impediment to us when we were walking, it was a bit of a problem with our luggage. The smiling receptionist took a few minutes and then announced that she had freed up the driver and he would take us to the villa in 10 minutes. Personally, I think she just realized I was going to go find another rickshaw, or maybe a bullock cart. I’ve never ridden in a bullock cart. It could have happened. If I had my way, it would have happened. Next time.
A few more bumpy twists and turns down the road and we arrived. Rising out of the landscape in its stark modernity, behold – the Beyond Luxury Villa.
It was all glass and concrete. Modern furnishings, a private pool, a large khana for the kids to run around on, a hill to roll down – everything we needed for a relaxing weekend.
In no time at all, the kids hit the pool, and R and I hit the lounge chairs. G and DD frolicked in the water with the boys. The air was cooler than in Mumbai, but dry, and it felt like the perfect late-summer day.
My favorite part of the evening was when DiploDad parked himself in the hammock and DB2 joined him.
DB2: Daddy, what are you reading?
DD: Oh, just some poetry.
Me: You have that on your Kindle?
DD: Yes (exasperated look at the woman who has tons of brain candy on her Kindle).
And then DiploDad began to read a poem that even in my addled post-law school trained/mommy scrambled/40+ senility recalled. He smiled down at DB1, and I began mulling over my head as I sometimes do, the way that sometimes a sign just comes to you at the right moment, and you know that the sum or your life choices truly does add up.*
After some drying off, rock collecting and our third (yes, third) bottle of wine was ordered, dinner was served. Did I mention that all meals were included and we had our own private chef and stewards? No? How forgetful of me.
After dinner, R’s husband, G, ran off. He’s a filmmaker and working on a film about Sadus and the Kumbh Mela was taking place in the area that weekend. https://kumbhmela2015.maharashtra.gov.in/1035/Home Personally, once I realized that I wouldn’t be doing any cooking, dishes, or cleaning for the entire weekend, you would have had to force me out like a tick off a coon hound before my time ran out, but hey – that’s why I’m not a filmmaker. My dedication when the other option is sloth is lacking.
So it left just me, DD, and R to finish that late evening bottle of bubbly. (Stop counting now. I did.) We collapsed into bed after a wonderful evening meal, some running around on the lawn (the kids), a quiet screening of the 1980s movie “Big” (kids again) and wine (NOT the kids). Big shout-out to Sula on the choice of linens – soft, nice thread count, and squooshy enough pillows for me.
The next morning, the fog was on the lake outside, and although it was only 7:30, I decided to head downstairs to do some yoga on the patio. An hour and 4 minutes later, I headed back upstairs for coffee and breakfast. The chef delivered again, and I learned a new dish: egg bhurji. http://food.ndtv.com/recipe-egg-bhurji-mumbai-style-176903 If he wants to retain his title as Breakfast Master in our house, DiploDad is definitely going to need to learn how to make this!
After some more pool time for all of us, R and I headed up the road for a walk to the main resort and to our spa appointments.
The spa is OK. Honestly, I expected more. The therapist who did my pedicure and facial was technically competent, but there were a few things I would recommend for improvement. First off, I was a little surprised there was no sink in the lavatory – and even more so when the sink just outside it had nary a towel or paper towel in sight. I air-dried my hands the natural way on my way to my pedicure. Second, I was a little surprised when the therapist announced, “Madam, your pedicure is finished,” when my toes were bare. “Polish?” and a dubious look on my face later, she got up, rooted through a box that was placed behind the mani/pedi chair and offered me a choice of nail colors. She only applied one coat, no top coat, no base coat. Third, there was no changing robe, which again, fine, but unexpected. Fourth, and a bit more on the “ick” side, were the towels. They were clean, but grey (and obviously used to be white) and rough – very, very different from the towels in my villa and from what I expect from a place as upscale every where else. Finally, I should not have to ask a facialist to use warm water when doing my facial – that’s a big duh, people. After she switched to hot/warm water from just short of glacial, I almost fell asleep, the massage was so good. Overall, fine, but not a standout of our visit.
After emerging from the spa, we met up with the boys and were driven a short distance down the road to the winery proper for a tasting and tour.
The tour we were scheduled for was overbooked, so we had some time for a bottle of wine and some snacks in the upstairs restaurant. R and I had missed lunch, so we were famished. The spiced olives were just the perfect blend of salty olives and zing, and the goat cheese with crackers had plenty of hard-to-find water biscuits and the cheese was “goaty, but not too goaty”. The DBs had sodas. There was no grape juice in sight. DB1 thought that was ridiculous, but I thought that it made perfect sense. I mean really – why waste good grape juice when you could just leave it alone a little longer and get wine?It was cool and dark once we entered.
The casks are all imported from either France or the good old U.S. of A.
After we finished, we entered the tasting room. If the earlier tour was overbooked, I would hate to have seen it, because ours was definitely too crowded.
Chaos, abject chaos. And I like chaos. We managed to find a place on the side bar and tasted five different wines, including their dessert wine and their new, prize-winning Riesling, which I highly, highly recommend.
We stopped by the shop on the way out and were thrilled to have a discount as guests of Beyond, plus from the tour. The wine prices were definitely better than buying wine in Mumbai, and that made them even more affordable. R and I each bought two cases. A case holds twelve. I’m good for a while on my daily glass of red, plus I bought some Sula sparkling rosé and sparkling white for an upcoming party I’m planning. We skipped the shop next door that sold lots of Sula swag. I am regretting it; I SO should have bought a Sula workout bottle for the gym.
We spent another quiet evening overlooking the lake, watching the sun set, drinking wine and listening to the boys play football and run around. By day two, the cooks had figured out DB2 and his friend, S were picky kids, and made simple foods like cheese sandwiches and pasta (that R had brought). They did not, however, decrease the volume of food served to the adults. We all three felt guilty for sending so much back to the kitchen until we realized that they were probably benefitting from our restraint. It was difficult not to taste everything though – it was all so, so good.
The next morning, the boys had a quick swim while we packed up and organized for our departure. After breakfast and getting all the boys organized, cleaned up and dressed, we looked out the door and almost immediately saw our driver D and R’s driver, I, coming up the road. Perfect timing. We loaded up the cars, said goodbye to our “staff” and then went back to the main building to settle up. There was no sense stopping by the restaurant and tasting room again for a quick glass and lunch because it was a state holiday (Ganpati) and a dry day. I was surprised when I received a text from my local Mumbai wine shop informing me of this, as no one at Sula said a word when we checked in. Had I not received this text, we might have done the tasting the last morning before hitting the road as we had initially planned. It might be a good idea for Sula to keep this on their radar and call this to guests’ attention when the check in. I will say that they have the dry day information on their website, but when it’s one day of a longer weekend, a heads-up might be nice.
The drive back was just as interesting as the train ride up. Once you get out of Mumbai proper, it’s all roadside gas stops and rest stops, green hills, and whatever the Indian equivalent of kudzu is.
The weekend was everything we were looking for – a relaxing time outside of the city, fresh air, exercise and recreation in the outdoors, lovely weather, great food, and a chance to learn more about India. Oh, and wine. Definitely wine.
*Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.