Where to snooze in Rajasthan
My first book for Lonely Planet was the launch edition of their Rajasthan guide, published in 1997. In those days, although this rugged north-west Indian state attracted the lion's share of the country's international tourist arrivals, it was still relatively green when it came to tapping the accommodation needs of foreign visitors, especially in the budget and mid-range categories.
Over the years, thanks to proliferating foreign arrivals – coupled with greater competition within the tourism industry – Rajasthan's accommodation sector has made giant strides. There are more paying guest lodgings to suit all budgets, and the room quality and public amenities have considerably improved due to fierce competition.
Sleeping possibilities range from quaint family-run homestays to fortresses and palaces. More and more royal scions have converted part or all of their properties into hotels, judiciously capturing the high-end tourism market. There are also sublime boutique hotels, many of the latter replicating havelis (traditional, often ornate, residences). An excellent example can be found at Fatehpur in the shape of the 1802-built, artist-owned Haveli Cultural Centre Guest House ( cultural-centre.com).
Luxury on the rails
Indian Railways is the biggest transport undertaking in the world, carrying one billion passengers every year. The rail network also provides the ideal way to see the nation and meet its people. But if you are after some luxury and exclusivity, then there is a wide range of options aboard private trains. Guided rail tours take the hassle (though some would argue adventure) out of sightseeing, making these trains especially popular with older tourists. They typically offer deluxe accommodation, butler services, five-star dining carriages and fancy cocktail lounges.
The most recent arrival is also the most expensive: the Maharajas' Express (pictured above, rirtl.com), which offers a range of seven- and eight-day trips starting and/or ending in Delhi. The cheapest cabin costs almost £5,000, based on two sharing.
In Rajasthan, you can try the Palace On Wheels, which operates week-long tours of the state.
The Royal Rajasthan On Wheels stops at key Rajasthani destinations and also takes in Varanasi, Khajuraho and Agra.
Beyond Rajasthan, the Deccan Odyssey traverses major tourist spots in the western states of Maharashtra and Goa, while the Golden Chariot chugs through the southern state of Karnataka.
Froth and food
When I worked on my first Lonely Planet India book 15 years ago, finding a real cappuccino was pretty close to impossible. Back then, even the capital city only had a handful of decent cafés (beyond deluxe hotels), almost all of which exclusively served coffee of the instant powder variety. Meanwhile, although India's restaurant scene was above average, menu choices were limited.
Things have changed dramatically since then. Over the past decade India's dining scene has mushroomed, with major cities now dishing up everything from traditional and contemporary home-grown creations to an impressive repertoire of global fare, from sashimi to lotus-leaf dumplings and seafood paella. Bars have also burgeoned, with India's big cities boasting some tremendously swish watering holes: Mediterranean lounge bars, British-style pubs and music-pumping sports bars.
And what of the cappuccino? Well, today India not only froths up some of the world's finest, it also has plenty of other steamy liquid delights, including some inventive tea infusions – hibiscus cinnamon chai, anyone?
Travel and health in India
One of the successes for inbound tourism to India is health care. Medical procedures in India, from heart surgery to hip replacement, cost around one-tenth of the rates in Western nations. Add in the low cost of living (which helps during recuperation), and the availability of Ayurvedic treatments and you can understand the appeal.
Most travellers, though, worry about what they might inadvertently pick up during a holiday in India. Between 30 and 70 per cent of visitors suffer from travellers' diarrhoea during the first two weeks of their trip.
To improve your chances of avoiding gastric disaster, eat only freshly cooked food, in busy restaurants with a high turnover of customers; avoid shellfish and buffets; and never drink tap water.
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