“India - you other love it or hate it,” says one very well travelled friend. He falls into the first camp and has been more than a dozen times. He enjoys the incredible, luxury hotels where service abounds and the hotels themselves feel like palaces, but hates the inter-city travel and catching planes since “there are always delays!”
We were excited to try out a new option: India’s first cross-country luxury train, The Maharajas’ Express. The train cuts across state borders, whisking guests from Mumbai to Delhi, or in our case, Delhi to Calcutta. We embarked on a seven-day, six night journey in March, that usually requires visitors to fly to and from Delhi to visit each place.
Can you imagine seeing India on a luxury cruise? Clients who have enjoyed Silver Sea would feel right at home on this train. Both a cruise and a train cover huge distances in ultra-comfort, the train moving mostly at night to arrive in a new city each morning. Guests have a leisurely breakfast on board, then are joined by top notch tour guides with Cox & Kings. That company started in India in 1758 and specializes in travel in each city we visit.
Luxury train travel is not new in India, but the Maharajas’ Express takes it to a new level. Guests get their own large bathroom with a shower and toilet. Plus, a personal butler meets your every need. Mine, who was named Rameesh delivered cups of hot, sweet Darjeeling tea each morning as a ‘wake up’ call. He also took clothes to be laundered. If there was ever a WiFi problem, it was fixed fast.
We started our journey in bustling Delhi, India’s capital. It’s a city in the midst of construction ahead of the October Commonwealth Games. Our first night we stayed at The Oberoi hotel which is well-suited to business travelers with plenty of staff at hand, and a fabulous restaurant/bar called threeSixty that also attracts the locals. Bookings are essential. Very early the next morning we met with fellow passengers. The city was fully awake, it’s tri-wheeled taxis known as tut-tuts, motorbikes and cars causing a vast sea of traffic jams. But we had no worries since the delays were anticipated so we arrived with plenty of time to spare. At the train station, a band played traditional Indian music, and we were presented with golden colored marigold wreaths. Waiters carrying silver trays of juice and champagne steered us on to an Oscars-worthy red carpet, that ran the length of the 23-carriage train. Local television news reporters circled eagerly. We oddly felt like celebrities.
As one of our hosts enthusiastically explained, ‘This is very exciting. It’s never been done before.” “Everyone does Rajasthan by train but this is the first train that will go to six states.” To replicate the itinerary, traveling by air would double the costs and duration of the trip.
On board, our journey began with a tour of the coach, called ‘Pukhraj’ (meaning yellow sapphire) All the coaches are named after gemstones. Then it was time for breakfast. Fresh watermelon juice and eggs and toast, served on French dinnerware and set on a crisp, white cotton tablecloth. It was thrilling to sit and watch life roll by outside, through the train’s enormous picture windows. There were families collecting water, and lush green landscapes once we left Delhi and were in the country. We got glimpses into houses right by the railway tracks. Women carrying bundles of wood perched on their heads, in bright saris smiled and waved at us.
The train has the sway of a cruise boat, kind of like slow dancing. It’s not unpleasant, thanks to high tech German suspension. It moves especially fast at night.
Our first day of travel was not a large distance. We were traveling to nearby Agra to see the Taj Mahal (so there was plenty of time to settle in, check out the DIRECT TV and Internet, and unpack clothes. Just once! No need to re-pack each day.
In Agra, we pulled up at the train station, where coaches were waiting to take us to Agra Fort, the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then it was on to lunch at a hotel with a bird’s eye views of the Taj. The lunch was disappointing since it was outdoors in the heat. We would have been much happier had it been at The Oberoi, Agra, which is stunning and air-conditioned with its own gorgeous spa and beautiful surrounds. It is a must see attraction in itself. Most rooms have direct views of The Taj, and for guests who want to see it early morning, there are golf carts available for a quick spin to see it) For some of us, who had seen the Taj before, we wandered off on our own to explore. We ended the excursion with a well-organized shopping trip for marble, spices and gemstones.
The tours can be tailor made. Our tours were smooth and kept everyone satisfied. That was in spite of the numbers and different nationalities on board (our journey was Japanese, Portugese, Italian, Canadian and Americans) The train has a maximum of 84 passengers.
Getting back on the train after a day in the heat (it was mostly in the 90s) and into air-conditioned cool was heavenly and akin to that feeling you get when you are traveling somewhere exotic and steamy and you return to your chilled, luxurious hotel and are greeted with a cold washcloth, and cool drink. The atmosphere on board was one of excitement. Dinner was leisurely, sharing stories and making plans with new friends for the next day, when the train would arrive in Gwalior, a city rich with beautiful monuments and forts.
In Gwalior, we set off after breakfast to the Gwalior Fort. We toured many temples and ruined palaces including the Man Mandir Palace. Then it was on to lunch at Usha Kiran Palace, which has played host to the King of England and is now a heritage hotel that is part of the Taj Group. The 120-year-old palace is set on nine acres, and offers horse carriage rides around its vast grounds. At night, we were treated to the Jai Vilas Palace, where the current Maharajah still lives in a portion of the palace. Designed by Lt. Col Sir Michael Filose and built in 1809 the palace is steeped in history.
Our next stop was Khajuraho, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, about 385 miles southeast of New Delhi, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. It has the largest group of medieval Hindu and Jain temples, well known for their erotic sculpture including the Karma Sutra temples. In the afternoon, we were invited to a village where children scurried at our feet and goats, oxen and pigs ran about.
The next morning we arrived in Bandhavgarh, which has a famous wildlife park in Umaria with some of the highest population of tigers in India. But we arrived later than expected, due to delays at night. We hear the Indian railway system is a busy one, and our train had to wait for others. Our sunrise tiger spotting was delayed by several hours. Fortunately, we were still able to see lounging tigers and elephants up close from the back of Jeeps. Tiger spotting stories were the hot topic at dinner that night.
The train’s arrival was also later than expected at our next stop, Varanasi, one of the oldest living cities in the world. We did not get to see the spectacular sunrise over the sacred Ganges. The upside, however, was doing the scenic river cruise at night, which had not been on the agenda. We watched the smoking hill, from the inky dark waters of The Ganges. That night, at the train’s Haveli restaurant, conversations flowed about the meaning of life. Next stop for a nightcap. The train’s Observation Lounge, with its own bar, games table and armchairs was packed late that night. By now the friendly staff knew everyone's drinks orders by memory. The next day we would arrive in Gaya.
In Gaya, one of the most sacred centers for Hindu pilgrims, we explored magnificent ruins. After lunch, we drove to Bodh Gaya, the place that came to be known as where Lord Buddha attained enlightenment. A photo with the enormous Buddha is a must. It was our final night on board, already. The trip seemed to be passing too quickly.
In Kolkata, The City Of Joy, we sat for an early breakfast on board, and then bid farewell to our passengers and crew, so we could tour the city, and have lunch at the Oberoi Grand. Like all Oberoi properties in India, the Kolkata property is designed with the business and luxury traveler in mind: service is excellent and the spa has excellent traditional treatments including Aryuveda facials. A large free form pool is perfect for a relaxing dip, surrounded by trees and birds.
Small issues on the inaugural train trip were fixed. Not cold enough champagne and drinks on day one were soon perfectly chilled. We think smaller groups with Cox & Kings would work better, especially when there is free time, and the opportunity to shop for gorgeous silks, clothing and jewelry. It’s not easy getting 20 people to move all at once out of a busy store and onto a bus. You can’t do much about train delays and staff kept everyone as informed as possible, with regular updates. A tip for clients: Pack your swimsuits in your bag every day since hotel pools and spas clients will visit for lunch when not on the train are simply wonderful and a real treat, since there is no spa and of course, no pool onboard the Maharajas Express!
Maharajas’ Express service ends this season in April 2010, and resumes in September 2010 and runs through April 2011.