Is culture your cup of chai? Or wildlife-watching more maximum than Mumbai? Kendall Hill explores India’s regions.
The desert state of Rajasthan is the perfect entry-level Indian experience – its palaces, forts and rugged desert landscapes make it one of India’s most popular destinations. The less touristy northern region of Shekhawati combines all of the above with a unique collection of painted mansions belonging to wealthy merchants. The vibrant frescoes range from the religious and traditional to the educational; the first planes, trains and automobiles in Shekhawati appeared as frescoes in the open-air art galleries of its village houses. The nearest airports are in Jaipur and New Delhi – hire a car and driver to explore the small towns at leisure.
Before the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand was formed in 2000, this mountainous region was best known for the hippie hotspot of Rishikesh, where Beatles and Beat poets went to tune out in the ’60s. It’s still one of India’s best places to find inner peace, though these days more for long walks among the stunning valleys and peaks of a landscape known as the Land of the Gods. Shakti Himalaya has refurbished several village houses with Western comforts and built a small lodge, Shakti 360° Leti, on a plateau overlooking the breathtaking Ramganga valley. It’s not easy to get to – an overnight train from Delhi then around eight hours of hairpin Himalayan bends – but the world’s special places never are.
India’s “Maximum City” has something for everyone so the best things to do in Mumbai depend on what kind of traveller you are. If culture’s your cup of chai, head for the art galleries and fashionable eateries of Kala Ghoda (the annual arts festival kicks off on the first Saturday in February). For the high life, try cocktails and DJs at Aer, the rooftop bar of the Four Seasons hotel, or check in to the new St Regis Mumbai in Lower Parel. Shoppers should visit Colaba Causeway and Chor Bazaar for curiosities and souvenirs, Bombay Electric for cool Mumbai stuff and the various government emporiums for fixed-price traditional handicrafts.
This central Indian state is one of the country’s top safari destinations, both for its big-cat population (about 20 per cent of India’s tigers are found here) and for the indulgent quality of guest accommodations. Madhya Pradesh has nine national parks, six of which – Kanha, Panna, Bandhavgarh, Pench, Satpura and Sanjay – belong to the Project Tiger conservation program. Besides tigers there are leopards, panthers, hyenas, crocodiles, monkeys, pangolins and a menagerie of deer and antelope species to spot. &Beyond operates four suitably atmospheric lodges and tented camps in the national parks, each equipped with swimming pools and sundowner cocktails.
The MV Mahabaahu offers India’s most remarkable river cruise. The 23-berth, purpose-built cruiser plies the wild waters of the Brahmaputra River, discovering the culture, history and wildlife of the frontier state of Assam in north-eastern India. The highlight of the 570-kilometre voyage from Jorhat to Guwahati is the time spent at Kaziranga National Park, home to half the world’s remaining population of rare greater one-horned rhinos. But there are also temple visits and village walks, morning yoga on the sundeck, a leisurely lunch on a tea estate and even a game of cricket – passengers versus enthusiastic crew – on a sandbank in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra.