James is our hero. He’s debonair, smart and possibly the best pilot in the whole wide world. Whenever we travel by plane, we make sure that James is our pilot. Without James and his flying finesse, we would never have been able to enjoy the delights of India. Oh, he’s also a figment of our imaginations, but his existence provides just the right amount of reassurance my five-year-old son, Joe, needed to help him get over his fear of flying.
Thanks to James, we landed safely in Delhi after our eight-hour flight on a balmy evening with a warm breeze that felt like someone holding a hairdryer to your face. Even at close to midnight, the spectacle of India was already opening up before our eyes. As we drove through the streets, we could see elaborately painted goods carriers, a familiar sight in Rajasthan, bedecked with coloured ribbons and tassles that make Eddie Stobart’s fleet look decidedly dull. Ahead of us, there was an open-top lorry with a couple of young boys wrestling a crew of frisky sheep and goats trying to make a bid for freedom. The scene was played out to a cacophony of beeping horns – clearly in India indicators are for wimps. “You need three good things to drive in Delhi,” our chauffeur told us. “A good horn; good brakes; and good luck.”
At our hotel, the Oberoi Delhi, we headed to our rooms where Grace and Joe devoured the gifts awaiting them, Joe greeting the sight of a pink My Little Pony with the words: “All my life, I have wanted one of these!” We slept soundly that night, dreaming of our passage through India that was about to begin…
Day 1: Delhi
Our day started with a handsome breakfast – a glorious buffet of pick ’n’ mix delights and made-to-order dishes. The charming waiter persuaded me to try a traditional Indian breakfast of masala aloo dosa: curried potatoes nestling in paper-thin crispy pancakes. A delicious – if somewhat unfamiliar – start to the day!
Our morning was spent in the capable company of a local Greaves travel guide, who took us through the historic sights of Delhi, starting with Humayun’s Tomb, often called the inspiration for the Taj Mahal because of its ornate Mughal style of architecture. There was a large group of local school children visiting, too, who took a shine to Joe, chasing him to take his photograph.
The biggest challenge was to find shade for our pasty bodies in the 40˚C sunshine and I felt a bit sorry for our guide whose face visibly sank when, after three monuments and a drive past the parliament buildings, I said we’d like to go back to the hotel. Delhi is steeped in history and magnificent buildings, but the heat made it difficult to concentrate and I’d find myself drifting off a little during his discourse. “Any questions?” he would ask hopefully, and, like the student who’d been daydreaming, I could never think of one. The only time I did, he seemed irritated: “As I told you already…” Ooops, I must have missed that bit.
For Grace and Joe, the highlights of Delhi were to be found inside the hotel. They loved the hotel’s playroom, which was filled with brand-new toys that hadn’t even been taken out of the packaging. And they were both really dying to try out the swimming pool, so by about five o’clock – when it was still hot but not stifling – we headed down to the cool black infinity pool, where they splashed and swam until it got dark. We retired via the concierge and settled for the night with Harry Potter DVDs.
Day 2: Ranthambhore
It was an early start to catch the Golden Temple Mail Train from Hazrat Nizamuddin Station. Again, it was the drive to the station that provided the spectacle. We’d stop in busy traffic to find vehicles beeping their way round a stubborn cow who was determined neither to be harried or hurried out of the way. We also loved
to spot the distinctive black and yellow tuk-tuk taxis, like busy bumblebees, or the buses where passengers were hanging off the roof. We also invented a new game of I-Spy called ‘how many people can you fit on a motorcycle?’ I think our record was five, including a babe-in-arms and no safety helmets!
We were greeted at Sawai Madhopur station by Sri, a smart-looking fella wearing an elaborately woven coat and a turban. At the hotel, we were greeted by two smart-looking elephants, Lachmi and Mala, whom Grace and Joe tentatively fed sticks of sugar cane. Our foreheads were anointed with a blessing and we were given marigold garlands, before we were shown to our accommodation: a tent. Well, I say “tent” but actually this was glamping in the extreme. I mean, how many tents have flecks of gold-embroidered tigers and tiny stars dancing on the roof? How many times do you get to enjoy a roll-top bath and chaises longue while the scent of jasmine wafts across the verandah?
Our afternoon treat was a visit from a local potter who had come to demonstrate his art. Crouching on the ground, he used a big wooden stick to spin a giant wheel before throwing down a lump of clay and magically transforming it into a vase. Then it was our turn. Grace managed it quite well, making a nice little pot, while Joe made a finger pot instead. My attempt, sadly, was rather more along the lines of a disaster on The Generation Game. Once again, the pool was a big attraction, and of course, there’s the romance of sleeping under the stars, especially embroidered golden ones.
Day 3: Ranthambhore National Park
One of the big attractions of The Oberoi Vanyavilas Hotel is its proximity to Ranthambhore National Park, one of Rajasthan’s first ‘Project Tiger’ reserves. Covering 1,334sq km, the park has a congenial habitat for the stately sambar, the largest of all Asiatic deer, as well as bird life, including the rare red jungle fowl, eagles and peacocks. The water ‘tank’ harbours marsh crocodiles and pythons. The real stars, though, are of course the tigers.
Joe was not best pleased with his rude 5.30am awakening, but he nodded off in the jeep, seemingly lulled by the jerks and bumps. He woke in time to spot monkeys and deer, and sudden bursts of bright orange flowers, The Flame of the Forest, that seemed to set the trees momentarily ablaze. There were also dramatic banyan trees with gnarled and sprawling roots.
Suddenly, the jeep would stop to a jerky halt and the guide would draw a circle in the dirt to highlight a tiger paw print, but still no sign of the majestic creature itself. Just as we were about to resign ourselves to a no-show, our guide shouted “Tiger!” There in the distance, about 150m away, a tiger stopped and paused – not burning quite so bright as Blake would have you believe, but a spectacle nonetheless. “You are lucky, my friend,” the guide told us. “Not many people get to see a tiger.” And little wonder. In the 19th century, there were apparently around 40,000 tigers in the area; now there are only 38 left, their number shamefully depleted by ruthless game-hunting and fur trade. We felt privileged indeed.
Day 4: Ranthambhore–Jaipur
After another early morning jeep ride – but no tigers – Grace and Joe were invited to the Vanyavilas garden to plant a sapling tree: a sweet lime for Joe, and a mango tree for Grace. In years to come, they can check on their trees’ progress and, who knows, maybe even pick the fruits of their labour. Later, we continued our journey to Jaipur, driving through bustling villages that were hives of activity. At one point, we were stuck behind a lorry so stuffed with goods it looked like a huge elephant’s bottom. Then, like a comedy sketch, it happened to brush past a pole and the elephant’s bottom burst and grains starting showering out, much to the hilarity of everyone, except the poor boy running alongside trying to stop it.
After a three-hour side show, we arrived in Jaipur. By now, we were used to the warmest of welcomes and we were certainly not disappointed. We dismounted our taxi to find “Welcome Joe Grace” laid out in marigolds; again, we were given a blessing, marigold garlands and, for Joe, his very own turban.
Built in the style of a Rajput fort, the grounds of the Oberoi Rajvilas have a huge swimming pool surrounded with very enticing chill-out areas as their centrepiece. While we were bathing in the early evening, Joe went off to investigate the huge puffs of smoke that were emanating from the gardens. It was the daily fumigation to get rid of mosquitoes – lest those pesky beasts should ever dare to dine out on venerable guests!
Grace and Joe also received a little personalised scroll highlighting some of the treats in store, including a treasure hunt for Joe and a Indian cooking class for Grace. There were more gifts in our room, including a bucket of Hot Wheels. At bath time, Joe discovered the sloping side of the marble bath made a perfect runway for shooting cars. My treat came via the spa, where I had a lovely massage to soak away the cares of the day.
Day 5: Jaipur
The following day was a busy schedule of sightseeing and activities, kicking off with an excursion to the Amber Fort with an elephant ride up the hill. The only obstacle here was Joe’s fear of flying, and we hadn’t had the forethought to say that James had a distant Indian cousin who happened to have an elephant. As Joe’s hot tears fell to the ground, our amiable guide Rajish suggested he and Joe travel up by car and meet us at the top, so Grace and I started our bumpy ascent on an elephant wearing make-up. Just as well Joe didn’t join us, as our elephant seemed to be about a metre taller than any of the others, and it was a slow, laboured and bumpy ride in baking heat. At one point, I sighed at the refreshing water spray spritzing our legs, until Grace exclaimed: “Yuck! I just got covered in elephant spit!” Perhaps a touch of elephant’s revenge? When we arrived at the top, Joe was sitting happily in a shady shop, with a mango juice and a handful of melting chocolate bars. “Lovely boy!” Rajish kept telling me, while Grace rolled her eyes.
Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, is known as the Pink City, as the buildings in the old walled city are built in pink sandstone. It was fascinating to hear about the decadent lives of the rajas and their many wives. At the City Palace, we visited the armoury museum where “Welcome” was spelt out with deadly-looking daggers, and the costume museum where we marvelled at the magnificent robes. Apparently, one of the queen’s dresses was so heavy with beaded jewels that she had to be wheeled up a ramp to the royal boudoir. We also giggled at a huge pair of harem pants that took up an entire showcase and belonged to a raj who was allegedly 7ft tall and 4ft wide. We nicknamed him the “Large Raj.”
Wilting a little in the heat, we made a whistle-stop tour of the Hawa Mahal, known as the Palace Of Winds, which has a stunning facade from which the ladies of the court could discreetly watch the daily goings-on below, before stopping for a little nicknack shopping of sequinned elephants, mirrors and a henna tattoo for Grace.
Day 6: Jaipur–Mumbai
We had to call upon James to pilot us to our final destination: Mumbai, home of Bollywood and known as The City of Dreams. There was a delegation to greet us at Trident Bandra Kurla, the swish newly opened hotel that has already been cited in Condé Nast Traveller’s “Hot List” for 2010. “Do we have your permission to thoroughly spoil the children?” General Manager Visheshwar whispered. And I have to say, they really did pull out all the stops to divert and entertain, from the moment we entered our suite (with sweets) to our personalised cooking session with chef Anuraag Narsingani, and board games and musical chairs in the playroom. We spent a relaxing afternoon in the cool of the infinity pool, where Joe managed to nab the attentions of his own Bollywood starlet, who insisted on kissing him and telling him just how lovely he was.
In the evening, our beautiful guide, Namitha, escorted us to Bandstand, the home of many famous Bollywood stars and, she reliably informed us, which had “a lovely park for dogging.” Well, I thought, that’s hardly suitable for the children, until I realised she’d said “for jogging.” It was here where I felt we really had a chance to mingle with the locals, Joe playing football with a little boy by the beach and Grace and I giggled at the toddlers wearing squeaky shoes (a design feature to encourage reluctant walkers). We also liked the straightforward no-nonsense approach to hygiene in the dog garden, which read: “Pick up your dog’s shit”.
Then it was time for another spot of bargain shopping along Linking Road. It was all too much for Joe, who literally fell asleep sitting on the counter while his sister pondered over her purchases. When we retired to our hotel, Grace and I were able to enjoy a very civilised three-course dinner à deux, while Joe slept on the banquette. As we finished our simply divine desserts – Grace deemed her chocolate trio to be the best ever – one of the waiters whisked Joe up from his seat and carried him off to bed.
Day 7: Mumbai–Home
We started our final day with a hearty breakfast. Grace and Joe opted for pastries, while I had a taste of puri, cute little puffed up pancakes filled with spicy curry. They also insisted that Grace and Joe had some hot chocolate, and, as the hot liquid was poured into their mugs, a photograph of us magically appeared from our pizza-making session, a keepsake to remind us of all the fun we’d had. As James pulled down the throttle and our plane took to the skies, we waved bye bye to Mumbai and our great Indian adventure.
The Oberoi Family Vacation package with Greaves Travel starts from £4,320 for a family of four travelling with two children up to 12 in two rooms, including BA flights, six nights’ accommodation on a B&B basis, private transfers, guides, children’s activities and taxes. Valid until Sept 2010. Tel: 020 7487 9111; www.greavesindia.com