The Taj Mahal. Ever since childhood, even the mention of it has
evoked the most exotic of visions. But would it live up to my
expectations? I would have to wait until the end of my Cox &
Kings 10-night journey to Northern India and the Kerala region of
the country to find out.
In spite of the relatively weak U.S. dollar, India still offers
luxury travel opportunities at reasonable prices. And for
Westerners traveling to a country where your senses, emotions and
health concerns can be stretched far beyond the bounds of most
travel destinations, the investment may well be worth it. For North
American travelers, India is not only geographically but mentally
on the other side of the earth.
While Air India offers the shortest flying time from the West
Coast 18 hours and 40 minutes and three classes of service aboard
their 747-400 from Los Angeles to Mumbai via Frankfurt, I opted for
a Singapore Airlines flight utilizing the state-of-the-art Airbus
340-500. Yet, it was with some trepidation that I took my seat on
the Singapore Airlines nonstop from Los Angeles to Singapore. Not
that I have a fear of flying, but my underlying claustrophobia was
kicking in at the thought of a 17-hour-plus flight. Business class
on the modified Airbus 340, however, soon put my fears and then my
body to rest. A great dinner, a view-on-demand movie on my private
screen and the reclining-into-a-flat-bed seat put me out two hours
after takeoff until somewhere over the South China Sea.
The economy section has also been specially configured for
ultra-long haul flights with wider seats, more room between seats,
a 2-3-2 seat configuration and a standing/stretching area always
stocked with fruit, snacks and drinks.
Next stop, India.
Hooray for Bollywood
Passing women in saris, cows weaving in and out of traffic, the
exotic scents of curry emanating from the roadside stands the ride
into Mumbai from the international airport leaves visitors with no
doubt as to where they are.
A Cox & Kings representative met our group and after
checking into the Oberoi with its amazing views of the Arabian Sea
we headed out for a tour. Cox & Kings was established in 1758
and their personnel are experts on all facets of travel on this
side of the globe.
An afternoon tour of Mumbai included a visit to the Gateway of
India, a massive arch that commemorates the visit of Britain’s
George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Years later, the last of the
British troops exited India through the arch to board ships back to
Back at the hotel we dined at Tiffin, a new restaurant on the
Oberoi property with a very cool and trendy atmosphere. More than a
few “Bollywood” stars have been spotted in this hip restaurant,
which is no surprise as Mumbai is home to the largest filmmaking
industry in the world.
Going from bustling Mumbai to Udaipur in Rajasthan was a nice
segue to a very different part of India.
Two gentlemen with camels greet arriving guests at the entrance
to The Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur. The 30-acre palatial resort is on
the banks of Lake Pichola and has views of the 17th-century palaces
of Jagmandir and Jagniwas. After an afternoon walking tour of the
palaces we returned for an Indian feast served on the patio of the
A two-hour drive to Ranakpur to visit the 15th-century Chaumukh
Jain temple the next morning was well worth the time. One of the
most beautiful temples in India, it was worth it not only for the
destination but the journey as well. We saw sari-clad women
balancing containers of water on their heads, camels being led by
the side of the road and men at work on a water wheel drawing water
from the ground. These same scenes could have been witnessed
The drive itself though is not for the faint of heart. Local
drivers seem to make a game of passing cars on blind curves. I
believe in fate, but not nearly as much as these drivers apparently
Back at The Oberoi I treated myself to a little pampering at The
Oberoi Spa by Banyan Tree. Holistic therapies and massages that
combine Eastern and Western practices are used by therapists there
that are hand-picked for Oberoi Hotels and Resorts from the Banyan
Tree Spa Academy in Phuket, Thailand.
That night we ventured over to the magnificent Taj Lake Palace
for dinner and a tour of the hotel’s luxury suites. Each room is
truly worthy of a maharajah. This location has a long rich history
and has been the subject of countless paintings and
An early morning flight brought us to Cochin, once the center of
the thriving spice trade and now the principal port on the Malabar
Coast. The scenery here is tropical versus the arid north we left
four hours earlier. Cochin’s rich trading past is reflected in the
Portuguese, Dutch and British influences evident in its
architecture. Because of this history, Cochin is fantastic for its
After witnessing a magnificent sunset over the Arabian Sea, I
returned to the Trident Hilton Cochin and went to the on-site
Ayurveda Centre for a synchronized rejuvenation massage. Two
masseuses work on you from head to toe and at several points, pull
in opposite directions. While it’s reminiscent of the medieval rack
torture, the results are much more pleasurable.
The next day, we boarded the Oberoi Hotel Group’s beautifully
appointed eight-cabin M.V. Vrinda for a two-day cruise exploring
the picturesque backwaters of Kerala. I was looking forward to
slowing down from the fast pace we kept and I was not disappointed.
There’s something about a cruise that seems to balance the senses
and this gentle ride helped digest the incredible experiences of
the past few days. In the evening, performances of classical dances
distinctive to Kerala by a local dance troupe added to the flavor
of this magical place. After dinner, I retired to my cabin for a
what turned out to be a much needed night’s sleep.
The next morning brought a spectacular sunrise. We transferred
to a traditional rice boat to ply the narrower canals of the area.
Shore excursions from the rice boat to several small towns along
the way including Chambakulam, with its 18th-century St. Mary’s
Church and half-statue of Lord Buddha at Karumadi gave us a glimpse
of daily life.
After a lunch of Indian delicacies topped off by a special
request I made for a warm brownie with strawberry ice cream,
Rashida Anees of Cox & Kings smiled and leaned close.
“Everything is possible in India,” he said. “Except changing
night to day.”
From what I had experienced so far, I believed it. After two
relaxing days plying the calm waters, it was on to New Delhi and
I Become a ‘Have’
No trip to India would be complete without a visit to the Taj
Mahal in the town of Agra.
After spending a night in New Delhi, we took a two-hour express
train to Agra. Just getting through the train station was a trek in
itself. People seemed to have taken up residence on the floors,
benches, platforms, wherever they could. The train cars, even the
air-conditioned one we were booked in, had seen better days. Of
course, there are luxury train options available for clients as
well (see sidebar), but I actually enjoyed this taste of real
A guide from The Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra was waiting for us on
the platform as our train pulled into the station. The hotel is
located less than a half-mile from the Taj Mahal and offers
unobstructed views of this wonder of the world from most rooms.
In fact, walking into the lobby of the hotel gave me my first
look at the Taj Mahal. It was simply overwhelming. I could not stop
staring at it until an inner voice convinced me that it would still
be there after I checked in. I dare even the most hardened of
travelers not to be awestruck by the site. I understand now why
President Clinton, after his visit to the Taj, divided the world
into two: those who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who haven’t.
I was now a full-fledged member of the “haves.”
A golf cart shuttles hotel guests to the entrance of the Taj
which was built by the Moghul Emperor Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for
his most beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. I spent a morning and a late
afternoon at the Taj to observe the white marble under different
lighting conditions. I removed my shoes, entered the dome and
circumnavigated the enclosed area which houses for eternity the
bodies of Mumtaz Mahal and the Shah Jahan who was laid to rest
beside her upon his death.
A visit to the Taj Mahal was a great way to end an incredible
journey to an incredible country.
Every adjective invented both good and bad could be used to
describe India. It is certainly a land of extremes, and a must-see
destination for serious travelers. Traveling through the country is
like living a National Geographic documentary. And for those who
want the National Geo experience during the day and the life of a
maharajah at night, India offers the opportunity at prices that
even non-royalty can afford.
|Visiting India in Style: Tour Operators|
I can’t say enough about how happy I was with Cox &
Kings on my visit to India. However, the country has so
much to offer and so many ways to experience it in luxury.
One unique experience is to travel by luxury train. As the new
exclusive North American General Sales Agent for Deccan Odyssey and
Palace on Wheels, SITA, a tour operator based in
Southern California, offers travelers the option of traversing
India’s vast and exotic landscape aboard these two luxurious
“The romance of train travel is alive and well in India,” said
Max Aly, director of sales for SITA.
An eight-day journey on the Palace on Wheels goes through
historic Rajasthan and culminates in a visit to the Taj Mahal. The
Deccan Odyssey is a weeklong journey through little known regions
of Maharashtra. The trains operate between the first week of
September and the last week of April.
Aly pointed out that 2 percent of the one billion people in India
travel the world’s largest train network on a daily basis.
SITA also offers a 14-day “India in Luxury” tour for those who
prefer other modes of transportation. The tour visits Delhi, Agra,
Fatehpur Sikri, Ranthambhore, Jaipur, Amber Fort, Udaipur, Ranakpur
and Mumbai, with nights at Oberoi hotels.
For those who want to travel more independently but have
arrangements in place, Orient Flexi-Pax Tours,
part of the Isram World Group, in addition to providing a variety
of group tours, offers year-round tours by private car. Their North
7 Days/6 Nights tour goes to Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and then back to
Delhi. Their Silver Plan has guests staying at the Delhi Hyatt
Regency, the Rajputana Sheraton in Jaipur and the Mughal Sheraton
in Agra. The Gold Plan includes stays at the Delhi Taj Palace, the
Jai Mahal Palace in Jaipur and the Taj View in Agra. The Platinum
plan uses Oberoi hotels in those locations.
In 2006, Tauck World Discovery will launch its
18-day A Portrait of India grand tour. This new journey brings
Tauck’s signature “insider access” to Rajasthan and the Golden
Triangle in the north and tropical Kerala in the south. Tauck
guests stay at the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, at the Oberoi
Udaivilas in Udaipur and the Rambagh Palace, a former residence of
the Maharajah of Jaipur. Other hotels on the itinerary include the
luxurious Imperial in the heart of New Delhi, and the 100-year-old
Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai, which blends Moorish,
Oriental and Florentine styles. Tauck has created a host of
“insider” experiences for its guests, such as a dinner near the
Raja Ghat along the Ganges River in Varanasi.
Many travelers recommend a visit to Varanasi, the holiest of the
Hindu cities where many visitors get their first view of the sacred
Ganges River. Ritual is a very important aspect of Hinduism and
there is no better place to observe it than at the Ganges. The area
is also very important to Buddhists with short excursions available
to the nearby village of Sarnath to the spot where Buddha is said
to have given his first sermon. The Taj Ganges is the hotel of
choice for high-end travelers to this incredible city.
For clients with lots of rupees around $20,000 U.S. worth
R. Crusoe & Son offers the ultimate high-end
India trip using a private aircraft and private train along with
more conventional high-end tours. Clients stay at Oberoi and Taj
hotel properties including the Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambhore,
India’s first luxury jungle resort adjoining the Ranthambhore Tiger
Reserve. Luxurious tents include private walled gardens and decks
overlooking the Reserve.
Oberoi Hotels & Resorts has a special
Exotic Vacations offer over the summer and monsoon seasons
providing an opportunity to experience India in luxury at a
discounted price. The Exotic Vacations offer allows for combining
nights from various Oberoi properties throughout India.
“The Exotic Vacations sale is the ideal opportunity to
experience India with the gracious Oberoi hospitality, ultimate
service and luxury,” said P.R.S. Oberoi, Oberoi Hotels &
Resorts chairman and CEO. “The hotels offer a unique wellness,
cultural and culinary experience of India through ayurvedic
treatments, yoga sessions and special cooking classes.”
The Exotic Vacations offer includes accommodation for two in a
deluxe double room at all resorts, and in a luxury, air-conditioned
tent at the Oberoi Vanyavilas; roundtrip transfer from the airport
or railway station; and a 50 percent discount on all spa
|Web Exclusive: STAYING HEALTHY IN INDIA|
The World Health Organization Web site (www.who.int/en/) is one of
the first stops that clients should make when planning a trip to
India. Here are some tips:
All travelers should visit either their personal physician or a
travel health clinic four to eight weeks before departure.
Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccinations are recommended for all
travelers. A one-time polio booster is recommended for any adult
traveler who completed the childhood series but never had polio
vaccine as an adult. All travelers should be up-to-date on
tetanus-diphtheria, measles-mumps-rubella and varicella
Prophylaxis against Malaria with Lariam, Malarone, or
doxycycline is recommended year-round throughout the country
including the cities of Delhi and Bombay, except at altitudes
higher than 6,500 feet in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Jammu,
Kashmir and Sikkim. Insect protection measures are essential. Wear
long sleeves, long pants, hats and shoes rather than sandals. Apply
insect repellents containing 25-35 percent DEET to clothing and
exposed skin. For children between 2 and 12 years of age, use
preparations containing no more than 10 percent DEET and apply
sparingly. Do not use DEET-containing compounds on children less
than two years of age.
Travelers’ diarrhea is the most common travel-related ailment in
India. The cornerstone of prevention is food and water precautions.
All travelers should bring along an antibiotic and an antidiarrheal
drug to be started promptly if significant diarrhea occurs. A
quinolone antibiotic is usually prescribed. An antidiarrheal drug
such as Imodium or Lomotil should be taken in addition to the
antibiotic to reduce diarrhea and prevent dehydration.
Do not drink tap water unless it has been boiled, filtered or
chemically disinfected. Do not drink unbottled beverages or drinks
with ice. Do not eat fruits or vegetables unless they have been
peeled or cooked. Avoid cooked foods that are no longer piping hot.
Cooked foods that have been left at room temperature are
particularly hazardous. Avoid unpasteurized milk and any products
that might have been made from unpasteurized milk, such as ice
cream. Avoid food and beverages obtained from street vendors. Do
not eat raw or undercooked meat or fish.
Bring adequate supplies of all medications in their original
containers, clearly labeled. If you have significant allergies or
chronic medical problems, wear a medical alert bracelet.
Make sure an individual’s health insurance covers medical
expenses abroad. If not, supplemental insurance for overseas
coverage, including possible evacuation, should be considered.
Adequate to excellent medical care is available in the major
population centers, but is usually very limited or unavailable in
U.S. citizens visiting India are encouraged to register at the
U.S. Embassy in New Delhi or at one of the U.S. consulates in
India. They may now also use the Department of States new Internet
Based Registration System to register