20 stunning ways to experience India
How many have you ticked off your list yet?
1. Bike the Manali-Leh highway
Jaw-dropping views make up for the fickle weather. Photo: Dinodia Photos / Alamy
For bikers, this is a rite of passage. The 476-km Manali-Leh highway stays open for just about four and a half months each year. The tiny window pulls in riding enthusiasts from all over the world to make this daring, but stunning journey. The route takes you through five high-altitude passes, which guarantee some jaw-droppingly beautiful views. At its highest, the Manali-Leh highway reaches an altitude of 16,000ft. Disorientation, altitude sickness and mechanical failure is routine. Weather can be fickle and road conditions can change within hours.
Make it happen: Mid-June to October is when this road is open. Plan meticulously. Service stations and petrol pumps are few and quite literally, far between. If you’d rather let someone else take care of the planning, Royal Moto Touring conducts 11-day motorbike journeys from Manali to Leh.
2. Gape in awe at the Taj Mahal on a moonlit night
On full moon nights, the marble mausoleum is a sight to behold. Photo: Jasmer Singh
You may have made that mandatory school trip to the Taj many years ago. This time, pay a visit at night, when the crowds have left and this Wonder of the World takes on a surreal form. On full moon nights, bathed in moonlight, the marble mausoleum is a sight to behold. It sparkles, shimmers and glows unlike anything you have ever seen.
Make it happen: Skip the winter months and do this in May and June, when the sky is clear. The 30-minute night tours take place on full moon nights and cost Rs510 for locals and Rs750 for international visitors. Tickets can be bought at Archaeological Survey of India at 22 Mail Road in Agra (+91 562 222 7263) up to 24 hours in advance. Or, check into the Kohinoor Suite at The Oberoi Amarvilas for a truly privileged and uninterrupted view of the Taj Mahal straight from your room. The tariff for this room with a view? Rs2,50,000 per night.
3. Spot the tiger (if you’re lucky) in one of the many national parks
A fleeting glimpse is enough to make your trip worthwhile. Photo: 123rf
India offers some stunning wildlife experiences, but the top draw remains the elusive (and endangered) Royal Bengal Tiger. Its muted ferocity coupled with a notorious reluctance to show up make it the most prized sighting. And when you do see one saunter across the road or hide in the under-bush, it’s a moment to cherish (and Instagram).
Make it happen: The Indian safari season begins around October, after the monsoon. If you don’t mind the heat, your best chances of spotting the tiger are in the months of April and May, when the watering holes dry up. The Oberoi Vanyavilas and Aman-i-Khas are two luxury resorts in Ranthambore that offer some great safari packages; In Kanha, try Kanha Earth Lodge, Bagh Tola or Shergarh Tented Camp. In Bandhavgarh, try the Mahua Kothi.
4. Take a ride on a luxury train
The lavish Deccan Odyssey even has a spa on board.
A bit pricey, perhaps, but this is undoubtedly a fantastic way of experiencing the romance of a train journey. At one point, these royal trains were used to ferry maharajas and their entourages across the length and breadth of India. Today, they let you explore the country in the same regal style.
Make it happen: There are several trains to choose from. The Maharajas Express offers an exhilarating eight-day Heritage of India tour (Rs4,23,669 per person). The tour includes some of the best North Indian highlights such as Rajasthan's palaces and the Taj Mahal. If you'd prefer something in western India, the Deccan Odyssey has eight-day round-trip journeys (Rs30,915 per person, per night), which begin and end in Mumbai, and take you through Goa, Vasco and the Ajanta and Elllora Caves.
5. Trek to the Valley of Flowers
The sight that will greet you at 11,000ft above sea level. Photo: Sandeep Shande/Flickr
Between June and October, go on a six-day trek to Uttarakhand’s famous Valley of Flowers, located in the Nanda Devi Biosphere. What you will be rewarded with is the most stunning carpet of wildflowers you have ever seen. Home to 300 species of wild flowers including 45 medicinal plants, the valley is becoming more and more popular with each passing year, so make this trip now. The journey is equally interesting—you’ll pass quiet villages, brooks, lakes, and forests. With luck, you may even spot some endemic wildlife like the tahr or even the much-less seen Himalayan black bear.
Make it happen: GIO Adventures conducts six-day walking tours starting in Ghangaria that cost Rs16,000 per person.
6. Walk over a frozen river
You can see, hear and feel the river flow under your feet. Photo: 123rf
If the name of this trek gets you curious, you’re not alone. Chadar means blanket in Hindi, which is exactly what this trek is—a journey over the frozen Zanskar River. Though the ice is thick, you can see the river raging underfoot, and those who have trekked through this famous gorge with towering rock on all sides describe the experience as surreal, even life-changing. Keep in mind, though, that it’s not only difficult in terms of the trek itself, but it’s also the small things—like your boots freezing solid overnight and you having to thaw them by the campfire before you can put them on. If you enjoy trekking, this is the big daddy of them all. Suit up!
Make it happen: Aquaterra Adventures conducts treks in January and February, the only time you can do it, when the average temperature hovers around -20°C.
7. Float over a fort, a camel fair and a national park in a hot-air-balloon
A great way to gape at the rugged beauty of Rajasthan
Hot air-ballooning has finally taken off in India and is currently available in Jaipur, Ranthambore, Kamshet, Pushkar and NCR. Whether you want to soar over the ramparts of Jaipur’s sprawling Amer Fort, the colourful Pushkar camel fair, the wilderness of Ranthambore or the countryside of Kamshet, it’s a thrilling experience.
Make it happen: Call Sky Waltz (+91 9717295801) to book a hot-air balloon ride. Flights take place between September and March and the entire experience takes between three-to-four hours. On a standard flight, Sky Waltz will accommodate between four to eight people.
8. Dine in the middle of Lake Pichola, Udaipur
The Gangaur Cruise on Lake Pichola, Udaipur
If you’re wondering why dining at the Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur, has made it on to this list of 20 amazing Indian experiences, it’s because this luxury hotel—which sits in the middle of Udaipur’s serene Lake Pichola—has not one, but five dining experiences you won’t find anywhere else. Out of these, however, the Gangaur Cruise stands out. This former royal barge of the House of Mewar can now be chartered by guests of the hotel, upon prior booking, to ferry you out onto the lake for a dining experience like no other. With a live grill and live musicians on board, your oarsmen will take you however far out on to the lake you wish to go.
Make it happen: Guests staying at the Taj Lake Palace Udaipur can book this dining experience by calling +91 294 2428800
9. Visit the Kumbh Mela
An experience described by many as life-altering. Photo: Dinodia
Hindu mythology says there was once an epic battle between the gods and the demons. During this cosmic jostle, four precious drops of Amrit (the nectar of immortality) fell on Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik. These places became the locations for the Kumbh Mela which is held every three years, alternating between these four cities. Those who have attended the Kumbh say its a life-altering experience. And if you wonder why 2013's Maha Kumbh was called the world's largest religious gathering, get this: last year, over eight million people took a dip in the Ganga on day one itself.
Make it happen: Most travel agents have started offering packages for the Kumbh Mela. Last year, Cox and Kings had a four-day package priced at Rs15,542 per person.
10. Fish for the prized golden mahseer in Arunachal Pradesh
Want to snare this prized catch? Then head north-east. Photo: Kaushal Parikh
The golden mahseer, one of the great game fishes of the world, can be found in the Upper Siang, between Yingkiong and Boleng in Arunachal Pradesh. The fastest way to get from one place to the other is by riding the white-water rapids. The best time to visit Arunachal Pradesh is between October and March, as the weather is less humid, the rivers are full and the fish are biting.
Make it happen: Book a trip with River India.
11. Pamper yourself at a Himalayan spa
Yoga. Mountains. Ganga. As Indian an experience as any.
This wellness resort is one of the most famous in the world and has played hosts to innumerable public figures. Ananda in the Himalayas frequently ranks amongst the top spas in the world, and its treatments cover everything from Ayurveda to stress management. People who have been, swear by it. And those who haven’t, swear to go. Each of their programs is customised, so whether you’re tackling weight management or you just want to let go and relax, their programs (ranging from five to 21 days) are ideal to leave behind the stress and worry of modern-day life.
12. Ride the World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
It's not just a train, it's a time machine. Photo: Martin Morrell
Fondly known as the Toy Train, this narrow gauge railway runs from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. It was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. The most popular route, however, remains from Ghum to Darjeeling.
Make it happen: Book a ticket for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway on the IRCTC website.
13. Soar over Bir-Billing, Himachal Pradesh
This is the paragliding capital of India. Photo: Vidura Jang Bahadur
In May and October each year, Bir-Billing in Himachal Pradesh is abuzz with paragliding enthusiasts. Though still relatively unknown in India itself, Bir-Billing is a world-famous paragliding destination and paragliders flock here from all over the world.
Make it happen: Temple Pilots offers a three-day introductory course that costs Rs9,800. A more accessible alternative is Kamshet, near Pune.
14. Scuba-dive off the Andamans
There's an incredible India living underwater. Photo: 123rf
The remote volcanic island of Narcondam is the easternmost point of the Andaman islands. The area—both, above and under water—is rich in life, and you can expect to spot the Narcondam hornbill and schools of parrotfish darting about.
Make it happen: Infiniti Live-Aboard’s MV Infiniti, a 130ft vessel, conducts four-night live-aboard diving here, starting at Rs85,000 per person. The cost includes stay, meals and dives.
15. Explore Kerala’s gold-filled temple vaults
Quite simply, there's plenty of gold to gawk at.
While most people go on temple tours in south India, we bet you’ve never heard of anyone embarking on a gold trail through said temple vaults. It’s a little-known secret, but you absolutely can.
Make it happen: Silk Route’s Gold Trail tour provides rare access to Kerala’s gold-filled temple vaults as well as visits to traditional artisans’ workshops.
16. Stay at a farm
Destiny, the Farm Resort, Tamil Nadu is one of the many amazing farm stays.
A relatively new concept (for urban India at least) is an organic farm stay. Many are eschewing the frills of five-star holidays and opting instead for simpler, more rustic holidays. Some do it to get back to their roots, while others simply want to try something new, something different.
Make it happen: Book a stay at one of these five farm stays from Ooty to Haryana to see what it’s like for yourself: Destiny, the Farm Resort, Tamil Nadu; Our Native Village, Karnataka; Tatagatha Farm, West Bengal; Acres Wild, Tamil Nadu; and Surjivan, Haryana.
17. Brave the rapids at Rishikesh
Ready for some grade III and IV rapids? Photo: Steve Bly / Alamy
The Alaknanda River joins the Ganga near Rishikesh and offers grade III and IV rapids. The best time to go is between October and May. The river is also a hub for other acqua-adventures. Cliff-jumping, body-surfing and kayaking are just some of the many sports on offer.
Make it happen: Rafting in Rishikesh has a few package deals on offer, but you can also customize your trip if you wish to. When you're done braving the rapids, you can also rappel, cliff-jump or kayak.
18. Watch the airshow at Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary
Grab your binoculars! Photo: Aditya "Dicky" Singh / Alamy
Keoladeo National Park, also known as Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary, is home to over 230 species of birds. Each summer, thousands descend upon the marshes and grasslands of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Keep your eyes peeled and you could see herons, storks, oriental ibises and even sarus cranes.
Make it happen: The best time to go is between November and March. Check the park's website for details, timings and available packages.
19. Ski in Gulmarg
A stunning location to learn a new sport. Photo: Westend61 GmbH / Alamy
There’s no question about it. Gulmarg is India’s premier ski destination. And it’s seen a huge upswing in footfalls over the past few years. Everyone from amateurs and professionals to some of India’s big names like industrialist Adi Godrej hit the slopes each season. Its gondola is one of the highest in the world and the ski-town now offers world-class facilities.
Make it happen: The Indian Institute of Skiiing and Mountaineering offers 14-day courses starting at Rs5,000. Rent ski equipment and hire a guide from Kashmir Alpine Adventures, which costs Rs2,500 per day, and heliski with Kashmir Heliski, which is priced at Rs70,000 per person, per day.
20. Surf the waves off Puducherry
There's more than one surf school in Puducherry. Photo: Tarun Khiwal
Serenity Beach, 10km north of Puducherry, draws surf addicts from across India. After the devastating 2004 tsunami, the Tamil Nadu government built two long piers to protect the beach, which created a surf break that provides great conditions for learners and professional alike.
Make it happen: The Kallialay Surf School, started by Spanish brothers Juan and Samai Reboul, has packages ranging from a single lesson (Rs800) to a 10-day course (Rs7,500).