When it comes to memorable experiences, few destinations can compare to India.It hardly bears saying, but India is a million miles from your average vacation destination. Multidimensional and ambitious, the subcontinent bamboozles, frustrates and entrances in equal measure with its cornucopia of sights, sounds, smells and experiences.
Of course, there are semblances of conventionality to be found. Fast-moving cities such as New Delhi, Bangalore, and (especially) Mumbai are developing at a breakneck pace. In these urban centers, you’ll find towering chrome and glass skyscrapers, chi-chi restaurants, luxury hotels, and glamorous young things that square with the image of the modern, prosperous country India aspires to be.
Other aspects of the destination easily digestible for American tastes include the beach enclave of Goa, where a blissed-out hippy vibe is increasingly being sidelined by the advent of expansive resorts and mass tourism. There’s also Kerala, where a cruise through the state’s network of inland lakes and waterways on sumptuous houseboats is a pursuit worthy of all bucket lists.
Yet beyond these tourist touchstones lies an alternate reality that gathers into its enigmatic realm everything from spiritual sustenance and historical manna to snow-dusted mountains and deep jungle where tigers still stake out their turf.
As with every rollercoaster, there are downsides to India’s wild ride that comes with poverty, heat, and overcrowding. That’s India though. You’ll love it, you’ll hate it, but you’ll never get bored of it.
Hit the heights in Ladakh
It’s easy to see why Ladakh is often called India’s final frontier. Almost completely cut off between November and May due to freezing winter conditions, and only reachable in the summer months via the world’s highest mountain passes, it’s a distinct and mystical destination.
The Tibetan influence is strong here. The area is home to one of the last undisturbed Tantric Buddhist populations on earth, and the rugged moonscapes characterizing the region are dotted with colorful prayer flags and temples. Islam has also exerted a major influence, thanks to the region’s proximity to Muslim Kashmir, and Xingjiang in China, but the main tourist sights are concentrated in the mostly Buddhist east.
The first stop on most itineraries is the town of Leh. On one hand, the settlement is like many other Indian tourist towns, with pizza restaurants and internet cafes. But on the other hand, the town’s location at 1,1500ft above sea level, amid Himalayan grandeur, makes it a special place to kick off an adventure. For most, this involves trekking. Although far less geared for walking than Nepal, Ladakh is moving into vogue for intrepid travelers – it's cool, blue lakes, jagged mountains, and deep river valleys provide a remarkable backdrop to a mission on foot. A sample itinerary to this range would be a 20-day trekking expedition to Ladakh.
Royal relics and desert majesty
India offers so many evocative regions, it’s hard to pick out just one. But for sheer drama, romance, and history Rajasthan is tough to beat. The one-time home of the fearsome Rajput warrior clans is an exercise in contrasts. Cities such as Jaipur and Jodhpur are color-charged hubs of activity; their modern energy augmented by reminders of the region’s rich past in forts and palaces.
In the western extremities of the country, the desert takes over, it sun-kissed splendor punctuated by oasis towns such as Jaisalmer. Here, where the Great Thar Desert blurs the line between India and Pakistan, it’s possible to ride a camel out into the dunes or savor the wonder of the town’s sandstone Havelis (mansions).
A highlight of Rajasthan is the romantic city of Udaipur – the ‘Venice of the East’ – which seduces with Havelis (temples). The most famous of these, the floating Lake Palace on Lake Pichola, appeared in the Bond movie Octopussy. Given its arid nature, the region’s wildlife is surprisingly abundant, while colorful saris, towering turbans, and superb cuisine add further luster to a glittering prize. When visiting this region consider a 10-day Golden Triangle tour, including all hotel accommodation, private vehicle for the whole tour, and English-speaking guide. Your tours should take in the major attractions of Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, and Samode.
See the jungle book come to life
Most tourists tend to neglect the central Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, catching only glimpses en route between Delhi and the south. This is understandable on many levels. The lack of coastline doesn’t help, while the holy cities and temples reward domestic travelers more than they do casual vacationers.
There are, however, several compelling reasons to spend some quality time here if you’re a nature lover. The two states – formerly a single entity before they were partitioned in 2000 – are blessed with some of India’s best National Parks. Indeed, if you’re looking to catch sight of the king of the Indian jungle, the tiger, this is undoubtedly the best place to come.
In common with many developing countries, wildlife preservation has been problematic in India. However, conservation efforts seem be working well in central India, and the chances of a tiger sighting in National Parks such as Kanha and Bandhavgarh are good. It’s not all about tigers, though, as these tracts of wilderness – famously the inspiration for Rudyard Kipling’s _ e Jungle Book – are also home to leopards, elephants, jackals, gaurs, and sambars.
Ride the train
With so many sights scattered over a vast area, it’s impractical to cover India by a car while too many internal flights can be a bore. Indian Railways has one of the world’s largest networks and is popular if an earthy way of touring the country. But today, some trains don’t merely take the strain. A few special services have emerged in recent years as ‘land-cruises’, with luxury and convenience blend into one seamless journey with halts at some of India’s stellar attractions. The ‘Palace on Wheels’ is arguably the granddaddy of them all with an excellent itinerary covering most of Rajasthan’s highlights, from the state capital Jaipur and the remote desert fortress-town of Jaisalmer to the ‘Lake City’ of Udaipur and the Ranthambore Tiger Reserve.
A few special services have emerged in recent years as ‘land-cruises’, with luxury and convenience blend into one seamless journey
The Indian Maharaja covers some of the same ground on a Delhi-Mumbai itinerary, as does the Maharajas’ Express, which also journeys east towards Varanasi. The Golden Chariot operates in the south with a route taking in some lesser-known though equally spectacular sights. These trains are very comfortable, for even the most discerning of travelers, with en suite restrooms, showers, chintzy dining, and bar cars. Meals are served by turbaned waiters with sashes, passengers have their own butlers, and, on some trains, there’s even small spas and gyms.
CLIMATE: Mid-September to April is ideal for most parts of India, with warm-to-hot sunshine and little, if any, rain. The Himalayan regions are generally best from April to June, and September to November, except for Ladakh, whose season runs from June to September.
CURRENCY: Indian rupee.
TIME: GMT +5h30m.
GETTING THERE: Airlines flying direct to India are Air India (Newark to Mumbai and New York to Delhi), Continental (Newark to Mumbai), and Jet Airways (Chicago to Delhi).