Chasing tigers and temple hopping in India!
Nowhere else on earth delights the senses or quickens the pulse quite like India. At its heart lies the colourful cultural enclave of Rajasthan and with mere 6-hour flights from Hong Kong, it should be high on everyone’s bucket list for 2016. The region is crammed with things to see causing travellers to pick-n-mix itineraries depending on trip length.
We opted for an 8-day trip and were greedy in our sightseeing demands. Attempting to tick as many boxes as possible including Delhi, Jaipur, the Taj Mahal in Agra, tiger safari and some relaxation time, our demands required precision planning and insider know-how and for this I recruited the expert services of Ampersand Travel. Briefed with our desires, they created a bespoke itinerary, sorted all the boring elements like drivers (multiple four hour ones) and tour guides and recommended some delightful restaurants. All that was left for us to do was see, eat, shop and soak up our unforgettable week in India.
Jaipur – temples, textiles and Mughal splendor
Tinged with pink, Jaipur effuses mysticism and showcases the pervading regal influence of centuries of maharajas. Sightseeing was awe inspiring, marveling at the sheer scale and splendor of the Amber Fort and coveting the opulence and grandeur of the City Palace. I only wish we had scheduled more time to shop as the bustling dusty pink lanes were overflowing with bright coloured textiles, rugs and trinkets, making my eyes twinkle with delight.
Carrying on the regal theme we luxuriated that evening in our own palace, quite literally. The SUJÁN Rajmahal Palace, Jaipur is still owned by the current Maharaja but has recently been turned into an intimate 14-bedroom luxury hotel. We felt like we were guests at an exclusive Indian house party to which no one else had been invited. Palatial opulence and extravagance cosseted us making us feel like royalty in this enclave of green.. Like true Rajput royalty we dined that evening in the larger scale Rambagh Palace where in the surrounds of the impressive colonial dining room we feasted on delectable regional cuisine.
Ranthambore National Park – Jungle Book diversions
Eschewing high society our next drive took us down to this government run nature reserve, home to over 60 tigers. I can’t feign hardship though as our rustic retreat came in the form of a luxury tented camp; Sher Bagh. With just 12 luxury tents hugging the reserve’s edge we felt like British adventurers surrounded by colonial indulgences. Our tent hid within it a world of safari luxury complete with en suite bathroom and the camp itself, with nightly campfire and tranquil pool overlooking the park, could quite happily have kept us occupied for our 2-day stay; but the call of the jungle was too loud.
Controlled tourist numbers had some entering the park on theme park-esque giant open sided trucks. Luckily for us Sher Bagh laid on 4 person jeeps and their own expert guides who navigated the jungle paths, not allowing us to be content ogling at monkeys, crocodiles and kingfishers, hot on the pursuit of the elusive tigers. The setting was spectacular and the drives immensely rewarding as we saw two tigers and a leopard, all whilst warmed with Sher Bagh’s thoughtfully delivered hot water bottles, blankets and masala chai.
Alwar – Sheer Decadence in a rural setting
Sightseeing is exhausting and every holiday needs some down time. Ours took the most luxurious form with a two-night stay at the spectacular Amanbagh. Completely off the tourist trail we got to witness real rural life attending an evening Hindu temple ceremony, visiting local villagers and ogling at the impressive and un-touristy ruins of Bhangargh.
Then we allowed ourselves to luxuriate in Amanbagh’s haven for the rest of our stay. Our private pool villa showcased grand Indian architecture that was echoed through the rest of the property with soothing symmetry, sweeping archways and pillared colonnades. The staff were all delightful, spoiling us with traditional welcome ceremonies and a private candlelit dinner perched high on the rooftops. The food, most of which comes from the kitchen garden was astoundingly good and authentic and the setting, lying in a valley of green bordered by mountains, planted us firmly in the heart of this rural paradise.
Agra – The Taj Mahal in all its splendor
Whilst there is little else to see in Agra of note, it earns its spot in the tripartite Golden Triangle off the back of the Taj Mahal alone. Like the Great Wall of China, no matter how many photos you see, nothing can prepare you for its sheer beauty when seen in person. A glowing marble tomb, it embodies true love as a husband’s final tribute to his beloved wife. We visited first at sunset with the fading pink light perfectly framing the building but endless crowds thwarting our views. This was rectified with a crack of dawn visit the following morning where our early start was rewarded with uninterrupted views allowing people free photo taking and peaceful admiration. Worth a visit also whilst you are in the area is the Agra Fort and the epic ghost town of Fatehpur Sikri.
Delhi – a cacophony of activity
And so to Delhi, a sprawling urban jungle with chaotic roads, crowded buildings and an unstoppable energy. Whilst there are plenty of sights to see, we opted to soak up the buzz of Old Delhi with a walk around the maze like lanes of Chandni Chowk, with small stores selling vast quantities of every type of good imaginable. Depending on the time you have available there are countless other shopping options for all sorts of local handicrafts.
Our Delhi base was the stylish Lodhi hotel. Striking architecture, a wonderful pool and leisure area and a humongous room awaited us. The room was like the ultimate bachelor pad, full of mod cons and luxury touches including our own private pool on our balcony looking over the city. With a great location and seemingly being the playground of the Delhi elite, it was the perfect place to lay our heads. We couldn’t leave India without one final blowout meal, so headed to Indian Accent. Perhaps the most celebrated restaurant in Delhi, its modern take on Indian food continually amazed and left us fully sated; a state which summed up our 8 day stay – a true feast of sights, sounds, smells and culture.
The trip was booked through Ampersand Travel, a UK based agency specialising in Asian travel. www.ampersandtravel.com
The Lodhi, New Delhi, www.thelodhi.com
SUJÁN Rajmahal Palace, Jaipur, sujanluxury.com/raj-mahal
Sher Bagh, Ranthambore, sujanluxury.com/sher-bagh/index.htm
Amanbagh, Alwar, www.aman.com/resorts/amanbagh