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Just returned from an amazing trip to India!

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Feb 10th, 2013, 05:45 AM
  #1
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Just returned from an amazing trip to India!

Hi, everyone,
I just wanted to write a brief note, having just returned to our home just 2 hours ago. I promise a trip report, too, but for now, letting you know that we have a fabulous trip to India, seeing Delhi, Varanasi, Agra and Rajasthan in 3 weeks.

Thanks to everyone here for feedback - it was invaluable for my trip planning. The trip went incredibly well, no snags until the end (and these snags had nothing to do with trip planning) - our flight home got cancelled because of the storm, and and negotiating the interruption was a bit challenging. Ultimately, we got on the next day's flight, but it was very up in the air (so to speak!) for the first day and a half.

I booked hotels directly, but worked with Nikhil, of TGS to coordinate all other aspects of the trip - drivers, guides, activities, specific recommendations - and he did an amazing job for us. He provided us with a wonderful driver, Rajendra, who drove us through Rajasthan, and we hired guides in most places. One nice touch was that we were also met by a TGS rep in most of the locations, which really made us feel safe and taken care of. Nikhil would generally call each day while we were driving, just to check in to see how things were going and to review upcoming plans.

As far as clothes -- you guys called it well! Very casual, and in layers, layers, layers. I ended up wearing 2 pair of pants exclusively, and my comfortable Brooks sneakers throughout most of my trip. I had short sleeve t-shirts and longsleeve t-shirts, a warm sweater, a lightweight safari-style jacket, and a black zip up sweatshirt. They were black and pink, and I alternated them every day or so, but believe me, no one is going to care what you're wearing.

Temperatures varied - evenings and mornings were generally cool, but warmed up to the mid-80s in some places by the afternoon, although generally in the 70s for much of our trip. The temps were unusually cool this year, and when we arrived in Delhi, the evening and early morning temps were high-30s/low 40s. So wearing layers is essential.

I'll definitely write a more thorough trip report as I acclimate to being home, but I did want to let you all know that our trip was fabulous.

Paule
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Feb 10th, 2013, 05:56 AM
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Looking forward to more.
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Feb 10th, 2013, 07:18 AM
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Welcome back!
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Feb 10th, 2013, 09:32 AM
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It sounds like you had a great trip. I'm looking forward to reading more.
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Feb 10th, 2013, 10:18 AM
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Navigating through flight cancellation is a harrowing experience. It's a good thing it did not affect your trip in India.

Welcome back.
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Feb 10th, 2013, 03:36 PM
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Thanks...looking forward to your report. We leave for India 2 months from today.
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Feb 10th, 2013, 05:53 PM
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Can't wait for more!
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Feb 11th, 2013, 11:12 AM
  #8
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I posted photos and brief blurbs regularly on Facebook. If anyone wants to view these, you're welcome to email me and I will be happy to add you to my list of Facebook friends!

[email protected]

In the meantime I will work on my report and get it up as soon as I can.

Paule
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Feb 11th, 2013, 05:23 PM
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I just love it when people come back from one of my favorite places and really enjoyed their trip! Looking forward to reading more about your travels!
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Feb 12th, 2013, 10:02 AM
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Looking forward to your report.
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Feb 16th, 2013, 01:37 PM
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India trip report

The conversation about traveling to India began over a year ago, shortly after we returned from Greece. Our travels have generally been in Europe and a wonderful trip to Turkey, but we both felt that it was time to travel beyond the usual stops and see part of the world that is less familiar and comfortable to us. We both agreed that India was the place to go. I scoured the travel boards, concentrating on Fodors, TripAdvisor, and IndiaMike, and quickly settled on Rajasthan, Varanasi and Agra.

After reviewing countless trip reports (many thanks to all the wonderful trip reports that I read obsessively), I developed an itinerary that, for us, worked very well. I was able to carve out 3 weeks from work, which allowed us to have enough time for a good trip. We have always been independent travelers, and we’re generally moderate budget travelers. I like to say that I’m a “value” traveler – I don’t mind an occasional splurge, provided it gives me something worthwhile, although I generally try to keep costs down. India was a great place to be a value traveler, as many of the hotels we stayed in were quite elegant and classy, and our “splurges” were no more than $100/day.

One thing we both quickly realized is that we wanted to have someone in India that we could depend upon to help oversee the trip. Again, I read many travel reports and reviews, found TGS receiving excellent reviews, and made the decision to work with Nikhil and his team, a choice that both my husband and I were extraordinarily pleased with.

The itinerary:

Delhi – 2 nights
Varanasi – 2 nights
Agra – 1 night
Jaipur – 2 nights
Bundi – 1 night
Udaipur – 2 nights
Fort Dhamli – 1 night
Jodhpur – 2 nights
Jaisalmer – 3 nights
Jodhpur – 1 night
Delhi – 1 night (turned into 2 because of flight cancellation)

No surprise, we tweaked the itinerary many times. We wanted a mix of small villages as well as the larger, main cities in Rajasthan, and on reflection, it was near-perfect for us. It’s easy to second guess one’s self, but we came away with such a sense of satisfaction from this trip, that I really feel we did the best we could’ve done in the time we had. I came close to eliminating Bundi, and am so glad that we didn’t, as it was one of our favorite places – a small gem, well worth visiting. It was the one place we wish we had another day, but were so glad we got there at all.

Hotels and guest houses:

Delhi/Colonels Retreat – I began booking my hotels and guest houses last summer for this past January, and was greatly disappointed when Saubhag B&B, my first choice, was booked. Colonels Retreat, in the Defence Colony, was recommended, and overall, we found it a very good place to stay and came to appreciate the location of the guest house, as well as the hardworking staff, who were very accommodating and helpful, especially when we had a flight cancellation at the end of our trip and had to book an additional day. Initially, I was disappointed - I had hoped for the more personal experience of a small guest house, with an owner who we met and welcomed us, but this didn’t happen. It’s also larger than I first realized, with at least 4 floors of rooms, with each floor having a shared living room area. We ended up staying in 3 different rooms, and found it to be a very comfortable place. They also served an excellent breakfast and the best coffee of any place we went! Recommended. Rs 5,300, breakfast included


Varanasi/Kedareswar B&B – We were very pleased with this guest house. Simple, basic, but well run, with proprietors who were very warm, gracious and accommodating, and were as helpful as they could be. The room was small but comfortable, with a shared balcony, overlooking the Ganges. Nice terrace roof, we had breakfast one morning (the other was too cool). The staff was very respectful - they call Michael, Papu, and me, Mama! It’s a very simple place, but for what it is, I recommend it highly. Ganges facing room/Rs 2,400

Agra/Garden Villa guest house/homestay - Did not find it a particularly welcoming place, although it was perfectly adequate. The owner was businesslike, and not particularly warm.. The dinner (we paid extra for it) and breakfast were again adequate, but minimal. We arrived at a time when it was quite cool and the rooms were freezing, although he eventually found a heater for us at our request. To get there, we drove a long way through the middle of nowhere to get to the gated community. Still, the price was good and the rooms were clean and comfortable. Standard room 1,900, dinner – Rs 300x2.

Jaipur/Pearl Palace Heritage - Despite the large and stylized rooms and extra amenities (bathrobe, large glassed-in shower), we found the place poorly run. They are clearly trying to be a luxury hotel, but it isn’t there yet – a personal computer is set up in the room but it didn’t work, and the room safe didn’t work. Construction was going on into the evening. The room decor was truly garish, did not look like a heritage hotel with its red pillows and blue lighting! Surprisingly, the basic lighting was very poor although there was a lot of effort to make it a design element. The staff was extremely disorganized, spoke minimal English, and were generally lackadaisical bordering on rude. We got the sense that this was the second tier help, because when we went to breakfast at Pearl Palace (the original hotel), the staff - and the owners - were there and present and it seemed very well run.. I didn't realize that the restaurant was at the other hotel until we arrived, which we also found annoying, although they did get us a tuk-tuk very quickly to get us to breakfast. I do not recommend the Heritage until they improve the staff and work is complete, although the original hotel, Pearl Palace seemed very nice and had a great rooftop restaurant. Luxury room/Rs 2000 + 7.42% tax.

Bundi/Bundi Haveli – Absolutely loved it. We fell in love with Bundi and we loved the hotel. Small, elegant heritage hotel, wonderful, attentive staff. We really felt welcomed by the charming manager, who spent a lot of time talking with us and making recommendations -- this is what we hope for in the places we stay! Decent restaurant in the hotel. Recommend highly. Super Deluxe room Rs 2,500 +7.42% tax.

Udaipur/Jagat Niwas- Without a doubt, the place that made me feel pampered and spoiled, as I completely fell in love with my large window seat overlooking Lake Pichola! The room is spacious and comfortable, and there is a separate nook for our suitcases. The extra cost of the lake-facing room was worth it to me, as it gave me the opportunity to fantasize and really feel like royalty. The only odd thing about this place is the open shower in the bathroom (but I didn't mind it). The restaurant on top is also a wonderful amenity of the hotel. The hotel is elegant, with a very polished and professional staff. Highly recommend. Raj lake-facing room Rs 4,200 + 8% luxury tax + 7.42% tax =Rs 4,950 (breakfast extra).

Fort Dhamli - An odd but very worthwhile experience in a very off-the-tourist path village in the Pali district (near Jodhpur). This is thanks to Julies, whose trip to India last year to smaller towns and villages was inspirational. Fort Dhamli is a very small village of about 2000 people, with nothing to offer a tourist, except for the experience of being in a rural village with minimal tourist traffic. There were no other people staying there when we were there - my sense is that the occasional guest comes, but it's not a regular occurrence. The building is a one-story building surrounding a courtyard, with bedrooms along one side. The owner (or Thakur – thanks, Julies!), is a descendent of the family that had been the feudal lord, but though he no longer “owns” the villages, his role very much is still the lord of the manor. The room is comfortable, and the meals were very good and generous. We are here because of the village tour, which we do in the morning. Getting here was a long drive through small towns and roads that seemed to be endless. I had been quoted Rs 4,750 for a package of dinner, breakfast and the tour (which took about 2 hours), but it ended coming in somewhat less than that.

Jodhpur/Ratan Vilas - I think this wins for best in show! Comfortable room, great amenities and staff that could not do enough to make one feel welcome. Lovely house and grounds. The owner is there and as gracious and welcoming as can be. The exceptional nature of the staff was apparent when we returned for our second stay. My one scheduling error had me confirming the room for the next day, so when we arrived (and thanks to the TGS rep, this all was resolved before we showed up), they were extremely apologetic that they didn't give us the same room we had, but were still able to give us another perfectly lovely room which was absolutely fine with me. And no one gave me any grief over my mistake. I could've stayed here for days just relaxing. Highly, highly recommend! Superior room: Rs 3,600 + 7.42% tax

Jaisalmer/Garh Jaisal: One of our 3 favorites -- this is a beautiful hotel in the fort, fabulous views of the city, and incredibly well run by the boys from Nepal! They are warm, gracious and helpful, and we ended up really enjoying this place. The few quirks of the place are understood as part of the old and fragile nature of the place, but we adapt and feel very much at home in this place. The room was very comfortable with a window seat overlooking the city and the rooftop a spectacular place to sit and have chai or meals. Great breakfast, lots of extra masala chai! Highly recommend. Rs 5200, including breakfast.
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Feb 16th, 2013, 01:53 PM
  #12
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Booking: I decided to book the hotels directly to save the booking fees, and I also booked all flights. Domestic flights were booked through Cleartrip, and I booked directly with United for the international flights. I watched for months until the price was fairly reasonable (around $1200+). In retrospect, I really should’ve let TGS take care of booking the hotels, because it was far too time consuming staying on top of all the details.

Transportation

International flight:
We flew nonstop from Newark to Delhi, leaving Newark at 8:40pm and arriving Delhi at 9:20pm. We were pretty much on time, and had no problems with flights due to fog. Our return flight was cancelled because of the northeast snowstorm, but we were ultimately able to rebook the next night (although getting through to United was a major effort!). We left Delhi at 11:35pm and arrived at 4:35am (again pretty much on time), coming in before the customs officers were there to clear us!

Domestic flights:
1) New Delhi to Varanasi/Spicejet, left @ 9:35am, arrived at 11:00am. On time! No fog delay!
2) Jodhpur – Delhi/JetKonnect – departed 12:15, arrived 13:45.

(I’ll have to look for the rates)
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Feb 16th, 2013, 02:00 PM
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Train: Varanasi to Agra:

We took the overnight train from Varanasi to Agra, leaving at 17:20, scheduled to arrive at 5:55 am. Now THIS was delayed by fog! And not just by a few hours! We ended up 8 hours delayed! Apparently, the other trains are kept on schedule, but the delayed train falls further and further behind, and is only freed to go when the other trains have completed their run. Our wonderful driver waited the entire time for us at the station! TGS booked the train for us when they were first released, so we got the lower berths. Surprisingly, we slept well, as the train gently rocked us during the night!
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Feb 16th, 2013, 02:02 PM
  #14
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Small correction on our itinerary:
Udaipur - 3 nights
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Feb 16th, 2013, 07:47 PM
  #15
 
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Great report!! thank you!!! I am learning a lot.

I am surprised by some of your hotel /guest house choices. How did yo decide on them?
Saubhag and Meera ARE wonderful, but there are many similar,quiet owner-welcoming guest houses, for future ref for you and other Fodors readers.

thanks for warning of open shower at Jagat Niwas. I simply cant get over my dislike of water all over the floor around the toilet, in whatever country it is.
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Feb 17th, 2013, 01:33 AM
  #16
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CaliNurse,
As far as choices, I looked for a range of places and experiences,from a very pampered experience to a more personal and intimate experience. The latter was what I hoped for by considering Saubhag B&b,which is listed as #1 on tripadvisor, and reviews speak about Meera's attention. Though we didn't end up there.

As far as the other choices, what are you wondering? I chose Jagat Niwas and Ratan Vilas because of the reviews here, and were very happy with them. I chose the guest house in Varanasi because I didn't' want the Rashmi Guest house .....and again, it was the right place for us. Overall, I was looking to have a range of experiences when I chose where I stayed, but I don't have the budget for an Oberoi. None of my places cost me more than $100/night.

If you don't want an open shower, avoid Garh Jaisal as well.
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Feb 17th, 2013, 07:42 AM
  #17
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More practicalities...

Many others have put together extensive packing lists, so there's no need for me to repeat what's been done so well before. For us, the items we found most useful were a small bottle of hand sanitizer and the small packages of tissues. I had 2 8-packs of them stuffed throughout my luggage. And when we ran out, we found that they are readily available in the small shops.

The single smartest thing I did before my trip.....was to get a 3 week supply of scopaline patches for motion sickness. I do suffer badly from this, and the patches allowed me to travel on the planes, the train and 2 weeks of often bumpy driving on rough roads with nary a moment of nausea! I'd been concerned about the traveling, and this was the best case scenario. I had used them for brief traveling periods successfully before, but never for 3 weeks. So this made the trip manageable for me.

We also got malarone from the doctor (paid by my insurance!) though we really do think it was overkill, as the areas we were in have a very low risk of malaria. Still, with no noticeable side effects, we chose to take the precautionary medication.
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Feb 17th, 2013, 08:46 AM
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ratan villas was amongst my favorite places to stay... i left my very expensive plug adapter there---darn it..
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Feb 17th, 2013, 09:10 AM
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Hi,
If I'd known that, I would've collected it for you!

I thought of you when we were there, and agree completely that they are the best. I wasn't sure if I wanted to stay in the city or not, but after arriving at Ratan Vilas, and after going into the old town, I was very, very happy to come back there! They couldn't have been nicer! I still find it amazing that they apologized to me for not giving me the room that they were intending us to have, even though I was the one who made the scheduling error!
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Feb 17th, 2013, 09:57 AM
  #20
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The trip!

Friday, January 18/Saturday Jan 19…following an uneventful flight, we arrive in Delhi at the scheduled time of 9:20pm. After going through customs, we look for the driver…and I can’t find him anywhere! I manage to find Nikhil’s number, who reminds me that the driver is waiting for us at Gate 4, which he had written to me before we left – and sure enough, he is there, waiting patiently, a trait we see over and over in Rajendra, our driver for much of our trip.

We are in India! We can hardly believe that we’re really here! Driving through the night into Delhi is surreal. We are hit by the smog in the air – it is overwhelming, an acrid smell of burning. I was prepared for this after reading a recent travel report, but it still hits hard when we first arrive.

We arrive late at night at the Colonel’s Retreat. The drive here, too, is startling, with roads that seem to go every which way, and horns blaring constantly. We are in the Defence Colony, but the roads coming here are confusing, and we can’t quite make sense of where we’re going. When we arrive, we are greeted by staff, who bring us to a modest-sized room, and then leave us. We look at each other with a sense of disbelief – where are we? This feels like we’re suspended in some strange time warp somewhere. We finally fall asleep, waking up sometime around 5:00am.

Sunday January 20 – Our room is on the same floor as the dining area, so we head out for breakfast by 7 or 7:30am. The staff serve us promptly, providing a menu of options. The masala omelet and the coffee is wonderful, as is their banana bread. We are alone throughout breakfast, but finally, others show up!

At 9:30am, we meet our driver and our guide, Unil. He is very pleasant and polite, and we make the plan for the day. We only have the one full day in Delhi, so our itinerary is prioritized. First, we visit the Jama Masjid, the largest and oldest mosque in Delhi, built by Shah Jihan. The structure is quite beautiful, but neither of us can quite absorb any information yet, though I love looking at the many Indian families who are also touring the site. I’m loving the visual experience.

We then take a rickshaw ride through the Chandni Chowk market. Loved it! Crazy, intense, overwhelming – the crowds, the shops, the different “trades” that are available, such as the street barbers – just a density of activity that is fascinating to watch. This was wonderful, getting a feel for the people who live and work here, tasting the “aliveness” of the market.

Our guide recommends that we bypass the Red Fort in the interest of time, knowing that we’ll be seeing many more in the upcoming weeks. So we drive by the fort, admiring the walls from the outside, and drive on to Mahatma Gandhi’s tomb. The tomb itself is an open space, with a building structure surrounding it. There are many families here strolling here as well, and again, I’m especially enjoying seeing the women and the beautiful colors of the clothing. Throughout the trip, I’m just taken by the styles of dress, the fabric, the patterns and the color combinations. Gorgeous!

Our guide then takes us to the Indian cottage industries, where we are to be given an orientation on the crafts of India; we end up leaving before someone is available to speak with us.

A note: throughout our trip, each guide would bring us to a factory or shop where a particular good or goods are produced; in each case, we’re given a little lecture, offered tea, and, to everyone’s credit, we are never given a hard sell. It’s clear that the goal is to purchase something, but after the first couple of times, we occasionally come to appreciate the visit, as it’s all done politely, and we even get to see something we might not have seen otherwise. And, once, when we were not interested in going to a particular place, the guide was respectful and accepted our choice graciously.

Off to Humayun’s Tomb! It is very beautiful, a superb example of Mughal architecture, built for the Mughal emperor Humayun by his wife in the mid-16th century. The design of this building and the grounds that surround it are thought by many to be a precursor to the Taj Mahal.

On the way to the Qtub Mnar, a bit south of Delhi, we are brought to the Red Onion for lunch. The food is good – not fancy, but satisfying. It’s also a place where tourists are brought to regularly for lunch.

Qtub Mnar was wonderful! The day had started off quite chilly (high 30s or low 40s in the morning) but had warmed up considerably by the time we arrived in mid-afternoon, and with the bright sun, we found the architecture remarkable and, being Sunday, there was a festive atmosphere with the many Indian families and foreign tourists who were there. The Qtub Mnar complex was built during the beginning of the Islamic rule in India, and once formed the center of the Muslim city. Construction on the tall tower began in 1193, and is a remarkable sight. Michael and I found this site exceptionally moving, and though a bit outside of town, well worth the visit.

We drove by the India Gate, although weren’t able to go up to it today, as the roads were closed in preparation for Republic Day. We also drove past the Lotus Temple, a stunning contemporary building that is a Bahai temple, shaped like….. a lotus!

The end of the day, and we go back to our guest house, later walk over to the Defence Colony market and pick up some snacks to eat, as we’re too wiped out to sit down to dinner. Our first full day in India and we’re starting to get acclimated. Tomorrow we’re off to Varanasi!
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