I was very excited to accept an invitation to visit India with a group of travel agents courtesy of British Airways and Western & Oriental back in September – I really didn’t know what to expect but it is a country I have always been intrigued about.
So armed with what looked to be a fantastic itinerary we boarded our flight from Heathrow to Delhi, only a 7.5 hour flight and travelling with BA in Clubworld got the trip off to a great start. The service on board was attentive and the seats were extremely comfortable and it was great to see the newly rolled out economy and Premium economy seats.
We breezed through immigration (visas are required prior to arrival) , there were no queues and the airport was much quieter than I had anticipated.
Our arrival experience in Delhi was mind blowing, we were greeted by a team of smiling gentlemen keen to welcome us to this fascinating city, offering us garlands of jasmine and cold towels. the airport was clean and organised and in no time at all we were whisked off in our private air conditioned vehicles complete with refreshments to The Imperial Hotel – so far so good!
Delhi is India’s capital and a major gateway to the country, contemporary Delhi is a bustling metropolis which successfully combines the ancient with the modern. The first impressions for any visitor traveling in from the airport are of a spacious, garden city, tree-lined with a number of beautiful parks.
The Imperial Hotel, Delhi
The Imperial Hotel is the old dame of Delhi with a rich colonial heritage. The hotel has 235 rooms and suites and on arrival a maharajah looking gentleman greeted us in beautiful national costume . The hotel is filled with antiques and decorated exquisitely to a very high standard, facilities include an amazing spa, outdoor swimming pool and restaurants galore. My room was extremely comfortable with all modern day luxury amenities and a very nice welcome pack from Western & Oriental which consisted of a full itinerary and an Indian mobile phone loaded with credit to make calls back home, the local guide’s contact number were already stored in the phones for us- absolutely brilliant! This hotel is the absolute place to stay in Delhi, yes it is also the most expensive but for a lifetime experience this is the one!
My bedroom at The Imperial
The bar at The Imperial
After a quick freshen up we were whisked off to The Oberoi. The Oberoi has 279 rooms and would appeal more to the corporate business market; the hotel has an excellent business centre and good choice of restaurants ideal for the corporate traveller, here we also had an extensive dim sum lunch in their award winning Chinese restaurant “Taipan”
After lunch it was time for some sightseeing and we were taken by our guides for a tour of Humayun’s Tomb, built by the widow of the 2nd Mughal Emperor, Humayun, it is an outstanding monument and a precursor of the Taj Mahal.
Back at The Imperial I managed to squeeze in an Ayurvedic treatment called an Abhyanga massage which was one of the best massages with Indian oils I have ever experienced.
Most first-timers to India are a little nervous regarding the cuisine- this apprehension was soon dispersed by a visit to a restaurant called “Varq” located in The Taj Hotel ,without a doubt this restaurant has the best Indian cuisine in the city and has earned it’s many awards. Chef Oberoi has taken Indian food to a different dimension with new techniques, innovative presentations and usage of organic produce and spices. He has reinvented Indian food with unusual creations and pairings. The menu is a rich accumulation of Indian recipes evolved to the next level – the seabass and the deep fried spinach starter were to die for!
The next day started with a sumptuous breakfast of fresh fruit and Eggs Benedict at The Imperial followed by a sightseeing tour of Delhi. We passed by Jama Masjid, the largest and most well known mosque in India, built by the same builder that built the Taj Mahal and dating back to 1656AD. We drove past the Red Fort and Raj Ghat where Mahatma Ghandi, the Father of Nation was cremated. Delhi is absolutely fascinating and we were delighted when our guides organised local rickshaws to take us through the winding narrow streets of Old Delhi, this excursion is essential and was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We witnessed people in the midst of local life, cooking in the street, selling spices, jewellery, vegetables and all manner of things, all more than happy for us to be taking photos.
That night we ate at Barraca, a more casual dining experience with bibs and made famous recently when Obama ate there, it’s a great place with a good atmosphere and a very popular Indian restaurant so book before you travel! On the way back we stopped off at a local tourist market and took great delight in bartering for pashminas, jewellery and all sorts of souvenirs, the rate of exchange and the value for money made for some great bargains.
Our next stop was Shimla and the journey was nothing short of epic. We boarded a train from Delhi to Kalka taking 4 hours, my advice when travelling by train in India, go First Class where possible and make sure you go the loo before boarding as the on board toilets are an experience best avoided! Our Western & Oriental guides seated us on the train and produced a fine picnic box filled with all sorts of goodies from The Imperial ,as well as a travel bag containing hand gel, toilet roll, pillow, insect repellent, eye mask and other essentials – this is the sort of detail that I found exceptional from Western & Oriental. We were also advised us not to eat any of the refreshments on board the trains as the hygiene standards are not up to UK standards and “Delhi Belly” would be the likely outcome.
The Toy Train
We disembarked at Kalka and transferred to our very own “toy train” for a journey to Dharamphur Himichal. Our Toy Train was magnificent and consisted of one small carriage with 16 seats, it snaked it’s way through the mountains hooting all the way passing locals waving – we really did feel like royalty! After disembarking it was then a further 2 hours to Shimla by road winding through the hills climbing all the way, passing truckloads of Himichal apples; the drive can be a little hairy at times with narrow cliff-top roads and extremely busy roads. In India when driving you need good brakes, a good horn and good luck! Indians are highly superstitious, their colourful trucks are decorated with strings of chilli’s and ribbons tied to their wing mirrors to ward off any misfortune.
Shimla is a popular Hill Station in North India and was made popular by the British army taking refuge from the heat of Delhi. Shimla’s spectacular location, thickly forested slopes and invigorating climate has attracted countless visitors since the small village was discovered by Captain Charles Kennedy in the early 19th century,in 1864 it became the summer headquarters of the British Government in India.
We checked into Wildflower Hall known as the “Hall in the Himalayas”, it is the highest luxury hotel in all of India. Situated at 8250 feet in the magnificent Himalayas, amongst cedar and pine trees bearing testimony to its rich colonial heritage this property is a unique hideaway retreat – the views are simply stunning.
Wildflower Hall, Shimla
Stunning views from Wildflower Hall
Wildflower Hall is The Oberoi hotel groups extravagant bid to revive the colonial past with the decor in keeping with this era. The hall has an amazing history having been discovered in 1902 by Lord Kitchener famous for first world slogan ” your country needs you.” Sadly the original hall burnt down some 10 years ago but shortly afterwards Oberoi rebuilt it turning it into this beautiful 85 room resort. Teak wood floors, hand knotted rugs and rich furnishings complemented by spectacular views and 5* amenities make this resort simply outstanding.
Lobby at Wildflower Hall
The resort offers many things including guided forest walks, mountain biking, a magnificent spa with indoor pool, a huge outdoor tub, river rafting, horse riding and In summer there are tennis courts which are very cleverly converted into an ice rink in the winter.
My bedroom at Wildflower Hall
Shimla itself is littered with history, there is Viceregal Lodge which was the centre of important decision making back in 1945 and now serving as a research institute for students, a theatre which is one of the oldest in India, there is also the magnificent temple standing tall over the town. The Mall or main promenade is a busy shopping area with old colonial buildings, souvenir shops and restaurants and many a bargain to be had.
In the afternoon we had a site visit of The Wildflower’s sister more child friendly property, The Cecil. This property located in the centre of Shimla houses 79 rooms and offers great facilities for kids as well as adults.
Next on the agenda was Awala, an arduous journey from Shimla which consisted of a 4 hour drive to Chandigarh, a domestic 1 hour flight to Delhi, followed by a 5.5 hour drive to Awala. We wouldn’t recommend clients doing it this way but we were on a tight schedule and the journey certainly wasn’t boring with great company and fascinating sights along the way; we past through villages celebrating various festivals and at one stage we were invited to join in a villages roadside celebrations!
All along the way our guides filled us with information about Indian history, culture, and traditions. I learnt about the class system in India, how arranged marriages work and even when confronted with a huge vehicle thundering towards them why the many cows stay sat in the middle of the road- they are high on exhaust fumes and can’t sense danger!
We finally arrived at Amanbagh in Alwar, amazing and definitely worth the journey! This hotel is really special and gives a feeling of total calmness, a great contrast from Delhi.
The resort is very spacious and palatial and evokes the Moghul era with design features, doomed cupolas and private courtyards surrounded by eucalyptus trees. It provides the perfect base from which to explore the rich heritage of Rajasthan.
My Pool Pavilion was amazing and probably one of the best I have ever stayed in with its’ own private pool and an amazing bathroom, the attention to detail was amazing.
The next day we went by road to Bhangarh, a medieval site of great archaeological importance. It was built in the 1600’s by Diwan Madho Singh of the Royal Jaipur family and legend has it that this now uninhabited city of magnificent bazaars, palaces, gardens, temples and bathing pools was deserted overnight after being cursed by an evil court magician who has attempted to seduce Bhangarh’s Queen – India is just full of amazing stories and legends like this. Early morning as the sun rises is perfect for yoga which we followed with a glorious breakfast on one of the monuments overlooking the site. The journey which only takes 20 minutes through the countryside gives you a wonderful view of rural life in India.
Back to the resort and a much needed spa treatment was on the books – this time an Indian head massage.
We needed to experience as much as we could of this destination so we again headed out of the resort this time by camel into the late afternoon – it was a great experience and very enjoyable, the camels were decorated beautifully in bright colours. We later transferred into safari type jeeps to venture into the surrounding villages. Godhuli is a Hindi word that describes the late afternoon when cows are led home along dusty village roads, and the last sunlight of the day refracts through the dust they leave in their wake. We passed many locals herding their goats, cows and buffalo towards home and passed through villages were elders were gathered and children were playing – it was a very moving experience to see how welcoming and inviting they were.
Dinner was hosted by the manager and he had arranged a gala dinner for our last night, our table was set up by the pool and surrounded by candlelight – we ate a medley of traditional Indian dishes and the food was simply exquisite. The calmness of the resort creates a a truly magical experience.
After a sumptuous early breakfast we left Alwar for the 3 hour trip to Agra and our chance to visit one of the Wonders of The World, The Taj Mahal. The Taj had been on my bucket list for years and it will always be a powerful memory, it was truly remarkable and its vastness was hard to take in, I think we were all overwhelmed.
Taj Mahal Group photo
On the way back we dropped by The Oberoi Amarvillas, the only place to stay in Agra and had a quick site visit – as you would expect the hotel is amazing but for me the best view – having a bath with the Taj in the distance or taking breakfast at sunrise with the Taj in the background has to be on everyone’s wish list.
Oberoi Amarvilas – room with a view
The ultimate bathroom with view
Rated amongst the leading resorts in the world, The Oberoi Amarvilas offers the best view of the Taj Mahal in Agra. The hotel is located 600 meters from the Taj Mahal and all rooms, suites, lobby, bar and lounge offer breathtaking views of the monument.
Richly detailed interiors are perfectly complemented by a choice of international and Indian cuisine. The hotel offers a range of activities to relax and recharge yourself. Rejuvenate yourself with a holistic treatment at the Oberoi Spa, get in touch with your inner self with a yoga session, or explore the famous sights of Agra – Taj Mahal, Agra Fort or the Fatehpur Sikri. All three monuments are recognised by UNESCO as a World heritage site. A two night stay is recommended at Agra to experience these architectural wonders of the Mughal era at your leisure, while taking time to explore the relaxation options at the hotel as well.
All too soon it was time to start our journey home, on arrival back into Delhi we stopped off to freshen up at The Leela palace – this is fabulous property with 260 rooms and suites and is located in the very plush diplomatic area of Delhi. I really liked this hotel and it most definitely houses the best suite in all of Delhi ornately decorated with its state of the art gym! It has plenty of restaurants which all seemed extremely busy and the hotel seems to be very corporate business orientated.
The purpose of the trip was for us to experience the true India and to come away with the knowledge and enthusiasm to sell this fantastic country. I can honestly say I have never experienced such friendliness, felt so safe and I have put to rest any misconceptions I had. The food is of an excellent standard and if you follow simple rules such as drinking water from only sealed bottles and not eating “street food” you will have no issues . Yes, you will see some poverty but you will not be bothered or pestered like in other countries I have visited and you will come away with such happy memories and fascinating stories.
Indians live for the moment as they say if you live for the future you worry, if you live in the past you regret, this happy go lucky attitude is infectious and you can’t help but fall in love with this vibrant country. I will be back!