1. Madhya Prades: Khajuraho-Orchha-Gwalior-Shivpuri circuit
With a history dating back millennia, Madhya Pradesh is the heart of our country’s artistic and architectural legacy. The classic quartet — Khajuraho, Orchha, Gwalior and Shivpuri — remains one of the best heritage experiences to be had with its history whispered through temples, forts, palaces and rock-cut sculptures. Begin with Khajuraho’s medieval temples, and be assured that whichever hotel you choose, you’ll likely be a stone’s throw from the famed structures. The Lalit Temple View, Khajuraho, is just 500m away (from Rs 8,500; thelalit.com). Orchha is just 2.5hrs by road from Khajuraho, so a day trip to view its magnificent palace-fort is possible. Up next, Gwalior, for the spectacular Gwalior Fort and Tansen’s tomb. Usha Kiran Palace, a 120-year-old palace set amid nine acres (from Rs 5,000; tajhotels.com) and the historic Deo Bagh Palace, albeit smaller with only 15 rooms (from Rs 4,000; neemranahotels.com) offer heritage stays. And finally, Shivpuri, the erstwhile summer capital of the Scindias, with its palaces and hunting lodges. MP Tourism’s Tourist Village (from Rs 2,290; 022-61506363, mptourism.com) is the place to stay.
2. Ladak: Rumtse-Tso Moriri trek
This nine-day walk through the Rupshu region is probably the most representative Ladakh trek. It starts at the village of Rumtse on the Leh-Manali highway and ends at Tso Moriri. This traverse across the western part of the Changthang plateau promises massive inland lakes, kiangs and conversations with Changpa nomads. You also cross seven passes, all of them ranging between 4,700m and 5,100m. Along the way, hear the wind scream, the marmots whistle, beautiful wild horses neigh and wolves howl. End this unforgettable trip beside the turquoise waters of Tso Moriri, in the shadow of Ladakh’s highest peak, Lungser Kangri.
Tariff: Rs 23,500 per person for a group of 4 including guide, porter, ponies, tents, permits, camping fees, conveyance and food.
Contact: Abdul Rashid, 9906996677, destinationinde.com
3. Karnatak: Wildlife circuit: BR Hills-Bandipur-Nagarhole
It’s nearly twelve years since we first swung by Karnataka’s wildernesses so it’s especially nice to report that they remain unspoilt by a smattering (only) of good resorts. The Karnataka Government got something right, even if somewhat pricey, with the reliable Jungle Lodges and Resorts (080-25597944/25584111, junglelodges.com), which have lured even the most jaded travellers to visit little known destinations like Dubare, Bheemeshwari and Galibore. But it was their flagship Kabini River Lodge (from Rs 5,000 per person per night, all-inclusive), the perfect gateway to Nagarhole and an easy road trip from Bangalore or Mysore, which first grabbed attention; the Bandipur Safari Lodge (from Rs 5,000) and the K. Gudi Wildnerness Camp (for BR Hills, from Rs 4,000) round off the classic circuit. Meanwhile, a couple of other good options have blossomed quietly: at BR Hills, you could also try the Champakaranya Homestay (Rs 1,950 per person, meals included; 9845218481/9900087981, champakaranya.com) tucked away in a coffee and pepper plantation. In Bandipur, there are the super-luxurious, spa-outfitted The Serai (from Rs 18,000; theserai.in) and Windflower Tusker Trails (from Rs 7,200; thewindflower.com). At Nagarhole, there’s the rustic and tidy Machaan (from Rs 3,500; 9686130003, machaan.com) and the mod-conned — swimming pool, gym — King’s Sanctuary (from Rs 9,000; 080-25354590/9538, kingssanctuary.com).
4. Konkan Coast: The scenic Konkan Railway
‘Convenient’ train journeys happen in the night — board, sleep, disembark for a full day of whatever. Except on the Konkan Railway, where we are well advised to do the opposite. Whereas India’s prolific railway network chugs along almost entirely on its British legacy, the route from Mangalore to Mumbai via Goa and the Konkan coast is an inspired post-Independence achievement in scenic railway engineering though the views were probably an after-thought. That’s 738km of a mostly single-track line with 2,000 bridges and 91 tunnels cutting through the Sahyadris and several rivers — and the Trivandrum Rajdhani is the fastest train on it. If you can take the trouble to board it at an ungodly 3.35am from Mumbai (oddly enough, IRCTC’s online reservations require you to book from Mumbai Central but, watch out, the train halts at the Vasai Road station; Mondays, Wednesday and Thursdays; Rs 2,890/2AC; irctc.co.in), the entire Konkan stretch unfolds scenically in the daylight hours — depositing you in Mangalore at sunset (5.45pm). There are also cheaper express services like the Mangala Lakshadweep, Netravati and Matsyagandha doing this route, which either depart or arrive much after dark but still offer long stretches of splendour.
5. Classic drive: Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh- Himachal Pradesh
Looking for a road less travelled? Take a U-turn. For we’re off again on that classic route where, come summer, army trucks are often outnumbered by private vehicles caked in mud. The good news is, not much has changed (topographically) on the Jammu-Kashmir-Ladakh-Himachal Pradesh trail since we ploughed it on a vintage 1966 two-wheeled rust-bucket eleven years ago. And yet, a lot has changed — there are more (often better) places to bed in; route and permit-related information is easier to come by; plus there are several reliable travel operators willing to handhold first-timers — or show the ‘veterans’ how it’s really done — through the challenging highs of Himalayan riding. Helmet Stories, run by bikers Harsh Man Rai and Vir Nakai, is just such an outfit. They tailor several itineraries — and do so in style — making the most of places as splendid as their names; try Thiksey and Karzok, Gramphoo and Tanglang La (from Rs 10,000 per day, inclusive of a Royal Enfield Bullet, fuel, superior accommodation and meals; helmetstories.com).
6. Arunachal Pradesh: Pemako pilgrimage
Deep in the valley of the Yang Sang Chu, lies one of the Tibetans’ fabled hidden sanctuaries — a ‘beyul’ called Pemako. Dedicated to the goddess Vajrayogini (Dorje Phagmo in Tibetan), this lush region, imagined in the shape of her body, straddles either side of the Indo-Tibetan border — the peaks Namche Barwa and Gwala Peri are her breasts. The most sacred part of Pemako, however, is the vale of the Yang Sang Chu, considered a realm of the magical dakinis. This lushly forested valley is peopled by Khampa Tibetans and Mishimi tribes, both of whom worship the holy peaks of Riwutala and Pema Siri at the head of the valley. A ‘kora’, or pilgrim route, runs through this valley — a fascinating trail that takes all of twenty days to finish. Crossing Mishimi villages and sacred monasteries like Devekota and Mankota, this is a tough, but unbelievably beautiful trek in one of the remotest corners of the country.
Tariff: Approx. Rs 5,000 per person per day for a minimum of four people for porterage, guide, provisions and camping. Contact: Oken, 9436053870, aborcountrytravels.com
7. Pilgrimage of a lifetime: Sravanabelagola
You can see him from 10 kilometres away, his regal gaze upon a helplessly supplicant world from atop the taller of the only two hills in the vicinity of the rolling landscape. It is Bahubali, or the more affectionate Gomatesvara, son of Adinatha, first of the Jain Tirthankaras, who stands thus in the Pratima Yoga posture, a 17m monolithic statue reached by climbing 650 steps of the taller hill, the Vindhyagiri (dolis are available for about Rs 200). He inspires a certain quiet, this composed sentinel of over a thousand years, his size as difficult to grasp as his tranquillity, a word that somehow fails to describe his infinite peace well enough. Visitors to Sravanagbelagola would do well to spare time for its even older history, now seen in a clutch of temples, caves, monuments and inscriptions, especially those on nearby Chandragiri. Since Sravanabelagola isn’t what one might call a tourist hub, stay at the better equipped but expensive (for what it offers) Hassan, which is but 50km away. Try the earnest Hoysala Village Resort (Rs 8,900 upward for a double; 080-22340166/77/88, hoysalavillageresorts.com) or the bureaucratic Hassan Ashok (Rs 4,500 upward; 08172-268731, hassanashok.com). Hassan is also a good base for visits to the Hoysala temples at Halebid (40km) and Belur (34km).
8. West Bengal: The Dooars
Tucked between the Himalayan wilderness and the woods of the Northeast, the Dooars have always offered a cogent argument for leisurely escapes — preferably, on elephant back. But while only the most intrepid travellers ventured into Jaldapara’s beautiful jungles earlier — threatened not by wild animals, but by the state of the government-run lodges here — the tourist in 2013 is spoilt for choice. Among the best-known properties in the area — near the national parks of Gorumara and Jaldapara — are Sinclairs Retreat Dooars, perched on the Chalsa hilltop (about Rs 7,000 with taxes for doubles; sinclairshotels.com) and Zurrantee, a turn-of-the-century British bungalow cosseted by tea gardens (from Rs 3,700 for doubles; zurrantee.com). You could also consider staying at some of the smaller, budget hotels in the area, such as Tusker’s Den (Rs 900; tuskers den.com), Hathihana, the Green Castle (from Rs 1,500; thegreencastle.in) or the Jaldapara Jungle Camp (Rs 1,000; jaldaparacamp.com).
9. Kumaon: Horse safari
And who wouldn’t want to be Sir Jim? The Kumaon Horse Safari promises to take you down the route Jim Corbett took on horseback through lush sal and teak jungles to reach Sitavani but, instead of pitching tents after a hard day on the saddle, you may descend for hot food and a clean bed to the Hideaway Jungle Lodge maintained by Corbett Riverside Retreat (from Rs 13,200 per person + Rs 6,400 for additional person in double occupancy, minimum four people per trip, all costs except taxes included; 011-29551205, 9811109596, corbettriverside.com). Half-day horseback tours to Bhalon with packed lunch (Rs 4,800 per person + Rs 2,400 for each additional person) and two hour gallops in the reserve forest (Rs 1,600 per person + Rs 800 for each additional person) can be guided add-ons. Take a pen and pad. You may feel inspired to do something else the intrepid sahib did.
10. Andhra Pradesh: Buddhist circuit
Andhra Pradesh is one of the richest regions in the country to view ancient Buddhist archaeology. Large monastic sites and rock-cut caves bear testament to over a thousand years of Indian Buddhist history, from the earliest Theravada to later Tantric Buddhism, spread spatially from the first millennium BC to about the 11th century AD. The uplands of the Eastern Ghats, areas of the Krishna river valley and small hills running down the Coromandel Coast contain these sites, some spectacular, almost all unknown. These offer a fascinating glimpse into a neglected facet of our past. Important sites include Thotlakonda, Bojjanakonda, Lingalakonda and Bavikonda in the Vizag area, Salihundam near Srikakulam, Dharanikota (ancient Dhanyakataka), Nagarjunakonda and Amaravati in Guntur district and Guntupalli near Vijaywada.
11. Garhwal: Bagini Glacier Trek
The Nanda Devi National Park, in its vastness, holds many delightful treks up various radial valleys to the hulking high peaks that curtain the core area of the Nanda Devi sanctuary. Just up the road from the famous Bhotia village of Lata on the highway to Gamshali in the Dhauli Ganga valley is the village of Jumma. From here, a shepherds’ track winds up the steep valley of the Bagini to the village of Dunagiri, which gives its name to the mountain that stands at its head. A five days’ walk up from Jumma through forests of oak and deodar and grasslands brings you to the cracked sweep of the Bagini glacier with its enclosing peaks — Rishi Parbat, Hardeol, Tirsuli, Kalanka, Changabang and the giant Dunagiri. If you’re up early you can trek further up the glacier towards the Bagini pass on a saddle to the southwest of Changabang on the peak’s northwest face for a spectacular sunrise.
Tariff: Rs 9,800 per person Contact: Trek the Himalayas, 9456362345, trekthehimalayas.com
12. Rail luxury: Royal Rajasthan on wheels
Which of us hasn’t dreamt of a trip on the Palace on Wheels? Well, it’s time to upgrade that fantasy a bit for the Royal Rajasthan on Wheels caters to the shehenshahs of aristocracy. The custom-designed beauty promises even more sumptuous, colour-themed interiors with huge and spotless windows to showcase panoramic views, five-star en suite bathrooms, leisurely gourmet meals served in two ‘restro lounges’, regal khidmatgars at your perpetual service, and even a pampering spa over seven days of an itinerary to die for — as if Jodhpur, Udaipur, Chittorgarh, Sawai Madhopur and Jaipur aren’t princely enough, there is Khajuraho and Varanasi to be visited before ending with the flourish of Agra. Naturally, such grand dreams don’t come cheap and the Royal Rajasthan delivers deep exclusivity only to the modern maharajahs of money.
Tariff: Minimum five nights from $590 per person per night on twin sharing, inclusive of all landed sightseeing costs in luxury coaches, and entertainment; the train runs on pre-fixed departure dates to carry up to 80 passengers in 38 deluxe and two super deluxe saloons from October through March.
Contact: 011-23386069, email@example.com, royalrajasthanonwheels.com