13 APR 2016: In years gone by a trip to far-flung India was no easy feat. This vast subcontinent was a place that beckoned travellers on a quest for the exotic or spiritual enlightenment or for those keen on adventure and wanderlust. Having just returned, I’m here to dispel any apprehensions one might have regarding a visit to one of the world’s most fascinating countries.

Insight Vacations has launched its new Luxury Gold portfolio, a unique travel product best described as ‘affordable luxury’ for its price point.

It includes a curated itinerary of ‘the’ best experiences and offers a personal travelling concierge who handles the logistics, the transfers, and any obstacles that might impinge on your clients getting to see the wondrous sights. I was a part of a media visit to sample the new Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations programme and experienced the 9-day itinerary of colour and magic, known as the “Essence of India with Ranthambore.”

The ‘wow’ factor started as soon as I departed from YYZ. I flew aboard Air France with a civilized layover in Paris. Arriving in the early morning has its bonuses too. At Terminal 2E I grabbed a café at Paul’s, the delightful bakery with fresh croissants and baguettes and later sauntered through the magnificent airport gallery, the Espace Musees to view the art. Before you knew it, it was time to resume my flight to Delhi. Once there, after visa inspection and baggage claim, a crew from Insight Vacations was at the ready, welcome card in hand.

The tour buses we boarded are new. With spacious seats custom configured for 40 persons, there’s complimentary Wi-Fi including a loo for those in need.

The arrival welcome hotel wasn’t too shabby either. I stayed at the Oberoi Gurgaon, one of the most sensational hotels in Delhi, located a stone’s throw from India’s first live entertainment and theatre venue, the Kingdom of Dreams. I also stayed at the Hyatt Regency Delhi, where clients on this programme are regularly accommodated.

We met Rajeev, our travelling concierge on a starry night at an alfresco dinner on the superb Hyatt Regency grounds. With planes flying overhead, and the sounds of the bustling city outside the hotel, this private courtyard was a refreshing haven as we munched on spicy tandoori dishes.

Delhi

This huge metropolis, the third largest city in India, can overwhelm the senses. It did mine. One early morning we visited the magnificent Jama Masjid. Built by Shah Jahan in 1650 (the same moghul of Taj Mahal fame), this red stone facade was buzzing with tourists and devotees arriving for prayer.

At the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Ghandi Smriti (formerly Birla House), the mood was somber. Only whispers and soft voices were heard amid the manicured gardens and landscaped lawn. This site is the location of Gandhi’s death. Revered as “The Father of the Nation,” he was assassinated here on his walk to the Kirti Mandap (prayer hall) to deliver his daily prayer message. The large complex is a collection of galleries and buildings which includes Gandhi’s Spartan bedroom (he slept on a stone floor), and an outdoor life wall commemorating his pivotal years.

Clients who have never been on a rickshaw tour will surely be entertained. In Old Delhi, rickshaw rentals are dirt cheap, but with the Insight Vacations Luxury Gold collection, excursions like these are included, as are the gratuities. So you don’t have to worry about opening purses, or wallets, if you don’t want to.

Agra

From Delhi it was a colourful ride on a nicely paved new divided highway, the Yamuna Expressway, passing agrarian villages and lush fields. It was the height of the potato and wheat season as we drove by farmers tending their crops and kids playing in the afternoon sun.

The Taj Mahal left me breathless – its perfection is indescribable and seeing is believing. The vast monument to love sits in manicured gardens and is bookended by identical red sandstone buildings, one of which is a mosque.

The famous photo of Princess Diana sitting alone immediately came to mind when I approached the infinity pond. Many people who knew of her now legendary pose in that epic photograph were reenacting the demure glance, the sideward position. I, too, couldn’t help myself.

The Taj Mahal is but one of the fascinating discoveries in Agra. Just a stone’s thrown away is India’s famous Red Fort.

The mysteries of this walled fortress were being unravelled through Rajeev’s story telling as we huddled by the Octagonal Tower, Musamman Burj to hear the tragic story of the great Shah Jahan.

“His son Aurangzeb imprisoned him for eight years. He preferred this room due to the balcony so he could have a nice view of the Taj Mahal,” Rajeev said. Walking to the edge of the balcony, I peered over the edge to see the outline of the grand Taj Mahal, the nearest this lovesick man would ever get to his beloved wife before he too died. For the romantics, this location will definitely have an impact.

Later that evening we had an opportunity to visit the home of a local Sikh family in an upscale residential neighborhood of historic bungalows in Agra. “We want to show you some houses where local Indians live.”

Over tea and drinks, the Singh family shared stories about the town, the ancestral house, and why it’s important for westerners to do these cultural visits. For agents whose clients wish to have a little one-on-one with a local and visit a house, this excursion is a definite bonus. (http://www.colonialwalkagra.com/colonial-ride-of-agra.php)

From Agra to Ranthambore

In India, one can travel by many means, and if there’s an opportunity, I highly recommend a train ride. It’s an authentic experience where you rub shoulders with locals, giggling girls, matronly mothers, and everyone else who needs to get from A to B.

My rail journey took me from the dusty streets of Agra through more countryside as we cut into the heart of India’s Rajasthan. This is the land of the Moghuls, the place where spices, silks, and shiny copper cups can be found.

The train ride ultimately lulled me to sleep, but it was the voices of the chattering passengers standing to retrieve their baggage when I realized we had arrived to our next leg: the Ranthambore National Park.

The princely park of Ranthambore is home to the Royal Bengal tiger. This vast wilderness, now a national park reserve, was the former stomping ground of the Maharajah of Jaipur. The stories of his tiger hunting safaris are legendary. Thankfully, the practice is now illegal.

Travellers wanting to experience a safari first-hand, can have a guaranteed wildlife experience along with gourmet dinners, opulent surroundings and a good night’s sleep by choosing the Nahargarh Ranthambore luxury hotel which caters to all the above and goes beyond the call of duty.

The local hotelier, himself an aristocrat, Gaj Singh Alsisar, has created a luxury playground at the doorstep of this esteemed park.

India Wows

Another “Wow” moment for me occurred at the bungalow in Agra over a conversation with the current homeowner’s wife, Gurleen Singh. We shared views, and had some girlish giggles over Indian cooking (which I must say was superb during my entire visit.)

I asked if we could take a photograph together and promised to send it. Then before I left I asked what her maiden name was.

“Why it’s Kaur,” she said.

“Kaur,” I said in disbelief, “You mean as in ‘Kauremszky like mine?’” She paused for a moment, contemplated and said she had never heard the name before.

“Perhaps we are long lost cousins,” I said, knowing my ancestors, so the story goes, came from the Far East where Gurleen’s family was from.

I walked away that night, realizing as the gate’s fence would shut tight behind me that on my journey across India I had made a strange connection and met a soul mate, a kindred spirit, whom I know I will never see again but shall always bear close to my heart.


To Know:

Visa application – 24 hours (I got mine in under 24 hours) for an e-Tourist Visa. Apply online. https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/

Luxury Gold by Insight Vacations offers a 9-day escorted tour, “Essence of India with Ranthambore” that highlights popular tourist landmarks for both the new and repeat visitor.

 

All images by Ilona Kauremszky except as noted.

INDIA
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Ilona Kauremszky

A regular contributor to Travel Industry Today, Ilona is a prize winning journalist whose writing pursuits have taken her around the globe.

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