A gondola ride straight to Heaven!

To contrast with my last post on driving up Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont, I am going to add our gondola experience first (will come back to visiting Lake Champlain the previous day in next post).

Even though we had driven up Mt Mansfield, Gondola sky ride up the same mountain is a different experience altogether. Even if the ticket appears expensive at $28 per person (round-tip), it is still all worth it! Partly because you would get to experience the magnificence of fall colors while zipping over them, and you might get lucky with seeing some bears too!

While still at the bottom, at the Stowe Mountain Resort from where the gondola starts, I couldn’t help admire the beauty of mountain with contrasting aspects – of colors and snow at the summit – all this while the sun was gleaming over just a stretch of trees!dsc08229dsc08211The majestic gondola cars are newly renovated and they are picturesque in their own right. Now, you might be tempted to think the gondola just takes you the distance you see below; however, the ride is actually thrice this distance…and it takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. The slow up-move makes you feel as if you are going all the way to heaven!dsc08189On reaching the top, we were welcomed by a thick blanket of clouds and freezing temperature. It was even difficult for us to be out in the cold, let alone follow the trails up there. However, there is a souvenir shop and a restaurant right where you get off the gondola, enough to spend some cozy time.

Mt Mansfield is one of the three spots in Vermont where true alpine tundra survives from the Ice Ages.dsc08197However crazy it might sound, we saw some people doing zip-lining all the way back to the base. Guess, adventures have no bound! You can even chose to trek down…at your own risk 🙂dsc08205

Up-Close-And-Personal with Nature!

The very next morning after we had an amazing time at the Kent Pond while driving North US 100, we were staring at the highest mountain in Vermont – Mount Mansfield. Though the public forums didn’t mention much about driving up 4,393 feet to the summit (they normally talk about taking the Gondola ride up through the Stowe Mountain Resort, which we also took next day), I found it to be a pleasant drive. Maybe because we were the first ones to be there, thus having the road to ourselves!

As soon as the gate to the toll road opened up at 9am, we paid the price – $22 for the vehicle and driver and an additional $7 for Saru – and started the drive uphill, which was steep at times. Being fall season, every few minutes I had to stop to capture the amazing scenery. It was cloudy, and with the foliage colors all around, it was quite a sight to behold! One also gets stunning views of Lake Champlain (we went there later that day) and Adirondack Mountains on the way up the zig zag road to the summit ridge.fall-foliage-in-usaOnce at the top, it was freezing up there (we were warned about it at the gate itself). There are many trails one can take up there, and we did walk about quarter-a-mile. However, poor visibility called for an early return. Instead, we thought of enjoying more spots on the way back down the mountain while the traffic was still less. By then the sun also had started peeking through the clouds and some panoramic views looked much better because of the glaring contrast in falls colors.where-to-see-fall-colorsbest-fall-trips-in-usaautumn-colors-in-usIf you ask me was the drive worth it, I would emphatically say Yes…especially because of the colors all around! It might not have been that great a drive if there was just greenery out there. Though you would get similar views by taking the gondola to the summit (will write about it in another post), the experiences differ as you are more up-close-and-personal with nature while driving!vermont-fall-trip

A new collaboration…with Money View!

I recently collaborated with Money View (MV) in India – a Financial Management app for Android that helps one keep a check on their savings and expenses. It is one of the highly rated apps and already has 5 million users, and their blog is one of the best in Business and Finance in India!

Though I would be paid to write for them, the association is going to add immensely to my qualifications (Engineer-Gold Medalist, MBA from IIFT-ranked 6th in India by the Wall Street Journal, and FRM certified) and also to my experiences with global Investment Banks over the last 10 years.

My first post for them went live few days back and helps us understand which all Investments can be done to save on the Tax outgo. There are many instruments under Sections 80C and otherwise to help us save for the future, some provide an insurance cover too…all this while also cutting down on our tax bill. Making a wise decision doesn’t come easy, but then it does earn us a peace-of-mind!

tax_saving_investment_cheat_sheet_money_view-alok-singhalYou can read the complete write-up on MV Blog here: What Investments Can Help You Save Income Tax legally?

Merry Christmas from Las Vegas!

As you might know from the last post, we are on a 10-day trip to Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. Though I will write in detail on the attractions we have covered and would be covering till Sunday night before flying back home, here’s wishing everyone a Merry Christmas from Las Vegas 😊

The most amazing decorations we have seen in LV are in Bellagio’s. Their conservatory garden is a must-see and is fully decked-up in festive spirit.

An eye-catcher is this section of adorable bears and penguins…they look super-cute ❤The flowers you see on the bears and around are all freshly cut…there are a total of 27,000 white carnations used in this display (and are maintained daily). And, don’t miss the luminous moon, enhancing the atmosphere with its soft glow.The newest addition to the conservatory is the train station, and the whole colossus has been custom designed for the Bellagio conservatory.Look at the two character toy soldiers in the shot below…there are a total of four of them on either side of this ‘central station’ and they turn around in sync with each other.Next is the section on snow globes, with the skaters enjoying in their forest wonderland. An italian village is depicted in this display with a fountain of carolers singing and dancing around the holiday tree. The toy train running below is a sheer delight to see!Christmas tree – this holiday tree originated high and deep in the forest of Mt. Sasha and is adorned with 2,500 ornaments. The predominant jewel to this masterpiece is an exquisite silver sparking star.And they’ve created North Poles around the tree…There is just too much to show on how they are entertaining visitors.

I loved a couple of other decorations also just alongside the conservatory.
If you are around, don’t miss the celebrations in Vegas.

Since this is also my last post for the year, I wish you a very Happy Holidays and a rocking New Year.

P.S. I wrote this entire post while i was in the conservatory…took me about an hour. All pics are from my iPhone 7Plus…a first for me!

1 Year, 2 Years, and a Recap of the Year

Well, I completed 1 year on Instagram on Dec 12 and it’s been 2 years blogging today. Here’s how my profile on the popular social networking site looked on 12th…sincere thanks to the many known and unknown who visit often there, I’ve been encouraged every single day!alok-singhal-instagramThanks to you too for making yet another year successful, defined in terms of the learnings I have gone through and the happiness I have found. However, I made some major changes to my routine this year, including:

1. Minimal blogging on weekends: Rather than reading too many blogs on weekends (something I did last year), I now spend most of my time with the family and doing other favorite activities – one of them is watching movies and series, many on travel and photography. I also started going to gym around mid of this year and have continued to do better at my routine. One of my targets has been to complete 10k steps every day, and i’ve accomplished it on most of the days.

         Essentially, I found few other sources of happiness!

2. More time on portfolio management: I love investing in Stock Markets, and it has been a successful year for me. You might have read about it earlier in my post here. Btw, if you had followed my advice then, you could have made good money in the last 2 months, even though there were hiccups after Trump’s unexpected win. Ballpark, any decent stock would have given you at least 20% returns year-to-date, with many going much beyond it!

I have set myself a benchmark where I would like to see my portfolio at in 2017. Without taking about the number, it will be a huge deal if I can accomplish it.

Money matters at the end of the day!

Aside, it has been a travel-heavy year for us. We started with 9 days in California and Nevada in April; then 9 days in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in October; and would be ending the year with 10 days in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah, starting with Las Vegas tomorrow.

However, in retrospect, we could have squeezed-in 2 international vacations with the money we spent on the 3 outings combined…a thought to implement in the future. See, the learning never ends 🙂

Speaking of travel, one thing I have absolutely loved this year is the night photography…one of my recent favorite shots is from the Bar Harbor in Maine.dsc09682Looking forward, there are many significant changes lined up in the next year as well. Hope they pass off smoothly!

Though I will publish one more post this year, in case you are wrapping up for yourself, let me wish you a very Happy 2017 and hope next year be better for you in every aspect of life. Happy Holidays.

*To read the post I wrote on 1st Anniversary, click here.
**You can find me on Twitter as well @TheLearningStep. I’ve completed about 1.5 yrs there.


How to find an ATM with Cash around you…

On Nov 8, Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi took the extreme step of taking out 86% of Cash in circulation in India. This is to be accomplished by banning the 500- and 1,000-rupee notes – a process called demonetization – which have formed the bread and butter of most of the cash transactions in India since decades. No wonder, there have been chaos since, as the deadline to exchange these old notes with the new 500- and 2,000-rupee notes is this year-end.

Though the move was aimed at tackling corruption (read black-money or unaccounted-for cash) and terrorism, it is the common man who has been hit the hardest so far! There are long queues outside Banks and ATM machines, but there is insufficient cash to serve everybody. Many other factors are adding too to their misery – importantly, limits to exchanging notes on any given day, some don’t even have a bank account, and many fear losing their hard-earned money because of their mistrust of the financial institutions and concerns about being harassed about where the money came from.

My sister is an Officer in Bank of Baroda in Panipat, and her bank has been working 14 hours every day to make sure they can serve as many customers as they can, but they can hardly do anything if bank doesn’t have enough cash! The issue is so serious that many people took to streets in India opposing the decision and some assaulted bank employees too; one of the Officers known to my sister died of a heart attack when he couldn’t handle the pressure! After all, general public in India can’t live without cash, though many are now trying to go cashless.

Having highlighted the brunt many are facing, do you know we have a way around to lessen the stress on ourselves? What if we knew which ATM around us has money? That would at least save us the time and ordeal of going through the torture. Correct? Fortunately, Find ATM with Cash feature on Money View app does exactly that. It gives you the location of nearest ATM available with Cash. They do this by crowd-sourcing data from more than 5 million users spread across 200 cities in India. It is one of the most comprehensive ATM tracking solutions available to us.

You just have to download the Money View app from Google Play store and use their Find ATM with Cash feature.alok-singhalEven if you are on a desktop, you can use their Find ATM with Cash page. This will help you save on a lot of time and effort by visiting the right ATM near you. Once you withdraw the money, do upload your feedback on the queue, so your experience can help other too!

My parents in Ambala are now using the desktop version, and enjoying this convenience:alok-singhal-money-viewLastly, it is not just the ATMs that Money View has mapped. We can also find active banks, petrol pumps, Big Bazaar stores, and Inox multiplexes, which are dispensing cash through their app. My sister has been recommending this app to whosoever she can, making their lives easier. You can too by spreading the word around!

Once again, an offbeat place scores high!

On the Day 1 of our trip covering fall across states up North in the United States, we drove on US 100 – a drive rated highly by many travel magazines and websites!

We started from Rutland (after staying there overnight) and went north-east towards Killington. Just before reaching Killington, we turned northwards on US 100 and immediately encountered a sign that read Kent Pond on the right. Saru was not at all interested in seeing it, so I kept driving further; but then suddenly I thought of my experience with offbeat places in Lake Tahoe in California. Well, I immediately took turn and came back to the pond. The water was not visible from the parking (there is no fee for parking or visit), so we were not sure of what lies ahead. We walked a few meters, and my reaction was – Oh my God!dsc07688dsc07589There were very few tourists there, so we had plenty of time to spend at our own ease. I was so glad to have come back. I was reluctant to leave the place, but I was pulled, again 🙂

Soon enough, we reached the small town of Rochester and couldn’t stop passing by a park, which provided for a perfect picture. It is such places that I find hard to resist as the beauty is mostly untouched.dsc07778We kept driving further up US 100 and our admiration had no bounds! It was hard for me to think where all to stop as every other place looked better than the earlier…but then we had 9 days to witness the extravaganza.dsc07745Travel Tips:

  1. Drive on US 100 is a must to watch the splendid fall colors. Our research says start from Woodstock (lies south-west of Killington, about 20 miles), then head west towards Bridgewater on US 4, and finally merge into US 100 near Killington.
  2. If you are going to spent a couple of days in the town of Stowe (68 miles north of Killington, and highly rated for colors), don’t worry about stopping at each spot on US 100…there is much more to come.
  3. Keep at least half-a-day for the drive, even that might seem insufficient if you’ve never been amazed with nature!

9 days chasing fall colors across Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine

Though I am yet to complete writing about my California trip (for that matter even Florida vacation, which we took last New Year’s eve), I am starting off with my very recent fall outing.

After Spending 3 days in New Hampshire 2 years back, I always had the urge to go back. There is so much to see there during autumn season. But then I read about the splendor of fall in Vermont and Acadia National Park in Maine over the years – both are not to be missed for many reasons, the best being the natural beauty they offer. So, with everything in mind, it was only befitting to cover all of them together between Sep-end to Oct-end. And that’s what we did this year!

Stowe in Vermont is rated as one of the best places to see nature’s charisma in the United States and normally gets peak fall colors early Oct. Not far, but equally pretty is North Conway in New Hampshire. Acadia National Park in Maine is another top attraction, but usually peaks around Oct-end. So, with all the predictions and calculations almost 3 months in advance, we decided to spend 2nd week of Oct chasing colors from Vermont to New Hampshire to Maine. It was extremely important to plan and book early, as the hotels were almost gone 2 months before, one reason being 2nd week of Oct was a long weekend and then Stowe had its Annual Fall Arts festival that weekend.

We normally start towards our first destination on Friday evening, so we have entire Saturday at our disposal…this time our overnight halt was in Rutland in Vermont. Here’s how the final map looked for us (these are just major spots, we primarily covered attractions within and around these cities/places):screen-shot-2016-11-24-at-11-18-13-amOn the way to the hotel, we spent some time at the picturesque Lake George…we were there 2 years back as well. A couple of our favorite shots from back then.dsc00773dsc00769This time, I was just able to capture the calmness of the lake in the night from my phone.
img_9629I eagerly looked forward to the next morning as we had to drive up US 100 highway – one of the best drives for fall colors. And rightly so, as our experience would show in the next post.

P.S. To read the chemistry behind change in colors, refer here

The city of dreams – Los Angeles

LA was the last major stop for us during our California trip and we had 2 days to spend there. The following 2 days were reserved for driving up the Pacific Coast Highway to San Francisco and stopping at Santa Monica, Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Carmel-by-the-sea, and Monterey on the way.

We had booked our stay in Hollywood considering that most of the attractions are located there. As we entered the city, we headed straight to the Griffith Observatory to see some great views of the city from an elevation (it is situated at a height of over 1,100ft).dsc06369The observatory is a popular tourist attraction with clear views of the Hollywood sign, and a huge collection of space and science-related displays. The best part is that there is no entry fees, so it is a must-see!dsc06353You can go around the observatory to see downtown LA, and even the Pacific Ocean!
dsc06385dsc06377Since Saru was still recuperating from the back strain she got from the hike we did in Lake Tahoe, she didn’t go out much.

The 2nd day I first headed to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, comprising more than 25,00 five pointed terrazzo and brass starts embedded in the sidewalks.fullsizeoutput_158And to better appreciate the beauty from the top where observatory is located, I went back to the same spots in the evening. I am glad I did so since the city gave a different look then. For me, the bonus was this spectacular Sunset!dsc06416dsc06442Later in the night, I went atop the observatory where they have a telescope – that day they they were positioned towards Jupiter and I loved seeing the planet. There are many other telescopes too in the lawn which are free for public viewing.

Think about LA and one would like to visit the super-famous Universal Studios, which is not far from the Observatory. We were not convinced with spending so much ($105 per person) to see something we were not so inclined to see. But if you are, don’t miss that!

Why I love Apple Products…and you should too!

I am crazy about Apple products, but not for no reason! Having tried my hands on many brands in the past, I have come to the realization that nothing beats Apple. Be it performance, class, style statement, service, and even resale value, Apple provides you all of it – yes, for a premium!

Here’s my experience trying other brands and why Apple wins over them:

  1. Notebook and Resale Value: I gifted Saru Macbook Pro in 2012 and bought myself Lenovo Ideapad Yoga in 2013. They both cost me about $1,100 each. Even after all these years, Macbook performed much better than my device, which lacked in performance and even started giving me display issues off late. I got rid of both of them recently (using trade-in option through Best Buy) with Macbook going for more than double the value (they paid me meager $100 for Yoga – Huh! I am not buying any other brand, ever!). I picked Macbook Pro for myself and Saru settled for Macbook Air.
  2. iPhone and Service: I bought iPhone 5S in 2013 and it worked very well for me until I sold it for Rs 18,000 in India last year. I had sent iPhone 6S to my sister in India in 2014, but in a year it started overheating, so I brought the phone to US to get it fixed with Apple and didn’t buy the latest version for myself last year (survived with using her phone here). After I took it to Apple Store, after a bit of convincing that it seems to have a hardware issue, the Manager replaced the device for free even though it had been more than a year since I had bought it (and I didn’t even have Apple Care plan). Speaks so much about their pleasing service!
  3. iPad Mini (first Apple win through blogging) – Saru loved her iPad mini that she won in a contest few years back. But I don’t like living with more than 3-4 year old devices, so we upgraded that too! The reason we thought of taking a major hit on our savings (didn’t upgrade her iPod Touch though, which she uses just to listen to songs) is because we were in New Hampshire on our fall trip last month, and people in the US would know there are no taxes to pay there (that’s a cool 8% savings compared to New Jersey where we live).
  4. Difficult time and Relief: I sent the replaced iPhone 6S to my sister in India a month back and have been surviving with Google Nexus that I won in a blogging contest last year. I must say my efficiency has gone down considerably in the last month – Nexus and iPhone are not even comparable by any standards! I am happy to mention that after a 1.5 month wait, my iPhone 7S Jet Black arrived early this week. It looks so amazing :)fullsizeoutput_90
  5. Don’t buy from Apple though: I bought my Macbook Pro from Apple, but iPad and Air from Best Buy. However, I wish I could have bought Pro from Best Buy too. The reason being, Best Buy brought down the prices of all 3 items within a few days by up to $150. I just had to call them up to credit back the difference (in US, you can return most of the items within a month if you don’t like them; or just get the price difference back). Apple never provides discounts on anything (be it Thanksgiving or Christmas). I did call Apple though….their price-match policy says they can only pay back 10% of the difference in price (so I got $10 back 😦 , taking a hit of $90 that Best Buy would have happily given back).

Having said all this, I just want to clarify that I am not rich by any means, but I would rather save over the years and just buy Apple!

P.S. As you can imagine, Apple was not interested in paying me to write this review!