Meera Dattani looks at how clients can get under the skin of India

Like this and want more details? Click here to download and save as a PDF.

Taj Mahal, tick. Delhi’s Red Fort, done. Jaipur’s Pink City, been there, done that. It’s tempting to hurtle from sight to sight, but increasingly, visitors want to get under the skin of India to fully experience its culture, chaos, beauty and soul.

“Our clients want to really experience the countries they’re visiting, not just their resort,” says Claire Farley, 2by2 Holidays founder.

Nikhil Chhibber, Western & Oriental’s India programme manager, agrees: “We don’t believe in selling bog-standard Golden Triangle, Rajasthan or Kerala trips. We’re including heritage hotels, market tours and cycling in rural India.”

Bales Worldwide has also added opportunities to engage in local festivals such as Holi, Diwali and aarti ceremonies on the River Ganges, while Explore encourages its customers to use local transport and restaurants for an authentic experience.

Tasting India

India’s cuisine is central to its culture, and while any visitor will eat well, some take things a step further with foodie add-ons such as Kuoni’s Udaipur Cooking Experience, helping a family prepare dinner before sitting down to eat together.

Cox & Kings has a full-day cookery class with local celebrity chef Nimmy Paul in Kochi, buying ingredients at the local market then cooking them at her home, while Kerala’s Kumarakom Lake Resort can arrange an excursion to Philipkutty’s Farm where the family matriarch teaches a few recipes.

If clients want to skip straight to eating, Urban Adventures’ Mumbai Masala is a three-hour tour exploring this bustling city’s street food scene, from Bombay toast and pani puri to sweetmeats such as gulab jamun.

Attraction World also offers add-ons such as the Delhi Food Walk (£31), where travellers will be munching through street foods shawarma, paneer tikka and kulfi-falooda.

Sometimes, an excursion isn’t enough: Western & Oriental’s 2014 brochure whets the appetite with sample itinerary A Taste of India, exploring delicacies ranging from Keralan seafood to Chettinad’s aromatic curries, while Wendy Wu Tours’ 12-day Flavours of India travels around Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, offers cooking lessons in family homes and local banquets along the way.

Explore’s new 14-day Taste of India tour is tapping into this trend with a cooking lesson from a member of Mysore’s royal family, while Intrepid Travel’s India Real Food Adventure includes an Agra ‘chaat crawl’.

Urban exploration

India’s cities are packed with sights, but a classic tour isn’t the only way to experience them. Do Something Different’s

Annabel Cove says: “India is especially wealthy in terms of culture, tradition and rituals. Agents can add experiences seamlessly onto itineraries.” Popular excursions include Culture Vulture – Old Delhi and Gandhi’s Delhi (both £21).

Virgin Holidays’ 13-day Classic India provides a new perspective, visiting Delhi’s Haus Khas antique shops and a Jaipur haveli (private mansion). 2by2 Holidays also gets clients off the beaten track with the option of an Old Delhi bazaar walk or Delhi Metro Tour, while

G Adventures’ new comfort-level India Explorer includes a Delhi walking tour led by a guide from a street kids rehabilitation project.

The Dharavi tour from socially responsible operator Reality Tours & Travel visits recycling factories and community centres in Asia’s biggest slum, and clients can rest easier knowing the operator puts 80% of its profit into Reality Gives, a sister organisation working to improve life for people in the slums.

Rajasthan with a twist

Rajasthan is top of the list for most tourists, but Wild Frontiers’ 14-night India In Slow Motion will show them the state without the crowds, combining lesser-visited sights with lakeside camping. Likewise a night in a tented camp in the Thar Desert makes its way onto Insider Journey’s Highlights of Rajasthan tour, which also explores Delhi by rickshaw and takes a train to Ranthambore National Park to spot tigers.

Intrepid Travel’s 15-day Classic Rajasthan spices up traditional sights with a stay in a fortified mansion then a Bollywood cinema trip, or see the state on two wheels with G Adventures’ Rajasthan Cycling tour.

States of play

Rajasthan is deservedly popular, but there’s plenty more to explore. 2by2 Holidays’ 13-night tour of neighbouring Gujarat explores wildlife and heritage including Gandhi’s birthplace, Gir National Park’s endangered lions and Little Rann of Kutch desert.

Turning to India’s lesser-travelled northeastern states, Western & Oriental’s Journey Through the Eastern Himalayas takes in tea plantations in Darjeeling, Buddhist monasteries and Sikkim state capital Gangtok, with an extension to spot rhinos in Kaziranga National Park. Rhinos are also on the agenda for Explore’s 15-day Highlights of Assam and Nagaland, as is visiting tribal village Longwa, which is half in India, half in Burma.

The south has a completely different feel from the north, with palm trees, backwaters and beaches. Houseboats and homestays are popular in Kerala, while Insight Vacations’ new 11-day Mystical South India visits Thekkady’s spice plantations and Kumbalangi island’s fishermen and farmers.


Back to nature

Getting to grips with India’s wild side is just as important as its culture. Adventurous guests at Vivanta by Taj Madikeri in Coorg, southern India, can try off-road biking, ravine-crossing and zip-lining across verdant landscapes, or swap to sister property Vivanta by Taj Fisherman’s Cove, Chennai, to help release rescued baby turtles.

Those who want to experience nature without compromising on comfort can make tracks for Taj Safaris’ four luxury lodges in Madhya Pradesh to enjoy guided nature walks and wildlife-spotting. Alternatively, head to the luxurious new Jawai Leopard Camp in rural Rajasthan, featured by Western & Oriental, which claims a 75% chance of spotting leopard.

Few experiences will make visitors feel more in tune with nature than venturing out around dawn, when wildlife is waking up to a new day. Cox & Kings offers an early morning guided walk through the forests and marshy grasslands of Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, for a close-up view of tropical plants, birds, butterflies and bigger animals such as barking deer and langur monkeys.

Hotels sell

Alila Hotels and Resorts arranges tailor-made city tours – Alila Journeys – uncovering hidden gems that are often missed by travellers going it alone, and Oberoi Experiences’ chef-led Mumbai spice tours and kids’ kite-making lessons provide insight into the area’s cultural heritage.

Speaking of food, guests fascinated by the famous sight of dabbawalas transporting towering stacks of lunchboxes to Mumbai’s hungry workforce can try their tasty contents courtesy of Mumbai’s Vivanta by Taj President, or accompany the dabbawalas on their daily race with Cox & Kings’ optional excursion.

Tradition is also at the heart of Secret Retreats’ activities, which include having a go at camel-kart riding in Jaipur’s boutique Anopura or yoga and ayurveda at Kerala’s Neeleshwar Hermitage. But bringing old and new together, Taj Coromandel in Chennai has tours ranging from Modern Madras, accompanied by a contemporary artist, to Collectors’ Eye, which visits local artists and collectors’ homes.

Boats and trains

In such a vast country, internal flights are a tempting way to cut down on travelling time, but in India the journey can be a treat in itself. Look out for little villages along the Ganges on Western & Oriental’s new 12-day Rhinos & Riverboat Cruise from Patna to Varanasi; or pass by rural Agra and 15th-century monasteries in Majuli on Indus Tours’ Mahabaahu cruises along the Brahmaputra River.

Swap river for rail with Great Rail Journeys’ 17-day Kerala & Exotic Southern India, where highlights include an illuminated pillarai ceremony in Madurai and Kathakali dance show in Kochi.


Festivals and religion

If ever there was a place where religious festivals and culture were closely intertwined, it’s India. Explore that multi-denominational fabric on G Adventures’ 14-day Spiritual India, or celebrate Holi or Diwali with an Indian family as part of Indus Experiences’ Festival Tours.

Cox & Kings offers the Ultimate Travelling Camp, a new movable luxury tented camp, sets up in Himalayan state Ladakh this year to coincide with the colourful Dalai Lama-led Kalachakra festival.

Sample product

Insider Journey’s 14-day Highlights of Rajasthan tour visits Delhi, Agra, the Taj Mahal, Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, with a chance to see a cooking demonstration on a palace terrace, from £1,795 excluding flights.
01865 268940

Cox & Kings’ 11-day private tour, Ladakh: Land of the Lamas (Luxury Tented Camp), starts from £4,095, including flights to Delhi and transfers to Leh, where guests camp in style and enjoy birdwatching, polo and guided walks plus, in July, the Kalachakra festival.
020 7873 5020

Journey through Eastern Himalayas, a 13-day tour from Western & Oriental, starts at £2,195 including flights to Kolkata via Delhi or Dubai, internal flights and transfers, mixed-board accommodation and private guided sightseeing.
020 7666 1234