Fourteen day whirlwind trip to India

Old Mar 21st, 2020, 12:31 PM
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Fourteen day whirlwind trip to India

As most of us cocoon at home right now, it seemed like a good time to do a trip report for our recent trip to India. This was not my first trip to India or even the second or third. DH has family throughout the country and has been there many times and I began tagging along about 30 years ago. The plan this time was to visit an ageing uncle In Pune and from there to travel to Kerala, followed by Varanasi, Ranthambore National Park and then home. We arranged our travel on points. We booked at the end of December, 2019 for a February 2020 departure. We often book last minute and have had good luck in finding availability. Our international flights were a combination of economy and business class.

A note about the planning. A local relative had suggested we use a large, well-known agency in India. He gave us a contact who we reached out to. He promised to put something together for us. We began to receive a number of draft itineraries from a woman who we assumed worked at that same agency. The plans were detailed and her turn around to answering our questions and making adjustments/suggestions was very quick. It then came time to arrange payment.Something was suspicious-I noticed that all the draft itineraries did not come from the original travel agency we dealt with. Rather, our contact had used his personal email to refer our file to a third party who he claimed was "very experienced". Her business had no internet presence and a quick google search did not reveal her as a travel agent. We confronted our contact and expressed our concern and surprise that he appeared to have referred our arrangements outside of the large agency. We never heard from him, or the woman again. We were about three and a half weeks from our departure at that point.

Family to the rescue! We contacted a close relative in India. She referred us to another cousin (who we had met years before) who had his own travel agency. He was able to reconfigure our plans and improve them. We had daily contact while he refined our hotel choices, internal flights, private tours and transfers.I cannot say enough about the quality of the trip he put together. Everything was seamless.

We left Vancouver on a red eye flight to Delhi. We arrived there in the wee hours of February 15. Corona virus was a concern in Hong Kong and China, but not yet in India. Some travellers were still wearing masks. We had an Indian tourist E-visa. On arrival the processing area was chaotic. An American family claimed to have waited in the line up for more than four hours just to have their visa checked. There were hundreds of people and only 3-4 customs officers. We managed to get through the queue in about 90 minutes but it was not pleasant. Many travellers were frustrated and irate. After collecting our luggage we had to transfer to another terminal to catch our domestic flight to Pune.

The domestic terminal is actually another airport about 8 km from the international airport. There is a free shuttle a copy of a boarding pass is required before they will give a shuttle ticket. Check in was efficient. Be warned, baggage weight is restricted to 15 kg for checked bags on domestic flights. They were weighed every time. We had packed carefully and never exceeded that limit. We flew on IndiGo and there is an option to pre-purchase extra baggage weight. They did not seem as strict with carry on luggage as long as it was within size requirements. DH carried a computer bag and a heavily packed roller-board. I had an Eagle Creek soft sided bag/backpack. None were ever weighed or questioned. The flight was full and on time.

We arrived at Pune and were picked up and taken to our hotel, the Conrad Pune. It is a beautiful, full service hotel. We chose that neighbourhood because it was the most convenient for our relatives. The hotel is elegant and the restaurants are excellent. There is an expansive breakfast and the dinner options were fantastic. The hotel has a fitness centre and a lovely pool area where there are private couches to curl up with a good book and a drink. We arrived in the morning around 10 am. We were warmly greeted and taken to our room. The hotel was not put out by our early arrival. We rested for a couple of hours before meeting our cousin/travel agent for lunch, final itinerary adjustments and payment.

The next three nights were spent visiting family and enjoying several restaurants outside the hotel. It had been about 4 years since my last trip to Pune. Every visit the city seems larger and more congested. We visited the college where my late in-laws met and received their degrees. We enjoyed drinks and cricket at the Poona Club and just enjoyed being with family. After three days, it was time to move on.

The next part of our trip was a new adventure. We had never been south of Goa. Our itinerary included three nights in Kumarakom and two nights in Kochi . We flew from Pune to Kochi on IndiGo, arriving in the early evening. Our agent had arranged a private transfer to Kumarakom, about a three hour drive (after dark) from the airport. We planned to relax and do a private tour of the backwaters of Kerala from that location.

We stayed at the Taj Kumarakom. It is a historic plantation property that was converted into guest lodgings. There is a central lodge and villas that surround a lagoon. We were upgraded to a king pool villa. The suite was very large with a private sitting area, an outdoor veranda and a secluded private pool/patio area. The property was more rustic than I anticipated, but it still had every modern convenience and lots of character. DH enjoyed it immensely. The grounds are immaculate and rooms are serviced twice daily. It is family friendly with a host of children's' activities and a play area. There are tea and snacks every day and a complimentary sunset cruise on the lake. It is not a backwater cruise but it offered an overview of the nearby village and its way of life.

The food at the hotel was generally very good but the service was uneven. We were not aware until our arrival that the hotel does not have a licence to serve hard liquor: no scotch or gin and tonic! They do offer beer and wine. The wine list is VERY expensive for wines that we would normally drink on a weeknight with dinner. It is difficult to justify spending over $100 for a wine that maybe costs $12 at home. I enjoyed drinking sweet and salty lime juice with soda and, on the nights we splurged, we drank an Indian/Italian chardonnay "Fratelli". There is good value to the food service at this property-breakfast was included together with one other meal each day. For us that other meal was dinner.

The best part of our stay in Kumarakom (other than the very private swimming pool at our villa) was the backwater cruise to Aleppy. We boarded a houseboat at the property in the morning and enjoyed a four hour backwater cruise. We had the boat to ourselves, including a bedroom and ensuite area if we wanted to nap. The cruise included a sumptuous lunch cooked fresh on board. The boat wove in and out of a network of canals. It was peaceful and relaxing. Highly recommended!

After three nights in Kumarakom it was time to move on to Kochi-a two hour journey by car. It was nice to see the area in daylight this time! We checked into the Brunton Boatyard in Fort Kochi as our base for the next two nights. Again, the hotel oozes character. It is a small property on the waterfront adjacent to the local ferry that operates from the early morning until about 10 pm. The ferries are noisy but never to the point of disturbing us. The hotel offers ear plugs but we never used them. We had a lovely sea view room which also overlooked the pool. Watching the water traffic was interesting. The hotel also offers a sunset boat cruise of Kochi harbour after its complimentary afternoon tea. We enjoyed a private tour of Kochi on our second day which was very enjoyable. It is a symphony of sounds and scents!

More later......
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Old Mar 21st, 2020, 04:53 PM
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Thanks for starting a TR!

You're braver than I am, no way would I drive (be driven, that is) after dark in India.

While I don't drink beer at home I learned early in my travels in Asia to drink it there!
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Old Mar 22nd, 2020, 04:04 AM
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Great report. Looking forward to reading more. Thanks!
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Old Mar 22nd, 2020, 01:29 PM
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Onward from Kochi....a city we enjoyed but it was very warm when we were there. The Christian influence was apparent throughout and there is a long Jewish history as well. Unfortunately the synagogue was not accessible to us on a Saturday morning. We were looking forward to our next destination: Varanasi.

Another morning flight on IndiGo with one stop en route to Varanasi. Again, the flights were full and on time. Air travel is very cheap in India. We did 5 internal flights on this trip and had no complaints. The flights were on time, there was food available and our luggage always arrived at its destination. Four of those flights were with IndiGo and our last one was Air Asia. The latter was chosen as it landed at the same terminal as our international flight home-something to consider when planning arrivals and departures from India.

We arrived in Varanasi in the early afternoon. A small caution about the airport arrival. A porter approached me and called me by name. I assumed he was part of the pre-arranged hotel transfer. Wrong! He was a regular porter who had surveyed the names on the welcome signs held up by our hotel's transfer team. He had seen my name on a sign and guessed that the name was mine. I am not Indian and clearly stand out as a tourist. No harm done-we incurred an extra charge for a porter that we neither needed nor requested. In all our travels, this has never happened before. Credit to the porter for being so enterprisin

We were taken to the Taj Nadesar Palace where we would spend the next two nights. We had tried to book the Taj Ganges (next door) but it was sold out. This hotel was a splurge but also a highlight of our trip. It is a former palace with only 15 rooms. It boasts a history of illustrious guests. The palace is beautifully furnished with authentic furnishings from a different epoch. There were multiple sitting areas overlooking the expansive gardens with dahlias in full bloom. After a traditional Indian greeting we were escorted to one of the royal suites to freshen up before a late lunch. Only hotel guests are permitted to dine at the palace and enjoy its various amenities. A service team of butlers are there to meet every whim. I mentioned that I had a craving for palak paneer (spinach and Indian cheese in spices). It is a simple dish but they made it specially for me using the spinach from the estate gardens. All meals and afternoon tea were timed to our schedule. I cannot say enough about the level of service.

In the late afternoon our guide escorted us to evening aarti at the Ganges. It was a moving and spiritual experience. I am familiar with many Hindu customs and traditions (through marriage) but this was beyond anything I had ever experienced. We drove to a drop off point and walked about 500 meters through crowds and traffic (scooters, cars, cows, goats) and throngs of people to arrive at the large stairway where we would take a boat to see some of the ghats. We opted for a row boat as opposed to a motorised craft. We released two small lanterns into the river to honour the memory of loved ones now passed. It was sunset and we rowed toward one of the major ghats where families were engaged in cremation rituals. We saw at least 12 funeral pyres and the unique practices of the families grieving their dead. We had an excellent guide who was able to make the experience event more enriching with the depth of his knowledge.

The experience was moving and chaotic. There were cows and goats wandering between the pyres, eating the plethora of marigolds left behind from the shrouds. Our long row boat was joined by many other long row boats and other motorised long boats. After spending time observing the solemn activities at the ghat, we rowed on to the staging area for the evening aarti ceremony. There were actually two staged ceremonies, one beside the other. We moored close to the river's edge with probably 50-75 other boats that became tied together like a giant raft.There were several hundred people on the water and an inestimable number on land.

I have observed and participated in aarti ceremonies before. This was more elaborate than anything I had ever seen: five "priests" on an elevated platform performing a highly choreographed ritual. There was chanting, clapping, fire was amazing! This is the experience that I had wanted to have in this holiest of places. It was a challenge to leave the river and make our way back to the pick up point for our vehicle. Our guide, who was born and raised in Varanasi, expertly directed us through even greater traffic than we had seen two hours before.

Once back at the hotel we had a quiet dinner overlooking the pool and garden area. They were out of Fratelli chardonnay after our first night so we contented ourselves with scotch, G&T and sweet lime soda. They even made a special effort to ensure that there was Schweppes and not generic tonic. The chef would gladly prepare items that were not on the menu, all with excellent results. Nothing was too much trouble.

When we retired to our room after dinner there was a knock at the door. It was one of the hotel staff with a big copper bowl of hot water and rose petals. He said it was for our feet and to make us sleep well. I slid my feet into the lovely warm water and on his instructions, luxuriated with the rose petals for the next 10 minutes. He did the same ritual for my DH. We slept well indeed!

The next morning we opted for a sunrise boat ride on the Ganges. We left the hotel before 6 am and retraced our steps from the night before. We had the same guide and the same young man commandeering our rowboat. Sunrise was a completely different experience from the night before. It was quiet. We had again chosen a rowboat rather than a motorised one. We gently and silently glided past the ghats and observed morning rituals of bathing and prayer. Again, our guide who had a masters degree in Indian studies (the exact field escapes me) added immeasurably to our experience. We did a walking tour of the area and saw the local pilgrims lined up to enter the holy temple which had been the subject of a terrorist attack a few short years ago. Security, (i.e. armed military personnel) was very high. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast and met up with our guide again to see the university and other sites. We elected not to go to the prominent Buddhist sites. Our touring had been intense and we wanted to enjoy the amenities at the palace for the rest of the afternoon.

We stopped to look at silk brocade-Varanasi is known for its fabrics. Many traditional wedding sarees are woven here. This is the only shopping we did: a table runner for our dining room and a silk brocade scarf for me. DH hates shopping and we already have many lovely things from India from prior trips and through inheritance.

The Taj Nadesar offers horse-drawn carriage rides to its guests. The driver is delightful and is the third generation in his family to be doing this work. He knows the history of the palace, details of all the flora and fauna and clearly loves the two horses that perform this service. He took us to the palace gardens which supply the restaurants with fruits and vegetables. We met the head gardener, a diminutive woman who is clearly a "plant whisperer" . She pulled a fresh carrot from the ground for both DH and I washed it and presented it to us like orange treasure. It was delicious-I ate half and gave the rest to Muna the horse who nodded in appreciation. Back to the palace for tea and an evening aarti ceremony on the grounds. It was a perfect day.

We hated to leave the next morning. We knew this had been a truly special experience. As we waited for our ride to the airport, the entire staff of butlers, managers and senior hotel staff were there to wish us a safe onward journey. We were presented with gifts: a silk tie and cuff links for DH and a beautiful silk brocade scarf for me. It was unexpected and a lovely gesture. We hope to return here.

We then left for the airport for our onward flight to Jaipur and 2.5 hour evening drive to Ranthambore, hopefully to see some tigers!
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Old Mar 22nd, 2020, 01:48 PM
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Interested to read about the crowds. Very different from my experience. I was in Varanasi shortly after 9-11, staying in a basic riverside hotel overlooking the evening ritual, and the crowds were no worse than elsewhere in India.
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Old May 6th, 2020, 12:46 PM
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Time to finish what I started back in March.

We flew from Varanasi to Jaipur in the mid afternoon on Indigo. The flight departed about 30 minutes late but was otherwise uneventful. We landed in Jaipur and connected with our private driver for the journey to our accommodation at Ranthambore National Park. It was a three hour drive and the sunset quickly turned from dusk to darkness. Until reading one of the previous posts, I had never considered this to be a problem. For some, it may be. We travelled along major roadways. It was wedding season and many roadside halls and hotels appeared to be hosting large functions. There were grooms on horses, colourfully dressed wedding guests, loud music and merry-making as we passed through a number of small towns and villages. We also observed a number of serious motor vehicle accidents. Our driver said that weddings often meant young men and alcohol-a recipe for disaster on highways. Another issue:animals. Cows and goats do not have head lights or tail lights. It takes an excellent and experienced driver to navigate these unique distractions.

We arrived safely at our destination, the Sujan Sher Bagh in Sawai Madhopur, about 10 minutes drive from the park gates. The property is a Relais & Chateau safari style camp with luxury tented accommodation. It had not been our first choice-we had hoped to stay at the nearby Oberoi property but it was fully booked. We had a friend who had stayed at both who said he could not choose between the two-both were excellent. At the end of the day, we had no regrets about our choice. We arrived around 9:30 pm and were warmly greeted with a glass of pink champagne. (the real stuff!!!) We had not eaten for hours. They were prepared for our late arrival and served us a delicious dinner beside a roaring campfire.

The tents were modern and well equipped. There were nice touches like the hot water bottle in the bed, a fleece poncho, heat and air conditioning. We booked three safari drives through the hotel. Our only purpose for this part of the trip was to see a tiger. A couple of years ago we spent three nights at the Taj resort in Bandvaghar (lovely accommodation) and despite spending 6 hours a day in a bumpy jeep, we did not see a tiger. We feared the same outcome for this trip. On our first two drives we saw the usual birds and deer-not what we had hoped. We were discouraged because other guests that day had seen two tigers mating in zone 3 of the park.

It was not until our last game drive, the morning before our afternoon departure that we finally saw not one, but four tigers. Within 10 minutes of passing through the gates and entering our assigned zone, we saw Arrowhead, the adult female and her two adult cubs. It there were no other jeeps around until word got out within a few minutes that we had a sighting, What gorgeous and majestic creatures! Our guide and driver both noticed what they believed to be the footprints of a male tiger in the roadway. The next moment we were careening down dusty park roads at breakneck speed. We weren't sure where we were headed but trusted our driver and our guide. Sure enough a muscular male tiger emerged from the trees right in front of us. We followed him for awhile, joined by other jeeps, until he disappeared into a thicket. We were elated to have seen the last big cat on our "bucket list" of cats in the wild. We were very grateful for the efforts of our guides and the team at Sujan Sher Bagh for making everything perfect. Our drive that morning was private which was an unexpected and welcome surprise.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the food. Tea/coffee (and anything else guests desire) is delivered to the tent before the morning drive. Just before entering the jeep, guests are offered oatmeal with brandy. It was delicious and enough to stave off any hunger pangs until returning from the morning drive. The food is excellent and dinners are rotated to various locations around the property. One night we had cocktails around the campfire with other guests before being escorted to a private dinner beside a swimming pool outside one of the luxury villas. On our last night we has a private table in the courtyard which had been illuminated with lanterns and candles. It was a fine end for our last night in India. The next morning we woke late, had a leisurely brunch before being picked up for our drive to Jaipur for our flight home.

With everything going on in the world right now, our trip seems like a lifetime ago. We arrived back in Canada on February 29. We had connecting flights from Delhi to Bangkok to Hong Kong and then direct to Vancouver. We travelled on points and had the benefit of business class lounges so we could shower and have nicer food. For the most part, flights were less than half full. The business class lounges were empty. They took our temperature in both Bangkok and Hong Kong before allowing us into the departure area. The Hong Kong airport was almost completely empty at 8 pm on a Saturday night. When we arrived in Vancouver there was no screening other than self reporting for flu symptoms. Two weeks after our return quarantines were instated for travellers. Our timing was fortuitous.

It may be awhile before we travel internationally again. We enjoyed an African safari in Botswana and trip to South Africa in September and our Indian sojourn in February.We were lucky. We have lots of nice memories to sustain us until circumstances permit us to travel again. We are well located on the west coast of Canada and fortunate to have a plethora of beautiful local places to explore in the interim. Stay safe everyone!

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