In November 2017 my sister and I decided to book a Mercury Holiday Essence of North India escorted tour. We were joined with her ex-husband, Paul who we are still good friends with. We initially chose Mercury Holidays because they have a certain number of single rooms available for no extra supplement and we hoped Paul would be able to get one of these. Unfortunately there were none available but even though the single room supplement was rather hefty he still decided to join us.
We set off from Heathrow feeling like extras from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (which I later realised is a very sanitised view of India)! The airline was Jet Airways and the plane was very cramped and very dated. On arrival we were met by our guide, Amit. He spoke very good English but with such an accent that we really had to concentrate to understand him. This was fine when we were talking face to face but later in the trip when he was talking about historical sites it was easy to only get half of the conversation. He was very knowledgeable, it was just a shame we missed a lot of what he was saying. Our first hotel was The Park in New Delhi which was very nice. We had a few hours of rest and then had a sightseeing tour of New Delhi. We saw The India Gate, the President’s House and the Parliament Buildings. The weather, however, was very foggy and polluted.
The next day we had a tour of Old Delhi. We had a cycle rickshaw ride through the markets which was fun. Then we visited the Red Fort of Delhi. It is a very impressive monument but is very run down. It looked rather like a poor mans Angkor Wat. I was, in fact, very shocked by how dirty and poor Delhi was. We saw whole families living on the central reservation of a busy road. They were hanging their washing in the trees and sending their children to risk their lives by weaving between the cars begging. After lunch, and I have to say that all the meals we had in restaurants and hotels was very good, we visited the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial. This is nicely maintained and quite moving. It has stone “footprints” on a path that follows his last walk before he was shot. We could have done with more time here as there was a lot to see but our visit was rather brief. One the way back to the hotel we visited Quitab Minar, a ruined temple site.
The next day we headed to Agra. We stayed in the Mansingh Palace Hotel which is a small rather gloomy boutique hotel. It had a nice pool area and after a few hours by the pool we were taken off to see The Red Fort of Agra. This is quite impressive but huge, too much to see in one visit. From the top of the Fort there is a great view of the Taj Mahal in the distance. En route back to the Hotel we were taken to a marble factory. in fact, there were numerous visits to factories during our trip. We really could have done without these and I think Mercury Holidays should make sure that this are an optional trip as the majority of the tour group had no interest at all.
The next day was the highlight of the whole trip – the Taj Mahal. We arrived at the crach of dawn and we had to queue ages. When we finally walked through the gate the Taj Mahal is standing in front of you, very impressive and so large it is difficult to take the scale in. Even with the foggy weather it was stunning. We went inside to see the tombs but that area was very crowded, dark and especially hot so we preferred to view it from the well manicured gardens. I could have sat and looked at this beautiful monument for ages, it really is as wonderful as everyone says.
Back to the Hotel for lunch and then we headed off for our next stop – Ranthambore.
It was a long drive but it was lovely to go through the small villages and see the people in their colourful clothes. If you could ignore the piles of rubbish everywhere and the cows, dogs and pigs rooting through it, it would be quite beautiful. Our Hotel, The Ranthambore Regency was lodge style and we really felt we were on safari. Over the next 2 days we did 2 safari trips to try and see tigers. The woods were incredible with different types of deep, many monkeys, wild boar, crocodiles and loads of different birds but we didn’t see a tiger! This was made worse by half our group who had been on a different bus having a very close encounter with a female tiger! However this is not a zoo and it is not guaranteed that you will see one.
The next day we moved on to Jaipur (The Pink City which actually isn’t pink, it is more a terracotta colour). We stayed in the Mansingh Hotel and when we arrived we declined the visit to a textile factory to sit by the pool for a while. This was the most disappointing hotel. It was quite shabby and dirty. In fact, if we had thought Delhi and Agra were dirty, it had nothing on Jaipur. Piles of rubbish everywhere. I do struggle to understand why the country is so dirty and poor. India has some thriving industries but it seems like the wealth is not filtering down to the people who need it.
The next day was a visit to the Amber Fort which was very impressive. We declined the elephant ride into the Fort (the elephants didn;t look too well cared for and I am not a lover of animals being exploited for the tourist trade). Instead we took a jeep into the Fort and it is indeed very interesting and there is lots to see. In the afternoon there was yet another textile factory visit and also a jewellery factory visit! We stayed by the pool!
Our last night before returning to Delhi involved a meal in a restaurant with traditional entertainment which was very entertaining.
Our final day and we headed back to Delhi to stay, again, in the lovely Park Hotel. The next day we were due to fly to Kerala for a few days but this was where we were leaving our escorted tour. So my feelings about India? Wonderful to see but also sad to see. It made me appreciate how we live in the West and I don’t think I would want to return. As for Mercury Holidays, the tour was good but maybe a little too busy (although cutting out those annoying factory visits would have given everyone more breathing space). The main highlights were the Taj Mahal and Ranthambore Park. Look out for my review of Kerala!