India: changing face of a country as destination

Susan Marling reflects on the changing nature of luxurious holidays on the subcontinent

I once shared an elephant with Judith Chalmers. It took us to the Taj Mahal. In travel terms that's about the most mainstream experience available on the planet. But now things are changing. The Taj is still there, of course, and the redoubtable Judith is still filing her reports, but the India travel story is spinning off in exciting new directions.

I once shared an elephant with Judith Chalmers. It took us to the Taj Mahal. In travel terms that's about the most mainstream experience available on the planet. But now things are changing. The Taj is still there, of course, and the redoubtable Judith is still filing her reports, but the India travel story is spinning off in exciting new directions.

The India Tourist Office is aware that the country's image as a destination must be updated to keep pace with what's happening on the ground - tourists are no longer confining themselves to the old itineraries of Taj and temples, the Goa beaches and the Palace on Wheels. They're busy discovering new areas of the country. Kerala was first, then Gujarat, and now the Deccan in Central India and Ladakh (little Tibet).

It's now possible to follow wildlife in the foothills of the Himalayas without becoming a backpacker with Cox and Kings (tel: 020-7873 5000), take a camel safari into the Great Thar Desert with Guerba (tel: 01373 826611) or ride horses through the Aravalli Hills near Jodhpur with Western and Oriental (tel: 020-7313 6611).

An advertising campaign to be launched in Britain at the end of the month will stress the ease of taking an Indian holiday, as well as spell out that the transport infrastructure - internal flights, air-conditioned trains, chauffeur-driven cars - is much more sophisticated than is popularly imagined, and that modern India has more than its fair share of seriously hedonistic five-star hotels. In short, people with cash don't have to torture themselves with a non-stop cultural itinerary; they can relax, lie back, take an ayurvedic massage and have fun instead.

In this bag of new opportunities comes what is, as far as I know, the first gourmet tour of India. CTS Horizons (tel: 020-7836 9911) kicks off its inaugural 16-day tour in November with a pre-departure taste of "real" Indian food at Chutney Mary restaurant in London. The tour, which takes in Delhi, Lucknow, Bombay and Goa, is about appreciating the regional character of food in India, setting food in its cultural and historical context, watching chefs demonstrate their skills and eating in exceptionally good hotels and restaurants. Sightseeing and some luxury swimming pool activity are also on the agenda.

There is also, for the first time, organised access to the Mahakumbhmela, the Great Festival of Elixir which takes place in Allahabad, near Varanasi. Even in a country famous for its camel fairs, elephant polo matches and great religious gatherings, this festival, which happens only once every 10 years, takes some beating as a spectacle.

In a Hindu sacred rite, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims bathe at the confluence of India's two most sacred rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna. Entertainment is organised for the crowds; there are processions on an epic scale - caparisoned elephants and gilded chariots pulled by horses - a piece of sheer Bollywood, and tourists stay in posh tents. The festival will take place between 7 January and 22 February and Cox and Kings will be taking guests there as an extension to some of its escorted journeys.

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