India…with child. My trip report March 2012
India is amazing, it is complex, it is incredible and completely indescribable. All the brochures and guides you read before a trip just somehow don’t seem to nail the explanation. Someone told me long ago that it’s just something you’ve got to see and experience for yourself. This I learned to be absolutely true.
My travels have been beyond extensive, in all sorts of places and I will tell you that the level of hospitality in India is on an entirely different level. It is intuitive, gracious, discreet, genuine and really must be experienced to be believed. It’s natural, there’s something there that I believe is innate and cannot be taught, and it was beautiful. What we saw was only a small cross section of this country, which goes on for thousands of miles through a myriad of subcultures, customs , languages, landscapes and experiences. India must be experienced multiple times, in fact one may need years to complete the journey fully but taking that first step is important and when you’re ready, we can help.
I debated for quite some time on whether or not to bring my 3 ½ year old. We’ve been taking her around the world with us since she was weeks old, but since the itinerary that was planned for us was quite aggressive, I (for the first time ever) had some reservations. I trusted my instinct and we brought her with- it was completely the right decision, in all aspects. You’ll soon see why.
Reason # 1 why I love my client, Liberty India. We arrived and were met by VIP airport services just steps from the jetway. There are very few, if any, DMC’s in India to offer that type of service. Arriving at 3 AM has its benefits and drawbacks, the airport is just slightly less crowded as it might otherwise be but with our special services, regardless of the crowds we were whisked into the priority line and passed through customs and immigration swiftly, and moved on to our first hotel, the Aman New Delhi.
Aman = Amazing. In every way. I’ve grown ever more in love with this brand with every one of their hotels I experience, and this property has a gorgeous, understated WOW factor. Contemporary sleek furnishings, curious sculptures, dark intriguing corridors, great F&B and the rooms. Incredible- more like large sanctuaries done up in dark wood with high doors, plenty of closet space, bathrooms that go on forever culminating at the end of a hallway with a lavish stone tub. And just when you think you’ve seen enough, you look outside to your patio to find your own private pool, subtlely low-lit, on the outdoor terrace. The service here was fantastic and so discreet that we hardly saw people work their magic. We’d return to find slippers properly placed near the bed, laundry done and packaged so neatly that we didn’t even want to open it, small sachets of gifts on our pillows and more. My jet-lagged little one held my hand as we returned from dinner one evening around midnight, and when we got out of the car she whispered to me , pointed to an idle tuk-tuk (or autocar as they call them there- either way it’s basically a motorcycle front with a covered shell in the back that holds a few people, depending on how creative you can stack yourselves!) and said “What is that? That looks like FUN!” One of the staff overheard her and quickly retrieved the keys and took us on a glorious open air spin around the perimeter, she absolutely loved it. The Aman is truly a beautiful way to get acclimated and get a great rest before embarking on the rest of the journey.
Delhi offers no shortage of interesting sights, it really depends on what you’re interested in. If you are intrigued by history, Delhi has some intriguing places to visit such as the sky high Qutub Minar obelisk built in 1192, Humayun’s Tomb built in 1565, and a very emotional stop at the Gandhi memorial which is where the famous leader was assassinated, filled with a great deal of interesting information and exhibits showcasing Gandhi’s journey for peace.
The traffic in Delhi (and India overall), as well as the driving style is different- different than what we’re used to, different than 90% of the world! It takes getting used to, never ever attempt to self drive especially since there’s no reason, as private drivers are affordable and always what Liberty International includes in any journey, and one must have a stomach of steel to brace some of the near misses that seem to happen all the time. It’s amazing that people actually encourage the blowing of horns, passing in opposite lanes, and cutting people off- it’s just a way to get around and Indians solve the problems of the road quicker than anyone I’ve seen.
Want a completely different type of shopping experience? Try Old Delhi especially on a Sunday- we’re talking hundreds of vendors (that all seem to sell the same things, it’s fascinating in its own way!)- best to cruise the old, crowded streets in a bicycle rickshaw for maximum efficiency in this case if you’re more of a browser than a buyer in this type of setting. This mode of transport worked fantastically well for me.
Leaving Delhi, we continued our journey to Agra- like millions of others around the world, it’s been a lifelong dream to see the Taj Mahal. I know it’s been said many times before, but photos and video just absolutely do no justice to this magnificent reflection of a husband’s love for his wife. Let me backtrack just a tad- how did we get to Agra you may ask? By rail. It is a 4 hour train journey which is slightly quicker and more efficient than the road transfer but again, it is an eye opening experience as you may start to gather is the case across India. The station is crowded, it is not entirely modern and it’s best to try to arrive as close as possible to your departure time to avoid a long wait in the station. Your Liberty rep will have already acquired your tickets which would be given to you by your driver upon arrival, no stress…
The train. First, you’ll only travel in the First Class section. Second, if you haven’t eaten before you embark, not to worry as men pass through the cars at least once every 30 minutes selling hot meals, cold meals, chips, juice, tea, and just about everything else you can think of. Third, think ahead- pack only what you need for the day (and the night prior) and send your luggage ahead with your driver, all you need to do is pack up and Liberty will take care of all the rest- ensuring your luggage is in the car waiting for you when you arrive at the station. The train is not lavish nor luxurious, but seats are slightly bigger than the average airline economy seat with plenty of legroom, power outlets all over the walls and decent storage space for a small bag.
Agra is not a picturesque city, but then again when you have such a world renowned jewel in your backyard, it almost doesn’t matter. My daughter and I have developed this little game centered around some of the world’s greatest sights- she keeps a small picturebook filled with things like the Pyramids, Big Ben, etc and she was overjoyed to proudly be able to check off Taj Mahal. We took the token family photos, we stood in awe for long periods of time, and then we got to get up close. One must remove their shoes when entering, not to worry- guides have small booties that you can put on and swiftly discard after you exit, and the walk through is quick due to the large crowds. However, we had some chances to get up close to the walls which were inlaid with some of the most intricate stonework I have ever seen. More on this art in just a bit.
Leaving the Taj Mahal was difficult, it was an overwhelming sight to see and the story behind it gives you chills, to think it took more than 2 decades to construct this gorgeously crafted monument of dedication is tremendous and once you see how absolutely detailed it is, it’s a wonder it didn’t take 50 years.
I spent a bit of time at the nearby Oberoi Amarvilas, and in my opinion if you’re going to stay in Agra, there is no better place. Rooms and windows in public spaces graciously and gently frame the Taj Mahal in the background , with the signature lavish Oberoi colors, textures and designs inside that make for an absolutely luxurious experience. After a bit of lunch in Agra, we visited a small factory shop which has artisans on hand that still continue the ancient craft of stone inlay work, much of what you see in the Taj Mahal and other structures throughout the area. White marble is hand-etched in design, and the stoneworkers then carefully dab their hands in water while they handle precious stones which they trim down and shape to fit the etchings. One by one, stone by stone, spinning wheels turn as the stones morph into flower petals, elephant trunks, vine leaves and a variety of other designs. It’s interesting to watch and then of course you’ll be treated to a showroom with lots of curious completed designs to purchase.
Leaving Agra, we headed to Jaipur again via road. NB, this is a long drive- approximately 6 hours and almost nowhere to stop in between save for a small hotel that has a restaurant serving tea, with facilities, so best to prep for this ahead of time with snacks and drinks.
Jaipur is known as the Pink City, driving through the areas with the majestic temples, it’s easy to see why, though there is much of Jaipur that appears to be dusted in gold. Perhaps it’s the sandstorms which cause a gentle golden haze, or the colors that the temples and ancient walls have turned, but it is quite beautiful. Our first morning there began with an adventure of multiple proportions. We headed to the Amber Fort, a honey-colored fortress in the hills which is often described as the “Sleeping Beauty of India”. Inside the fort is beautiful, you’re able to tour through the remains of the royal apartments, take in sweeping views of the miles-long walls that line the city, and my guide timed it quite perfectly to ensure that I would be front and center during an actual ceremony at the Hindu temple inside the fort complex. I’ll never forget the experience- from the ringing bells to the devout prayers, to the flowers they placed around my neck and the blessing they placed on my forehead. It was one of those tremendous moments.
Now, the Fort is high up, very high up…limited road access and nearly impossible to climb. So, I took an elephant to the top. Yes, it truly was the most convenient and swift means of transport and I still can’t quite believe how this big guy navigated himself deftly up the winding trails that led to the top. This brightly painted, adorned being was so gentle and so dexterous, and it’s such a sensational feeling. Pass over a tip to the driver before disembarking though, it’s expected and if you forget, he’ll likely remind you. By the way, that line you see…we skipped. Liberty made sure of that.
After lunch we took in the Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds), an elaborate building encrusted with delicate honeycomb screens and carved balconies from which the royal ladies, confined to their quarters, could view the world outside. Jai Singh’s Observatory built in the 17th century by the founder of Jaipur who, besides being a prince was also soldier, astronomer and builder. City Palace, a part is now a museum that contains fine Rajput and Moghul paintings, rare manuscripts and an armory, old carpets, and even amazingly embroidered clothes of the Maharajas and the Maharanis.
Where to stay in Jaipur? Well, it all depends on what your speed is. For the super luxe seekers, the Oberoi Rajvilas is gorgeous. Built like a traditional Rajasthan structure, it’s spread out over acres of beautiful lawns and the rooms are traditional Oberoi, replete with Indian classical design. Something larger and a bit more grand is the Taj Rambagh Palace, which was the former residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur and now a luxury hotel. Phenomenal spa, beautiful rooms, an exquisite high tea service, even a horse drawn carriage outside on the grounds for a romantic stroll.
One balmy afternoon, the 3 of us were treated to a phenomenal elephant ride throughout endless fields that surround a beautiful little hideaway called Dera Amer, a venue complete with outdoor dining surrounding a field used for elephant polo. This is a must with a child in Rajasthan, the smiles and laughter the elephant ride elicits, complete with the banana-feeding experience is worth the price of admission and more.
Sanganer was the centerpoint of our outing the following day. Set within the majestic Dausa Gate, amid the camel-filled alleys, lie the homes of thousands of craftsmen whose ancestors made Sanganer the “metropolis of calico painting.” The delicate flower, bird, tree and animal prints for the gathered Rajasthani skirts were created here and it’s fascinating to sit and watch the older artisans in their orchestral movements through the block printing process. One separates the colors, another cuts the finely crafted woodblocks and a third prints each color down the fabric.
We were really treated to an excellent visit with the self proclaimed “master of block printing” – a very senior guy donned in traditional dress, proudly showcasing with his outstretched arm and hand tremendously intricately printed cloths that he did by that very same bruised, calloused hand over decades.
Onto a paper factory which was truly interesting- I’ve never given much thought to how paper is made, much less artistic paper. The extend of my consideration for this art was limited to an occasional visit to Papyrus for overpriced creative wrapping paper and cards for a special occasion. Here, you see the process from start to finish which was fascinating for my daughter- from the vats of deep red bubbling liquids, to the transformation into the cottony paper sheets, to the cutting, printing and folding of bags, pads and specialty items. Jaipur is also quite famous for it’s “blue pottery” , using a special inky cobalt-blue glaze which serves as a background for rich floral designs.
It had been quite a day and we wanted to do something specifically for my daughter that night, so we were brought to Chokhi Dani where she had a blast. Traveling troubedours, puppeteers performing shows, dancers inviting children up with them to learn moves, camel rides, fun snacks, palm readers and more. It’s a village fair setting that is a great end to a very busy day , children and adults alike.
I should note that although we didn’t stay in one, Heritage Hotels are incredibly popular in Rajasthan and are definitely well worth considering. Many of these hotels are erstwhile palaces, with royals currently in residence and the level of intricate design and gracious hospitality is just tremendous. I also had the chance to visit the very new Marriott. Naturally, it wouldn’t theoretically be a first choice in a destination like India, for me anyway but I must say I was extremely impressed. It is quite unattractive from the outside, but inside is extremely modern, sleek, very Americanized in its style , delivery and offerings and ideal for either large groups/corporate meetings, or those whose immersion styles when visiting a foreign land are moderate at best.
Next stop – Ranthambore to search for the elusive tigers. We transferred by road (I am sure you’re noticing a trend here, be prepared as journeys between places you might want to visit do take a long time no matter which method you choose). So, about 4 hours later, we drove up to Aman-i-Khas to be welcomed into this beautiful sanctuary by the entire staff, GMs included, given a drink and a cold towel, and swiftly delivered to our luxury tent.
Luxury tent indeed- this grand canvas structure was complete with high ceilings, a gorgeously large stone tub, full stand up shower & bathroom facilities, dressing area, double sink, enormous bedding , full wi fi connectivity, outlets, a dining table, patio, shall I go on? It’s a true sanctuary, and the property itself is an oasis- each tent comes with the services of a butler to attend to your needs and food was wonderful. One night we were treated to an evening Indian drum trio by the fire while dining to soothing rhythms, the next was a fireside barbecue with an interactive demo station from the chefs and a wonderful tasting menu. The team couldn’t have been more accommodating to my child- anything she wanted to eat was magically whipped up, from pizzas to frothy hot chocolates, and the drives were extremely child friendly.
For those of you that have been on an African safari drive, the tiger safari will be different. There are less tigers in the park so the searches take longer, the waiting time takes longer, and there is a smaller variety of animals in Ranthambore National Park. The guides really do their best though, many are qualified naturalists and they make it as interesting as possible, peppering the drive with animal and forest facts, searching for crocodiles, various types of birds, etc and keeping you informed of the latest movements of the big cats. I’d recommend one, perhaps 2 drives at the most.
For a morning excursion, I’d recommend the Ranthambore Fort- high above the forest, this centuries-old formidable structure towers high, get your walking shoes on as your guide will likely assume you’re ready to climb it and it is a workout…but well worth the views when you get up there. This is a popular place for locals to visit and a setting which I learned is ideal for prayer. I noticed pieces of material tied to trees, representing wishes for certain things in life, and noticed this young boy building a small tower of bricks, representing his prayer for a home of his own.
The temples are fascinating as they are entirely dominated by monkeys, and kind men feeding them bananas- they just coexist with the people there and perhaps the most amazing site of all was an entirely self contained, self sufficient village atop the fort. These people remain there, never leave, have set up their shops, facilities, small modest homes and just about everything else here and live a very peaceful life. Unexpected, yet amazing sight, or, rather, something you see every day here in India.
It was difficult to leave this haven of bliss, but Delhi was calling again so onward we went, back to the train station for the 5 hour journey back, again slightly quicker than going by road. We were embraced by the very welcoming arms of the Leela Palace. Truly one of the finest hotels I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing, (and that’s a lot of hotels!) The lobby is extremely lavish, silver ornate furniture, colorful fresh flowers everywhere, beautiful restaurants including traditional Indian, Japanese and then an ultra-sleek continental. The staff is just beyond… so welcoming to children, so attentive to needs, down to the fabulous “welcome basket” one of the rooftop pool butlers placed at my side, filled with iced mint & lime water, room temperature water, magazines, a menu, and cold towels
In case you couldn’t tell, I’m in love with the Leela, but there are no shortage of gorgeous properties in this very expansive city. The Taj properties provide classical elegance with traditional room furnishings, multiple restaurants, discreet service and are definitely suitable for groups. The Imperial is one of the most classic, iconic hotels in Delhi- but I felt more like a visitor in a museum of art when stepping in however, as the collection that adorns the walls is one of the most extensive I’ve seen in a hotel. There is a fabulous highlight of the Imperial that should be noted, and certainly included in any itinerary- a meal at The Spice Route, their signature eatery which took 7 (yes, I said SEVEN) years to complete. The designwork is so intricate that one must spend an ample amount of time viewing the walls, feeling the décor, and soaking it all in- it is built upon the theme of life, for example you come into the world alone , and exit alone hence the columns at the entryway that only allow for one person to pass at a time.
The restaurant is divided into several sections representing the elements of life and the food, an Asian fusion mix, is equally as interesting and it’s certainly a permanent home for the who’s who of India.
Like I said…India is amazing. Don’t try to figure it out, just go with the flow with eyes and mind wide open and you’ll be treated to one unforgettable adventure.