India is one big collection of cultural curveballs. So, although these are our highlights of where to go in India, it is worth stressing that for every special place or experience, there are another ten just around the corner. Although the Taj Mahal is a highlight for many, there are Mughal marvels such as Biwi ka Maqbara in Aurangabad or Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi that shouldn’t be missed. And while Rathambore National Park is a wildlife favourite, Bandipur National Park, Bandhavgarh National Park, Pench and Panna are beauties. Trekking in the Indian Himalayas around Ladakh is something very special to aspire to, but don’t let these peaks upstage the rambling delights of the Western Ghats in Kerala, where you can chill in the hills followed by a few days of blissing out at the beach. Just keep your eyes and ears open when you are travelling in India and the highlights will happen when you least expect.
One of the finest ways to discover Kerala. Within a few hours out of Cochin you can be cycling through spice and coconut plantations, along the banks of the River Periyar with birds and butterflies that you can only have dreamed of, following you along the route. Cycle through small villages, staying at homestays, small guesthouses and eco lodges along the way. And relax those cycling muscles en route with a traditional Ayurvedic massage.
Many people have no idea Kerala exists beyond Cochin and the backwaters. The former spice trading hubs of the north have beaches that are galloping past the old favourites of Kovalam in the south in terms of being bliss out zones. Check out Bekal, Kannur or Neeleshwar. It does take more effort to get there, but beauty rarely come easily, right? And it means they are a lot less touristy.
You might not think it is for you, if privacy is what you want on holiday, but it really is worth spending at least a couple of days of your trip in a homestay. Most of them are small working farms, and Keralites are warm generous hosts, making you feel at home almost instantly. By far the best way to learn about real Kerala cuisine too, with hosts using their own organic ingredients.
The world is discovering a taste for Keralan cookery, but nothing you try outside of India can compare with the real thing. The minute you taste real local food, you will be hooked. Food tours that stretch down into Kerala to gobble up dhosas and idlis exist, but a quick lesson with your homestay host will be equally unforgettable, and a useful additional source of income for them too.
KERALA FROM A KAYAK
Although houseboats are still the most popular way to get around the backwaters, kayak trips are the new way to go on the water, enabling to you escape the bustling channels full of tourists. In a kayak you access Kerala’s rural heart, where duck rearers, toddy tappers and fishermen welcome peaceful paddlers. Your bags are transported for you so that you can moor up, and stay at homestays or villas along the way.
Few people associate Kerala with mountains, the Himalayas monopolizing the western desire for elevated landscapes. Kerala’s Western Ghats range is rapturous for most hikers and bikers, however. Named as one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots, it’s a daily festival of flora and fauna here. And no snow either in winter. A good starting point is the Raj town of Munnar, with the backdrop Anamudi, Kerala’s highest peak at 2695 m.
The colonial quarter of Kochi, on the northern end of the peninsula, with the sea on one side and Lake Vembanad on the other. It is a charming area of the harbour city to chill out in, with rickshaws water taxis and ferries to get you around. Check out the shops, as well as its old Jewish quarter, Chinese fishing nets, and a wonderful collection of restaurants and hotels, from grand to boutique.
You have not ‘done’ the south of India by just going to Kerala. Consider combining your trip with a few days in neighbouring Karnataka or Tamil Nadu to get a truly three dimensional picture of what south India is. Such as the The Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri Hills or Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, not forgetting the historical hub of Mysore.
PERIYAR NATIONAL PARK
Although located in beautiful Western Ghats, and famous for its tiger reserve, it certainly feels as if the amount of visitors outnumbers the number of wildlife sightings. You can only hike here with an official Park guide, and the lake cruises feel a bit more like party nights on the Thames. Although still worth a trip, just don’t raise your hopes for sightings. Go for tranquil bamboo rafting option instead of the cruise, but in peak season you need to book well in advance.
Started as a hippy hangout in the seventies, but just like Goa or Bali, flower power grew into dollar power, and overdevelopment kicked in. Overcrowded and dirty, there are a lot of vendors hassling on the beaches and it is far from the peace and love vibe they were once idolized for. Head north or further south for beach bliss to places like Kasaragod, Neeleshwar or Marari.
Although stunning and totally Kerala it has, sadly, with the influence of tourism, become rather clinical and cynical. Originating in the 17th century it uses refined gestures and ornate singing to convey the story instead of dialogue. Traditionally performed from dusk til dawn, it is now done at resort hotels in enough time for guests to drink a sundowner. Check out the less commercially exploited ritual of Theyyam instead.
The government went on a massive marketing spree to push Kerala as an Ayurvedic destination which means that it is attached to every spa going now. Although many are accredited and highly recommended, remember that this is a real way of life for Keralites, and a highly respected and all-encompassing way of living, with people visiting Ayurvedic hospitals and consultants. Not just a girls’ day out. Check out the government star ratings of Olive Leaf and Green Leaf Ayurvedic Centres for more guidance.
The palaces are out of this world, but you can also swap chauffeur for cycle and have one foot firmly planted in the grass roots of Rajasthan when visiting, for example, indigenous Bishnoi desert dwellers, or dining and staying with homestay owners. Tailor made trips in Rajasthan are not all silver and silks; there are plenty of gems to be found in real Rajasthan too.
Regal, colourful cities are what many people seek out, but the desert gateway towns of Jaisalmer and Bikaner are spectacular too. The former is home to an ancient fortified city, constructed of sandstone and so merging magically with the desert landscapes. The latter has fewer tourists but still vibrant with the compulsory fort, camel safaris and two stunning temples: the Jain Bhandasar, and Hindu Lakshminath.
A region once brimming with aristocrats, the fading glamour of their havelis (mansion houses) are a sight to behold in this desert region. Tumbleweed blows through courtyards boasting stunning murals, colonnades and obsolete opulence. Some are being restored, others are simply there to be photographed and figure out how these places came to be. Check out the eco-glamping gorgeousness at Mandawa too.
A colourful stop on Rajasthan’s multicoloured magic carpet, this time blue. The mammoth Mehrangarh Fort oversees the city like a lion overseeing its pride, the ancient, blue houses seeming to worship at its feet. Delve deeper to discover markets bursting with every colour of the rainbow. Jodhpur is also gateway to the Thar Desert where villages are home to contrasting desert dwellers, the Bishnoi and Bhil.
Bang in the middle of this desert state is a wild array of tropical forest, with ruined temples popping up at sporadic points and the eyes of fauna such as nilgai, sambar, jungle cats and, of course, the great Bengal tiger all watching the goings on in their precious habitats. It is a very special place and somewhere to spend a few days if possible, not just a ‘been there, done that’ scenario.
Heritage heaven, Rajasthan boasts some of the world’s most luxurious, but not always astronomical, sleeps. Stay in beautifully restored forts or former Raj’s palaces, boasting fine Rajput or Mughal architecture. Overlook Lake Pichola in a beaux arts palace in Udaipur , a 19th century former home of the Maharaja of Jaipur or a symmetrical beauty in Bikaner. Heritage hotels are places to immerse yourself in class and opulence.
The gateway to the great Thar Desert, this sandstone fort looks like it could be washed away in a storm, if there was such a thing. But in fact, this fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site inside the eponymous ancient city, has stood the test of time since 1156 when it was built by Rajput ruler Rawal Jaisal, after whom it was named. It is now home to hotels, markets and a lot of camels.
PUSHKAR CAMEL FAIR
It may have been a real working tradition in times gone by, but it is now just a tourist trap, and an animal trap, with camels and elephants being abused, dressed up, made to race and generally whooped up into a frenzy simply to keep tourists happy. Not a happy sight at all. And while we are at it, the Brahma Temple is not great either, with more pushy hawkers than cultural highlights.
It may seem magnificent but often the animals are severely mistreated in order to perform or conform, with mahouts, or elephant trainers, shackling them or using a bull hook to tame them. The Amber Palace in Jaipur is just horrific for this, with over 150 elephants carrying tourists up and down the hill. Similarly, elephant polo wouldn’t be one of our favourites. Read our ‘Elephants in tourism’ guide for more details.
Especially when it comes to dress sense. For women, in particular, showing bare legs, shoulders and wearing low cut tops are a faux pas. And always cover your head in places of worship. Please also practise responsible photography. Rajasthan is so stunningly beautiful, it is hard to keep the cameras at bay; but always ask before you snap.
ONLY EYES FOR A TIGER
Sometimes people want to head to the state with the sole mission of seeing a tiger in Ranthambore. And they are extraordinary, but don’t forget there are Asian lions and sloth bears in Rajasthan too – as well as leopard, elephants, buffalo, rhino, monkeys, wolves and a veritable fiesta of birdlife.