India by Cheryl Locke

In April, I was very privileged to have been given the opportunity to join If Only, a lovely Tour Operator with whom we work closely, mainly to the UAE, on a trip to India. I was to experience first-hand the services that our clients receive when booking a tour or tailor-made holiday with If Only.

Friday 21st April –  Our group met at Heathrow at 07:30 hours  at the BA bag drop area. We experienced a slight delay due to one of our group not having a printed copy of her Indian E-Visa. Although having been electronically approved, unlike E–Visas for other countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia, they need to be shown at check-in and you cannot proceed with bag drop without it. However, without too much of a problem, this was arranged to be printed in the BA Business Lounge and we were soon good to go. Tick – first piece of knowledge gained to be passed to any client travelling to India which I wouldn’t have known about without experiencing myself!

Our British Airways flight was the Boeing Dreamliner which, probably due to the time of year we were going (pre monsoon season) was more than half empty in economy class, therefore proving to be a very comfortable flight.

We landed at about midnight, passed through the immigration section very easily and retrieved our bags which were already on the carousel. It was far less busy than I had expected and we were quickly met by the representative from If Only’s ground handler, TWX. We had a few minutes to obtain some cash from a nearby ATM as, being a closed currency, Indian Rupees cannot be brought in from the UK.

We made the 40-minute transfer from the airport to the Taj Palace where we were met by their management team and given refreshing drinks – non alcoholic I may add as, due to local elections taking place the following day, alcohol is banned.

The Taj Palace is a 5 star property with 403 rooms and is located in Delhi’s rather upmarket diplomatic district. It is surrounded by the many embassies and government buildings.

Saturday 22nd April – Breakfast offered a good selection of Western choices as well as Indian dishes. Here, over breakfast, we met Anoop – one of If Only’s reservation agents who is one of the most knowledgeable and informed of people who, over the years, has always been a pleasure to deal with. It was now so very nice to meet him in person.

After a leisurely start, we left for a visit to the Taj Mahal Hotel – sister hotel to the Taj Palace – where we had lunch and a tour of the property. This definitely had more of a leisure market feel to it and is in a fantastic city centre location.

After lunch we took a tour of New Delhi, visiting the parliament buildings and India Gate and had a tour of the area around Qutb Minar. This is a 73m tall monument built by Qutb-al-din Aibak and was started in 1192. The origins of Qutb Minar are shrouded in controversy. Some believe it was erected as a tower of victory to signify the beginning of the Muslim rule in India. Others say it served as a minaret to the muezzins to call the faithful to prayer.
After the city tour we returned to freshen up for dinner at the beautiful Imperial Hotel which was about 15 minutes’ drive away. This is a stunning colonial style hotel with fantastic rooms and impressive public areas. The pool area offers a real Oasis in the hustle and bustle of the city centre and there is also an Ayurvedic Spa. We ate in Daniell’s restaurant which was one of the signature Pan Indian restaurants – they have 7 different dining options offering a wide choice and not just Indian dishes.

Today in Delhi local elections were taking place. Due to this, as briefly mentioned, there had been a ban on alcohol sales from yesterday (day before the elections) until midnight tonight. This is certainly something worth checking in advance for clients as even the alcohol in the room’s mini-bars had been removed!

Sunday 23rd April – It was an early start as we headed to Hazrat Nizamuddin railway station for our journey to Agra, which was aboard the Gatimaan Express, India’s first semi high speed train that runs between Delhi and Agra. It operates at a max speed of 160 km/h (99 mph) and is the fastest train in India. We were in 1st class which was very spacious and much nicer than I had expected. The service was really very good, which included a full continental and Indian breakfast along with cups of tea, and the journey provided a wonderful opportunity to see more of the real India.
Upon arrival into Agra rail station we handed our unwanted breakfast items to some children on the platform. Agra was probably our first experience of the poverty that exists. Given that it is a tourist town, there is a higher proportion of beggars and unfortunate locals in poor health. However, whilst I had expected to witness this and it was, of course, somewhat distressing to see, it was not in the volumes that I had expected to experience.

We then headed straight to the Agra Fort for a guided tour. The Agra Fort was the main residence of the Mughal dynasty until the 17th century. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and offers amazing views across the river to the Taj Mahal. This was a really fascinating tour and, despite the heat (temperatures now reaching the mid 40 degrees), really enjoyable.
We were then taken back into Agra where we had a site inspection and lunch at The Gateway Hotel, a well located 4-star property with rooftop views of the Taj Mahal.

Following lunch, we headed to the Courtyard by Marriott Agra where we were to be staying overnight. The rooms here were excellent and the hotel has a very pleasant swimming pool and modern public areas.

In the evening we enjoyed a lovely meal in Bellevue Restaurant at the stunning Oberoi Amarvilas. Here we were shown one of the fabulous suites , but here, even the lead in rooms have amazing views of the Taj Mahal and were extremely spacious and luxurious. A really super property.

One thing we noticed was the heightened security at all hotels and indeed sightseeing attractions. We had to be scanned every time we entered a hotel (although not particularly meticulously!).

Upon return to our hotel we witnessed the celebrations of an Indian wedding, complete with the groom arriving on horseback with money being stuck to his wedding outfit! There were flashing lights, drums and the guests dancing in the driveway to the hotel!

Monday 24th April – It was a 5:30am start this morning for our visit to the Taj Mahal – for me, the highlight of the trip. Again security was tight and all bags and bodies were scanned – we were only able to take with us the bare minimum of water, phones/cameras and wallets/purses.
As expected, the Taj Mahal was stunning. By 6.30am it was already starting to get busy and rather warm. Our guide gave us a full history of the Taj Mahal and explained how it was best to take photographs. There are a number of benches to pose on and we had an “official” photographer who sold some of his inexpensive pictures to us the end of the tour. The actual interior of the Taj Mahal was smaller than I expected it to be, making it more impressive from the outside. We spent about 2 hours taking photos and wandering around the grounds before heading back to the Marriott for breakfast.

Shortly afterwards, we departed by bus for the long drive to Jaipur, approximately a 5-hour journey, but one that allowed us to see some interesting sights en-route.

Upon arrival in Jaipur we encountered typical Indian traffic. Even the journeys around the city are something to behold with Tuk Tuks and motorbikes whizzing in and out of the other cars. Families of 4 or 5 on the back of mopeds (helmets for the parents but not for the toddlers!) and the obligatory cattle wandering through the streets!
Here we were staying at the Hilton Jaipur which is in the South of the city. It was comfortable and typical of the Hilton chain. In the evening we headed to the train station and boarded the Deccan Odyssey train for dinner as it was in Jaipur for the evening.
This gave us the wonderful opportunity to take a tour of this lovely train, and we were shown around the various carriages, of which 11 of the 21 carriages provide en-suite cabin accommodation for their passengers. There was even a fitness centre, a spa, lounges and a bar for passengers to relax in and the dining offered a choice of both Western and Indian food!

Tuesday 25th April – After an excellent breakfast, we headed into Jaipur to explore the city. With over 3 million people, it is large and busy and the streets are a mix of colours, noises, smells – and plenty of bad driving!

Here we even saw snake charmers on the pavements, encouraging their cobras from their baskets!
We continued to the beautiful Amber Fort, which is at the top of a steep hill and we ascended on the backs of elephants. There is an option of a jeep transfer for anyone preferring not to travel by elephant back. The views are stunning and the fort itself is absolutely breath-taking.
This was the only place we were absolutely inundated with street sellers, trying to offload umbrellas, table cloths, hats and anything else they wanted to sell, many of whom would run up the hill with you whilst you are on top of the elephant.

Afterwards, we enjoyed a really interesting tour of the City Palace where the current Maharaja lives in part of the palace. He is just 18 years old and we were shown the timeline of the Maharaja’s through the ages up to the current day. The palace is located inside the Pink City and is home to some beautiful courtyards and gardens.
After an extremely hot morning of sightseeing it was a relief to arrive at the amazing Samode Haveli, a traditional mansion house in the city that has been converted into a stunning hotel. The rooms were beautifully furnished and it was a real oasis in the bustling city of Jaipur.

In the evening we were entertained at the exquisite Jai Mahal Palace Hotel. The low rise hotel is a former palace with beautiful furnishings and acres of grounds. The rooms were large and exquisitely furnished in paler pastel colours and there was a colonial feel to the whole property.

Wednesday 26th April – We headed to Jaipur Airport for our internal flight with Jet Airways back to Delhi. We then took the very impressive metro to Old Delhi – something I had been very apprehensive of doing. But it was clean, modern and cost about only about 50p for the journey! Once in the centre of Old Delhi, we were met by our guide for the day who walked us through the narrow backstreets  to a traditional Delhi home where we were greeted by the owner of the house and settled into his lounge, ahead of a delicious home cooked meal prepared by his wife.

We then ventured out again into Old Delhi. This tour gave us a taste of the real Delhi, travelling by both pedal rickshaw and Tuk Tuk, experiencing one or two crashes and a fair amount of shouting and beeping!

Check in at Delhi airport was somewhat challenging and the Fastrack immigration queue for business class travellers was far from “fast” – Michael Portillo was looking equally frustrated as he lined up behind us in the queue.

We were fortunate enough to be travelling in Club World and all enjoyed a good sleep during the 8 ½ hour flight back to Heathrow.

It was a truly fantastic trip to a country that is certainly unique. It is a total assault on all senses but, as part of an expertly guided tour, it is somewhere that everyone must visit. And my one tip for anyone visiting India is HAND SANITISER!  Well used throughout and the dreaded Delhi-Belly was totally avoided!