With 20 years experience of taking people to India, Louise knows better than most what the first time traveller to India’s big worries are. Here, she shares her personal opinions and tips with you:
Q: India is so big, surely I need a long time to visit it?
A: Not necessarily, since you cannot see it all in one go. India is indeed big; it is also culturally very rich and complex. I believe you can have a very rewarding two week trip, provided you choose your area carefully to suit your interests and do not criss-cross the country. If you can spend more time, then pace yourself more slowly so you can absorb more deeply, and perhaps explore two or three areas depending on your timeframe. If you have 5 weeks, for instance, it is worth pausing in the middle to rest – perhaps by the sea, or in a nature park.
Q: Will I get ill ?
A: Truly, it is not obligatory to get ill in India! Just be sensible: drink plenty of bottled water, eat light food for the first few days (vegetarian rather than heavy Mughal dishes), and be sure to get enough rest. Remember: the mind adjusts quickly to your exciting new environment, but the body needs time. With these and my other tips for staying healthy, I find my clients rarely get ill. If they do, every hotel has a doctor on call 24 hours a day, and almost all medicines are available.
Q: I prefer to travel on my own; why do I want to take a tour to India?
A: Because it makes your holiday more interesting, more relaxing, and removes anxieties. A number of people who travel with me do all their other travelling on their own. It may be charming to struggle with checking into hotels, buying train tickets, finding out how to coincide with a temple’s evening puja (worship), learning what to do about a cancelled flight, but in India this can use up lots of precious time. The advantage of having someone else do it is, quite simply, that you can spend ALL your precious time absorbing the historical sights and lively street events and festivities that fill the towns, villages and even the farmer’s fields. I can ensure you will be in the right place at the right time, and get you to see special local fairs, festivals and dance or drama that are arranged spontaneously throughout India. Another advantage: you only have to settle one account, the tour cost!
Q: I usually sort out my own trips; why do I want a travel consultant?
A: Because I can help you create an itinerary that is the best possible fit for your interests, your comfort demands, your pace and your budget. India is such a diverse place, full of wonderful places to see! It is all too easy to make decisions that appear to be logical but are in fact going to cause you a lot of hassle for little good return. You can end up spending two days to get somewhere that, frankly, is not really your kind of place; you can stay at the wrong hotel for your needs; you can travel somewhere by air when in fact the drive is picturesque with good things to see along the way – the list is endless. Honestly, without help from my own colleagues experienced in India travel, our first trip to India (for our honeymoon) would have been far less successful. It is that kind of committed and in-depth help that I can give. Your trip will be as near perfect as possible, with my superb Indian team there as back-up along the way.
Q: How can I see all the big sights on one trip?
A: You can’t – unless you have a few years to spare. My mantra is ‘less is more’, meaning the fewer places and areas you travel to, the more you will undoubtedly get out of your journey. Here is one solution: if you want to visit South India but fear you may not return to India again, then spend five days in the north at the beginning or end to see the Taj Mahal and the capital, Delhi. You will have seen India’s ‘most famous sights’, but not by any means ‘all the big sights’ including many I would judge far more distinguished than the Taj Mahal. Take comfort in this: a lot of my clients who thought they were doing one trip to India were so fascinated that they have return again to see another part – and then again, and again! It is addictive – just look at all the exciting travelling you have ahead of you!
Q: Are there any good hotels?
A: Yes, plenty. Your hotel is an essential ingredient of your trip. But it is not obvious which ones are good and which simply manage to get good publicity in the press. Take the recurring subject of palace hotels, for instance. Recently a reporter for a respected travel magazine stated she had not stayed in any palace hotels during her trip to India as they were all awful. It is a mystery to me how she knew this as there are several hundred of them scattered round India and she had clearly not visited them all. Palace hotels vary hugely; my job is to know the good from the less good – the expensive ones that are worth the price and, equally, the cheap off-beat ones that have character, are family run with care, and merit a longish drive to reach. The same applies to all categories of hotel, from the increasingly popular home stays and guest houses, via converted old buildings in stunning locations to the spectacularly lavish and stylish creations such as Devi Garh, Ananda, Rajvilas and Aman Resorts’ two Indian properties.
Only by knowing my subject can I advise well for each of my clients’ particular tastes and requirements. I have watched the huge improvement over the past decade. I stay in as many of the hotels as possible, visit others, and listen to the reactions of my clients to hotels they stay in. As I have written several large guide books to India and done a lot of travel journalism, I am experienced at assessing the true quality of a hotel. No hotel can convince me it is good if I can see clearly it is not!
Q: Can I take my children to India?
A: Yes! We have taken our children since they were aged 5 and 7, always with success. Essential ingredients are likely to include: hotel with swimming pool, riding an elephant, going to the evening markets to see life being lived on the streets and buy local jewellery and clothes, and visiting the Taj Mahal where the local photographer takes the children’s photos so they look as if they are leaping over the building or holding it in the palm of their hands. Also worth considering: avoid travelling too much, keep journeys short, start or end the trip at a beach, keep a joint family diary. Health should not be a problem: for frail stomachs, the Indian version of electrolyte is sold in all towns, and hotel doctors are usually excellent. Once the children become teenagers, the big cities such as Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore have excellent international shopping, and Mumbai has India’s best bars and clubs
Q: How can I tell one travel agent/consultant from another?
A: I have worked with many agents – some were great, some were not. What distinguishes the good from the bad is the personal commitment of the travel agent and the staff’s efforts to learn about India rather than force their clients onto the tried and tested (and for them highly profitable) dreary itineraries.
The quality of the on-the-ground staff in India is vital too – those that lazily rush clients round a monument and then into a tourist shop can ruin even a well-planned holiday – one friend told me that on her trip with a reputable company it was announced that the exquisite Tomb of Itimad ud Daula at Agra, which she longed to see as much as the Taj Mahal, was closed so they would visit a shop instead. She later discovered it was not closed at all. I work direct with my clients (and very occasionally through hand-picked travel agencies) and always with Quo Vadis ground agent throughout India, who have the finest staff, local agents, drivers and guides in India. This way I can be sure my own high standards are met before and during my clients trips.
Q: How are you, Louise, better than other India specialists?
A: I am totally committed to giving you the best content for your trip, at the best value and with the least hassle.
I can do this because I have been studying the sub-continent (India and its surrounding countries) since 1978 and I have both a deep knowledge and extensive on-the-ground experience from my own travelling and from taking people to India. I do not try to spread myself thin over a large part of the globe. India past and present is my subject, in all its vastness.
I make it my business constantly to research new places and check the regular sights – I go to India several times a year. My greatest strength, perhaps, is that I am a generalist, so my solid art history background is matched by knowledge about religions, philosophies, buildings, crafts, cuisines and all aspects of India’s many rich cultures. Be it cross-cultural influences of Gujarat textiles in Indonesian coronation ceremonies, the Sanskrit base of some English vocabulary, the delicious regional cuisines of India, the rich bird life of the Lower Himalayas, the variations of Chola temple rituals or social work in rural India, there are few subjects in which I am not interested or cannot find out about to satisfy a client’s curiosity.