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Monday, June 17, 2013

Government officials are reminding those in the Cayman Islands to ensure their travel documents are in order as hurricane season has begun.

You should make copies of your key documents including passports, birth certificates, work permits and drivers’ licenses and store them in a safe place separate from the originals. The original documents should be kept with you in waterproof bags or containers during any emergency situation, particularly in the event of an approaching hurricane or tropical storm.

Travelling to the US 

For those people who may wish to travel to the US either before, or immediately after a hurricane, it is essential that your documents are in order. It is extremely unlikely that anyone without appropriate documentation will be allowed to enter the United States in any circumstances. Those who do plan to travel to the US should also be aware that the Visa Waiver Programme only operates for commercial flights and they should therefore also obtain a US visa if travelling on charter or private flights. Those nationals looking to travel under the VWP should also apply online for Electronic System for Travel Authorisation.

British passport holders 

British passport holders should note that an application for a passport renewal has a minimum five week turnaround time. To avoid applicants being without travel documents during the hurricane season only, applicants will not need to send their current passports with the renewal application. However, a photocopy will still need to be sent. The old passport must only be used for emergency travel. This is because the passport issuing system will electronically cancel the old passport when the new one is being processed and applicants risk travelling on an invalid travel document. US Immigration will accept a machine-readable British passport with at least one month’s validity. British passport holders should note that passport renewals are now processed by the British Embassy in Washington. Details of this service can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/world/cayman-islands.

Honorary consuls 

Nationals of other countries should also give consideration to applying for a new passport if they intend to visit their home country over the summer. The following nationalities are represented in the Cayman Islands:

Austria: Martin Richter autconsulate@candw.ky or 925-4559 or 926-1520. New Austrian biometric passports will require a visit to an Austrian passport issuing authority in order to record biometric data.

Barbados: Juliette Gooding, 925-7264 or Liaison Officer Wingrove Hunte 926-8303, email barbcon2@gmail.com or hunteWO@candw.ky.

Brazil: Giorgio Subiotto giorgio.subiotto@ogier.com, 949-9876 during business hours.

Canada: Jeff Boucher, www.pptc.gc.ca or www.jamaica.gc.ca, 949-9400, or e-mail cdncon.cayman@candw.ky. The Consulate of Canada is at Landmark Square, 1st Floor, 64 Earth Close (off West Bay Road past the Strand), Seven Mile Beach. Open Monday to Thursday from 10am to 1pm. Canadian nationals can register while visiting or living abroad at www.travel.gc.ca.

France: Sebastien Guilbard, 949-2118 or email sguilbard@smu.ky / sguilbard1@hotmail.com.

Germany: Christiane Schuette-McField, 924-3561 or email schuettemcfield@gmail.com.

Honduras: Miguel Molina-Brown, email miguelmbrown@yahoo.com or Miguel.brown@ky.pwc.com, phone 914-8665.

India: Krishna Mani, email eyeman2020@yahoo.com, phone 945-1565 or 928-4681.

Jamaica: Joseph Marzouca. Visit http://www.jaconsulatecayman.org/m1a.html or contact Deputy Honorary Consul Elaine Harris on 949-9526, email Jamaica@candw.ky. Emergency number: 325-6634. The Jamaican Consulate: Dot Com Centre is at 342A Dorcy Drive in the Industrial Park. Emergency travel documents can be issued within 24 hours with proper proof of Jamaican nationality and identification and the passport renewal time is two to three weeks.

Philippines: Arturo Ursua artursua@candw.ky, 925-8279 or 949-2716.

Spain: Garth Arch, spainconsulate@candw.ky or call 949-2400 or 525-5603.

Switzerland: For Consular and administrative information, contact the Consulate General in Atlanta, USA on 1-404-870-2000 or e-mail vertretung@eda.admin.ch. There is a turnaround time for three to four weeks for new passports. New biometric passports will require a visit to a Swiss passport issuing authority in order for biometric data to be captured. Further information can be found at www.eda.admin.ch/atlanta. For on-island emergencies, contact Peter Schmid on 326-4385 or by e-mail cayman@honrep.ch or peterschmid@candw.ky. Or from abroad by Satellite phone +88-1621-462160 (post event in case of tele-communications failure).

UK: For passport renewals, visit https://www.gov.uk/government/world/cayman-islands. For emergency travel documents during business hours, call the Cayman Islands Passport Office on 943-7678 or visit the Office at Sussex House, Elgin Avenue, George Town. For other consular information during business hours contact Tom.Hines@fco.gov.uk on 244-2434 or Gillian.Skinner@fco.gov.uk on 244-2431. For out-of-hours consular assistance, contact the duty officer on 925-4307.

USA: Visit http://kingston.usembassy.gov/travel_alerts.html or contact Gary Montemayor on 945-8173 or by email consagency@candw.ky. The US Consular Agency is at the Cayman Centre, Unit B-1, 118 Dorcy Drive, but will be moving to the Smith Road centre during the summer months.

The Governor’s Office would like to remind all other foreign nationals in the Cayman Islands that the advice above also applies to them. If you have not already done so, you should consider registering with your nearest Consular mission. Further details can be found on your own government’s web 0.

A dense mist lifted, revealing mountains and water suffused with the magic of early morning light. Framed by the carved porch of my houseboat, the world of Dal Lake looked utterly serene. Suddenly the stillness was broken by an iridescent flash descending into the water, leaving just a hint of a ripple. A small kingfisher surfaced. It flew to the side of the houseboat where it perched, a taut and tiny assembly of turquoise and orange, scrutinising the water. Then, abruptly, it darted into the lake again. The extraordinary beauty and that burst of aggressive energy were, I felt, entirely symptomatic of the haunting nature of the Kashmir Valley.

For a good 20 years, this fabled land in north-west India has been as notable for its tragic problems as its dreamily picturesque qualities. However, in November, the Foreign Office eased its warning against travel to parts of the region.

Over the previous 12 months, outbreaks of unrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir had diminished significantly. So, the advice against visiting the cities of Srinagar and Jammu was lifted, along with the caution against road trips between these two places.

Road blocks have since been removed and the presence of the Indian military has been greatly reduced. With the summer tourist season under way, the hope is that other areas in the state will also be considered safe by foreign governments. Yet even given the remaining restrictions, Kashmir is excelling as one of the most exquisitely exotic destinations for 2013, with visitor numbers soaring in hotspots such as Srinagar, where the 25,000 rooms available are only meeting a quarter of demand. As I arrived, the mood was palpably optimistic.

The region known as the Kashmir Valley is an area about the size of Yorkshire. It's a "valley", in that it is centred on the Jhelum River as it carves a dramatic course through the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas.

More or less in the middle, the city of Srinagar and its surroundings have been a staggeringly beautiful holiday resort since at least the times of the great Mughal emperors in the 16th and 17th centuries. With elephant-borne harems and great trails of attendants, they would arrive here from the heat of Agra and Delhi, enjoying the lush landscape and creating sublime gardens, several of which are still thriving today.

Then came the British, also trying to escape scorching temperatures elsewhere in India. The local maharaja would not allow them to buy land and build houses, so they adapted traditional doonga boats instead. Complete with interiors of intricately carved deodar wood (a type of cedar), Kashmiri houseboats became an intrinsic part of a uniquely glamorous playground.

And that was the Kashmir I first knew – a very long time ago. In the 1960s my family lived in Chanakyapuri, the diplomatic enclave of New Delhi. One day, we packed up our Austin 1800 – my parents in the front, three small children in the back – and set off for Kashmir, 875km (540 miles) north-west.

We had a terrible journey lasting days and involving punctures, mechanical failure, floods and other near disasters. Just before reaching the Kashmir Valley, our final challenge was a dauntingly long tunnel in which there was a danger our car would break down again. We emerged from the Banihal Tunnel (Bunny Hole to us kids) to find ourselves suddenly in what seemed a land of milk and honey, with dazzlingly green pastures grazed by bucolic-looking cows and sheep.

For two weeks, home was a glorious houseboat on Nagin Lake just beyond central Srinagar. The charming owners were our hosts, taking us (when little legs would allow) walking, pony trekking, fishing; cooking us meals gently infused with Kashmiri saffron and other spices; brewing us deliciously aromatic kahwa, Kashmiri-style green tea flavoured with cardamom and cinnamon. It was one of the most halcyon holidays of my childhood. And I was wonderfully surprised to find many vestiges of that Kashmir on my recent return.

I spent the first couple of days almost entirely on water. Srinagar's two lakes, Dal and Nagin, are both peppered with houseboats, at the moment mainly catering for the domestic market, which has seen a surge in the past few years. However, Butt's Clermont Houseboats is a slight world apart on the western side of Dal Lake. Set in its own exclusive haven just off Nasim Bagh (literally "Garden of Bliss" – and one of the earliest such Mughal creations), this collection of five elegant boats has attracted celebrity guests from the late George Harrison to US Senator John McCain (in 2011).

It was entrancing to slip back into the sort of lake life I'd enjoyed as a child. You explore the waterworld in shikaras, little gondola-like boats whose heart-shaped paddles are modelled on the bulbs of the lotus flowers that grow abundantly here. You get up remarkably early to the echoing call of the muezzin and visit the floating vegetable market held at dawn, watching long-tailed boats filled with onions, aubergines, tomatoes and more, in a sort of gentle dodgems of trading. And, of course, you spend hours simply sitting on the porch of your houseboat gazing at the views and the antics of kingfishers and cormorants.

For all the romance of houseboat living, however, there are greater comforts on land. I moved on from Butt's Clermont to the new Vivanta by Taj hotel, which offers a staggering panorama over Dal Lake from its hilltop vantage point on the eastern fringes of Srinagar. This state-of-the-art property opened in 2011 with 82 spacious bedrooms, an excellent restaurant with ample terrace and a beautifully sited pool.

There is a host of trips to make from here. I spent a day taking in Mughal sights: the tranquil gardens of Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh – with gorgeous fountains and terraces; the ruins of Pari Mahal, a 17th-century palace and observatory built in the Zabarwan Hills just outside the city. I also headed up to the spectacular, pine-clad hill station of Gulmarg which offers summer hiking and pony trekking – and skiing in winter.

Back in Srinagar I enjoyed an absorbing morning tour around the venerably tumble-down city. My guide was a designer, Renuka Savasere, who has been documenting the heritage of pashmina weaving. As we visited mosques and browsed markets, she explained how craftmanship is inherent in Kashmiri culture. Kashmir was on the Silk Road and trading also appears to be in its very DNA. Everyone, it seems, has a shop: in town, by the water, on the water in a boat.

The myriad shopping opportunities and gorgeous goods – soft, embroidered leatherware, never-ending varieties of fine woollen fabrics, beautiful bowls and boxes – were familiar from my childhood.

The quirky names, too. Suffering Moses was our favourite shop in the 1960s. Set on The Bund in central Srinagar, it is still producing exquisite hand-painted papier mâché goods today. The lakes are still plied by Mr Wonderful, a flower merchant whose boat is emblazoned with the name. And then there's a Mr Delicious selling waterborne chocolates too.

I encountered them on Nagin Lake, on a quest to see if I could find the houseboat I had stayed on as a child. That proved a wonderfully easy mission. I simply asked a shikara boatman if he knew a houseboat Monarch, and he took me straight there, across the lake. The current Monarch is a gracious reincarnation of the vessel I had known; the owners are the same family and they gave me a touching welcome.

Would I return for lunch some time, they asked. So on my last day I did. We sat on the porch and, as I gazed at the beautiful outlook, I heard their story. During the height of the militancy their business all but closed, during which time they were harrassed, as many locals were, both by activists and by the army, often brutally so. So, like many Kashmiris, they packed up their pashminas and other fabrics and left, trading around India and as far afield as Thailand. They had been able to resume their houseboat business about six years ago.

Like everyone they knew, they just wanted peace. Enduring peace.

Kashmir timeline

1947 Partition of India. Majority-Muslim Kashmir is governed by a Hindu maharaja. No clear agreement as to whether the Kashmiri people want to join Pakistan or India. Armed tribesmen from Pakistan invade and Indian forces arrive to repel them.

1949 After a UN-brokered ceasefire, part of the territory is ceded to Pakistan.

1965 Second Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir breaks out in April and ends in September that year.

1972 Shimla Agreement – India and Pakistan agree to respect the "Line of Control" dividing Kashmir, and to work towards a peaceful solution to their dispute.

1989 Backed by Pakistan, armed uprising against Indian rule breaks out in the Kashmir Valley.

1990S Insurgency continues.

2000s More unrest by militants. General improvement in relations between India and Pakistan. Increasingly civilians in the Kashmir Valley simply want peace and to resume normal lives.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Harriet O'Brien travelled with Greaves India (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk) which offers a nine-day trip to Kashmir from £2,250pp. The price includes flights from Heathrow to Delhi and, after a night at The Oberoi New Delhi, air travel to Srinagar; full board at Butt's Clermont Houseboats on Dal Lake and B&B at Vivanta by Taj Dal View Srinagar; transfers and sightseeing.

Staying there

Vivanta by Taj Dal View Srinagar, Kraisangri, Srinagar (00 91 194 246 1111; vivantabytaj.com). Doubles from R13,100 (£144), B&B.

Butt's Clermont Houseboats, Nasim Bagh, Srinagar (00 91 194 2420325; buttsclermonthouseboat.com). Doubles from R6,000 (£66), full board.

Monarch Houseboats, Nagin Lake, Srinagar (00 91 194 2428091; marina_arts@hotmail.com); doubles from R4,500 (£50) full board.

Visiting there

Renuka Savasere (00 91 9906573224; srinagar.walks@gmail.com) offers half-day guided heritage walks in Srinagar for R2,000pp (£22).