42 years, 65 days, 2 hours and 7 minutes; that’s how long it took me to first step foot in India. Honestly, there’s a reason why I’ve visited places as far-flung as Antarctica, Kyrgyzstan and Poplar Bluff Missouri before visiting the 2nd most populous country in the world, I was scared. Originally, I don’t think I had considered traveling to India for any particular reason then, as I grew older, I heard more and more stories of travelers struggling on their trips to the subcontinent. Interestingly enough, I’m pretty sure that I also heard an equal number of positive stories, but mentally disregarded them; what does that say about me, I wonder. Regardless, India remains a somewhat divisive topic in the travel world, one’s thoughts on the country are very binary – people love it or, well, they don’t. There isn’t a casual admiration for it, feelings run strong and deep in both camps. I knew and understood that and for many years didn’t think myself prepared as a traveler to visit. If I ever did decide to travel to India though, I knew that it would have to be in a very particular way. It would have to conform to my personal interests, it would have to be a luxury experience and it would have to be safe. To meet and exceed these requirements there is perhaps no tour operator in the world better suited than Abercrombie & Kent, who I have once again partnered with to share stories of what traveling with this legendary luxury company is really like. My third trip with them, I generally knew what to expect but, as is always the case with A&K, I was very quickly taken aback by the incredible service and quality on every level. More than that though, they were the ideal partner with whom to first experience, and, grow to love incredible India. I’ve only just returned from this, my first foray into the lands of tigers and temples, but I want to share a few experiences of many that I think go a long way to demonstrate what immersive and experiential travel in India looks like.
Based on the many accounts of traveling to India I’d read over the years, I was prepared for a level of chaos akin to a dystopian novel. So, imagine my surprise when I instead discovered a country like many others around the world. Is it chaotic? Yes. Is it loud? Yes, and if I never hear another car horn again I’m ok with that. But it’s no different from many other countries I’ve visited around the world in Africa, Central and Southeast Asia. It’s not as fearsome as I thought it would be. India is a developing nation of 1.3 billion people. There is a stark divide between the rich and the poor, although the middle class is growing like gangbusters at the moment. There are issues, I’m not disputing that and I’m not trying to portray a Pollyannaish image that’s inaccurate. No, instead I do believe that some accounts of India have been grossly off the mark and I think I know at least one reason for that. Many people visit India only briefly, there to see top sights like the Taj Mahal. If your only experience visiting India are the cities of Agra (where the Taj is located) and the capital city of Delhi then no, you won’t have positive impressions of the country. However, if you veer off into other areas of the country like I did with Abercrombie & Kent, then a more complete and robust image of the country will start to form. That’s actually one of the many advantages of taking a Tailor Made Journey to India. The trip was designed just for me and my interests, allowing me the opportunity to explore at my pace and to only experience those places and activities that truly interested me. As a result, I enjoyed nearly everything I did during my 9 days in India. Abercrombie sets travelers up for success with this style of trip, but that wasn’t news to me. It’s also how I experienced Tanzania with them in 2015, but India reaffirmed that their Tailor Made experiences may be the best concept in the travel world.
Watching Mumbai Wake Up
Lest you think I traveled in a luxury bubble while in India, that isn’t the case. Sure, I spent the night at some truly incredible hotels and was certainly very well taken care of by Abercrombie & Kent, but I experienced India the same way as any other tourist, including some immersive opportunities coordinated for my Tailor Made Journey. One such experience happened on my second day in the country in Mumbai. Waking up well before the first light of day, I met my guide for the morning adventure – learning more about Mumbai through some unique early morning occupations. India is the king of the side-hustle, and it seems that many people have multiple jobs they work in order to make ends meet. I saw a lot of that during our morning explorations, starting off at the still very dark hour of 5am at the city’s wharf to witness the daily fish auction. People started to stream in with baskets, all there to purchase wholesale fish for customers throughout the city. It seemed chaotic at first, but there’s definitely a rhythm to the event, although certainly not for the weak of heart. From flower merchants to newspaper sorters, I met with many people around the city working jobs only around for a few hours every morning, a side to Mumbai you’d miss if you wake up after 9am. It was also a great way for me to experience daily life in the city, aside from the museums and monuments, and to get a feel for what it really means to be in India. There were many special touches like this throughout my trip, helping make the experience one that was honestly very well rounded. I wasn’t shielded in any way, and for that I am grateful.
We all travel in different ways and for me hotels and resorts are an extremely important part of every trip. That’s one of many reasons why I always love traveling with Abercrombie & Kent, I know that they only work with the very best hotels in the world. India takes luxury hotels up a notch though and after just a few days, I was convinced that the country is home to some of the best hotels in the world. I mostly stayed with Taj and Oberoi properties around the country, each one unique in its style and history but also sharing one commonality – service. Luxury hotels are so much more than golden fixtures and expensive art; anyone can do that. No, what makes a luxury hotel special is the service, and that can’t be purchased. It’s a product of training, corporate culture and just simple caring. Individual staff members at every level have to care about their guests, and that’s more rare than one would expect. In India though, it’s the hallmark of the luxury travel experience and my hotel stays over the span of more than a week now count amongst my all-time most memorable.
Details and Philanthropy
Just as great luxury hotels are more than the superficial, so are tour providers and Abercrombie & Kent exemplifies that. The devil is in the details is a mantra that the company takes to heart and it helps me better experience new destinations, especially India. When traveling with them, I don’t have to worry about the boring details, like how am I getting from Point A to Point B or what to I do about X, Y, Z. That leaves me free to just enjoy the travel experience for what it is. They also have an incredible institutional memory, they must keep notes on past guests because wherever I went I was met with my favorite drink – a Diet Coke. It’s a very, very small detail, but it never failed to put a smile on my face and showed that they cared about me, that I wasn’t a number. But I also enjoy traveling with them because they don’t want their guests to travel in bubbles, they invented the concept of experiential luxury travel and still live up to that ethos. A great example of that is Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy, which funds projects all over the world. Donations from guests and purchased tours go back to these initiatives, like the girl’s school I visited in Udaipur. I love hanging out with kids when I travel, no matter where I am in the world I’m reminded that children are all basically the same everywhere. It was also one of the most fun experiences of my trip, introducing myself to them, learning about their lives and even seeing their artwork and dream boards. That’s not the average travel experience, but is one that transforms a journey into a truly special life event.
Just as visiting the school was important, so were most of my experiences in India. Sure, I toured the standard tourists sites in each of the five cities I visited, but I also experienced the destinations in ways slightly different, but which brought me closer to understanding them on a more intimate level. In Mumbai that meant getting up early, in Udaipur hanging out with kids and in Delhi it revealed itself through a back alley food tour of Old Delhi. In scenes that reminded me more of a bustling Cairo bazaar, my guide expertly ushered me through the maze of streets and lanes to some of the most popular food purveyors in the city. Tasting foods new to me, I certainly enjoyed the culinary aspect of the morning, but I also appreciated the cultural lessons along the way. Whether it was watching the rough and tumble world of the spice trade, or learning more about the Jains, it was a crash course into Delhi life that I simply couldn’t have otherwise experienced, and certainly not on a more run of the mill tour. It brought Delhi to life for me, it gave it color and character and made me appreciate the city much more than any UNESCO site possibly could.
Yes, I was surprised by India in any number of ways, but mostly by the fact that I enjoyed the journey. I wasn’t so sure before I left home, I was nervous in a way that I hadn’t been in a very long time. But by choosing to partner with Abercrombie & Kent, my trip was almost guaranteed to be successful. Of course they added the many luxury elements I look for in any trip I take, but it’s so much more than that. Their local guides and managers love their cities and take pride in their histories, wanting to share the very best of India with every visitor. Their commitment to having me experience the real India and not just the sanitized version is ultimately what made me value the trip so very much. I could have traveled around in a perfectly constructed bubble, but then I wouldn’t have experienced India. No, instead they flawlessly combine the two to create a robust journey that is totally unique. How we travel matters, it’s an investment of time and money and I know that with an Abercrombie & Kent Tailor Made Journey, both investments are always very well guarded.