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India Trip Report – Imperial, Aman-i-Khas, Amanbagh, Oberoi Amarvilas

India Trip Report – Imperial, Aman-i-Khas, Amanbagh, Oberoi Amarvilas

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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:31 am
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India Trip Report – Imperial, Aman-i-Khas, Amanbagh, Oberoi Amarvilas

Northern India Trip Report – Imperial, Aman-i-Khas, Amanbagh, Oberoi Amarvilas

IMPRESSIONS OF INDIA
Let’s get the tough stuff out of the way.

India was not without its challenges. Travel was difficult and time consuming (trains were slow and driving was slower) but thankfully, we had decided to stay in the northern regions for this trip so our time in transit was limited.

We knew to expect the poverty, which is undeniably linked to the caste system. But ironically, the caste system also seems to make the poor, happy. They believe the Gods have chosen this life for them and that blessings come in the form of children. And yes, we saw people urinating and defecating in public, since more than 90% of the people in the countryside and 30% of the people in the cities do not have sewer. This is India. People wanting to travel there should carry their own toilet paper. You also have to watch your step as all manner of animals roam freely (cows, sheep, goats, dogs, camels, etc.) and they often leave “packages” behind.

And yet, we had a fabulous time. The people were incredibly friendly and we made loads of friends in the villages by taking along a Polaroid camera. The food was awesome! The countryside was beautiful. We didn’t even get TD. We managed to stay healthy by following the CDC recommended “Pepto plan”, eating (mostly) hot food, drinking and brushing with bottled water and avoiding ice except where we knew it was made with bottled. We also avoided already cut-up fruit and salads, and regularly doused with Purell.

GETTING THERE
We used Star Alliance miles to fly Lufthansa first class from BOS – FRA – DEL. The highlight of the trip was the 1st class terminal in Frankfurt (details on this experience can be found in our 2005 Africa trip report). Unfortunately, our FRA – DEL plane had come in from Bangalore and picked up hundreds of mosquitoes, so I arrived in Delhi with red splotches all over my face. It never occurred to me to pack mosquito repellant in my carry on, or that Indian mosquitoes would get me while I was technically still in Europe!

IMPERIAL – Delhi (Virtuoso), 1 night
The higher-end hotels in India have gotten incredibly expensive due to a shortage of rooms and, in our case, the weak US dollar. So while we hadn’t intended to stay in a posh hotel in Delhi (we were literally only there 5 hours) the difference in price between this hotel and others a step down was nominal. We really only stayed here because we trusted the car service (which was our first point of contact in India) and wanted to enjoy the nice breakfast. Our stay went very smoothly and we were upgraded to a suite though we can’t comment on the room. It was late, and we were incredibly jet-lagged. What we do remember, was a lovely jasmine fragrance in the public areas of the hotel, and friendly and efficient service.
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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:31 am
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AMAN-I-KHAS – Ranthambhore Park (Camp & Oasis, Virtuoso), 5 nights
Our flawless Aman-i-Khas experience actually began at the Imperial Hotel, where our batman (butler) was waiting to escort us to the New Delhi station for the 5 ½ hr. train journey to Sawai Madhopur. He rode on the train with us, providing drinks and snacks along the way. We were seated in an air conditioned compartment with sleeper seats, and while the train could best be described as “a little dirty” we felt it held a certain charm, even after Mr. Ericka saw a mouse running across the floor. The train is a romantic way to travel, especially in India.

The batman remained our main point of contact throughout our stay at the resort, arranging activities, serving meals, etc. The setting was drop dead gorgeous and because there were only 10 tents, they were able to deliver Aman-level service on steroids. Everyone knew us, not just our name, but “knew” us. What we liked, what we didn’t like, where we’re from, what we were doing that day…and there was a closeness and familiarity with the batmen and management that exceeded the other 8 or 9 Amans we have visited before. Service was proactive and they were always one step ahead of us. Unfortunately, most people only come in for 2 or 3 nights and that is simply not enough time to fully experience the park or this wonderful tented camp.

The property was truly “all tent” as there were no support walls as you might see at nearby Oberoi Vanyavilas or camps in Africa. Our air conditioned/heated tent was an amazing 6 meters high, and made to be brought down and packed away during the off season, much like the fanciful traveling tents of the Mughul dynasty. Rooms, several of them, were divided by heavy draped cotton partitions. We had a few visiting bugs, and one visiting squirrel, but no mosquitoes. At the time of our visit, the birds were extremely vocal throughout the property, especially at dawn and dusk. And one night, very late, a horse-sized blue bull antelope paced slowly back and forth along the outside of our tent and we rather embarrassingly called for security, thinking it was a crazy man. Doesn’t all good camping come with a story like that?

The Aman-i-Khas GM, Mr. G. was “poached” from Singita Tanzania and believes in setting up unique experiences for all the guests. He hired the best chefs from Delhi and the food shows it, especially the coriander and garlic naan. These were the best of our trip and we were able to watch them being cooked in a tandoor oven. The food was prepared for a European/American palette, which is, low on spice. But if you do like Mr. Ericka did and order it prepared “the way the chef’s mother would make it”, you won’t be disappointed. As with Amanbagh, many of the spices and vegetables came from the resort’s own garden and this showed in the food quality. Interesting side note, Aman is hosting a traditional Indian wedding for Mr. G. and his long-time girlfriend (and fellow mgr.) in Delhi in early April. Unfortunately, we were not able to meet her as she was in Delhi preparing for the wedding.

But enough about the resort. What everyone probably wants to know is “did we see tigers?” Absolutely. And we have the National Geographic-like photos to prove it. We went on 7 different game drives and saw 5 different tigers. 3 game drives had tigers and 4 did not. For this, we credit our excellent Aman-contracted guide who had great tracking skill and loads of insider information. Our jeeps were thoughtfully loaded with blankets (mornings were cold, even in March), water, chai, snacks, etc. and when we returned from the dusty evening game drives, our bathtub was filled with hot water and surrounded by candles.

Before our trip, we were warned by fellow travelers that if we had been to Africa, we could never enjoy an Indian game park. This, for us, turned out to be completely false. If you have read The Jungle Book or seen the movie, then you know what Ranthambhore Park is all about; it was reportedly Kipling’s inspiration. The park is simply not given enough credit. It is strikingly beautiful, dotted with ancient fort remnants, temples and other “ruins”, as well as stunning topography of cliffs and lakes. We found it more beautiful than the game parks we experienced in Botswana and South Africa (except the Okavango Delta). Of course, the park is “managed” differently. At our tiger sightings, we encountered 1-6 other vehicles, some of which were buses/cantors, and the guides were not permitted to go off track or leave their lottery-assigned trail. But a guide as good as ours was able to overcome these factors by jockeying for position, and anticipating the tigers’ movements and getting out in front them. At the time of our visit, there were 5 trails. We experienced 2, 3, 4 and 5, and each offered something special.

Non-tiger sightings included; peacocks, rose winged parakeet, rose headed parakeet, jungle babbler, great egret, black cormorant, spotted deer, wooly necked stork, coucal, black winged stilt, red wattled lapwing, crocodile, black faced langur, red shank, Eurasian spoonbill, partridge, black drungo, oriental honey buzzard, grey heron, Indian river tern, painted stork, white ibis, ruddy shelled duck, sambar deer, magpie robin, yellow footed green pigeon, common myna, white throated kingfisher, yellow wagtail, pied wagtail, little ringed plover, Indian treepie, wild boar, blue bull antelope, red vented bulbul, coot, mongoose, black stork, black shouldered kite, magpie robin, guinea hen, jackal, white bellied drungo, jungle prinea, grey tit, spotted owlet, tickell’s blue flycatcher, fantailed flycatcher, green bee eater, purple sunbird, long billed jungle crow, Eurasian kingfisher, common mongoose (white = rare), Indian gazelle, crow pheasant, jungle bush quail, collared scops owl, pond heron, rhesus macaque, stilt, little cormorant, snake bird, turtle, vultures.

Besides Ranthambhore Park, we were able to enjoy other activities while at Aman-i-Khas. We had some great spa treatments in the “spa tent”. We visited the local Dastkar shop, a women’s cooperative which uses craft and clothing production to rebuild the communities that were uprooted with the creation of the national park. At Dastkar, we purchased clothing and donated money to support local initiatives in education, family planning, and healthcare. Back at the resort, we were treated to a romantic torch-lit bush dinner under the stars and Mr. G. even arranged a private maharaja dinner for us by the stepwell (pool) which featured easily 50 candles and local Rajasthani music performers. We toured the 1000 year old Ranthambhore Fort and enjoyed a private brunch served in the ruined “honeymoon suite” where the maharaja would entertain his wive(s) and invite friends and family to use it for trysts. This spot overlooks the prettiest parts of Ranthambhore Park and guests often spot tigers from here. Lastly, Mr. G. took us to meet the rescued 5 month old leopard cub, Lakshmi that he is rehabilitating to release back into the wild. He has done this successfully with lions in South Africa. Lakshmi is learning how to hunt mice and chickens and certainly has a taste for the meat, but unfortunately she hasn’t yet grasped the concept of “kill” and the experience of her beginning to eat the animals that weren’t yet dead, well, that was a bit much for me.
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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:32 am
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AMANBAGH – Alwar Region (Camp & Oasis, Virtuoso), 5 nights
We arrived at Amanbagh after a 3 hour car ride from Aman-i-Khas and found that the property positively screamed Ed Tuttle (architect), which was a very good thing. The sandstone and pink marble resort was built in the style of the popular haveli mansions. The lush, scenic area was once the favorite hunting ground of the maharaja of Alwar and the surrounding Aravalli hills are regarded as the oldest mountain range in the world. We were there in the heart of the dry season and could only imagine how beautiful it would be after the monsoon.

After being greeted by the GM and one of the personal managers with a traditional string-tying ceremony, we were bestowed with the aristocratic titles of Sahib and Sahiba, and we were shown to our pool pavilion. The first thing they did was explain the little “problem” of the monkeys. We were to keep our doors closed and locked as they were very adept at opening the appropriate cabinets and pulling out the cookie jars. Sure enough, on day four of our stay, Mr. Ericka heard a loud whack on the door to our patio. He looked out and was greeted by the bright red face of a rhesus macaque pressed against the glass. We surmised that the monkeys travel from room to room, whacking on patio doors until one pops open.

Our pool pavilion was very spacious and continued the theme of pale pink marble. It had an entry courtyard, foyer, bedroom/living room, an expansive lawn and marble patio with a covered Japanese-style dining table and green marble-tiled pool. But most impressive of all, was the domed-ceiling bathroom with a bathtub and pedestal sinks each carved out of one solid piece of green marble.

On our first day at the resort, we reported to the spa for an Indian Mantra Mugdha and Shirodhara treatment. These massages involved gentle, long strokes and literally buckets of oil, some of which was poured over our “third eye”. I admit to falling asleep and waking up wondering if I should escort myself to the tandoor oven.

Later that day, we took the “cow dust tour”, driving through local villages and greeting the especially friendly children along the way. The kids loved to hang onto the back of the moving jeep. Toward the end of the tour, we stopped at one of the village homes for chai, and the ladies pulled me aside and proceeded to adorn me in a lovely Indian skirt and headscarf, an ornamental dot, some of their jewelry and lipstick (I wasn’t wearing makeup because it was over ninety degrees). Our excellent, Amanbagh-provided guide acted as naturalist and translator for this and all of our excursions.

The next day, we drove to Bhangarh, an ancient ghost town known for its historical ruins. We had a private yoga session outside one of the Bhangarh temples (have you ever tried holding a balancing posture while on ancient cobblestones?) and breakfast outside another before touring the ruined palace. Legend has it that centuries ago, an ancient curse drove everyone out of this area. On our ride back to the resort, we came across a band of gypsies. They were herding sheep, and had the smallest lambs wrapped up and slung over the backs of mini-donkeys, their sweet faces peeking out to see where they were going. If I ate a little lamb before, I’ll never eat it now. Too cute.

After another trip to the spa for a champi head massage and bit of henna, we rode camels to the Ajabgarh Fort. Actually, we rode camels to the base of Ajabgarh Fort because the Indian government has closed it to tourists. And to be fair, we didn’t so much ride camels as get “led” on camels much as one would get led on a pony at the zoo. Being a competitive equestrian, this was a bit of a disappointment to me but I wasn’t about to ask for more control once I realized what a foul mood my camel was in. She complained the whole way and I really don’t think she liked me. Meanwhile, Mr. Ericka had a great time and he was especially amused when I insisted on dismounting by myself only to end up in the gravel. I guess a camel is a lot taller than even the tallest of horses and I just couldn’t stick the landing. (Interesting side note; our guide owned 4 acres of the land we were riding to. His wife and mother-in-law farm the land while he works nearby at Amanbagh.)

On another excursion, we hiked through the hills to Somsagar Lake for a private meditation. It was a great way to see the birds and other wildlife up close. When our guide pointed out leopard tracks, we were reminded of why we prefer to vacation in the countryside instead of cities.

But it was our last night at Amanbagh that was definitely our favorite. We were driven to a 16th century chatri (domed, covered area) where the maharajas used to take meals during hunting expeditions. In advance of our arrival, the resort had decorated the chatri with glittery drapes, 100(!) candles, marigold and rose petal flower displays (more like artwork, really) and they even “arranged” a full moon for us. There was an Indian flute player there, a chef, a waiter and our usual guide to engage us with stories of the surrounding hills. We sat cross-legged and watched distant villages light their eve-before-Holi bonfires. We’ve enjoyed many Aman special dinners in the past, but this one was definitely the most magical. The setting was simply spectacular.

The following morning, as we were leaving the resort, Amanbagh did a great job of making sure we avoided the worst of the Holi traffic. Holi is a popular Hindu spring festival of ancient origin where people celebrate the triumph of “good” over “bad”. People spend the day throwing colored powder and water at each other. Unfortunately, because we had to leave so early, we missed out on the resort’s celebration of the event, in which all guests, staff and families in kurta pajamas had a spirited, stain-filled version of Holi all their own. They followed the event with a barbeque/street food lunch under the trees of the front lawn. We managed to catch a glimpse of Holi through the windshield of our vehicle and have never seen so many pink and purple faced people in our lives. We expected to see a lot of activity from the kids, but were amused to find some of the most animated of the players were seniors. We wished we could have played, but the Taj Mahal was waiting.

A final note on Amanbagh... So much of what we experienced was wonderful. But the service wasn’t quite as flawless as Aman-i-Khas. If Aman-i-Khas was proactive, Amanbagh was a little reactive. It’s a slightly larger property (30-40?), and we were assigned a personal manager, but we ended up hardly ever seeing her. All the personal managers worked together to ensure our comfort but we missed having that one-on-one relationship. Also, there was one occasion when we asked a question and had two different personal managers give us two different answers. Again, nothing earth-shattering, just confusing. We managed to walk in on housekeeping once or twice, which is unusual for an Aman. Most importantly, we had some difficulty implementing the contract that the Aman office out of Singapore created for us. It began a month before our arrival when I was emailing Amanbagh to set up activities and continued until the second day of our stay, when we were able to explain the confusion to Robyn, one of the GMs. She had things fixed immediately (that’s an understatement, she went far beyond the terms of the contract to ensure our happiness) and the staff nailed our final bill, which given the different packages we had, was an achievement. So, all in all, we were extremely pleased with our stay.
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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:33 am
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OBEROI AMARVILAS – Agra (Virtuoso), 2 nights
The choice of hotel to stay in while visiting the Taj Mahal was easy. And it didn’t disappoint. The entire backside of the property looked out over the Taj. Public areas were lovely, service was efficient and friendly (OK, so maybe it wasn’t as personal as the Amans, we were back to being a room number.) Mr. Ericka noted that the property reminded him of a really, really nice business hotel. They are certainly set up for business, too – with private offices in the business center and wireless in all public areas.

The choice of what room category to stay in was more difficult. In the end, we splurged on the Robert Burns luxury suite. We were on the top floor, next to the penthouse and we strongly believe this room had the best view of the Taj. Why? Because it was on the highest floor, which enabled us to see all of the Taj, not just the dome, and it was on the far north side of the building, with nothing but gardens and greenery between us and the monument. People with rooms toward the middle of the building and particularly the south side, overlooked a patch of nearly-bare government land where some of the locals came to “relieve” themselves. The Robert Burns suite had a dining room, living room, bedroom, bathroom, and sunroom that each afforded knock-out views of the Taj Mahal. The butler’s pantry, oversized dressing room and 2nd bathroom were the only rooms that did not. There were two large terraces, including one that wrapped around the corner, but the highlight had to be the master bathroom with its freestanding tub and gold-domed, octagonal glass shower, each with unobstructed views to the monument. Marble and distressed teak was the theme, throughout.

We had an exceptional spa treatment at Amarvilas called the Mughal Mystique. It included our choice of scrub and massage, followed by an ayur face massage and milk/flower bath in a lovely, private spa suite overlooking the Taj. We’ve had a few flower baths in our day, but this one had an obscene amount of flowers – easily two inches of rose petals floated on top.

The guides and drivers provided by the hotel were very good. Besides spending time at the Taj Mahal, they took us to the Musamman Burj (where the Taj Mahal’s Shah Jahan was imprisoned in the final years of his life), the Kafakriti marble inlay shop (one of the later generations of the families that did the Taj inlay) and Kohinoor jewelers. We purchased a lovely marble table and nearly walked off with an Indian pink sapphire.

Unfortunately, not everything at the Amarvilas was wonderful. Since there were only two 500 milliliter bottles of water by the nightstand, we requested more. One of the butlers quickly arrived with additional water – along with a room service bill. Apparently, because the Amarvilas has a water filtration system, they don’t feel the need to provide drinking water. Well, this was India, and we weren’t planning on drinking anything from the tap. Besides that, we have been to several Amans, Four Seasons, and Ritz Carltons in developing countries and throughout Asia with similar filtration systems and they have always provided complimentary bottled water. We felt seriously nickel-and-dimed. To their credit, the managers were attentive, apologetic and very graciously handled this for us. But I wonder if this was because we were in one of the better suites. Maybe they just wait for someone to complain before they give them free water…

As for the Taj Mahal itself, no amount of photographs or stories about the lovelorn Shah Jahan could have prepared us for how truly awesome it was at first sight. The enormity of it, the attention to detail in the marble inlay, and the fact that it took 20,000 skilled laborers over 20 years to build it means that no one could build something like this today. Not to mention the fact that it is essentially solid, Indian-mined, non-porous marble.

Outside the Taj, we were expecting to run into very aggressive touts. We had heard this about Agra in general. But instead, we were greeted by a young man named Raja. He took the time to introduce himself on our way in. He greeted us again on our way out, and I realized he couldn’t have been more than 12 years-old. He was dressed in khakis and a nice button down shirt, with clean hands and a clean face. As I was contemplating this, walking stride for stride with him, I heard him say, “Watch your step, ma’am.” Looking down, I realized he had saved me from stepping in a very large pile of crap. He was selling postcards and he was good. I wondered at the type of salesman he would make when he was fully grown. And then I realized it was late morning and he was not in school. I hoped there were afternoon classes.

SUMMARY
- Don’t miss Aman-i-Khas and spend plenty of time there. It’s flawless.
- Make sure to book the Jeeman Dinner at Amanbagh.
- At Amarvilas, request a room on a high floor, north side. Splurge on the Robert Burns suite if possible.
- Anyone know where we can buy an inexpensive tandoor oven? We miss the food already.
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Old Apr 7, 08, 7:04 am
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Woaw, your trip reports are inspiring. Thanks for taking the time to write this all up. It sounds like you had an amazing time.

We just came back from the most amazing stay at Amanjiwo. Probably the best stay we have ever had in any hotel or resort anywhere. It sounds like we should definitely go to Rajasthan (we had a similar trip to yours booked in December but that fell through in the end).
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Old Apr 7, 08, 11:46 am
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Fantastic trip report! Lots of great advice for our trip which looks like it will be pretty similar to yours! How did you get from Amanbagh to Agra? And how did you get back home from Agra? Did you drive or fly back to Delhi?
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Old Apr 7, 08, 12:43 pm
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Beautiful work, Ericka!
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Old Apr 7, 08, 1:08 pm
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great report as always

so at amarvilas both luxury suites are similar to the kohinoor suite, except for the layout of bedroom and shower?
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Old Apr 7, 08, 2:02 pm
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wow, great report Ericka. I think I have to review my travel plans for later this year !
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Old Apr 7, 08, 3:30 pm
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What a marvelous report.
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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:13 pm
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Erickas report is one of the best I have read here and as a regular Aman guest (nah, not saying the amanjunkie thing) I really want to visit northern India now.
At the Aman resorts of course.

Last edited by obscure2k; Apr 7, 08 at 6:29 pm Reason: Deleted comments referring to deleted posts
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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:43 pm
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Great report. Thanks, Ericka for taking the time to share your experiences with Flyertalk and for your contributions to the Luxury Hotels Forum.
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Old Apr 7, 08, 6:47 pm
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Ericka, did you hear when Aman Delhi is due to open ?
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Old Apr 8, 08, 5:53 am
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Originally Posted by Pauldublin View Post
Ericka, did you hear when Aman Delhi is due to open ?
Having just had a chat with the Manager at one of the Aman properties, it is as of yet unclear. Apparently there were some changes in the local building regulations which held up everything and may further delay things.

I was told there would be 100 rooms all with a private swimming pool! Oh, and they will sell 'memberships' (whatever that means) to locals.
It doesn't sound like an Aman, but there you have it.
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Old Apr 8, 08, 6:05 am
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Originally Posted by jkirk View Post
Fantastic trip report! Lots of great advice for our trip which looks like it will be pretty similar to yours! How did you get from Amanbagh to Agra? And how did you get back home from Agra? Did you drive or fly back to Delhi?

We drove from Amanbagh to Agra (no traffic - 3 hrs.) and also drove from Agra to DEL (little traffic - 4 hrs.) The driving always seemed easier than flying.
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