DESTINATION • October 2019
As Diwali approaches and preparations for the Hindu festival of light are under way, now is the time to book a flight to India and join in the colourful celebrations. Whether it’s your first time in the country or you’re escaping on a honeymoon, Monisha Rajesh, author of Around India in 80 Trains, hand-picks an itinerary to suit you
From starlit camel treks and yoga retreats to houseboat holidays and white-water rafting, India offers myriad choices for new visitors. To ease yourself in, explore the Golden Triangle of New Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Fly into the roar and grind of the capital and spend a couple of days haggling for silver jewellery, pashminas and bedspreads at Hauz Khas Village, lunching on hot Mughlai kebabs at Karim’s in Old Delhi, and rummaging for books in Khan Market’s beloved Bahrisons. Rise early and board the two-hour Habibganj Shatabdi Express to Agra to see the Taj Mahal, from where you can take another train to the Pink City of Jaipur and wander through the shadows of its old forts, markets and charming haveli townhouses. Then, spoil yourself with a night at Rambagh Palace, former home of the Maharaja of Jaipur – or at least take afternoon tea on the manicured Mughal lawns, breathing in the aroma of jasmine as peacocks strut about.
Willing to try everything from bhel puri to fried brain? Then Mumbai is the city for grab-and-go street food, family-run joints and fine dining. Start with a breakfast of kheema pav at Olympia Coffee House in Colaba where, for less than a pound, you’ll get a saucer of fried minced mutton to mop up with a warm buttered bap, and a cup of strong, sweet coffee. For lunch, move on to Trishna in Fort. Doused in garlic butter, Chettinad chilli, black pepper or Tandoori masala, its jumbo crabs are the city’s best, so tie on a bib and prepare for the long haul. If you have space left over, finish at Bademiya (pictured above) in a backstreet behind the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Colaba, where diners on mopeds or perched on car bonnets eat chicken tikka rolls and seekh kebabs fresh off the coals.
Known as the Lifeline of the Nation, Indian Railways carries more than 20 million passengers a day, thundering through cities, winding up mountains and skimming coasts. There is nowhere quite like it on earth for its variety of trains, and no better way to see the country than perched in a doorway with a cup of tea. The Mandovi Express from Mumbai to Goa takes 14 hours to meander down the Konkan Coast, the Arabian Sea glittering on one side, the Sahyadri Hills rolling on the other, while the ‘toy train’ from Kalka jolts and winds up the mountains to Shimla. However, to travel in style, book a suite on the Deccan Odyssey; it takes eight days to travel from Mumbai to Delhi, stopping at Ranthambore National Park – for tiger spotting – plus Jaipur, Udaipur and the ancient caves of Ellora and Ajanta. You’ll sleep under a plump white duvet, dine with silver cutlery and clink a gin as the train speeds through the night.
Fondly known as God’s own country, the southern state of Kerala is perfect for escaping, well… everyone else. Lush and green, packed with palm trees and coconut groves, it’s famed for luxury houseboats that glide along the backwaters, offering a glimpse into quiet village life. Hire a traditional kettuvallam that comes with one or two bedrooms on board (pictured above), and lie back with a beer in hand as you’re steered along Lake Vembanad, hearing nothing but the gentle slap of water against the sides. Your chef will lay out a lunch of local specialities, including fresh masala prawns and fried cabbage in coconut, and at dusk you’ll dine on more delicacies before docking for your overnight stay on the water, the sound of crickets ringing into the darkness.
It’s impossible to walk more than a few paces in India without spotting a chai wallah pouring steaming arcs of milky tea. Each vendor uses a unique combination of flavours including cardamom, clove and ginger, but to taste the Champagne of teas, take the trundling toy train from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling and spend a couple of days on a tea estate. The luxury Glenburn Tea Estate encourages guests to pick tea alongside bent-backed women waist-deep on the cool, dewy slopes, or if you’d prefer to volunteer with local people, stay with a family in one of Makaibari Tea Estate’s villages. Don’t miss the 4am sunrise over Mount Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest. Hire a shared jeep from Chowk Bazaar to Tiger Hill and sip a morning brew as the first rays fire the snow-capped peaks with apricot light.