The hospitality industry in the West is fast orienting itself to the changing profile of the luxury tourist. They are tweaking their offerings to tempt the Indian, Chinese and Indonesian upper end travellers who are willing to overlook price points in favour of exclusivity, comfort, novelty and privacy. In India too, the luxury travel segment is no longer the exclusive preserve of the International tourist who is besotted with the palaces, forts and regal aura of Rajasthan or the sun, sand and beaches of Goa, the coconut lined serene backwaters of Kerala or the hustle and bustle of the bustling metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai. Indian tourists have matured to the point where they want a luxury experience and are more than happy to bypass the cost factor when signing up for a vacation.
Past isolated incidents in the region have put the spotlight on the safety of travellers. The Indian travel industry is suffering its share of negative publicity with many international tourists bypassing India to go to perceived safer destinations. The biggest advantage India has in its favour and which is its USP is that the country, with its sheer diversity and range of locations, weather, food and cultures has a bit of something for all age groups and interests. Sun, sand, mountains, deserts, forests and rivers vie for attention as new properties come up alongside older traditional favourites.
Interesting activities like visiting a haunted ghost town in Rajasthan, ballooning airborne view of a city’s forted ramparts reminiscent of 18th century strife and attacks, flea markets and beaches of Goa, gastronomically rich food tours in Amritsar, spotting lions in Corbett and Ranthambore – the list is fast expanding with a wide variety of niche options for the discerning traveller who is willing to push the envelope when it comes to experiencing the local culture, traditions, festivals and landscapes of a land like India which is exotic, charming and magnetic. The melange of colour, sheer variety in every sense and a friendly hospitable people have a magnetic pull that brings many back to get a bigger slice of the Indian pie.
Traditional favourites still reign supreme
A kalaedoscopic range of vacation options that are activity based have sprung up with highly specialised vacations in the upper reaches of hilly areas where the “apple picking trails” allowing naturalists to live in the luxurious comfort of resorts like Shimla’s Wild Flower Hall. Or textile tours that take you through the Dravidian land of Chennai tracing the origin of luxurious silks, weaving and embroideries of princely textiles. Then there are spice trails of Kerala and Goa and photo and film tours of the spectacular Leh and Ladakh region, holy shrines of Amritsar and India’s own Switzerland, Gulmarg and Pehalgam in Kashmir.
Experience history and heritage in style
For many foreign tourists, tracing the legacy of the Raj and the colonial British period is a fascinating experience. Hearing stories of the Maharajas and Maharanis, their lifestyles and even some of their kinks, seeing their opulent collections of jewels and artefacts in the museums, tales of valour, treachery and palace intrigues as you take a round of the forts and palaces, love stories that pull at the heart strings, visualising the royal pair serenading in the gardens and lakes of the palaces are stuff that have a charm of their own.
While these tours in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Hyderabad can be undertaken on one’s own, there is the option of going through the tried and tested safe route of having The Taj and Oberoi five star hotels plan your itineraries. This way you get to stay at their properties which are opulent, comfortable and geared to show you India in style. If you are planning to take the famed Golden Triangle tour which has been India’s most popular tourist circuit, you will drive to Bharatpur which is known for its bird sanctuary before catching a train to Ranthambhore wildlife park, stay in luxury tents to savour forest life and enjoy a day of safari, on the trail of the tiger. Down south, there are the luxury cruises on Kerala’s backwaters and the ayurvedic spa massages that are the highlight of the state.
Luxury rail travel where comfort is thebuzzword
Redefining luxury travel experience by offering guests an opportunity to explore fabled destinations, luxury rail journeys provide a glimpse of the rich cultural heritage of Incredible India which will leave you with many fond memories. Welcome aboard the Maharajas’ Express, bestowed with the “World’s Leading Luxury Train” award at the World Travel Awards for three consecutive years recently. The recommended tour of the Indian panorama covers Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Lucknow before bringing you back to Delhi, all in nine days.
(Man posing in the street of Jaisalmer,India)
(Architectural detail of Amber Fort in Jaipur, Rajasthan)
(Swimming pool at &Beyond Baghvan Pench Jungle Lodge)
(Maitreya at Disket Monastery, Ladakh)
(Mahua Kothi Jungle Lodge Exterior)
Palace On Wheels:
The Palace on Wheels was one of India’s first luxury rail journey, with a detailed itinerary covering the length and breadth of the country, taking you through cities, coastal towns, villages and regional areas in an unhurried way. The large Indian railways network has a number of trains specialising in different circuits, such as Fairy Queen, Heritage on Wheels, The Indian Maharaja and Splendour of the South will give you a chance to lead the charmed life of the Indian royalty. India’s first pancountry super luxury train “Palace On Wheels” was re-launched in August 2009 with a new look and additional luxury facilities. With 14 salons named after provinces of Rajasthan, two Restaurant named as Maharaja and Maharani Restaurant and other world class facilities like exotic bar, Spa, Live TV, internet connectivity, music and security, most tourists get so comfortable that at the end of the journey when it is time to say goodbye they experience a sense of déjà vu.
Heritage on Wheels:
State specific trains like the Heritage on Wheels showcase the best that the state has to offer, especially to the international tourist. A luxury train run by Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation, is dedicated to bringing alive tales of the state’s many forts, temples, festivals and palaces, most of which have good English speaking guides, very well done audio tapes and which are a treat to visit during local festivals when royal members of the family emerge from their haloed palaces and residences and visit the temples with their royal entourage.
Maharaja Express: Opt for a trip from Mumbai to Delhi or Karnataka to Goa and travel in any of the 19 luxury coaches. The luxury train, named after the renowned ‘Stone Chariot’ of Hampi get you to explore fascinating architectural designs and natural landscapes of south India while the Deccan Odyssey is another 5-star hotel on wheels covering heritage sites of Maharashtra along the Konkan route.
New kids on the block
While traditional all-time favourites will never lose their edge, a new segment has emerged, with a sure and steady growth, catering to luxury travellers who are willing to push the bar, and take the off-beat path. They believe in seeing a country in a way that allows a greater experiential feel. This segment comprises of young people, professionals and aspirational consumers willing to splash cash, depending mainly on three determinants which could be the occasion (honeymoon, anniversary, special celebration), experience (diving trip to Andaman Islands or photography tour to Leh and Ladakh), and the traveller’s penchant for enjoying a luxury holiday at a plush resort by taking a helicopter ride to a spectacular dinner venue or booking themselves for a “desert and stars dinner at the sand dunes”.
(Baghvan Jungle Lodge dining)
(Interactive kitchen at Baghvan Pench Jungle Lodge)
(Gamedrive at AndBeyond Mahua Kothi Bandhavgar)
(Tented suite veranda at AndBeyond Banjaar Tola)
(Guest area at &Beyond Baghvan Pench Jungle Lodge)
(Swimming pool at &Beyond Mahua Kothi Bandhavgarh)
(Pashan Garh wilderness dining)
(Bathroom at &Beyond Banjaar Tola)
(Church of St Francis Xavier Old Goa)
(Aveda Resort Kumarakom outdoor space with houseboat in the background)
Private “travpreneneurs” – travel entrepreneurs are catering to this niche and coming up with exotic options, especially around popular tourist sites that appeal to the global luxury traveller. Taking part in a “Jungle story” at Bandhavgarh, Ranthambore, Pench or the Jim Corbett national park are an absolute delight. Away from hustle and bustle of cities, noise of chaotic traffic and countless roadside vendors, these green havens are preserved in their natural habitat. The four exquisite lodges of andBeyond, Baghvan Jungle Lodge, Banjaar Tola Tented Camp, Mahua Kothi Jungle Lodge and Pashan Garh Wilderness Lodge bring elegance and class to the jungle stay.
Apart from sighting of the big cat and other wildlife, the feel of living in a forest and listening to the early morning birdsong has a pull of its own. The “Soaring the kites” event in Old Delhi which sees the kite festival in January goes back centuries to replicate an old festival not only offers a great photo opportunity but envelopes you in a very Indian tradition. These experiences your routine tour operators are unlikely to include in your itinerary. They must be searched, found and booked through your own efforts and relying on word of mouth.
Running the course of majestic Rivers
Summer and winter river cruises on any of India’s majestic rivers are a great way to see the country’s coastline. The longest river in India, the Brahmaputra, runs through the spectacular scenery of Assam and is an ideal introduction to river cruising in the country. Summer cruises are also organised on Hugli River between Calcutta and the Ganges. The ‘kettuvallam’, or traditional rice barge tours in Kerala are a wonderfully relaxing way to explore the backwaters. These giant 80ft (24m) long crafts are converted into simple, furnished houseboats with en suite bedrooms, dining area and deck. They are crewed by a captain and cook who cater to your needs while you watch life along riverbanks.
Exploring city centres
Delhi is a city of fascinating contrasts, with remnants from the 12th to 19th centuries juxtaposed with the modern architecture and bustle of the newer parts of the capital city. Take a guided walking tour of old and new Delhi through Jama Masjid, Qutab Minar, India Gate, Parliament House and Gandhi’s house. Just three hours away is Agra, home to the majestic Taj Mahal. To the south, Udaipur sits serenely on the shores of Lake Pichola, where a private cruise offers postcard-worthy vistas at every turn. Mumbai, with its majestic harbour, marked by Gateway of India, an 85-foot-high arch offers a private boat ride taking you to rock-cut cave temples on Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Back on land, glimpse everyday life at the Dhobi Ghat outdoor laundry and book a table at any of the fascinating sea front restaurants that have a night life that compares with the best in the world.
There are few cities in India that qualify as true party places. Where not just foreigners but Indians too, especially young people, head out to have fun, let their hair down and have the time of their lives. Goa, the erstwhile French capital, which still has a strong Portugese influence, with its beaches, great sea food and a laidback lifestyle is an alluring getaway. For many it is also a place they can come and spend longer stretches of time, taking up studio apartments in quiet villages and just experiencing the quaint ambience of the place and the simplicity of its local people. Goa’s biggest draw is its beaches. Each of the beaches, whether it is Colva, Anguna, Baga or Fort Aguada, each has a special pull of its own. An abundance of water sports, all night full moon parties, church tours taken on bicycles and motorcycles and cruising on the backwaters that connect Goa to the state of Andhra Pradesh, there is a lot to do in Goa. The beaches have the maximum draw. Here you can find a quiet spot to sun bathe, swim, and get tanned as local masseurs will try the different therapies they have mastered over the years. Staying in a good five star property will ensure that your privacy is not invaded and touts promising all kinds of magical cures and antique wares do not disturb your quiet moments of seclusion. Most hotels have excellent beach fronts and they offer sailing, paragliding, dolphin cruises, water scooter rides and a host of other activities. A lot of people prefer going to Goa during the offseason too, which is the monsoons, to avoid the tourists though beaches would have to be carefully navigated around that time.
Spa retreats and more in God’s own country
Calming nerves, rejuvenating senses and pampering bodies and minds is now becoming an emerging need, whether the person is 20 years old or 80. A range of day spas has come up in the country, offering regular city goers the option of checking in for the day and taking a variety of treatments that are soothing for the body, mind and soul. The Asian Roots chain is a favourite with locals and expats who come in for 3-4 hours and take a massage, facial, a body scrub and polish. Then there are fully equipped spa resorts nestling in the lap of nature, mostly mountains offering yoga, meditation and other therapies. A third category of spas have been created within popular hotels and resorts, giving residents a choice of taking a treatment during the course of their stay. Kerala is a hot destination for international yoga & meditation retreats and spa treatments. If your idea of India includes the rustic serenity of its countryside, then Kerala, which is known as God’s own Country, is certainly not to be missed. There is much to see here – including the extraordinary Hindu murals of the 16th-century Dutch Palace in Kochi – but the main attraction here is the peaceful backwaters of Kumarakom, best explored by traditional rice barge. As your boat snakes up the narrow canals, the sights and sounds of daily life on display on the banks are a feast for the senses.
Kumarakom in Kerala has a plethora of resorts to choose from. Aveda resort has one of the largest open swimming pools that stretch out to the river with an inhouse spa. The palm fringed beaches of Kovalam and Varkala are places you lose track of time.
Most tour companies have excellent cab services and guides who will be with you through the entire duration of your road journey, speaking excellent English, catering to your every wish and making sure you have a most personalised and cared for vacation. They will pick you up from Chennai or Cochin airports and work the itinerary depending on what you want to do. Whether it is a beach vacation at Kovalam or taking you to spice farms and tree houses in Munnar and Alleppy or houseboats on the backwaters where you will be served excellent sea food, vegetarian fare, there is plenty to get tempted with. Munnar is known for its lush tea estates where you can stay and participate in plantation activities. Wayanad with its abundant coconut palms, thick forests, paddy fields, and lofty peaks form the landscape. You can stay in hotels but equally good are the upmarket homestays in old century-old Kerala homes.
Where every you go and whatever you choose to do, travelling to India is a fascinating once-in-a-lifetime experience where every 200 kilometres languages, food habits, dress codes, customs, festivals and food patterns change. For centuries, India has embraced many cultures, traditions and religions and incorporated these into its own system, creating a unique and an all-encompassing country that combines modern with the traditional.
© This article was first published in Nov/Dec 2015 edition of World Travel Magazine.