India trip report Nov-Dec 2006

Jan 1st, 2007, 11:55 AM
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India trip report Nov-Dec 2006

I get so much help from Fodor's that I really have to provide a report on our recent trip to India. I would also be happy to answer any questions anyone might have.

The main purpose of the trip was to attend a conference in Delhi during the first week of December. As I was involved in business during that week, the info I am providing is mostly for the week prior where we toured Rajasthan, and the week after, where we visited Chennai (Madras), Cochin, and Mumbai. Our plan was to begin in Udaipur and drive from Udaipur to Delhi by way of Jodhpur, Jaipur, and Agra, and then fly from Delhi to Chennai, fly to Cochin, fly to Mumbai, and then return home.

We initially flew to Delhi on Virgin with a one night stop-over in London to break the trip (well worth it). We were scheduled to arrive in Delhi about 10:30 and then catch a 1:00 or 1:30 flight on Jet Airways to Udaipur. However our flight from London, which was scheduled to depart at 9:00 PM was 2 1/2 hrs late leaving which made us miss our flight from Delhi to Udaipur the next day.

Lesson #1: the domestic airport in Delhi is quite a distance from the International Airport, and it helps a lot if you have arranged for a driver to meet you and get you from one to the other. Fortunately we had been warned about this, and we had a driver.

Our research indicated that Jet Airways was one of the best airlines in India, and our experience backs this up. Excellent service, new planes, everything top notch. They very kindly re-booked us on a flight the next morning at no additional charge, and we found a room at a nearby Radisson. We also telephoned our hotel in Udaipur and our driver there to re-arrange our schedule.

Lesson #2: Having a cell phone in India is essential. Drivers do not always know how to find hotels or restaurants, and you may need to call from the car and hand the cell phone to the driver so they can ask questions. An Indian cell (Air Tel is very good) is ideal, but you may need to get someone to arrange this for you as it is impossible right now for a foreigner to buy an Indian SIM card.

Upon arrival in Udaipur our driver was waiting. Based on comments in this forum, we decided to use Parul Tours and Travels (Ramesh Dashora) rajasthan-travels-bycab.com. This was excellent advice. We essentially entrusted our lives to our driver for 5 days (a gentleman named Mahesh), and he took care of us very well. We rode in a fairly new kia with air conditioning and were quite comfortable.

Lesson #3: Never attempt to drive in India yourself unless you are a native. Roads are not marked (no signs at crossroads or at required turns), road construction is not marked (including where you need to change lanes because your lane suddenly turns into a construction site), and you have to know how to pass camels, cows, trucks etc without killing yourself or them.

We used Ramesh's suggestions on guides (modest cost for guides for the day in each of Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaipur, and Agra). Well worth it. One caution...they will try and take you to the local craft shop to have their friend show you rugs (and of course they get a commission) This is not unpleasant, but if it is not how you want to spend your afternoon, tell them you do not wish to do this. They will also arrange for you to have lunch somewhere. If you want to choose your own restaurant, you need to estabish this as well.

Most tourist hotels and restaurants provide free rooms and food for the drivers and guides. If your driver likes a beer or two at night, however, you can always give him a little extra which will be appreciated. Do not ask your driver to dine with you, however. They are very strict about their "place". The guide will, however, sit with you.

Our tour through Rajasthan was colorful, and generally fabulous. Our hotel in Udaipur was the Udai Kothi. I strongly recommend this one. We requested a slight upgrade in room (since the price was modest anyway). And we thoroughly enjoyed it. The hotel is very centrally located so we could go out in the evening on foot and wander the alleys of the city. Well worth doing. It appears very safe, and it is a way to really immerse yourself in the culture. From the Udai Kothi it is possible to walk across a small foot bridge crossing the river, and get yourself to markets, restaurants. Udaipur is famous for the Lake Palace hotel, but we decided not only was it too expensive for our budget, but we would be "stuck" there. We really wanted to get closer to the real India.

We then drove to Jodphur by way of the Jain temple in Ranakpur. A must see. Fabulous carving dating from 1439, and in pristine condition. This is also Tiger country..you won't see any, but this is where the Maharajas did their hunting. There are still some around apparently.

Jodhpur, the "blue" city, is a must. We stayed at the Krishna Prakash Haveli. A Haveli is a grand private home, in this case owned by the family of the current owner in years past. Rooms are spartan, but the service is superb and the cost modest. For the same reasons as staying at the Udai Kothi, it is a very good idea to stay right in the middle of things. I would certainly be willing to stay at this hotel again, but there are other heritage hotels near the clock tower if you come across another one you like. From the KPH Hotel we were able to walk up to the fort on our own at night to have dinner on the fort terrace overlooking the city (great idea...suggested in Lonely Planet). The road is very dark and very very steep, but if you are adventurous, kind of fun. Otherwise take an auto-rickshaw or cab.

We could have used our driver at night as well, but to give him a break after 7 or 8 hours of gruelling driving, we avoided asking him to take us around other than once or twice taking us to a restaurant and then dismissing him for the evening and taking a cab back on our own.

Don't miss having an Omelette at Vicki's Omelette Shoppe near the clock-tower one morning.

Also, to find the KPH hotel, requires calling the hotel from your cell phone and the owner will come to get you on a motor-cycle and you follow him in your car. They provide parking at the hotel.

In Jaipur we stayed at the Umaid Mahal which I also heartily recommend. Very comfortable, beautiful hotel, modest price. Don't attempt to move your own bags. The hotel employees value their jobs and that is what they are supposed to do.

Lesson #4: get used to letting others do everythng for you. India employs lots of people at low wages who depend on their jobs of carrying bags, or whatever. This is not the place to get independent at the hotel. Let them do things for you!

In Jaipur, if you can do it, go dine at the Rambah Palace. It will cost some bucks, but WOW! what an experience. Part of the Rambagh Palace is still private...the current Maharaja's mother lives there. Anyway its a real experience and fabulous food.

Lesson #5. A smile goes a long way. Indians are very friendly. Smile and they will smile back. Exception: avoid any eye contact with beggars, kids selling things etc. Just walk quickly, do not engage in any communication. India is trying to discourage this practice, and the kids should be in school, not trying to sell you trinkets at inflated prices.

Finally, In agra, we stayed at the Sheraton Mughal. Very nice hotel, although I hear the Oberoi is the place to be. We did not attempt to do the center of town thing in Agra. All the top hotels have superb dining
(usually an Indian restaurant plus a mixed cuisine restaurant and maybe a Chinese restaurant).

to be continued
gourmet2go is offline  
Jan 1st, 2007, 02:24 PM
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Thank you! really enjoying your comments.. please continue..
Cosmo is offline  
Jan 1st, 2007, 04:14 PM
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great tips! can't wait to hear more!
miss_emery is offline  
Jan 1st, 2007, 04:37 PM
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great start...i have worked all day on organizing my indian pictures from november so this is perfect reading for me..
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 1st, 2007, 06:30 PM
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gourmet...can i ask...what do you consider modest costs for hotels? how did you get your indian cell phone? what did you have
for dinner and what was the final bill
at the palace.

we will be following a similar route in October and enjoyed your post
divediva is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 11:18 AM
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DiveDiva, in answer to your questions, we paid US$191.05 for 2 for dinner. The menu is divided into regions, and all I recall is that I ordered dishes mainly from Rajasthan. No point in ordering South Indian Fish (which will be frozen anyway) in the middle of the desert. Don't miss the Indian wines...Sula makes some very good wine.

I consider modest price to be under $100.00. Our hotels in Rajasthan ranged from US$65.00 to US$88.00 per night. In doing your own research check under the websites that promote "heritage" hotels, or "heritage castles". I think these are the most interesting.

As for the Indian SIM card, I got an Indian friend to arrange it for me. But Airtel has an application form for ordering a SIM card, and it might be worth contacting them directly to see if you can get a short term SIM card. I read somewhere that you could buy one easily in the Airport, but I never saw anything like that in any of the airports we visited.

Cheers,
Gourmet2go
gourmet2go is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 12:01 PM
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How wonderfult to start today reading of the wonders of India. I am enjoyign the report and I look forward to enjoying pictures
waynehazle is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 01:02 PM
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India Trip Report Part II

I am posting this under the original post...I hope that folks will find it.

Departing from Agra we visited Fatehpur Sikri on our way to Delhi. This should have been a very interesting thing to see, an ancient Mughal palace complex, suddently abandoned by Akbar, but we didn't allow enough time. If you are interested in this type of exploration, I would recommend a full day and definitely get a qualified guide. Our driver got us a guide on the spot whose only value was in keeping hawkers away. Our guide book had more info than he had.

Lesson #6: Hawkers are everywhere. "Excuse me! Escuse me! What country you from?? You want to buy (post card, chess set, necklace etc etc). Very cheap, I promise!" The lesson is, DO NOT LET THIS RUIN YOUR TRIP BY GETTING UPSET! The hawkers are there. Its their country, not yours. If you avoid eye contact, and walk away, you will avoid some of it. For those that are persistent, just say no, politely. Just be patient. Its ok. Its part of the Indiana Jones part of this part of the world.

Delhi...I never saw it except for my conference. But I did stay at the Oberoi. Absolutely fabulous! I would go there again or to any other Oberoi in a heartbeat. Very expensive, though.
A couple of restaurants to mention: Bukhara in the ITC Sheraton Maurya. Kebob place...favorite of Bill Clinton...its fun and very very good. The Chinese restaurant in the Oberoi, Taipan. One of the best Chinese restaurants I ever dined in. Pretty expensive, but worth it. A bit on the formal side...this is not your shopping mall's Chinese restaurant.

We then flew from Delhi to Chennai, by this time quite familiar with the routine at the domestic airport. There are only 4 gates which lead to a bus which then drives you across the tarmac to the waiting plane.

Drive from Chennai to the Taj Fisherman's Cove hotel near Kovalam. Kovalam is a small fishing village which has given its name to the beach in the form of "Covelong Beach". Allow
1 1/2 hours for the drive. We chose Fisherman's cove for some r&r after the conference. Very nice place, but not quite up to the same standard as the other Taj hotels. Bathrooms are a little old, infrastructure crumbling a bit, but overall not bad. The best thing about the hotel is the restaurant callled the Bayview Point. You must book ahead. The seafood is caught every night by the fishermen who are only allowed by their religion to fish when the oocean is "asleep". They deliver the fish to the hotel at dawn, and you dine on it for lunch or dinner. The best seafood I have ever eaten anywhere! Try the fish with local spice in a banana leaf. And of course wash it down with Sula wine.

We spent one day on the beach...the surf on the Bay of Bengal is lovely if not too rough. The water is relatively clean. They also have a pool. Guards are posted around the beach to keep hawkers at bay.

Side trip: walk down to Kovalam along the beach. in the morning you can meet fishermen and maybe some school kids. Meet the locals! Keep some 10 rupee notes to tip any fisherman who offers you a bit of a tour. Sure...go ahead and visit the temple for the fishermen, and visit the village. See where the Tsunami went inside the village. Photograph the colorful boats, all replaced after the Tsunami with funds from the Tata group. Get your hand decorated with henna at the hotel. Throughly nice place to visit.

We hired a car with a driver to take us to Mahabalipuram and the nearby Shore Temple (to Lord Vishnu) dating from the 7th century and re-built stone by stone after a cyclone washed it away. Also the penance of Arjuna, the five Ratha's (chariots) are well worth seeing. The penance is part of a whole area of rock carving. Make sure you visit the Shore Temple BEFORE you go to the five rathas as the ticket for the shore temple admits you into the 5 rathas, but they don't sell the tickets at the latter...only at the Shore Temple.

We spent one day in Chennai with a friend of ours, visiting Fort St. George, the original British Settlement, plus the old part of the city including an ancient Armenian Church. The current structure dates from 1772 after the original was destroyed in the French Siege of 1746. Dinner at the Kabob factory with our friend...great fun, low cost. You don't get your own kabob...they just keep cooking and bringing you pieces of meat (or veg for the vegetarians) until you cant eat any more.

The next morning we flew to Cochin, on the Arabian Sea side of India. Our hotel arranged a car to meet us for the 1 1/2 hr drive into Fort Cochin. This is a luxurious residential area by indian standards...some very nice homes, plus some history. Vasco da Gama (remember him from school?) lived and died there. You can see his tomb in the cathedral, but his actual body was removed to Portugal in the 1500s. Go visit the antique Chinese fishing nets which they still use...buy some fresh fish and ask one of the outdoor restaurants right there to cook it for you, Kerala style (pronounced Kerla...that first "a" gets swallowed up). Lots to see here.

We stayed at the Old Harbour hotel...in fact we were the first customers ever. By now the air conditioning should be working, so give them a try. Great pool, great service. We met the architect of this beautiful restoration, and were just so impressed by what they did. The same architect also did the Brunton Boathouse where we went every day for lunch right by the river, and once for dinner on the roof. Very very good.

Finally we flew to Mumbai for a very short visit before returning to Washington DC by way of London again. We stayed at the Hilton Towers by Marine Drive...pricey but a very nice hotel. The hotel restaurant was excellent...mixture of Chinese and Indian. One day we had lunch at the Taj Mahal Palace facing the Gateway to India. This is fabulous...looking down on the scene by the gateway...think Indiana Jones again. I should have brought my pith helmet!

We finally departed India, and our final thoughts were that we needed to come back and do properly some of the things we did too quickly, and to add the places we never saw. We never saw Jaisalmer, Varanasi, the famous Caves with the erotic paintings, the Jim Corbett preserve, the tip of India where you can see three oceans converge, and on and on. But we did a lot in our 3 weeks plus, and it was a great introduction. We're still taking our Malaria tablets (doxycycline must continue 28 days after you return), and still waking up at 4 AM (this is actually good!), but we can't wait to go back.

Once in London...and we began to dream about this...our hotel, the Sheraton Park Lane, is very near a Hard Rock Cafe...we headed for a Hamburger!!!! WOW! Finally, a Hamburger!! But we agreed that the food in India is among the best in the world. And you will feel like a Maharaja or a Maharani in no time.
gourmet2go is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 01:52 PM
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Great Report!

I am leaving for India myself at the end of the month and this report is not only interesting but very useful as it covers some of the places I am due to visit.

I have e-mailed the hotel you stayed at in Jaipur - it looks beautiful. May want to pick your brains further if that's OK. VHS.
vhs100 is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 03:18 PM
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Dear Gourmet, Thanks for the great posting; Hawkers.. I remember those guys from Egypt.. one must just be so zen and not let it get to you! Your trip report was dazzling; my husband and I are planning a trip to India this fall and reading reports such as yours are invaluable! Did you have any tummy trouble while you were there?
Thyra is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 03:36 PM
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wonderful report! I visited Rajastan in Oct/Nov and couldn't agree more with many of your observations. The Ranakor (spelling?) jain temple unexpectedly blew me away - more so than the Taj Mahal. My regret is that I didn't pay the camera fee and I just couldn't bring myself to taking unpaid photos inside!

I did get frustrated with the persistent hawkers - being a youngish female walking around on my own, it drew a lot of attention. By my last day, after a rikshaw driver followed me for over 10 minutes, and I said no thank you at least once a minute, I finally turned to him and said firmly "please leave me alone, thank you". That did it - it was tough to be firm because it feels rude, but that is what it took!
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Jan 2nd, 2007, 06:00 PM
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I am going to be visiting the Taj in Agra in a few weeks. We want to have lunch or dinner at the Oberoi Amarvilas, in the more casual restaurant. Can anyone tell me the approximate cost of lunch and dinner there? I e-mailed them but no one answered. Do I have to make a reservation? Thanks
emma3293 is offline  
Jan 2nd, 2007, 06:34 PM
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emma, we ate at esphahan at amarvilas on nov 11 for dinner...we had a set thali meal which was wonderful..i had a veggie one and my wife had the meat one...she had one glass of wine and i probably had a beer....the meal included appetizers and dessert....price was 3000 rp...an excellent meal...people were very well dressed there i should add....we were not, although i had on long pants and a polo sport shirt and my wife slacks and a nice top...

the place is over the top...
rhkkmk is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2007, 09:53 AM
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Glad this report was useful.

VHS100, I am very happy to answer any questions, and feel free to e-mail me directly if you like.

Thyra, we had no tummy trouble of any sort, but we were pretty cautious. Never drank anything with ice, except at the Oberoi in Delhi, never drank anything unless we saw it came out of a sealed bottle. After a while you get used to a gin-and-tonic with no ice. And ask for Indian gin...much much cheaper! I must confess I did use the tap water in the hotels when brushing my teeth, but rinsed my mouth out with bottled water afterwards. NEVER ate anythiing from a street vendor, with the exception of an Omelette at Vicki's (see above)

HLSAM, I understand that women travelling have more complications with hawkers than men, and I think that you may have to respond firmly on occasion. I still think that no response of any sort is usually effective. On the other hand my partner kind of enjoyed the playfulness of it all, and once spent 1/2 hr trying to convince a hawker to part with a miniature chess set in return for a copy of yesterdays newspaper as a trade. That's when we realized that a certain amount of the hawking is really an excuse just to talk to a foreigner. It just depends on how much patience you have.
gourmet2go is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2007, 01:47 PM
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Dear gourmet2go -- What a great trip report. My husband & I are leaving for India mid. Feb. and I am getting so excited....today we went to the travel clinic and got our necessary shots, malaria pills etc. so your trip report makes it well worth it.

Glad to hear that you did not get sick. They kind of had me freaked out at the clinic....does anyone know if at the Oberoi hotels if they use purified water to make ice -- wash veggies etc.

Thanks again for a great report!
colern is offline  
Jan 3rd, 2007, 01:59 PM
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colem - in most of Asia ice is "manufactured" from purified water (at least you hope it is). If the Oberois have their own water purification system, they probably don't need to buy their ice and it is likely that they wash their vegies, etc. with this purified water as well. We stayed at Amarvilas and Rajvilas in 2005 and ate at their restaurants for breakfast and dinner. We were just fine - great food too!
Craig is online now  
Jan 5th, 2007, 07:51 PM
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thanks gourmet2go,

I just posted some inquiries on my trip to kerala. I only have three days to try and see the best of Kerala, and Cochin would definitely be part of that. Mind telling the price range for the Old Harbour Hotel? Any other advice on my trip to that part of India.

Thanks.

muma
muma is offline  
Jan 6th, 2007, 12:57 AM
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small correction to the advice on Delhi's international to domestic commute, the international and domestic terminals share the same set of runways, but are on opposite sides.
There is a free coach running between the terminals every 15 mins or so, just need to ask the airlines staff, or the India tourism counters just after immigration/carousels, and in fact they keep announcing it.

Ofcourse you can get out and travel half way around the city and reach the domestic terminal, for $$, thats always an option, and for which either a pre-arranged car, or a Delhi Police certified pre-paid cab is recommended.(its right outside the arrivals hall)
floydude is offline  
Jan 6th, 2007, 06:46 AM
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Not sure why you had problems with SIM Card. We walked into an Air Tel office and just bought one. The problem was with unlicking our phone...T-mobile had given us the wroing codes, so we ended up buying an Indian Nokia phone. $52 for the phone, #20 for the sim card with lots of minutes.
lcuy is offline  
Jan 6th, 2007, 09:39 AM
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Muma, I think our original reservation was for about US$150, however due to the conditions at the time of opening, he reduced that drastically. It is one of the nicer places to stay in Fort Cochin, the other luxury hotel being the Brunton Boatyard. Brunton is larger and has very good dining and other amenities, so ought to cost more than Old Harbour...so I would compare. Neither are cheap though.

There are some B&B's in Cochin too, some advertised as homestays...If I were on a budget I would check those out.
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