Robin McKelvie has been a travel writer, broadcaster and photographer since 1997 and his travels have taken him to over 100 countries. As well as writing for magazines and newspapers across five continents, including The Times, The Guardian and The Australian, Robin can also often be heard talking travel on an array of BBC radio shows. He is also the author of over 30 travel guidebooks and also now regularly blogs and writes online pieces.
India, with a population of more than a billion people, a massive – and massively diverse – land mass and spellbinding diversity, can be a hard place to pin down. To me, it feels more like a continent than a country and I can understand why some people find it a little bewildering and confusing.
That is where an organised trip comes in. I’ve spent almost a month travelling around India on an itinerary created by the Experience Travel Group. They were there when I needed them with welcome pick-ups, drops-off and transfers, helping ease my way around the country. They also let me have enough freedom to really discover India too.
What I cherished most was the sheer number of rewarding, authentic experiences in North India they organised for me, experiences that I would have struggled to find on my own. I’d like to share my top 7 authentic experiences in North India from my recent near month-long trip.
1. Taj Mahal at Sunrise
Want to really savour what may just be the world’s most spectacular building? Then head out with a savvy Experience Travel guide. Mine had a quiet smile when I gasped and waxed lyrical at sunset at this gorgeous testament to love carved in marble. He knew what was to come. Many of my fellow visitors would be spirited off somewhere else on their trips the next morning. Instead, I was back eking with him through the dark streets of Agra. The reward was the breathtaking sight of the first sunrays of the day breaking over the Taj Mahal. He sneaked me past the queues and crowds and into the best spots to take photos and appreciate the ever-changing hues of the wealth of marble, as well as precious and semi-precious stones.
2. Rickshaw Ride Through Delhi
Forget a noisy tuk tuk and get out on two wheels eco friendly style. I loved my cycle rickshaw tour of Old Delhi. I really felt part of the hectic street life, but safe and secure at the same time, taking it all in with my expert guide and rider. I loved that these tours also stop off at various points to try street food delights from carefully chosen vendors. We also stopped off in a street awash with exotic spices. As my fellow tourists struggled between the stalls, my guide whisked me down a little lane and up to a multi level spice emporium that I would never have discovered otherwise. It boasted a great view over Old Delhi below too.
3. Cooking Lesson from My Own Chef
At Rohet Garh hotel I enjoyed just that. I literally had my own chef, who cooked up a delicious, spice filled storm for me in a private cooking room. He talked me through all the spices of his ‘masala tray’, before showing me how to build up dishes from a base of onions and tomatoes, and, of course, ghee. I watched mesmerised as he cooked up glorious vegetarian dishes, as well as one of the best chicken curries I have ever tasted. I loved the theatrical way he finished his rotis, puffing them up with the naked flame. I also liked his special rotis, which he said only come from this area of Rajasthan, a sort of cross between traditional rotis and a more delicate French pastry.
4. Desert exploration in Rajasthan
Most bumping around dusty tracks in Rajasthan is done in a safari reserve in search of tigers. I did that, but Experience Travel organised a more unusual insight into rural Rajasthan. We bashed off through the parched landscape as my brilliant guide pointed out wild deer and antelope from the jeep. We lurched along dry river beds taking in all the flora and fauna. I wondered how people manage to survive in this inhospitable environment. I soon learned as we were treated to a unique lunch with a local Bishnois family. This religious sect value living close to the land and they shared their lives with me over delicious traditional dishes.
5. Walking Safari
Think of safari and you think of being safely tucked into a jeep with a guide bouncing along dirty tracks. In Satpura National Park I did this, but Experience Travel also opened up another more unusual side of this dramatically beautiful national park and tiger reserve. One morning I eked out on canoe, but the highlight of my three days at the Reni Pani Lodge was my walking safari. I felt like I was in a movie as we bounced across the Tawa Reservoir in search of our landing spot.
We eked ashore into a wilderness alive with sloth bears, leopards and even tigers. All we had for protection was a ranger with an air horn and a pepper spray. The wild jungle takes on a whole different hue on foot as all of the animals are instantly larger and more real as you are down at their level, just another mammal snaking your way through the forest. The walking tour also opened up the chance to really get a good look at things like brightly coloured butterflies and exotic birds. The highlight for me was coming across a flattened bash of jungle where recently a large tiger and a sloth bear had fought to the death. The tiger had won, with a mass of thick black hair and its skull all that was left of the bear.
6. Village to Village Himalayan Treks
Think the Himalayas and many people think high altitude technical climbing. But it does not have to be as challenging and require training before your trip. I took the night train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Experience Travel had organised me three nights at characterful stone houses in a trio of remote villages.
The first camp was actually fairly luxurious with a communal lounge with a TV, electricity and hot showers but the other two were more rustic. All afforded great views of the snow capped Himalayas and I even snatched glimpses into the Nepalese Himalayas too. The days were spent hiking from village to village, taking in vibrant Hindu temples and interacting with the local villagers as we went. I chanced upon a local primary school and ended up promising to get my daughter’s school to write letters and send photos of life in Scotland to them. Hopefully it was the start of a relationship between the two schools.
7. Savour the Street Food
The phenomenon of Delhi Belly is much hyped up by people who have not been to India. On my recent visit I spent almost a month there and never had any real issues whether it be in hotel restaurants, other restaurants or even street food. Saying that, I was glad to have a guide through Experience Travel to take me to all the best street food stalls in Delhi, Jaipur and Jodhpur! The food really is a highlight of a trip to India with the sheer regional variations and richness of the vibrant spices intoxicating.
If you want to include any one of these authentic experiences in North India into your trip, do get in contact on 020 7924 7133 or via email here. For more inspiration for your holiday, do have a look at our example itineraries, do note they can all be tailored to suit your exact needs and preferences – they’re just a starting point.
Are there any more authentic experiences in North India you have loved?