by Gill Charlton from The Telegraph, August 17, 2017
As India celebrates its 70th year of independence from Britain, strong cultural ties remain. Indian novelists feature high on British bestseller lists, fashionistas covet Kashmiri shawls and handblock-printed fabrics, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has become a British film classic.
I’ve been travelling around India for 30 years yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of this enthralling, colour-saturated, life-affirming country. The cities are filled with great treasure houses, architectural marvels and enough shopping to last a lifetime but, as Gandhi once wrote, “India does not live in its towns but in its villages”. To get a real sense of what makes this country of 1.3 billion people so special, it’s essential to get out into village India. Today there are hundreds of comfortable country hotels to choose from, many in restored forts and palaces, ideal bases for exploring rural India. And many hoteliers and princely hosts have worked up special experiences to help visitors engage more fully with the rural life, from country walks during the magical “cow-dust hour” before sunset to Jeep rides into tribal areas to visit talented artisans.
Getting a tourist visa is no longer the time-consuming mission it used to be. The online application still demands patience and the ability to size digital photographs (ask a young friend) but it should take no more than four days to receive approval of an eVisitor Visa.
There has, however, been a sharp rise in hotel rates. On July 1, the Indian Government brought in a new national sales tax, which has increased the cost of a night in a hotel by 7-14 per cent. For rooms priced under Rs7,500 (£88) the sales tax now adds 18 per cent to the quoted room rate; for more expensive rooms it’s a whopping 28 per cent. Naturally, hotels and agents try to hide this tax when you book online, so make sure you read the small print.
Here are 10 of the most iconic travel experiences that should be on every visitor’s wish list for India.
1. Walk in the Himalayas
The high-altitude desert of Ladakh (“land of high passes”) has a rich Buddhist culture and offers superb trekking in summer. It is a chance to see a way of life that hasn’t changed for centuries.
Exodus Travels (020 3811 4518; exodus.co.uk) has an escorted 15-day Trails of Ladakh tour from £2,099, including flights and most meals. It features walks combined with visits to villages, medieval monasteries and forts – and the chance to raft down the Indus River.
2. Visit the Taj Mahal
Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s ethereal white marble mausoleum, the burial place of his beloved wife Mumtaz, never disappoints. Go at dawn before the tour bus crowds arrive. In the afternoon, visit the tomb of I’timād-ud-Daulah, known as the “Baby Taj”, and watch the sun set over the Taj Mahal from across the river.
Cox & Kings (020 3813 9416; coxandkings.co.uk) includes a dawn tour of the Taj on its 13-day Exotic India itinerary aimed at solo travellers; from £2,955 half-board, including flights.
3. Stay in a royal palace
So many historic palaces have opened their doors to paying guests that it’s hard to decide where to stay. My personal favourites are Ahilya Fort for a house-party (ahilyafort.com); Devigarh for a modern luxury in a fairy-tale setting (raasdevigarh.com); and Rawla Narlai for a country retreat with leopard sightings (rawlanarlai.com).
Ampersand Travel (020 7819 9770; ampersandtravel.com) can talk you through all the options and create a palace-hopping tour for two or 20 with a host of special experiences.
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4. Take tea for two, taste seafood in Goa
Maximum City is the ideal epithet for Mumbai. If you can’t afford to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace, make sure you have afternoon tea or a drink in the Sea Lounge. It’s a Mumbai institution open to all. Wind down from the city’s hectic pace in South Goa, where fresh seafood is cooked up in beach shacks and bicycles can be hired to pedal through rice paddies to Portuguese churches.
Audley Travel (01993 838330; audleytravel.com) has an 10-day City and Beach tour from £2,395 based on two sharing, including flights, chauffeured car and guided excursions.
5. Know your Hindu gods
Hinduism is a way of life in India and at its most flamboyant in the temple towns of Madurai, Trichy and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. The sculptural decoration is magnificent (bring binoculars) and it’s mesmerising to watch pilgrims offering gifts and prayers to their favourite deities in the vast Hindu pantheon.
An 11-day tailored tour for two, taking in the highlights of Tamil Nadu costs from £1,965 b&b, including flights and chauffeured car, with Real Holidays (020 7359 3938; realholidays.co.uk)
6. Cruise down the Ganges
The Ganges gives an insight into India at its most spiritual: a celebration of life and death. Riviera Travel offers a fascinating river cruise aboard the 56-passenger RV Bengal Ganga, taking in Varanasi; rural Bihar, where The Buddha lived and taught; and Kolkata, the former capital of British India.
Riviera Travel (01283 880170; rivieratravel.com) offers its 17-day Journey on the Ganges tour from £3,299, including flights and full board on the cruise. For day boats and guided walks along the Ganges in Varanasi, contact Varanasi Walks (varanasiwalks.com), which runs the best.
7. Ride the slow train
Riding the rails in India is a rite of passage. No visit is complete without negotiating the organised chaos that is Indian Railways. Travel inter-city overnight or take a narrow-gauge “toy train” into the hills. You can either book direct with Indian Railways via the cleartrip.com website, or join an escorted tour offered by a specialist operator.
Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; greatrail.com). Its India’s Palace on Wheels tour features a week aboard the country’s most luxurious train as it journeys through Rajasthan; £5,095 for 15 days in five-star accommodation, including flights.
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8. See a tiger
There are only a few thousand tigers left in India, so getting to see one of these magnificent creatures is not easy. One of the best reserves is Bandhavgarh National Park in Central India, which is among the destinations on a tour with Naturetrek, which has a 100 per cent record of seeing tigers on its longer trips. Other wildlife you might see includes sambar, spotted deer, swamp deer, gaur and wild boar.
Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek.co.uk) offers an escorted 13-day Tiger Marathon tour (shorter tours also available) from £3,195 including flights and all meals. The naturalist-led tour visits Pench, Kanha and Panna National Parks as well as Bandhavgarh.
9. Sample spices and houseboats in Kerala
Kerala offers a gentle introduction to India, with smaller, less crowded cities, a slower pace of life, and a cleaner environment. Stay on a tea estate in the Western Ghats, where you can also track wild elephants and visit spice gardens before cruising the backwaters in a converted rice barge and taking some beach time at pretty Varkala.
TransIndus (020 8566 3739; transindus.co.uk) has 12-day escorted Kerala Adventure tours for small groups featuring all these experiences from £1,095, including some meals but excluding flights.
10. Delve into village India
Indian villages are the guardians of tradition, places where much is still made by hand, from pottery water jars to woollen dhurries, and their makers are pleased when visitors show an interest. Rural hotels often arrange guided walks through carefully tended fields full of bird life (many rural areas can count more than 200 species).
Nobody does “village India” better than Wild Frontiers (020 3930 4144; wildfrontierstravel.com) which takes small groups into villages all across India while staying in comfortable hotels. From £2,195 for a 14-day India in Slow Motion tour around Rajasthan, including all meals; excluding flights.