The current population of India is 1.34 billion, which means that this vast country is home to around 17.74% of the total world population. ‘Big’ doesn’t quite capture it, as Una McCartan from Oasis Travel in Lisburn discovered on a recent visit.
Given the sheer scale of the place, even the most cleverly planned holiday itinerary can only give you a snapshot of what’s on offer … but don’t let that hold you back from starting your journey of exploration, for every region within this immense country has its own unique ambience and attractions. From snow-capped Himalayan peaks to sun-bathed Indian Ocean coastline; from cool hill country with tea plantations and spice gardens to vibrant cities … it’s no exaggeration to say that India has something for everyone.
My 5 day visit (and yes it IS perfectly possible to plan - and enjoy - a short break to India) centred on India’s capital, New Delhi which is just under eight and a half hours’ flight time from London. A short-duration long-haul trip can seem an exhausting prospect, I know, but it is something I would heartily recommend to people who love the whole adventure experience of travel.
When your time is limited you will, of course, want to make the most of every moment, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a rigid, action-packed agenda. My top tips for this type of travel are very simple:
Armed with my own good advice I first checked into the Taj Diplomatic Enclave (formerly known as the Taj Palace). Inspired by Mughal architecture this 5 star hotel is right in the heart of New Delhi, with several noteworthy restaurants, a well-equipped fitness centre, an outdoor swimming pool and even a 9-hole putting green. Service is excellent and, if you are feeling really flush, it also has a 16 room penthouse suite … this is where the rich and influential head for in New Delhi!
I also checked out the city’s Hyatt Regency, also well situated for both business- and leisure-travellers, mid-way between city centre and airport. Rooms are particularly well equipped and food and service are both of a really high standard. Surprisingly good value all round.
My Delhi experience got off to an eye-opening start with a guided tour of the old city, taking in such sights as the Jama Masjid Mosque, the Red Fort and Raj Ghat where Gandi was cremated before getting into a traditional rickshaw for a thrilling ride through the mile-long Chandni Chowk (Silver Street) … nerve-racking, through crazy traffic and crowds, but thoroughly enjoyable!
My next base of operations was the Oberoi Trident Agra, a gorgeous hotel, situated on a bustling main street of the city and well-placed for those headed for the Taj Mahal.
Beautifully landscaped gardens and water fountains welcome you to this charming leisure hotel. Built in local red stone, reminiscent of the Mughal era, the hotel features 135 tastefully appointed rooms and suites overlooking a central courtyard and gardens.
The Taj Mahal is probably one of the most famous attractions in the world, and it doesn’t disappoint the visitor. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it is renowned as a jewel of modern art and a testament to love. The stunning marble edifice was commissioned in 1632 by the Moghul Emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Let me recommend visiting by night when moonlight casts a romantic hue over the memorial and its lush gardens.
Onward to the historic Agra Fort, once the headquarters of the powerful Moghul Empire and the Fatehpur-Sikri which was the Moghul capital … a red sandstone city which glows in the sunshine. Once larger and busier than London, the city was abandoned in the early 17th century when its wells went dry. Today it is beautifully preserved and a fascinating place to visit.
History of a different era was evoked with a stop at the sublime Laxmi Vilas Palace Hotel at Bharatpur. Set in a palace dating from 1857, this ornate heritage hotel and royal residence features traditional courtyard views (you can even dine al fresco in one of the courtyards), and elegant, old-world rooms decorated with patterned floor tiles, antique furniture and carved wooden beds. Suites add balconies overlook fabulous gardens.
Luxury, air-conditioned cards make travel a breeze but, for a taste of The Real India, you just have to get on a train. I travelled on the surprisingly comfortable (if a tad tatty) Kota Jan Shatabdi Express to reach Ranthambore. Colourful, amazing and memorable and a wonderful way to move from cityscape to the region which, famously, is the location of the Ranthamboie National Park.
I stayed at the Ranthambore Regency In The Park – newly built and capturing a nice, relaxed atmosphere and a great barbeque offering for diners; fresh foods cooked in traditional clay overs and served under an impossibly clear and starry sky.
The trip to Ranthambore National Park – once a private hunting reserve for Maharajahs – was the absolute highlight of my trip. The forested rolling hills, valleys and lakes form a unique eco-system where wild tigers still roam, now protected and stalked only by tourists, naturalists and photographers. It is also the home of more than 300 bird species, including eagles, storks and spectacular peacocks. Visitors can spot marsh crocodiles, wild boar, the rare sloth bear, leopard and the wonderfully playful black-faced languor monkeys.
After three hours I actually saw a tiger, strolling majestically and in totally unhurried fashion to the lake. It’s a sight that will stay with me for ever.
Onboard the luxury train, the Deacon Odyssey, next, dining in elegant style as we sped through ever-changing landscapes to arrive at Jaipur to take in the fabulous Jaipur Fort. This beautifully-preserved Hindu temple with its incredible panoramic views of surrounding countryside features stunning bright green and gold images of elephants and colour is everywhere, from the temple’s ornate décor to the wares sold by roadside traders nearby. If you are here, do make time to visit the nearby Astronomical Observatory and the City Palace which is home to the present Maharajah of Jaipur.
My hotel in this locale was the Hilton Jaipur, offering the high standards and modern amenities which are synonymous with the Hilton brand worldwide – great city centre location and top notch in every respect.
I dined at the Shapura Heritage Hotel, also in Jaipur. This former royal townhouse has been restored to the highest of standards and is well worth a visit, even if it is just for Afternoon Tea … the ambience is Raj-redolent and service is superb.
My drive back to New Delhi, for an overnight at the Taj Diplomatic Enclave and then my return flight to London, took six hours. Tiring, admittedly, but every mile was fascinating, giving me the chance to see Indian life and landscapes and with plenty of opportunities to stop off along the way.
I came home determined to see more and ready to return at the first opportunity and I look forward to sharing my experiences of a first taste of India with Oasis Travel customers.