Delhi: Trunk call

Eyebrows shot up when Hamish Mykura said he was taking his young twins to Delhi, but thanks to an elephant, it was a holiday they'll never forget

The elephant man arrived just as it was getting light. A little crowd gathered and watched as the elephant snapped branches off the suburban blossom trees with its orange-and-white chalk-decorated trunk. Mr Zulfiqqar rents out elephants and camels, generally for weddings, but we'd hired this elephant as a birthday treat for the twins. Scrambling aboard, we swayed off through the dusty Delhi street.

Managing to book the elephant was the most satisfying moment of our trip to the Indian capital. For a while, it didn't look good. Whoever answered the phone in Mr Zulfiqqar's office simply bellowed down the receiver. Even with a helpful driver translating for me at my end, they seemed unable to make out a word we were saying. After two or three attempts, I began to wonder whether the elephant itself was answering the phone. But, finally, Mr Z answered. We could book the elephant, we were told, but we had to give at least a day's notice. I asked if he was busy. No, it wasn't that. It was simply that an elephant walks as fast as an elephant walks, and to get from its home on the edge of the city to the house where we were staying might take a day or so, depending on its mood.

We'd arranged a two-week holiday to Delhi because a friend had moved there. But everyone who heard that we were going to India with our about-to-be-five-year-old twins seemed to have the same response: "Oh, that's brave!", said in a faintly pejorative tone that hinted at negligence on our part. We were starting to feel apprehensive. My memories of India were from backpacking a decade ago: blissful, remote countryside, but cities of endless smog and hassle, where every taxi ride seemed to end in an unwanted detour to the cabbie's cousin's shop selling rugs and inlaid tables. How relaxing could a trip with small children to the capital of one of the world's most crowded and fast-growing nations really be?

Hiring a car was the first breakthrough. For less than the price of a self-drive car in Europe, we got a minivan with lush curtains and a full-time driver, complete with peaked cap. He would wait wherever we needed to stop and could be summoned from nowhere with the speed of a genie by a call on the mobile. Behind the wheel, he could weave nimbly between the cows that chew the cud between the lanes of the city's dual carriageways.

Delhi's centre divides neatly into two halves. There's the maze of markets and lanes around the Red Fort in the old town, best navigated by rickshaw. Just to the south is the vast grandeur of the British colonial capital, New Delhi, with its two-mile long Kingsway - now the Rajpath - that rivals the Champs-Elysées with its immense buildings and ceremonial arch. It's surprising how recent the complex is - finished in the 1930s, a monument to the last days of an over-extended empire. But out beyond these tourist sites there are other spectacular treasures sitting quietly in the suburbs. They proved perfect for picnics and mornings out.

The tomb of the second Mughal emperor Humayun is a half-scale Taj Mahal, minus the jostling crowds. It was said to have been the inspiration for the Taj, and it squats in the suburbs surrounded by a network of well-kept walled gardens with springs and fountains. Much stranger is the Qtab Minar: an enormous, lavishly carved pillar that dominates the low hills further out towards Delhi's southern fringe. This was site of the original Islamic town of Delhi, which grew up nine centuries ago. Bright green parakeets emerged from the ornate stonework. A teeming party of schoolgirls lined up to shake the hands of our children and giggle at their fair hair.

The city's parks were an unexpected success: Nehru Park and Lodhi Gardens, the "kissing garden" where couples snuggle between the rocks, are colourful and immaculately kept. Park-keepers outnumber visitors, sweepers brush leaves to and fro, and cows pull lawnmowers from one patch of shade to the next, then stop to eat the clippings.

The biggest hit of all with the twins, though, was the Delhi Railway Museum. The hulks of India's greatest steam locomotives can all be clambered over, and a toy train gives rides around the perimeter. Inside are elaborate model train sets - some seem more ancient than the engines on display outside. Most can still be operated by pushing buttons and pulling levers. Presiding over it all is the skull of the elephant that tried and failed to stop the Golkara mail train in 1894.

We had arrived in India with a nagging feeling that unless you backpacked far and wide, you couldn't really experience the country. But we were quickly and happily getting over that. When the heat and dust overwhelmed the children, we could retreat into international territory, the air-conditioned foyer world of hotel chains. The prices in the posh hotels seem comparable to mid-range hotels in Europe; and the international menus of hamburgers and spaghetti and fish-and-chips are ideal for children in danger of having one curry too many.

We visited in April, before the furnace heat of May and June, but even then, Delhi could be tough. There were things that we had worried might be too much for the children - the crowds, the beggars. But with a bit of warning, children take it all in their stride, focusing on details - a sadhu's painted nails, a monkey slinking down the track - and then asking the kinds of questions grown-ups avoid: "Dad, why are we rich and not poor?"

The street markets of the swankier suburbs of Hauz Khas and Sarojini were addictive - trinkets for the children, knock-off brand-name fashions for us. But a finer shopping experience was to come. Looking for a new suit, we were introduced to a Delhi phenomenon. His name is Mr Savile-Roy, and his family have been tailors since the early years of the last century. He proudly displays his work folder, pointing out photos of satisfied customers. Isn't that General Sir Mike Jackson in a new two-piece? And there, in the pink suit, Cherie Blair? Mr Roy says that he can make anything. A suit is ordered. Two days later, it arrives, a perfect fit, with the feel of having arrived from an earlier age.

For our five-year-olds, though, the highlight of the trip was the elephant. It waited all morning, swaying happily from side to side in the street. The driver touched up the chalk decorations on its trunk. Every 20 minutes or so, the twins could dash out again and be hoisted up its unexpectedly unleathery side for another little stroll along the street and back again. To them, Delhi isn't a hot and intimidating mega-city, it's "The Elephant Place".

As for us parents, it has changed our view of what might be possible with small children. We're now thinking about some other cities where a hotel with a pool and a car with a driver are within our budget. Shanghai's meant to be interesting...

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Hamish Mykura flew from Heathrow to Delhi on Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com).

Other non-stop options include Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com) and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com).

GETTING AROUND

Renting an elephant costs around 2,350 Rupees (£30) for a morning. Contact Mr Zulfiqqar on 00 91 9810 524252, Shop no. 247, Parwana Road, Khureji, Delhi. A Hindi translator will be needed.

STAYING THERE

Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi (00 91 1126 11 0202; www.tajhotels.com). Doubles from $186 (£103).

Hans Plaza Hotel, New Delhi (00 91 11 331 6868; www.hanshotels.com). B&B from $85 (£47).

VISITING THERE

National Rail Museum, New Delhi (00 91 11 2688 1816; www.railmuseum.org).

MORE DETAILS

India Tourism (020-7437 3677; www.incredibleindia.org).

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