By Christine Brown of Vacation InspirationsAfter visiting Cambodia and Vietnam last year, I set my sights on my next bucket list trip - India. Imagine my surprise when I was one of about 20 travel agents from over the globe to go there with our fabulous vendor partner - Trafalgar. Trafalgar has an extensive portfolio of escorted group tours all over the world and they’re an excellent choice! I highly recommend that if you are thinking of visiting India, an organized group tour is the way to go. More on that throughout my recap.Our first stop was New Delhi where we stayed at the Sheraton for a couple of nights. The hotel was comfy, great location, restaurant on site was impeccable for both breakfast and dinner, buffet style. The hotel filtered their water and provided complimentary bottles, replenished daily in our room.After a welcome/intro dinner on night one, we headed to bed early for our next jam packed day of sightseeing. We hit the road bright in early in the Trafalgar coach - a full size coach with plenty of room, reclining seats, ample leg room, overhead storage, wifi and coolers stocked with water and sodas.Our first stop was the Jama Masjid Mosque -said to be be largest in India and constructed of red sandstone and marble. Upon entering shoes had to be removed, men needed to hire sarongs and women needed to hire robes (garments covered in the tour).After navigating the streets of Delhi on foot, we proceeded to the incredible Sikh Temple where we took a moment to stop, look and meditate if so inclined. The colors were brilliant and the men singing scriptural compositions (called Kirtan) was mesmerizing.
After a stop at UNESCO World Heritage Site Humayun's Tomb (inspiration for the Taj Mahal) and Qutub Minar (a minaret that’s an architectural wonder at 73 meters tall and tapestry of colorful stone) we returned to the hotel to pack up for our departure the next day to Agra.The next morning our luggage was tagged and collected by our tour director and his staff, loaded on our comfy coach bus and we hit the road. Before hitting the highway (a true highway) we grabbed lunch at a restaurant in Delhi. Our tour director had a vetted list of restaurants with great, SAFE food with tons of variety - both Indian and Western options.The trip to Agra from Delhi was pretty easy and all highway! A sharp contrast to our trip from Agra to Jaipur (I’ll talk about that later). Upon arrival, we thought that we were going straight to the hotel, but our Tour Director surprised us with a visit to Mehtab Bagh - a beautiful garden across the river from the back of the Taj. The roads to the garden were completely undeveloped and small, but our coach was able to navigate expertly and arrive just in time for the sunset.We then went to our hotel for the next two days - Doubletree by Hilton - a newly opened, super contemporary, clean, comfy hotel with an awesome rooftop pool with Taj views. The only cons were the slow wifi (not surprising given the location) and the staff was working out some service kinks.
The next (early) morning it was time! Taj Mahal! A 4:00 am wake up call - ugh! It’s imperative that you try to get to the Taj first thing in the morning, since the crowds just continue to grow throughout the course of the day. After navigating the security lines, (tip - bring just a camera, no bags, and you’ll get through quicker), rain and a battery operated shuttle to the main gate, we were in! Our group stuck together at first, so we could learn about the building’s history, get some great group photos, etc. We then set out to explore on our own. Know that you can take photos of the exterior for days, but photos inside the main structure (where the tombs of emperor Shah Jahan and his wife Mumtaz Mahal are housed) are not permitted.
After exploring for a couple of hours, we grabbed a quick brunch at the hotel then headed to the Agra Fort - the main residence of the emperors of the Mughal Dynasty until 1638 - including Shah Jahan. The fort was initially constructed with red sandstone, but as Shah Jahan entered, buildings within the fort were constructed with his favorite - white marble (like the Taj). It is rumoured that Shah Jahan died in Muasamman Burj, a tower with a marble balcony with a view of the Taj Mahal.After some free time in the afternoon (we hit up the pool and reasonably priced spa), we visited a local theater, for a Broadway-type musical telling the story of Shah Jahan, his wife and his inspiration for the Taj.Our time in Agra was a quick two days mixed with sightseeing and a little down time. Much smaller and more rural, our Tour Director recommended that we NOT explore the city on our own, like we did in Delhi.
On Thursday it was time to hit the road to our final destination - Jaipur. The travel time between the two cities was quite lengthy as our bus navigated congested and narrow (not freeway) streets. A four hour trip took six hours - eeks! Halfway through the trip we stopped to visit a local village and its residents - owners of the agricultural land where we stopped. It was lovely to hear their story and visit their home. A true highlight!Our home for the next three nights was the Hilton Jaipur - another comfy, modern hotel with superb service, great (included with the tour) breakfast buffet and rooftop bar overlooking the city. Again, water was filtered and bottles were replenished in our room daily.Our two days in Jaipur were totally jam packed! Our first day we explored the city - also known as “The Pink City” - named for it’s walled center where building facades are painted pink. This started in 1876 during the rule of Sawai Ram Singh when the city was painted to welcome the Prince of Wales.We had a lengthy visit at Jaipur’s City Palace - a maze of gardens, courtyards, museums and present day royal residence. Often off limits, we did explore the residence itself followed by high tea in the courtyard. Both were incredible surprises! (Surprises subject to availability and can change…)We then made a quick visit to Jantar Mantar - a collection of nineteen architectural astronomical instruments, built by the Rajput king Sawai Jai Singh II. The visit was super fast because it was extremely hot and all (huge!) instruments were in direct sunlight. Obviously - haha. The accuracy of the sundials was incredible. We followed this visit with a quick stroll through Jaipur stopping at a bazaar for some yummy Indian ice cream - just what we needed to cool off.
A highlight of the trip happened this afternoon as we made our way to a boutique hotel in the city called Dera Mandawa. We were warmly welcomed by the hotel owners (a family), had a quick tour, the guys learned how to tie turbans and the ladies saris - it was quite tough! After a quick snack and chai tea, the ladies got henna tattoos! A truly authentic experience that was a highlight. I have a feeling my next visit to India will stop here. We wrapped up our evening with a Trafalgar signature Be Our Guest Dinner at a family home on the outskirts of the city.
Our last day in Jaipur was full with shopping and visit to the Amber Fort (also known as Amber Palace) - once the capital of Jaipur and home to its rulers. The fort is only accessible by narrow, stone streets via 4x4 or elephant. For liability reasons Trafalgar uses the 4x4 vehicles. There are four complexes and courtyards in the Amber Fort each as magnificent as the next. Imagine the surprise of the group when we were advised our farewell dinner (hosted by Trafalgar) was to be held here. IN-credible to come back in the quiet of the night with twinkling lights and fabulous Indian dinner. A pinch-me moment in all of my travels.
The next morning it was time to say goodbye and we all did not want to leave. Our tour director and driver had become our friends - more like family really. All in all they went above and beyond expectations and their moments of surprise and delight did not disappoint.
In closing, I’d absolutely recommend Trafalgar and India. If your clients are looking for an alternative to cruising or FIT travel, have them give an organized tour a chance. Pretty much EVERYTHING is included in the tour so there’s peace of mind for you and your clients. If something is not included in the tour (some meals, what to do during down time) the tour director will point in the right direction and have your back. As I mentioned earlier, I’d definitely suggest an organized tour for India. There are a ton of hotels, sights, restaurants and people everywhere - it can be overwhelming….so can your search if trying to piece it all together. Eliminate the anxiety - know that an organized tour has vetted all hotels, has the inside scoop on what to eat and how to bypass the lines at attractions. They’ll have your clients navigating the country like a pro in no time.
If you would like to work with Christine Brown to book your next travel adventure to India or another bucket list trip, you can reach Christine at: firstname.lastname@example.org