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Trip Report Winning Valentine's Day -- and the entire month, for that matter, in INDIA

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I will start with Thank You's to this forum which led me to Legends & Palaces and VP Singh. A friend of our visited India last year (2013) on a Roads Scholar Tour, and showed us his pictures. Suddenly India was number one on our bucket list, and after pumping Stan about what he liked best and least, and knowing I could get a better value by going with a "local" TA, I found Mr. Singh and crafted our own itinerary. We had 23 days in India, very long back to back flights from the US (Delta from RDU to ATL to AMS then KLM to Delhi; and home from Mumbai via AMS and DET to RDU). I was able to upgrade to Economy Plus on 3 of the 4 flights (not on that first AMS to Delhi, but we survived.)

Our trip exceeded every expectation we had and then some. I will break the report into manageable sections to make it easier to read, and to answer any possible questions. I kept a journal, so excuse me if my editing misses some verb tense changes. Let's start with Delhi:

Delhi (3nts -- really 2 1/2 as we got there at 3:30am, KLM having made everyone wait an extra 2 hours for luggage as the baggage hold was frozen shut) Baggage claim was not a cheerful place. But once we retrieved our two carry-ons (which had been checked) and our big bag, we quickly found the sign with our name on it and the Delhi rep for Legends & Palaces. Traffic was NOT an issue :-)

Our hotel was The Claridges Hotel....terrific place. Luxurious, welcoming, great bed and linens and bath. Quite a few steps above our usual and this was a blessing that made the long wait for bags easy to forget. We fell fast asleep fairly quickly for about four hours.

First day, after breakfast, we met our guide Ravi for a day tour of Delhi. High points for us were Old Delhi street life (we got to ride in a bicycle rickshaw) and the parks around the sites like Humayan's tomb and Qutub Minar which is built out of ruined Hindu temples. The faces of gods have been demolished or scraped away. Really an interesting site and a nice introduction to the spiritual and cultural mix that has always been "India."

While there are vehicles of all description, and stray dogs everywhere, most of the other animals we have seen have been pulling carts...horses and water buffalo and camels. I even saw someone walking a pretty goat wearing a denim jacket, on a leash. Our driver impresses us with his skill and awareness.

Dinner at the Mediterranean restaurant in hotel was OK. Starters were better than mains. We couldn't get a reservation at the Indian restaurant Dhaba, so we made one for the next night. I really think we were in sort of a trance that first to everything and yet still a bit lost.

Day 2: After breakfast we walked to Lodi Gardens because it was such a beautiful day. The neighborhood is very lovely, the park was delightful. We enjoyed seeing the kids playing in the park, flocks of green parrots, chipmunks and ever present dogs, just peacefully hanging out and minding their own business.

Our driver Sunil took us to Rashmi & Hamier Marwahs' home in Klas Haus for cookery class. What a treat! She and her husband greeted us and fed us traditional snacks and fresh made spring rolls and samosas. Better than any we have ever had. Then she described what we would be doing in the kitchen. We made rice with peas and carrots, and spiced potatoes and best of all, perfect paratha breads. Then we sat down to eat lunch, which was wonderful, and included grilled aubergines and a chicken curry. This was the best meal we ate in Delhi. Rashmi and her husband were so welcoming and good company. Now it feels as if we have real friends in Delhi.

After lunch, Sunil takes us to the National Railway Museum, which is kind of neat, but clearly is in need of a sponsor. Beautiful old locomotives and cars that are mostly just rusting away in the park. There was a nice exhibit hall, being worked on, and the best thing was the presentation of a 1909 complaint letter. Still, the only other visitors were Indian families and a school field trip, and admission was only 20rupees each.

We had a very good dinner that night at Dhaba in the hotel. The waiter took us back in the kitchen to see the preparations, all the big pots of entrees, the tandoori oven, etc. very very cool. With dessert, we were also served our first Masala Tea. Oh my. A habit is born. We went walking around the grounds outside after dinner, saw the full moon. This is possibly the nicest hotel we've ever stayed in. I loved the neighborhood, and it was a good transition from our Western life to the East.

One thing you have to get used to is the "hovering" service of the waiters. I'd read about it in trip reports here, and we experienced it as well. There is also a turn down service that comes about 9pm to stash away all the decorative pillows and throws and leave behind the special tea service with little cakes. Tons of service.

We'll have to pack up tonight as Sunil will drive us to Agra tomorrow, where we will be staying at the Taj Gateway.

Agra (2n). Taj Gateway

Rainy day...good for a drive. It was hard to sleep last night, both of us kept waking up, we are driving on a new super highway which goes through a new city Nodia. Then through huge privately developed area, Jaypee Green. Many apartment buildings, a formula one stadium, and a cricket stadium in the center of something called Sports city. Jaypee is a big group that owns hotels, cement company, construction, etc. I wonder how much land this group owns! What an interesting business plan.

The sun is shining when we arrive, have lunch and get situated. There is a sweet welcoming ceremony with hot moist towels and we are given our first "bindi" of the trip. Here is a question I've now got: How long should one keep that little red (or yellow) dot? I kept mine throughout lunch, but should I have kept it the rest of the day?

Our guide for Agra, Ali, is very precise. He is knowledgeable and as we get to know him, has a very kind and easy humor. Both he and our "welcoming rep" recommend a terrific restaurant, which I recognized from TA and Fodors, A Pinch of Spice. (We ended up eating there was delicious.)

The hotel is nice. Not as elegant as Claridges, but comfortable, with gorgeous grounds. We get a view of the Taj, slightly obstructed. It was supposed to be a garden view, and that, in after thought, would have been quieter. That afternoon, Ali takes us to see the Red Fort and the gardens across the river from the Taj, which gives us our first view, with photos which I can post on Facebook claiming "We won Valentines's Day!" Then we go back to the hotel to clean up and Sunil picks us up to go to dinner (and first, find an ATM). We probably could have braved the traffic and walked, but when after dinner it is obvious there has been a downpour, we are happy not to have to trudge through mud and puddles.

While the original plan was to see the Taj at dawn, Ali changes our schedule to leave to 8:30, and it is a great decision. There was a lot of rain overnight. While misty when we get there, by the time we reach the steps of the Taj, the sun has broken through and we get blue skies so we can take some better shots..the ones you dream about taking if you ever get there!

Agra is where we see the roaming monkeys, cows, water buffalo, goats, sheep, stray dogs, and general filth of over-population. High points of Agra are of course, the Taj Mahal, Fatehpur Sikri, and the Red Fort. Steve even liked FP more than the Taj. We visited the guide "commercial opportunity" stop at the marble inlay place after visiting the Taj. Not really our style, it was easy to say how lovely, but not for us. We had met a young couple from Texas at the restaurant the night before and were forewarned that this stop was probably a necessity of visiting the Taj.

Sunil our driver is amazing. There is no way the typical Western tourist could make sense of this traffic. The horns honk constantly, even out in the countryside. And every possible kind of conveyance is on the road. Lanes are only a vague concept in traffic like this. Clearly, honking is a part of driving. You must let someone know you want to pass, you are passing, or you need them to wait to cross the street.

Our final meal in Agra is in the hotel's fancier restaurant (although prices appear to be the same as in the other, just a few different choices) and we have our first Thalis. What a lovely way to savor Indian cuisine. We are pretty much drinking Kingfisher lager, which we've long enjoyed at Indian restaurants in the states. Plus Rashmi had introduced us to a pleasant Indian soda: Limeca We really don't drink many sodas back home, but this was refreshing when we tired of bottled water!

I've put some of our 4000 photos up on Shutterfly, and will be adding more as I slash the number down to a more manageable lot -- and take out all the unflattering pictures of myself (!) They can be seen here:

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    Welcome back, busted!! Really enjoying your report so far - noting already some things we didn't see - eg. Jaypee Green - saw his cement ad on every drive through India and started to write his bio in my head. Imagined him as a very wealthy man indeed. And the Natl Railway Museum - missed that - if I even knew there was one. Ah yes, the "hovering" service .. . . a little of that goes a long way. I know the intent is good.

    I'm off to look at those pics now! 4000 is about what we logged too. Culled em down to about 300 some last weekend for sake of maintaining friends. India is really a photographers dream, isn't it. Enough to make me want to improve my skills. . .

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    Hey Busted,

    Fantastic start, I'll be following along.
    Keep up the good work.

    We also got dragged into an inlay workshop.
    No pressure to buy, which was great, and interesting to see the process, me being a mosaic tragic !


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    Oh -- I'm not loading all 4K up on Shutterfly! That culling process is helpful before I can do anything else with them. :-)

    Here is the next installment, and a link to a video

    Trian to
    Sawai Madhopour

    Mr Singh reserved our 2nd class tickets months ago. We heard people buying tickets on standby were unable to get seats together. This train runs all the way from Punjab to Mumbai. As a result when we board, all the seats are pulled down like beds. Took me about 10 minutes to realize they can be flipped up to form sort of a sofa. The seating still isn't exactly comfy, but now my feet touch the floor and the scenery is delightful without the roadside clutter. The rape fields are in bloom and the sun is out. We have 5 stops to Madhpour.

    The train was also over an hour late! Our handler at Bharatpur told us someone would tell us when it was time to get off. He was a 20-year old who works for L&P and is studying to be a naturalist specializing in birds. We also met his friend, who got him into the birding gig, whose father is "an internationally known" expert. I had read a trip report on Fodor's (Glovers) about birding in Bharatpur, so I knew there was a big national preserve. We really enjoyed talking to those young men. You can get a much better feeling for a country when you get the chance to talk about more than your lodgings or meals, or even the fantastic sights you visit.

    Back to the train ride, It was easy to identify our stop, and there was someone with a sign for us from Khem Villas, who took us to the gypsy jeep people to hand over our voucher and then on to check in at Khem VIllas.

    (2n). Ranthambore Tiger Reserve
    Khem Villas
    Luxury Tent

    OMG. Khem Villas is awesome, I was concerned that the tent would be too is gorgeous and cosy. There's a heater. They give you hot water bottles. The mattress is great, the pillows are perfect. It is quiet but for some dogs barking in the distance..but this is much less than the honking horns and wedding processions in Agra.

    After the hot-wet-towel welcome and fresh-squeezed juice, overview of the property, and a chance to freshen up in our tent, they gave us boxed lunches (which we never really had time to eat) and packed us off on safari. High point is that although we were squished 6 into a 4 person vehicle (well, that is my take, but it was indeed considered a 6-person vehicle), WE saw a tiger. A giant male, who posed appropriately. Actually there were two, but one was more obscured by brush and when the first guy got up to saunter off, about 15 feet further up the hill we saw the second also move on out. They are said to be brothers, about 2 years old. When they got up and walked away, it took our breath away because they are SO huge.

    Our bags were in our tent when we got back.

    That night, drinks around the fire were wonderful, and the other guests are interesting and friendly. We enjoyed talking with a couple from France who recently moved to Delhi after eight years in the US, with their two very well-behaved children. They hadn't been lucky enough to see a tiger, so I showed the little boy and girl (about 8 & 10) and they were thrilled to learn that at least SOMEONE had seen a tiger. The superb. We ended the an excellent dinner with a coconut concoction to die for and masala tea for dessert. Both of us were more than ready to crash, and boy did we sleep!

    Second day, early AM drive, still traveling 6 to a vehicle. Not comfy, but John and Jane from the UK are with us again, and they are good company. They are staying at the fancy Oberois Villas, which we passed on the way from the station. They are more in town, and apparently a bit close to the train. We are in the country, surrounded by acres of organic farm that provides the fruit and veggies we eat. I think we chose right. Back to the safari drive....not much luck. We did route 2 (yesterday was 5) and saw prints for both tiger and leopard, but no animals other than deer and peacocks. I did get some good terrain shots. The park is gorgeous. Back for breakfast. We put in some laundry, and the temperature was headed up with a light breeze just making it perfect. I left Steve sitting outside in the sun in front of our tent, overlooking beautiful fields, and took myself to the spa for a massage. Very nice, and a good way to spend the afternoon before our last safari drive.

    Sorry, no tigers on last drive, despite a very sincere and try anything guide! His English was best of the three we had, but while I am usually pretty good with accents, sometimes it still was a mystery. Of course when punctuated by an accelerating engine and sudden starts and stops, even the most careful listener might have problems. At one point, toward the end of the drive he told us something, and the lady next to me asked me" what did he say?" I had to giggle and tell her, "I'm afraid what I heard was: "and over here we have a lamb we call iceberg." She said "that's what I heard too" and we laughed.

    So nice to see our driver, Sunil, again, to drive us on to Jaipur the next morning.

    Here is a link to a short video I made of the tiger "hunt."

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    Great video busted! Really nice pics of the tiger! That
    white throated kingfisher is a beauty isn't it? Enjoyed seeing the train station too!! That was the station where several guys stared at us as if we had 3 heads. Your safari pic is the first I've seen monkey brave enough to jump in jeep with people still in it!!

    Laughed out loud at "over here we have a lamb we call iceberg." I teach ESL so spend a lot of time listening to variously accented English - and, like you, think I'm pretty good with accents as well. But after the first morning out with our guide at Corbett, I told him I thought I might be losing my hearing. This was very effective because after that - when he saw something, he'd mention it quickly in a regular tone - he'd turn to me and yell, for example: WHITE THROATED KINGFISHER!! Very funny.

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    ha! Yep. Is it just men who seem to think louder means easier to understand?

    Link to Jaipur...

    Jaipur (2n)
    Shahpura House. Royal suite

    Checking in we are greeted by Eric, who looks a bit like an old Detroit motown promoter. We need to wait for our room, so we are seated poolside and I order fish and chips just for the heck of it. It is GORGEOUS out here. When we get to our room, it is a suite...and really quite sumptuous. Stained glass windows, marble bath, king size bed, heavy dark mahoghany(?) furniture. Nice sitting room. These heritage Havelis are truly the "way to go" in India.

    Our first afternoon, we visited Jantar Mantar, and talked with our guide, David, in length about how important astrological issues are in the Hindu religion. It made the visit more than just a giant photo opportunity. Then we saw the City Palace, including a costume display I loved (but couldn't take photos of).

    Ok. We spent a lot of money on our second day in Jaipur. I picked up some children's costumes for our daughter's school (she teaches ESL at Holt Elementary in Durham PS system), a bunch of bangles and three "pashminas", an umbrella and a sari in turquoise, purple and pink. We also stopped on the way in to town and got a table cloth and napkins for our porch, and two pillow covers for Holly, and 4 silk scarves. Finally we let our guide David talk us into visiting the gemstone cutting and setting place and bought a pendant for me of citrine, diamonds and gold. We considered a huge beautifully set ruby, but I couldn't justify having enough places to wear it at this point in my life,. My pendant was bargained down to $850 which seemed fair. The other would have been $3400 ( down from 4200) but while that might be a good price.....I don't think it would work for me. We just don't go those kinda places now that we've retired! I also have to say, that watching someone set tiny diamonds into a large Art Deco broach was fascinating.

    Steve went to a book store, Crossword, and got some books. He ALWAYS buys books, why should a vacation be different?

    The better part of the day was the visit to Amer Palace on an elephant. What fun! And the palace is spectacular. David took tons of pictures of us, and we paid a tout $1US for 3 pics of us on the elephant. (I mean, how often are you really going to ride an elephant?) It was a warm day, finally! We had a great time.

    Back to the hotel to chill out.

    Who knew...the best meal and show in town turned out to be at our hotel's rooftop restaurant. We split a tandoori kebab chicken thing for starters and I had some succulent butter chicken as a main, Steve had an entirely different chicken dish that was also good. Also started with a double shot of dark rum before we split our Kingfisher with our dinner.

    I wish we stayed at least one more night in Jaipur. It would have been fun. This is a cleaner city and very interesting. The wedding processions we caught a glimpse of here were much fancier, and the grooms rode white horses. The neighborhood around our hotel was quite lovely, and I do like seeing where people live. One of the books Steve picked up in Jaipur was written by a British expat, and probably had some good restaurant recommendations we could have followed. we went to "Indiana" the first night (well, I am also a Purdue grad) and were rather disappointed. Nice floor show, but very mediocre Indian food.

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    Busted . . like your next video as well. I also felt like we didn't give Jaipur its due. That Amber Palace is spectacular isn't it? Did you resist buying any of those colorful fabric shoes pictured in your video? I couldn't resist them - especially when I was able to buy some for $5. Haven't bought a pair of totally "flat" shoes in probably 2 decades - and for good reason - so probably can only wear these shoes while sitting down .. .

    We also liked our hotel restaurant so much that we never managed to get elsewhere - I too had thought of the Indiana Restaurant because Mr. G is an Indiana grad. . . doesn't sound like we missed too much . .

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    Busted--thank you!! loving this report!!!! Gotta get back there--so manny parts of Rajasthan still to see! Glad you enjoyed India. Makes me feel less crazy for loving her too!

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    Nimaj (1n). (Actually, not Nimaj, but a village named Hari Pur, which appeared to have it's own train station) This was a one night stop between Jaipur and Jodphur.
    Laxman (or Lakshman) Sagar, Cottage

    Hands down among the VERY best food we had in India, and it was included in the night's booking. We were served a vegetarian lunch that could make me switch for life....but then insane starters of cauliflower and chicken, plus wonderful mutton at dinner. Mmmmmmmmm. We even opted to purchase a bottle of wine with dinner. (Well, maybe that was not the best idea. We should have stuck with Kingfisher).

    Overall, the best description of this place is Serenity. What a good break from touring the sites and bustling noisy cities. Looking over the lake at night from the patio, listening to the frogs and insects and seeing the stars. Yikes. I felt mystically centered. The cottage is phenominal. Totally built of stone. Bed, linens, everything was super luxurious. This place was once a prince's hunting lodge. Truly absolute silence except for nature. There are 9 cottages, some with their own pools. Not sure that they are needed, except maybe when it is really hot, but they do close down for the hottest months of the year. No wifi, but so what! The birds and wildlife were abundant. It would be a marvelous place for hiking. You can fish right from the shore. And at night, when all the paths are lit with handing Pure Romance.

    Next stop:
    Jodhpur (2n)
    Rass Hotel, Lux room Fort view

    Terrific grounds for this luxury hotel right in the old city, an easy stroll from the Clock Tower Market. Wonderful breakfast, nice roof top bar for drinks. Our room had a full bath with dual sinks, a walk-in shower, and a really great bath tub. And we have a spectacular view of the fort from our room (and the terrace off the bedroom) The special rooftop restaurant was booked for a function the first night, so we booked for the next night. We met up with our guide and had a "heritage" walk through the markets and learned the "lay of the land" (although we had already checked out some of the market before, needing to pickup some AA batteries for my camera and stopping in at Baba Art Emporium and then buying some spices from our recipe list at a nearby spice place.) Our guide had recommended Pali Haveli for dinner, so that is where we struck out for, checking menus at a couple other spots along the way. But we stuck with Pali Haveli and it which turned out to be very good and half the price of the hotel's restaurant.

    The next day turned out to be a stunning touring day. We started at the Royal Crematorium, which was rather etherial in the morning sunshine. Mehrangarh Fort is fantastic, with much restoration work done so you really can see the opulence. There was an international Sufi festival in full swing, and the built-in sound track made touring the palace areas even more exotic. There are excellently priced souvenirs at the gift shop (of which we happily purchased, knowing that a portion of the proceeds go towards preservation of the fort.) It was also provided a good cost reference so that we could properly bargain later that afternoon at Baba's.

    Outside the old city, we had lunch at "On the Rocks" and shopped at Anohki, in the same shopping strip as restaurant. Well-priced soft cotton clothes and interior design stuff I had read about in on-line trip reports, and definitely worth purchasing to extend your hot-weather wardrobe. We were supposed to visit the in-home shop of a local block printer, but that did not seem to work out. We did meet a lovely lady who did wholesale tie-dye work. I took her business card in case one day my Savoyards troup in Durham NC needs vast quantities of tie-dyed fabric. But it was cool to see residential a real neighborhood. Back to the hotel and then off to Baba Art dealers, famous from the NY Times and trip advisor. I will give him a good review. Steve bargained him down from his "government regulated" prices, and we paid 3000rupies to ship our purchases home. I can report that everything arrived in wonderful shape (well, it was all textile goods) and looks even more beautiful in person. My (adult) children like the gifts we got them!

    Jodphur was stunning. We enjoyed it tremendously. The Raas was spectacular. The only draw-back was the one evening broadcast "sermon" from the next-door mosque. While I actually thought the call to prayer was beautiful, this particular fellow went on and on for about an hour in a very excited voice that was kind of disturbing to the Western tourists on the roof-top bar that evening. We asked the waiter what he was saying, and all he would tell us was "Praising God." And for all I know, that may well have been true. We never really felt intimidated by anything but our inability to understand the language. There is no way you can travel in India and not recognize the importance of spirituality and religion (no matter which) in daily life.

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    just re-read -- how come some things never pop out when you read the preview, but hit you square between the eyes once posted. Please excuse it which, was also provided...yikes.

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    Just catching up again with your report. I'm loving it. Those heritage properties are wonderful. We stayed in places that were formerly royal guesthouses while we were in Sikkim. I felt that really added to the trip.

    I'm noting the places you wished you'd spent more time.

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    Enjoying your report Busted, so many ideas for a next time in India, thank you.

    Did you know that your second video was unavailable to mobile devices ?
    I had to see it, especially after Glovers comment about those colourful shoes, so I pulled out trusty old lap top.

    Funny, I'm sitting here in those very shoes ! Well okay, not exactly those shoes, but you know what I mean.

    Looking forward to the next bit !

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    I haven't been able to figure out how to change that "not available to mobile devices" ...haven't had that problem before this. Glad you are enjoying the report. Writing it and going through my pics (I do update Shutterfly) is such a help and a lot of fun.

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    Chanoudgarh (1nt)

    OK --- one of the places that really we could happily have stayed another night.
    This place is out of this world. It is a true palace that is over 300 years old, in the same family for 13 generations. Two brothers have renovated it over 6 years and opened as a guest house, with 6 or 7 rooms, about 2 years ago. It is in a tiny town, that the family has clearly helped for years, bringing electricity and other improvements. The marketing plan is directed at Europeans, Americans, and Australians who travel independently.

    It was an adventure getting here, with several phone calls after we passed through the 3 small villages, with farm fields in between. There were two other couples, both from the UK. Lunch was fresh and homestyle delicious. Our room is a suite, with AC if needed, and fireplaces also if needed. There is a screened door opening on to the walkway overlooking the courtyard, and another at the back open to a large terrace overlooking the village and off toward the hills. Marble floors, 12 ft stone ceilings, overhead fans, and a gigantic bath with contemporary double sinks in granite counter in one room and a double size shower in another. (yes, a two room bath) Bowls of water filled with rose petals, marigolds, etc. oh and we were greeted with the red dot and garlands of marigolds. I feel like I've stepped into a fairy tale.

    Jay Singh, the eldest brother of two who primarily are responsible for the continuing renovation and of this magnificent place, gave us a tour and recounted all that they have done to reclaim it from decay and decades of continual "whitewash." They had known the place as their grandparents home all their lives, but were unaware until their work progressed that beneath all that lime were marble pillars and red sandstone features. We began in a treasure vault which was where, for a couple hundred years, the family kept their gold coins and other wealth. Apparently their grandfather was a fanatic for horse racing thoroughbreds and lost much of his fortune, selling off thousands of acres of land, and even parts of the estate right up to the stables.

    He told us of cellars running beneath the entirety where they would find pieces of old furniture that they were able to use to reconstruct items from their family's past, such as an elephant "sedan chair" or sofas and chairs, beds, etc. In the exterior entrance courtyard, there were platforms where the elephants would lower and people would only need to climb up two steps to board the platform. In this part of Rajasthan, elephants were only used for show and ceremonies, and it was a status to have them tied to large stone posts in the front. There was one stable area for Malwari horses (the Singhs are a warrior line, calvary was a given in their lives); and another for camels. (Now they keep milk cows in that stable).

    Suddenly we found ourselves moving into another entire "wing" of the palace, yes, the ladies' side, with its own courtyard, about the same size as the restored area. There were multiple apartments for several wives and their servants. I think the family now lives in those quarters...or maybe not. They are yet to be completely renovated. There is over 200,000 sq feet of living area in the palace compound. Sunil later told us that there were nice accommodations for drivers, and that he and another went into town after dinner and found the village to be quite nice.

    We finished our tour on the roof, with tea and watched the sunset. Jay is an elected official (actually he says they more or less appointed him) for the village, and they have started an NGO to run a school and a hospital. We talked a lot about the challenges of local education. Personally, this guy and his brother have taken on a lot. They have the support of their family, apparently his father and uncle were not in good with the grandfather, because it was Jay and his brother whom his grandfather called on in 2006 to inherit.

    The other guests went on an outdoor jeep excursion that afternoon. I am so happy we stayed on for this tour.

    OH and the finale was the old man's grand room, with hunting trophies and photos of the Maharajah of Jodphur and great great grandfathers hunting photos. It was like stepping onto a movie set. The ceilings were about 18 ft high, there were two fireplaces. Tiger skin rugs and antlers aplenty, old weapons and musical instruments. There is only one great red crystal chandelier, apparently the other three had been sold to antique dealers, along with much of the original furnishings. This was the room that was on the other side of two doorways, one in our front room, the other in the bedroom, that have been permanently "sealed." And here we had just assumed the area was another guest quarters! This amazing room was quite something.

    Dinner was lovely. Drinks around a firepit, and dinner in an exterior courtyard, near the flour mill stones. The best lamb we have had in Rajasthan. Yummy orange pudding for dessert. Great conversation with the other guests.

    In the morning we visited the school they have "adopted." There are about six (?) schools that serve the town and surrounding area, but this is a public school that needed the most support. My daughter's English as a Second Language students (3rd graders) back in Durham had written some notes to these students, having had a unit about India earlier in the year. Working with Jay's younger brother, Mahiray, the kids read aloud...sometimes spelling out-- the letters Holly's students had written, and on the back drew pictures and wrote their names, so I could give them directly to Holt Elementary on their return. We used a globe to have them find India and America, and see how we traveled to get there. They then recited some poems in English and Hindi. We were rather late on the rest of our traveling schedule, but it was really worth it!

    This was one of those special experiences that make a trip unforgettable.

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    Uhoh_busted would like you to know that for some reason her account at Fodor's is not availabe, but since I am she and she is me, I would like to share a video I made that collapses all our India trip in to four minutes of the super-highlights.

    I would LIKE for uhoh to be able to continue this report under her beloved screen name, but until Fodor's helps her out, I have to post under this screen name, which hasn't been used by me in years.

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    Fantastic video, whoever you are LOL !

    Thanks for refreshing some memories, and giving me some inspiration for the future. Kerala and the backwaters is high on my list.

    Good on ya, looking forward to more, please ?

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    You stayed at some wonderful places. Were these places recommended by Legends and Palaces or did you find them yourselves and request them?

    And may the goddess of log-ins get you back online with your regular name!

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    Most of these were the "second tier" of luxury places recommended by Legends and Palaces. I do wish I'd gone with the Taj Palace in Mumbai, but with only 28 hours and needing, therefore, to have two nights as we had to leave by about 9PM to get to the airport for our 12:45AM flight (or whatever it was) it just seemed to be too much.

    There were some distinct advantages to our choices, however: in Delhi, the Imperial, the "higher rated" 5-star has Metro construction going on right in front. We were able to get out and walk to Lodi Gardens from the Claridges and while it was quite luxurious, it was also small enough that service seemed to be personal. When I mentioned to our server at Dhaba, their very cool "typically Indian" restaurant, that we had just had a cooking class on home-cooking that day, he immediately took us back into the kitchen to meet the chefs and see all their prep work, etc. I didn't notice that happening to anyone else and that was a fairly small restaurant. And I've forgotten what the more luxurious place was in Jaipur, but we totally loved Shahpura House and its neat little neighborhood. I think the Raas was L&P's rec for Jodphur based on what we told him we were looking for and I loved being able to just walk a half-a-block to the Clock Tower Market area.

    I've had to take a break from writing this up because my Savoyard's group in Durham is presenting "The Sorcerer" this weekend and I was helping the Designer/Costumer with some last minute details.

    Before we finalized arrangements, we communicated back and forth several times with Mr. Singh, and he really "got" what we were looking for, and gave us even more for our dollar. Plus the people who met us and facilitated our travel, whether it was the train or a flight, and having drivers we were very comfortable with -- that was priceless.

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    Loved your video. Now I need to go to Southern India. We, too, were L&P people and it certainly worked for us. Agree that the Imperial was impersonal, but comfortable. Even tho they are working on metro, it was not a problem at all. I do want to go back to India.

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    OK -- I still haven't worked out the screen ID thing yet, but will post another section :-)

    Udaipur (2 n)
    Trident Hotel

    The hotel is fancy, but too big for me. Seems like a business hotel, although clearly set up for families and vacations. As a matter of fact, it reminds me a LOT of a big fancy Doubletree I used to stay in, in Dallas TX, on business. I think we would have preferred a smaller haveli. It also is kind of remote.

    The setting of Udaipur, the city itself, is beautiful, with the lakes and mountains, and the Jagdesh Temple in Old town is so old and always in use, it seems. The City Palace is splendid and its history is interesting; but we opted to quit touring after those and the classic cars in the Maharana's collection. Sandeep, our guide, suggested Gateway restaurant as "hygienic" and introduced us to a set of shops deep inside an old Haveli, but we were all shopped out. At least at "guide stops." So he and Sunil left us to stroll the bazaar and catch a tuktuk back to the hotel. We had fun poking around and bargaining for two pair of leather sandals and a belt, and some silver chandelier earrings for our grown daughter.

    After cleaning up at the hotel, we dressed and took our private(!) boat tour around Lake Pichola. It was a nice soft, warm evening, and we enjoyed the views of the city and the fancy lakeside hotels from the water. We tried to get reservations for dinner at Ambre restaurant, but it was booked, so we just did the hotel buffet again and packed up to be ready to leave for the airport at 5am.

    It was sad to say goodbye to Sunil, our driver, and tip him out. He gave me his card so we can write him and maybe send some pics we took a long the way. He really was a terrific guy and a plus to our Rajasthan experience.

    Flight to
    Cochin/Kochi (2n)
    Old Harbour Hotel
    Garden cottage

    Free wifi in the Domestic terminal in Mumbai while we had 4 hour layover before the connecting flight to Kochi. Nice flight, horrid lunch (we had chicken burger and chicken tikka sandwiches at the Cafe which served decent cappuccino) so we just ate the strawberry quick flavored Dessert in the lunch provided by JetConnect. Half the flight appears to be young Indian honeymoon couples, the rest are British or European couples our age.

    Kochi is a dessert in itself. Our "handler" met us at the airport with our driver for the next five days, and we went via the ferry as traffic through Ernakulam (the "new" Kochi) is being pretty much at a standstill in late afternoon due to metro construction. The Old Harbour Hotel is truly very classy and we immediately took advantage of the pool. Huge "Rain trees" -- one can shade nearly half a block -- and blooming tropical flowers are a fabulous setting. Very colonial feel, very non-commercial. Classical Indian music each night and a wonderful menu made it a good place to eat dinner. We had read ahead of time that reservations were pretty much necessary and we made reservations for dinner both nights. This is apparently one of the best places to eat in town, and both nights we felt like celebrities being shown to the "best" tables. in what was clearly totally booked place. (The service was excellent, as well.)

    The tour the next day was sweet...a walk around with short drives just to cool off. The best part for us was seeing the laundry operation, and the ancient palace. We opted out of going in to the new city of Ernakulam. But I found a nice purple cotton shirt for 500rs (about $8) and Steve picked up a Kerala guide as well as a new book from Aravind Adiga in the "Spice Market." Dripping sweat we asked to be let off at the hotel to enjoy that pool some more, and tipped Pooja (our first female guide so far.)

    Kerala is much cleaner and greener than Rajasthan, for sure. People appear to have a better life....just seem more laidback and happy overall. Yes, Old Kochi is clearly a tourist stop, but it was also one we really felt connected with our energy level at this point in our trip!

    After cooling off, we wandered around the block to family seafood restaruant where they were out of every brand of beer but one, but the food was fresh and delicious. $14 including Steve's steamed in banana leaf snapper with veggies. (It is pictured on that "50 Top Moments" video!)

    We were picked up at 5pm for Kathikali dance performance. Part of the show is arriving early to see makeup done. I felt like I was a theater student again :-) Very interesting, classical folk. Kind of mime with background singing and drums. Driver took us back to hotel for another excellent dinner and packing.

    Breakfast the next AM under the fans with view of gardens, we had dosa marsala. Again, most delicious. Fresh fruit plate, and we asked for a side of bacon, just because it was on the menu. Mmmmmmmm. It was really good.

    Kerala is 40% Christian, 30% Hindu and 30% Muslim. They are represented in Delhi by a majority Communist delegation. Kochi is a big shipping port, and there seem to be more Europeans in residence here, who aren't embassy related, or employed in finance. There aren't as many "free ranging" livestock, or dogs here. We did get to see more of Ernakulam on our way out, and it really does look pretty modern and totally 21st century.

    It is a long drive to Thekkady, but fascinating as the country side is nice and the towns are quite neat and clean. The Portuguese brought in the Catholic missionaries 300 years ago, and there are more mini shrines to various saints than to Hindi gods. Convent schools abound, even when you get out of the towns. And, having had a career closely related to the advertising industry, I have to say India has really fallen in love with "Outdoor" (billboards, etc.). We noticed that earlier in the trip, but in the South, names and placenames seem to have additional syllables and letters...REALLY long names, so the signs really caught our eye.

    We like Kerala a lot! I would have liked another day in Kochi, just to hang out and bop around town some more. Or maybe read by that pool.....

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    Thekkedy, 2 nights,
    Spice Village villa

    Oh. I am not prone to car sickness at all, and while the last of the four hour drive from Kochi seemed never ending twisty turn-ey up mountain, down mountain...very scenic...the last hour was torturous! I was so glad to pull into the tiny town of Thekkady.

    Spice Village isn't as over the top as I expected it to be...but it is quite lovely and very eco. The food is expensive, but lunch was pretty excellent, and they serve meat! There are demonstrations of things like how to tie a sari, and local dance groups give a show before dinner, but our second day was going to be "interesting" as there was a strike in the village from 6am to 6pm. Meanwhile, that first afternoon we took a tour of a Spice "plantation" ---actually more of a garden--But learned a lot and tasted lots of yummy spices. We bought some cloves, fennel and some aloe vera for Steve's mosquito bites. For some reason he is reacting to them worse than me (for a change.)

    The next day is slightly cloudy, and as I mentioned, there was the strike on. So we stayed to just enjoy the facilities. One of the 1000 things to do before you die may just be to have an Ayurvedic massage for 90 minutes. The spa here makes all their own preparations, and I don't know if I felt like a queen or the family's beloved water buffalo, but it truly changed my definition of "pampering" for ever....well, I sort of kept wavering between feeling pampered and feeling prepared.

    First step is to take off all clothing so the masseuse can tie you into a disposal paperish Sumo cloth, which she puts on from the waist-front, ties in back, and passes the fabric between your legs adjusting it to fit under and over the tie in back, effectively covering your private parts.

    The massage begins with you sitting on a stool. (They must have several in various sizes for short, medium and tall people because it was the just-right Goldilocks size, thank you!). Warm oil is poured gently onto the top of your head, and your scalp is expertly massaged. She moves down to give a detailed neck, shoulder and spine massage...really really getting any kink out, using more of that warm, faintly scented oil. After about half an hour, you are moved to a massage table, laying on your stomach, as normal. Then varying temperatures of new oils are dripped in a pattern down each side of your back and legs and the long, strong stroking begins. From your shoulders all the way down to your toes.

    Up until this point all you have heard has been the bird sounds from outside, and soft whispers from the tiny little masseuses, and suddenly you realize there are four hands working out your tensions. And then soft music starts is more classical Indian bells and pipes than the standard new age stuff you get in the US. This may just be how you get to nirvana, or not. Oil is reapplied several times, and the ladies whispers are punctuated by soft giggles...or maybe that is my imagination...and it is time for more concentration on your hands, arms, legs and feet. I've totally lost track of time. I feel my feet being wiped off carefully and it is suggested that I now turn over. I feel like a large fish ready for the tandoori oven. More basting oils are dripped on my arms, body and legs and the front gets the same gentle kneading and deep stroking. As the head masseuse started on my stomach, I asked if this would take away any of that excess belly fat? She told me it will help. Yay!

    As it is time to move off the table to the next phase of this experience, the girls are giggling again, so I really am feeling as if I am going to be the tandoori dinner special, but I am wrapped in a soft clean cotton sheet and led to the "steam box" instead. The specifically designed cabinet of Dr Caligari is like half a pyramid, the top taken off so there is a space for your head to fit through. My wrap is used for me to sit on, and they close the slanted doors, putting a towel at the front under my chin.

    The steam has been created by boiling various herbal leaves in milk, per the literature, and I get to sit inside until I have sweated for about 20 minutes. It really is fairly gentle....nothing like a sauna. I watch as they start filling big buckets of water and taking it into a shower like tiled room across they way. (BTW, not a soul other than myself is in the spa, so I guess they schedule treatments separately for this purpose.) Nicely steamed, I am released from the box and escorted to the washing room. Seated in a slight stepdown area, one of the women now has responsibility for washing the elephant, err, me. First she pours refreshing luke warm water over my head ( she indicated to close my eyes and hold my breath). Now, no one has bathed me since I was a baby, but that is what she did. There was a wonderful scrubby mixture next for total exfoliation of my skin, and she gave me a handful so I could take care of my private place myself, then more rinsing. With the oils mostly gone, I was again seated so a wonderful lemony concoction could be applied and then rinsed from my face and my hair was washed and rinsed. Then I was dried off and taken back to the dressing room to put my clothes back on.

    No...not over yet! I am shown to a rattan recliner and told to sit so I wouldn't be too dizzy, and served a small glass of hot sweetly spiced coffee. She also rubbed a saffron(?) powder in the part of my hair, and gave me a bindi. Now we were done. The whole process was supposed to be 90 minutes, but it was a good bit longer. Nice way to spend the morning. I suffered no skin problems on this trip, and for all the showers and baths I took, my skin has never felt more moisturized.

    That night, with the strike over, we strolled into town for dinner at a place our driver had recommended. Turned out to be a nice Chinese restaurant, filled with tourists from all over the world. We stopped at a couple shops to pick up some additional souvenirs, as we figure this would be a better opportunity than Mumbai. Why is it the guys in all these shops claim to be from Kashmir? We did our best job yet of haggling over prices here. Naturally...we could have saved hundreds of dollars if we'd been this tough the whole trip.

    Breakfast the next morning we keep to our Masala Dosa choice and enjoy a ginger/honey punch and watermelon juice along with surprisingly good coffee.

    Backwaters (1n). Kottayam to Allepey.
    Premier House Boat, Lakes & Lagoons

    THIS is like lifestyles of the rich and famous....or one of those romantic honeymoons you only read about. When we came to the dock, out rattan houseboat was the nicest one there! I went up to the very top deck and did my Queen Victoria wave to all the others on less private vessels as we took off. Yeah, All that pampering has gotten into my head, and it just seemed the obvious thing to do. Lunch was spectacular with fried fish and prawns...kind of spicy but delicious. Mixed veggies...carrots, long beans, okra (lady fingers) and coconut. Cruising along the canals must be one of the most beautiful, quiet, and relaxing activities one could every desire. Watching the world pass by. Later, a little canoe trip up a small canal, through a neighborhood getting settled for dinner -- that was beautiful. Then back to the boat to watch the sunset and have dinner. The breeze has dropped and there is a fan in the dining area, plus they turned on the AC for our bedroom. All teak, with a king size bed and a full bath with a tub and shower. Pretty elegant. We have a crew of four.

    We had stopped at a small village earlier in the afternoon, and noticed that our barge was equipped with solar panels -- for the hot water, our captain told us.

    The best sunset of the trip! Dinner by candlelight with beer, chicken, fish and vegetables. Delicious. Washed down by two "Knock Out" beers (Kingfisher unavailable from the guy in the canoe with the cooler that supplies these boats with incidentals like that.) We slept well in our AC suite. It sure was dark.

    The next day was a soft pretty morning, with people off to church or school. The Catholic ministries really have done a good job here. 40% of the population in Kerela is said to be Christian. 30%Hindu and 30% Moslem. We must have seen at least a dozen churches along the canals, of all sizes.

    OK. Breakfast is served. There was hardly time to drink the excellent coffee or eat the beautifully carved fruits because there were so many pictures to take!

    to be continued.....

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    Just found this TR. Wow, wow, wow!!! :)

    uh_oh_busted---Love the videos (and the belly dancers!) pics and trip report. Your writing style is terrific.

    I happened upon this TR because a friend is going to India for work for 3-4 months and I was interested in helping him find some weekend jaunts from Kolkata (where he'll be working).

    I may have to convince him to take some long weekends!

    I've never had a desire to go to India... but you make one think about it! Problem is, this all sounds so very expensive! :(

    Wonderful report. I am thoroughly enjoying it! Thank you so much for taking the time to write and share it!

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    Loving your report! I've been interested in going to SOUthern India, so really enjoying this part.

    BTW, I had a similar massage experience in Sri Lanka, but really didn't love the oil being dripped onto my forehead and into my hair.

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    sarge---it started as a package for Rajasthan, but we wanted to do a cooking class in Delhi, and we also wanted to go to Kerala for Kochi and the backwaters, oh and we wanted to try to see a tiger in the wild (because we really enjoy African safaris). So while part of the trip followed one of the "packages" it really ends up being modified to your own travel style. You just contact Legends & Palaces and tell them what you want to spend, how long you want to go for, and Mr Singh will work with you to plan your own trip. It cost less than going with a "big" tour operator from the states, like Roads Scholars, by about $1,000 pp. And we stayed at much nicer places and had our own car and driver. Really, way above and beyond anything we imagined.

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    Last segment -
    Mumbai (2n)
    Le Sutra

    Good student vibe. Our pick for an "adult" (nonstudent) restaurant was off the first night. We probably should have gone to the hotel's restaurant, but it was a lovely night and we enjoyed strolling down to the ocean front and around the neighborhood (it was TOTALLY safe). C 'est la vie. One poor restaurant choice on a trip this long, no real complaints. We had spent all day traveling. We really liked the IndiGo flight, new plane and ended up on time although boarding had been delayed. We met a newlywed couple who were naturalized American (Salisbury MD) and Toronto CN citizens who came back to marry so the bride's family could participate. She was originally from Ahmedabad. I do enjoy talking to fellow travelers.

    There was a problem with the phone in our room which really infringed on our privacy after check-in. Otherwise the hotel is pretty arty and cool. Reminded us more of European Hotels, and this would have probably been a 4 star in Paris. The room was large and well furnished. If I had known a friend from Chicago was going to be at the Taj Palace, it would have been better to have been booked there, but as we were only in Mumbai for 28 hours total, meeting up turned up not to be. It would have been fun but I must admit, I was ready to come home.

    We loved our guide for Mumbai. She had grown up in Pali Hill...the next neighborhood to where we were located. We met her at the city outdoor not unlike what we't seen in Kochi, but dramatically set by the railroad tracks, with drying laundry set out in color blocks...white here, blue down a level, brights on another. Here only men did the labor. We visited a couple of parks, one atop a giant reservoir, with stunning views of the Mumbai's ever changing skyline. We enjoyed talking with her as much as seeing Mumbai. Her family had been partitioned out of their original home when the "map" was drawn that split Bangladesh from India. She was well educated and had a career in social work. Her husband had worked for a large multinational oil company, and they were well travelled.

    It was a splendid day. About 85 and clear with a light breeze. At the Gate of India we went in to the Taj Palace to use the facilities. We probably would have enjoyed staying downtown better...but we did feel rather "done" at this point. She left us at Khyber, a restaurant we'd both heard of. It was an excellent meal, with chicken tandoori and fish in coconut curry sauce. Much costlier than our $16 Kochi lunch at about $40, but it improved on our experience from the night before considerably.

    Our driver had waited for us, and gave us a nice tour of neighborhoods along the "beach", pointing out homes of a few Bollywood stars on the way back to the hotel where we packed, and the office recommended a restaurant for dinner in nearby Banda. We checked out of the hotel at 8 and went off for dinner. Salt Water Cafe turned out to be a continental place...we were a bit startled, but it was filled with Indians and not tourists, and what do you know, quite a perfect choice. AND economical! 580rs for duck breast that was done perfectly! My husband had an equally delicious lamb shank. Never expected our last meal in India would be a western one, but it was first-rate.

    The flight(s) home were boring, but not uncomfortable as we had booked Economy Comfort for both international legs, and also got bulkhead seats with even better legroom. Just two abreast on the Mumbai to Amsterdam flight, with a nice new plane. Ams to Detroit we had seats B and C, and the lady in the window seat was flying from Kenya. Turned out her niece had just won the Oscar for best supporting actress, and she had some good stories about the whole family. Seems like the actress is every bit as nice as she is beautiful and talented.

    There was a 3 hour layover in Detroit, which turned out to be long enough to have a really good cheeseburger and a beer. Quick flight to RDU, where all our luggage came quickly and our daughter picked us up at the airport.

    It was freezing rain at home. I resigned myself to doing my own laundry, cooking and cleaning, as well as driving.

    What a magnificent trip. There are a couple things I would have done a bit differently, but all in all we were overjoyed about 95% of everything we did and saw. We probably should have stayed at the Taj Palace in Mumbai, but since we had to pay for two nights it didn't make sense to me to spend so much when we were checking out on the last night. In retrospect, we would have enjoyed being downtown, although where we were was quite nice.

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    A cheeseburger and a beer!!! What, no fries with that? Welcome home indeed!

    Really enjoyed your trip report uh oh. Glad you had such a good time!

    We walked around in the Mumbai Taj . It did indeed look spectacular. But we stayed a few blocks away to conserve $$ for long trip. . .

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    On a more "normal" trip (for us) I would have researched deeper and found someplace less expensive in that area. Mumbai was at the very end of our trip, and to be totally honest, I really didn't give it too much thought. If we ever get back to India, we would probably start in Mumbai, and I would stay down in that part of town, for sure!

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    Thank you for a most fabulous report, uhoh. I really enjoyed your style of writing and the details you provided. Kerala sounds just divine, even though I don't see how I can reasonably include it on my first trip, especially since I'll be headed pretty far east. Your stops in Rajasthan seem like places we would enjoy too, although it's hard for me to narrow down my options based on your report; more research is needed I suppose. Thanks for giving me so much more food for thought.

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