It is the most colorful, chaotic and life-affirming country in the world – but planning a trip can feel daunting. The best advice is to curb your ambitions. Trying to cover too much ground on a first visit is a mistake. You will get much more out of a leisurely exploration of a small corner, mixing just a few major tourist sites with downtime in villages or wildlife reserves. Nothing evokes the spirit of India more than strolling through a village during the sundown “dust hour” as the cattle make their way home along dirt streets to mud-brick houses bathed in a soft orange glow.
The best time to visit India is from October to March unless you are traveling north into the foothills of the Himalayas when the air is warmer in April and May and the forests full of color.
With a film version of The Jungle Book, based on the work of Rudyard Kipling, one of the giants of English literature, released on the big screen last year, and another version starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Christian Bale, and Cate Blanchett out this year, the world’s biggest democracy has been drawing much attention. Go on the trail of the author’s footsteps in India, from Shimla – the area covered by the author as a young newspaper reporter – to the ever-bustling city of Mumbai, where he was christened at St Thomas Cathedral.
Kerala has supplied the world with spices since antiquity. Its cuisine has absorbed Chinese, Arab and European influences, from the breakfast rice idlis and dosas to the ginger-and-tamarind pickle accompanying its delicate curries and fragrant birianis. Explore the highlights of Kerala on an 12-night Explorer tour with Kuoni, from Cochin to Kumarakom, including a cooking demonstration and meal in a local family home, a tour of a spice garden in Periyar, an overnight cruise on Kerala’s backwaters and lunch at a local working farm which cultivates various ingredients including coconut, nutmeg, cocoa, bananas, peppers and other spices.
A Wild Cats tour, led by wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt, spends five nights in the Tadoba Reserve near Nagpur in northern Maharashtra – a vast open teak forest that gives the best chance of seeing tigers in India. There are reputed to be more than 70 tigers in the reserve which are regularly seen coming to drink at its two lakes and open waterholes. The second half of the trip focuses on the Jawai Hills near Udaipur in Rajasthan where there is a thriving population of leopards. Accommodation is in luxurious safari-style camps in the reserves. Garbutt will also hold photography workshops.
Rajasthan is the cultural centerpiece of India: the homeland of Hindu Rajput princes who fought Mughal sultans and British politicians to preserve their cultural identity. The result is a feast of flamboyant architecture and traditional arts and crafts that give pleasure at every turn. See my full detailed itinerary for the perfect holiday in Rajasthan offering a unique and carefully-tailored tour of some of India’s most fascinating sights. Wild Frontier’s
To cruise along the Brahmaputra River in Assam is to step back in time. Even the teak-decked riverboats are replicas of those used a century ago to bring tea planters and colonial officers into this remote part of north-east India. A particular highlight of Jules Verne’s seven-night cruise is a safari on elephant back through the Kaziranga National Park in search of tiger and rhino. Other treats on the 12-day Assam and the Brahmaputra itinerary include visits to ancient Hindu monasteries, a tea estate, and sightseeing in Kolkata.
Indian Railways has one of the largest networks in the world, reaching into every corner of the country. The view through the train window is often far more interesting than that from a car or coach. And there are plenty of opportunities to meet the locals. Transindus has a well-balanced rail tour from Kolkata to Delhi. It includes time in Varanasi and Agra as well as rides on two of India’s famous hill railways up to Darjeeling and Shimla, the location for the Channel 4 drama Indian Summers.
The Hindustan Ambassador, based on the Morris Oxford, was the first car to be made in India in the Fifties and is still a favorite of older taxi drivers. Classic Car Journeys offers self-drive touring holidays using lovingly maintained white Ambassadors to explore the southern states of Kerala and Karnataka. Its Classic Himalaya tour in the north uses modern 4x4s and Enfield Bullet motorcycles. You drive at your own pace, supported by a team of mechanics, and meet up with the rest of the group in the evening at the next hotel.
Village Ways pioneered walking holidays in rural India, working with communities to establish guesthouses and train guides. There’s a choice of five areas for inn-to-inn walks, but the Kingdom of Kumaon is the most scenic. Designed as a tailored experience for a couple or a group of friends, you walk with a guide along gentle trails through terraced farmland and the wooded hills of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary in the foothills of the Himalayas. Luggage is carried separately by porters.
Since its founding in 2006 by William Dalrymple and Namita Gokhale, the Jaipur Literature Festival has gone from strength to strength. More than 200 authors and thinkers take part in five days of talks and workshops staged in the grounds of the Diggi Palace Hotel in the heart of Jaipur. There are also concerts featuring contemporary and traditional musicians.
Pedaling along country lanes watching India go about its daily business is a constant pleasure. Adventure tour specialist Explore offers small group cycling adventures in Rajasthan and Kerala. Its Kerala tour is graded easy and offers a diversity of rural rides from the highland coffee and tea plantations, and forest hills to leisurely explorations of coastal communities and unspoiled beaches.