We asked our India Product Manager, and all-round India expert, Eric Finley for his Top 5 India Experiences.
1. The elephants of Nagarhole National Park
India offers wildlife experiences perhaps second only to Africa in their wow factor, but many are little known beyond India. Nagarhole is one park which qualifies for ‘best-kept secret’ status – set on the picturesque Kabini Reservoir, this vast tract of tropical forest holds India’s largest surviving herds of elephant, amongst many other species. On a boat safari on the reservoir, see family groups feeding along the shores – with a bit of luck you might see them bathing, and there are usually mothers with calves, making for heart-warming scenes of the caring extended families in action. The big tuskers are another experience altogether. Elephants aside, special wildlife experiences may include the huge resident Marsh Muggers (India’s own crocodile species), the bulky black bison-like Gaur, herds of camouflaged Spotted Deer and the bigger Sambar, and if very lucky perhaps an Indian Wild Dog, Leopard, or even a Tiger. Birdlife is also spectacular at times both on the waters and in the forests, and lakeside accommodation is a perfect base for the safari experiences.
2. Samode, Rajasthan
Samode Palace, Rajasthan
The secluded finishing point for our Taste of India tour and Pappadoms and Palaces small group journeys is only an elephant’s stroll from Jaipur but a world away from the seemingly chaotic cities of India. Nestled in an arid valley lies this former principality with a grand royal history linked to the great rulers of Amber. The Samode Bagh, a former royal walled garden and retreat, is an unforgettable experience: sprawling mango trees, strutting peafowl, al fresco dining and fireside drinks, plus lovely deluxe tents in true Rajput style (with the comfort of a full attached western bathroom – in true India fashion!). For those looking for a more deluxe experience, Samode Palace is quite simply one of Rajasthan’s royal gems – approached via an ancient cobbled roadway, through giant elephant-proofed gates, into a world of ornate lounges and pavilions, vast terraces and sumptuous guest rooms. None of this can truly capture the atmosphere of the palace, at its best as the sunsets and the lamps and lights come on, and a peaceful glow settles over the rugged hills and ruins around it and the old town below. Its not just accommodation here which is so special – in Rajasthan we include an open jeep safari into the surrounding countryside where many centuries of tradition are still practiced in the scenic farmlands. And for families on our Pappadoms and Palaces, a walk with a local mahout and his elephant along the country lanes is both fun and eye-opening for adults and kids alike.
3. A Varanasi sunrise
one of the most iconic India experiences, appropriately found on our Iconic India small group tour. The sight of India’s holiest river in the early light, with the sounds of prayer and bells, cows and crows, and the sight of pilgrims and priests in their morning ritual, is an experience never forgotten. Its easy to imagine the scene has barely changed in hundreds of years, in what some scholars say is the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. The backdrop of the towering steps known as ghats, and the imposing rest houses and temples above, makes for an even more spectacular sight. It can be very cold in winter months from November to February – despite the bathing pilgrims showing no fear – so do as the locals do and take a comfy woollen shawl purchased from the old town bazaar streets, or if that’s not your style a good jacket. And plenty of camera power and memory!
4. The Kerala backwaters and Coconut Lagoon
The backwaters of Kerala
The beautiful tropical waterways of Kerala have been a cornerstone of Kerala’s successful tourism campaigns over the last ten years, but the important thing is what you do and where you stay when visiting this truly idyllic area. We recommend Coconut Lagoon for the real backwaters experience. Set in towering palm-shaded gardens, flanked by a canal, rice paddies and the vast lotus-covered Vembanad Lake, the resort features cozy Keralan-style bungalows and blends perfectly with its surrounds. The menu features a huge selection of delicious Keralan cuisine, from vegetables fresh from the resort’s organic gardens to lake and sea fish, prepared with Kerala’s famous spices and of course coconut. And don’t worry, there’s plenty for the more sensitive palate. Try and Ayurvedic massage – not for the faint-hearted – take an early morning bird cruise, or simply soak up a sunrise or sunset from the lake facing gardens. Featured on our Spice of the South small group journey, along with a delicious meal and cooking demonstration at a waterside plantation and a day trip on a kettuvalam, one of the famous backwaters houseboats.
5. Jodhpur and the Meherangarh Fort
There is no shortage of impressive forts across north India, but Jodhpur’s towering Meherangarh Fort is truly one of the greats. Dominating the town skyline, this monolith is a remarkable testament to the royal history of Rajasthan, and our guides bring alive the dramatic tales of love, war and treachery. The views are spectacular and include the Umaid Bhawan Palace, our Deluxe accommodation across town, the last of India’s great royal palaces and also said to be the largest private residence in the world. Walk down from the fort to the bazaar, which is one of Rajasthan’s most colorful – from mounds of fresh vegetables and powdered piles of spice to colorful sarees, silks, jewelry and embroidered leather shoes amongst the many local goods, this is essential Rajasthan. Regular Jodhpur visitors make a bee-line for the famous hotel selling creamy, saffron-laced makhaniya lassi, a yoghurt-based Indian refreshment. It’s not for the sensitive eater but for adventurous taste buds a few rupees gets you a delicious glass of the city’s signature sweet.
About the author: Eric Finley, India Product Manager
I first visited India 25 years ago and I’ve been a regular visitor ever since. Although have visited most parts of India there is still so much to explore – people have no idea how much is hidden away in every part of the subcontinent. The history is remarkable, as is the diversity – with most regions featuring their own languages and dialects, histories and cuisines. What really fascinates me is the rich and living history – despite the incredible changes in modern cities like Mumbai and Delhi, you are never more than a stone’s throw away from traditions that are hundreds of years old. Then there is the fantastic cuisine, the vibrant street life of the major towns and cities, and the remarkable wildlife. One visit can only just begin to scratch the surface of an incredible region so little understood in the West.