Beautiful. Gritty. Mystical. Dirty. Noisy. Serene. Majestic. Welcoming. Chaotic. Off-putting. Sensual. Shocking. Hair-raising. Calming.
Pick one. On any given day, you may experience all these. Paul has been fascinated by India for years. Recently he planned a father/daughter trip with both our daughters. I was content to hear their stories and look at their photos when they returned. If I'm honest with myself, I think I was scared to see the poverty I had read about, the mass of people, the impossible living conditions. And why should I go to a country for which I'd have to get so many shots? It was only after months of prodding by Paul that I finally agreed to join him and our daughters. I finally figured this would be my best - and maybe only - chance to see the Taj Mahal. Paul, Nan and Katie spent a week in Mumbai and Udaipur before I joined them in Delhi for the second week.
As first-timers to India, we did our research, but still weren't sure what to expect.
We knew that two weeks would only provide a taste. A country as vast and varied as India can't be seen in two months let alone two weeks, but you make the most of what you have. Paul chose the destinations; Mumbai, Udaipur, Varanasi, Delhi and Agra. As a travel agent in my former life, there are few things I enjoy more than planning trips (actually taking them is one). So I set out to plan this one as I've planned many others. I read, I Googled, I asked questions on Fodor's, my go-to travel site, I read more. We love trains, but looking at the train schedules was overwhelming and confusing. After a month or so of frustration, I finally admitted defeat. Fodor's posters suggested that I hire a tour company in India, so after more research, I contacted one and the planning began in earnest.
The company, Castle & King, sent me a proposed itinerary for the cities we wanted to see, including sites we should visit in each city. Everyone we had talked to recommended that we stay in the "5 star bubble". They said we'd welcome the creature comforts after a long day of exploring. Normally we're not 5-star hotel people, but we suspected that we'd welcome a little luxury - a good meal, comfortable bed and a hot shower - at the end of the day. They were right. One of the best choices we made was to hire a car and driver in each city which we did through Castle & King. The cars (SUV's) were new and clean and the drivers were excellent and engaging. We also hired a guide in each location. We'd use Castle & King again in a heartbeat!
The hotels we chose were:
Mumbai - Trident, Nariman Point
Udaipur - Udai Kothi
Delhi - Le Meridien
Varanasi - Shiva Ganges View
Agra - Courtyard by Marriott
I did a lot of research on hotels in each of these cities. Including the hotels' websites, I usually use Expedia and Trip Advisor, and I check Fodors which is a good site for just about any information you need. The Trident was a good choice in Mumbai; it's a 5 star hotel in a good and safe location and was a welcome respite for three jet-lagged travelers! Le Meridien and the Courtyard by Marriott were both booked on daughter Nan's Starwood points. The Agra Marriott upgraded us to a suite; it was one of the nicest hotels we've stayed in. While we saw families at Le Meridien in Delhi, it's largely a business hotel with all the comforts we're used to in the West and it was a great choice.
The Trident Nariman Point was recommended by a number of Fodor's posters and it was a winner. Modern and on the water, it was a good choice for first-timers to India.
In India, heritage hotels are speciality, often 5 star lodging. They may have originally been castles, palaces, fortresses and other notable properties, often home to royalty. Many are surrounded by lovely gardens or beautiful lakes. People said we had to book at least one heritage property during our stay. It was tempting, especially in Udaipur, but as they're often located outside of cities and knowing that we prefer being in the center of the city, we decided against heritage properties on this trip. Paul said the Udai Kothi which was centrally located in Udaipur, was perfect for them.
This is the lady delivering flowers to the Udai Kothi.
Le Meridien was in a lovely and very central location in Delhi, but we were advised for safety reasons against venturing out on our own. The Trident, Le Meridien and the Marriott all required security screening for anyone entering from the outside.
The view of India Gate from our room in Delhi. Notice the outline of the buildings in the background of the daytime photo; the smog was always present.
The Courtyard by Marriott in Agra is a relatively new hotel and the nicest and most modern one we stayed in in India. We ate both breakfast and dinner at the hotel. Both were lavish buffets and were absolutely delicious!
We were upgraded to this beautiful suite; the girls had an identical one.
If you're fortunate enough to visit Varanasi, you MUST stay on the ghats, the stone steps that lead to the Ganges. The location of our guesthouse, Shiva Ganges View couldn't have been better. We had a clear view of the river and it was a short walk to shops and restaurants. We had two rooms on the first floor, both with small patios overlooking the river.
Compared to the other hotels, it was definitely a guesthouse; more hostel than hotel. We used the mosquito netting over the bed the first night, but took our chances with malaria (after all, we were taking our malaria pills) the second night when we saw that the netting had evidently not been cleaned recently. There was a rooftop patio where we had breakfast with an amazing view of the Ganges River and its banks.
This was the view from the roof at the Shiva Ganges View.
The reception area at the Shiva Ganges View
Our room and bathroom at the Shiva Ganges View
All in all, we'd stay in the hotels we chose again save for the Shiva Ganges View. I'd choose one on the ghats in Varanasi again, but a little less basic. Despite the modern facilities at all the other hotels, each of them recommended that we drink bottled water. We could take showers and brush our teeth in the tap water, but they didn't recommend that we drink the tap water. The morning that we returned back to the hotel from the Taj Mahal, I got what's affectionately called Delhi Belly, a 24 hour bug. I have no idea where I picked it up, but fortunately we had brought Cipro. That and some soup enabled me to be on my feet again by the next day. I also thanked my lucky stars that we were in such luxurious accommodations at the Marriott as opposed to the very basic room we had in Varanasi. Such is international travel, right?
If you've been to these cities, we'd love to hear your hotel recommendations!