About 100 miles south of Jaipur, deviating from the Golden Triangle, lies Ranthambhore National Park, where there are ample opportunities to observe tigers in their natural habitat.
Also nearby is Udaipur, with its enchanting palaces, the Lake Palace and the City Palace, that make visitors feel like they’ve stumbled into a classic painting from ancient India.
If one has traveled this far, it makes no sense to leave without visiting Jodhpur—the fabled Blue City—to see marvels like the Mehrangarth Fort, an elaborate architectural masterpiece dominated by eight gates.
With more than 80 national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, India, in fact, is a virtual paradise for travelers who delight in natural wonders. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, about 125 miles northeast of Jabalpur, Bandhavgarth National Park is a scenic corner where history and nature merge into a delightful blend. The diversity of plants thriving in its hilly terrain astounds while an ancient and historic fort serves as its main focal point. Bandhavgarth is also celebrated as a sanctuary for the country’s legendary endangered tigers. It boasts the largest concentration of the magnificent felines of any other location in India. Even a short stay in Bandhavgarth can become a delightful game-viewing trek as leopards, jackals, bears and sloths are frequently sighted. Also in Madhya Pradesh, Kanha National Park, India’s largest national park, is a feast for the eyes, offering a treasure trove of bamboo forests, lakes and rivers crisscrossing open savannas. Its conservation programs have been directly responsible for the preservation of such endemic creatures as tigers, swamp deer and scores of colorful and exotic avian species.
Into the Mountains
Often bypassed by most tourists, those who want to venture farther into India will find Leh to be one of the country’s most mesmerizing destinations. Accessible by a short flight from Delhi, it sits in the Himalayan lowlands and is an unparalleled surprise that showcases the stark beauty of the harsh terrain that surrounds it. Sunrises over the Himalayas are legendary, but perhaps nowhere in India are they as colorful and inspiring as in Leh.
Approaching Leh by air is always a white-knuckle thrill, as the aircraft performs a series of tight corkscrew maneuvers breezing past rugged mountain peaks on each turn to eventually land on a narrow runway stretching deep in a valley. Ruins of a palace stand guard over the old city while a monastery adds mystery to this enthralling town, two miles high in the Himalayas. Shopping for antiques, carpets, pashmina shawls and turquoise trinkets is an experience like nothing else in India.
Steamy Tropics and Tribes
The other side of the rupee, so to speak, lies in Orissa—a state of India officially called Odisha—on the Bay of Bengal’s eastern coast.
This is where nature nestles in an unrivaled tropical paradise. Orissa is full of temples, pulsating tribes, rich art forms and pristine shores. Birdwatchers will see exceptional species at Chilka Lake, while others will find a great sense of “newness” exploring the sacred Jagannath Temple in Puri. Noteworthy, too, is the Sun Temple at Konark, perhaps India’s best-preserved temple.
Jaw-dropping temples scattered throughout the area accent the region, while Puri Konark Marine Drive is a natural miracle where travelers can roam deserted beaches and watch waterfalls empty into the sea. It’s kind of an Indian version of California’s Big Sur, where visitors have the rare chance to sample delicious food prepared by Hindu holy men in the handful of temples allowing entrance to non-Hindus.
Not far from Puri, a number of tribal settlements always enthrall. These include the Bonda, Gadaba, Maria, and Bhattra tribe people who can be seen in their distinctive native dress.
Those wanting a closer look at primitive tribal cultures should cross the border to the seldom-visited Chhattisgarh region, a living anthropology museum where visitors can join the ceremonies and dances. In addition, here one can opt to stay in a jungle palace while learning to cook from a maharajah/chef.
Nearby, the 11th century lakeside capital of Bhopal was transformed into a city of artists and musicians by the Moguls three centuries after its founding. It’s a destination with superb atmosphere, friendly people and first-rate accommodations. A massive hilltop “Museum of Man” showcases India’s indigenous minorities and a short drive will take you to Sanchi, site of the oldest Buddhist stupa.
Then there is Kerala, a sliver of real estate running up the Arabian Sea coast. It’s one of the most up-and-coming tourist destinations in Asia, with its four dozen rivers forming a watery web across fertile lands along the Western ghats rising to incredible heights. Here, the wonders of India are unmatched: hill stations, deserted beaches, plantations, rice paddies and forests where strange wildlife lives. Kerala has more than 500 miles of waterways in its backwaters. It’s a spectacular landscape with a number of towns and cities serving as the embarkation points for backwater cruises. Kerala rice boats (slow-moving barges with thatched roofs and wooden hulls used to ship rice and now used for leisure trips) ply the waterways giving visitors a taste of colorful adventure.
Kochi (Cochin), Kerala’s most important seaport and affectionately known as “The Queen of the Arabian Sea” because of its charm, is a bustling city where shopping seems to be the most popular pastime.
Northeastern India is an alluring and colorful district that because of its vast ethnic and cultural differences from the rest of India often gives the impression of being a separate country. Its distinctiveness is reflected in the varied cultures of the states within the region.
Meghalaya, roughly translated to “Home Above the Clouds,” befits this characterization due to the breathtaking panoramas afforded from its hilly terrain. Rivers dotted with dramatic waterfalls crisscross the region. As with most of the northeastern states, Meghalaya is a mixture of traditional and modern lifestyles. Nature seems to have found a home in Shillong, Meghalaya’s provincial capital, a city favored by outdoor enthusiasts who come for the excellent hiking, fishing and camping nearby.
Assam is the Indian state most synonymous with tea. Golf courses carved within tea plantations offer a fascinating touch to the region. This culturally rich area is considered the gateway to the northeastern zone and notable for the astonishing number of national parks and preserves.
Mizoram, meanwhile, is a state rich in pristine destinations where peaceful activities are the norm. A multitude of splendid gardens accent Aizawl, a city of 300,000. A hiking trail carved through expansive orchid and rhododendron fields leads to nearby Phawngpui (Blue Mountain), the highest peak in Mizoram, exposing visitors to gasp-inducing panoramas.
Nagaland, bordering Myanmar, has always evoked wonder and awe. It’s home to the Nagas, an ethnic and extremely hospitable people. Nagaland is bathed with pleasant weather and as a bonus is also dotted with outstanding ancient ruins that reflect its past glory.
Sikkim presents an India beyond the norm. It’s an attractive nook where Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries tower over rice terraces. Here one can walk up the steep terrain to the monasteries along stretches of bright prayer flags flapping from bamboo poles in the gentle breezes. Pelling, one of its principal cities, is worth a visit if only to witness the astounding sunrises that paint Khangchendzonga, the spectacular mountain that serves as the backdrop to the national park of the same name, in unreal colors.
Arunachal Pradesh, the northernmost point in India, offers rolling foothills, valleys and indigenous residents who charm with their magnificent art works. This state is ranked as one of the world’s great natural treasures and famous for the wild orchids found within. In addition, ancient monasteries, sacred lakes and wonderful remnants of forts and palaces give the state a sense of serenity within an exotic locale.
Nearby Manipur is traditionally known as the land of Lord Krishna and home to India’s classical dance, Ras Leela, as well as the birthplace of polo.
Tripura, meanwhile, is a magical, misty place full of man-made wonders amid stirring natural scenery. It’s home to enormous images of gods carved on granite cliffs and peeking into a magical riverside panorama from emerald green undergrowth. About 30 miles from Agartala—Tripura’s capital—Neermahal is Tripura’s most visited tourist destination. This is a former royal retreat built in the middle of a lake where one finds the most impressive blend of Hindu and Mughal architecture.
In Assam, Kaziranga National Park is one of the world’s consummate wildlife treasures—a 260-sq.-mile feral flatland of marshes, rivers and ponds that serves as home to the Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros. This is an area untouched by humans, with a lone highway traversing it and visitors generally take in the sights on elephant back.
For more on India’s varied destinations, visit incredibleindia.org.