India. So much to see, so little time.
We asked our expert pals at Black Tomato for an insider’s guide. Their advice: Don’t try to do everything, instead follow this easy, bite-size tiffin sampler of Kerala (backwaters, beaches, boathouses), Rajasthan (tigers, forts, palaces), and the Himalayas (R&R).
Strategy: Let your mood lead you. Remember, India is cheap as chapatis once you get there, so you can live like a king — even on a modest budget.
God’s Own Country
Mood: Partied too hard
Goal: Cleanse body and soul
Itinerary: Mangalore to Cochin
Head to Kerala for a heady mix of chilled beaches and tea plantations. Start your tan, tone, and detox routines at Neeleshwar Hermitage. Nestled between the spice hills and the Arabian Sea on the area’s most beautiful pristine beach, it’s a one-stop shop for Indian art, spirituality, rejuvenating organic spa therapies, and an ecominded minimal plastic policy.
Jump-start your engines at Ayesha Manzil, where chef Faiza Moosa gives lessons in Moplah cuisine. The flavorful, largely nonvegetarian dishes are Arabic in origin and include biryani and aleesa, a thick, meaty porridge. Head south to Cochin and Alleppey and hire your own private houseboat to cruise backwater canals. Dinner is fresh market fish cooked for you right on the boat.
Back on dry land, go animal crazy at Serenity, riding, feeding, and bathing an elephant. Farther up the Malabar Coast at the springtime Thrissur Pooram elephant festival (April 24 this year), you can watch the giants parade to Vadakkunnathan Temple dressed in their best, mingle with the locals, and sample Kerala’s finest cooking.
Mood: Need to clear mind
Goal: Spiritual enlightenment
Itinerary: Winter in Kumaon, summer in Ladakh
Next on your list? The Himalayas. In Kumaon, an overnight train ride from Delhi, walk the foothills and check out local homes, schools, and Hindu temples along the way. Your private guide will help bring the culture to life, introduce flora and fauna, and share local Hindu history. Spend the night in authentic villages, relaxing under the stars.
Stop over at Shakti 360° Leti, an ultra-luxe property 8,000 feet above sea level set amid stunning panoramic views. Shack up in a remote cabin and feast on an authentic meal prepared by Yeshi, a former monk trained by Aussie food celeb Christine Manfield.
Ladakh (or Little Tibet) has snowcapped peaks and clear glacial lakes aplenty. The high-altitude desert boasts dramatic landscapes and a fascinating Buddhist history. While you walk from village to village, visit the monasteries and meet the monks. After white-water rafting the nearby Indus and Zanskar rivers (organize a private raft with Shakti), stay the night in a renovated village house. It’s accessible from May to September, but go in June. There’s less of a chill.
Mood: Feeling (royal) flush
Goal: Live like a maharaja
Itinerary: Jodhpur, Jaipur, Ranthambore
Ancient forts and palaces, majestic elephants, and Royal Bengal tigers: Rajasthan spills with the most-loved symbols of India. Step off the tourist trail and take on Jodhpur in style at Raas, a beautiful new boutique hotel constructed from haveli ruins (old Indian mansions), within the Old City walls. Visit the 500-year-old Mehrangarh Fort before bargain hunting in bazaars for silver jewelry, silks, and spices.
But don’t fill the suitcase yet. Jaipur awaits. Load up on textiles at Ridhi Sidhi Textiles and Cotton Curio, maharan-worthy jewels at The Gem Palace, and chic designer ware at Hot Pink (India’s Barneys). There’s no better way to spend sunset than riding elephants and cocktailing through elephant polo (world’s cutest sport) at Dera Amer. Just outside Jaipur, regal retreat Amanbagh, an ideal base for exploring the dramatic landscapes of Rajasthan on guided walks around the Ajabgarh’s Fort, meditation sessions at the abandoned City of Ghosts at Bhangarh, and camel or hot air balloon rides over rolling hills.
Finally, walk on the wild side at the Ranthambore National Park, a wilderness refuge with a burgeoning tiger population. Let your inner Mowgli out at Sher Bagh or Aman-i-Khás. When not resting in your swank air-conditioned tent or eating a sunrise breakfast at Ranthambore Fort, try to spot the elusive Bengal on a game walk.
Wait, you want more? Okay, here’s a drool-worthy photo gallery.
Ready to go but want someone else to handle the arrangements? Black Tomato will do it for you online at blacktomato.co.uk.
Photos: Ted Ollikkala/ Flickr; Christian Haugen / Flickr; Eileen Delhi / Flickr; Courtesy of Aman-i-Khás