Pictured: Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, is a famous pilgrimage site for Sikhs in India. It was built in the 16th century.
Those who have been to India several times know they have still not seen everything and must return. We reached out to two India experts who helped highlight their favorite tips and touches when crafting over-the-top getaways to India.
Pallavi Shah, of Our Personal Guest, Inc., is an expert on all things India, having sold the destination for more than 20 years. In addition to visiting the country multiple times a year, she also owns a home there, which gives her a true insider’s edge.
Shah believes the most important part about selling India is recognizing the sheer size and diversity of the destination. Infrastructure to the more far-flung places in India is lacking, as well, which makes traveling the country time consuming. “India does not fit into the American ‘quickie’ mode of travel,” she says.
“It is so dense, with so many things to do. Today travel there is a bit better, but communication and logistics can be difficult. It requires more time on the ground to be able to do anything. Rajasthan alone is a two-time destination.”
When booking luxury travel to India, Shah believes that it is all about knowing exactly what works in which hotel, in which city and for which client. In some off-the-beaten-path destinations in India, there are very few choices when it comes to hotels. This is important to clarify to luxury travelers who have been to India’s must-see destinations and want to branch off to something new and different.
“With India,” she says, “the rise of a destination is directly related to the ability to get there and have a place to stay. There are plenty of places in India that are phenomenal, but you can’t access them, certainly from an American luxury traveler standpoint.” Translation: No airstrips, no roads, no five-star hotels. In this sense, it is important to stay on top of the well-known destinations that keep reinventing themselves.
The Leela Palace Chennai is a five-star seafront hotel with 326 guest rooms.
For this she turns to Sujan, a collection of boutique luxury hotels that she believes is revamping the luxury scene in India. “This is a small group that has been expanding quickly,” Shah tells us. It’s a company that is known for its excellent food, high style, attention to detail and luxury fabrics. Most recently, the company has taken over the Rajmahal Palace in Jaipur, which was once the Maharaja’s palace and for a period was run by Taj Hotels Resorts & Palaces. Shah tells us that for a time the palace was in desperate need of refurbishment. “This was a very pretty hotel that used to have famous guests booked there constantly. Over time it became a bit musty,” she tells Luxury Travel Advisor. “I myself would not have put my clients there, even if they wanted to stay. Now, since Sujan has taken it over and is renovating it, I will use it the minute it opens.” Sujan began its collection with tented camps. At present, it has three luxury tented camps in India and is part of Relais & Châteaux.
Chennai, in the southern part of India, is a destination that she sees to be on the rise. “That has become a must-see place. There are so many new properties there,” she says, and recommends putting clients at The Leela Palace Chennai or the ITC Grand Chola, Chennai. “The ITC is huge and lavish, with a fabulous restaurant, but it has a little bit of a cold feel. It’s a luxury property and the restaurants are fantastic. The Royal Restaurant does a dinner that is in itself an over-the-top experience.”
Experiential travel was born in India. Because the destination is thousands of years old and is so vast, it is through local interaction and memory-making that travelers gain perspective. Many high-end travelers come to India to explore its wellness travel side. “Wellness travel is big,” she says. “Though much more among Europeans. They are much more used to the idea because wellness is part of their DNA. Americans find it a little more difficult, especially men.” It is important, Shah says, for Americans to know that wellness is different than a “ladies who lunch” spa activity. For wellness travel, Shah recommends Vana, Malsi Estate, a wellness retreat known for its opulent but minimalist style. “This is phenomenal. It’s a huge, state-of-the-art estate that goes beyond sticking a spa in a hotel. This is a place of wellness,” she says. Another wellness retreat to recommend is Soukya, which Shah says is the only integrative holistic wellness destination that is an accredited hospital, but looks and feels like a spa. Vana, while very lavish and more luxurious, does not have the credentialed therapeutic aspect.
Religious travel is another style Shah considers when booking India. “I believe that religion is an insight into a culture. It’s the most undiluted in many ways,” she says. “When booking different places, I try to capture the experience of being able to see it through its temples, mosques, religious institutions and rituals.” Varanasi is the most well-known destination in India for religious travel. Shah sets herself apart by offering a totally private ritual on the banks of the Ganges. She arranges for clients to participate in their own ceremony. They are able to make offerings and float candles on the river, have a priest bless them and lead them in religious chanting. “This is wonderful because they immerse themselves in an ancient experience. It has a resonance,” she says.
Certain hotels, like The Oberoi Rajvilas, have temples on the premises. Priests visit these temples every day and guests are allowed to meander in and participate. Shah arranges for her clients to meet privately with the priest and have him guide them through the rituals. She usually packages this with a horoscope reading and a henna painting, and by the end of the visit her clients have had a whole cultural experience.
“The style of traveling in India is much more laid back and slow and off the beaten path,” she says. “People are convinced that their trip to India will be their one and only, so they want to check it off and see the basics. You have to savor India, experience it.”
Chris Grabar, owner of CG Concierge Travel Inc., is another travel advisor with a deep passion for India. She began her love affair with the destination from the operations side. She worked as a product manager for Abercrombie & Kent for 10 years, followed by Greaves. “This has helped me to be a really good advisor and to provide some interesting itineraries to clients because I have a little more understanding of how itineraries are put together from an onsite point of view,” she tells us.
Like Shah, Grabar believes that a trip to India is incomplete without some sort of over-the-top, mind-blowing experience, so whether that is walking through a village, meeting a local family, exploring markets with a guide, Grabar likes to coordinate a memorable moment that will leave her clients with a unique view inside India. “I like to make sure that my clients have a really authentic, but safe feeling. It is a destination that can be overwhelming and chaotic,” she says.
For Grabar, one of the hottest and most over-the-top hotels is the Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad (for a full view into this hotel, check out Luxury Travel Advisor’s August 2014 issue). Another hotel she recommends is Amanbagh, which sits in a village atmosphere on the outskirts of Jaipur. Grabar describes it as a typical Aman “zen” environment, but with plenty to do offsite, such as jeep safaris through the ruins nearby. “The property itself is just amazing,” she says. “The rooms have gorgeous plunge pools, and the hotel is not that far outside of Jaipur. It makes a great escape from a bustling city.”
The Leela Palace Delhi is also a big sell for Grabar. She booked clients, who are loyalists to a different Delhi hotel, a high-tea service at The Leela and the experience blew them away so much that they requested to stay at the property the next time they visited Delhi.
As for emerging destinations, Grabar has her eye on the state of Gujarat. “There are clean, Western-style hotels moving into that state that I think are going to make a difference for the tourism circuit,” she says. While the state is a lot less traveled, it is still easy to get to. Guests can fly into Ahmedabad directly, which makes it a great destination for a third- or fourth-timer to India. The destination is packed with different topography, from flat, white salt deserts to lush wildlife and jungle experiences. There is culture, traditional weaving and handicrafts, as well.
In Northern India, Grabar suggests that repeat visitors to India explore Bihar, which is starting to promote itself on the Buddhism circuit. The majority of tourists in this destination are Japanese, but the destination is looking to open itself up to other tourists who wish to delve deeper into India’s Buddhist traditions. The important thing to note, though, is that the luxury infrastructure in Bihar is not on par with some of India’s other top destinations. It is better, she says, to set the bar low for clients in terms of accommodations and let them be pleasantly surprised. “The cultural experiences are going to far outweigh the lack in luxury accommodations,” she says.
Kerala is a hot spot for second-timers to India, who have already seen and explored Rajasthan in the North. Grabar tells Luxury Travel Advisor that Kerala has a unique blend of culture, unlike any other place in India because it has a strong Portuguese influence. There is a huge influx of
Christianity there, as well as a small Jewish population. She recommends the Brunton Boatyard, a boutique hotel that has strong European influences (think arched doorways, dark wood and light, bright walls).
“When you go to Kerala, it’s like you have walked into a completely different country,” she says. “It is a tropical destination with waterways and palm trees. It’s very different from the chaotic, bold fortresses of the North. You really feel you are getting something true to the place where you are.”
ON THE HORIZON
A new luxury tour company is set to launch in January, guiding high-end experiences throughout India, Nepal and Bhutan. Asian Voyages will be an exclusive travel boutique, taking A-listers to off-the-beaten-track cultural wonders. Asian Voyages will focus on the niche approach, building off of its “insider” relationships with locals at sights, institutions and communities in the region.
All Asian Voyages journeys will be curated on individual interests, ranging from seven to 21 days, including highlights of Agra, Varanasi and Mumbai, to the remote villages and jungles, as well as safaris in Nagarhole National Park. All journeys include activities, gourmet food and wine and exclusive accommodations.
Taj Falaknuma is the newest palace hotel from Taj, located in Hyderabad.