If the film, The Exotic Marigold Hotel, tantalised the traveller within you with scenes of warmth and colour but your bones tell you that the days of roughing it and backpacking are over, then fear not, there is an easier way of tasting a little of India.
I found a company called Voyages to Antiquity who own a small ship called Aegean Odyssey. I was attracted to this, all inclusive trip, because it is a small ship (195 cabins) and bears no resemblance to the huge, all singing, all dancing cruise liners you see advertised.
Their package included flights Heathrow to Singapore, 2 nights in Singapore with excursions before joining the ship. We then sailed up the Malacca Straits with excursions in Malacca and Penang. Three days sailing took us across to the Indian Ocean stopping in Colombo, Sri Lanka and then up the west coast of India port hopping to Cochin, Mangalore, Marmagao and finally Mumbai.
Popular with the U3A age group, Silver Travellers and NADFAS members, these cruises offer professional lectures on topics such as the geography of the region, Indian textiles and the world of ‘Bollywood’ with regional briefings. Each evening we could choose from a high standard of musical entertainment with programmes ranging from Gershwin to Puccini or a relaxing trio in the bar area. The on board musicians were excellent and one was a protege of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
At meal times I was not limited to a designated table and so could choose from 3 dining areas. Memories of sipping wine on the open terrace deck while sailing on a balmy night will stay with me for a long time. The food throughout the trip was good and varied and I did not fall prey to Delhi belly. I had a good stock of Travel Biotics just in case!
The Indian adventure continued on land. I disembarked in Mumbai to fly to Jaipur, the final leg of the package was to cover the Golden Triangle (Jaipur, Agra and Delhi) by road. The planning and organisation by VTA and their ground agent was faultless. Our guide was knowledgeable, spoke excellent English and had a good sense of humour. The overnight stays were in 4* Sheraton hotels which all resembled palaces. Staff met us with smiles and greetings of ‘Namaste’ at every turn. This is hospitality at its best.
With our guide, driver and his assistant driver (obligatory in India) the air conditioned buses took us through surprisingly green countryside where women in saris pick potatoes and work on construction sites. Men herd huge flocks of sheep. This trip offers a perfect contrast to the coastal ports seen so far.
Be prepared to experience a palette of colour, green parakeets; orange and pink bougainvillea; red sandstone forts; turquoise swimming pools; baskets of yellow and orange spices and saris in vibrant designs.
Our ears and eyes were bombarded by constant hooting, traffic, people, monkeys, chipmunks, painted elephants and wandering cows. This is a land of contrasts, energetic with a mist of trade route empires lingering in architecture and signage.
Temples and gods sit snugly between road side shacks where anything from scooters to taps can be fixed. Open air laundries hang sheets to dry at the feet of sky scrapers. A shop selling turbans of all colours is next door to the coffin maker. This is India today.
It all seems chaotic to the Western mind, but whenever you make eye contact with a passer-by, a street seller or a bus passenger they wave and turn radiant, smiling faces to you.
So, if you want a taste of India without roughing it, there are many ways to have an adventure and a trip by small ship is definitely a good choice.