Forget what you always hear, you can live through a trip to India. The pain of getting there — all the way on the other side of the planet — and the annoyances of the day to day insanity once you’re there, can be trying for some. But when once there, it’s just as ‘incredible’ as billed, and totally worth every little hassle.
First step, the flight. Mine, as it turns out was remarkably painless. A 12 hour non-stop flight on Air India all the way to Delhi. Exiting the airport in India is a bit overwhelming at first, so I was happy to see my guide waiting at the gate with the car. Since any foreigner would find the Indian road “rules” impossible to understand, it’s a necessity to hire a driver — something any reputable hotel or tour company can help you with. I planned my entire journey through northern India through Castle & King Tours and they set up a fantastic, hassle-free adventure. Our driver stayed with us for the entire 10 days, but in each of the six cities we had a different guide — a specialist in that area.
Step One: Delhi
It’s a city with two distinct personalities – New Delhi and Old Delhi. The old city is filled with massive monuments and winding streets with sprawling bazaars spilling from the main Chandini Chowk Boulevard; while New Delhi retains the feel of the British Raj with broad boulevards, landscaped gardens in front of imposing government buildings, and an impressive World War I arch. Unlike Mumbai, Delhi has no real center, and no skyscrapers to speak of, it’s like the LA to Mumbai’s NY. My one night in town was spent at the luxurious Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the best addresses in the capital. All guests are greeted with a wreath of flowers and a blessing. The warm, pristine white lobby of The Taj includes design details of traditional Mughal architecture with intricate motifs and golden inlay work.
When in Delhi, I was told to have dinner at Spice Route in the impeccable Imperial Hotel. Heralded as one of the top ten restaurants in the world by Conde Nast Traveler, The Spice Route impressed me from the first glimpse — the whole thing took almost seven years to complete, partly because the mural painters from Southern India were used to give the place an authentic feel. The restaurant’s decor and menu is inspired by the ancient spice roads of Asia, bringing visitors through the Malabar Coast in Kerala through Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam. On top of the stunning decor, Spice Route boasts a spectacular menu. Try the Chemeen Thoren (Kerala style prawns, stir-fried with coconut and curry leaves), Tom Yum Kung (the famous Thai soup with prawns, flavored with lemongrass) and the Kung Nang Phad Khing (stir-fried lobster with ginger and Thai black mushrooms).
Step Two: Agra
The drive from Delhi to Agra is like nothing I’ve ever experienced. A blur of cows, camels, people, motorcycles and trucks out the window for five hours straight. If this is your first stretch of highway through India, your eyes will be popping out of your head the entire time. Entering Agra is an experience in itself. Home of the world-famous Taj Mahal, you’d expect streets lined with marble. But outside the Taj’s wall is a gritty city of two million people. Agra’s bazaar is a riot of color and energy. We stayed at The Gateway Hotel which was a welcome oasis, especially the sprawling lawn and pool. Then there’s the Taj Mahal itself, which does not disappoint. It is, in a word breathtaking. To avoid the crowds, plan to get up and out by 6am so you can spend at least two hours wandering through the marble-strew mausoleum that took 20,000 workers 22 years to construct. But it’s not the only show in town! Be sure not to miss the 16th-century Red Fort, the “baby” Taj Mahal, and on your way out of Agra check out the deserted Red Sandstone City, another truly amazing site. And it’s just day two.
We asked around and heard that the best meal in Agra is Esphahan inside the luxurious Amarvilas Oberoi Hotel. The hotel itself is a resort on a grand scale, with splendid views of the Taj Mahal from the veranda and outdoor pool. Built in a style inspired by Moorish and Mughal architecture, the resort is a lovely collection of terraced lawns, fountains, reflection pools and pavilions. Esphahan is Indian dining at its best, with a waitstaff decked out in traditionally garb. It’s easy to feel as if you’ve slipped back in time. Quick tip: get there early for a pre-dinner cocktail outside overlooking the Taj before dinner! A few highlights from the menu are the tandoori prawns in citrus and yogurt marinade, the chicken seekj kebab flavored in ground spices and the quail curry, filled with spiced chicken mince and simmered in saffron sauce.
Step Three: Ranthambore
If you’re the adventurous type, an excellent excursion off the typical “golden triangle” tour (which normally includes Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) is an overnight stay in Ranthambore. About a four-hour drive south of Agra, Ranthambore has an expansive national park with Bengal Tiger Safaris. About 35 tigers live in the park and though they are quite hard to spot (only about 30% of the rides into the park ever spot tigers), you’ll appreciate the serenity of nature after Agra and will no doubt spot Sambar deer, Black bucks, Indian Wild Boar, an incredible array of birds and more. If you’re lucky (like we were!), you’ll spot a Bengal Tiger in the wild. For me, it’s a once in a lifetime experience I’ll never forget. We booked two, thee-hour rides within one day and sure enough, we spotted a four-year old, nine-foot long male Bengal tiger. Yup, breathtaking, again!
In Ranthambore there are all levels of lodging options, but if you have some money to burn, check out the Sher Bagh Resort. The luxe resort features ten luxury tents designed to replicate the experience of 1920s British colonial hunting expeditions. Each tent is heated, with a full bathroom en suite and button to call your butler. Yeah, it’s not cheap, but worth every rupee. The service at Sher Bagh was incredible. Each night after your safari, drinks are served under the stars, and dinner’s around a fire pit. The staff’s attention to detail, down to the hot water bottles to take out with you on cool morning safaris, made the experience unforgettable.
Step Four: Jaipur
After enjoying two nights breathing the fresh air of the Ranthambore jungles, our next stop was the bustling city Jaipur — the pink city. Like all of our stops, Jaipur was unforgettable. Elephants and camels walk the streets amongst throngs of people going about their daily life, a total of four million of them. I actually saw a man on top of an elephant stop at a drive through window to buy a drink — without getting off the elephant. The Amber Fort is the city’s main attraction in town and, again, lives up to the hype. Want to ride an elephant, here’s your chance, you can hop atop one and ride all the way to the top. WE felt fortunate that our guide from Castle & King Tours was so knowledgeable which enhanced experience greatly, especially when touring through City Palace and the fascinating Jantar Mantar, featuring the world’s largest — wait for it — sundial. One fascinating bit was when our guide explained Mughals’ interest in science and astrology. More compelling than anything in any of our guidebooks.
Yes there are other hotels in Jaipur…but you’ve gone all this way, so why not pick a GREAT hotel? The Jai Mahal Palace is set in 18 acres of beautifully landscaped Mughal gardens, an incomparable Palace Indo Saracenic style which dates back to 1745. But that sounds stuffy, and this place blends opulence with comfort, transporting guests into an ancient world of Rajasthan magnificence. Another wonderful option for a less extravagant traveler is the Royal Heritage Haveli. Also built in the 18th century and since converted into a boutique hotel, the Haveli features an outdoor pool and gorgeously decorated rooms. Situated a bit out of town center, it feels like a nice distance from the craziness of the fantastic, frantic city of Jaipur. If you don’t have the big bucks to drop on a sick hotel in Jaipur, you can always get dinner at one. The oasis that is The Oberoi Rajvilas is the perfect respite after a day sightseeing. The hotel sits on 32 acres of landscaped gardens with pavilions and reflection pools. Rooms, luxury tents and villas with private pools are clustered around private courtyards in the architectural style of a maharaja’s fort. Sit outside by the fire and enjoy a memorable meal.
Step Five: Jodhpur
Our next stop through Rajashtan was the medieval Jodhpur — the blue city– a six hour drive west of Jaipur. Crossing through small towns along the way and facing frightening traffic, we were happy to arrive at our gorgeous, tranquil hotel, RAAS, for the night. After hours of honking horns, wandering cows and shouting, we entered RAAS through a giant Mughal gatehouse in the heart of Jodhpur, and suddenly the bedlam of the city outside disappears. Our room overlooked the pool in the courtyard with the gigantic Mehrangarh Fort towering over us. The rooms are sleek and modern and the food in each of the restaurants is scrumptious. Ask the concierge to have the hotel driver take you for a spin in their baby blue-painted motorized “rickshaw” through the narrow-winding markets in town. It’s — you guessed it — yet another experience you’ll never forget.
At 630am the next day, we met our guide and toured a nearby Bishnoi Village where we witnessed a sacred opium ritual. That afternoon we visited the gorgeous and daunting Mehrangarh Fort that hovers over Jodhpur along with the Jaswant Thada Memorial followed by some shopping in town. Our second night was spent at the comfortable Krishna Prakesh Haveli, just a stone’s throw from RAAS. For the traveler with a little less money to spend, Krishna Prakesh is a warm, inviting property perfectly located in the center of Jodhpur. Each room is decorated with furnishings in the traditional Jodhpur style, big chunky carved chairs, beds and armoires.
Step Six: Udaipur
The drive from Jodhpur to Udaipur is a long one, so be sure to stop at the Ranakpur Temples along the way. This Jain Temple dates back to around the 14th century and is known for its distinctive domes, turrets and cupolas that rise majestically from the slope of a hill. Over 1444 marble pillars, carved in exquisite detail, support the temple. The pillars are all differently carved and no two pillars are the same. The Jain religion is different from most in that believers try not to harm any living thing. Some even wear face masks to prevent them from breathing in flying bugs, and also sweep in front of themselves before every step to avoid stepping on any ant that might be passing underfoot.
Arriving in Udaipur — the sun city — feels different than the rest of Rajasthan with its massive, man-made lakes set in the middle of town. You feel that you’ve been transported to the middle of the desert. The most famous hotel in town is the Lake Palace Hotel, famously featured in Octopussy. Since the hotel sits on a 4-acre island in the middle of Lake Pichola, you have to take a small ferry boat from the hotel’s private dock. (Note that every few years when the monsoon season is weak, the lake goes dry, so you’ll definitely want to be there during a “wet” year). We felt like royalty entering our suite. It overlooked the Aravalli Mountains on two sides. The hotel itself is made of white marble and mosaic and glistens in the moonlight. It was built in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II, believed to be descendants of the Sun God. The Royal Butlers are descendents of the original palace retainers and look after all comforts. For dinner, we ferried over to the shore to The Oberoi Udaivilas Resort where we dined outside on delicious food while watching the full moon rise over the lake.
Last Step: Mumbai
After traveling through Rajasthan by car, our next leg was a flight directly south to Mumbai for one night. I’ve never experienced such organized chaos as I did than that one night in Mumbai. It’s a city that I’ll definitely visit again at some point in my life. We spent the night at the stunning Taj Mahal Palace, one of the original grand hotels of the world and an integral part of Mumbai’s history. In 2010, the hotel reopened after a full-scale renovation keeping the grand exterior the same but updating the interiors. You can lounge at the expansive backyard pool right in the heart of Mumbai and dine in several restaurants including the Zodiac Grill, Casablanca or Wasabi, among others. That night, we decided to venture outside the hotel walls to dine at Indigo directly behind the hotel. With a loosely European flair, the food is infused with a healthy dose of Indian flavor. Indigo draws a very chic clientele and on certain nights of the week, the upstairs lounge overflows with Bollywood celebs and what the locals refer to as the beautiful people. A far cry from the moonlit night on the lake, just one night earlier…but that’s why this is a country that does live up to all the “incredible” hype.