To the inexperienced traveller who depends on guidebooks and well-worn routes, India as a destination can seem far too unpredictable and extremely overwhelming. But approached in the right way, embracing the cacophony can be cathartic, with India’s riches leaving you wanting more.
Friday throws the spotlight on five destinations that offer a taste of what India is all about. A great way to start your relationship with this amazingly beautiful and diverse country.
Goa, as a tourist hub, has a reputation for being a destination of unruly enjoyment, but find the right spot and Goa will help you hit the pause button on life. The tiny state (home to 1.7 million people) on the West Coast of India is often referred to as the Ibiza of India, but is also packed with activities and beaches to help you achieve a susegad (contented and relaxed) state of mind.
Best for: Visit one of the numerous fishing villages sprinkled across the city offering a delicious glimpse into the simple lives of people who live off the sea’s bounty. In short, the seafood is arguably like nowhere else in India. From curries such as prawn patia to shallow-fried mackerels coated with a typically Goan spice mix, it is spicy, finger-licking hot and so fresh. Hire a motorbike or go pillion to explore the ancient cathedrals and casas (old mansions) that are breathtaking examples of Portuguese architecture. And if like the Portuguese, who came here many centuries ago in search of spice, you too crave the aromatic stuff, make a trip to one of the spice plantations sprinkled across the state. The 200-year-old Savoi Plantations, situated 25km from the capital Panaji, is an organic farm that has spice trees, fruit orchards and medicinal plants. The delicious lunch made from fresh produce makes it an unforgettable day out.
While there: Barely a few hours away, Mahabaleshwar with its crisp mountain air makes for a refreshing change from Goa’s balmy beaches.
Where to stay: For a real experience, stay at the centuries-old manor houses that have been converted into boutique hotels. The 350-year-old Siolim House for instance has seven well-furnished suites and offers cooking lessons, and wellness experiences. Kate Moss stayed here for a week.
Getting there: Air India flies direct to Goa from Dubai (from Dh1,735 return).
With majestic forts, pretty palaces and winding alleys of shops packed with antiques, precious gems and exquisite silks, Rajasthan is considered to be the best place to experience the opulence of India’s royal heritage. This desert state in western India is best known for tourist hotspots Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur, but it is Jaisalmer, a smaller town right in the heart of the Thar desert that is a must-visit.
Best for: If you are an architecture or history aficionado then the Jaisalmer Fort will leave you spellbound with its grandeur. Built in the 12th century, it is considered to be one of the largest fortifications in the world. Its imposing sandstone structure is a breathtaking sight, which changes colour depending on the time of the day – from a glittering tawny gold hue when the sun is high in the sky to an enchanting honeyed pink during sunset. Apart from a lesson in history, Jaisalmer is a great place for shopping and camel safaris, and Adventure Travel Agency has itineraries to suit every client’s needs. Jaisalmer is home to world-class gold and silversmiths too. Craftsmen are known to attract designers from swish European brands to not only find inspiration but learn the craft as well. Hari Om Jewellers, for example, is world renowned for creating customised silver trinkets on request.
While there: Make time to see the palaces-turned heritage hotels of Udaipur, the hawa mahal (palace of breeze) and Jantar Mantar (observatory) of Jaipur, all awe-inspiring architectural marvels. Visit Pushkar in the Ajmer district for the world-famous annual livestock fair, which takes place in winter.
Where to stay: Serai Jaisalmer (www.sujanluxury.com/the-serai/). This ultra- luxurious campsite right in the midst of undulating sand dunes and enchanting wilderness is far from the madding crowd but close enough to the city. And, it has a well-equipped spa.
Getting there: Etihad Airways flies from Abu Dhabi to Jaipur (from Dh524 return). Either take the overnight train from Jaipur to Jaisalmer or hire a taxi for a eight-hour drive.
Coonoor, Tamil Nadu
While the crowd heads to Ooty, you go to Coonoor. Beautifully manicured tea gardens, bungalows from the British Raj and the panoramic view of the Nilgiri mountains... Coonoor might not figure on the radar of many, but that’s what makes it perfect for those who want to experience serene solitude. To add to the experience, take the quaint ‘toy’ train from Mettupalayam. This three-hour plus scenic journey will leave you spell-bound.
Best for: While the town centre is as chaotic as any small rural town in India, it is the outskirts that will take your breath away. Take a rickshaw ride to Dolphin Nose or Lamb’s Rock, two vantage points set in the midst of lush forest that offer a stunning view of the 76m-high Catherine Falls. If not in a hurry, take the 6km walk back into town – it’s the best way to enjoy the sheer beauty of this hill station. Tea and coffee plantations welcome visitors and offer a glimpse of how some of the world’s finest brews are produced. Coonoor is also famous for organic cheese and there are plenty of homestays that offer cheese-making courses.
While there: There are several hill stations in the region and prominent among them is Kodaikanal, which is six hours away a very popular filming location with the South Indian film industry. So if you’re lucky, you might get a chance to take a selfie with your favourite film star.
Where to stay: Several boutique hotels in Coonoor offer scenic views, rustic life and serenity. Try Acres Wild – an idyllic property spread over 22 acres of lush greenery with its own cattle farm and cheese factory. It belongs to Mansoor Khan, the reclusive Bollywood director.
Getting there: Air Arabia flies from Sharjah to Coimbatore (from Dh2,600 return). Then take a one-hour taxi ride to Mettupalayam, the station where the Niligiri Passenger starts. This three-and-a-half hour journey that goes through several tunnels, bridges and bends will have you reaching for your camera all the time.
Chilika Wildlife Sanctuary, Odisha
In a country of more than a billion people, this is one of the few places that delivers an in-the-middle-of-nowhere experience. Spread over more than 1,000km on the eastern coast of India, the star attraction is the Chilika Lake – Asia’s largest lagoon of brackish water. It is also one of India’s best- kept secrets as far as tourists are concerned. But to more than 700,000 migratory birds that travel from as far as Siberia and Central Asia, this water body has been their winter home since long. Every year, from October to March, the lake is a delight for bird-watchers.
Best for: Bird-watching comes first, but Chilika Lake is also a cornucopia of wildlife. From the rare Irrawaddy dolphins to blackbucks, monkeys, and fishing cats in the marshy wetlands. Take a boat ride to the small islands that dot the lake – the serene air and still waters make for a perfect time out.
While there: No visit to Odisha is complete without a visit to the Konark Sun Temple. This 13th-century shrine in Puri is a testimony to the exquisite craftsmanship of the region and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. For some retail therapy make a trip to Mehers’ and Utkalika Odisha State Emporium. These outlets in Bhubaneswar, the state capital, are a treasure trove of cheap, yet exquisite, handwoven Ikat cottons, silks, tribal jewellery, terracotta and metal craftsmanship.
Where to stay: If on a budget, then Odisha Tourism Development Corporation’s (OTDC) hotels and cottages are ideal, but if in search of a five-star experience then stay at Trident Bhubaneswar (www.tridenthotels.com/hotels-in-bhubaneswar), which is two hours’ away from Chilika Lake. Or head to Kila Dalijoda in Cuttack; also two hours from Chilika Lake, it’s a hunting resort run by the scions of the king who built it centuries ago.
Getting there: Fly Emirates from Dubai to Kolkata (Dh1,685 return). From Kolkata, fly to Bhubaneswar and take a train to Chilika Lake.
Pahalgam, Jammu and Kashmir
There is no denying that there is an undercurrent of conflict in Jammu & Kashmir, India’s northern-most state. But one can also not deny its picture-perfect beauty that attracts millions of tourists from across the world. The landscaped gardens built by the Mughals, the houseboats on the stunning Dal Lake in Srinagar and the snow-capped Himalayas make this verdant valley India’s answer to Europe’s Alpine region. While Srinagar and Gulmarg attract the maximum footfall, it is laid-back Pahalgam that is ideal for those seeking some me-time in the heart of nature. It is especially beautiful in winter, when the temperature begins to dip, the apple orchards are laden with fruit and the prospect of powder-white snow is imminent.
Best for: Take the cold in your stride and venture out. The town has scenic walking paths that lead into pine forests and these are a great way to explore the slumberous country life. But if your adrenalin level is demanding more, then go on a trek or even white water rafting on the Lidder river. Pony rides around the mountainous region are also popular but it can be tricky in winter when snow makes the pathways slippery. And do not miss out on the opportunity to buy locally produced saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, papier mâché souvenirs, and gorgeous pashmina shawls and carpets. They are irresistible not only because they are much cheaper than what you’ll find in the posh handicraft outlets in Paris and Milan, but the whole experience of going to the source, makes it pretty unforgettable.
While there: The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is a tourist’s delight. From trying out your skiing skills on the slopes of Mount Apharwat in Gulmarg to ice-skating on the frozen Dal Lake in Srinagar, or going on a photography trek in Yousmarg, it is a perfect getaway for those in search of an European winter holiday on a budget.
Where to stay: Pahalgam has numerous lodges and boutique hotels that are cheap in winter as it is considered to be the off-peak season as far as tourists are concerned. However, some of the best places to put your head down are the Pahalgam Hotel (www.pahalgamhotel.com) and Hakeem Stay. While the former is a comfortable hotel with a professional crew running it, the latter is a B&B run by a family. Both come highly recommended so decide depending on the kind of experience you’re looking for.
Getting there: Jet Airways flies to New Delhi (from Dh949 return) from Dubai and Abu Dhabi with connecting flights to Srinagar. Once in Srinagar, take a two and-ahalf-hour taxi ride to Pahalgam.