Thursday, 19 January 2017

Our Top Trips in 2016 - Mark in India, October 2016

Mark was in India in October last year and spent a week exploring the sights of the famous 'Golden Triangle' of the North, and a few days discovering the charms of laid-back Kerala in the South. Here's why it was his somewhat unexpected top trip of 2016 . . . .

I visited two sides of India in October in two different ways, combined in to one trip. The first part of my trip was a group tour of the classic sights of the 'Golden Triangle ' - Delhi, Agra and Jaipur - which was arranged by our friends at G Adventures, who run amazing escorted tours with an adventurous streak. I then said goodbye to my group of fellow G Adventurers and headed to Kerala to spend a few days exploring the beaches, backwaters and history of this charming area, in the company of the fabulous folks at Kerala Travel Centre. Being an independent company ourselves we love working with other independent companies around the world.

In all honesty an 'adventure' tour isn't really my kind of thing - my days of roughing it are well past me (I wouldn't say I'm a travel snob, but I do like a few nice touches at the end of the day!) but my friends at G Adventures were sure I'd love it - and they were spot on! To my mind I was expecting a trip more geared towards backpackers, with a young age group and basic accommodation - not exactly my thing. Some of the accommodation was fairly simple, but some were excellent and almost all were well located and charming. The itinerary of the tour was excellent - all of North India's classic sights, plenty of experiences away from the history, and just enough downtime to take it all in. Our group gelled exceptionally well, and our CEO - Chief Experience Officer - brilliantly balanced things to keep everyone happy.

The trip had many highlights - India's sights are incredible and the Taj Mahal, Agra Fort, Fatephur Sikri and Jaipur's Amber Fort are amongst the most impressive historic sites I've ever been to. However, for me it was the experiences of the trip that will last long in my memory, just as much as the sights. One night was spent at Dhula, a small village outside of Jaipur and just off the well beaten 'Golden Triangle' route. G Adventures have worked closely with a local landowner who has opened a small tented property on his family land - simple but well equipped tents (more glamping than camping) plus great vegetarian meals and a fab pool to cool off in, all set around historic monuments that tell the family history. A few of us wandered around the village in the morning, and the untouched nature of the place, located just a few miles off the main road to Jaipur, was astounding. We were genuinely welcomed by young kids and old villagers alike, and popping our heads in to the local school brought huge smiles from the school kids - and everyone in our group!

It was also great to see a few places that aren't on every single itinerary of this area, and I think G Adventures are great at doing this - one afternoon we went to the Abhaneri step well, which I can't even find in the Lonely Planet guidebook. It's a thousand year old hole in the ground, part water tank and part temple, and beautifully restored. It’s unusual to get 'off the beaten track' these days, but along with Dhula village, this was one of those moments where I found myself thinking 'where am I?!'

Two other highlights were all about the group - one of the optional activities on the tour (most things are included) was a Bollywood dance class on the roof of our Jaipur hotel. Almost all the group joined in (one looked after the music and the other kept the beer flowing), and while we're not holding our breath for a call from a Bollywood studio just yet, it was incredible fun. Next evening in Jaipur was a walk around the old city as the sun went down, then we were whisked off in rickshaws through the crowded streets, stopping at a local lassi shop and various food vendors for a local snack or two. Take a look at my high-speed Jaipur rickshaw video here!

From Jaipur I flew south to Trivandrum, the gateway to the beaches of Kerala - and to a completely different world ! The big cities of Northern India are crowded and noisy, bursting with life, whereas the South is far more relaxed and laid back - the perfect antidote to the hectic North. The main beach resort is Kovalam and the area has a very traditional feel - low-key restaurants line the beachfront where fishermen bring their catches to shore each morning, for dinner that night.

I then headed a little further north to the Backwaters, a vast area of tranquil waterways, where I spend a day and a night on a traditional house boat - this is seriously one of the best travel experiences I've ever had, I adored it! The boat took two guests and came with a crew of three (someone to steer, someone to cook and someone to generally look after us), simple but fantastically tasty meals were served on deck and we stopped once or twice to explore local villages. The boat moored overnight as the sun went down and the peace and tranquility of this magical area will live long in my memory - just incredible. Have a look at my video as the houseboat floatsaround the Backwaters!

Finally, I finished my Indian journey in the city of Cochin, which has a long history of seafarers and traders, all of which can still be seen today. A local historian walked me around the sights of Fort Cochin, taking in the Chinese fishing nets, St Francis Church with the original burial site of Vasco Da Gama, Jew Town with its historic Synagogue, and the old bazaar district of Mattancherry (where I picked up a fab huge cooking pot for next to nothing!) On my last evening I saw a traditional Kathakali dance (in all honesty I had no idea what was going on!) and finished off with a few beers and a superb meal at the fabulous Old Harbour Hotel. Cochin's appeal is immediate and obvious, and I could easily have spent longer here.

This was my fourth visit to India and my second taking in the classic sights of the Golden Triangle, but on this trip I discovered a different side of the North, and fell in love with the charms of the South - which is why it was my Top Trip of 2016!

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