Active Traveller

Safaris - State Visit

One of the most diverse countries on earth, India offers something for every traveller, from golden sand beaches to tiger safaris, remote Himalayan retreats to epic train journeys. Alicia Miller takes a look at seven Indian experiences not to be missed…

Hill Stations Darjeeling

If you want to holiday like the Indians do, skip the beaches or palaces, and instead head to one of the hill stations that cling to the southern reaches of the Himalayas. Popularised by the British during the colonial era, they provide both an escape from the heat and a quiet respite from bustling cities. Located in the finger of land squeezed between Nepal and Bhutan, Darjeeling was established as a rest centre for British troops in the mid-19th century. Come here for the view (from parts of the region you can spot Everest), the Buddhist monasteries and, of course, the region’s most famous product – the mild, muscatel-scented Darjeeling tea.

Ascend from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling town on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a 19th-century Unesco-listed steam ‘toy’ train. With a maximum speed of 15km per hour, the train takes more than six hours to climb the scenic 2,134 metres, but you can opt to hop on for just part of the way. The town is home to a collection of Buddhist temples, but within a few kilometres there are also some beautiful Nepalese and Tibetan-style monasteries. Take a ride on the Ropeway, a cable car running between North Point and the valley floor, and watch some of the region’s 80  or so tea plantations pass below you. Visit from April to November to see the tea leaves being plucked, sorted and dried, though a visit to a tea plantation hotel at any time of year can provide a restful retreat. Venture an hour northeast of Darjeeling town to the Glenburn Tea Estate for a taste of British Raj-style luxury – think white wicker loungers, flowery bedspreads and afternoon tea in the garden. The estate’s wrap-around balconies look out towards the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

Most of India’s hill stations provide excellent opportunities for trekking and Darjeeling is no exception – in fact, it’s an ideal jumping-off point for what is one of India’s most scenic, yet lesser-visited trekking areas, Sikkim. Within Darjeeling, there are walking itineraries that can take up to a day, and some a week or more. Try the Sandakphu-Phalut trail, which takes in rhododendron forests, silver fir trees and the cragged ridges of the highest peak in India, Kanchendzonga, along with welcome stops en route at local tea houses.

Travel Details

A double room at the Glenburn Tea Estate costs from £132 per night (http://glenburnteaestate.com).

Tigers and Wildlife Madhya Pradesh, Assam & Gujarat

Ever since the publication of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, entire generations have grown up with fantasies of tiger-spotting in the Indian bush. While a few decades ago, the future of India’s tiger population was in question, in recent years – thanks to stricter regulations and conservation schemes like Project Tiger – they are on the up, so there’s no better time to head out on a safari.

The abundant forests of Madhya Pradesh (one of India’s greenest states) make up the core of tiger country. Bandhavgarh National Park is the best place to head if you’re short on time – within its 450sq km it has the country’s highest density of tigers, so your chances of spotting them are good. You also might see leopards, wild dogs, deer, and a smattering of 250 different species of birds. Inside the park, you’ll find an ancient fort, built 800 metres up on a clifftop, with a fascinating temple and cave shrines carved from rock.

Kanha and Pench national parks are also found in Madhya Pradesh. Kanha is often named as one of the country’s best for game – it’s no accident that this, the former hunting ground of the British viceroys, was the setting for Kipling’s iconic book. Explore the forests, streams and grassy hills with your guide. Aside from being a top park for tiger-viewing, this 1,954sq km green space boasts pythons, leopards, gaurs (Indian bison), hyenas and sloth bears.

A day in the bush doesn’t have to mean roughing it, however. AndBeyond run several luxurious camps in Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Pench, while in Ranthambore, India’s first tiger reserve, Relais & Châteaux property Sher Bagh operates its own expert safaris. You’ll be able to sleep in spacious white tents, decked out with modcons, spend time chattering around the roaring bonfire, and dine on food made from the hotel’s own vegetable garden.

There are more than tigers prowling around India, and if wildlife is your thing there are plenty of other hot spots worth visiting, such as Kaziranga National Park, which occupies the banks of the Brahmaputra River in Assam. Home to the Indian one-horned rhino, its vast swamps and grasslands play host to herds of wild buffalo, elephants, gibbons, and the almost-extinct Bengal florican, a sleek and long-necked bird with a spotted plumage. Meanwhile, Gir National Park in Gujarat, in India’s extreme west, is lion territory, as well as the stomping ground of crocodiles.

Travel Details

andBeyond runs a 23-day Ultimate Indian Wilderness Safari, taking in Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Mumbai, and national parks in Gujarat and Assam, from £6,400 per person, excluding flights (http://andbeyond.com). A double room at Sher Bagh costs from £350 per night, including meals but not safari fees (http://sherbagh.com).

Forts and Palaces Rajsthan, Uttar Pradesh

No one does palaces quite like the Indians. Or more specifically, the Buddhists, Hindus, Mughals, Islamic sheikhs and British Raj, among others, because it was centuries of interrupted, hodgepodge, culturally and religiously diverse rule that led to the magnificent architectural pieces that survive throughout this vast country today. However, if you want to tick off the most impressive of India’s palaces and forts in the shortest amount of time, then there’s no better place to head than the royal state of Rajasthan.

There are too many architectural wonders to visit in just a few days, but certain destinations should appear on every itinerary. The city of Udaipur is often likened to a fairy tale kingdom, and the comparison is justified – the white marble City Palace that stretches along the shore of Lake Pichola looks as if it could have been designed by Walt Disney. The Rajput and Mughal masterpiece, with its fortresslike exterior and countless cupolas and turrets, is in fact a complex of several palaces built by 22 rulers between the 16th and 20th centuries. To the north-east, the Pink City of Jaipur (named after the colour of its buildings), has its own crown jewel – the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds). It is best reached at its imposing hillside location by a morning elephant trek, before the sun becomes too strong overhead. Agra in Uttar Pradesh, which along with Delhi and Jaipur forms the Golden Triangle of most-visited cities, has its 16th-century Red Fort, a striking red sandstone palace complex. Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort is one of Rajasthan’s most famous, and one of India’s largest – from its raised position 122 metres above the city, it dominates the skyline. Its carvings and courtyards warrant hours of exploration, and feel quite like a set out of Indiana Jones.

If a day of visiting forts and palaces isn’t enough, you can try staying in one. Many of the region’s most impressive structures have now been restored and turned into glamorous hotels. Devi Garh, an 18th-century palace with 39 modernised suites is tucked high in the Aravali Hills in Udaipur. The sunsets are hard to better. Considering it’s nearly 500-years-old, the Samode Palace in Jaipur looks pretty good – in fact, it’s one of the region’s most exclusive hotels, with detailed frescoes and a pool overlooking the Rajasthani hills.

Travel Details

Indian Odyssey offers a 14-day Royal Rajasthan tour, including Delhi, Agra, the Taj Mahal, Jaipur, the Devi Garh, Udaipur and Alwar, from £3,775 per person, including flights (http://indianodyssey.co.uk). A two-night stay at Devi Garh, based on two sharing in a garden suite, costs from £440 (http://deviresorts.in). A double room at Samode Palace costs from £201 per night (http://samode.com).

Culinary Tour Kerala

Anywhere you travel to in India, you’ll encounter a rich local cuisine, laden with its own distinct regional influences, and peppered with centuries of history – but even so, there’s something particularly special about Kerala. Perhaps it’s the fragrant waft of spices, carried on the breeze from local plantations; or the abundance of rich, sweet coconut; or the smattering of European influences; but here, food seems to take priority above everything else.

A tapestry of wide beaches and winding backwaters, rolling hills and thick forests, Kerala’s beauty is difficult to match. Wander through the spice markets of Kochi, the historical hub of the spice trade, and you’ll spot piles of thin cinnamon sticks, greenish-brown shells of cardamom, hunks of ginger, as well as cloves, garlic, cumin, coriander and turmeric. By the shore fishermen bring in their catch with giant floaty Chinese fishing nets; they will sell their haul at the local wet markets, where chefs and housewives alike trawl for the freshest offerings. In the backwaters, you’ll see coconut husks soaking in shallow water in preparation for cooking.

However many restaurants you might visit, the best way to get a grasp on Keralan cuisine is to sign up for a cookery class. Nimmy Paul is one of the best known; she has been teaching cookery from her home in Kochi for the past 12 years. Nimmy will teach you how to prepare classic Christian Keralan dishes (the Christian influence is greater here than anywhere else in India), such as palappam (a crispy rice pancake made with coconut milk) or fish moilee (a fish and coconut milk stew). Outside Kochi, in the Keralan forests and blissfully in the middle of nowhere, shack up at The Pimenta, a homely bungalow resort. The owners grow spices and coffee in a forest garden within metres of their front door, and chickens peck around expectantly; you can enroll here for a vegetarian cookery stay. Most of the produce comes from the kitchen garden, and you’ll learn to make pathiri (a rice flour pancake), puttu (a breakfast dish of rice powder and grated coconut stem) or appam (pancakes of rice flour and fermented coconut palm sap to be eaten with vegetable stew). If you really prefer to eat, rather than cook, stay at Vanilla County, a colonial-style retreat in Kottayam surrounded by plantations of vanilla, pepper, coffee and rubber; the chef here is superb.

 

Travel Details

A full-day cooking class at Nimmy Paul costs from £17, including the meal (http://nimmypaul.com). A seven-day residential cooking course at The Pimenta costs from £190 (http://harithafarms.com). A double room at Vanilla County costs from £109 per night, including meals (http://vanillacounty.in).

Temples & Monasteries Ladakh

The dizzying effect of the thin air in one of the highest regions in the world can be disorientating, but if anything’s going to leave you breathless it’s the view – the landscapes of Ladakh are some of the most dramatic, and sparsely populated, in the world. Located in India’s north-western reaches within the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh is often known as Little Tibet due to the colourful influences the region’s neighbours have bestowed. The temples and monasteries in Ladakh are not only among some of Buddhism’s most sacred – they draw pilgrims from far and wide – they are also magnificent feats of engineering. Clinging to sheer rock faces or cliffs, or perched on top of mountains, they are works of spiritual art that few of the visitors to India are privileged enough to see.

Fly into Leh, which at 3,524 metres above sea level, feels tucked up in the clouds. If you’ve come from Delhi, you’ll wonder if you’ve landed in a completely different country – orange-robed monks dart through alleyways framed by mud brick houses, yaks wander and traders chatter in the bazaar. Climb up to Leh’s focal point – a 17th-century nine-storey palace, now crumbling, but undergoing extensive restoration. There are dozens of gompas (monasteries) within the area, with some more easily accessible than others. Alchi is favoured for its extensive collection of rare Indian Buddhist art, dating to the 11th century. Lamayuru is one of the most striking – from the approach it looks to be almost teetering on the clifftop. There are intricate carved frescoes, and as with all gompas, tattered coloured flags, carrying prayers to be picked up by the blowing wind. Likir’s white gompa was founded in the 14th-century, and is now home to 150 monks who serve tea and run tours for visitors.

Aside from visiting monasteries, there are plenty of other activities, especially for active travellers, in the region – you can white-water raft over the Indus River, traverse sand dunes on the back of a doublehumped camel, or take a drive with a guide along the harrowing Khardung La – at 5,602 metres, it’s the highest drivable pass in the world and is almost permanently covered with fog and snow.

 

Travel Details

Destination Himalaya offers a 21-day trekking tour of Ladakh from £3,300 per person, based on two sharing, excluding flights (http://trekindia.com). The Ultimate Travel Company offers a 14-day Ladakh tour for £5,195 per person, including flights (http://theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).

Beaches & Wellness Goa

The golden, coconut palm-fringed sands of Goa are as beautiful and varied as they come, and while the 106km of coastline in this tiny Indian state is not the unknown territory it was 50 years ago when hippie expats started arriving, there is still plenty to discover. Especially when you consider it’s not just about the sun and sand – the former Portuguese colony has a culture and cuisine unique in India, and is one of the foremost destinations for wellness retreats.

Splash around in the Arabian Sea, spot starfish in tidal pools, nurse a beer in a beachside shack – relaxing is easy here. South Goa is less developed, and will appeal to those looking to beat out their own tracks, but the beaches of North Goa offer something for everyone – try Bogmallo for sunsets, or Keri for a bit of solitude. To get a feel for pre-boom Goa, head to Elsewhere, a collection of beach huts on a peaceful strip of shore about 30 minutes from busy Baga Beach. The owners are so protective of their guests’ privacy, you aren’t given the resort’s exact location until you’ve booked.

If you’d rather be in the thick of things, opt for something by Calangute Beach. Nilaya Hermitage is surrounded by lush greenery and has views overlooking the ocean. It’s a good place to stay if you’d like to join a boat trip along the coast, and it has a dedicated ayurvedic massage centre. Yogamagic is an eco-friendly retreat in the thick of sprawling rice paddy fields, only half-an-hour’s stroll from the coast. You can do as much yoga as you like, and the bamboothatched huts at the lodge are as luxurious as they are atmospheric.

Don’t miss the opportunity to view some of the region’s fascinating architecture. When the Portuguese ruled here from 1510 to 1961, they built an astounding number of mansions and cathedrals. They also left their stamp on the cuisine; this is the home of vindaloo, which originated from the Portuguese words vinho (wine vinegar) and alho (garlic). Or travel inland towards the fields and Western Ghats that frame the state – it’s an area, full of churches and temples, that too few visitors to this golden coast make time to visit.

Travel Details

A tent for two at Elsewhere costs from £506 per week, and a beach house from £603 (http://aseaescape.com). A double room at Nilaya Hermitage costs from £268 per night, including meals (http://nilaya.com). An all-inclusive seven-night retreat at the Yogamagic lodge costs from £440 (http://yogamagic.net).

Train Journeys Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh & Rajasthan

Who said that the grand old age of train travel was dead? Indian Railways has spent the past 10 years launching several high-end luxury trains, offering routes that feature some of the country’s most iconic sights. In a country with so much land to cover, and an absolute treasury of diverse, epic landscapes, train journeys can provide a great way to travel. And when you’re doing it in five-star comfort, it’s no wonder that they have proved so popular.

One of India’s most scenic regions must be Karnataka, making it ideal for a train journey where you want fresh views out of your window to entertain you from hour to hour. The Golden Chariot pushes off in Bangalore and criss-crosses across the region for a week, taking in Mysore’s palaces, Kabini’s wildlife and Unesco-recognised Badami, a series of four breathtaking rock-cut cave temples. The train counts a spa and gym among its amenities, and the lounge bar and dining cars have a 19th-century regality about them.

Launched in 2010, the newest luxury train to take to the Indian rails is the Maharaja’s Express, and if the name isn’t enough of an indication, the theme of luxury is not understated – interiors drip in red and gold, while meals are top quality and all rooms are decked out with the latest LCD televisions and DVD players. The train offers several travel packages, but the Princely India itinerary covers the major sights in a week – en route from Mumbai to Delhi, you’ll stop off at the Taj Mahal, Jodhpur and Jaipur, as well as take a safari through Ranthambore National Park.

Maharashtra isn’t the most visited of India’s states, which is a shame because there’s a lot to see here from the colossal Gommateshvara monolith to the astounding ruins of Hampi, once a great citadel. The Deccan Odyssey, so named because it skirts the epic, desertlike Deccan Plateau, is a luxury week-long round-trip from Mumbai, stopping off at all the must-sees. You’ll visit architectural highlights, such as Jaigad Fort, and the Ocean Fort of Sindhudurg, as well as the historic cities of Pune and Aurangabad – not to mention catch some fantastic views of the plateau along the way. A refurbishment in late 2010 has brought the standard of the train’s interiors up, and while it might lack the overt luxury of some of the other of the offerings, it remains among India’s most comfortable.

Travel Details

The Golden Chariot costs from £2,234 per person for a seven-night trip, based on two sharing, including meals and sightseeing (http://thegoldenchariot.co.in). The Maharaja’s Express sevennight trip costs from £4,607 per person, based on two sharing (http://rirtl.com). The Deccan Odyssey costs from £638 per night, based on two sharing (http://deccan-odyssey.com).

This article was published on 1st February 2012 so certain details may not be up to date.

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