Just Back From India

 

THE AARTI on the bank of River Ganges
The Aarti on the bank of River Ganges in Varanasi is a nightly ritual.

 

I recently returned from an incredibly memorable journey to India with Greaves Tours and three fellow Greaves Tours Travel Agent Advisory Board members—Manny Beauregard of Valerie Wilson Travel, Atlanta; Janice Boyd of Protravel, New York; and Kathy Sudeikis of All About Travel, Kansas City.

Our group flew British Airways to Delhi via London. The stopover in London’s new Terminal 5 left me enough time for a shower and breakfast, which refreshed and energized me for the seven-hour flight to Delhi.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by—as the Greaves Tours’ representatives are affectionately called—“the boys in blue,” who quickly whisked us through customs and to the air-conditioned comfort of the Taj Palace Hotel. The Taj Club rooms (floors 7, 8 and 9) had, among other amenities, lovely linen and furnishing, satellite TV and bath products by Molton Brown. Each evening, the lounge provides a myriad of tasty canapés with cocktails, as well as a “cooked-to-order” breakfast in the morning.

That next morning, we left Delhi on a Jet Airways flight for the holy city of Varanasi. The mythical River Ganges, combined with the colors and rich traditions of India’s cultural and religious capital, creates an awe-inspiring and magical experience.

We enjoyed a sunset boat-ride in the river before observing a nightly ritual—the aarti ceremony, which is a form of worship to the deities, overseen by Brahmin priests.

In Varanasi, we stayed at the recently transformed Taj Nadesar Palace, which lived up to its billing as one of the top new hotels in the world; in fact, it exceeded our expectations: the 10 suites boast 18- to 20-foot-high ceilings, period furniture, original oil paintings, leather-bound books, massive marble bathrooms, ornate oriental rugs and antique silver.

We began the next day with a sunrise boat trip followed by an exploration of the ancient city of Varanasi with our expert English-speaking Greaves guide.

From Varanasi, we flew on a Super King Air B200 private plane—exclusively meant for Greaves’ use, which comfortably accommodated the six of us—to the Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh (Central India). Without the chartered flight, the trip would have entailed flying to the nearest city, followed by a drive of more than eight hours on some of the bumpiest roads imaginable! Besides saving travel time, this private plane renders numerous places across India accessible. With private aircraft use, Greaves has staged a coup of sorts in travel in India, enabling clients to see so much more of this subcontinent in comfort, and at a reasonable pace.

 

Pictured are Greatways Travel’s Weinberg; Kathy Sudeikis, All About Travel; Manny Beauregard, Valerie Wilson Travel, Atlanta; Janice Boyd, Protravel International Inc.; and Shahrookh Cambata, managing member and CEO, Greaves Tours, LLC.

 

During our safari, we spent three wonderful nights at Mahua Kothi, one of four game lodges operated by &Beyond and Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces. Cottage accommodations have all the creature comforts (except TVs) while retaining the local touch. Mahua Kothi is a private little gem spread over 50 acres and just eight minutes from the entrance to the Bandhavgarh National Park, which has the highest density of tigers in all of India. Exceptional ambiance is evident from the minute you arrive—bright cheery tangerine colors in the large main lounge area and spacious bedrooms adorned with whimsical, old wooden puppets, as well as intriguing artifacts from all over the country. Comfortable beds and pillows, a generously sized bathroom and a private terrace will put clients at ease. Sid, the extraordinary Mahua Kothi chef, pioneered innovative cuisine with fresh ingredients from his organic garden (think sublime soups, salads and family-style Indian dishes).

We were not guaranteed tiger sightings on the trip but we happened to see four on our first evening game drive alone—what a thrill! In all, we saw a total of 11 tigers from close range in the three game drives we went on. The excitement of game-viewing at Bandhavgarh on a spacious open Toyota jeep (seating a maximum of six guests) seemed to ratchet up with every game drive, thanks to the fascinating expert commentary, and, of course, the infectious enthusiasm of our superb Mahua Kothi guides, Hemanchu and Pramdeep.

In addition to the tigers, the Bandhavgarh reserve has many other indigenous animal species like the wily wild boar, the black sloth bear, the elusive leopard, dainty little langur (dark-faced monkeys), the large and shaggy sambar deer (the tiger’s favorite prey), and the smaller spotted chital deer. It also has over 250 birds, including exotic peacocks, which cry out if a tiger is in the vicinity, and the Indian Roller, our favorite, with its delicate hues of lavender, turquoise and rose.

Our next stop was Kanha National Park and the new &Beyond/Taj camp, Banjaar Tola, a 40-minute private flight from Mahua Kothi. Two adjacent nine-suite camps overlook the meandering Banjaar River, the site of constant game-viewing as well as the lilting cacophony of over 320 bird species that are found in this area. We loved this camp! It has large rooms in shades of gray and green, huge bathrooms and a pristine private wooden deck. The lounge and bar area have exquisite locally handcrafted brass items and soothing ivory-colored oversized couches—all in tandem with a large pool and even more tempting homemade cuisine. Kanha is three times the size of Bandhavgarh and has over 100 leopards, as well as wild dogs, the rare Indian bison and the endangered swamp deer. A three-night stay here is a must!

After three relaxing, yet exhilarating, days in the park, we took the private plane one more time for a 40-minute flight to the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Khajuraho. Described by many as India’s unique gift to the world, the temples at Khajuraho were built in the 100 years between AD. 950 and 1050. Presently, 22 of the original 85 temples survive, constituting one of the world’s greatest artistic wonders.

We spent an hour exploring the temples before heading to the airport for our flight back to London, by way of Delhi, before connecting for our flights home.

While my recent experience highlighted a visit to Varanasi, Khajuraho and Bandhavgarh, I would recommend Greaves Tours for a customized Indian adventure to match the specific interests of your clients. For centuries, India has been a magnet for visitors from all continents, whose motivating interests cover a vast range—from art to adventure, history to wildlife, shopping to spiritualism. No wonder they call it “Incredible India!”

 

Safari
An Elephant is the local mode of transportation on safari.