Rail, road or river – our experts suggest three great ways to explore this extraordinary country. For more amazing adventures see our 1,000 Dream Trips
1. Ride the Darjeeling Express
Explore India’s capital of culture then puff through Darjeeling’s emerald-green tea plantations on a steam train into the foothills of the Himalayas.
Why it’s special
Even by India’s standards, Kolkata has some incredible architecture. Its historic centre is a feast of colonial-era buildings dating from its time as the British capital of India (1773-1911). Most spectacular is the wedding cake-like Victoria Memorial, a British fantasy of Mughal architecture crossed with high Victorian pomp. There are also many amazing temples, especially the nine-spired, other-worldly Dakshineswar Temple, just outside the city, which looks as if it’s sprung from an illustration. The Howrah bridge was completed in 1942, and was built entirely without rivets: it’s crossed by about half a million pedestrians daily.
Travel a night north of Kolkata, and you’re in the lush foothills of the Himalayas. Here is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or Toy Train, a blue-painted steam engine, which chuffs to Ghum and back, through thick forest and with views over the icy peaks. Darjeeling is surrounded by glossy-leafed tea plantations, and you can sip the world’s most genteel drink at its source, and try some of the most valuable varieties. Here, too, you have the unforgettable opportunity to take a jeep up to the top of Tiger Hill to watch the snow-tipped Himalayas blushing a rosy pink in the sunrise.
2. Hit the road in Rajasthan
Stop off at the ornate palaces of the country’s most colourful state, and head into the Aravalli Hills to find the true essence of India.
Why it’s special
For centuries the state’s self-proclaimed aristocratic Rajputs produced a spectacular architectural legacy of castles, palaces, forts and havelis, before Indira Gandhi stripped them of all stipends and titles in 1972. Ever entrepreneurial, many of them turned to tourism to maintain their properties and today Rajasthan has the most fascinating places to stay dotted across the state. This makes it an ideal destination for a road trip linking stunning cities and the Aravalli Hills.
Ideally, break each city sojourn with a night or two in rural idylls such as Amanbagh (aman.com); perfectly placed between Agra and Jaipur and where you will be greeted with a soaring Sanskrit well-wishing prayer.
Shahpura Bagh (shahpurabagh.com) is a great stop between Jaipur and Udaipur. Between Jodhpur and Udaipur, stay at Chanoud Gahr (chanoudgarh.com) or Rawla Narlai (rawlanarlai.com). In Chanoud village, go exploring armed with photographs (taken by previous visitors and emailed to your hosts). You’ll be greeted with delight by villagers eager to see them (if it’s a match, they keep it), and happy to pose for more – an ingenious introduction to the community. Try to end in Udaipur, at the “floating” Taj Lake Palace, and take a boat trip on Lake Pichola as the setting sun bathes the City of Lakes in gold.
3. Cruise through green Kerala
Explore the forested Western Ghats and slide along the serene backwaters in this extraordinarily beautiful verdant state.
Why it’s special
Water is everywhere in Kerala: tumbling down basalt cliffs in the rainforest to create a maze of backwaters that empty eventually into the sea. There are beautiful, sometimes hair-raising, drives through the Western Ghats on roads that climb through dense hardwood forests shading coffee, cardamom and pepper before corkscrewing down to sunlit tea gardens.
The old-growth forests of Coorg and the ridge line walks above Munnar are particular highlights. The Lakshmi tea trail above Munnar winds through tea gardens to rocky lookouts. Route 49 ([email protected]) has knowledgeable guides for day walks. Kolukkumalai, a century-old organic tea estate, is the highest in the world at 7,900ft (kolukkumalai.com). You can stay, tour the tea factory and take one of the challenging hikes to watch sunrise over the Western Ghats from one of the highest peaks.
Behind the coast are hundreds of miles of shallow rivers and canals lined with bungalows, orchards and coconut groves. It’s a place to kick back aboard a houseboat and watch the world go by as your personal chef prepares the curries that Kerala is famous for.
Sleepy ports punctuate the coast but Fort Kochi (Cochin) holds the most interest. There are Portuguese forts, Dutch mansions repurposed as boutique hotels and warehouses filled with spices and antiques in the Mattancherry district.