After a comfortable 9 hour direct flight to Delhi with British Airways, we were met and whisked through immigration by our local agent and transferred to the Leela Hotel. As we left the airport, we braced ourselves for our first encounter with India’s roads, which can only be described as chaos meets wacky races. However, it works and we didn’t see one accident or bump all week, but it was hectic from the outset and, if you are of a nervous disposition, I would recommend a snooze on the transfer!
Delhi offers a range of hotels from the opulent – such as the Leela – through to the traditional such as the Imperial and there is something to suit every style and depth of pocket. The Leela offers a range of restaurants, stunning views from the rooftop pool and efficient, discreet service. Heading into Old Delhi we met our guide for a walking tour of the back streets. Merely wandering through everyday life was quite an experience as we dodged mopeds, stray animals and street kids. We glimpsed a small insight into tailors, barbers, hot food stalls and marvelled at the mass of intertwined wires overhead. A quick whizz round on a rickshaw completed our afternoon tour.
We started early the next day for the station to catch the express train to Agra, utterly amazed at the number of people sleeping on the platform, seemingly oblivious to everything going on around them. Having found our seats in a comfortable air conditioned carriage we settled down for the 2 hour journey. Although the on-board catering trolley looked appetizing we opted for the packed breakfasts provided by the Leela. In no time we were in Agra and saying Namaste (hello) to our local guide on the way to the Red Fort. This was the seat of the Mughal rule for many years and the history was fascinating and a good prelude to the Taj Mahal. We boarded Tongas (horse & cart) to travel the last km to the gates of the Taj Mahal. Again our guide was on hand to explain the story of this monument built by Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal in the mid-17th century. It is a truly magical place and despite the numbers of visitors still plenty of opportunity to find a quiet spot and take it all in.
After the compulsory photo shoot we headed towards the Taj itself and were directed to the “express lane” – a nice touch by the local agents to bypass the queues. Shoe covers on, we headed inside. The actual tombs are not open to the public but the walk through the ground level is very atmospheric – another big tick on my “bucket list”.Once the Fort & the Taj Mahal have been visited that really is Agra done so depending on the rest of your schedule you may or not overnight in AgraThe following day we stopped at the deserted city of Fatephur Sikri, a former seat of the Mughal Empire. This was abandoned in the late 16th century due to a shortage of water supply and is still largely in its original condition. We moved to our next stop just outside Bharatpur for a lunch visit to Chandra Mahal Haveli a boutique hotel with a unique location in the centre of a rural village. For those who want a true insight into Indian village life this is the place to stay. A lovely pool, good dining and real, fascinating culture right on your doorstep, the Chandra Mahal is also close to a nature reserve with world class bird watching. Heading on to the pink city and capital of Rajasthan we arrived in Jaipur and settled into a heritage property – Samode Havelhi. Pink sandstone was the building material of choice in the 17th century and to this day the city retains its original colour.
The Astronomical Observatory is a fascinating starting point to a city tour and the variety of instruments that are still accurate today is quite amazing. We all marvelled at the insight and skill of Sawai Jai Singh from years gone by. The City Palace just across the road is well worth a visit. The most impressive sight in Jaipur is the Amber Fort. Set high on the hillside and initially viewed across the Moat Lake, the fort was built by Emperor Akbar and became the seat of power prior to the construction of the City Palace. After running the gauntlet of the local hawkers and their retail opportunities we boarded elephants to take a gentle plod up the hill to the fort entrance. A sprawling complex of courtyards and halls, many of the rooms within the fort have delightful wall paintings with precious stones and mirrors inlaid in the walls.Again there is a choice of accommodation varying from the sumptuous Taj Rambagh Palace to the boutique Shapura House, where you arrive as a guest and leave as a friend. Hospitality is a real focus for any stay in India and you really are welcomed and looked after impeccably, regardless of what ‘level’ of hotel you stay in. As we made our way back to Delhi we had one more stop at the Tree of Life Hotel – a must visit for anyone wanting to relax after a touring itinerary.
The villas are beautiful and I’d encourage forking out the small cost to upgrade to the private pool option. The attention to detail is impressive – the chef even comes to discuss your individual menu on a daily basis. I particularly enjoyed having the opportunity to engage with local communities. We visited a school where bags were used as desks and the kids sat on the floor for lessons – an eye opener for many British children! We also took part in the “rice bucket challenge” – an Indian derivative of the current ALS ice bucket challenge – that involved a trip to the village to see a local family, get an insight into how they live and deliver a sack of rice to them for which they were most grateful.
As we arrived back in Gurgaon, close to Delhi airport, we reflected on an amazing few days encompassing not only a myriad of experience, but also numerous modes of transport that will stay with us forever. Many of these only made possible by the attention to detail of ‘If Only’ and their Indian partners Travel World Experience. Nothing beats local knowledge and they have this in spades. To my surprise, they even provide guests with a local Indian mobile so you can keep in touch with home without racking up a huge bill. So thoughtful.
India is a must if you want vibrancy, immersion into an alien culture and adventure, but I’d highly recommend packing your sense of humour too! India is exceptionally poor in many parts, and it’s difficult to see, but I certainly feel I’ve left richer for the experiences I’ve had. Everyone dreads the “Delhi belly” but if you select sensible dining venues and have a supply of hand sanitizing gel there is no reason that this should strike – we were all fine!
Don’t forget to allow around £100 per person for the visa, currently this is a form filling and postal exercise but there are rumours of a simpler online application and stamp on arrival.
India is incredible, embrace the madness and cherish the memories!