Vibrant, tumultuous, InTRIGUING, humbling – describing India in one word is far too difficult.
India is a huge and varied country, so our advice to first-timers would be to take on a manageable chunk and do it justice, with the understanding that you'll be back for more. Travel through India with an open mind and you’ll marvel at the assault on all your senses; from your first glimpse of a tiger in the wild to the colourful saris and striking red Rabari turbans, from the sound of the incessant blaring of car horns in Mumbai to the deafening silence of the Himalayas, from the lush tropical backwaters and sun-kissed beaches in ‘God’s Own Country’ Kerala in the south to the vast rolling sand dunes of the Thar Desert in Rajasthan.
You are spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation in Northern India – in the Golden Triangle you can choose from an array of Royal Palace hotels, red sandstone forts, historic havelis and boutique city boltholes, in the wildlife-rich National Parks you’ll discover lavish tented camps, in the Himalayan Mountains you can stay in traditional village houses or hide away in peaceful retreats. In Southern India the coastline is peppered with fabulous characterful hotels – from family-friendly homestays to breezy Portugese-style residences, barefoot beach villas to deluxe houseboats that glide through tranquil backwaters.
THE S&A TO DO LIST
Three of our favourite lesser known festivals include Hemmis Ladakh festival, the Kite Festival celebrated in Jaipur and the Pongal festival in southern India with its painted cows
Experience the real Himalayas with Shakti on a private walking journey
A tiger safari in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and a leopard safari into the beautiful and lesser known area of Jawai, both in Rajasthan
For something more active in Rajasthan, take a horse safari into the Rohet area or speckle your city tours with a private cycling ride into the quieter areas to see life at a slower pace
A stay in a palace adds a very unique dimension to any itinerary to India – indeed, there are few places in the world where you can sleep alongside a Maharaja somewhere as decadent as the Umaid Bhavan Palace in Jodhpur. Two unmissable romantic moments on any Rajasthan itinerary would be a sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal from the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra and a candlelit dinner on the roof terrace at the iconic Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur. It’s no secret that Indian cities are at times completely chaotic, so guests can restore their sense of calm within the palatial walls of the Taj Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and the extensive gardens at the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur. Those who prefer their palaces a little ‘smaller’ will enjoy the well-established Samode Haveli or the vibrant Art Deco style of the newly-renovated Rajmahal Palace, both in Jaipur.
If you’re only going to do one City Palace tour in Rajasthan then make it Udaipur – it’s well-preserved and provides a fascinating insight into miniature art, the ladies’ life in ‘purdah’, plus it has the most magnificent views of the lake. In Jodhpur, contemporary design lovers will delight in stumbling through the 19th century doors into Raas, an oasis at the heart of the walled city with outstanding views of Mehrangarh Fort and holistic spa treatments on offer in their beautiful Ila spa. If you want to see the New and Old India literally rising up and crumbling down in front of your eyes then Delhi makes a fascinating stopover at the beginning or end of an itinerary, and here we were very impressed by the service, style, facilities and location of The Lodhi however if you prefer more of a ‘grande dame’ colonial style then we recommend The Imperial. Shoppers will be in heaven in the cities of Delhi, Jodphur and Jaipur alike (for our up-to-date shopping tips, please do get in touch).
It's a great shame that India is often overlooked as a destination for wildlife enthusiasts, as there are many unique and life-changing wildlife experiences on offer. Visitors to the majestic Ranthambore National Park can literally watch the Jungle Book play out live in front of them, with tigers, sloth bears and crocodiles entering stage left from behind crumbling forts before retreating deep in to the deciduous forest and picturesque lakes for refreshment and shade. Given our African safari background, we felt most at home under canvas at the beautiful and newly-renovated Sher Bagh which has the look and feel of a classic east African safari camp, whilst those looking for more of a minimalist/zen retreat will love the luxury wilderness retreat Aman-i-Kas. A chance to see leopards in the wild is the obvious draw for any one staying at Sujan Jawai Leopard Camp in the beautiful Jawai Hills, but the dramatic scenery, sense of remoteness and the unquestionable spirituality of this corner of the sub-continent will also leave a deep impression.
It’s easy to spend long days on the road in India, ticking off the ‘must-see’ sights and packing in more temples than chai breaks. To catch your breath, we suggest a stop at Devi Garh, north of Udaipur, where you can soak up this 18th century palace’s historic ambience via a maze of courtyards and steep staircases, relax poolside and stretch your legs in the nearby Araveli Hills. Nature-lovers who appreciate the simplicity of sleeping under canvas will feel very at home at Chattra Sagar a peaceful lakeside tented retreat between Jaipur and Jodhpur where the Nimaj brothers, Harsh and Nandi, will spoil you with guided nature walks, hilltop sundowners, village visits and home-cooked Rajasthani food. Those looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities will love Mihir Garh, a fortress built on the only sand dune in the Thar Desert just an hour outside of Jodhpur where you can spend your days in peace by your private plunge pool or head to Sidharth’s stables which house some incredible Mawari horses for a ride in the desert. Up in the Himalayas guests can retreat to one of the four glass-sided cottages at Shakti Leti 360, which are filled with natural light from sunrise to sunset and surrounded by jaw-dropping vistas. While adjusting to the altitude (a lofty 2,400 metres up), guests can partake in guided meditation or yoga, or simply settle into planters’ chairs to read and admire views of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
BACKWATERS AND BEACH
There’s good reason Southern India’s Kerala was named ‘God’s Own Country’ with it’s majestic backwaters, lush tea plantations and mouth-watering local cuisine. No trip to southern India would be complete without a pit stop in Cochin to see the giant Chinese fishing nets that line the shore and take in the bustling markets before retreating to Malabar House, one of our favourite boltholes reborn from an 18th century Dutch colonial residence. On to the magical backwaters where you can lazily meander down the winding waterways on your own houseboat. Our insider tip here is to spend a few nights at Malabar House’s sister property; Purity. Nestled on the edge of Lake Vembanad, interiors at Purity are stylishly simple with sun-washed white stucco and red terracotta, finished with a splash of vibrant colour in each of the rooms. To reconnect with your fun-loving inner-child stay in a treehouse at Tranquil, an authentic homestay in Wayanad set amongst 400 acres of coffee and tea plantations. For the perfect beach finish escape the crowds at the elegant Neeleshwar Harmitage in northern Kerala where we enjoyed some of the best seafood we’ve ever eaten.
LOOKING TO EXTEND youR TRIP?
For a relaxing finish to your trip, continue on to the white sand beaches and turquoise water of the nearby Maldives...