If you really want to know if your marriage is going to work out, why not put it to the test and choose a honeymoon destination like incredible India?
I met my wife whilst travelling in Australia and we always thought that India was reserved for the bravest of hardy travellers and backpackers. Since those days I’ve worked in travel for many years and come to appreciate that there are many ways to experience India and that it’s accessible to all sorts of travellers from ‘empty nesters’ to young couples.
We arrived with a comfortable direct flight with British Airways from London Heathrow to Mumbai and having collected our backpacks, emerged through customs to understand it was real. We had truly arrived in India. The heat and humidity hit us like a wall and the sounds and smells of the city seemed to flood our senses from the moment we arrived. We soon found a ‘tonka’ taxi and were careering through traffic and beeps passing all manner of obstacles from cows to roadside shacks. We were wide-eyed and ready to embrace this vibrant city.
We spent a couple of days exploring and getting acquainted with Bombay and sampling some local cuisine. We loved the veggie ‘Thali’ which we found in a busy corner of town full of locals, served on a tin plate with multiple compartments for pickles, curries, rice and poppadum - delicious. We particularly enjoyed India Gate, (the first port of call for ships in colonial times) where you’ll find all manner of tourists, street entertainers and locals milling around.
Passing skyscrapers and slums, we battled the exhausting heat and humidity to Chowpatty beach where performers, locals, mobile food servers and masseurs gather to escape the close air of the narrow streets and watch a magical sunset in a unique setting.
It was soon time for us to board our bus for our first chance to properly relax as we began the 15 hour journey to the first of the northern Goan beaches, Arambol.
There is something magical about Goa; laid back and spiritual you soon ease into a beautifully slow pace of life. Snacking on pakora with sweet chilli dip (deep fried veggie bites) and sipping chilled beers for spectacular sunsets the tranquillity could not be more of a contrast to the hustle and bustle of the city.
Arambol has a charming little village which is home to many hippies and locals alike, and the small craft shops and delightful cafes and restaurants make for a lovely stroll to work up an appetite. Goan seafood curries were amongst my favourite and I even braved a Vindaloo. So much more than the beer fuelled ‘lad curry’ you get in the UK, the combination of fresh spices with locally caught fish and ingredients make for a taste sensation.
A somewhat hair-raising local taxi ride south through Goa, Palolem is a little more commercial than the northern beaches and there are a host of attractive hotels and cafes to complement the natural scenery. One morning, we got up early with the local fisherman and went out for a dolphin spotting boat ride. Watching them splashing around in the somewhat murky waters is something I will never forget.
Feeling refreshed from the beaches we continued south, with our next stop in the sprawling port city of Kochi (Cochin). A fascinating blend of colonial history, the most iconic scenes are the Chinese fishing nets which line the harbour, making for picture perfect photo opportunities against the golden sunsets. There was certainly a romantic vibe and we loved watching the local couples and families soaking up the scenery.
Although completely unplanned, whilst staying in Kochi we got wind of a festival that coincided with our time in Kerala so we made a spontaneous decision to participate! It was a testing journey by cramped local buses and when we arrived it seemed to be about the hottest day of the year… or maybe that was just the excitement and sheer energy from the gathering crowds.
The festival celebrates the day the Pooram star rises with the moon (March/April), but it just seemed like a fantastic excuse for a huge street party and the decoration of elephants. If you get a chance to go participate in an event like this in India, I fully recommend it!
I had no idea what to expect from a place that billed itself as a tropical version of Venice. Starting in Allepey, we found a local guide and boat-man and as soon as we took to the water it began to make sense.
As we passed by the amazing house-boats we understood why people enjoy sailing the network of canals that weave through the lush and fertile landscape. There are lots of interesting ports of call where you can watch locals skillfully climbing the palms to reap the coconuts, see crafts being made with home-grown thread, see spice gardens, or try eating with your hands from a banana leaf. More than anything you’ll enjoy the perspective of watching life by the water-side from your relaxing vantage point on the canal.
Periyar Wildlife reserve is billed as a tiger tracking wildlife experience, but I don’t think there have been tiger sightings there for years. Even our guide said he’d never seen one.
If wild tigers are your passion, we can recommend some parks in India where sightings are more common, like Ranthambore, Kanha, Pench or Bhandavgarh for example. In these southern India parks there are still lots of interesting wildlife to see and the experience is well worth it as long as you know that tigers are a distant dream.
We had the hilarious experience of our picnic being interrupted by a group of wild elephants. The guides scrambled to get us all back to the safety of our boat as we realised from the crackles in the undergrowth that we had some gate-crashers. We also saw wild dear, wild pigs, langur monkeys and lots of interesting birds and insects.
Continuing inland to the east, you really feel like you’re off the tourist trail and getting into to the heart of this country.
Madurai is back to proper urban jungle and is another hot, smelly, feast for the senses. The main attraction here is the enormous temple complex. We were tempted up to a local’s shop which had excellent roof top views of the ornate temples, and of course felt inclined to purchase some souvenirs as we ‘exited through the gift shop’. Inside the temple was fascinating and the spiritual contemplation was only slightly interrupted by groups of curious kids wanting to take selfies with us!
After crossing the whole of the South of India, we felt a sense of achievement as we arrived in Pondicherry. I wanted to visit here because of one of my favourite books, The Life of Pi (Yann Martel) is partly set here. I was curious to see if there were some Botanical gardens that may once upon a time housed a zoo with a Bengal Tiger called Richard Parker.
Walking round the gardens was interesting, but this town has offers a variety of architectural influences and some stunning churches. It has a distinct French flavour and after a few weeks spent living almost exclusively on curry and rice, it was a welcome chance to sample some French cuisine, and to treat ourselves to a bottle of wine.
We wandered around the ashrams (monasteries) and learned about the spiritual legends. I loved the impressive Ghandi statue on the seafront too.
Anyone who has enjoyed a hot, rich Indian curry in a British restaurant will need to visit Chennai (Madras). It was our destination because we’d booked our flights to lead us from our Southern Indian journey up to the North and Delhi.
Some of the small group tour avoid Chennai and instead focus on the nearby seaside town on Mammalapuram. Unlike the dirty noisy urban sprawl of Chennai, here you have a quirky place where the local economy is driven by the tradition (and sales) of rock carvings. You can see historical carvings on the larger rocks and visit the parade of market stalls to see how the trade is alive and kicking today. We found it charming, and remember our time there as our departure from the tropical south of India.
After our 6 weeks in Southern India, our next stop was Delhi and on to the Himalayas, seeing H.H. The Dalai Lama, and Rajasthan. The North of India awaits!
We chose to make our journey a 6 week trip using a combination of local transport, tourist buses and modest guest houses. However, if you have less time, want more comfort or are more nervous about finding your way around, we can plan a tailor-made holiday in India with guides and accommodation to suit every budget. You could also look at fantastic small group tours that cover most of the highlights we experienced or discover this fascinating country by rail.