Update: Tauck has made a couple of itinerary changes for their tours beginning in 2016. Our itinerary description will be slightly different the ones Tauck currently offers.
My wife and I went on this trip in February 2015. In a word, it was great! We want to share our experience with others who might be considering taking this Tauck tour, or have already booked it and are looking for details to help them plan. Pull up a chair, and read on...
Wow, what an experience it was! This is indeed a country where you really do have to be in it to even begin to understand it. We studied the country and culture before we left, but actually being there was like finishing a puzzle; all of a sudden the pieces were making sense. We will never view anything India-related the same way the rest of our life. We now realize that to gain even a basic understanding of India requires experiencing it firsthand.
India is indeed a country of paradoxes. If someone tells you something about India, the exact opposite is also true somewhere in India. There are many stark contrasts existing right next to each other in India, and they are okay with it. It is a culture of contradictions and eyebrow-raising juxtapositions. However, we found the people to be pragmatic, happy, curious, and friendly.
The itinerary has been carefully planned. It gives the guests exposure to many different faces of India. We visited a variety of states and geographic areas. We met a number of people from differing cultural, religious, and economic backgrounds. Parts of the tour were very busy; others were slower and relaxed. Some areas were very hot; others were a bit chilly. Some days began early; other days ended late. We traveled on planes, trains, buses, vans, taxis, rickshaw, boats, and elephants.
This is not one of Tauck's easier tours, but I would not really call it difficult either. It will be a gem for those who already have experience with international travel, have gone with tour groups before, are flexible and adaptive, and are realistic with expectations.
I'm not sure we would return to India, and it was nice to return home again. But we are so very glad to have gone on this tour, and absolutely recommend it to others. Even as I write this review months later, I still find myself recalling something we did or saw, and shaking my head and saying to myself..."wow!". Once you go there, you will understand exactly what I mean.
We chose Tauck for a number of reasons:
- We have toured with Tauck numerous times already, and they have set the tour company standard for us. We have taken other tours with Trafalgar, Uniworld, and Insight, and Tauck has been our best experience.
- Tauck has a good balance of scheduled activities and free time.
- Tauck tends to book hotels that are better located, making it easier for us to explore on our own during our free time. The hotels are of better quality than with most other companies.
- We appreciate how Tauck does not try to up-sell extra activities or options during their tours.
- They also do not make stops at places that are clearly shopping stops thinly disguised as sightseeing.
- The Tauck reputation as a company helps them attract top-notch tour directors.
We decided to visit India after hearing from many other people who have been there, reporting that it was a fascinating experience, and different from many of their other travel experiences. When Tauck put their preliminary 2015 schedule on the web site (which was in February 2014), we immediately contacted our agent Mindy and had her reserve our spots. It was a good thing we did, as our tour date sold out within a couple weeks, even before Tauck had published final prices or itinerary details on their web site.
Tauck released the finalized 2015 itinerary and pricing on April 2, 2014. Since we had booked it already, this meant that we now had two weeks to cancel without penalty. One look at the itinerary confirmed that we still wanted to go. I confirmed this with our travel agent (Mindy at Pavlus Travel), and also asked her to book us one pre-tour hotel night and two post-tour nights.
I want to say a good word for our travel agent Mindy. She gets us literally the best prices available (not only with Tauck, but on our cruises also), and has booked many tours and cruises for us. Mindy is very experienced with booking Tauck tours, and has been great to work with. Pavlus Travel books more Tauck Tours than any other travel agency. I have no hesitations recommending her if you are considering booking a tour with Tauck. Here's how to reach Mindy.
Here is the information Mindy needed to relay to Tauck order to book our reservations:
- Tour name
- Tour departure date
- Traveler names (exactly as on our passports)
- Traveler’s mailing address
- Traveler’s phone number(s)
- Emergency contact name and phone number
- Interest in purchasing Tauck’s travel insurance
- Interest in pre- or post-trip hotels (these are sometimes limited in number, so book ahead of time)
- Interest in Tauck air arrangements
- Pre- and post-tour flight numbers, times, and connecting city, if making our own arrangements.
I gave her the information, she called Tauck and made the booking, and confirmed our booking within a few hours. She said that Tauck usually mailed out documents 3 or 4 weeks after final payment is received (which is due no later than sixty days before departure).
Incidentally, Pavlus Travel claims to be "the world's largest single office seller of Tauck World Discovery Tours". I appreciate working with a travel company that has plenty of experience with the specific travel I am doing.
Taking various factors into account, we are comfortable declining travel insurance. But we always try to familiarize ourselves with policies concerning cancellations. Tauck's cancellation fees for this tour (if you didn't have Guest Protection or Cancellation Fee Waiver) were:
- 60 days or more before departure - $1000 per person per tour
- 8 to 59 days before departure - $1500 per person per tour
- 1 to 7 days before departure - $2000 per person per tour
Soon after paying the deposit on our reservation, our travel agent forwarded us a "Summary of Purchase" from Tauck, showing pertinent reservation details, including total package cost, payments made, balance due, and final payment due date. After every payment on our balance, we were sent an updated invoice.
We received our final tour documents about two weeks after making our final payment to Pavlus Travel. The documents were sent to the travel agency, who then sent them to us, along with additional Pavlus items. Our agent had UPS send us an email with package tracking information so we knew exactly when it was scheduled to arrive at our front door.
The most important document was the 5.5" x 8.5" spiral-bound book customized for us, entitled "How You See The World Matters...Documents For Your Journey." Along with luggage tags, this booklet contained these sections:
- Hotel confirmation for additional pre-tour night
- Arrival Instructions - What to do upon arrival at Indira Gandhi International Airport; how to meet Tauck representative; emergency contact information in case of delays; document requirements.
- Miscellaneous Information - Gratuities; clothing and packing suggestions; luggage tags; checked luggage restrictions; intra-tour flights; on-tour duffel bags; weather; health considerations; vaccinations; accommodations; water and ice; currency; time zone; local customs; street smarts,
- Detailed day-by-day itinerary - Description of day's events; meals included; hotel contact information.
- List of hotels to leave at home with family and friends - Includes hotel dates, addresses, phone numbers.
A visa is required for U.S. citizens. There are very specific requirements for citizens from other countries, but my comments here apply only to U.S. citizens. There are many types of India visas. Most Tauck travelers will want a Tourist Visa. Requirements can change. Although these comments applied to our trip, you should confirm your visa requirements on your own.
Timing: Exactly when to apply can be a factor. A Tourist visa is generally valid for six months from the date it is approved, not from the date you enter India. But you also want the visa to be valid beyond the end of the trip so as to allow for any possible delays in leaving India. Tauck recommends applying no earlier than 90 days prior to departure, and no later than 30 days prior to departure. We mailed our application documents 90 days prior, although we started the passport and photograph steps even earlier.
Although it is possible to apply on your own directly with the consulate, we chose to use one of the service providers. Of course this involves an extra fee for the service provider in addition to the visa fee, but we felt it was worth it. The India visa application process is somewhat confusing, and must be done correctly. Any mistakes will cause a delay and the application must be redone. There is conflicting advice on exactly how to fill out the online application, but most agree that it must be filled out properly or it will be rejected. As per a November 2014 Tauck letter, they now recommend VisaCentral; previously they recommended Pinnacle TDS.
Summary of steps:
- Check current passport to assure it meets India requirements for their visa.
- Have updated passport-type photograph taken, assuring it meets India visa requirements.
- Download the application kit from a visa processing company you choose. The kit contains all detailed instructions.
- Complete the order form (often done online) for the particular visa processing company you have chosen. This is where you will pay the service processing fee plus the actual visa fee.
- Complete, print, and sign the processing agency order form.
- Complete, print, and sign a visa application online at the Government of India visa website.
- Complete, print, and sign an Additional Particulars Form.
- Print proof of residential address.
- Print bank statements if student, retired, or unemployed.
- Ship all required documents to the visa processing company you have selected. FedEx or UPS.
- Register with the US Embassy in India.
Passport requirements by India:
- At least four blank unused pages available.
- This does not including the last two amendment pages.
- Pages can be added to a passport by sending to the appropriate passport agency; allow processing time if this needs to be done.
- Passport valid for at least six months beyond completion of international travel.
- Renew passport before the trip if necessary. Allow plenty of processing time.
- No tears, frays, separations, or alterations.
Photograph requirements by India:
- One print needed, 2" x 2", against all-white background; no borders.
- Taken within last three months.
- Neutral facial expression; eyes open; full frontal view.
- Face centered in middle; full head from top of hair to bottom of chin.
- No eyeglasses or headwear.
- No shadows on face or on background.
Residential address proof:
- Copy of driver's license is preferred. Must be valid; address must exactly match address entered on visa application form.
- If no license, then use electric, gas, or water/sewage bill.
- Cable or cell phone bills are not accepted.
- PO Boxes are not acceptable for addresses on any forms, applications, or submitted documents.
Visa application form:
- The online form leads to creation of a savable and printable PDF "Visa Application Form".
- When completed, it should be printed, signed, and mailed to the visa servicing company along with passport and all the other documents required.
- India requires that it is done via their website https://indianvisaonline.gov.in/
- While the online form is being filled out, a Temporary Application ID is created at the top of the form. This number should be written down in case the form cannot be fully completed in one sitting.
- Application must be "perfect".
- Consult the visa service providers guide for details about each detail on the application.
- Your state of residence determines where your visa application is processed, and it is very important to enter the correct jurisdiction when filling out the application form.
- Here is a helpful page on Travisa website about filling out the application form.
- Internet sometimes contains conflicting advice. When in doubt, use the information provided by the visa servicing company you have chosen.
- Signatures must be exactly as signed in passport; i.e. names must match exactly.
- First signature must be completely within the box located under the photo.
Registering with U.S. Embassy in India:
- U.S. State Department encourages American citizens to register with the embassy in India.
- Enrolling a trip can easily be done on your own at Dept of State STEP website.
Once the visa is received, here is a page that shows How to Read an Indian Visa.
We completed our Visa application packets on 11/7/2014 and mailed it along with our passports to VisaCentral as per their instructions. We received our passports back, complete with India visa, on 12/3/2014.
Tuesday Feb 3 & Wednesday Feb 4 Travel days
Our first flight departed from the U.S. west coast at 11:30am. 25 1/2 hours and two calendar days later, we arrive in New Delhi at 2:35am on Thursday February 5th. To avoid any potential delays from East coast winter weather, we avoided East coast airports, choosing to fly Seattle - Dubai - Delhi. And it's a good thing we did, as there were major East coast airport disruptions during our travel time.
Thursday Feb 5 New Delhi
We arrived at the New Delhi airport at 2:35 in the morning. Since we arrived over 12 hours before normal hotel check-in time, we chose to simply add another pre-tour hotel night to our trip, and treated it as a (very) late arrival. This counts as our first of five nights at this Delhi hotel.
We arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport New Delhi (DEL), went through an Ebola check, cleared immigrations, and picked up our baggage from the carousel. Incidentally, there is a huge duty-free shopping area in the baggage claim area, before going through customs, and it is open all the time. We looked for the ATMs (see note below in Money section), cleared customs, and exited the secure area. We easily saw the Tauck representative holding the green Tauck sign. He greeted us with magnolia flowers, called our driver, and while we waited we used the ATM which (contrary to map on airport website) is right outside the customs area, withdrawing the maximum of 20,000 rupees.
The drive to the hotel took about 40 minutes at this early hour. The hotel had security guards at the gate who inspected the van before opening the gate. Hotel staff was awaiting our arrival, and greeted us with our first bindi (forehead dot). Hotel staff escorted us to our room and checked us in there, using her iPad to enter information, including scanning our passports. We were informed that there would be no alcohol available at the hotel for the next two days, as Delhi is "dry" because of laws concerning upcoming elections.
We showered and went to bed for a few hours. We arose at 8:30am, prepared for the day, and went to the hotel restaurant for buffet breakfast. All breakfasts are included on the hotel mornings that are included as part of the tour. I logged on to the Wi-Fi by entering our room number and last name.
We talked to Mona, one of the very nice hotel concierges, who gave us a city map and a list of activities. We decided to hire a taxi for the day. We told the taxi driver, named Balwinder, our general plans, and he was accommodating. He spoke some English, enough to communicate. We drove to the Chandni Chowk shopping area, exploring numerous streets and markets. We went to one shop which was definitely oriented more towards foreigners, where we made a couple of purchases after some bargaining. We then went to Lodhi Garden, where we spent some leisurely time. We returned to the hotel around 5:30pm. It cost less than $20 for the driver for the entire day. We made arrangements with him to meet us again tomorrow for more private driving.
We ate dinner at the hotel's ThreeSixty Restaurant. We didn't have reservations, but we were lucky to get in at 7:00, as they completely filled up shortly after that. We had planned on a light meal, but the personable server (which we would soon learn that the Oberoi Hotels are known for) had some great recommendations, and split them so we both got a serving of each item. She even brought us a few items we hadn't ordered, but she thought we might enjoy. We had a special dessert sampler which was also excellent.
We were exhausted from travel and a full day, so we retired immediately after dinner.
Hotel: The Oberoi, New Delhi (2nd of 5 nights; second of two pre-stay nights)
Friday Feb 6 (Day 1) New Delhi
Tauck “Portrait of India” tour begins with Day 1.
Tauck description from mailed documents: Transportation from Indira Gandhi International Airport to the Oberoi New Delhi is included upon your arrival. For detailed instructions, be sure to carefully read the "Arrival Instructions" section earlier in this booklet. To locate the "Arrival Instructions," please consult the table of contents at the front of the booklet. Due to the late arrival of most flights from the U.S., dinner is not included this evening. You will receive a welcome letter on Day 1 of your Tauck itinerary, which will include some activity suggestions while in Delhi, as well as the timing for the scheduled sightseeing. Unless you have reserved additional nights at the hotel prior to the start of your tour, your room at the Oberoi will be available no earlier than noon on Day 1. Your Tauck Director will meet you at the scheduled briefing tomorrow morning in the hotel.
Although this was officially "Day 1", there was no scheduled group activity today. This is somewhat unusual for Tauck tours, but was done because so many international flights arrive in India very late at night, often well past midnight. By officially starting the tour today, it allows all tour guests to have a hotel room upon their nighttime arrivals. Otherwise guests would have no room from the time they arrive (middle of the night) and the noon check-in time on what is Day 2; not a good scenario for tired guests arriving from an unavoidably long series of flights from the U.S.
Another way to look at it is that although this is Day 1, you won't be doing anything on this day except have a hotel reserved today in your name, into which you probably won't check into until after midnight, which will technically be Day 2. For those who book extra pre-tour nights (like we did), then this entire scenario changes.
Surprisingly, we awoke at 6:30am, which is similar to when we wake up at home. We had a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel restaurant. In addition to the buffet, we could order from the menu, and this was included with our breakfast. Although the brewed restaurant coffee was not bad, we ordered cappuccinos or Americanos, which were made fresh and better matched our coffee tastes.
At 9:30am we stepped outside the hotel entrance and saw our taxi driver was waiting for us, just as we had arranged yesterday. We started with Humayun's Tomb. Even though we would be seeing it with the group tomorrow, we wanted to beat the crowds and have better photo opportunities. Our plan worked, as we were some of the first ones there. We spent 1 1/2 hours there, enjoying an unrushed pace. From there we went to the Red Fort where we spent another 1 1/2 hours. Again, this would be included on our Day 3 Tauck tour, but being the photography enthusiasts that we are, we knew we wanted to spend more unhurried time here. Since we were on our own today, we had to pay our own entrance fee. We had read that it was common in India to have two prices -- one for Indians and another higher one for tourists. We experienced this first hand at the Red Fort where there was a large line of Indians at the ticket window paying a 10 Rupee entrance fee, and no line at the foreigners window where tourists had to pay a 250 Rupee entrance fee. We found this price difference to be very typical throughout tourist areas of India.
The step wells of India are very unique, and while planning our trip we had hoped we would be able to see one. We found the one at the Red Fort, but it was completely closed off to tourists, and had a guard posted by it. Thinking back, I wonder if this could have been handled with a small baksheesh. After our two morning stops we pointed out another step well on our Delhi map. He was not familiar with it, but knew the area it was in. Once we got close, he asked a couple of people about it, and they told him exactly where to go. Although the steps leading down the well were roped off, it was still amazing to be able to see it; we were at least able to walk part way down this one.
We returned to our hotel at 2:00pm. We freshened up, changed some larger rupee currency for smaller bills. We ate a small lunch of soup at the hotel's Threesixty Restaurant. We strolled the hotel grounds, and around the pool and spa area. Then went to the top floor to see the hotel's balcony view. We made dinner reservations at the Threesixty Restaurant for a 6:30 dinner. Back to the room, we were able to take a needed nap.
The restaurant was not as busy tonight as it was last night. As we were seated, we were immediately reminded that there was no alcohol service tonight due to tomorrow's elections. To avoid Delhi Belly, we were trying to use moderation with our India food, so we chose Italian entrées from tonight's menu. For dessert, there was a nice sampler selection. We followed this with Chai tea. Dinner lasted a pleasant 2 1/2 hours.
After dinner we stopped at the front desk, inquiring about Tauck paperwork. They confirmed that our Tauck tour papers had been left by Peter, our Tour Director. We took them to our room and studied up on the next few days. The handouts included a welcome letter, Baggage Tips, a time schedule of next two days, Delhi activity recommendations, Delhi sightseeing recommendations, India General Information, Tauck Shopping Policies and Recommendations, and a curriculum vitae for our Tour Director Peter.
Hotel: The Oberoi, New Delhi (3rd of 5 nights)
Saturday Feb 7 (Day 2) New Delhi
Tauck description from mailed documents: Experience the contrasting images of Delhi, old and new, as you explore India's capital city with a local guide. Wide avenues, grand vistas and colonial mansions welcome you to New Delhi, home to the city's imperial government buildings and embassy district. View the five-storied Qutb Minar Victory Tower, built in 1193, and visit the Mahatma Gandhi National Museum, housing the Indian leader's personal letters and diaries. After lunch, sightseeing continues with the classical Secretariat buildings, Parliament House and Presidential Palace flanking Vijay Chowk, a grand piazza known as Victory Square. See India Gate, commemorating Indian and British soldiers, and the inspiring Humayun's Tomb, set in beautiful Persian paradise gardens and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Join us for our welcome reception and dinner tonight in the hotel.
I sent two shirts out for laundering this morning. They were delivered back to the room in the early evening.
The hotel's Threesixty Restaurant opened for breakfast at 7:00, at which time we arrived. It was buffet again, with option to also order items from the kitchen.
At 8:15am the group met in the hotel's Club Bar, which is right across from the reception desk. Tour Director Peter was there to meet and greet guests for the first time. As instructed in yesterday's handouts, we brought our passport and the personalized information form, giving both to Peter. At 8:30 sharp he started the briefing, which lasted about 50 minutes, covering a wide range of topics applicable to today's schedule and the entire tour in general. He gave each person a black Tauck duffel bag, explaining that it would be used on two different occasions on the tour, and he would provide detailed instructions later. He also handed out a Guest List with everyone's names and home towns. I always appreciate this list from Tauck; it greatly helps in learning everyone's names as the tour progresses, and helps Tauck avoid using tacky name tags like so many other tour companies use. Peter also told us that the schedule for today and tomorrow will be a little different than that printed in our pre-trip documents; still seeing same things, just different timing. At the end of his briefing, Peter returned our passports.
We were given a 20-minute break to return to the room, use the restroom, and get ready for the day.
Our coach was ready for us outside the hotel. Peter posted a seating chart near the coach door, so it was easy to find our assigned seats. A local guide (Sam) joined us, and we were introduced to our driver and driver's helper. The coach was very comfortable and full-sized. Complementary bottled water was available on the coach, as it would be for all of the coaches on the tour.
As we made our way to our first stop, the Red Fort, our local guide provided us with interesting commentary. The drive on the coach afforded us with a good vantage point for viewing a normal day's activities on Delhi streets. The variety of people and transportation was more than expected.
The Red Fort was built in 1546 by a Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. It gets its name from the massive outer walls of red sandstone that were built in 1638. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We were dropped off in the coach loading/unloading area, and our local guide led us for a 10-minute walk to the Lahore Gate entrance where everyone entering had to go through a security screening. Just inside the entrance we passed through the Chatta Chowk bazaar selling tourist trinkets. Local Guide Sam then led us through the numerous highlights of the fort, giving us history and interesting trivia the entire time. Tour Director Peter accompanied us, but was often studying his papers and planning our upcoming activities, which is a never-ending task for tour directors. We were given about 30 minutes of time to explore on our own.
As soon as we returned to the coach for boarding, we were met with a situation that would become common the rest of the trip. Numerous hawkers were right outside the coach door, trying to sell us a multitude of trinkets and souvenirs before we got back on the coach. Although not aggressive, they were indeed persistent but polite. Tour Director Peter had warned us about this, and said we could go right by them and get on the coach. Then once everyone was on, he would show us samples of what they were selling, and ask if anyone wanted to buy one. He would then let us know what it would cost because he already was familiar with what is a fair price, and thus we would not have to do any price negotiations. Peter's system worked quite well all along the tour.
Our next stop was at Raj Ghat, which is a memorial area with a black marble platform marking the spot of Mahatma Gandhi's cremation in 1948. It is next to the Yamuna River, and includes an eternal flame. It is a welcome place of peace and respect in the middle of a hectic city. It is visited by locals and by foreign dignitaries, who place flowers on and around the platform. Shoes had to be removed before approaching the memorial.
For our lunch we were taken to a local restaurant called Olive Bar that was close to the Qutab Minar, which was our next stop. The restaurant was prepared for us, and sprang into action as soon as we arrived. They brought around cool beverages, soon followed by soup and pizza slices. We were given time to use the clean restrooms before we reboarded the coach for a short drive to the tower.
The Qutab Minar tower was more impressive than I anticipated. It was originally built in 1193, and has had numerous additions of various styles added since then. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Surrounding the actual 73-meter tower are numerous other impressive monuments. After a guided tour around this area we were given 35 minutes to explore it on our own.
Our drive back to the hotel again gave us a fascinatingly voyeuristic vantage point to the people of Delhi going about their daily life.
We arrived back at our hotel at 4:30pm. This allowed ample time to change clothes for tonight's Welcome Reception and Dinner. Weather today was very nice. High temperature was a pleasant 74°F with clear skies.
At 6:15pm, guests gathered in Travertinos Restaurant for the Welcome Reception. We were given name tags just for tonight. The local elections had just closed, so alcohol was now legal to serve again after two dry days. We had 45 minutes to mingle, mix, and chat with fellow travelers. Even though we had already spend a day with the group, this was a good chance to talk with those who we hadn't had a chance to formally meet earlier.
At 7:00pm we moved to the Threesixty Restaurant for dinner. Guests chose their own seating arrangements at two long tables. Dinner was buffet style, with mostly Indian food but also had some Western dishes. Peter told us that we had choices of vegetarian or non-vegetarian, but he clarified it to mean spicy or not-so-spicy. It was nice being able to sample a variety of Indian dishes.
A few of us in the group decided to make reservations for dinner tomorrow night in the hotel's Taipan Restaurant. This was an included optional eating venue as part of the tour. We made reservations for 7:30pm tomorrow. Most of the group adjourned to their rooms immediately after finishing their meal, as most were still jet-lagged and weary.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: The Oberoi, New Delhi (4th of 5 nights)
Sunday Feb 8 (Day 3) Old Delhi
Tauck description from mailed documents: Inspirational antiquities abound as you explore Old Delhi, the capital of Muslim India from the 12th through the 19th centuries. See the sumptuous palaces of the magnificent Red Fort, a powerful symbol of Indian nationalism. Visit Raj Ghat, Mahatma Gandhi's cremation site. Spend the rest of the day as you wish. Dinner is included this evening at leisure in the hotel. VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: It will be necessary for you to pack an overnight bag this evening for your travel to Varanasi and Khajuraho. Duffel bags will be provided to all guests on Day 2 in Delhi. You will be reunited with your primary luggage upon your arrival at our hotel in Agra on Day 6.
We arose at 6:30am and went to the restaurant at 7:30 for breakfast. We added the names of two of the servers to our list of exceptional Oberoi workers. In general, the staff at the Oberoi are amazing, and very personable. But there have been a few that stood out even above the others. We wrote a thank-you note with their names and why we felt they were exceptional, and gave it to the hotel manager. We had heard that complements like this are actually appreciated by the staff than monetary gratuities because most strive to advance in the company. This was actually reinforced when we noticed signs in the rooms discouraging staff tipping, but inform reception instead.
At 9:00am we boarded the coach along with Sam, the same local guide who was with us yesterday. One couple in our group didn't join us; apparently there was a slight Delhi Belly issue.
Peter started out by giving us luggage and carry-on packing details for the next three days. Tonight we are to pack what we need for the next two nights and three days in the Tauck-provided duffel bags that were given to us yesterday. Our larger suitcases that we came with will be taken tomorrow morning, driven to Agra, and we will not see them again until we check into the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel in Agra on Day 6.
Our first stop today was at Humayun's Tomb, which is located within a few minutes' drive of the hotel. It was commissioned in 1565 by the wife of Mughal Emperor Humayun. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It exemplifies Mughal architecture, which reached its zenith with the Taj Mahal. Our local guide led us to the tomb on a very slow stroll, giving us the history and other interesting factoids. Along the way we saw many of the other structures and gardens. I'm glad we had some 10 and 20 ruppee bills with us; we gave them to a couple of people working in the grounds as we asked their permission to take their photographs, and it was soon apparent that this was the proper protocol. The restrooms on the way out had a western toilet, but it was one of the times we used the toilet paper we carried with us.
On our way to reboard the coach we came across a snake charmer. Many in the group paused to take photos, and gave him the 50 rupee tip (he told us this "price").
After reboarding the coach, we did a driving city tour. We passed by the India Gate. The coach stopped for a view from inside, but it was not a get-out-of-the-coach stop.
We then drove to the parliament buildings and through the embassy district. We passed some areas that had lots of monkeys on the sides of the streets. Apparently there are usually more of them, but they were relocated when President Obama visited just a few weeks ago.
Next stop was the National Gandhi Museum. This museum is built on the site where Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated in 1948. Gandhi is considered to be a leader of Indian independence movement in British-ruled India. The museum showcases the life and principles of Gandhi, and contains some of his personal items as well as newspapers and books related to Gandhi. Gandhi's use of nonviolent civil disobedience led India to independence, and inspired civil rights movements across the world. The footprints tracing Gandhi's final walk just before he was assassinated are moving. After our local guide finished showing us the museum and grounds we had 30 minutes on our own before meeting at the large gong, our prearranged meeting spot.
We returned to the hotel at 12:05pm. Lunch was on our own today. We went right to our room and found that it had not been serviced yet. We went downstairs to the Patisserie and Delicatessen which had many temptations but we passed, choosing to eat at the Threesixty Restaurant instead. They were serving Sunday Brunch but we were in the mood for a simple bowl of soup. We then went to the reception desk and requested a printout of our account to date, just so we would have plenty of time to correct any errors prior to check out tomorrow morning. Thankfully the account was in order. When we returned to our room, it had been serviced. We got some afternoon rest, wrote some notes, and studied about our upcoming sites.
Today's high temperature was again a pleasant 74°F with full sunshine.
Before diner we packed our Tauck duffel bags. We found that there was no need to be concerned about size; we actually had plenty of extra room in our duffels even after packing all that we wanted for two nights and three days.
At 7:30pm our group arrived at the upstairs Travertino restaurant. There were two other small groups of people from our tour group, so we all moved to a larger table, which worked out fine since the restaurant was far from full. The food here was delightful. The table for 8 had a Lazy Susan-style center so we were able to order and eat family style. This allowed us to try many more selections than would have been possible as individual diners. The menu selection was quite large, and the servings were large also. The server was very helpful in assisting with our selections. Our group was finished dining at 9:45pm.
Most went right to bed after dinner. It sounded like the majority of the group was still adjusting to jet lag although it was getting better.
Meals: B, D
Hotel: The Oberoi, New Delhi (5th of 5 nights)
Monday Feb 9 (Day 4) Varanasi
Tauck description from mailed documents: Embark on a journey to the beginning of ancient civilization as you fly to Varanasi, one of the world's oldest surviving cities. Nestled on the banks of the sacred River Ganges, Varanasi has welcomed pilgrims since the 6th century BC, blessing and purifying them with the river's "holy waters" in sacred daily ceremonies. A sightseeing tour of this eternal city takes you to Sarnath, where Buddha gave his first sermon, and includes a visit to the National Museum, home to a superb collection of sculptures dating from the 3rd century BC.
We had our checked bags packed and ready for pick-up by 7:00am as instructed. Breakfast began at 7:00. We went a few minutes early and stopped at Reception to settle our hotel bill.
Everyone was prompt with our 8:15am on-the-coach time. It was just over 35 minutes to the airport. On the way Tour Director Peter explained the routine for this morning's flight, local airport security, carry-on bag security (each requires a tag after clearing security). He warned us that he has found "routines" in India to change with little notice and indeed little logic. Peter also handed out our schedules for Varanasi and reviewed it with us.
At the airport we were met by a local representative who got on our coach and handed out our boarding passes to each of us. As we entered the airport main door, we had to present our passports to gain access, but this was the only place where we were required to show the passport today. Once in the airport building we went straight to x-ray security for screening hand-carry bags and ourselves. Each of us confirmed that the tag on our carry-ons were properly stamped before we left this screening area, as the tags would be inspected later. We then confirmed our gate number on a reader board, and proceeded to the boarding gate. The timing was just right...we arrived at the gate at 9:45am just as they started the boarding process. At the boarding gate, our boarding passes were checked and carry-on bag tags checked for security stamp. The entire process was fairly smooth, but our departure was about 20 minutes delayed. The flight took less than two hours. Water and light snacks were served. Being extra cautious, we passed on the food, but some others in our group ate the Indian wrap.
We pulled up to the gate in Varanasi at noon, deplaned, and gathered as a group. We were given 15 minutes to use the facilities in the baggage claim area. The Varanasi airport is fairly new and nice. We were met by a local guide who escorted us outside to board our shuttle to the hotel, which was a full-sized coach. It took about 45 minutes to get to the hotel, where Tour Director Peter immediately went inside, picked up our keys, returned to the coach and handed out the keys to each of us. He said that all our rooms were ready for us. He explained that we would leave again at 2:45 for sightseeing and evening river ceremony, and would not return until after the Ganges cruise, and dinner would be after that at the hotel.
Upon entering the hotel we were greeted with a bead necklace and a bindi. The hotel had a buffet lunch ready for us. The room keys for this hotel were real keys, which can almost be called old-fashioned now. The key had an attached metal credit-card-shaped card that was used to activate the room power. Most guests left the keys at the front desk when they left the grounds.
After lunch a couple of us wandered just outside the hotel grounds for a block or so, but didn't go any further as there was not a lot to be seen. It was fun to simply stand outside on the busy street and watch the people, transportation, and animals. We were also stared at quite a bit, being the ones who looked different from the locals.
At 2:45pm the group divided into three hired cars for our journey to Sarnath. This was more practical than a coach in this location because the road is so torn up. We had a wild ride through town as we made our way to Sarnath, our first stop, 13km out of town. Our group regrouped, along with our local guide Krishna. Sarnath is a very holy place for Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. It is where Gautama Buddha's first teachings after attaining enlightenment. It continues to be a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists from India and abroad. Our local guide walked us around the site, stopping at various features, explaining the significance, and what it means to the pilgrims who were all around us, who were clearly impacted by being at this holy site.
We went to the museum next. First we returned to our hired cars in the parking area, and left all of our belongings because no cameras, purses, or bags of any kind were allowed into the museum. We were advised to use the restrooms in the museum because it would be our last chance before returning to the hotel at 8:00pm after the boat cruise. We went through a metal detector upon entering the museum. We were again led to the most significant artifacts by our local guide Krishna, which took about 15 minutes. We were then given 20 minutes on our own to finish browsing and use the facilities. Hint: bring your own toilet paper, as there was none available; remember that you might not have purses with you at this point.
Returning to our hired cars, we had to navigate greater numbers of beggars than we experienced in Delhi. They were not aggressive, just very persistent. By now we were learning the value of following the awkward recommendation of completely ignoring them rather than even acknowledging them with a "no" or "no thank you" or even eye contact. We drove to the Ganges River and were let off a few blocks from the ghat where our boat was awaiting. Walking these few blocks involved constantly watching where each foot went, as there was a lot of cow dung and there was a lot of people and distracting activity. Most of the group also applied their bug repellent before we arrived at the river.
When we arrived at the ghat (the steps leading down the riverbank) there were numerous young children trying very hard to get us to buy their goods, especially candles and flowers for releasing into the river. Our boat guide already had gathered these items ahead of time for our river journey. Our group boarded one boat, along with our local guide, boat driver, and a helper. When we pushed off into the river the sun was just setting. Although it was plenty warm during the earlier daytime, once the sun went down and we were on the river, it became a bit chilly. Many had wisely brought light jackets. We encountered some mosquitoes or other insects, and caps, hoods, or scarves helped provide a little more protection from these bugs. Long sleeves were also a must.
We slowly made our way upriver while it was still light enough to see the buildings and activity on other ghats, some of which were buzzing with activity and others that looked abandoned. After about 30 minutes we came to the Manikarnika Ghat where the cremations are done. Here we slowed to a crawl, and circled for a while so we could see all aspects of what was going on. We were close enough to just see the ceremonies, but far enough to remain unobtrusive. Our local guide Krishna explained the entire cremation ritual, its significance in Hinduism, the role of the River Ganges, and Varanasi. In Hindu traditions, cremation is one of the rites of passage, and the ghats of Varanasi are considered the most honorable location for this ritual. Although a strange experience, it was amazing to witness. We counted seventeen separate cremations just at this one location. These ceremonies continue night and day, day after day. You can view a video we took of the cremations on Manikarnika Ghat.
We then proceeded further upriver to the Dashashwamedh Ghat to witness the nightly Worship to Fire ritual dedicated to Lord Shiva, the River Ganges, sun and fire, and the whole universe. We queued up alongside many other river boats to watch the ceremony. It was an amazing experience to be a part of the crowd, realizing the significance of it, and the fact that they did this every single night. We watched as the sky transitioned to blackness, making the multitude of lights and fires on the ghat even more spectacular, with a multitude of bells, music, and chants to top it off.
At the end of the ceremony we headed back out into the Ganges River. Here we paused the boat, and true to tradition, each of us lit a floating candle, releasing it onto the Ganges River with our own silent blessing, watching then float away in tranquility. It would be difficult for someone not to be touched by this entire experience, regardless of their religious convictions.
At this point we headed downriver back to our starting point. Further downriver the ghats were completely dark. It took a while to realize that it was due to a power outage, which was a normal occurrence to those in the area. Luckily the power was restored just as we arrived back at our starting point. We disembarked the boat and made our way back to our awaiting drivers. We again had to be careful where we stepped, which was difficult because there was so much to visually soak in; completely different after dark than what we had seen walking in. On the drive back we saw a number of wedding ceremonies in full swing.
We arrived back at our hotel at about 8:00pm. Hint: Check your shoes before going onto carpeted areas of the hotel; many in our group found they had cow dung on their shoe bottoms. A cheap disposable toothbrush and the room toilet came in useful for remedying this problem before it made a mess.
After a quick cleanup in the room, we went to dinner. It was in the same dining room where we had our lunch, and was also buffet-style, in addition to menu items. We enjoyed the buffet as a great way to continue sampling a variety of Indian food. But we were using caution not to overdo it with Indian spices since that can cause Delhi Belly just as much as foreign bacteria can. There were a number of people in our group who were feeling gastrointestinal issues even though it wouldn't be considered full-blown Delhi Belly, so precautions were in order.
Back in the room I finished cleaning my shoes before retiring. I brought some individual shoe polish wipes, which were quite useful on three or four occasions on this trip, including tonight.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Gateway Hotel Ganges Varanasi (one night)
Tuesday Feb 10 (Day 5) Varanasi; Khajuraho
Tauck description from mailed documents: Rise early to view the sunrise ceremonies that welcome each new day in Varanasi. Cruise on the Ganges, witnessing ceremonial displays of religious devotion, from births and weddings to death, along the ghats - long flights of wide stone steps leading down to the river. Fly from Varanasi to Khajuraho for an overnight stay. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this small town showcases temples built in the Chandela Dynasty between 950 AD and 1050 AD. These magnificent temples strike a perfect balance between architecture and sculpture.
Today started early. Everyone had a 5:00am wakeup call, but we set a 4:45am alarm just to make sure we were up and ready on time. After showering we went to the lobby where coffee was awaiting our group as promised.
Our local guide Krishna arrived early, and we enjoyed chatting with him while we awaited our 5:45am departure time. It was interesting asking him about Indian weddings, and hearing him proudly share is family experiences.
At 5:45am we boarded a coach and drove to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, which was where the nightly Worship to Fire ritual was performed that we observed from the water last night. We walked for about 15 minutes from our coach to the ghat. This walk was even more treacherous than last night, and closed-toed shoes were an absolute must. It was still dark when we left but the sky was starting to lighten. It had a completely different feel to it this morning. We stayed there for a good half hour and were able to see the ghat come to life. People were arriving for bathing, others were gathering holy water from the river to take home. We watched one priest in particular as he prepared for his morning ritual, preparing various objects, lighting the incense. Before long, a few bells started ringing. Soon others rang, even closer. The priest became more purposeful with his movements, directing his objects in sweeping motions towards the Ganges River. This was a beautiful ceremony to observe so close and in person. You can view a video we took of the morning ceremony.
At about 6:30 we walked a little further to our awaiting boat, which was the same one as last night. We headed upstream, and were able to see people already starting their daily riverside activities. Many were bathing, some were swimming, others were doing laundry, lots of worshiping, some just laughing and sharing their jovial spirits as the Ganges River awoke again. Just before the sun peaked over the Eastern horizon we went further out into the river to watch it appear in a moment of solitude. Although not as chilly as last night, long sleeves were helpful, and many had light jackets. Bug repellent was again very helpful.
After about 45 minutes we returned to the same place that our boat left. We then strolled slowly for about 15 minutes to where our coach was waiting. Even this short walk was filled with images that would prove to stick with us for a long time.
Back at the hotel, we again cleaned our shoes. We had a buffet breakfast and prepared our Tauck-provided duffel bag which was to be picked up from our room at 9:30am.
We checked out of our room and were on the coach at 10:30am. On our drive to the airport, Tour Director Peter handed out our schedules for the next two days and gave us new security tags for our carry-ons. He said the security protocol should be similar to yesterday's flight although this is a smaller airport and should be quicker.
Airport security was indeed the same as yesterday, and boarding our 45-minute flight was uneventful. The group arrived in Khajuraho at 1:20pm. This time there was no jet way connecting to our aircraft; we deplaned down stairs they rolled up to the airplane. As we flew in, we could see the temples below us. We walked through the airport and boarded our coach, which drove us for 10 minutes to our hotel which was located very close to the monuments.
Inside the lobby, Peter handed each of us an envelope with our room key and a hotel welcome letter. After dropping belongings off in our room, we went to the buffet lunch which was ready for us and was very good. They had our favorite gulab jamun so far.
At 3:30pm we boarded the coach for the Khajuraho Group of Monuments, which turned out to be only a 2-minute drive. These monuments are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are known for their amazing architecture, incorporating erotic sculptures. The temples were built between 950 and 1050 CE. We were guided through the complex for 1 1/2 hours by a local guide, and were given about 30 minutes of time on our own, which was just right. Our guide was able to point out many details that we would have completely missed on our own, such as the Kama Sutra carvings. We returned to the hotel at 5:30pm. There is a doorman at the hotel who is very photogenic.
[UPDATE: I understand that Tauck has had to eliminate the Khajuraho/Orchha stops for the 2016 tours (an extra night has been added in Udaipur). This is not a big surprise, as our Tour Director had told us that the flight and train schedules were changed periodically, and each change was making it more and more difficult for Tauck to keep these stops with a reasonable schedule for the guests. He was very frustrated by this, but it was one of those things which Tauck had absolutely no control over.]
At 6:00pm some of our group went out to the pool area where we understood a local priest would perform a ceremony to "put the pool to sleep".
Dinner was in the same restaurant as lunch, and seating began at 7:00pm. There was a choice of ordering off the menu, or having the buffet. We again chose the buffet, which was not fancy but was actually one of our favorites. Since we had an early morning, the buffet was also the quicker option, as we chose to retire early tonight. We think a number of others did the same.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: LaliT Temple View Khajuraho (one night)
Wednesday Feb 11 (Day 6) Orchha; Agra
Tauck description from mailed documents: Depart the hotel and travel by coach to Orchha, one of India's most fabulous heritage sites. Once home to royalty, the ancient temples, palaces, and cenotaphs are now inhabited by emerald parakeets and black-faced langurs. After a vegetarian lunch and some leisurely sightseeing, take a train to Agra for a two-night stay at The Oberoi Amarvilas.
Breakfast service opened at 7:00am. Before going to breakfast, we prepared our Tauck-provided duffel bags for the designated 7:30 pickup from inside our room.
At 9:30am we boarded the coach and left on our drive through rural India on our way to Orchha. Tour Director Peter had placed two maps on our seats; one was a very nice Tauck-made map of our journey, and the other was a very detailed National Geographic political map. En route to Orchha, Peter gave us fascinating information about each state in India, using the maps as our reference points.
At 11:45am we arrived at our morning rest stop. It was a souvenir shop/snack bar. It was clean and convenient, although their prices were definitely foreign tourist-oriented. Our rest break here lasted 20 minutes.
In Orchha we went first to a prearranged hotel, the Orchha Resort, to use restrooms have a buffet lunch, arriving there early afternoon. This was chosen for its convenience; there were a number of other tour groups and no Indians. After lunch we had a few minutes to stroll around the hotel grounds and stretch our legs. We then walked next door to the Chhatris Cenotaphs. We were able to see vultures nesting in the towers, and explore some secret passages for great views. This is frequently not available to tourists.
We took our coach into town and Tour Director Peter led us on a 30-minute look of the local market, stopping at various stalls and telling us about local items for sale. There were numerous monkeys watching us from above, and cows demanding we yield the path to them. There were piles of colorful powders, and part of a wedding ceremony. We returned by coach to the hotel again for one last restroom stop.
We then drove to the train station. On the way, Tour Director Peter gave each of us our seat assignment. He also handed out schedules for the next three days, plus a couple of other informational handouts. He handed out Tauck luggage tags to people who wanted to use the Tauck-provided duffel bags as regular checked luggage going forward. He said that we will be using them one more time, so don't discard them yet even if you don't need them right away. In any case, they are ours to keep after the tour is completed. He also informed us that our group photo will be taken tomorrow at the Taj Mahal.
Peter was in constant communication with a local agent who kept him updated on train status. Our train was 45 minutes delayed so we waited on the coach. Peter said it will be much more comfortable waiting on the coach than inside the train station, and once we finally went in, it was clear that he was correct. The local agent met us as we got off the coach, and led us through the station to our scheduled platform to await our train. It was very dark, crowded, noisy, and smelly. Fifteen minutes later a petrol train pulled right into the platform we were still officially scheduled to get on our train. Our local agent made some calls and found out our platform was again changed, and he led us around the corner to the right one. When our train arrived, we were escorted to the First Class car by our local agent, and we easily found our assigned seats once aboard.
Although meal service was provided, Peter warned us against having anything they offered except bottled water. Luckily we always carry a couple of Power Bars in case we choose to forgo an offered meal, and this was one of those times.
Our train arrived in Agra about 10:30pm. After a 15-minute coach ride, we arrived at our hotel at 11:00pm, and were greeted by many weary-eyed but congenial staff. Each couple was personally escorted to their room. Peter kindly had already made arrangements with the hotel restaurant to stay open late for our late arrival, or we could choose to order room service. We chose neither, as our Power Bars were all we needed. We prepared a bag of clothing to send out for laundering, and pressed the "butler" button on the wall as instructed. Within four minutes, he came and picked it up. We also did a little hand laundry in our bathroom.
Peter told us to peek out the window in the morning to check visibility for the morning Taj Mahal visit, as sometimes visibility is poor. Remembering this, before turning in for bed we parted our drapes and peeked out our window. In the dark distance we could just barely make out the silhouette of the Taj Mahal...an unexpected teaser for tomorrow.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra (1st of 2 nights)
Thursday Feb 12 (Day 7) Agra
Tauck description from mailed documents: This morning enjoy a memorable visit to the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal. Completed in 1643, this exquisitely detailed monument has been called "a vision, a dream, a poem, a wonder." It is resplendent with refined aesthetics that give the tomb a mystical aura which changes with the light of the day. Later, drive to the massive red sandstone Agra Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site built by the Emperor Akbar between 1565 and 1573. Agra Fort served as a strategic military installation as well as the royal residence, and is one of the finest examples of Mughal architectural splendor at its height. Enjoy the afternoon as you please, then return to the hotel and enjoy dinner at your leisure.
Although optional, we chose to go to the Taj Mahal for the early morning visit, as did the majority of our group. We set our alarm for 5:40am. We went to the lobby at 6:15am, where coffee was available for our group.
At 6:30am, we got on board two large golf cart-type vehicles for the three-minute drive to the Taj Mahal. Some brought light coats due to the morning briskness, but many did okay with only long sleeve shirts for warmth. There was a line already forming for ticket-holders, and we were told to queue into that line, and were given admission tickets by our local guide. After about 30 minutes in the line, the Taj opened and everyone went through a security checkpoint, separate ones for men and women. Bags were inspected and run through a scanner as monkeys watched over us. Our guide actually recommended we don't even bring bags on the morning visit in order to speed up the process.
Once inside, it was only a couple minutes of walking before we were at the Great Gate in the outlying buildings, with our first direct view of the Taj Mahal itself. This was another of the many "wow" moments of the tour. I knew the Taj Mahal was famous, iconic, architectural masterpiece, but I was not expecting to be as impressed as I actually was.
Contrary to the impression that many foreigners have, the Taj Mahal is not a church or a temple. It is actually a mausoleum, built in 1632 by a Mughal emperor to house the tomb of his favorite wife. The tomb is the central focus of the entire complex, and is framed by four minarets. The exterior is decorated by amazing inlays, carvings, calligraphy, and lattice. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our local guide did a good job of taking us from photo spot to photo spot, each one bringing us closer and closer. We ended in a perfect spot to watch the sunrise light illuminate the structure. We then had to hurry back to our prearranged meeting place for 7:45am departure back to hotel, but it was 7:55 by the time everyone got there, because so many people were tempted to stop at so many places to take more photos.
Upon our return to the hotel, we went straight into the dining room for a very quick buffet breakfast, since we had less than 30 minutes.
We then met again in the lobby at 8:30am for another Taj Mahal visit. This time we had a different local guide. There was almost no waiting line this time. Our new guide led us around the grounds with more detailed narration. We were met at a specific spot by a prearranged photographer who arranged the group and took our group photo. He also took a number of individual professional photos which would be available for later purchase.
When we got to the main structure, we had to cover our shoes with shoe covers, which we were given earlier. This time it was to protect the marble floors, not because it was a place of worship. Then we were able to go up the outside stairs and approach the domed structure. Our guide now pointed out many of the intricate details in the inlaid tiles and carvings. We were allowed to go inside, although it was very crowded and not a lot of time was needed to see the inside. Once outside again, we were given about 30 minutes on our own. All around the grounds, we were asked in a friendly manner by locals if we would like them to take our picture on our camera. We were told earlier that it is okay to have them take your picture, but they do expect a tip afterwards. The group met again at our prearranged meeting spot inside the main entrance. Once together, we boarded a couple of vans for the quick drive back to the hotel.
At 10:30am we left the hotel for Agra Fort, this time on our full-sized coach. It is only 2.5km from the Taj Mahal. We were accompanied by the same local guide who had just taken us through the Taj Mahal. The Agra Fort, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is more of a small walled city. A striking feature is the massive red sandstone utilized on the external surfaces, immediately seen when approaching the fort. We entered via the Akbar Gate, and were led at a slow stroll through the fort, with plenty of narration to explain the various structures. We spotted Ian Wright, a host of Globe Trekker, and a production crew in various locations of the fort creating a travel video.
When we returned to the coach, our individual Taj Mahal photos were waiting on our seats. They were available for 100 rupees each, but no obligations if we didn't want to keep them.
We returned to the hotel at 12:30pm. Lunch in the Bellevue Restaurant was a very nice buffet, plus they brought soup and appetizers. As we left we made dinner reservations in the same restaurant for 7:00pm.
The rest of the afternoon was unscheduled. We enjoyed our downtime, as we have had very little of it so far on the tour. We took the opportunity to catch up on some trip notes, go to cashier desk and break a 500 Rupee bill into smaller currency, and have coffee by the pool.
The laundry we sent out late last night was in our room when we returned at 5:00pm. It was impressively packaged in an elegant basket.
At 7:00pm we went to the Bellevue Restaurant for dinner. We had every intention of eating light, but the servings were all very large, with many extras. We did enjoy the larger selection of Western dishes in this restaurant. Had we chosen the specialty Esphahan Restaurant, we would have been limited to Indian food, and we...well...we were just ready for our familiar food tonight. One of our dinner mates had the Tandoori Chicken appetizer, which was excellent, and could have been a wonderful entrée on its own. My wife ordered a dessert, and I didn't. We were each brought one of the desserts. It was not the first time something like this happened. And it took a while to learn that this is not necessarily a mistake at finer restaurants in India; it is an example of how they sometimes will give you what THEY think you want, not what YOU tell them you want; they do it out of courtesy, as one friend to another, not as a server to a customer. It made for some truly great moments during a number of our meals.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra (2nd of 2 nights)
Friday Feb 13 (Day 8) Jaipur
Tauck description from mailed documents: Depart for Jaipur, also popularly known as the "Pink City" for the pink stucco architecture used throughout. Considered by many to be one of the best-planned cities, Jaipur is home to such treasures as the Hawa Mahal, the City Museum Palace and the Jantar Mantar Observatory. The Hawa Mahal palace was originally constructed to allow women of the court the opportunity to watch the activities taking place in the bazaar and the surrounding streets from behind stone-carved screens. The entire building is shaped like a crown adorning Lord Krishna's head. The City Palace covers one seventh of the city area in the heart of Jaipur. The first floor houses fine muslins, Benares silks, local hand-printed cottons and embroidered coats from north India. You may also view musical instruments and toys from the royal playroom as well as antique weaponry including pistols, blunderbusses, flintlocks, swords, rifles and daggers. The Jantar Mantar Observatory is a fascinating collection of geometric devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking stars in their orbits, ascertaining the declinations of planets and determining celestial altitudes. Join us this evening for a special dinner extravaganza.
This morning we had our bags ready for 7:00am pickup inside our room. We settled our room account at the reception desk before having breakfast, which opened at 7:00.
At 8:00am the group was on the coach, and we promptly departed for our drive to Jaipur, Rajasthan. Hotel staff lined the driveway to bid us farewell as we drove away.
As we drove to Jaipur, we again were able to observe India life all around us, but this time in a more rural setting, but slightly more developed than our drive a couple days ago. Although taking the coach from one destination to another can be one of the tedious necessities of tours, on this tour it was indeed one of the valuable pieces of the puzzle that added to our overall understanding and insight into India and its people. Today we went through rural India, observing people using every mode of transport imaginable. We could look out onto what was a moving snapshot of everyday life. We were able to see the similarities and differences between that which we previously observed when we drove around within the larger cities.
Tour Director Peter once again provided us with his many insights covering a variety of topics in which he is well-versed. Some of the areas he discussed today were Gandhi; the use of the word chachi; India hotel properties and ownerships; elephants; festivals; arranged marriages; sexuality and morality; honking car horns and flashing headlights. He informed us that tomorrow at the Amber Fort we will have the opportunity to ride elephants up if we choose, but it is not a Tauck-sponsored activity and would be at our own expense and liability.
Our mid-morning rest stop was at a small cafe/souvenir store. Peter arranged the tips for the restroom attendants.
Once in Jaipur we went directly to our hotel at 12:15pm where we were greeted with a bindi as we entered, and were led immediately into the dining room with our carry-ons for lunch. We could order a choice of appetizer, main course, and dessert. We also were asked to each fill out a form indicating our choices for tomorrow's box lunch. After lunch our room keys were ready outside the dining room, and a staff member escorted each couple to their room since the hotel grounds are sizable and can be confusing at first. We had a little time to settle into our room; we prepared a couple items to send out for laundering.
At 3:30pm the group left the hotel for the Jantar Mantar Observatory, which is another UNESCO World Heritage site. We were advised to bring sun protection because there isn't much shade there. We also were told that we would not be returning to the hotel until after dinner. We were joined on the coach by a local guide. We drove through town, past the Hawa Mahal with its red sandstone facade, and were told that we would be returning here tomorrow for a better view. Once at the observatory, our guide led us into the complex, taking us to the most significant structures and pointing out important details. The site has numerous architectural astronomical instruments, with construction completed in 1738. One of them is considered the world's largest stone sundial. After completing his guided tour, we were given about 15 minutes to explore on our own, after which the group gathered by the entrance.
At 4:30 we walked to the adjacent City Palace where we were given a walking tour of some of the major buildings and courtyards, and allowed time on our own.
At 5:30 we returned to the coach, facing the usual throng of hawkers. We drove about 15 minutes, and were let off in an area that had many cycle rickshaws for hire. Our local guide arranged one for each pair in our group. Then off we all went on a 15-minute exciting ride down busy streets, dodging cars, people, and animals. Our ride ended at one of the entrances to the Taj Rambagh Palace which was the hotel where we would be enjoying our dinner.
Our walk from this point took only a couple of minutes. As we drew closer, we could hear music ahead of us. We started to see the small troupe of entertainers, and also horses, camels, and elephants. It turned out that our group was being welcomed to the palace in a manner that Indian wedding guests would be welcomed to a wedding ceremony. It was another very special moment for our group.
We took our dinner seats on an outdoor terrace prepared just for our group. We were entertained with private dancers, a well-known sitar musician, and treated to a fine buffet dinner that included both Indian and Western foods, and a cook-to-order pasta station. As the darkness of evening took over, we could hear the sounds of wild birds surrounding us, adding to the ambiance. Just after 8:00pm the group slowly wandered towards the front of the hotel, having plenty of time to admire the beautiful hotel architecture and grounds along our way. We boarded our coach in front of the hotel, and were returned to our own Oberoi hotel at 9:00pm.
This was a good hotel to do a few hand laundry items before bedtime. The bathroom layout was good for laying items out for drying, and there was plenty of air circulating.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur (1st of 2 nights)
Saturday Feb 14 (Day 9) Jaipur
Tauck description from mailed documents: Journey to Amber Fort to admire the massive gateways, pillared pavilions and palaces that pay tribute to ancient kingdoms. Situated on a hillside overlooking Moatha Lake, Amber Fort is a classic fusion of Mughal and Hindu architecture, built in red sandstone and white marble. Tour Amber Palace and the royal apartments, noted for elegant frescoes and fascinating jali (lattice-worked) screens. Admire Seesh Mahal ("Hall of Mirrors") known for its craftsmanship. Thousands of mirror pieces adorn the walls and the ceiling in such a way that any streak of light makes them sparkle and illuminates the entire room. Enjoy lunch at the Raj Palace before returning to the hotel and free time to explore Jaipur on your own. Enjoy a leisurely evening and dinner at the hotel.
Breakfast opened at 7:00am. It was similar to the Oberoi in Delhi; buffet plus cook-to-order menu options. After breakfast there was time to stroll the hotel grounds, and admire the resident peacocks.
At 9:00am the group was on the coach, along with the same local guide who was with us yesterday. Two in our group chose not to go on today's tour, choosing to do local shopping on their own instead.
We headed in a similar direction as yesterday, coming to the main street with the Hawa Mahal at about 9:30. Hawa Mahal means "Palace of Winds", named because it was built as a high screen wall that allowed women of the palace to observe activities in the street without being seen by the outsiders. It is constructed with intricate honeycomb-like latticework of distinctive red and pink sandstone. Our coach driver dropped us off at one end of the street, allowing us to get out for a 10-minute walk down the few blocks across from the Hawa Mahal. This gave us good photo opportunities. The coach met us again in a few blocks.
From here we drove another 20 minutes to the parking area for the Amber Fort. It is also known as the Amer Fort or Amer Palace because it is located in the town of Amer. It is known for its Hindu style elements, large ramparts, gates, and cobbled paths; it overlooks Maota Lake. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Everyone in our group chose the option to privately pay for the elephant ride to the top. It was 900 Rupees per person, plus another 100 Rupee tip at the top. There was a line to board the elephants, but it only took 20 minutes or so of waiting. Each elephant took two people. The boarding area was basically the top of one of the walls. Riders sat side-saddle on a platform on the elephant. It then took about 15 minutes to ride up to the main courtyard, where we pulled up to another wide ledge and were helped off. The elephant drivers are not shy about reminding you about the tip as they approach the unloading area. The ride was lots of fun, but involved a lot of swaying and was not smooth, so would not be good for anyone with back or neck problems. Also, there were a number of Indian photographers taking pictures along the ride. These photographers would find our group at the top, and offer to sell the prints to each person. They start with high prices, but can be bargained down to 2 for 150 rupees (sometimes less) as you walked closer to the actual ticketed entry area. Some, but not all, were again seen as we exited the fort. The sellers do have bargaining limits, and our group moved quickly to the ticketing area, so if you like the pictures and want them, act fast; don't spend too much time over-bargaining or you will lose out completely.
Once our group was all at the top, our local guide escorted us inside the fort though the Ganesh Pol entrance. He guided us around the palace, taking us to courtyards, and stopping at areas such as the Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace), Sila Devi temple. We had a few minutes to wander on our own, then returned to our group meeting spot at 11:30. From here we walked outside to a parking area where there were dozens of Jeeps waiting to take people down the hill and back to the coach parking area. There were four people per Jeep for the windy bumpy ride that took us down the hill, through the town, across the river, and to the parking area.
The ever-present hawkers were especially aggressive at this parking area. Tour Director Peter had warned us of this ahead of time, and wisely told us that the best way to get them to leave you alone is to simply ignore them rather than saying "no"; we found that to be worthy advice. We boarded our coach, and drove to the Raj Palace hotel for our lunch. We were greeted at the hotel by two musicians, and led to an inner courtyard where we were entertained by a 15-minute puppet show. From here we went inside to the restaurant, and by 12:35pm were all seated at a long table in a private well-appointed room. Everyone received the same food today, which was tapas style, and brought out ceremoniously. Everyone received a large round tray with many individual small dishes, containing a variety of foods. This was followed by three dessert samplers. Lunch lasted about an hour.
After lunch we reboarded our coach and headed back to the hotel. The group was given the option of staying on the coach which would end up at the hotel, or get off with the local guide for shopping at the Gem Palace, and the local guide would arrange for rides back to the hotel. About half the group opted for shopping, the other half (which included us) opting to return directly to hotel. The coach arrived at the hotel at 2:50pm.
We used the remainder of the afternoon to catch up on trip notes, and enjoy a coffee by the pool. This would have been a good opportunity to swim in the beautiful hotel pool had we been so inclined. The laundry we sent out yesterday was delivered to our room at 5:00pm today.
Dinner was on our own at any of the hotel restaurants of our choosing. Since today was Valentine's Day, we opted for a quiet romantic dinner for two in an outdoor courtyard, entertained by musicians and dancers.
Tomorrow's schedule was to start earlier than usual, so we packed our bags for an early pickup.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur (2nd of 2 nights)
Sunday Feb 15 (Day 10) Udaipur
Tauck description from mailed documents: Today we drive to Udaipur, whose origins date back to 728 AD, for a two night stay at your magnificent Oberoi lakefront garden resort. Picturesque ghats and ancient temples line Lake Pichola's shores against the backdrop of the old walled city. A manmade lake created mainly for defensive purposes, Lake Pichola is approximately 2.5 miles long and one mile wide. Dinner is at leisure at the hotel.
We set our alarm for 5:30 this morning. At 6:00, luggage was picked up from inside the room. Breakfast opened at 6:30. After breakfast we settled our hotel account at reception desk. Everyone was on the coach on time for our 8:00am departure for Udaipur.
On the coach, Tour Director Peter recounted his experience of the 2008 Mumbai bombing attacks. Peter was just finishing up a tour in Mumbai when the attacks occurred, and some of his guests were staying at the Oberoi, which was one of the bombing locations. Hearing him talk about his experience of those tense four days was incredible, and definitely added another puzzle piece to our understanding of India and its people.
Peter handed out the schedules for our next three days, as well as a handout with return flight information after the tour. He gave us two new luggage tags with unique colors. These were to put on our bags that will stay in Mumbai and not go on to Cochin, such as duffel bags. Only bags with our original luggage tags will go south with us. He suggested leaving our cool weather items behind since climate will be quite warmer in Cochin.
At 1:00pm we had a lunch stop at a Reliance rest stop. We were each given our box lunches containing the items we requested during yesterday's lunch. Most lunches had items such as panini sandwich, wraps, chips, brownie, hard-boiled egg, beverage. There were restrooms available, and although not the cleanest they were adequate; Peter was prepared, and passed out toilet seat covers.
We were back on the road at 1:30, with 80 miles to go. A video was played on the coach television that had to do with an optional temple.
We arrived at our Udaipur hotel at 3:30pm. Our keys were awaiting us, and each guest was led to their room, again because of the size and irregular layout of the property. There were no more planned activities for the day. Our luggage would not be delivered for a few minutes, so we took advantage of the time and nice weather and strolled around the beautiful hotel grounds looking for good photo opportunities, and enjoying coffee at the bar. Our luggage was in our room by the time we returned. This was also a good time to relax and swim in the hotel pools.
Guests were free to dine at a hotel restaurant of our choice whenever we desired. We chose the outdoor Chandni restaurant, lit by candles, with occasional live entertainment, and a menu of both Indian and Western food. We dined at 7:00, and felt lucky to get an outdoor seat as it was completely filled up by 7:45. Dinner service was speedy, and top-notch quality, as is the norm with Oberoi.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur (1st of 2 nights)
Monday Feb 16 (Day 11) Udaipur
Tauck description from mailed documents: This morning we depart for a cruise on Lake Pichola. Later, explore the sights of Udaipur and the 18th-century fountain gardens of Saheliyonki Bari, built as a pleasure park for the 48 maids of the Maharana's wife. Admire the beautifully carved marble pavilions and lotus pools within the gardens. Visit Jagdish Mandir Temple, decorated with friezes of dancers, musicians, elephants and horsemen, and the City Palace, a labyrinth of richly decorated courtyards, frescoed galleries and marble temples. After lunch at a local restaurant, we return to the hotel to take advantage of its many fine amenities.
Breakfast opened at 7:00am. It was a buffet with option to order from a menu. We then had time to explore the hotel grounds again, finding some treasures to photograph that we hadn't found yesterday.
At 9:00 the group met in the lobby and were met by a local guide. We walked the hotel grounds to the hotel's dock on the lake where a boat was ready for us. We all boarded, put on our life preservers, and began our 45-minute cruise on beautiful Lake Pichola. We were told stories of movies filmed here, and shown various historic buildings and palaces. We were informed that the lake was actually an artificial fresh water lake created in 1362. Our end destination was across the lake, directly below a restaurant where we would later have lunch.
We walked up the hill to the restaurant, and continued on towards the City Palace. We actually continued on through the palace courtyard at the top of the hill, and exiting out the other side. We were making our way to the Jagdish Mandir Temple, which was about 5-minute walk down the hill on the other side of the palace, in the middle of a congested area. The temple is a large, active Hindu temple, constructed in 1651 on a tall terrace. It is not large, but has some beautiful exterior carvings. Once up the steep stairs to the terrace, we took our shoes off and left them behind, placing shoe covers over our feet. Our director assured us that he had taken care of the person watching our shoes to make sure they were safe. We then slowly circled around outside the temple while our local guide pointed out various architectural features and talked about Hinduism and Hindu temples. We were then allowed a few minutes to circle through the inside of the temple. It was fairly crowded inside because there was active worship going on, but it was very interesting to watch the worship, even if only for a few moments. Photographs were not allowed in the interior of the temple.
Once back outside the temple, we were led back to the City Palace courtyard. Now about 11:15, we went into the City Palace where our guide took us through on a quick tour of the highlights, lasting about 30 minutes. We were then given 30 minutes free time, which allowed some shopping time in the courtyard stalls, and a restroom break.
At 12:30pm the group had regathered at our predetermined meeting spot, then walked back the way we first came in, and went to the lakeside restaurant for lunch on the terrace. We were served two appetizers, rice, two main dishes, and a dessert plate with three desserts. We noticed that most people in the group were now eating fairly light and fairly cautiously, as there was a little more Delhi Belly from Indian spices and dietary changes. After using restaurant restrooms, we walked a short distance to a coach, boarding it at 1:40.
On the way to the fountain gardens of Saheliyon Ki Bari (Court of the Maidens) we had a little city tour via old and new parts of Udaipur. We arrived at the gardens at 2:10pm, and were led through by our local guide. He stopped in a couple of strategic locations and clapped his hands, and the previously-quiet fountains immediately leapt into action.
We were back on the coach at 2:40, did some on-bus hawker shopping, and drove back to our hotel, arriving there at 3:20. After getting off the coach, some of our group walked to the shops immediately outside the hotel grounds for some more shopping therapy.
Back in our room, we packed bags for a 7:00pm pickup tonight.
At 5:00 we went to a sari and turban demonstration arranged just for our group. I have to admit, I was lukewarm on the idea, but it was actually more fun than I expected. It lasted about 50 minutes, and made for some fun pictures.
For dinner we went to the same outdoor dining area as last night, again arriving at 7:00. We had an enjoyable meal, choosing Western entrées tonight. We decided to pass on dessert, so the entire meal lasted less than an hour. This was just fine; we were hoping for an early evening since tomorrow was scheduled to be an early morning.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur (2nd of 2 nights)
Tuesday Feb 17 (Day 12) Cochin (Kochi)
Tauck description from mailed documents: Your journey continues to Cochin (Kochi) this morning on a flight to the enchanting state of Kerala, where a mosaic of coconut groves, paddy fields, wide beaches and verdant canals invite discovery. Early this evening, experience a spectacular sunset cruise on the Arabian Sea as local fishermen bring in the day's catch, followed by a leisurely dinner in your hotel. Attend a performance of the world renowned Kathakali dancers performing a major classical dance of Southern India. The word "kathak" means "to tell a story." Today, the story-telling aspect has evolved into an abstract exploration of rhythm and dance movement using local instruments.
Early start today. We set our alarms for 3:45am. Breakfast for our group was arranged in the lobby bar starting at 4:30, consisting of coffee, juices, and light breads and pastries. at 5:00am the group was on the coach, and left for the 45-minute drive to the Udaipur airport.
To gain entry into this airport building we were required to show our passport and printed flight itinerary showing our name and flights (which Tour Director Peter supplied us on the coach). We then went through a second similar screening at another door. Then we were in the check-in area, where Peter left us to get our boarding passes. He returned without delay, handed each of us our boarding passes, and handed out the necessary hand-carry security screening tags. We then proceeded through the hand bag security screening. Here they required large cameras, notebook computers, and iPads to be removed. Small 5-ounce water bottles were allowed, but not larger 20-ounce bottles. Once through this screening, we each confirmed that each tag was indeed stamped, and then proceeded up the escalator to our boarding gate. For boarding at the gate, we were required to show our boarding pass and bag security tags; passport not needed.
The Udaipur-to-Mumbai flight leg was uneventful. The 1-hour 25-minute flight departed at 7:05am and arrived in Mumbai at 8:30am. This was a great flight to have a window seat, namely during the approach into Mumbai Airport. The densely populated shacks of the slums that extend right up to the airport runway walls are a very unique sight.
Our 1-hour 15-minute Mumbai-to-Kochi flight was not scheduled to depart until 1:25pm so Tour Director Peter decided to make full use of our time. Once off the plane in Mumbai, we immediately exited the airport and boarded a coach he had arranged, along with a local guide. We did a small city tour by coach. We even had a brief stop at the Dhobi Ghat, which is a well-known open air laundromat and has been called the world's largest outdoor laundry. I was glad we stopped here because I had read about it in numerous books before our travels. Next we went to a spice market where we took a very slow stroll through the area that was very active with locals.
Back on the coach, we drove to a hotel close to the airport for a leisurely buffet lunch. We were then driven to the nearby airport where a Tauck representative met us on the coach (and who we would meet again on our departure day). He informed Tour Director Peter that it looked like the flight was delayed 1.5 hours. Our group went in, and the security protocol was similar to that at the Udaipur airport this morning. We went to the large common waiting area and found seats. Our 1.5-hour delay ended up being a 3-hour delay. We finally boarded our plane, and the flight was again uneventful.
We arrived in Cochin at 6:30pm. We were advised to use the restroom here, as we had a one-hour drive to our hotel. We were on our coach at 6:55pm and on our way. We were given our printed schedules for the next five days. Along the way we were told about the Cochin area, its high literacy rate, its history of democratically-elected Communist leadership. The entire area we drove through was very crowded, mostly because we were in the middle of a Hindu celebration dedicated to Lord Shiva. We arrived at our resort at 8:00pm. Because of our 3-hour flight delay, we missed the dancer's performance, and our cruise was rescheduled for tomorrow.
We did a quick stop in our rooms to freshen up, then the entire group chose to dine to the hotel's Rice Boat restaurant, which Peter had recommended for their seafood. This ended up being a fun experience, and the seafood was indeed wonderful. I don't think they even had non-seafood options on the menu. The Lobster Newburgh was wonderful, as was the fresh fish prepared with citrus. Calamari and prawns were good appetizers, and the soups were delicious. Most of our group was done by 9:45pm, and ready for sleep.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Vivanta by Taj Malabar (1st of 2 nights)
Wednesday Feb 18 (Day 13) Cochin
Tauck description from mailed documents: Known as the "Queen of the Arabian Sea," Kochi (Cochin) entices with a rich cultural legacy dating back to the 15th century. This seaside city was settled by the Portuguese and spread across several islands. Explore the Mattancherry district, home to a Jewish quarter that was established more than six-centuries ago. Today it bustles with merchants selling tea, spices, woodcarvings and antiques. Visit the Dutch Palace, the St. Francis Church (dating to 1510) and the temporary burial site of Vasco de Gama. See Fort Cochin, the oldest European settlement in India, with quiet streets and architecture influenced by the Dutch and British. Experience a unique culinary demonstration in the private home of an acclaimed Kerala chef this evening. Learn about the spices and seafood that have made Kerala cuisine famous before enjoying your freshly prepared meal.
After breakfast we did some hand laundry because there was a laundry line in the shower, and it was also easy to hang the line we brought ourselves; there wasn't as much air circulation as the last place we did hand laundry though. We also sent a couple items out for laundering.
At 9:00am we went outside to our lecture. There were chairs set up in an open area overlooking the Arabian Sea, with bottled water available. The lecturer was a local professor who was very knowledgeable about local history. He gave a very interesting presentation, emphasizing the spice route. The lecture lasted about one hour, until 10:00.
We had 15 minutes to go back to our room, use restroom, and grab our things for the day. At 10:15 we were on the coach with a local guide, departing for a morning of sightseeing. Our first stop was the Dutch Palace, more properly known as the Mattancherry Palace. It is actually now a museum. Our guide led us through various rooms, telling us about the history represented, and the meaning of what we can see in the old murals. Photographs were not allowed here.
Next we went to Paradesi Synagogue, located in Jew Town quarter of Old Cochin. It is the last synagogue in Kochi, and the number of members is said to be currently very low. We removed our shoes prior to entering the synagogue, again to protect the tiled floors. After a brief talk inside, we were given time on our own to wander back to our coach parking area via the U-shaped market street outside. This seems to have become quite touristy, and the day was particularly hot, humid, and still.
The group was back on the coach at 12:30. We drove 8 minutes to the Church of Saint Francis, which is the oldest European church in India, built in 1503. Explorer Vasco da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 and was buried at the church for 14 years, until he was moved to Lisbon.
Shortly after 1:00 we went to Brunton Boatyard Restaurant for lunch. It was a fixed menu, but had a good variety.
At 2:20 we boarded our boat at Brunton Boatyard for a harbor cruise. It was to make up for the sunset cruise we missed last night because of flight delays. It was narrated by Tour Director Peter for most of the cruise, and was a very pleasant cruise, giving us good views of the picturesque old Chinese fishing nets. We also cruised in close to an active fishing pier where fishermen were sorting their day's catch. The boat had good sun protection. Beverages were served.
At 3:25 we were at our cruise end destination which was the hotel pier, across the water from where we started.
We had two hours of downtime before our next activity. At 5:30pm the group left in a couple of vans for our culinary demonstration/dinner, after applying mosquito repellent as recommended by our Tour Director. It took about 15 minutes to drive to our host Nimmy's home. Chef Nimmy and her husband Paul warmly welcomed our group as soon as we arrived. She led us through her cozy home to the area set up for her demonstrations, which was in her back yard under a covered area. We were seated in a couple of rows, facing her cooking stage. She handed out four recipe cards to everyone so that we could follow along as she cooked each of the four dishes. She chatted with us the entire time, fielding any questions we had. As soon as she was finished with the fourth dish, we moved to the dinner table, and were served the meal. Wine and beer was served during the demonstration and during dinner. Nimmy then sat down with us, and chatted some more. She was very friendly, and enjoyed sharing her experiences with us. It was a fun and personal experience.
We returned to the hotel at 8:30. The laundry we had sent out earlier this morning had been delivered to our room while we were gone.
Meals: B, D
Hotel: Vivanta by Taj Malabar (2nd of 2 nights)
Thursday Feb 19 (Day 14) Kumarakom
Tauck description from mailed documents: Travel through the small villages of coastal Kerala, dominated by tall, elegant coconut palms. Arrive at the Kumarakom Lake Resort for a memorable and relaxing two-night stay. The resort is tucked away in picturesque Kumarakom, amidst meandering streams and waterways. Join us for an evening of authentic cultural Mohiniattam entertainment. Mohiniattam means "Mohini's dance." According to Indian mythology, Mohini was an enchantress who seduced people. Today, the main theme revolves around love and devotion to God.
Breakfast opened at 7:00am. Our departure was not until 10:30, so we had a rare leisurely morning at the resort. We prepared our luggage for a 9:30am pickup from inside our room.
We were on the coach for a prompt 10:30am departure for our 1-hour 45-minute drive to Kumarakom. Along the way Peter handed out a book list and a movie list, both containing some of his personal favorites as well as prior guest recommendations. He went down the list, commenting on each movie or book one by one, so that we could note the ones that might fit our personal preferences. He also handed out the schedule for our final days, and airport transfer information for each guest. He wanted to start this early so there would be plenty of time to make any necessary changes. Also distributed was a copy of an email contact list that was collected by one of the guests in our group.
Peter had told us that Communism had a strong presence in this area. We saw many examples of it during our drive, particularly the red Communist flags, hammer and sickle symbols. It was very strange to see this, even though we knew it was by democratic choice of the people rather than by force.
At 12:15pm we arrived at the lake resort. The group left hand carry-on bags in a section of the lobby, and we were taken directly to the waterside Seafood Bar restaurant for lunch. We ordered directly from the regular menu; it was a beautiful atmosphere. After our relaxed hour-long lunch, Tour Director Peter handed out our room keys. When we returned to the lobby to pick up our carry-on bags, we were met by a staff member who escorted us to our room. She showed us various features of the somewhat non-typical room. An especially striking feature was the bathroom, which was completely outdoors open air. Peter did give us instructions on using the bathroom, especially after dark: turn on the fan and the light; keep the door to the room closed.
After settling in, we returned to the waterside restaurant for coffee. As with so many of the hotel staff we had talked with on our tour, there was a very friendly one working here also. He saw our camera and offered to take some photos of us with the wonderful water as a backdrop. He was very good with cameras, and took some great pictures. He hinted to us that there were some big-name celebrities staying at the resort with us. He also pointed out the room that Prince Charles prefers to stay in. We then walked around the beautiful and tranquil grounds, finding some seating in a grassy area to write some notes. At first my phone showed no cellular service, but when I powered down and restarted the phone, it showed a good connection. We sent a couple items out for laundry that we planned on wearing on our travel home day.
It was a hot day, but a slight breeze coming in off the water kept it bearable in the open areas. In closed areas such as our room or the attached outdoor bathroom it was very warm, even though the room itself had a ceiling fan.
At 3:15 we took a seat in the Thattukada teashop area, and had afternoon tea while continuing writing our notes. Very soon a couple of the celebrity guests sat down for tea also. It was fun and interesting to see them enjoying the resort as we were, but without the stereotypical paparazzi watching them.
We freshened up for dinner, and applied bug repellent as recommended by our Tour Director. At 6:30 we went to the area set up just for us, where we were treated to a performance by local dancers as the sun set on the lake behind them. At 7:15 we were invited to take seats at the dining tables behind us. We were given a menu, but this was just to inform us of the selections that were being served to us.
After returning to the room we showered to remove the bug repellent before retiring to bed. We slept with the ceiling fan on low which seemed to keep the room just cool enough.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Kumarakom Lake Resort (1st of 2 nights)
Friday Feb 20 (Day 15) Kumarakom
Tauck description from mailed documents: Board unique houseboats for an exotic cruise through the beautiful canals of the "Venice of the East" and across Vembanad Lake. Enjoy a Kerala-style buffet lunch during your cruise. The entire afternoon is free to spend as you wish. Optional activities include bird watching, pottery classes and boating. Or, sample the resort's rejuvenating spa services, including the acclaimed Ayurveda massages. This evening, attend a martial arts demonstration showcasing the Kalaripayattu form of martial arts. Kalarippayat literally means "acquired skill" of art. "Kalari" means school or arena, and "payat" is skill training, exercise or practice. It is the most comprehensive personal combat training system anywhere in the world. The training includes exercises to develop sharp reflexes for unarmed combat and combat techniques using mace, spears, daggers and sword and shield. There is also a unique Kerala weapon; the lethal flexible sword, called the urumi, which can be concealed as a waist belt.
We awoke early, so used the quiet time to do some hand laundry in the outdoor bathroom sink. At 7:00 there was an hour-long yoga session at the pool pavilion. After a fast breakfast most of the group met in the hotel lobby at 8:30 for a walk. It lasted just under one hour, was guided by one of the hotel staff, and took us through residential areas, ending up at a Catholic temple on the water. We then retraced our steps back to the resort.
We cleaned up for the day, and went to the waterside Seafood Bar for coffee. At 12:00 the group gathered at the dock where two houseboats were waiting to take us on a cruise, half the group on each. The houseboats offered plenty of sun protection, and were quite comfortable. There were three crew -- Captain, cook, and server. The boat had two bedrooms and bathrooms, a kitchen, and front open air eating area. All areas were very clean. We first cruised along the coast and were served beverages and snacks. We then headed out into the wide open lake, and lunch service began. There was plenty of food, all of which was cooked. Neither boat had our Tour Director or a guide. This was simply a quiet, relaxing, scenic getaway; a welcome contrast to the sometimes overwhelming side of India. It lasted about three hours; we were back at the hotel at 3:10.
As it did yesterday, a nice breeze started in the afternoon to help make the heat more bearable. The clothing items we hand washed this morning were already noticeably drier.
At 3:40 we went for afternoon tea again. The Chai tea and freshly made appetizers were nice. Also a treat was the fresh coconut that they cut open and served with a straw. After drinking the fresh coconut water from it, they took it and broke it into smaller pieces, and returned it so we could eat the succulent fresh coconut meat. It was so pleasant here that we stayed a couple of hours, catching up on our notes. Some guests chose the couple of hours this afternoon to schedule spa services.
At 7:00pm, after applying our bug repellent, the group gathered in a grassy area adjacent to the tea area and watched a martial arts demonstration put on just for our group. It lasted about 35 minutes. We could then choose our dinner location, but most of the group chose the Seafood Bar.
As we did last night, we showered after returning to the room to remove the bug repellent before retiring to bed.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Kumarakom Lake Resort (2nd of 2 nights)
Saturday Feb 21 (Day 16) Mumbai
Tauck description from mailed documents: This morning depart for the glamorous seaside "City of Gold," Mumbai (Bombay), surrounded on three sides by the Arabian Sea. Enjoy an orientation tour of this vibrant city en route to your hotel.
We settled our room account before breakfast. At 7:30, we were the first from our group to arrive at breakfast, but one of the resorts celebrity guests was already there also.
Luggage was picked up from inside our room at 8:15. We boarded the coach at 9:00 for our drive to the Cochin airport. We took a different route than we drove when we arrived a couple days ago. Today we were driving further inland so we would have different scenery. Along the drive, Tour Director Peter told us about the Tauck company and its history, and he shared his personal upcoming plans, which included being a tour director for a brand new Tauck tour to some Middle East countries. He handed out the Tauck surveys, which are referred to as the "Hope and Trust" forms. He reviewed our schedule for today and tomorrow. The area we were driving through seemed to have even more Communist displays than we saw coming in.
At 11:40 we arrived at the Marriott Hotel by the airport, where we had a buffet lunch. We reboarded the coach at 12:30 for the drive to the airport drop-off location, which was only a few minutes away. Our checked luggage had been already processed while we were eating lunch. Security protocol was similar to our other intracountry flights.
Our flight was again uneventful, and arrived in Mumbai at 3:45pm. After using the airport restrooms, we were met by our local guide who led us outside to our awaiting coach. We boarded and left at 4:20. The drive to our hotel took just over one hour. Along the way our local guide filled us with plenty of interesting tidbits, such as the fact that most milk in India is water buffalo milk, and most "beef" is also water buffalo. We made a brief stop at the Victoria Station where we could get out for photos.
We arrived at our Mumbai hotel at 5:30. Right where our coach stopped at the hotel, there was a wedding celebration with the groom present, surrounded by lots of joyous friends and relatives shouting their advice. Security was always present at all of the hotels where we stayed on the tour, but it was noticeably stronger at this hotel. We were given our room keys as soon as we entered the hotel, and our bags had already been delivered to our rooms.
For dinner tonight we chose Vetro, the hotel's fine Italian dining restaurant. At 7:00 we were the first ones there, but it started to fill up as we were finishing. The meal was superb; a wonderful choice with great service and food. We did note that there was a sign posted at the entry requesting guests wear a jacket or business casual.
Meals: B, L, D
Hotel: Oberoi, Mumbai (1st of 3 nights)
Sunday Feb 22 (Day 17) Mumbai
Tauck description from mailed documents: Mumbai is the capital of Maharashtra and the economic powerhouse of India. This morning, visit the Gateway of India, erected to commemorate the landing of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911. Cruise to nearby Elephanta Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to a magnificent series of cave temples with sculptured interiors dating back to the 6th century. See the triple-headed Shiva statue, the Mahesamurti, depicting the Creator (facing right), Protector (the crowned face at the center), and Destroyer (facing left, with serpents for hair). Join us this evening for a farewell cocktail reception at your hotel.
Breakfast opened at 7:00.
At 8:15 the group departed by coach for Elephanta Island. Our local guide was on the coach. We first drove by the Mumbai Big Ben tower, then straight to India Gate where we boarded a boat. The boat ride to get to the island was about one hour, and our local guide talked about the statues that would be seen on Elephanta. We were instructed not to take photos from the boat because of a nearby naval base. Once there at about 10:00, we were given the option of walking or taking a train to the base of the mountain stairs. The group met at the stairs, and followed our local guide up. The stairs were covered by a blue tarp, and lined on both sides by souvenir vendors. The air was very still and hot. There was an option to be carried up the stairs.
The entrance to the park is at the top of the stairs, and this is where the guide purchased our tickets. Our local guide led us around to the major features, and explained everything about Elephanta. We were given five minutes free time before it was time to start descending the stairs. We made our way back to the boat. The boat ride back was slower; it took 1.5 hours. The drive from here to the Oberoi was 15 minutes.
The coach returned to the hotel at 1:45pm. We went to the adjacent Trident Hotel for their buffet lunch. It wasn't quite as nice of a restaurant as the other Oberois, but buffet selections were numerous, and we were all quite hungry today.
The afternoon was at leisure. Some of the group went out and did some Mumbai activities on their own, but we chose to stay at the hotel because I felt the early signs of a cold taking hold.
At 5:00pm the group met in the Eau Bar for our Farewell Cocktail Reception. We gave Tour Director Peter our Tauck surveys, and a Thank You card with a hand-written note of thanks along with his gratuity. Beverages were served from the bar, and appetizers were brought around. Guests mingled for about 30 minutes, sharing their recent memories and saying their goodbyes. Then Peter had us arrange the chairs in a circle, and he spoke to the group. He went around the circle, asking each individual to briefly tell what his/her highlight of the trip was. This was very interesting; I have not had a Tour Director do this before, but it was fun. The answers were quite varied, and some were surprising. Indeed, Peter said that there was a wider range of responses from our group than usual. He reviewed our airport transfer details again. The reception concluded at 6:30pm. Casual attire was completely appropriate for this reception.
Not being very hungry tonight, we had a quick dinner in the main Fenix restaurant off the lobby.
Meals: B, L
Hotel: Oberoi, Mumbai (2nd of 3 nights)
Monday Feb 23 (Day 18) Mumbai
Tauck description from mailed documents: Tour ends: Mumbai (Bombay) Airport. Fly home anytime. Airport transfers are included from the final night's hotel to Sahar International Airport for all guests, including those who have purchased a post-tour stay. Most international flights depart between 2:00-3:00 AM.
Entire day on our own. This was an extra day. Our flight home departed after midnight tonight...at 1:40am. We chose to book one extra post-tour hotel night with a (very) early checkout so we had a room available until we had to leave the hotel for the airport at 10:30pm Monday night.
The cold that I felt hitting me a couple of days ago hit me as a full-blown sinus infection last night. Since today was an extra day, and we didn't have any firm plans, we decided to have a day of rest so that my travel home would be as comfortable as possible. We did manage to find the pharmacy in the adjacent Trident hotel that stocked Western medicine, and we were able to purchase a Z-pack of azithromycin for 70 Rupees. It wasn't easy to find the pharmacy; it was just a small narrow non-descript shop, not at all typical appearance of what we would think of as a pharmacy. But the proprietor understood English, and knew exactly what we were looking for.
When we checked out of the hotel, I paid part of our bill (mostly a couple of meals) with some leftover Rupees I had, saving a couple for airport use. The rest of our bill was put on our credit card.
Our checked bags were supposed to be picked up in our room by 10:00. But by 10:05 nobody had arrived. We could have called concierge and had them picked up, but we felt better simply taking them down ourselves. We took all our bags to the lower level, below reception, as directed. Our Tauck-arranged transportation was there a couple minutes early for our 10:30pm meeting time. We confirmed that all our luggage, including checked bags, were on the same van we were getting on. The drive to the airport was without delay this time of the evening (10:30pm). It took only 45 minutes. The Tauck representative was waiting for us at passenger drop-off. He put our luggage on a cart and led us in. He pointed us to our check-in counter, and pointed out where to go after we checked in, i.e. the passport control prior to the departure gates. He indicated that there was a separate one for business class passengers.
We checked in easily, getting our printed boarding passes for all three of our flight legs. Passport control involved inspection of our passports and the visa, and stamping it with an exit stamp. Our boarding pass was also stamped. The Mumbai airport was beautiful. It reminded us of Gaudi architecture we had seen in Barcelona Spain. It was well laid out, and had nice shops.
Our flight departure time was actually moved 15 minutes sooner than scheduled. The rest of our journey home was routine.
Hotel: Oberoi, Mumbai (3rd of 3 nights; extra post-stay night)
Tuesday Feb 24 (Extra day) Travel home
We arrive in our home town at 3:00pm the same day, about 27 hours after we leave Mumbai.
Our first gathering as a tour group was on Day 2 when we met at 8:15am at the hotel's Club Bar in preparation for our city sightseeing. This is when we first met our Tour Director and our fellow travelers. We had an orientation covering many different applicable topics, lasting about 50 minutes. This is when we received a guest list with everyone's names and home towns.
There were papers waiting for us at the hotel front desk the day before this first meeting that contained more detailed instructions and schedules.
The Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner was on Day 2, following our day of sightseeing.
The reception started at 6:15pm. Although we had already met some of our fellow travelers, this was a good opportunity to meet and chat with those who we didn't get a chance to meet during the day. At 7:00pm we moved to one of the hotel restaurants for dinner.
Dress did not need to be too formal for this. Men could wear sports coats, but would be fine without. Same with a tie. A collared dress shirt would be fine. Women could wear dresses, but it would not need to be too dressy. A casual conservative dress would be fine; nice slacks outfit would also be very much acceptable.
The group met for a Farewell Reception on Day 17 evening after a partial day of sightseeing. There was no accompanying Farewell Dinner; the group was on their own for dinner this night due to flight departure schedules.
We had our own room for the reception. It lasted about 1.5 hours, which included 1/2-hour for us to chat with our fellow guests, and one hour with Tour Director Peter as a group. This was a very good way to wind down our tour, and remind ourselves of all the wonderful experiences we all had over the past 18 days. This was also when most gave their gratuities to our Tour Director, and handed back the Tauck questionnaires.
Dress for this reception was even more casual than the Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner. Business casual is appropriate.
Tour Director: Peter Pappas
Peter was born in Bennington, Vermont, and still calls that his home town. He has an international education, and has been to over 164 countries. His experience with Tauck is extensive, beginning in 1989. He first visited India in 1972, and has been fascinated with all things Indian ever since. He had a key role in developing the first "Portrait of India" tour in 2004.
Peter's passion for India is obvious, and his knowledge runs deep. It is clear that he had developed connections and friendships every single place the tour goes. He is a great Tour Director. He is very organized, and able to adapt to the last minute changes that can be a part of India. He is available to his guests, and does a good job of answering their questions or taking care of their concerns.
We have heard that Tauck has some wonderful Tour Directors in India, but we were glad to have Peter as ours!
We had a variety of drivers since we had a variety of different coaches. They were all good drivers, and we never felt unsafe. Many of the drivers also had a helper/assistant with them also.
We were joined by a local guide at most of our destinations. They were all top-notch, spoke good English, and were all very knowledgeable and personable. Our Tour Director had worked with many of them on previous tours, and had a good working relationship with them.
We signed up for a Small Group Departure which, according to Tauck, averages 24 guests. At our Welcome Reception we learned that there were some last minute cancellations, so only 16 were signed up for this tour. And two of those did not show up due to a sudden death in the family. So we started our tour as a group of 14 people, which is the smallest sized group we have ever had. On one hand it was nice to not have to wait for everyone in a large group. On the other hand, we missed having a larger variety of people to meet and get to know.
Twelve of us were husband/wife. The other two were uncle/nephew. Most, but not all, had traveled with Tauck before. Most were also well-traveled in general. Some were retired, but many were simply taking vacation time from their work schedules. All were in decent physical condition, although there were a few challenges going up stairs and hills due to joint mobility limitations. All guests were from the United States.
It was a very congenial group. Everyone was prompt every day, which is important with group travel.
On some Tauck tours, the same coach stays with the group the entire time. But due to the geography of this India tour, we had many different coaches over the course of the tour. They were all in excellent condition, and up to Tauck standards. They were usually full-sized coaches even though we were a smaller group.
All coaches were air conditioned. Bottled water was always available. Most of the coaches had a bathroom, but it was used only for emergency. There was usually plenty of legroom and headroom. Seat belts were available; they were used routinely by some guests, and never used by some others.
Our Tour Director would post a new seating chart on the coach door, rotating our seats every day. This was a fair system that allowed everyone access to the front row seats at some point.
The term "coach" seems to be preferred, and is indeed more accurate. "Bus" is a general term for many different kinds of vehicles that carry passengers, whereas "coach" refers to a type of bus that carries passengers on longer road journeys. Coaches usually have separate luggage hold areas, and sometimes a toilet, where regular buses do not. Coach drivers are proud of their job driving a quality Tauck coach, and appreciate it when travelers refer to their coach rather than their bus.
Our coaches caught the attention of many locals, partly because full-sized coaches are not as commonly seen in India, and partly because of the "Tourist" sign in the front window. Whatever the reason, we found many locals would wave at us as we drove by.
Tour Director Peter was good about keeping us informed through the use of handouts. Among others, they included:
- Welcome letter
- Guest list
- Suggested Delhi activities
- Delhi sightseeing attractions that will not be seen as part of the tour
- India general information (multiple pages)
- Tauck shopping policies
- His personal bio
- Introductory briefing checklist
- Detailed schedules for upcoming one, two, or three days
- Baggage tips
- India films
- India books
- India maps
- Return flight and airport transfer information
- End-of-tour departure information specific for each guest
In India, the official currency is the rupee, which is the ₹ sign, and coded INR for short.
We withdrew rupees at the airport upon our arrival. I'm glad we did, as we did not come across as many ATMs during our tour as I thought we might. The Delhi Airport website map indicates two ATMs located in the baggage claim area, just before passing through customs. This is not accurate. The kiosks inside the baggage claim area are commercial money exchange businesses, not ATMs. There is an actual Chase ATM located just outside the customs area. When exiting, veer slightly left; the ATM is by a pillar in the middle of the room. We swiped our card, which was immediately returned to us; then entered the 4-digit PIN. We withdrew the maximum allowed of 20,000 rupees, which is approximately $320. It was dispensed entirely in 500 rupee notes. This withdrawal was immediately followed by a text message sent to my iPhone informing me of the transaction. It was comforting to know that the alerts I have set up with my bank accounts work properly even when I am out of the country.
We were able to change a few larger 500 rupee notes into smaller currency at most hotel cashier desks. It was very handy to have numerous 10 rupee and some 100 rupee bills with us.
We do almost no souvenir shopping when we travel. So we actually never needed more than we withdrew at the airport. We actually had some left over at the end of the trip, which we applied to our hotel bill at checkout.
We notified our bank in advance of our travel dates and locations so that we would be able to use our credit cards without triggering a security freeze.
Tauck includes gratuities for motor coach drivers, local guides, hotel bellmen, and restaurant staff.
Gratuities for the Tour Director are not included. Tauck gives a guideline recommendation of $8 per person per day (U.S. dollars), which is $136 per traveler ($272 per couple) for the tour, although we know that the guests we talked to gave substantially more than this.
On other Tauck tours we have taken, gratuities for the motor coach driver is not included. It is included on this tour, perhaps because we have multiple different drivers, as opposed to other Tauck tours where the same driver is with us most of the tour.
It was useful to carry a number of 10 and 100 rupee bills with us for tips, such as giving to some people who gave us their permission to photograph them, or photograph ourselves with them.
Many of the hotels actually had signs in the room asking guests NOT to tip. It is not a widespread custom in India, and can lead to problems. They recommend that if there is a specific staff that stands out, you inform the hotel manager of their name, or write it in a thank-you note. That way it might help in advancement of that staff person, which is extremely important to them.
Not included in the tour price:
- Hotel accommodations before or after tour (except those offered to previous Tauck travelers as a special)
- Occasional lunches and dinners taken on our own
- Room service meals
- Alcoholic beverages (other than those provided with some group meals)
- Phone calls
- Spa services
- And, of course, souvenirs
Tauck includes so much with their tours; there are no optional excursions offered, which is a refreshing contrast to many other non-Tauck Tours.
A difference with Tauck Tours is that they don't make specific shopping stops as a group at any tourist traps. This is a big advantage over other companies; those shopping stops can be quite a waste of time, overpriced, and boring.
There was some independent time that could be used for shopping in many places we visited. Depending on the schedule and the location, this could be anywhere from twenty minutes to many hours. Our Tour Director was good at informing us of what items might be best purchased at certain locations. He was also very helpful in assisting guests in dealing with hawkers of cheap souvenirs.
In general, however, there was not as much shopping on this tour as we have seen on many other tours. I think part of the reason is because this tour tends to be more of a cultural experience tour rather than going to places known for items that U.S. visitors might typically bring home.
For those who did shop, it was done mostly in the first portion of the tour. Once out of Udaipur, there are really no more shopping opportunities.
Contaminated water is common in India. It can quickly ruin a good vacation, and lead to very serious illness.
As recommended by most experts, we only drank bottled water. It was plentiful, available in all of our hotels and on the coaches. We avoided using tap water for rinsing toothbrushes, and were careful not to splash tap or shower water into our mouth. Good brands are Bisleri, Kinley, and Aquafina.
At restaurants, we would only drink water we know was poured from a sealed bottle. We often requested sparkling water. If a drink came with ice cubes, we left it alone. We frequently drank directly from a bottle, even though that is not always considered good manners.
We really enjoyed the food in India. All of our meals were in reputable and safe restaurants. All hotel breakfasts were buffet style, as were a number of lunches and dinners. Usually there was both Indian and Western cuisine available. Serving sizes were generous.
We found the Indian food to be very spicy. But not hot spicy, like we might think when we hear food described as spicy. Indian spicy refers to the variety and abundant strong spices that are used in most dishes. Many of the spices are completely unknown to us. They consider the spices as having ayurvedic qualities in addition to adding flavor. Tumeric is a very popular spice. Cumin, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, mustard seed are also common.
Indian cuisine varies from region to region, and we could tell a difference between the northern food and the food in the southern Kerala area.
Although most Indian food is vegetarian, the places visited on the tour cater to tourists, and meat dishes were usually available.
On the first evening we were served gulab jamun for dessert. It is fried milk balls soaked in sweet rose syrup. We found it very tasty, and had fun looking for it on the rest of our tour. We learned that it is one of the favorite Indian desserts.
The flat breads served with many dishes was excellent, particularly the roti, naan, or paratha.
Because the Indian spices can cause gastrointestinal upset in some people who are not used to it in their diet, we slowly worked our way into Indian dishes. This was not easy because there were so many tempting Indian food choices right from the start.
Restroom availability was not a problem for the most part. Our Tour Director did a great job of informing us of the most convenient places to use the facilities everywhere we went, and allowing adequate time. He warned us ahead of time if the restroom standards might not be so good. There were a couple of times where it was helpful to have our own toilet tissue. It was also beneficial to carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer and/or individually packaged hand wipes.
Many tour companies routinely have guests place their luggage in the hotel hallway for pickup. I was never very comfortable with this. Tauck, however, has agreements that allow guests to leave the luggage inside the hotel room until it is picked up by hotel staff. We appreciate this extra security measure taken by Tauck. We always tried to assure this system worked by placing any bags that were to be picked up just inside the door, so it is abundantly obvious which ones go. The ones to be picked up should all be checked for Tauck tags by the hotel staff, but every precaution helps. We also keep any carry-ons well away so they are unlikely to be also picked up by mistake.
Tauck literature requests that guests restrict suitcases to one per individual. This is primarily due to space limitations on the coaches since luggage is stowed in the lower level luggage compartment. We were asked to keep a colored Tauck luggage tag on each piece that we want taken from our rooms to the coach, and that we inform the Tour Director if we ever add another suitcase. He keeps a precise count of how many pieces of luggage should be gathered from the rooms on departure mornings, and counts them before they go on the coach. He also counts them when they are removed from the coach.
We saw luggage of various sizes, shapes, designs. None were huge; all were easily manageable by the hotel bellhops and coach drivers.
Even though the luggage was quite safe during its journey from inside the room to the coach luggage compartment, we still locked it every day. It was easy to do, and simply adds one more layer of protection.
We have gone through our share of luggage over the years. Our favorite one now is Boyt® brand, as it has lasted through more trips than other brands we have used. It is high quality and well built, and has done a good job of withstanding the rough airline baggage handlers. It has a number of small features that make travel more convenient. It is not a designer brand, or top of the line, so price is still reasonable.
This generic packing list is a helpful start for some travelers.
As a general rule, we always try to limit how much we bring, and finally have learned to bring less than we think we will need. It is rare that we wish we had brought more; but we have wished we brought less on a number of trips.
Some general travel packing tips we follow:
- We split up clothes when traveling to our arrival city. If one person's luggage doesn't arrive, they will still have some clean clothes available. Then we repack separate suitcases once we arrive.
- We pack small items of clothing in gallon ziplock bags.
- We pack shoes in plastic grocery bags. The bags will be useful later in the trip when shoes get dirty.
- We use small travel-size containers of toiletries, packing them in a ziplock bag in case they leak.
- We don't overpack the suitcases. Items tend to grow as your trip progresses.
Once we arrive at our first hotel, we repack both suitcases, so we each have our own suitcase for the remainder of the trip.
At the hotels, we never completely unpacked the suitcases. When we arrive at a new hotel we usually get out the next day's clothing so the wrinkles would be minimal. If we were staying more than one night, we hang a few items up. We try to keep the suitcase organized at all times rather than throwing things in, or having to paw through it to find something. Having a few extra plastic bags is useful for dirty clothes or laundered items that might not be completely dry yet.
Most travelers who have taken long tours know to bring a laundry line and laundry soap. The 2-night stays that Tauck likes to schedule makes it easy to do some hand laundry and have it dry by departure time. I've found the lines with hooks on each end work best. Individual Tide detergent packets are also convenient.
When on longer tours, we usually plan on sending a few items out for laundering along the way; we simply consider this one of the normal expenses of our trip. For us, the convenience of having freshly washed and ironed clothes is worth the higher costs that are typical in hotels.
Most hotels on this tour had dry cleaning and/or laundry service available, but a few had time restrictions that didn't work with our arrival/departure schedule. If you need laundry service, it is best done at one of the 2-night stay hotels, and best if it is sent out the day or evening you arrive.
Prepare for weather ranging from warm days in the northern areas, slightly chilly evenings and mornings when on the Ganges River, and very hot in the southern areas. Layers work well. Sun protection is a must. Rain is unlikely, but be prepared.
Versatility is the way to go. We remind ourselves that nobody except our fellow tour travelers will ever know that we only have a few outfits. And our fellow travelers don't care; they are usually following the same rule.
Dress in India is not formal, but not too casual either. Attire is definitely different than Western countries, especially for women. Dressing the wrong way can draw uncomfortable stares at the least, and lead to aggression at the worst. We read a couple of books about India culture (see book section towards end of review) which greatly helped us prepare our clothing.
Shoes should be comfortable for long walks, and suitable for uneven rocky ground. They should be close-toed to protect from dirt and other nasty stuff in the streets. The soles should be substantial, allowing good grip on wet surfaces, including dirt and rocks. Make sure any new shoes have been broken in. For cleaning dirt, dust, and grime, we brought these KIWI shoe shine wipes, which were very helpful for this tour.
We like ExOfficio underwear and undershirts for traveling. I prefer the ExO Dri product, which is a wicking material, but still feels like normal clothing, unlike other wicking items. I can launder them in the sink in the evening, hang them on our laundry line, and by the next evening they are completely dry. I always wear the short-sleeve tee as an undershirt, but at home I often wear it by itself.
Sunglasses were helpful on the lake cruise at Kumarakom. A hat or cap is also useful on sunny days
A few of the hotels had beautiful swimming pools. We brought swimsuits, but didn't use the pools as much as we could have, as we were simply too busy doing other activities, even when we had time on our own.
Visas are required for U.S. citizens traveling to India. See my "Indian Visa" section above (just before the Day-By-Day summaries) for detailed visa discussion.
Passports are required for U.S. citizens. The passport must be valid for 6 months past your return date. Check this well ahead of time; I have seen people with valid passports denied travel because the expiration was too soon. Names on travel documents (Tauck paperwork; airline tickets; visa) must EXACTLY match the name as it appears on the passport. The passport must have at least four blank pages available. It is suggested that a copy of each passport's first page is carried in a place other than with our original passport, and another copy is left with an adult back home.
We locked our passports in the hotel safe at every location. We keep our passports (and chip credit cards) in an RFID-resistant pouch to minimize chances of the information being scanned by unscrupulous thieves (also known as wireless identity theft, or contactless identity theft).
There were no assisted listening devices such as Whispers or Vox used on this tour.
Before leaving home, we activated the AT&T international roaming plan for our iPhones. We had decent cellular connectivity in most areas we visited.
We also had global text messaging, but I think it was not as reliable. I certainly would not wanted to depend on it for important communications.
We also activated a Data Global add-on package for our iPhones. We primarily used it to sync documents and notes between iPhones and Apple Cloud. We also used it for checking weather, researching destinations, and reading news. We were careful to turn off our iCloud sync of photos we took, because that would have used up the data allotment very quickly.
Free Wi-Fi access was available at most hotels we were at. Speed and connectivity quality varied, but was always adequate to at least get basic emails done. Some required a login password; others were unsecured. We use a VPN service on our iPhones and iPads for extra security any time we connect to a Wi-Fi network.
Any time we left our room, we locked our iPad and iPhones in the safe. We never left them out for hotel staff to see.
We use a full-sized 35mm Nikon D750 camera with a zoom lens and a pocket-sized Sony DSC-RX100 on our travels.
Memory cards: You will take more pictures than you think; there are lots of beautiful things to photograph in India. Bring more memory cards than you think you will need. On every tour we go on, there are people who need to buy additional memory cards for this very reason.
When we fill up a photo memory card, it becomes very valuable to us. We either lock it in the safe, or keep it in my wife's purse. We know of one person whose memory card was packed in her suitcase, and it didn't make it home; all of her cherished photos were lost.
Batteries: Consider buying a new battery so it will hold a long charge (old rechargeable batteries tend to deplete faster). Having two batteries adds convenience, takes away the worry of running out of power, and might eliminate the need to recharge every evening. On more than one occasion, we have heard of someone who couldn't take all the pictures they wanted because their battery was old and would run out of power too soon.
We recharged our camera batteries every single evening, whether they were run all the way down or not. That way, we knew that we were starting every day with full power, and running out of power would never be an issue.
Camera: People on this tour had all styles of cameras. Bring the one that you are likely to use the most, and know how to use. If you are not completely familiar with it, it is helpful to bring the manual also; if not for yourself, then for someone else to read about how to solve a problem you might be having. I have a PDF version of our manuals stored on both the iPad and iPhone.
- Sarneth Museum, Varanasi
- Interior of Taj Mahal, Agra
- Interior of Jagdish Mandir Temple, Udaipur
- Dutch Palace (also known as the Mattancherry Palace), Cochin
- Paradesi Synagogue, Cochin
UNESCO World Heritage Sites seen on this tour
- Humayun's Tomb (Delhi)
- Red Fort (Delhi)
- Qutab Minar (Delhi)
- Khajuraho Group of Monuments
- Agra Fort
- Taj Mahal (Agra)
- Jantar Mantar Observatory (Jaipur)
- Amber Fort (Jaipur)
- Elephanta Island (Mumbai)
Towards the end of our tour, one of the guests passed around paper and pen so everyone who wanted could write down their name and email addresses. This sheet was later copied with the assistance of our Tour Director, and a copy handed out to each person. It is Tauck's policy not to give out personal information about guests, so it is up to the guests themselves to initiate this list for those who want to participate.
The group was organized for a group photo on Day 7 in front of the Taj Majal. We were informed the day before that this would occur, so we would be prepared. Each traveling pair was given a complementary print later in the tour.
The same photographer who took our group photo also took individual photos. These were available for purchase when we got on the coach that same day after leaving the Agra Fort.
Electricity in India is 240 volts, 50 Hertz. Electrical plugs and outlets are the three-round-pin type and require an adapter to accommodate U.S. devices. Here are some web sites with good adapter information:
Some hotels on the tour had lots of outlets; some only had a few. But all were adequate. Besides bringing two adapters, we also brought this Belkin outlet multiplier/surge protector. It allowed us plug in both phones (into USB plugs) and two camera battery chargers all at the same time. Some of the outlets did allow U.S.-style plugs to be used, catering to the international traveler.
Bringing one or two adapters on this tour should be adequate for most people. An actual converter is probably not necessary. Many electronics are made to operate on either 120v or 230v; read the label on the charger cord of each of your gadgets to find out. Our iPhone, iPad, and camera battery chargers were all okay with 230v (labels say something like "Input 100-240v").
The hotels all had hair dryers. If you bring your own, or use a curling iron or other heating device, make sure can be used with 240v. Most hair gadgets in the U.S. do not work with the higher voltage, and your device will quickly burn out, possibly with a fire hazard. There are some hair devices made specifically for travel, and can be changed from 120v to 220/240v with the sliding of a switch.
Here is a good summary of the difference between adapters and converters.
We had a typhoid vaccine a couple of months before we left. We received the live oral vaccine. This involved taking a tablet every other morning for three doses.
We took malaria medication (mefloquine) prophylactically, starting two weeks before we left, and continuing four weeks after returning home. We noted that chloroquine is not effective against malaria in India.
We also confirmed that our other routine vaccines were up-to-date.
The CDC has an interesting "Healthy Travel Packing List for Travelers to India" page.
Other items we brought to help stay healthy:
- Bug repellent wipes, DEET-containing
- Travelers' diarrhea antibiotic
- Imodium over-the-counter diarrhea medicine
- Pepto-Bismol chewable tablets
- Rehydration powder to mix with water
- Disinfectant hand wipes, disposable individually wrapped
- Purell hand sanitizer gel, travel-size bottles
If taking prescription medications, bring enough to last the entire trip, plus a few extra days in case there are delays. Order them at home well ahead of your travel date to allow plenty of time for doctor review, refill request, and pharmacy order filling. Bring a list that details every prescription name (generic and brand name if possible), strength, daily dose, and reason prescribed. This will help a foreign pharmacist and/or doctor if an emergency refill is needed for whatever reason.
It is wise to bring a spare pair of prescription glasses also. Imagining losing your glasses, and having to go without them for weeks. Again, better safe than sorry.
Just like on any coach tour, colds and other illness tend to spread quickly. There are a couple of practices that everyone can take, whether ill or well, that will keep everyone healthy.
- Wash hands frequently.
- Use the alcohol-based hand sanitizers when unable to wash.
- Cover your mouth. But...cough or sneeze into your arm, not into your bare hands. The old theory of covering your mouth with your hand just gets germs on your hands, which are then transferred to everything that is touched. And of course, don't sneeze or cough without covering your mouth at all!
- At buffet breakfasts, use the serving utensils.
- Avoid shaking hands.
- Open doors with your elbow, arm, or coat-covered hand.
If you find yourself ill, try to avoid spreading it to others. In addition to the above practices, use cough drops or cough medicine. Don't initiate a handshake. Stay away from other people when possible. Have food brought to you instead of going to the dining room. Use the bathroom in your hotel room instead of the public restrooms.
This refers to gastrointestinal upset that travelers to India frequently experience, similar to Montezuma's revenge in Mexico. For India tourists, it is thought to have two components; bacteria and diet.
Avoiding diarrhea-causing bacteria can be accomplished by following some basic safety hygiene measures:
- Drink only bottled water, and only from sealed bottles
- Avoid using tap water
- Wash hands frequently
- Don't eat street food
- Eat only at quality restaurants that cater to tourists
- Eat only cooked food
- Only eat fruit and vegetables that are known to have been washed in disinfected water
- Avoid ice
Dietary precautions to take:
- Transition to Indian food slowly. Although Indian spices are very tasty, consume them in moderation since your system isn't used to them.
- Don't eat 100% Indian; also eat Western dishes that your system is used to.
- Eat light.
If serious diarrhea or other illness develops:
- Inform the Tour Director immediately. They are used to dealing with this, and it can best be dealt with if treated early.
- Stay hydrated; sip a rehydration drink.
- Rest your stomach. When returning to food, start bland and simple.
Read a more detailed description of the hotels on the separate Hotels and Overnight Accommodations page.
All in all, the hotels were typical of Tauck tours. They were excellent quality. For the few that might have been very good quality instead of excellent, this was usually chosen for well-thought-out reasons, usually location-related.
Our February tour exposed us to weather ranging from chilly and requiring light coat to very hot. As the tour progressed, the weather got hotter. Fortunately we had no rain at all.
The only times we needed our light coats was when we were on the Ganges River in the evening and again the following morning. The sunrise visit to the Taj Mahal was a little cooler, but layered clothing would work better than coat here.
There is usually lots of sun, and this can cause temperatures to feel warmer than they actually are, especially when touring an area without much sun protection or breeze.
All of the hotel rooms had safes. Any time we left our room, including going to the hotel restaurant for meals, we locked our passports in the safe. This minimized the concern about pickpockets, purse snatchers, hotel staff. We have had room safes that we weren't comfortable using, but we were fine with all of them on this tour.
We tend to error on the side of caution. We also used the safe to secure other items we didn't want to lose. Our cameras; camera memory cards (specifically the ones with photos already taken); iPhones and iPad (contained private names/addresses and personal information); cash (our U.S. currency, and Indian Rupees); occasionally our wallet and purse.
Overall, India is a safe place. But just like any other place tourists go, visitors to India need to use caution and common sense. Being aware of your surroundings is particularly important in India. Because there are substantial cultural differences, take cues from people around you. See how they are interacting, how they are dressed, how they behave. Women especially need to be aware that there are behaviors that are taken for granted at home but are considered very offensive or promiscuous in India. Reading a book on India culture ahead of time can be helpful.
Here are some general safety precautions we take while traveling:
- Our passports are always locked in the room safe in the hotel when possible. If not possible, it was always secured in our money belt.
- We keep a copy of our passport and credit cards in our locked suitcase, so if we were to lose our passport or credit cards, we would still have the information necessary to deal with it.
- If we know we won't be needing a credit card, they are left in the safe.
- Most credit cards have a specific 24-hour phone number to call if there are problems. We enter these numbers into our phones so we can call and cancel them within seconds of discovering a problem.
- We carry enough cash to cover the day, but leave the rest of the cash in the safe.
- We keep our passports and chip credit cards in an RFID-blocking pouch.
- We do not bring any expensive jewelry. Jewelry and watches that we did bring were replaceable, and did not look obviously expensive.
- My wife's purse and my shoulder bag are always carried diagonally, strap on the left shoulder, bag on the right side. It is usually positioned in front of us rather than at the rear or side.
- When we are on public transportation, our bag or purse is being hugged by our arms.
- We watch each other when there are crowds. When my wife stopped to shoot a photograph, I would step behind her, watching her, her purse, and people around her. She did the same for me.
- When we stop in cafés or restaurants, we never set our bag or purse down, or even hang it on our chair. It stays on our lap or on our shoulder.
- My bag and her purse are more secure than average. They have zippered compartments within zippered compartments.
- Any time we hear or see a commotion, we always assume it was a purposeful distraction, and are on our guard, no matter how innocent the commotion looks.
- If we wander down a street that just didn't feel right, we simply turn around and go back the way we came, and choose a different route.
- If a stranger approaches us and says something, we always assume it was not legitimate, no matter how legitimate it looks.
- When we need more cash, we only use an ATM that was associated with a bank, is in a location with plenty of people around, and feels completely safe. If it doesn't feel right, we would wait until we find a different one. ATMs in bank lobbies are preferred.
- When using an ATM, I stand very close to the keypad and screen, guarding my keys from anyone else. My wife stands right next to me, looking around at other people, making sure nobody is watching us or the ATM screen. I immediately put the money and debit card into my money belt, and secure everything before backing away from the ATM.
- When walking on a sidewalk close to the street, we are aware of motorcycles coming from behind or from in front, and make sure they can't snatch our bag or purse as they pass us.
- My wallet is never kept in my pants pocket. It is always in my money belt or deep inside my locked shoulder bag.
- We try to dress to look more like locals or business workers rather than tourists.
- We only use licensed taxis. We try to research ahead of time so we know what to look for.
- We keep our suitcases locked when we are leaving our hotel room for more than a few minutes.
- We do not leave items out that might be tempting for housekeeping or hotel staff to take; we keep them packed away when not being used.
- We read all of the "Scam Alerts" on Rick Steves' website, which has very good discussions on this topic.
We have found that when traveling frequently or on long trips with multiple destinations, it is easy to forget the name of the hotel where we are staying on a particular day. When we get to our new room, we look for something with our hotel name and address on it, and put this into our wallet or purse. If we ever get lost, we can show this to a taxi driver, another hotel concierge, or a tour guide, and they will help us get back.
I have heard various Tour Directors give different bits of advice. They are worth repeating here, as they apply to most group tours.
- There is one word of advice that can make the difference between someone enjoying a foreign vacation, and being miserable. Flexibility. We need to remember that we are in a foreign country, with foreign customs and ways. We will be eating foreign food, and surrounded by a foreign language. If we are flexible and able to adapt and embrace these differences, we are more likely to enjoy our experience than those who are inflexible and intolerant.
- Accept the fact that occasionally something might not go exactly the way you want.
- One of the worst things you can do when traveling the world is to try to recreate your home environment. You are not at home. You are here to experience a foreign land. Be adventurous in all aspects of your travel, including the things you eat.
- Get to know fellow travelers early in the tour and it will make the entire experience more fun.
- Don't form cliques. Trying to interact with all your fellow travelers rather than forming small groups can greatly add to people's enjoyment of the tours.
- Be okay with compromise. When in a foreign country, expecting to have everything the way you want is a set-up for disappointment.
- Try not to speak disparagingly about your fellow travelers, or those you meet in a foreign country.
- Observe the locals around you; take time to learn. Gain their respect by trying to follow their customs, manners, and etiquette. Don't assume that others around the world do things the way you do.
- Be humble. Check your ego when you check your bags at the airport.
- If you have a problem, discuss it with your Tour Director early rather than complain about it later.
We have heard multiple Tour Directors comment about keeping talk to a minimum while he/she or local guides are speaking on coach; even though you might not be interested in what is being said, others around you might want to hear. This is especially important when schedule, meeting times, and locations are being discussed.
Tour Directors also like guests to know how it improves the tour when people are prompt and on time. Not only is this a courtesy so that other people aren't kept waiting by a tardy guest; it also allows the tour director more schedule flexibility, and sometimes they can add in extras.
Cell phones are commonplace nowadays, but can be an annoyance to those around you. Phone conversations should take place when you are not with the group, especially not on the coach.
Smokers should be considerate of non-smokers. Smokers frequently do not realize how much their smoke bothers non-smokers. Standing downwind rather than upwind of the group will avoid offending them. This can apply to any place the tour group assembles, such as outside the coach, outside the hotel, outside a restaurant, at a rest stop, or at a viewpoint.
Keep others healthy. If you have a cold, or cough often, use sensible personal hygiene to prevent others from catching your bugs. Cover your mouth. Wash your hands frequently. Carry hand sanitizer. Avoid touching things that others might be touching also. Colds and other illnesses can spread rapidly among a tour group. If everyone uses precautions, the risk of illness will be minimized.
Smell good, but not by using perfumes. Refrain from using your perfume, cologne, and aftershave. Wearing scents, even in small amounts, on a coach can be extremely irritating to others around you. Some people get painful headaches when forced to breathe perfumed air. Keep this in mind even if using the coach just to travel to an evening restaurant.
Follow the Golden Rule, and the rest will fall into place.
- Enjoying India: The Essential Handbook - This is a "must read" before visiting India.
- India - Culture Smart! - Very helpful also.
- Culture Shock! India: A Guide to Customs and Etiquette
- DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: India
- Lonely Planet Discover India
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
- U.S. Embassy, India- Register for security updates
- U.S. Dept of State - India Travel Info
- CDC - Travelers' Health in India
- Wikipedia: Films set in India
- India Travel Tips
- India Mike
- Wikitravel India
We definitely recommend this Tauck Portrait of India Tour. I don't think it would be possible to have the same experience if we went to India with a different tour company. And planning an India trip on our own would definitely be out of the question. There were quite a few times when I was talking to hotel staff or local guides, and they expressed their opinion that Tauck was the best tour company they work with.
- Day 01
- Day 02
- Day 03
- Day 04
- Day 05
- Day 06
- Day 07
- Day 08
- Day 09
- Day 10
- Day 11
- Day 12
- Day 13
- Day 14
- Day 15
- Day 16
- Day 17
Videos taken on the tour: (requires QuickTime plug-in, or watch on iPhone/iPad)
- Delhi - street hawkers, beggars
- Varanasi - Ganges evening cremations
- Varanasi - Waking the Ganges in the morning
- Varanasi - Ganges laundry
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