I've been lucky enough to visit India a number of times over the years, and I always find it enthralling. It's a varied, vibrant and fascinating place, with landscapes ranging from snow-capped mountains to sun-kissed beaches. The country's diversity isn't restricted to its terrain however: the cultural landscape encompasses royal opulence in Rajasthan, religious devotion in Varanasi, and laid-back multiculturalism in Goa. Any trip you take there becomes an indelible memory, lingering for the rest of your life like incense.
After a pleasant overnight flight from Heathrow, I arrived in Delhi International Airport, where I was transferred to The Imperial for a night's stay. This 1930s gem is often cited as Delhi's finest hotel, featuring a colonnaded veranda and insular gardens where travellers can rest in seclusion from the commotion of city life. To recover from a long flight, I relaxed by the pool, enjoyed time in the spa, and had a glass of wine and a delicious meal.
Delhi is a wonderful city that I've visited on four occasions, so there was no need to do the usual sightseeing of the Red Fort, India Gate and the Tomb of Gandhi (though all of these are worth spending time visiting on a first trip). Instead, I went on the Walk into the Street Life of Delhi tour, which is run by the Salaam Baalak Trust, and employs former street children as guides. A teenaged boy, who had been a former street child, and is now making a living as a guide, led my tour. He guided us off the beaten track into the heart of the city, and gave a human voice to the difficulties of thriving in the fast-paced Delhi economy.
After a sumptuous breakfast of an omelette and fresh tropical fruits, I hopped on a short flight from Delhi to Jodhpur. After an evening spent relaxing, the next morning, I went on a sightseeing tour of Jodhpur city. I started with a visit to the Jaswant Thada, an imposing white marble cenotaph with fine views across the city. Then, I went to the magnificent Mehrangarh Fort - one of the most spectacular sights I've seen anywhere in the world. The huge fort absolutely dominates the beautiful blue city below.
Today we drove to Jaisalmer, which took about six hours but was punctuated by interesting events. We stopped for lunch at Fort Pokaran, a striking imperial fort of red sandstone that's just outside a small town of the same name. Originally built in the 14th century, the citadel has now been converted into a heritage hotel with a lot of character and charm.
On arrival in Jaisalmer in the evening, I joined a hosted dinner with some visiting journalists. It was truly spectacular, with pre-dinner drinks, and a candlelit dinner in the courtyard. This was followed by a midnight Haunted Trail into the desert to an abandoned village under the stars.
The next morning, I went on an early morning tour of Jaisalmer. Starting at a beautiful lake just outside the city, we then visited the historic Jaisalmer Fort with 99 bastions. In the evening, I took a camel safari into the dunes of the Sam Desert.
Today, we drove to Bikaner, which took six hours, and stopped at the Gajner Palace for lunch. A beautiful old lakeside palace, it used to be a hunting lodge and is now a hotel that's a lovely place to relax. On arrival in Bikaner, we checked into the Laxi Niwas Palace Hotel that's located in the centre of the city. It's got a rich history including its colonial hunting days, its beautiful rooms and fabulous dining.
We took a private city tour of Bikaner, a fabulous location with loads to see and do – I'd recommend spending some time here. The city's palace is spectacular, and has many unique features including camel breeding and a research farm. Don't miss the famous Rat Temple outside the city, where thousands of rats are worshipped in the belief they are the reincarnation of people's dead ancestors.
A five-hour drive to Jaipur, while long, provided some excellent sightseeing. Upon arrival I visited the Elephant Safari Camp of Dera Amer, a camp that gives a natural and relaxed elephant experience on private land right in the countryside, ending with a lovely outdoor meal.
Thus refreshed and relaxed, I had plenty of energy for sightseeing the next day. As I'd been to the Amber Fort before, I opted out of visiting again – instead, I went to visit the less-well-known Jaigarh Fort, perhaps the most impressive of all of India's forts, with sweeping views and the largest wheeled cannon anywhere in the world. In the afternoon I climbed the Palace of the Winds to take in the views from the top, before shopping for marble carvings that I arranged to be shipped back to the UK. The city is an excellent spot for purchasing for block printing, handicrafts and jewellery.
There is simply nowhere else like Varanasi. As soon as I arrived in the city, I could feel it was very different to all the other cities in Rajasthan, in no small part due to the fact that as one of India's holy cities, devout Hindus often choose to come here to die or be cremated, and cremations happen throughout the day, every day.
At sunset, I walked down to the River Ganges, on which the city is built, alongside many Hindu devotees and sadhus (holy men), dogs and cows fat from eating the funeral blossom offerings. It was extremely hot – about 45 degrees – and my first glimpse of the river was breathtaking. People bathed and swam, and at the cremation site the heat waves rippled as they emanated from the funeral pyres. Afterwards, we walked back along the river to observe an aarti, a ceremony of homage or devotion. For 50 rupees (approximated 60p) one can sit on an elevated platform with great views of the ceremony and crowds below.
The next morning I woke at 4:00am for a sunrise boat ride on the river Ganges, an unmissable experience for visitors to the city. It was relatively cool and there were few people on the streets, but city life, as always here, carried on. It was lovely to watch everything from the peaceful distance of my boat, from early morning bathing and devotions to yoga and cremations. Every cycle of life passed us by, even at that early hour.
The next morning, I boarded a flight back to Delhi. On arrival, there was an almighty dust and rainstorm that swept through the city, creating a romantic grey haze – all the same, I was happy to retreat into the spa at The Imperial.
I departed early the next day to Delhi station, where I boarded the Shatabdi Express train to Kalka, where I then boarded the Toy Train Himalayan Queen Service to Shimla. The Toy Train is an incredible experience with amazing views as it winds its way slowly through the foothills of the Himalayas up to Shimla. There's little room for luggage so I'd advise you get it sent separately. On arrival, I was transferred to the Oberoi Cecil, a beautiful old heritage hotel with lovely dark wood furniture and antiques.
The next day started with a short city tour of Shimla taking in the Viceregal Lodge, Christchurch and view from a temple, followed by a nice lunch at Clarkes Hotel. A lovely heritage property, Clarkes has been open since 1898, and is one of the oldest hotels in Shimla with a colonial feel to it. It is located in a prime situation right on the Mall so you can walk out to the various attractions, restaurants and bars. Back at the Oberoi I tested out the lovely spa.
The next morning I decided to hike up to the Jakhoo Temple that was a steep climb, but there were great views from the top. Just watch our for the monkeys, who, as I discovered, like to grab the sunglasses off unwary visitors' heads... After a late brunch, I was picked up by a private driver for the four-hour ride back through the mountains to Chandigarh, where I boarded an early evening flight back to the UK via Mumbai.