They don’t call it ‘Incredible India’ for nothing. It’s a country of wondrous diversity offering everything from ancient architecture and history, deeply layered culture, recreational and extreme adventure, gastronomic experiences, health and wellness, nature encounters and ultimate luxury.
I travelled throughout the North and South India, accompanied by Worldwide Adventures team members: tour managers, representatives, resource persons and registered guides; and then meet up with a travel agent familiarization tour for the last four days to experience the South.
The Worldwide Adventures team lives by the fundamental practices of luxury, simplicity and transparency. Just like my own customized itinerary, each of their journeys are thoughtfully curated to ensure their clients will receive the best each destination has to offer.
As you read through my trip journal, you will agree, their team members are outstanding, each with their own merits and experiences that can only enhance our own.
I would like to take this opportunity to personally thank Balu Menon and all of the Worldwide Adventures team members who travelled alongside me, including but not limited to Manoj, Shiv, Sajid, our wonderful driver Raj, Not only were you dedicated to ensuring that I had the most amazing trip of my life with your extensive knowledge, kindness and care, but you all also possessed a great sense of humour that I so enjoyed. I would also like to thank all of the resource persons and registered guides who spent so much time answering all of my questions (some very personal), and happily educated me on your wonderful country and customs; and all of the hoteliers that showed so much hospitality during our site inspections and stays.
I am so excited to share my amazing adventure and journey with you!
Day 1: Arrive Delhi
I arrived early morning into Delhi, India’s capital city with around 17 million inhabitants, and was met by Manoj Abraham, Worldwide Adventures Asia’s Chief Logistics Manager, along with my personal driver Raj, both whom have been with the company since it initiated (as have many of WWA team, I was to learn later). Draping a garland around my neck; handing me a beautiful wallet with my trip book, and taking a few photos standing by the WWA vehicle, I felt warmly welcomed into the team, and to this incredible country.
We arrived at The Leela Palace, located in the heart of Delhi, a hotel that is a testimony to grandeur, seamlessly blending with its majestic surroundings. After receiving a bindi (red dot) on my forehead, (that I soon came to learn upon arrival at every hotel following, became an official welcome); I was dutifully checked in for the next two nights stay.
Day 2: Delhi
My eyes, heart and spirituality have truly been opened to this amazing country and its people. Through my kindred spirit and Senior Resource person from Worldwide Adventures “Pretty” Priti, (also an astrological and numerology counsellor, and prior Indian TV series actress), along with exploring this wonderful city, I also learned so much about my inner self that will help me follow the path I started on earlier this year.
Together, we visited Humayun’s Tomb, built by the wife of Mughal Emperor Humayun, Haji Begum in the mid 16th century. This red sandstone structure is considered to be the predecessor of Taj Mahal and one of the best examples of Mughal architecture. Then we took a rickshaw through the narrow winding streets of Old Delhi, passing colourful bazaars, sacred temples and colonial monuments. We continued to the white marble Jama Masjid (Friday Mosque), the largest mosque in India; drove by the Presidential Palace, Parliament House; and the iconic Red Fort; and finally arrived at the Sikh Gurudwara temple where more than ten thousand people flock each day to pray and are served a free lunch, made in the most gigantic cooking vessels I have ever seen.
Day 3: Delhi - Varanasi
After a seamless transfer, including check-in assistance at Delhi Airport and a short flight, I arrived in Varanasi early this morning, location of the Ganges, the Holy river and holy site of Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism. I was met by Worldwide Adventures registered local guide Ajit, then driven to the beautiful Taj Ganges Hotel. A piece of paradise amongst the crazy! The land of Varanasi (Kashi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Formerly known as Benares, Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. Hindus believe that one who is graced to die on the land of Varanasi will attain salvation and freedom from the cycle of birth and rebirth. We spent some time at the holy site of Sarnath, the site of the deer park where Gautama Buddha first taught the Dharma after his enlightenment. Amongst the ruins, the Dharmekh Stupa is impressive at 128 feet high, dating back from around 200 BC and is the spot where the Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon.
This evening Ajit and I walked the streets of the city. In all my travels I have never experienced anything like this. On our way to the river we shared the road with honking scooters, motorbikes (some carrying families of 5), pilgrims, worshipers, sadhus, cows, goats, buffalo and stray dogs. I was told there are three things you need to remember when driving in India. Good Horn. Good Brakes. And Good Luck!
We arrived at the ghats at the Ghanges to witness the Aarti Ceremony which is part of the evening puja or prayers. During the ceremony deewas (oil lamps) are offered to Mother Ganges with thanks and devotion for the light of the sun and for her divine light. As the Aarti fire ceremonies took place, bells rang, smoke billowed and chanting and singing provided a fascinating, magical and spiritual experience.
Day 4: Varanasi - Agra
Morning surprise! Not many people get to wake up in India on their birthday. (Well apart from the millions who live here of course)! This morning I received a foot bath in the amazing executive suite I was upgraded to, and a delicious chocolate cake. I was then greeted by the Worldwide Adventures Varanasi office Manager and presented with a lovely bouquet of flowers. Following that, along with my private guide, Ajit, we took a stroll through the congested city streets to the foot on the Ganges for my surprise blessing by a priest. I am now truly blessed in all ways!
I am so overwhelmed today with the love and hospitality I have received from everyone I have met on my special day. I said this morning that I am, (and was literally) truly blessed. Due to the kindness of Balu Menon, owner of Worldwide Adventures, I have experienced the most amazing birthday in my life, and with people I have never even met before a few days ago, and some only today. I have received more room amenities, cakes, flowers and beautiful silk scarves. I flew at noon from Varanasi to Agra. I was greeted by Worldwide Adventures Tour Manager & Adventure Specialist, Shiv and my private driver Raj, who came down from Delhi. After lunch, we met up with our local resource person, (who is a Haji having visited Mecca), a historian, and also an amazing professional photographer (see some of my pics). We visited the Agra Fort, a great monument of red sandstone. After a quick site inspection of the Amazing Oberoi Amarvilas hotel overlooking the Taj Mahal, we checked into the Taj Hotel & Convention Centre, also a fabulous property. This evening Shiv and I enjoyed platinum front row tickets to a live theatre performance “Mohabbat-e-Taj” with traditional Indian dancing based on the love story of the Taj Mahal.
Day 5: Agra - Jaipur
Today was the day that every first-time visitor to India longs for. An early morning sunrise visit to the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. And it didn’t disappoint...apart from the weather. being cloudy we didn’t get to experience the sunrise reflections of rose and gold hue. So surely now I have a reason to return. My Al Haj guide once again took over my camera and left me with so many incredible memories. The construction of the Taj Mahal began in 1631 and is believed to have taken 22 years to complete with over 20,000 craftsmen working around the clock. What makes the Taj Mahal unique is its perfect proportions and distinct femininity.
Following our Taj Mahal visit we continued our five-hour road trip to Jaipur, known as the Pink City. One of the great cities of the Rajput, with historic forts, palaces and gardens. A true contrast to where we had been for the past few days. The drive was full of spectacle, as our tour manager, Shiv said “the view is never boring”. The constant traffic, honking horns, bikes, pedestrians, bicycle riders carrying huge loads, markets, and of course an array of animals, cows, donkeys, buffalo and stray dogs wandering around in the road, just added to my delight and enhanced the journey for me. Enroute we stopped at Bharatpur to visit one of the many schools that Worldwide Adventures Asia has been helping to support, funding newly built bathrooms, drinking water projects and creating training programs. The children were so delighted to greet us and initiated me as a Rajasthani.. This evening Shiv took me to a local hot spot for dinner.
Day 6: Jaipur
Jaipur is a magnificent contrast in atmosphere and scenery from where we were yesterday morning, with its hilly terrain, wider streets and green countryside. We entered through one of the eight gates of the old walled city, recognized as a World Heritage site, where the streets feature continuous colonnaded businesses that intersect in the centre, creating large public squares called chaupars. Markets, stalls, residences and temples abound. We visited the Jantar Mantar, the largest of five remarkable observatories built by Jaipur’s founder, representing medieval Indian astronomy. Next the City Palace, a formal royal residence.
We continued to Amer, to see the Amber Fort, a spectacular complex of palaces, temples and apartments that offers a stunning view of the city. You can really feel the pomp and grandeur within this magnificent structure, as you move between the royal halls, with walls decorated in intricate ivory, mirror and glass. Then to Dera Amer, for lunch, a small wilderness camp, where you can enjoy an exclusive glamping experience, interacting with the elephants and nature walks.
Finally, the highlight for me personally, Shiv took me to a textile manufacturer where I was shown the process of block printing; and had the opportunity to make a small piece of my own.
Enroute back to our hotel we made a brief stop for a site visit of the modern and contemporary Trident Hotel; and the luxurious Taj Rambagh Palace hotel. Originally built in 1835, Rambagh Palace has stepped gracefully through many royal transitions— from the home of the queen’s favourite handmaiden, to royal guesthouse and hunting lodge, and later as the residence of the Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II and his queen, Maharani Gayatri Devi. Today, this jewel in the Taj’s crown offers 78 stunningly restored grand luxury rooms and suites which were the chambers of the former Maharaja. The palace retains its elaborate splendour, extravagantly decorated with hand-carved marble or latticework, sandstone balustrades, cupolas and ‘chattris’ and elaborate Mughal Gardens.
Day 7: Jaipur to Jodhpur
Today, continued our journey to the “Blue City”. Enroute we stopped for a short site visit of the Royal Heritage Haveli. A unique hotel offering 18 individually designed suites, each with their own colour palette and hand painted fresco ceilings. The six-hour highway road trip to Jodhpur was anything but boring, with the usual array of animals; cows, buffalo, dogs etc., wandering around, standing or lying by the side, or in the road blocking traffic. I have to give credit to our driver Raj for his amazing driving skills. We arrived around 5pm at the Ajit Bhawan, India’s first heritage hotel. An absolutely delightful property, with large rooms and huge bathrooms, and once home to Jodhpur’s erstwhile Maharaja’s younger brother, Major General Maharaj Dhiraj Sir Ajit Singh Ji.
This evening we dined alfresco on the patio of Khaas Bagh. Inspired by the Imperial legacy of a bygone era, Khaas Bagh is Jodhpur’s tribute to the swashbuckling lifestyle of Princely India. An exclusive niche of Royal luxury, Khaas Bagh is a ‘hallmarked’ boutique hotel that epitomizes Victorian grandeur. The restaurants, bar & suites on offer are complemented by handpicked memorabilia of the “Raj Period” that include a fleet of dazzling Vintage Cars.
Day 8: Jodhpur
Today, we spent the entire day exploring the amazing sights of Jodhpur. Our first stop was the incredible Mehrangarh Fort, towering above the city, with amazing views, and setting of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In the museum shop we met the artist of the Peacock in the Desert exhibition that recently completed a tour including the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
Next a short walk-through Sardar market, where locals buy their daily wares. Surprisingly tourists are not hassled to buy, as tourism is not this city’s main form of income. Jodhpur is well known for their marble and stone, along with wood furniture. We visited a well-known textile manufacturer often frequented by celebrities such as Richard Gere and Paul McCartney, whose other clients include custom made throws in cashmere and silk for famous designers such as Hermes. The owner supports Women’s Welfare offering employment to hundreds of women throughout the country. Of course, I wanted to support the cause and bought an exquisite, luxuriously designed throw (limited Hermes overstock), for a fraction of the retail cost in Europe or North America.
Late this afternoon I got an opportunity to visit The Umaid Bhawan Palace Hotel! And it was mind-blowing! This Palace Hotel was the most opulent hotel I have ever seen. Not surprisingly as the palace is divided into 3 areas. The museum, the hotel and residence of the current Maharaja Gaj Singh ii. It took 16 years to build between 1928-43 and is the second largest residence in the world, covering 25 aces, with 347 rooms, of which 75 are part of the hotel. On arrival we were greeted like royalty with red carpet treatment, as you cannot enter the palace gates unless you have a reservation to stay or have a personal invitation to visit. With our MDs high connections, he is also able to request an invitation for our clients to receive a twenty-minute audience with the Maharaja. Now that would be an amazing and unique experience!
Enroute back to our hotel, our Jodhpur office manager invited us to tea which was a lovely surprise and a delight to interact with a traditional Indian family in their home.
Day 9: Jodhpur - Narlai
We left Jodhpur and drove 22kms into the countryside to the village of Salawas, to the home of Roopraj Durry Udyog and his wife, now recognized globally for their contribution to a Rug Making Co-op that helps women in surrounding villages to be self-sustainable. I had a go at interlock weaving and have to say it takes quite the skill.
We continued into the picturesque Aravalli hills making a detour to stop by the famous Jain Temple in Ranakpur. We were met by the Priest and shown around this beautiful 15th century marble complex, noted for the 29 halls supported by 1,444 pillars, each adorned with hundreds of carved figures, with no two alike. This Zen structure, that took 65 years to build was strategically planned in a symmetrical design to bring light to every corner.
Our next stop was lunch at the delightful Mountbatten Lodge, an opulent 4-suite hideaway nestled in a ruggedly scenic valley and bordered by the Kumbalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. The Lodge provides a luxurious base to experience the true essence of Rajasthan where you can enjoy multiple activities including horseback riding through jungle trails, leopard and Jeep safaris, and sundowners in the mountains. After a relaxing gourmet lunch under a 300-year-old banyan tree we left to continue our drive to Narlai. To my delight, the road to Narlai offered exceptional viewing with a smorgasbord of animal livestock including cows, goats, sheep, dogs, pigs, monkeys, a mongoose, a chameleon, and some camels, wandering around at the side of the road, or in the road blocking traffic as usual.
We arrived at the 17th century village of Narlai late afternoon and checked into the Rawla Narlai, a beautifully restored hunting lodge, now a delightful heritage hotel with amazing views of Elephant Hill, a spectacular granite rock that you can climb to the top and admire the view. We took a short stroll around the village including the temple and were invited into the villagers’ homes where the children followed begging us to take photos with them. Later we returned to the hotel for a turban tying lesson before dinner.
Day 10: Narlai - Udaipur
Early this morning, we had the opportunity for an optional climb to the top of the granite rock (Elephant Hill). Here you can admire the colossal statue of the elephant guarding the village and feel spiritually awakened, so I was told by our Mumbai tour manager, Sajid. I opted out as its quite a steep climb and having once attempted to climb a granite rock in Texas, I knew I wouldn’t get very far!!
Later we said goodbye to the wonderful people of this village for the three-hour drive to Udaipur. This was the first fast highway I believe we have driven on, and although it made the journey quicker, I have to say I really missed the cows!
Upon arrival at Udaipur, we drove to the dock to meet our boat transfer over to the Leela Palace Hotel. I was overwhelmed with the scenic beauty of this city. Once again, this city offered something completely different from where I had been before, and the one before that. I now understood why it’s called the “City of Sunrise” and is considered India’s most romantic city (and most popular wedding location). Built around four lakes, with shimmering white palaces and temples across the water. The view from my room was incredible. We did a site inspection of the Leela Palace then took a boat across the lake to see the Oberoi Udaivilas. Both these hotels are spectacular.
Day 11: Udaipur
We enjoyed a lovely relaxing day with a morning visit to the Jagdish temple which enshrines a black stone image of Lord Vishnu and his vehicle - a mighty Garuda (bird) in a brass image. The temple is a fine example of Indo-Aryan art. Then the City Palace, the largest palace complex in Rajasthan. It’s spread out through a conglomeration of buildings built by successive rulers with impressive views of the lake.
In the afternoon we took a boat ride over for a site visit of the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, located on the island of Jag Niwas in Lake Pichola, originally built in 1746 by the young Prince, Maharana Jagat Singh as his own pleasure palace. Restored to its pristine glory, spread over 4 acres with just 83 rooms and suites, this spectacular palace hotel became world renowned when the James Bond film ‘Octopussy’ was filmed there. Its location on an island in the midst of the lake affords every room with breathtaking views of the neighbouring City Palace, Aravalli Hills, Machla Magra Hills and Jag Mandir. Here you can be pampered as a royal at Jiva Spa, with a spa boat experience like no other. Carefully created treatments draw on the ancient wellness heritage of India, and the fabled lifestyle and savoir vivre of Indian royalty. Known as the Venice of the East, the city of Udaipur, with its elaborate palaces, serene lakes, exotic temples and resplendent gardens, has become known as the most romantic place in India, and an ideal destination for fairy-tale weddings and magical honeymoons. After experiencing the splendour of the Taj Lake Palace, we enjoyed a long relaxing boat cruise around Lake Pichola to watch the sun go down.
This evening the team treated me to a lovely last night lakeside dinner at Tribute Restaurant. The meal, and of course the company was outstanding.
Day 12: Udaipur - Kochi
Today I flew to Cochin, in south India, the commercial capital of Kerala, which took up most of our day, and where we would encounter a very different Indian experience.). We checked into the Brunton Boatyard Hotel.
Day 13: Kochi
I woke up early this morning to the sound of ships horns from the nearby harbour and then floating past my window along the shipping channel, part of the Vembanad lake that flows through to the ocean. First on the agenda was yoga. After the hustle and bustle of the north it was time to slow down and chill out. And where better than in “God’s own country.”
Breakfast was a culinary experience and I broke all my rules of no fruit, salad, dairy, pre bottled water, and only eating Indian vegetarian food that I strictly stuck to during the northern part of my journey.
We are staying at Brunton Boatyard, a colonial style hotel that was built on the site of an 18th century British boatyard, and operates under the CGH Earth system (clean, green, healthy). The hotel has its own Eco filtered reverse osmosis rainwater system and operates under fundamental principals and core values. http://www.cghearth.com/
Once again, I was astounded by this city, in contrast to the last one, and the one before that. The difference in south to north, is like being in a different country. Here we are on the ocean with balmy breezes and coconut palms. Everything has slowed down and surprisingly no cows!! Here Hindus live alongside Christian’s, Catholics, Buddhist’s, Jains, Jews (now only 2) in complete harmony. As for the sacred cow roaming the streets, there are none.
We took a walking tour through Wilmington island and the historic part of old Kochi, at Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, filled with picturesque tiled roofs and pastel-coloured buildings. Kochi has the best natural harbour in India, set amidst picturesque lagoons and backwaters. After participating in the very manual heave-ho process of pulling up the fishing nets, we visited the Dutch Laundry. This seems to be a very enterprising business where men and woman set themselves up in the manual laundry service. First, they collect their clients’ laundry, then hand wash it in brick cubicles banging it on the stone. Then rinse and hang out to dry on their dedicated lines. Following which there’s ironing with a ten-ton iron that I couldn’t even lift. Folding and delivering it back. So cool!
Next, we went to see St. Francis church, the oldest church built by Europeans in India, and finally Jew Town, location of the only active Jewish synagogue in India. Until 1948 when Israel declared its independence, this was once the heart of the thriving Cochin Jewish community. After most of the Jewish community departed to Israel, their houses were turned into quaint shops around Synagogue Lane and Jew Town Road, selling antiques, carvings, vintage collectibles, along with Keralan crafts aromatic spices and clothes. Laid- back outdoor cafes and artsy eateries, some in-heritage buildings serve local specialties and Western fare. Until a few days ago when Sarah Cohen unfortunately passed away aged 96, there are now only two Jews remaining, both over 75. I wonder what will happen to the synagogue after their demise with no one to care for it.
Later that day, we were presented with the most gorgeous golden silk saris, including the customary petticoats and blouses; and enjoyed a personal sari dressing experience courtesy of Worldwide Adventures India (just another example of the amazing customized experiences WWA offers to their clients). All six of the ladies in our group now beautifully dressed were treated to a private performance of a spectacular Kathakali Dance drama, a unique combination of literature, music, painting, acting and dance. Finally, our evening ended with a delicious gourmet dinner of local fish specialties, and a desert to die for.
Day 14: Kochi - Kumarakom
Today we travelled 2 hours to Kumarakom, voted among the 25 best getaways in the world by Conde Nast. On arrival we transferred to a wooden canoe to reach Coconut Lagoon, a CGH Earth Experience and Ayurveda Spa Retreat. https://www.cghearthayurveda.com/ This exquisite hotel is constructed from fragments of Kerala palaces with beautiful carvings and brass work, set on an abandoned coconut plantation that can only be reached by boat. You can feel the stress dripping off your body as you enter this gorgeous property. Our luxury villas were outstanding with front porches overlooking the water, a walled-in private back patio and plunge pool leading through a gate to a back covered deck overlooking water on the other side.
Later, we took a leisurely boat ride to Philipkutty Farm, set on an island in the backwaters of Lake Vambanad. Our gracious host Anu Mathew and her mother treated us to a Keralan cooking lesson made with age-old recipes passed down over generations, cooked with wholesome local ingredients, which we then got to enjoy for lunch along with an array of other items.
In the evening we watched the sun go down on the boat and then returned to the hotel to enjoy an amazing Martial Arts show and a lovely private dinner by the water.
Day 15: Kumarakom
Time to really chill out! First an early morning yoga meditation, followed by an Ayurveda spa experience, a 5,000-year-old Indian system in natural healing. This incredible experience began with a consultation with the doctor to discuss any physical and emotional issues, and to see what type and pressure of massage I should receive. I was directed to sit on a stool for a traditional Indian head massage. I don’t think I have ever felt anything so amazing as the therapist rubbed her fingertips through my hair with medium head pressure. I then laid face down on the table whilst two therapists poured oil all over my body, then all I could feel were 4 hands pressing and chopping in complete synchronization.
Rotated over for the same on my front, followed by a shower scrub. Forty- five minutes of bliss ended all too soon!
After breakfast, and now totally de-stressed, we boarded a deluxe houseboat for an afternoon relaxing cruise through the backwaters, passing along a series of canals, lined with village homes, coconut trees and various other vegetation. Lunch on-board was freshly cooked by our on-board chef and presented in true Keralan style on banana leaves that we had docked to collect along the way. Manoj said we had to eat it the Indian way. No cutlery. Somewhat challenging picking up rice and sauces with your fingers, and very messy when wearing a white top. At the end of our cruise, we returned to the hotel to plant a tree.
Our evening ended with a dance show followed by a relaxing buffet dinner, and I was somewhat sad as this was my last night in south India.
Day 16: Kumarakom - Kochi - Delhi
Our last morning in Kerala, and my last day in the south. Early this morning with our luggage, we boarded a country boat for a trip to explore the backwater villages and discover more about village life. The villagers live a simple, hassle-free self- sustaining lifestyle. We moored the boat and interacted with some of the families who demonstrated the coir yarn process, made from coconut fibre found between the hard inner shell and the smooth outer surface of the coconut. They also showed us yoga mat weaving, how to climb the coconut trees and the many plants growing around their herbal gardens.
We then returned to the dock where Worldwide Adventures had pre-arranged a car to take me back to Cochin airport for my return flight to Delhi.
I arrived into Delhi early evening for my overnight stay at the Trident hotel.
Day 17: Delhi - Homeward Bound
Sadly, this evening I had to say goodbye, to catch my flight back to London. My love affair with India may be over, but I am taking the most wonderful memories and a huge piece of India in my heart. Until next time!!
Jacqui Budd is a respected advocate and industry veteran, with over 40 years of extensive travel industry experience specializing in sales, product development, supplier relations & marketing roles for prominent global travel organizations.