Although I’ve traveled to some fairly dodgy places around the world, for some reason the idea of traveling to India deeply intimidated me. Looking back at it now, I feel silly but at the time my concerns felt very real. Listening to stories from friends and family, traveling around India sounded daunting and I wasn’t sure if I was even up to such a trip. It wasn’t from a lack of desire, quite the opposite actually. I’d long ached to see not only the country’s famous landmarks, but I also wanted to experience its colorful culture and delicious cuisine. Long ago though I made a vow, that if I ever traveled to India, at least my first visit would be with a company that I trust and which I knew would provide me with a luxury experience. So when travel experts Abercrombie & Kent and I started talking about new projects, I knew immediately what would work best. My luxury trip to India with Abercrombie & Kent was my third adventure with them, so I knew exactly what to expect. While the trips have varied from Tanzania to Spain and now India, I knew that no matter what, I would be in very capable hands and that they would take incredible care of me from start to finish. That proved to be the case and, much to my surprise, I found myself falling for India. I didn’t think I would have a bad time per se, but I never expected to enjoy it as much as I did and I have A&K to thank in large part of that. Now that the trip has been over for a couple of months, I want to look back and share what were not only some of my most memorable moments, but experiences I know just about any first time visitor to India will love as much as I did.
Mumbai by Dawn
Getting up at 5am is never easy, but I was excited to join a special trek around Mumbai, watching the city wake up and discovering a different side to the metropolis. 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.
While Jaipur city is fun, so is enjoying a day trip out to another popular landmark, the Amer or Amber Fort, the former hilltop palace complex of the ruling elite before they moved to Jaipur. Once the capital of the powerful princes of Jaipur, the beautifully fortified palace sits high above the surrounding valley, an ideal place to spot would-be invaders. Regional powers lived on this mountaintop for centuries before this magnificent fort was built in the late 16th century, expanded over time by successive rulers. Wandering through the many rooms and courtyards, it’s easy to imagine what life was like for the ruling class here in Amer. From the exquisite designs and embellishments to feats of engineering that kept the palace cool in the hot summer months, it’s as impressive a construction as I’ve seen anywhere in the world. But of course I was constantly drawn to the views from high on top of the fort, gazing across the lake and valley far off into the distance, wondering what others who came before me thought about while standing on that same exact spot.
A special excursion organized for Abercrombie & Kent guests is a sunset cruise on Lake Pichola in Udaipur, in true Maharaja style. Although it was just me, the small boat was stocked with a high tea service that could feed a small family. As the boat putted out into the heart of the lake, I sat back enjoying the views, sipping on chai and eating one too many cookies. It was a special afternoon though, not just thanks to the small sandwiches, but for the opportunity to experience Udaipur in a different way. I’ve always said that it’s important to see new cities from different vantage points, and from the water is always a personal favorite. Floating around the lake I noticed scenes of daily life I’d never see from land. Locals washing their clothes and even themselves, honeymooners posing for photos and throngs of kids lined up along the shoreline to wave hi. Yes, the boat ride is a fun way to see the city and its palaces, but more importantly I think is the opportunity it provides to experience real life in Udaipur as well.
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.
Taj Mahal at Sunrise
One of the world’s most famous landmarks, no first visit to India would be complete without a visit to the famous Taj Mahal. Like many other visitors, I spent the night in Agra and enjoyed seeing this incredible building complex at two different times of day. For me though, my favorite time to be at the Taj Mahal was during the quiet morning hours. As it turns out, there’s a reason why my guide insisted on visiting at two very different times of day. The experiences could not have been more different from one another. While there was a short line, the crowd entering the Taj complex that early morning was nothing like the night before. With so few people there, it was an intimate and almost private experience. Don’t misunderstand, there was still a 5-minute wait to sit on the so-called “Diana bench,” and to grab that one famous selfie also required a wait. But overall, the crowds were negligible and as I waited for the perfect morning light, I walked right into the main mausoleum itself, skipping the hour-long wait that was there the night before. The tomb perhaps was the one aspect that was disappointing, a simple nod to a great love affair. But the complex isn’t about that one final resting place, it’s about a love so deep and profound that it inspired one of the most remarkable structures that the world has ever seen. And, for the most part, it looks just as perfect as it must have the day it was finished.
Delhi Food Tour
An important aspect of any Abercrombie & Kent tour are immersive experiences; activities that bring you closer to the local communities. In Delhi that meant a morning food tour of Old Delhi led by a local who knows the backstreets better than almost anyone. 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.
It wasn’t my first trip with Abercrombie & Kent so learning about their philanthropy project in Udaipur wasn’t a surprise, but what was a surprise was the opportunity to visit and meet with the kids. Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy supports projects all around the world from rhino conservation to schools like the one in Udaipur. Spending some time there I met a few of the more than 100 girls of all ages who attend classes, learning in a safe and encouraging environment. At the school they are protected from prejudice and even violence, allowed to just be normal kids. I read through their school projects, admired their artwork and even congratulated a budding photographer on her skills. Without a doubt it was the unexpected highlight of my time in Udaipur and is probably what has so endeared the city to me forever.