India in Style

A luxury tour of India is the trip of a lifetime, turning one writer from a ‘have-not’ to a ‘have’

By: Mark Edward Harris

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 England.

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 hotel.

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 centuries ago.

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 do.

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 photographs.

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 shopping.

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 then Agra.

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 India.

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 trains.

“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 India
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 treatments.

Web Exclusive: CONTACTS

India Tourism
213-380-8855 (Los Angeles)

(Visas are required for U.S. passport holders. The Indian Consulate in San Francisco ser-vices the West coast.)



Cox & Kings, The Americas

The Deccan Odyssey

Isram World Group

Jet Airways

Oberoi Hotels and Resorts

The Palace on Wheels

R. Crusoe & Son

Singapore Airlines

SITA World Travel

Tauck World Discovery



The World Health Organization Web site ( 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 immunizations.

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 rural areas.

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 (