Our brilliant travel expert Lesley travelled to India with Cox & Kings to experience this outstanding and colourful country. Here is her Cox & Kings India review…
Arrival in Mumbai
I was met at Heathrow by Greg and Nita from Cox & Kings, Chris, Nicola, Bev, Gayle, Jane, Kent, Joseph, Matthew and Paul. British Airways Club Class was the first treat, making the journey comfortable, though I only managed a couple of hours sleep. However, the service was with a smile and the attentive team was friendly and helpful.
Arriving in Mumbai, a few had problems with the fingerprint reader at immigration, but eventually all were through and we were met by the Cox & Kings representative and bags loaded onto the minibus.
About 1.5hrs later, we arrived at the Taj Hotel, right opposite India Gate. The stunning hotel, proud of its historic heritage, had fabulous artefacts and paintings lining the colonial feel corridors. It has the wow factor and I would certainly recommend anyone to stay there, even if it’s just for one night.
The Ravi Shanka suite was full of memorabilia, one of his sitars and pictures of him and John Lennon. Club rooms have the added benefits of cocktail hour and afternoon tea. We were shown several rooms and suites, some of which have fort views which are worth upgrading to.
We strolled around India Gate, the ornate historic archway, watching colourful boats picking up passengers, taking photos and having photos taken of us with some new Indian friends. The city tour then took us via Victoria Terminus, the fabulously royal looking railway station, to Chandra Chowk, the thieves bazaar. Shops spewed out their wares onto the narrow streets, antique brass, furniture, carvings, masks, ornaments, tools and more, all for sale or for use in Bollywood movies.
We were taken to one shop, with a challenge to make it to the back of the store. Not advised for anyone with claustrophobia or breathing difficulties, an aisle little more than a foot in width allowed us to snake through… Piles of statues, models, masks, puppets, it was there, dusty and neglected.
Quite how anyone could find anything was beyond me, the piles were above head high and it was difficult to manoeuvre without bumping into things. We turned around and snaked back to daylight and the lively street. Negotiating sellers carrying their wares on their head, long trolleys full of everything from car tyres to metal poles and laundry, goats following us and finally braving the traffic to get to our minibus, we headed to The Oberoi our hotel for the night.
After having been on the go for over 24hrs, feeling a little dusty and city battered, a shower and change of clothes was welcome.
The Oberoi Hotel
Very modern in style compared to the Taj, The Oberoi is set around a huge atrium, feeling very airy and spacious. We were shown around the rooms, even the more basic ones were lovely. Dinner was hosted at The Trident, the sister hotel next door. Very much a business hotel, dinner in the restaurant was Pan Asian mix and a nice way to end the day.
The bed at The Oberoi was probably the most comfortable I have ever slept in! It was hard to get out of bed, especially when I looked outside and it was pouring with rain. I did manage though and went for a swim in the rain, much to the amusement of the pool attendant. Then it was a light breakfast before being picked up for our flight to Udaipur.
Mumbai’s domestic airport was modern, spotless and so quiet. Having been to India before, there was none of the chaos, crowds or noise you come to expect.
Welcome to Udaipur
Our Air India flight passed quickly, with a light meal of Dahl and bread, then we were touching down in Udaipur. Bags arrived quickly and we were whisked off to our hotel, the Fateh Prakash Palace. The hotel is part of the City Palace, overlooking the serene Lake Pichola.
My room, 601, was in the Dovecote wing, with huge double doors leading into a suite of rooms, overlooking the lake and lake palace. A quick change and we were marched to our restaurant at the Amet Haveli Hotel. Our route took us through the palace grounds, where there was a loud sound and light show going on. Briefly halted to let the Prince and his family pass, we then went through the palace gates and came out in the hustle and bustle of the narrow lanes.
Tourist shops selling miniature paintings, arts and crafts, silver and clothing lined the route, as we negotiated the motorbikes, rickshaws and cows! Dinner was a long drawn out mix of dishes, breads and sweets, in a stunning location with great views of the lake and palace.
After a comfortable night and breakfast, we met our guide for the rest of the trip, Yogi. He guided us around the palace and museum. The Maharajah is known as Maharana, as maharajah means ruler, but Maharana means protector and apparently, he is well respected for this. Beautiful miniature paintings lined the walls, something Udaipur is well known for. The silver room was stunning, with lots of ornamental ceremonial artefacts, even a JCB and biplane made from solid silver.
The streets in Udaipur are potholed, the traffic manic and road etiquette non-existent, but it seems to work, albeit slowly! We visited another hotel, Fateh Niwas, which was on the far side of the lake. Nice enough 3*, but a bit far out and the approaching road was atrocious.
Time was running out on us, as we had a 4pm boat ride on Lake Pichola. We got there just in time and donned our attractive life jackets. The boat took us to Jagmandir Island, but sods law, the moment we arrived marked the start of a monsoon downpour, accompanied by flashes of lightning and huge thunderclaps. We ran for shelter and spent half an hour trying to stay a bit dry, unsuccessfully!
Finally, the boat could make its way back and it was then a quick change and straight out to our evening’s entertainment. This was a cultural performance at Bagore-ki-Haveli, a restored mansion made into a theatre. Our approach was complicated by deep floods, and we ended up having to squish seven of us into a rickshaw, mostly to save the chaps shoes!
Dance Show at Bagore-ki-Haveli
I’m not normally a fan of cultural evenings, as often they are just touristy and a little fake. However, there were more locals in the audience, who all got very animated at the different songs and dances. Colourful dancers swirled around, with hand gestures acting out stories, all were enjoyable. One was a fire dance, three women dancing with dishes of flames on their heads, another dancer spinning around with 11 bowls balanced on her head, an amazing feat and finally a master puppeteer making three puppets come alive. All very entertaining and worth including on any visit to Udaipur. It was a hugely engaging and colourful spectacle.
Sadly, the next morning was time to leave Udaipur. We had a brief stop at one of the top miniature painting emporia, where the owner showed us how the paints were all from natural stones, plus gold and silver leaf. The delicacy and detail were stunning, with paintings taking their artists three months or more to complete. Brushes are made from camel eyelashes and paintings are done on either paper, silk or camel bone (ivory was previously used).
Then it was time to make our way to Narlai, via the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur. There’s a pretty decent toll road for 1.5hrs out of Udaipur, then after a comfort break at some services (above average cleanliness, though squat loo), we turned off and headed through some pretty, but winding hills. We all began to realise what a good driver we had… Several lorries had come to grief on the bends, their lonely carcasses left to be absorbed by the jungle. We passed a snake shrine; Cobras are sacred, but rare. Most common snakes are non-venomous and only four are dangerous apparently.
Lunch was held at the lovely HRH Fateh Bagh Hotel. We had a brief tour around, but it was lovely, with even a swing double bed! Each of the 18 rooms had a different theme. Lovely and peaceful to relax and visit Ranakpur.
The Ranakpur Jain temple has 29 chambers, all marble with intricate carvings and statues. You’re not allowed to wear leather, shoes, or take anything inside (Inc boiled sweets). Camera permits are 100rupee but that’s just for one camera or phone, not both. We only had half an hour, but enough to listen to the audio guide and see the main parts of the temple.
The Rawla Narlai Hotel
Then it was another hours bumpy ride to The Rawla Narlai Hotel for a two-night stay. We nearly hit a cow, not surprising considering they lie in the middle of roads all the time, oblivious to the traffic. I asked if the cows belong to anyone, but the ones seen wandering have been set free as they don’t produce milk anymore. It’s not a problem in the countryside, as there is plenty of space and grass. But, in the cities, it’s become a great problem and many Indians are moving to buffalo as they are not sacred and once finished providing milk, can be slaughtered for meat.
Our approach to the hotel took us through narrow village streets, not the usual grand entrance, but a gate to a courtyard and a Moghul style property. The Rawla Narlai Hotel was once a favourite hunting lodge of the Maharajah of Jodhpur. Surrounded by forested hills and a rocky outcrop, over the years it has been transformed into a stylish boutique hotel, whilst keeping its original structure and character. My room was a surprise, with an ancient door and a wooden bar to lock myself in. Spacious and decorated in old, heavy furniture, no windows, but stained-glass alcoves and another ancient door to a small patio.
We then headed out to stroll around the village, visiting a shrine cut deep into rocks, only accessible by a single steep track of steps, ducking low to avoid the rocks above. The village is known to be quite wealthy, with a large and ornate council building, built into the hill above the village. Lots of children came out to say hello and have their pictures taken and to practice their English. We visited a couple of homes, that were very traditional with animal byres alongside the living areas. The homes we visited receive money from the hotel for allowing tourists to visit, so we were free to take pictures without feeling embarrassed.
Dusk was setting in, so we negotiated a flock of sheep, cows and buffalo to get back to the hotel, in time for a lovely dinner on the rooftop restaurant. A reasonably early night was needed, as nine of us had signed up for the 6am safari the next morning!
The safari set off just before sunrise, four in our jeep and five in the other, plus driver and guide. We were quickly off-road, bumping through streams and banks until we arrived at a rocky outcrop. A few minutes studying revealed nothing. However, the walkie-talkie then fired into life and we were off, as a leopard had been spotted ten minutes away. We arrived at another hill, to see a leopardess relaxing on a ledge. She had four cubs, and they only made a brief show, but their mum stayed still for quite some minutes before she disappeared. We then went around the rock further, to a flat ledge where the two jeeps could park up and we could just pick her out in the bushes. Tea, sandwiches and biscuits were served as the sun came up. Such a wonderful way to start the day.
The rest of the day was a restful break by the pool.
The evening excursion started with the women being given shawls and turbans for the men, then we were led to our waiting transport, bullock carts! Not the easiest to get into, or the most comfortable but we only had about a ten-minute ride! Jungle noises of Cicada, frogs and bats accompanied the journey, plus loads of insects, including fireflies dashing around with their bright glow. We arrived at a clearing, where a large rectangular pool was lit and surrounded by thousands of oil lamps. Very pretty, there were twelve tables set in a horseshoe, with a singer/sitar player squatting in front, painted face, orange robes and turban. He accompanied us during the Thali dinner, lots of dishes presented on a tin platter. The dishes included mutton curry, dhal, okra, yoghurt, chutney and breads.
A Journey to Jodhpur
Next morning I had an early swim, light breakfast and then the journey to Jodhpur. Again, the service stops were clean, quite a relief after what I’d experienced in the past. We stopped for lunch at the Rohetgargh Hotel, located in a small village about an hour from Jodhpur. We were met by the very charismatic manager, Vimal Kaka, resplendent in his Jodhpurs, who showed us around the delightful property.
Originally a private home, each room was superb, loads of horse pictures, fittings and even pillars on the ceilings. Some of the rooms had windows with views of the stables behind. The local horses have curly ears, unique to the area. Vimal explained that the property was unique and had quite a following of celebrities, including Madonna.
He also had another property, The Mihir Garh. He offered us a jeep safari to see the local wildlife and villages. We clambered into the three jeeps, thankfully canopied as it was extremely hot, then set off. First was sightings of wild antelope in the brush, then we headed to a small village. We were led into a small courtyard, where sat an elderly chap, looking extremely young for his 83 years. He then explained how they grow opium poppies locally, though the government come and extract the seeds and milk, they are left with the casings. They distil this with water, producing a mild opiate which is apparently good for everyday health. He then showed us how he distils it and the ceremony of serving it. This consisted of a prayer and then pouring the liquid into a cupped hand, to be sipped three times. A few of us tried it. It tasted earthy, with no adverse side effects thankfully!
We then visited a Bishnu community, a very old people who still live in traditional thatched huts clad with clay and cattle dung. Their crops are maize and lentils, with goats, cattle and buffalo sharing the compound. One of the girls was still in her spotless school uniform, doing her homework in a hut, in very basic conditions… School was a 6km walk each way.
Madonna’s favourite place to stay
After this, we headed to Vimal’s’ pride and joy, a nine bedroomed private retreat, Mihir Garh. A favourite of Madonna’s, the hotel had been awarded Relais & Château status. It was exquisite, each room individually decorated, some with a private plunge pool, others with a jacuzzi. It was an understated luxury, all the staff chosen for their experience and high standards, not local people sadly. Both hotels were set up to be as ecological as possible, no plastics, solar water heating and sourcing local ingredients wherever possible.
Time was getting on, so we said our goodbyes and carried on to Jodhpur. We arrived at the Ajit Bhawan Hotel just after dusk. Another heritage property that is half Maharajah residence and half hotel. Little thatched cottages dotted around the lovely grounds, mine was on the first floor, a stunning blue themed, circular suite with balcony, overlooking the garden restaurant. We had been due to go to a local restaurant, but as we were late, decided to eat in the garden restaurant. It was a bit disappointing, as it took nearly an hour for food to arrive and some dishes were a bit standard.
We had an early breakfast and set off for the day’s explore. The first stop was at the Jaswant Thada, a beautiful white marble cenotaph, guarded by noble-looking gentlemen with fabulous ornate moustache. Apparently, the moustache is a point of pride, plus being useful to avoid sand and dust getting into the mouth.
Then it was on to the impressive Mehrangarh Fort, a huge rust sandstone fort atop a massive rocky hilltop. We took a lift, that reminded us of the old Grace Bros one in “Are you being served”, to take us up to the entrance. Inside, there were lots of intricately ornamented palace rooms, paintings and ceremonial sedan chairs, elephant seats and armoury. A couple of hours wandering around, taking pictures of the blue-painted Brahmin houses below and even having a break to listen to a musician in a quiet corner, the whole place was atmospheric and impressive.
The Raas Hotel
After the fort, we were taken by tuk-tuk to another hotel, The Raas. This boutique oasis was set next to a huge step-well, which used to be the local bathing and clothes washing area for the town. The hotel owners had purchased the whole square area, cleaned it up and converted old houses into the hotel, shops, cafes and B&B’s… For use by locals as well as tourists. We had a site inspection, rooms were fine, but not memorable, though some did have fabulous views of the fort which towered over the hotel. The colour scheme was the Brahmin Blue, so very much in keeping. Lunch was in the cafe overlooking the step-well, very steep steps and no health and safety!
As the hotel was right in the centre of the old town, we had the chance for a stroll around the bustling bazaar. All types of wares, clothing, bangles, saris, shawls, household goods, plus spices, foods and electrical goods were bargained for in a deafening fashion, total organised chaos! We were led to a small fronted shop, where our guide Yogi told us we could get household textiles at a fraction of UK prices. We were led up a couple of floors to a room with bench seating, surrounded by thousands of pieces of material in every colour imaginable. The owner then proceeded to bring out throws, duvet covers and pashmina to tempt us with.
Getting back to the hotel was in a convoy of tuk-tuks, which was pretty hair raising, especially when we started going the wrong way on a dual carriageway!
The evening was spent visiting the Taj Hari Mahal Hotel for a brief site inspection. A large Taj hotel, it felt soulless, despite being luxurious. Dinner was at the Indana Hotel, a huge modern hotel on the outskirts of town, close to the army barracks. Even less impressive, the hotel felt as if it was stuck in the 90s, remote and although fairly new, I wouldn’t recommend it. Service in the restaurant was lack lustre and the buffet dinner was standard fare.
We had an early start for the journey to Bikaner, but just enough time to drive up to The Taj Umaid Palace Hotel, which was high on the skyline, and slightly resembled the Taj Mahal in Agra. The guards weren’t too impressed with the bus coming close but allowed us to take some pictures through the gates.
Bikaner and the Thar Desert
After another bumpy ride for 4hrs, we finally started coming into desert terrain, camels becoming the mode of transporting goods instead of cattle or donkeys. Bikaner wasn’t somewhere I knew about, its famous for a fort, veterinary facilities and a government-run camel farm.
The Narendra Bhawan Hotel was home to the last reigning Maharajah of Bikaner. We were serenaded by a bugler on arrival, 1920’s jazz music wafting through the air and a real feel of art deco style. The interior was like a museum, artefacts everywhere and the art deco theme continued, but with an Indian style too. My room was stunning, art deco furniture and features. The water bottles were glass and the hotel prides itself on recycling, avoiding plastics and saving energy. The only negative point was that although there is a rooftop infinity pool, there were only three double sunbed cabanas. We had a short hotel inspection and each room got more impressive. Still all 1920’s in style, but very chic colour schemes and furniture designed to portray the era, but not antique. Stunning wall hangings lined the corridors, pictures containing old silver hairbrushes, old photographs, perfume bottles, lockets and vintage copies of classic books and even Encyclopedia Britannica volumes perched in a decorative way.
At 5.30pm we were met by three enclosed jeeps and set off on our sunset safari. We came off-road to what would normally be desert and sand dunes but was still quite green due to the recent rains. There were massive electric pylons as far as the eye could see. This ruined the sunset photos but is good for the local villagers who now have electricity, though not freshwater yet. Standards over the last ten years have improved the quality of life and things like tourists and infrastructure are helping. The fact that there are now excursions in these more rural areas, employing local people and training young people to give them a career in tourism is great to see. The safari ended with dinner under the stars. Rows of tables set in a horseshoe around a small, low, stage, with rope lighting separating the levels. Four musicians and two ornately dressed ladies entertained us with music and dances, including the fire dance with seven bowls balanced precariously on one dancers head, as she twirled, danced and even balanced on knives and nails. Dinner started with chips, then some tandoori chicken and fish, then soup, then a buffet of curries. At the end, we were shown around by the manager and given a tour of some of the tented camp sleeping option.
We visited Bikaner Fort the next day next, which was only about 5mins from our hotel. Just before it opened at ten, there was a commotion in the entrance and a parade arrived, Indian bagpipes and drums and ladies giving out garlands, then decorated camels arrived and apparently it was world Tourism Day! We had photos taken with various dignitaries, much to our amusement. Bikaner Fort was much smaller than Jodhpur, but exquisite and equally impressive. The dryness of the area has helped preserve the colourful paintings, mosaics, inlaid glass and intricately carved woodwork. We only had an hour, longer could easily have been spent there. On exiting, the carnival atmosphere was still going on. More people had arrived, including a TV crew and a gentleman with his beard in a hair net. Within seconds we were given the spectacle of him unravelling his beard, passing it along with us on both sides, until it was fully extended. I can’t say it smelt that nice, but the film crew enjoyed filming our discomfort!
Journey to Jaipur
A long journey to Jaipur was ahead, approx. 7hrs, so we headed off along a reasonably good highway, much better than the previous day. Stopping briefly for lunch, we then broke the journey at Fatehpur, a town with lots of ornate, abandoned Haveli, or manor houses. The old owners still own the property, but can’t afford to renovate or repair, so leave it empty hoping better times will come. Sad to see such elegant houses fall into ruin.
Then resumed our journey to Jaipur. The scenery along the journey was enough to keep us from being bored. The traffic of colourful lorries, with tassels and garlands for good luck, carrying everything from livestock bouncing along, sacks piled higher than the sides, some with people balanced atop, to huge bulging lorries of crops… the full-size lorry cab being almost engulfed. Camels, donkeys, water buffalo all pulling carts and goods, motorbikes with whole families squeezed on carrying their shopping. The constant sound of horns blaring, not being aggressive, but just to let others know you’re there. Crops being picked, mostly by colourful sari-clad women, piles of haystacks waiting to be collected. Desert turned greener as we sped along the dual carriageway, still having to dodge the occasional kamikaze cow. A few carcasses were spotted, surprisingly few considering the number of cows around. Markets with fruit and veg brightly displayed, food stalls and sellers with mobile sweets and snacks line the streets, oblivious to our passing. The people and children who do spot us, look curious, but smile and wave and you get one back.
We arrived in Jaipur around 7pm, too late to go out to a local restaurant sadly, so dinner was had in the hotel restaurant. The hotel is another converted Maharajah lodge, just on the outskirts of town, with a small pool that looked inviting in the evening, but not appealing in the morning light, didn’t look too clean. Breakfast was a buffet, with tea/coffee etc out of a machine, not what we’d become used to! It was our last full day in India, so we first visited the city museum and photographed the stunning Pink Palace, then visited the peaceful Astrology gardens. It was fascinating to see huge sundials/pillars set geometrically perfectly for all the star signs. Jaipur old town still retained the hustle and chaos that I remembered from 30 years ago, but the new town is full of modern shopping malls, new highways and homes.
Lunch was at another gorgeous Maharajah converted palace, with a huge pool, gardens and lots of intricate corridors weaving around the property. We were led to a small seating area, brought champagne and snacks. Thinking this was a bit odd for lunch, we tucked in anyway…. only to be taken through to the palatial dining hall and given a four-course meal! It was Joseph’s birthday the next day and the hotel even provided a cake! After this huge meal, we set off to visit Amber Fort, about 15 minutes drive outside of town, past a huge lake. Buses can’t climb up the narrow streets, so we transferred into four rickety jeeps to save us hiking up to the entrance. There was a festival that was due to start the following day, but people were already queuing up to get their spaces secure, as free food was on offer for the devotees. Amber Fort is a huge hilltop, pink sandstone building, with lots of Moghul minarets, pillars, courtyards, gardens and places of worship. Left to wander, it was fascinating to people-watch, such colourful sari-clad women, children running around and even an angularly faced model having a photoshoot.
Afterwards, we were given the chance to visit a jeweller, something Jaipur is famous for. The tour started with showing the traditional way to cut and polish gemstones. Then it was into a huge store, with jewellery of every kind. I was interested in vintage silver, but the prices they were asking were higher than in the UK.
Our luggage had been taken by our lovely bus drivers, so we checked into Jaipur airport and said our sad goodbye to our lovely guide, Yogi. A short flight to Delhi, to be met by our coach was great, and the driver was a bit bemused by our applause! Our last night was at the modern Andaz Airport Hotel and we were greeted by the marketing manager, who then joined us for drinks and a light meal. Such a friendly team, another birthday cake for Joseph and it was time for sleep in the spacious and comfortable rooms.
The airport was only ten minutes away, so it was an early start to the airport. I couldn’t believe that you still have to get your name checked off a list before entering the airport! The final confirmation that the fabulous and frustrating Indian bureaucracy still stands!
It had been a fabulous, informative, visually stunning trip and I will definitely be back.