"Where are you flying to?" the woman at the check-in counter at Changi Airport asked incredulously.
"Visakhapatnam," I repeated. Her fingers flew over the keyboard, her face still showing surprise at the name.
"VTZ," I added hopefully, giving her the airport code.
Relief flooded her face as her eyes scanned the screen. "Oh, there! You are the first passenger I have checked in to Visa... er, VTZ. I hear it is a really nice place," she added, as an afterthought.
It's a great place, I thought to myself. After all, almost every summer during my school days in India, I would be in Vizag, as the locals call the largest city in the new state of Andhra Pradesh, for the obligatory annual gathering of my extended family. Affectionate memories prejudice my view of the city.
I was returning to "the Jewel of the East Coast" after five years.
In the middle of October last year, a devastating tropical storm, incongruously named Hud Hud, pounded and flattened the city, leaving behind a swathe of destruction. The city had made a remarkable recovery from the storm and life was back to normal. So I was looking forward to my weekend.
A less than four-hour flight from Singapore, Vizag is perfect for a weekend getaway. Although the airport is under repair after Hud Hud's devastation, the quick and efficient immigration and baggage handling and the light traffic in the city meant I was comfortably tucked in bed by midnight local time.
Hills and beaches
Vizag is lined by hills on the west and beaches along the other side. The hills offer fantastic vistas of sunrise over the Bay of Bengal.
Just before dawn, I drove up to Thotlakonda (The Hill with Stone Wells) and was treated to a gorgeous sunrise.
The deep orange skies are a sight to behold. Take a flask of coffee and sandwiches with you - you can stop your car anywhere that takes your fancy and savour the view with your favourite cuppa. If you have time, wander around the 16thcentury ruins of the Buddhist monastery at the top of the hill.
I had heard about the fish market at the harbour, where at dawn, fresh catch brought in by the trawlers is sold to distributors. I had been told it was a complete sensory experience, so I was keen to go.
Driving swiftly from the hills to the harbour, through winding bylanes, I was treated to the sights of a city waking up.
Beach Road was blocked until 9am to vehicular traffic to allow a host of morning activities - children skating in orderly lines, men and women walking briskly, a group in the middle of their yoga class, cyclists whizzing up and down, cricket matches well underway and groups playing ball badminton (the ball is made from coloured wool).
I stopped just outside the harbour. Stepping out of the car, we were ill-prepared for the atmosphere, despite the warning - it was as raw and pulsating as it gets.
Raucous shouts as buyers and sellers drove their bargains, cries of jubilation at the hauling in of a 3m tuna, brightly dressed fisherfolk, women bedecked gaudily with gold, the smell of fresh fish and tired, sweaty bodies - truly an overpowering assault on all the senses.
The crowded wharf welcomes photographers. Despite their frenetic activity, people are happy to pose for photographs. Be prepared to give some money so your subjects can enjoy a cup of tea at your expense. A visit will be a morning like no other you will experience.
Vizag has lovely wide, unspoiled beaches. While a number of resorts have sprung up offering beach holidays, for me, the more traditional long walk beside the rolling waves is most appealing. I can walk for miles with limited interaction with people along the sandy beaches dotting the shoreline.
The beach along Bheemli remains my favourite. Other popular beaches are Ramakrishna Beach or the Rushikonda Beach. A warning though - the Bay of Bengal has a strong undertow and swimming in the sea is not advised.
For dinner, try the local fare. Vizag has its own cuisine - one that is rich in variety of food, meat and spices.
A good place to calm down after the hustle and bustle of the harbour is the venerable Park Hotel at the other end of Beach Road. In addition, there are many high-quality eateries that offer traditional Andhra food - people in Vizag love their food just as much as people in Singapore.
Dolphin's Nose hill
On my final day in Vizag, I chose another hilltop - the Dolphin's Nose - for another memorable sunrise, but the view from the lighthouse at Eastpoint is also spectacular.
Then, I drove out of town to the historic Simhachalam (Lion Hill) Temple, one of the holiest sites in India and its second richest temple. Its striking, traditional architecture never fails to move me.
Vizag still bears the scars of Hud Hud. Every resident has his own Hud Hud story. When you drive around, you can't help but notice some of the battered sites - they are a stark reminder of the storm's terrible power.
I headed back to the airport for the flight back home late in the evening, but not before applying a layer of mosquito repellent. Unfortunately, the reconstruction at the airport had given mosquitoes unfettered access to the makeshift lounges.
Nevertheless, leaving Vizag made me think about my next return to this city and its wonderful people.
I flew on SilkAir from Singapore direct to Visakhapatnam.
English is understood in most parts of the city.
There is a range of hotels to suit most budgets.
Each season offers a different experience. For first-timers, it is best to visit in the cool season (November to March). Summers (April to May) are hot, and the monsoon season is from June to October.
- Take sunscreen and mosquito repellent for every season.
- Vizag is conservative, so dress modestly.
- If you have time, visit Kailashgiri Park in the city. The striking statues of Hindu gods dotted around are one of a kind.
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