INDIA'S MOST ROMANTIC STATE?
If romance could be manufactured, Rajasthan would be a good place to locate a bottling plant. With its wild desert scenery, ancient sandcastle forts, pastel-coloured cities, dust-speckled light and its swathes of scarlet, fuschia and marigold textiles, India's largest state is sure to induce a bout of wanderlust.
Located in the north-west of India and covering an area roughly the same as Germany, Rajasthan is relatively easy to get to, and travel around. It offers outstanding value for money and, arguably, has the most tightly packed collection of cultural sights of any Indian state, thanks to the legacies of the Rajput warriors and Mughal emperors. Yes, it can be noisy, dirty, frenetic and with pockets of distressing poverty. But, for soft adventure and sheer spectacle, Rajasthan is hard to beat.
I'LL HEAD STRAIGHT THERE AND TAKE IT ALL IN, THEN
Hold your horses (or, more appropriately, camels). Even with several weeks to spend you can cover only a fraction of the state, so it's best to plan ahead to maximise your time on the ground.
The most popular Rajasthani trip is dubbed the "Golden Triangle" tour because of the richness of culture and history on offer en route. This starts in Delhi before veering south to the Taj Mahal and then west to Rajasthan's state capital, Jaipur.
This is known as the "pink city" because of its blush-coloured buildings. Jaipur's best-known sights include a 300-year-old observatory, the 18th-century City Palace (now home to a museum; open daily from 9.30am to 5pm, admission 180 rupees, or £2.30) and the spectacular façade of the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds (open daily from 9.30am to 4.30pm). Also close by is Amber, home to another ethereal palace-fort (open daily from 9am to 4.30pm).
A Golden Triangle tour is easy enough to organise independently, travelling between the three cities by train or bus, but if you don't have the time, or the patience, to deal with the necessary bureaucracy involved in buying tickets, plenty of package operators cover the route. Voyages Jules Verne (0845 166 7003; www.vjv.co.uk), for example, runs a nine-night Golden Triangle tour from £825, including flights, transport, guides and accommodation with breakfast.
More specialist holidays in this region include a 17-day trip to Jaipur from Cazenove + Loyd (020-7384 2332; www.cazenoveandloyd.com), which involves a day spent with a personal shopper. The price starts at £5,126, covering two nights in Delhi and three nights in Jaipur, including flights, transfers, accommodation and the shopping expedition.
I WANT TO VENTURE FURTHER AFIELD
Continuing in a south-west loop, the other great Rajasthani cities are Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer. The first of those is the most romantic. Udaipur comprises a jumble of glittering cream-coloured buildings, surrounded by the Aravalli hills and dominated by Pichola Lake.
Here the top attractions are the city palace (open daily from 9.30am to 4.30pm), the Jagdish temple and Jag Mandir island – whose palace is said to have inspired Shah Jahan to build the Taj Mahal. Udaipur is also known for its shopping – and for its role as a backdrop to the James Bond film, Octopussy. Half-hour boat rides on the lake cost around 130 rupees (£1.70), or 250 rupees (£3.20) including a stop at Jag Mandir island. The overall effect is less enticing when the lake's water levels are low; if you time your visit between October and March, you should find that the monsoon rains have topped up the water levels.
The Lake Palace Hotel (00 91 294 242 8800; www.tajhotels.com), marooned in the centre of the lake, is an iconic part of the city's landscape. The drama of arriving by boat has helped keep it popular with honeymooners and those backpackers thrifty enough to have saved up for a blowout dinner in its rooftop restaurant. Double rooms start at around 21,000 rupees (£270), room only. The nearby u
o Oberoi Udaivilas (00 800 1234 0101; www.oberoihotels.com) is possibly even more luxurious and was recently voted the best hotel in the world by the readers of Travel & Leisure. Doubles here start at 29,500 rupees (£380), room only.
SOME MORE COLOUR?
Roughly 200km north-west of Udaipur, Jodhpur offers another option for colour-coordinated travellers; this time the city is tinged with indigo. There is only one main sight here, the majestic Meherangarh Fort, which sits high on a cliff top with spectacular views down over the city (open daily from 9am to 5pm).
To splash out for a night of splendour, check into Umaid Bhawan (00 91 291 251 0101; www.tajhotels.com). A more modern pile than many of Rajasthan's palace hotels, it was built in Art Deco style in the early-20th century as a job-creation scheme for the subjects of the local maharajah (the current incumbent still lives in part of the property). Only those on a princely budget need apply; doubles cost from around 33,000 rupees (£425), room only.
Jaisalmer is the most western city in Rajasthan, firmly ensconced in the Thar desert. It is known as the "Golden City" because of its fairy-tale architecture, and is more low-key than its rivals. This ancient walled city started out as a trading post on the spice route. Sadly the ancient infrastructure is slowly crumbling. Go soon if you want to catch Jaisalmer Fort in all its ramshackle glory; within its walls are several interesting Jain temples. The surrounding streets are lined with some of the state's most captivating traditional havelis – elaborately carved mansions.
To contribute to the preservation of the city's architectural and historical heritage, contribute to the British-based charity, Jaisalmer In Jeopardy (020-7352 4336; www.jaisalmer-in-jeopardy.org). The tailormade holiday firm Greaves Travel (020-7487 5687 www.greavesindia.com) sponsors the charity – and can put together intricate Jaisalmer itineraries. Typical eight-night tours take in Jodhpur and Rohet as well as four nights in Jaisalmer. You stay at Kila Bhawan, a traditional haveli. As well as general sightseeing and a sunset camel ride in the sand dunes, you get a guided tour of Jaisalmer In Jeopardy's restoration projects. Prices start from £1,799, including flights, bed and breakfast accommodation, private transfers, sightseeing excursions, private guides and a £20 donation to the charity.
To complete the classic Rajasthan loop, stop in Bikaner on the way back to Delhi. Though it doesn't have the atmosphere of the better-known cities of Rajasthan, there are enough forts, palaces, temples and havelis here to justify more than just a pitstop. One of the most impressive sights is the 16th-century Junargarh Fort; open daily from 10am to 4.30pm; admission 100 rupees (£1.30)
A more off-beat attraction, however, is the Karni Mata, in Deshnok, 30km south of the city (open daily from 6am to 10pm; entrance free). Dubbed the Rat Palace, this 17th-century temple is not for the squeamish. Devotees believe that rats are reincarnated souls and it is considered auspicious to let the long-tailed hordes that live here scramble over your feet.
Indus Tours' 18-day Rural and Regal Rajasthan trips include Bikaner, as well as Delhi, Samode, Mandawa, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Rohet, Udaipur, Deogarh, Jaipur and Agra. Prices start at £1,736, including flights, accommodation, transport and sightseeing (020-8901 7320; www.industours.co.uk).
CAN I HAVE A DESERT ADVENTURE?
Head to Osian, outside Jodhpur. Known for its Jain and Hindu temples, this is also home to the luxurious Camel Camp. Guests can visit the temples or try a camel ride through the dunes during the day and in the evening swap tales around the campfire and sleep in chic en-suite tents. Two-day trips start from 8,400 rupees (£109) for two, including full-board accommodation, a camel safari and evening entertainment (00 91 291 243 7023; www.camelcamposian.com).
A night at the Camel Camp is also included in Audley Travel's 14-day Rajasthan Uncovered itinerary, which runs from Delhi to Udaipur via Samode Palace, bustling Bikaner, Jaisalmer and the romantic hilltop fort of Kumbalgarh. Prices start at £2,300, including flights, bed & breakfast accommodation, sightseeing and private transfers (01993 838300; www.audleytravel.com).
For a more in-depth desert adventure, tour operator Cazenove + Loyd (020-7384 2332; www.cazenoveandloyd.com) runs trips on Marwari horses between Jodhpur and Udaipur, through the Aravelli Hills. Staying in heritage properties en route, the trips cover villages, temples, lakes, forts and farms with three hours each day in the saddle. Nine-night tours cost from £2,948, with mostly full-board accommodation, guides, horses, transfers and flights.
Or try the 16-day Desert Romance tour from TransIndus (020-8566 2729; www.transindus.co.uk). This covers Bikaner, Jaisalmer, an Osian camel safari, Jodhpur and remote Rajasthani villages before finishing up at the Gujarat city of Ahmedabad. Prices start at £2,292, including flights, accommodation, some meals, transport and sightseeing.
I'VE GOT THE HUMP
The most celebrated dromedarian event in Rajasthan is the colourful annual camel fair at Pushkar, set roughly halfway between Jaipur and Jodhpur. The market takes place each November (this year from 5 to 13 November), when upwards of 150,000 visitors descend on this otherwise sleepy lakeside city to enjoy a spot of camel racing and watch herders trade their stock.
Worldwide Expeditions (020-8545 9030; www.worldexpeditions.co.uk) runs 16-day small-group Pushkar Camel Fair tours, also taking in Delhi, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra and a camel safari en route. Prices start from £1,290, including accommodation, most meals, transport, guides and sightseeing but not flights.
STEER ME OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Though hardly undiscovered, the Shekhawati area, west of Jaipur, is one of the more offbeat parts of Rajasthan. Home to the usual mix of temples and forts, it is best known for its distinctive muralled havelis. Many are now dilapidated but others have been restored and opened as museums, helping to gain the region the slogan of the "world's largest open-air gallery".
To see inside the havelis, often a solitary caretaker will let you look around their otherwise deserted charge in exchange for a few rupees. For a less gung-ho take on these old buildings, guided tours can be arranged through Ramesh Jangid – contactable through his environmentally thoughtful resort, Apani Dhani (00 91 159 422 2239; www.apanidhani.com).
Ramesh is the co-founder of the Friends of Shekhawati, which campaigns to preserve the region's architectural heritage. Prices start at 350 rupees (£4.50) for a two-to-three-hour walking tour of Nawalgarh. This is a market town that's home to several havelis, including one that's run specifically as a museum.
To explore more of the surroundings, stay at Apani Dhani; accommodation here is in mud-walled huts and features solar power, compost toilets and organic food. Rates start from 400 rupees (£5.20) including breakfast.
If mud huts don't appeal, but you want to veer away from the usual tourist circuit, Cox & Kings (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk) runs a Hidden Rajasthan trip. The 11-night journey starts in Ahmedabad, in Gujarat, and covers much of the south-western corner of Rajasthan, including Mount Abu, Deogarh, Rohet and Samode. Prices start at £1,845, including flights, accommodation, some meals and sightseeing.
A TASTE OF LOCAL CULTURE?
To mix shopping with sightseeing, Meet The People Tours (0191 265 1110; www.skedaddle.co.uk/meetthepeople) runs an excellent western India itinerary that takes in Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat. It combines visits to Traidcraft suppliers and cultural tours. The 16-day trip costs from £1,295, including accommodation, transport and excursions but not international flights. Explore (0844 499 0901; www.explore. co.uk) has a 17-day Village India trip that starts in Delhi, ends in Ahmedabad and stops off at various Rajasthani villages along the way. Prices start from £1,659, including flights, accommodation, transport and some meals.
Alternative trips are run by the Scandinavian Basecamp Explorer company (00 46 8 5452 3750; www.basecampexplorer.com), which has a base in Chandelao, Rajasthan, and tries to encourage tourists to "meet authentic, strong, inspiring cultures". Prices start at Skr10,500 (£833) for a 10-day trip, including sightseeing in Udaipur, Jaipur, Amber, Agra and Delhi, an elephant ride and excursions to villages around Chandelao. This includes accommodation, transport and some meals but not international flights.
WHERE CAN I SLEEP LIKE A PRINCE OR PRINCESS?
Sign up for a Boutique Rajasthan trip with Ampersand Travel (020-7289 6100; www.ampersandtravel.com). These two-week excursions give plenty of time for sightseeing in Delhi, Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jaipur and Jodhpur. Accommodation consists of some of the state's most interesting palace hotels and haveli guesthouses. Prices start at £1,596, including flights, transport, accommodation, private guides and sightseeing.
It's easy enough to set up your own itinerary, though. Good websites for tracking down interesting places to stay include www.i-escape.com, www.mahoutuk.com and www.sawdays.co.uk.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Delhi is the most obvious gateway airport to Rajasthan. Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; www.jetairways.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007; www.virgin-atlantic.com) fly non-stop from London.
For departures from other airports, try airlines from the Gulf such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways. Discount agents such as Southall Travel (0870 010 9003; www.southalltravel.co.uk) often offer competitive fares, especially if you're flying from regional airports in the UK.
...AND GET AROUND?
You have Indian Railways, at your disposal. As a guide, trains from Delhi to Udaipur take around 15 hours, and from Delhi to Jaipur around five hours. Fares range from low to extremely low. But don't expect to be able just to turn up at the station and hop on. For a useful guide, see www.seat61.com. Buses supplement the rail network, but are not advised for long journeys.
Some travellers prefer to hire a car with a driver, especially if there are a few of you travelling. If you book through a local agency, count on paying around £25 per day.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
The Rough Guide to Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra (£14.99) was published last September, and Lonely Planet's updated Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra (£14.99) will be published in August. India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org.
ON TRACK FOR A LUXURY TOUR
The Palace On Wheels operates a bit like a terrestrial cruise ship: you sightsee during the day and come back to the train to sleep as it goes on to your next destination.
The 16-day Palace On Wheels trip is organised by Great Rail Journeys (01904 521936; www.greatrail.com). It covers most of the classic sights in Rajasthan, as well as a detour to Shimla on a "toy train". The prices start at £2,695, including flights, accommodation, most meals, transport and sightseeing.
Where the wild things are: Top nature tours
Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur is a must-see for twitchers. It can be easily accessed on a nine-day Bharatpur and Chambal bird-watching trip with Naturetrek (01962 733 051; www.naturetrek.co.uk). The trip, which also covers Agra and the romantic ghost city of Fatehpur Sikri, costs from £1,295, including flights, transport, accommodation and most meals.
Nearby, Ranthambore National Park is another excellent location for seeing tigers in the wild. A century ago, there were thought to be as many as 40,000 tigers in the Indian sub-continent, but some estimates now put the current figure as low as 2,000. Due to demand from the Far East for use in traditional medicine, poaching is a continued threat, but conservationists still believe that tourism can help stem the reduction of tiger populations by providing alternative sources of income for local people.
The adventure specialists Exodus (0845 863 9600; www.exodus.co.uk) run 16-day Land of the Tiger tours, which takes in Ranthambore as well as Kanha and Bandhavgarh (both in Madhya Pradesh), plus the Bharatpur bird sanctuary. The price of £1,699 includes flights, transport, guides and accommodation with breakfast.