Spirit of India Cruise and Tour with APT
Tuesday 2 February 2016: This review is best read in conjunction with the cruise itinerary
Incredible India - the official slogan is entirely accurate. India has amazing sights, sounds and smells to assault the senses like no other country. In India several centuries can be seen in one day - a hand-pulled rickshaw containing a female entrepreneur studying a smart phone, a holy cow wandering across a busy dual carriageway, and villagers washing themselves and their clothes in a river overshadowed by expensive apartments. There is poverty, the streets are not always clean, the traffic can be chaotic, but everywhere there are signs that India is on its way to becoming a new world power. A fascinating time and place to visit!
We chose the APT Spirit of India cruise tour because it combined a guided tour of the famous Golden Triangle - Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, including all meals and 5-star hotels, with a visit to Kolkata and a 7-night cruise on the River Ganges into rural India. We also added the 2-night extension to Varanasi for sunset and sunrise boat trips along the Ganges riverside ghats where religious and everyday activities take place.
Arriving at Delhi airport we used our e-tourist visas to speed through immigration, and were met by the APT representative and driven to the Imperial Hotel. Exiting the airport we saw a huge hoarding advertising Range Rover - owned by Tata of India! The Imperial Hotel is a luxury hotel retaining the style of the Raj, with historic paintings and photographs, gifts from Royalty on display, and an oasis of calm amid the bustling city. The hotel offered a choice of restaurants and was noted for its afternoon teas taken inside or in the garden.
Our first evening dinner was at the hotel's 1911 Restaurant, one of the best dining places in Delhi. We met our fellow travellers and our Tour Director, Girish, who would accompany us throughout the holiday. In his excellent English, Girish reminded us that India had the largest population of English speakers in the world! Sure enough, as we progressed through India we had absolutely no communication problems.
Our first full day in India included guided tours of Delhi's amazing sights reflecting thousands of year of history (see itinerary Day 3). The vast numbers at the massive Red Fort illustrated how increasing prosperity meant Indians were now able to be tourists in their own country. In the evening we dined at the acclaimed Bukhara Restaurant, where the traditional Kashmiri food was eaten by hand without implements. A good way of getting to know your fellow travellers!
Our second day in Delhi saw us at the ancient Qtab Minar, a tower so high its summit was obscured by a combination of smog and fog. After lunch at a local house in a wealthy suburb we used the free afternoon to walk around Delhi, soak up the atmosphere, and watch the traffic battling around the many roundabouts. To some locals we were a curiosity, to others an opportunity to practice their English and to give helpful directions. A fascinating afternoon. The evening offered a choice of restaurants in the hotel, French, Italian, or Indian but the majority chose Spice Route, a Thai option with stunning decor and fabulous murals.
On the way to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal our air-conditioned coach passed new Delhi suburbs being built for the growing Indian middle class, complete with Metro train links to the city. Agra is a city of 1.5 million people, with traffic to match, and our first stop was the huge Red Fort built not far from the Taj Mahal. After lunch we checked in at the luxury Oberoi Amarvilas, where every room had a sensational view of the Taj Mahal. The hotel's golf carts took us the short distance to the Taj Mahal main entrance, where all visitors were carefully searched.
Entering the gatehouse, in front of us was the Taj Mahal - every bit as stunning as its pictures. Dodging the crowds we were able to take many pictures as the sunset bathed the Taj in colour. It was also possible to visit the actual mausoleum, and we then realised how massive the building was. We left with much anticipation of the sunrise visit the next day, but first our evening meal at the hotel was available in either the western or Indian style restaurants.
Our morning visit to the Taj Mahal saw it in a different light, and with far fewer people we were better able to appreciate the building and its various inscriptions and motifs. After breakfast our coach set off on the main road to Jaipur. On this busy route we saw buses with people sitting on roofs, cars with people hanging on to door and windows, and the decorated Tata trucks and buses unique to India.
Jaipur is known as the 'Pink City' because of its gateways and buildings in terracotta colours. It was the setting for the film 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' and a recent BBC reality follow-up, and with over 3 million inhabitants it is a microcosm of Indian society. Its highlight is the huge Amber Fort perched on a hill overlooking a lake. Reached by jeep, or elephant, the various courtyards and buildings give superb hillside views including the 'Great Wall of India' surrounding Jaipur.
After lunch at a local hotel overlooking the Lake Palace, we checked in at the luxury Oberoi Rajvilas, whose rooms are set in small villas among the 30-acre landscaped grounds. Time to relax before the evening at Dera Amer, a dedicated country facility offering a short elephant safari followed by a buffet meal with local traditional dance accompaniment.
The second day in Jaipur (itinerary Day 8) was spent in town, first at the City Palace, part of which is still lived in by the Maharajah of Jaipur, and then at Jantar Mintar, home to ancient astronomical structures used for telling the time and date. Lunch was at a haveli mansion near the City Palace, and provided by a long-established local family. Evening dining options at the hotel were a western style meal or an Indian option served in the open air with heating by wood fuelled braziers.
An early start the next day saw us at the airport for the 2-hour flight to Kolkata on IndiGo, one of India's latest airlines. The growing demand has led it to acquire over 150 new A320 aircraft, and the whole experience was very good. As domestic passengers our baggage was screened and sealed before check-in, and our carry-on bags were also checked and stamped for later security inspection.
The journey to the ship from Kolkata airport took us through the centre of the city and over the Ganges to the jetty at Howrah where Ganges Voyager was moored. After settling into our cabin there was time for lunch before setting off to the city. Our destinations were the massive Victoria Memorial, commemorating Queen Victoria and home to paintings and local history, and the headquarters (Mother House) of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Here we could see the tomb of Mother Teresa and the room where she lived for many years.
On Day 10 Ganges Voyager set off up the Ganges from Kolkata. Those taking a tour to the Flower Market plus a classic tramcar ride would meet us later. The ship passed the enormous Howrah Station, the largest in India, before sailing under the Howrah Bridge, the world's busiest cantilever bridge.
The fascinating sights along the river continued for the next week - urban vistas near Kolkata, rural areas where the fertile river plain generated excellent crops, villages where the Ganges was a key factor of life - for water, for washing, for fishing and for commerce, and riverside steps thronged by locals in colourful clothes going about their everyday business. Everywhere our progress was marked by children and adults waving as Ganges Voyager passed by, and even the shyest of our party found themselves waving back from the Sun Deck!
As we sailed, some were lucky to catch a glimpse of the elusive Ganges dolphin, a solitary creature smaller than the common dolphin, and being blind, using sonar for location. A frequent sight were the ferries criss-crossing the river, usually full or overloaded, and seemingly travelling from nowhere to nowhere! There was little commercial traffic, only a few barges surprisingly bringing Australian coal to the many small brickworks in the countryside near the river.
Ganges Voyager and its sister ship are described as the best vessels on the River Ganges. The cabins are quite large, and have excellent bathroom facilities with a spacious shower room. The dining room has windows overlooking the river and offers three meals per day. Breakfast and lunch are buffets, with a wide range of choice including an omelette/egg station at breakfast. Dinner is a served meal, with four courses including some western choices. Indian options vary in level of spiciness, and for maximum choice it is best to try some of these options. Unlimited local wine and beer are served with lunch and dinner, and there are copious quantities of bottled water.
On the Sun Deck, the Governor's Lounge and Bar offers a cool place to sit and watch the river. Coffee, a range of teas and local beer are freely available and local wine and spirits after 5pm. The Sun Deck has a variety of chairs and settees and to the rear of the deck are sun loungers.
The crew on Ganges Voyager are very helpful, and a number join the shore excursions to carry water and provide assistance. The one or two daily shore trips are in the ship's own boat. All passengers wear life jackets to go to and from shore, and are assisted on and off the tender. Where necessary a handrail (a long bamboo held by a crew member at each end) is used to help access onto shore. On return to the ship there is a soft drink, cold towel, and outdoor shoes are cleaned.
The shore excursions were assisted by three local guides using quietvox headsets for clear communication. There was a huge variety of places visited (see itinerary Days 10 to 15), from small rural villages to ancient temples with amazing decoration to bustling towns and pilgrimage centres. Among the last a notable visit was to Mayapur, the spiritual home of the Krishna movement. The village was thronged by pilgrims visiting the birthplace of their saint and the whole was overlooked by the massive new temple of the Vedic Planetarium. Still under construction, and over half funded by the grandson of Henry Ford, this huge temple will rival St Peter's in size. Plans are mooted for a shrine at Mayapur to the Beatle George Harrison.
After returning to Kolkata we left the ship early for our IndiGo flight to Varanasi. On the banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is a spiritual place for Hindus to come and wash in the holy waters of the Ganges. Varanasi is noted for its ghats - kilometres of steps which come down to the water - enabling the faithful to purify themselves in the water. One of the ghats is reserved for Hindu cremations in this most holy place.
Our trip to Varanasi included evening and morning boat rides along the river in front of the ghats. In the evening we were able to watch from our boat the Aarti ceremony, a Hindu religious ritual of worship, taking place at the main Dashashwamedh Ghat. The crowds assembled for this ceremony were quite amazing, and the streets through Varanasi were jammed before and after the ceremony.
An early start in the morning took us back to the ghats at sunrise, with mist shrouding the Ganges. Already there were people bathing in the Ganges, and as we sailed along the ghats we could see what took place at the different ghats. One was seemingly dedicated to washing of clothes, and what looked to be commercial washermen washing bedlinen and putting it out to dry.
The 2-day extension to Varanasi was a magical experience, and all too soon we left Varanasi for Delhi and the flight back to the UK. We could look back on a fascinating holiday in a country which certainly deserved the title 'Incredible India'.
Review by Thalia Turner, Blue Water Holidays