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India for Softies : A slow comfortable tour around some of Northern India

India for Softies : A slow comfortable tour around some of Northern India

Old Oct 1st, 2016, 07:26 AM
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India for Softies : A slow comfortable tour around some of Northern India

I am newly retired and a bucket list of places to see whilst still fit and well has been drawn up. At the top of this list was a return to India.

Thirty years ago I spent some time backpacking in South India, touring around for weeks on a shoestring, staying in dubious rooms where you were not that keen to touch anything and eating food from the street and roadside dhabas. Other than a trip to Goa for a beach holiday I had not been back to India since.

This time I wanted to see some of the sights of Northern India. The passing of time has made me considerably fonder of clean rooms, air conditioning, evening cocktails, laundry services and cars with drivers than previously and this time the trip was to be comfortable and slow paced.

Faded photographs from that last trip show me in front of many important temples and other significant monuments but I lived in the moment then and watched the kaleidoscope of colour and history go by without feeling much need to catalogue it or make any chronological sense of it. This time I was to be more informed and in preparation for our trip I took a short course on Indian History [at the City Lit in London which I can highly recommend to anyone in striking distance] and I read around the subject a bit. I particularly enjoyed Ferdinand Mount’s ‘Tears of the Rajas’, Abraham Eraly’s ‘The Moghul world: India’s tainted paradise’ William Dalrymple’s ‘The last Moghul’ and ‘A year in Delhi’ and Alex Von Tunzelmann’s wonderfully gossipy ‘Indian Summer: The secret history of the end of an Empire’. I also enjoyed on DVD Michael Wood’s BBC series on ‘The story of India’ and another BBC series Sona Datta’s ‘Treasures of the Indus’ [available to download from BBC store] has a really good episode on the Taj Mahal and other Moghul buildings. After a lifetime of wall to wall working for the health service and bringing up our now grown up son I know it is a serious luxury to have the time to do all this background research and it really did add to the enjoyment of my trip.

Some of the amazing trip reports on Fodors were also read more than once. As a result, I am in awe of how many Fodorites have the stamina to cover so much ground on every single day of their trips and the number of you that manage for weeks on hand luggage alone. These feats are not for us though and we are really happiest travelling slowly with a full quota of luggage and seeing relatively few sights each day. We spend the rest of our time focusing on food with the occasional excursion to the pool or hotel grounds.

Health preparations consumed us much less than they appear to do for some others. In line with UK NHS 'fit for travel' advice we simply ensured that our Tetanus, Typhoid and Hep A were up to date and left it at that. We ate all sorts in many different types of places and neither of us had any problems at all.

We booked everything independently online and decided to stay in a mix of different type of hotels ranging from the posh and swanky through all points of the spectrum down to a simple Homestay. I can highly recommend such a mix as each type of accommodation offers something different and it has given us so many kinds of memories. We went at the end of September and the prices were still a bit lower than at other times of the year with many hotels offering special offers on stays of three nights [e.g. throwing in meals, executive lounges and airport transfers etc.] which were excellent value. I mainly found these offers on each hotel’s individual website requiring you to book direct with them rather than on trip advisor type websites so it is well worth inspecting them all directly in order to find the best deal.

I was pleasantly surprised by the cost of flying to Delhi from London and can only assume it is a highly competitive route. We booked Premium Economy British Airways flight where you get extra legroom over and above economy and two seats in a row so no clambering over or around anyone other than your partner [plus a few other extras like better baggage allowance, in seat power and slightly fancier meal] at a good price in the BA summer sale. I felt that this option was an ideal trade-off between comfort and cost for a flight of this length [8.5 hours].

For the internal flights I was unable to shake off those distant memories of truly terrible check ins lasting many hours in hot and seriously chaotic Indian airports and hence, given the relatively low cost of doing so, I booked us onto business class flights.

To get to and from Varanasi I had booked a few months in advance with Vistara which is a newish airline owned and run jointly by Singapore airlines and Tata steel. Both prestigious companies who should be totally ashamed of themselves as I discovered quite by chance on the day before we set off for the holiday that they had cancelled both flights some time before, failed to tell us despite having both my mobile number and my email address and happily kept our money [over £400] in their account. Their customer services response when I contacted them was dismal with one responder just emailing me copies of the original ticket saying they were confirmed and another responder saying they had cancelled the flight and texted me but that the text must have failed to reach a UK mobile phone number! I would therefore advise anyone to avoid Vistara at all costs! Had I not identified this cancellation [when quickly checking flight numbers to forward to my son] it could have completely ruined this leg of the trip and caused no end of hassle but as it was I managed to hastily rebook for the same dates and at roughly same price with Jet airlines. We also flew to Jodhpur from Delhi with the much maligned Air India but, in direct contrast to the dismal Vistara scenario, they securely informed us of a minor flight time change [20 minutes different from that initially scheduled] by a series of very clearly marked emails.

We also booked a car and driver for seven days to take us through Rajasthan and after scrutiny of various review sites and guide books we chose a Jaipur based firm called “India by car and driver” which turned out to be an excellent choice in every respect. Their driver was safe, punctual, courteous, helpful and unfailingly cheerful and their administration was responsive and pricing and inclusions clear. I liked the fact that you only paid a small deposit in advance [online via a Visa card thus offering their protection for your money] and the balance when you got there and after you had confirmed that all was satisfactory.

Our final itinerary was as follows: -
Fly from London to Delhi
4 nights Leela Palace Delhi https://www.theleela.com/en_us/hotel...tel-new-delhi/
Fly Delhi to Jodhpur
3 nights Raas Jodhpur http://raasjodhpur.com/
Trip with car and driver from Jodhpur to Jaipur and onwards to Agra.
4 nights Jas vilas, Jaipur http://www.jasvilas.com/
2 nights Coral Tree homestay Agra http://www.thecoraltreehomestay.com/
Fly Delhi to Varanasi
3 nights Nadesar Palace Varanasi https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/taj-...lace-varanasi/
Fly Varanasi to Delhi
1 night JW Marriott airport hotel Delhi. http://www.marriott.co.uk/hotels/tra...3-75b66089dd79.
Return flight from Delhi to London

After all this planning and the packing and the last minute flight rebooking all we had to do was to entrust our house and our cat into the care of our son and we headed off back to India.
loncall is offline  
Old Oct 1st, 2016, 07:59 AM
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Sounds like lots of great planning. Looking forward to reading about the execution.
thursdaysd is offline  
Old Oct 1st, 2016, 08:28 AM
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Yes looking forward!
Lolazahra is offline  
Old Oct 1st, 2016, 09:06 AM
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You have reminded me why I am always wary of new airlines... so glad you checked well ahead of time and were able to re-book.

Looking forward to hearing all abut your trip!
Kathie is offline  
Old Oct 1st, 2016, 12:35 PM
Join Date: May 2004
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Congrats on retirement!!

Love your comparison of then vs now: "I lived in the moment then and watched the kaleidoscope of colour and history go by without feeling much need to catalogue it or make any chronological sense of it"--beautifully expressed! That explains why I don't have more photos from the "then" 45 yrs ago!!

Joining the "looking forward" group
CaliNurse is offline  
Old Oct 1st, 2016, 02:10 PM
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Yes I'm following this too. I love you planning acumen. .
jacketwatch is offline  
Old Oct 1st, 2016, 02:13 PM
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Also congrats on retirement. I fully retired 53 weeks and one day ago and yes I am counting..

You will love being in the KMA club and I'll bet you know what that means. .
jacketwatch is offline  
Old Oct 2nd, 2016, 02:54 AM
Join Date: Feb 2006
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This time I wanted to see some of the sights of Northern India. The passing of time has made me considerably fonder of clean rooms, air conditioning, evening cocktails, laundry services and cars with drivers than previously and this time the trip was to be comfortable and slow paced. >>

loncall, finding your TR this morning was somewhat serendipitous as that's exactly the sort of trip we would want to do, that is, if I can ever get DH to India. We went to Sri Lanka a few years ago and loved it but I have a yen for India, my mum and grandma having both been born there whereas DH would prefer to return to Sri Lanka.

Anyway, I'm along for the ride, which I hope will be peaceful and sedate.
annhig is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 09:16 AM
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Thanks to all who have responded to my initial post.

KMA was a new one on me jacketwatch until I googled it just now but then I am always totally in the dark ages in respect of such acronyms!

You are right to be cautious re new airlines Kathie as I learnt the hard way. However, you would think one jointly owned by Singapore airlines would have performed better, they must know how to send customers an email.......

Do continue to consider India Annhig. Our particular trip was mainly pretty low on unpleasant hassle and very high on amazing experiences.

We arrived at Delhi at 8.20 am after an overnight flight braced for delays and frustrating queues but found that the airport was almost totally empty. We whooshed through the visa on arrival process in about five minutes collected our baggage in about ten minutes, quickly changed some money and walked out into the heat of Delhi arrivals hall. Our room rate at the Leela Palace included airport transfers which we had booked in advance via email and so we were immediately met by a hotel representative who led us personally to a rather swish limousine complete with a driver in peaked hat. We progressed in unaccustomed style through the streets of Delhi which were also quiet as it was the Eid-al-adha holiday and government offices and some businesses were closed thus reducing the early morning traffic.

The Leela Palace hotel is large modern and welcoming. I had wanted a hotel that would reliably ease us back into India and this one definitely fits that bill but I had worried when I booked it that it might be a bit bland and ‘could be anywhere’. Happily it is full of Indian art works and very attractive flower displays and it felt unique in style which was good. The welcome was efficient and despite the fact that the official check in time was hours away we were led straight to our room. After a shower and a snooze we pattered around the hotel exploring what it had to offer and made our way to the included club lounge where all sorts of dainty bites to eat were laid out and tea and coffee served in traditional afternoon tea style. We had wondered about visiting Humayan’s tomb in the late afternoon to catch the evening sunlight but we were enjoying ourselves so much in the hotel that we left that for another day.

That evening we ate at ‘Jamavar’ the hotel’s Indian restaurant which was elegant and calm and soothing to jet lagged nerves. Whilst expensive by Indian standards it was not expensive for those who are used to London prices and we enjoyed all of our meal with both the black Dhal Jamavar and the mutton curry being rich and satisfying in flavour. That night was also the start of my addiction to Garlic Naans. We absolutely love Indian food and regularly cook and eat a wide variety of it in the UK but we have never found anywhere that cooks the brilliant Naan bread which we enjoyed almost universally on this holiday regardless of the class of the restaurant. Instead of a bit doughy and dryish think thin, crispy and buttery. Freshly made lime and mango pickles were also a revelation compared to the jars we have in our cupboard at home and we have vowed to make some for ourselves in order to maintain this high standard now that we have returned.

Whilst we are very definitely foodies we are not by any stretch of the imagination wine connoisseurs however we do enjoy a bottle with most evening meals on holiday and found that by sticking to the Indian produced section of the wine list we could keep costs down. Sula and Grover wines were to our mind entirely drinkable.

The following morning we set off for day one of the itinerary that we had sketched out in advance. Different people plan sightseeing in different ways but we like to have a little schedule for each day set down in advance of the trip that groups together sites and notes down possible nearby lunch spots so that we have something concrete to work from when there. We then obviously amend and adapt as we go along.

We got a taxi from the hotel to Lal Qila [red fort] and walked around its impressive ramparts before entering through the main gate. Inside we enjoyed people watching as much as the buildings with many Indian families enjoying a day out and large numbers of young men seemingly eyeing each other up but we were not entirely sure with what in mind. On exiting we wanted to take a rickshaw to the spice market which is at the other end of Chandri Chowk the main thoroughfare through old Delhi. Securing a rickshaw was not problem and we jumped in as did a prospective guide who we did not want. He was very persistent, far more so than in any other spot in India where by and large a polite no thank you and wave of the hand was sufficient, and took some shaking off.

The spice market is fascinating. Streets lined with a multitude of small shops selling all manner of items all surrounded by a haze of smells and with many local customers sitting on stools in front of the displays pondering their choices. Behind the shops was the wholesale market, with many huge canvas sacks of spices being wheeled around on wooden trolleys in a scene that was pretty much the same as it must have been a hundred years ago. As long as we kept out of their way no one took much notice of us and it was very worthwhile.

We then took another rickshaw [this time sans any unwanted guide] to the Jamma Masjiid mosque. By this time it was hot and we were getting hungry and so before visiting the mosque we made our way to a recently restored Haveli [Haveli Dharampura http://www.havelidharampura.com/]which we had noted had a restaurant open at lunch time. The Haveli was only about five minutes’ walk from the Mosque but involved plunging back into the narrow streets of old Delhi and finding the place was a bit of a challenge and we went up a few wrong turns before more or less falling into their hallway.

The Haveli is interesting revealing a little of the wealth that was previously within this part of Delhi and it reminded us of the Moorish Riads we had visited in Marrakesh many years ago. Their restaurant [The Lakhori] was attractive cool and air conditioned. They serve upmarket versions of the street food [with prices to match the setting] that is all around you in Old Delhi and we enjoyed our lunch. We were glad we had persisted in finding it.
We walked back to the Mosque where despite my extremely modest outfit I found I was required to wear this long voluminous robe which my partner unkindly but correctly said made me look like Homer Simpson in that episode where he wears a Mumu. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEVXq73OZz8]

The paving stones of the mosque courtyard were burning hot once you had taken your shoes off and we both nearly got third degree burns when we tried to take a short cut off the provided carpet patch. I tried to concentrate solely on the beauty and the history of the mosque but it was not easy given this backdrop !
As we exited the Mosque we had assumed it would be easy to find and take a taxi back to our hotel which was some considerable distance away. For whatever reason this was not the case and although there were hundreds of rickshaws both automated and cycle there was not a taxi to be seen despite several laps of the mosques perimeter road. In the end we asked around and got put into a cycle rickshaw to go to what was described to us as a taxi rank but which looked to us like a used car lot. One of the cars identified itself as a taxi and we set off in the most ramshackle car we have ever been in which was virtually tied together with strong. After some confusion about which hotel we were going to. They tried to take us to the Lalit which looked nice and which had a very helpful doorman who kindly assisted us in telling the taxi driver where we actually wanted to be. We giggled at the contrast with our previous day’s arrival in the Leela’s posh hotel limousine and decided to ask to be let out before we got to the hotel’s rather gracious security check arrangements for fear they would think we were quite mad getting into such a car !

After a supper in the Leela’s coffee shop we made our way up to the hotel lounge for a nightcap or two and retired to bed satisfied that day one had gone well.

On the second day we made our way to Lutyens Delhi starting at the Indira Ghandi museum which is based in the large bungalow which was her home. I really enjoyed this museum as many of the rooms were left exactly as they had been when she lived there with all her personal belongings giving one an impression of the architectural style of the bungalow and the lifestyle lived in the area as well as her history. The spot where she was assassinated by her own treacherous body guard was very tastefully marked with a path showing her last walk from the house through the grounds and a sheet of glass where she fell.

We then followed a walk which is set out in the Dorling Kingsley guide to Delhi which takes in many of the most interesting streets in the area. Many of the houses are now embassy and government owned with guards at the entrance and high walls but one still got a good feel of the layout of new Delhi. The walk was peaceful and there was no hassle of any kind along it. We finally got to the parliament buildings, the Rajpath and India Gate which were embarrassingly built to emphasise British power and rule in the 1920s but which happily now offer an impressive and well kept centre for India’s national Government.

Our lunch plan for that day was the 1911 restaurant in the Imperial hotel which was not far away in Janpath but in looking for a shop ‘cottage industries’ that was said to be opposite the hotel we managed to be persuaded into a rickshaw that proceeded to take us to another branch, or possibly another shop entirely, some distance away and which involved a Kamikazi type drive at high speed through the lunch time traffic. Just when I felt that we were in a certain death situation we arrived at the shop only to find it unpleasantly touristy with lots of aggressive hard sell. We therefore made a quick retreat but had to reverse the ride back to the Imperial and ended up shocked and sweaty in the rather refined lobby of that hotel.

Pulling ourselves together we entered the restaurant with as much aplomb as we could muster. We were seated in a most attractive section overlooking the lawns and with many period features intact. The food there gets mixed reviews but we enjoyed what we had [a masals dosa for my partner and a kebab in a roti for me]. Definitely worth a visit to see the hotel where much history unfolded in the last years of British rule and which is still clearly a haunt of wealthy Delhi-ites. We then avoided any further taxi and rickshaw debacles by getting one directly from the doorman of the hotel and hence progressed back to the Leela at a more normal pace and style.

On our final day in Delhi we learnt from the mistakes of the previous days and hired a taxi to follow us around and wait for us at various stops. The cost of this was so minimal that we realised we should have done this from the outset. We had planned to see the Q’tub Minar in the morning but were quite tired when we awoke and felt that we needed to slow down in keeping with our proposed slow pace for this trip and in order to retain enough stamina for the two weeks still ahead of us. We therefore with some regret knocked this off our list and instead did a spot of light shopping in Khan market [Good Earth and Anokhi] and had a lazy lunch at a café called’ Soda Water Bottle Opener Wala’ http://www.olivebarandkitchen.com/So...=6&branchid=24 which is themed as a Parsi café more traditionally found in Mumbai. Whilst not usually fans of themed restaurants this one was great fun with many quirky artefacts and some interesting Parsi food choices that we were not familiar with. Their Onion Bhajii [which we are familiar with as it is served on every high street in Britain !] was also outstandingly good.

We got to Humayan’s tomb in the golden hour of the late afternoon sunshine. This a garden tomb and the grounds are beautiful and tranquil and we wandered around for some considerable time enjoying the slightly cooler air and the setting sun. We climbed up to the steps to the tomb itself and this elevated position gave one a 360 view of the lawns and the traditional Moghul layout of the gardens amongst which sat picnicking local families with the women very colourful and graceful in their saris. A perfect end to the Delhi section of our trip.
loncall is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 10:13 AM
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loncall - what a lovely start to your trip, and to your TR which I am really enjoying, not least because of your deprecatory writing style as well as the detail of what you did and how you did it. So useful! as well as very entertaining.
annhig is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 11:12 AM
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I wholeheartedly agree with annhig. Looking forward to more.
Lolazahra is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 02:41 PM
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Lovely report! I, too, am enjoying reading it immensely and especially love wonderful and gentle spirit that your writing captures.
progol is online now  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 03:01 PM
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What a fun report! We plan to return to India while our 10 year visas are still good, so I'm taking notes.
Kathie is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 03:53 PM
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Loncall, congratulations on your retirement and the many trips that the two of you have to look forward to. I am very much enjoying your report on India, especially the way you bring the sights, sounds, and smells to like. Like Ann's spouse, I too have not been brave enough to jump head first into India although I continue to be fascinated by the reports you and others write about the country. Will be following along intently.
tripplanner001 is online now  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 06:08 PM
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Lovely work loncall.
sartoric is offline  
Old Oct 3rd, 2016, 10:35 PM
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Great to hear you visited Haveli Dharampura. I've stayed in other Welcomheritage properties and they were lovely. Did you by any chance have a peek into the Dharampura's hotel rooms? While you were there for a meal,I wonder what your thoughts are about visitors making that area a base for a stay in Delhi, vs staying in New Delhi.
Love your story of arriving hot, sweaty, and frazzled into the Imperial's lobby. REAL class is a place that doesn't even look twice--let alone look up their noses--at visitors in that state!! (That's a lesson I learned beautifully in your country, with the totally classy but down-to-earth tuxedoed servers during teatime at The Ritz!)
Enjoying this report and missing India. Thank you for taking the time.
CaliNurse is offline  
Old Oct 4th, 2016, 03:19 AM
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It is very kind of people to say that they are enjoying reading my report. I certainly hugely enjoyed reading many Fodors TA reports before I went.

We thought the Haveli Dharampura was really nice Calinurse, unfortunately we did not think to view any rooms but I would imagine from the overall attractiveness of public areas that they would be very nice. Staying there would be very atmospheric and the staff we met were very friendly and spoke good English. Anyone considering staying should, however, be aware that it really is in the heart of the old city down very narrow and dusty little streets with all manner of small traders and the bustle and hum of local life surrounding you which I guess would be an attraction for some travellers and a turn off for others !

Another brand new place that we tried whilst in Delhi which I forgot to mention in my previous post was the ‘Masala Library’ restaurant on Janpath next door to the Meridien hotel. Apparently there is a highly successful branch of this in Mumbai and it opened a Delhi branch in a very sleek setting just a couple of months ago which I had picked up on when exploring some blogs in advance of my trip. Our meal there was stupendously good and an absolute bargain for what one got. Modern Indian with a tasting menu of 19 courses [!] for circa £25 a head plus taxes. An Indian take on molecular gastronomy so course after tiny course unfolded all based on the traditional tastes and flavours of different parts of India but served in entirely new ways . All courses were pretty good and some courses were spectacularly and memorably good. An absolute must visit for anyone staying in Delhi who is interested in modern Indian food. I gather it is immensely popular but you can book in advance of a trip via email. http://masalalibrary.co.in/gallery.html
loncall is offline  
Old Oct 4th, 2016, 08:52 AM
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loncall, one of my favorite restaurants is a place in Bangkok called Gaggan. Gaggan is also the chef's name and he trained under the head chef at Il Bulli. His restaurant serves molecular cuisine with an Indian accent. It was voted the best restaurant in Asia for 2016. If you are going to be in Bangkok, I highly recommend it. Given your comments on Masala Library, I expect you would very much enjoy it.

Thans for the recommendation.
Kathie is offline  
Old Oct 5th, 2016, 01:39 PM
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I've been postponing beginning reading your report, loncall, thinking rightly from the title, I'd want to take the time for a thorough read. And now it will cost me potentially even more time than I'd imagined as my local library has a copy of ‘Indian Summer', requested, and ‘The Story of India’ has been added to my Netflix list.

I've spent some time in India - north, south, east, west and have been trying to resist the thought of returning, another reason for ignoring your report which, as you now know, I've failed to do. Now waiting for more.
MmePerdu is online now  
Old Oct 5th, 2016, 10:58 PM
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Great report love to read this
VishakhaYadav is offline  

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