Touring India

written by | Posted on May 3rd, 2012

This article originally appeared in the 2012 India Travel Planner. It has been extracted from its original format. To read the full travel guide, visit the digital edition.

Collette Vacations offers a 15-day Mysteries of India tour that will immerse clients in the local culture.

Because of India’s enormous size and diversity, tour operators to this exotic destination are developing and designing unique programs for travelers with an emphasis on exclusivity, juxtaposed against new lower-priced programs, and creating exciting vacation experiences that guarantee the kind of experiential travel modern-day clients crave.

Luxury

Elite Travel Collection—an IsramWorld company—has a unique 12-night program that starts with three nights in Delhi, followed by two nights each in Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur and back to Delhi for one night before returning home.

All accommodations, however, guarantee what the company calls, “extraordinary and cosseted luxury,” with ultra-luxe stays at five-star Oberoi hotels and luxury tent camps, as well as five-starTaj Palace accommodations. Clients also have an escort-guide who will help plan the day at each destination and transport by chauffeur-driven limousine.

Highlights include guests partaking in traditional high tea at Taj Khema in Delhi and a sunset carriage ride to the majestic Taj Mahal. They’ll explore the city of Jaipur, known for its wealth of princely palaces and forts, by elephant or jeep and experience a demonstration of henna painting, as well as visit a local Rajasthani family to get a glimpse of traditional daily life. There’s plenty of adventure, too, with an evening elephant safari led by a private mahout (elephant handler) through a forest scattered with ancient structures, and a cruise on Lake Pichola, plus a jeep excursion to a Bishnoi village to meet the locals, what the company calls, “…arguably the world’s first ecologists,” as well as a “royal” lunch at a retreat favored by the Jodhpur royal family. It’s priced from $12,415 pp dbl with intra-India business class air.

Greaves India has a variety of custom-designed programs throughout India, all of which are designed so travelers can maximize their experience and travel to many parts of the country few tour operators visit, including a couple of destinations in East India covered in two tour programs that are truly unique: the Darjeeling and Sikkim and Orissa & Chhattisgarh Unveiled. Anita Captain, co-owner of Greaves India, warns, however, “It’s not for the first-time traveler. It’s for the client who’s already been to India and they’ve seen all the well-known areas and they want to do something a little different.”

The Darjeeling and Sikkim tour offers a great insight into Himalayan, Buddhist and city life in the northeast, where traditional monasteries and exceptional mountain scenery are on view in an area inhabited predominantly by gentle Buddhists and small settlements of tribal people.

“But aside from that, the Himalayan Mountains, just from personal experience, are really compelling,” explains Captain. “This part of India is quite different from the rest of India, culturally—in terms of dress, customs and religion— and physically. It’s not an area where you’ll see the usual big mosques, temples, palaces and monuments. You don’t have any of that grandeur, because the grandeur is in the mountains themselves.

“The other thing is Kolkata, which has really been overlooked, but has had somewhat of a revival. The Bengali people are totally different from the rest of India. The cafe society is where you find everyone from students to businessmen to retired people, arguing vigorously about the politics of the day. But they’re writers and artists and there is that sort of cafe society like Paris in the ‘30s. There’s a lot to see, it’s hugely interesting and incredibly beautiful. There’s every reason to try and go.” The base price of this FIT package runs from $2,481 pp, land-only.

On the Orissa & Chhattisgarh Unveiled program travelers visit Chhattisgarh in the relatively new breakaway state of Madhya Pradesh, home to a wealth of history, culture, tribal lands and staggering scenery.

Clients stay in one of Chhattisgarh’s most elegant palaces and explore the beautiful Maikal Hills to see ancient temples and ruins, learning about the lesser-known tribal cultures of the area. Next, it’s on to the former kingdom of Kalinga in Orissa, a large, verdant state clinging to the coast of the Bay of Bengal. This area flourished between the seventh and 15th centuries and offers sandy beaches, extraordinary beehive-shaped temples and mighty monuments.

“Orrisa has so much history, you can’t not see it if you want to see a different part of India,” enthuses Captain. “It’s a very varied terrain. I sort of think of it more as the center, even though it’s on the east coast and a little more toward the south. Its beaches and coastline are absolutely stunning. We use Mayfair Beach Resort; it’s very small and very different from the grand sort of Oberoi-, Taj-type palace hotels.” The base price of this FIT package runs from $2,992 pp, land-only, based on a minimum of two persons sharing a room.

Swain Tours offers its usual custom-designed programs to India with an emphasis on the colors, sounds, scents, tradition and food found throughout India and within the destinations of Mumbai, Madurai, Munnar, Kumarakom and Kochi on a 10-night Secrets of Southern India tour priced from $4,555.

The itinerary includes coach class air within India, all roundtrip private airport transfers and transfers between major cities by private vehicle. It starts with two nights in Mumbai that includes a private city tour and where guests can choose from Taj and Oberoi properties for their accommodations; followed by two nights in Madurai where clients will enjoy custom tours of the city’s magnificent temples, palaces and a Gandhi Memorial tour. Next, it’s on to Munnar and a unique tea plantation tour, followed by two nights in Kumarakom, where guests can stay at the luxurious Kumarakom Lake Resort. Here, they go on an organic farm tour. The last two nights are spent in Kochi, where the accommodation options might include the Brunton Boatyard, a small and intimate city resort hotel. While in Kochi, guests enjoy a Kerala backwaters houseboat cruise, topped off by a memorable Kathakali dance show. Of course, that’s just the basics because like all of Swain Tours’ luxury programs, clients can add whatever other attractions or destinations they wish to see.

“Swain brings in the personal touch, care and passion. Like our other divisions, our senior consultant is from India, so she brings her own experience and love of the country to the clients,” says Ian Swain, president/CEO of Swain Tours. “One of the clients had tea with the agent’s mum in Mumbai. Another client visiting Shimla (north India) might meet local people from the area. So Swain makes the India experience unique.

“The popular itinerary is the Golden Triangle—Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Udaipur. So it is cultural,” Swain explains. “But we customize it by taking our clients off the beaten path, where they can touch the heart and soul of the country. It could be a visit to the Jain derasar (temple) at Ranakpur with its 2,000 pillars in a small hill town, or a stay at a luxury tent hotel in a village of Chhatra Sagar where they can experience rural life and cook and converse with the owners. Or, taking the toy train to Shimla—a favorite retreat of the colonial-era British—to enjoy the Himalayan mountains. Our clients come back revived, happy, with life-changing journeys.”

As for future custom touches on its India programs, Swain says, “We would like to combine some of the important festivals with the travels. The Jaipur Literary Festival that happens every year in January—where world-known authors visit (the “intellectual India”). There are some other music festival/cultural fairs where the client can experience India and its people in its most unique way. And, we are combining a way clients can have a culinary experience (Chhatra Sagar) and visit local markets like Crawford market in Mumbai. We will also offer a spiritual retreat in the mountains and spend time at an excellent tea estate to rejoice and rejuvenate one’s spirits.”

Travcoa—which has been providing luxury travel experiences to India for over 30 years—lists no less than 12 escorted journeys to India including three programs that include Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

The most popular tour, however, according to Jerre Fuqua, president of Travcoa, is the 23-day Enlightened India program that features the highlights of both northern and southern India, priced at $12,445, including all intra-country air and five-star accommodations.

On this program, clients experience the Taj Mahal and tour the famous mausoleum in both morning and evening light. In the temple city of Khajuraho, they spend a day among elaborately carved Hindu and Jain monuments and witness the sacred rites of Hindu pilgrims performed on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world. Outside the “Pink City” of Jaipur, there’s an elephant safari, then they explore the colonial architecture and bustling city life of cosmopolitan Mumbai. Heading south to Kochi, clients enjoy a private dinner and special presentation of classical Indian dance before cruising Kerala’s serene backwaters and lagoons on a private houseboat, then ending their journey at a lovely beach resort on the shores of the Indian Ocean, among an array of other activities.

More importantly is Travcoa’s unique style of luxury travel.“It’s hard to pinpoint just one unique experience,” Fuqua says, “but a hallmark of all Travcoa escorted journeys is that our group size is no more than 18 guests plus the Travcoa travel director. Because of this, we are able to provide a much more intimate touring experience and provide our guests with access to venues and experiences that larger groups cannot offer.”

And, he adds, the travel director is an important component of the travel experience. Unlike other tour companies, he says, who utilize local tour directors, Travcoa personnel are long-time employees of the company in that destination. “Travcoa’s travel directors have an average of over 20 years of experience leading journeys to India and around the world. They are among the best in the business and have a loyal guest following,” Fuqua points out. “We value their depth of knowledge, experience and complete understanding of the needs of Travcoa guests—this sets us apart in the overall experience our guests receive. They bring their wealth of knowledge to every journey—their favorite shops, restaurants, local connections, the respect they garner from the India suppliers and their passion for the country.”