A big tick on every traveller's wish list, this is one country that you have to visit – but where to start? Here's six itineraries for a perfect two-week visit...
Think of India and what images come to mind? Desert hills framed by Mughal-arched windows, hours spent chugging lazily along a Keralan backwater, sipping cardamom-flavoured chai under a coir canopy as kingfishers flit through the foliage, or staring through the early morning mist of the Brahmaputra River from the back of an elephant, looking for tigers in the long grass.
Whether it’s your first or fifteenth time to the country, India offers a bewildering choice of experiences. Would you to prefer to focus on one region or type of landscape? The dusty north, mountainous north-east or tropical south? Or sample several in one trip?
And as a backdrop for your adventure, do you dream of Merchant-Ivory-style colonial grandeur or the earthy hues of an Indian village? Soaring Himalayan mountains or the timeless simplicity of life in a mud-walled enclave in the Thar Desert?
And how much can you afford to spend? India these days offers accommodation to suit every pocket, from no-frills lodges and guesthouses in backpacker ghettos to lavish boutique retreats buried deep in the jungle.
Wherever you end up, and however much you decide to scrimp or splurge, by choosing one of these six itineraries, from the very moment you step off the plane, India will get under your skin: intoxicating at times, infuriating at others, but an experience you’ll never forget. Here's our pick of six of the best Indian getaways...
Rajasthan is the region most India first-timers choose – and with good reason. It offers just the kind of vivid spectacles you come for: painted elephants, bright saris, vibrant bazaars and flamboyant palaces, many of which you can even sleep in.
In two weeks it’s possible to visit the state’s three major cities: Jaipur, with its ornate palaces and legendary shopping; Jodhpur, whose labyrinthine, cobalt-blue old quarter is overshadowed by a clifftop fort; and romantic Udaipur, where maharajahs’ apartments rise from the shores of a lake.
Along the way, stop at Ranthambore National Park, to see tigers prowling a backdrop of jungle and medieval ruins. And head west into the ochre dunes of the Thar Desert for a camel trek, ideally from a colonial-style camp such Reggie’s (near Jodhpur; camelcamposian.com); after a day touring local villages on your dromedary, clean off for cocktail hour around the bonfire.
A rented Ambassador car (with driver) is the most stylish, and convenient, way to get around. Quite apart from the retro cool factor, it will allow you to reach wonderfully off-track places to stay. Try Devi Garh, an exquisitely renovated 18th-century palace near Udaipur, to gaze through cusp-arched windows across the Aravalli Hills from your own bath.
Finally, there’s the obligatory photograph in front of the world’s greatest monument to love, the Taj Mahal – the perfect finale.
Where to stay: Raas (Jodhpur) is a stylish fusion of old Rajput flair and LA cool. The cosy thatched safari huts at Khem Villas (Ranthambore) have private plunge pools. Or splurge on dinner in a 1,100-year-old, lamp-lit step well at Rawla Narlai (between Jodhpur and Udaipur).
Got longer? Venture west to the chimeric desert citadel of Jaisalmer, which rises up from the Thar Desert.
If you’re willing to forsake a few creature comforts for a truly wild experience, cross the Himalaya on the Manali-Leh Highway.
The route winds north from the Kullu Valley (Himachal Pradesh) to Ladakh, India’s remotest province. You can fly from Delhi to Ladakhi capital, Leh, in an hour, but the journey overland – across a high-altitude snow desert of scree, ice peaks and passes strung with prayer flags – is unforgettable.
Ride the narrow-gauge train to Shimla, former British hill capital. Then, from Manali, the rugged bit begins. Cresting Rohtang La, you enter a world of choccoloured peaks, culminating at Tanglang La (5,359m): the entire Karakoram is visible.
Spend days visiting monasteries (such as Namgyal Tsemo Gompa, near Leh, above) or trekking through tranquil side valleys. To savour the Tibetan-style culture, book with himalayan-homestays.com.
Where to stay: Chalets Naldehra (Shimla), a cluster of six Swiss-style log houses, is the loveliest mid-price option. Cottages at Banon Resort (Manali) are made of cedar and stone, and have wood-burning stoves. On the road to Leh, upmarket camps at Sarchu provide most comfort; try Antrek.
Got longer? Head south to Zanskar, for encounters with the high Himalaya.
Dolphin spotting from empty, gold-sand beaches; swimming in phosphorescent surf; dining on fragrant fish curry – just some of the pleasures of India’s tropical south-west. Though popular, you can easily sidestep the crowds for a more intimate experience by cherry-picking a few choice boltholes.
Start in Goa – or more precisely, the last corner of this former Portuguese colony not overrun by tourists. Tucked away in a palm grove on its own stretch of dunes, Elsewhere (aseascape.com) is a gem: your own red-tiled, 19th-century beach house, complete with antique four-poster and supper served straight off the fishing boat.
Tear yourself away for the short hop south to Gokarna, a traditional Hindu pilgrimage town with a spectacular – and sacred – beach. Worshippers dip, then file dripping wet to the nearby Ganesh temple.
For more sublime beaches and traditional culture, head south of Kannur, in Kerala, a train journey from Gokarna. After a delicious supper, the owners of the pretty Kannur Beach House will advise which village to head for.
Got longer? Head to the ruined city of Vijayanagar at Hampi; stay at Hampi’s Boulders.
It’s hard to imagine a more mesmerising view than that of the world’s third-highest mountain, Kanchenjunga (8,586m, right), from the Indian north-west. Its shining snowfields are a constant companion as you explore deep valleys, Buddhist monasteries, tea plantations and forests of blooming rhododendrons.
You need at least a fortnight – travel is a winding, unhurried affair here. Start with the steam-driven Himalayan Railway to Darjeeling (West Bengal), the area’s main hub – a ramshackle hillstation of Raj-era buildings and tin-roofed bazaars. For an unreconstructed taste of the empire, stay at Windamere, where white-gloved maids still serve roly-poly pudding on pre-War furniture.
Next, travel out to Glenburn Estate. This converted 19th-century planter’s bungalow is sumptuously decorated, but best are the views of distant Kanchenjunga; savour them over a pot of home-grown orange pekoe from the comfort of your own four poster. Fishing trips, riverside picnics and guided treks are also available.
More ethereal vistas of the mountain are to be had from the neighbouring state of Sikkim, where the local population is a melting pot of Gurung, Lepchas, Limbus, Bhutias and Tibetan refugees. The region’s dramatically sited Buddhist monasteries are the principal focus here, foremost among them 300-year-old Pemayangste, in the far west towards the Nepali border. On a hilltop nearby, the Elgin Mount Pandim – former summer retreat of the Sikkimese royal family – is the place to stay if you can afford it, for its goose-bump-inducing views, excellent birdwatching and traditional Sikkimese interiors of polished wood floors and carved choktse table.
Where to stay: Norbu Ghang (meaning ‘Jewel on the Hilltop’) in Pelling is a pleasant mid-scale place with a good restaurant. The Nor-Khill (Gangtok) has traditional décor and a garden where you can drink gin gimlets while gazing at ice fields.
Got longer? Nip to Kaziranga National Park in Assam, where tigers and one-horned rhinos can be sighted on elephant-back.
The Gangetic plains of north India have nourished civilisations for more than three millennia. This is where Hinduism evolved, Buddha first preached and Muslim invaders spread their Sufi-inspired Islam. These cultures, and more besides, have left striking monuments that, along with the Taj Mahal, form the backbone of trips to this multifaceted region.
There’s more though: tracts of protected sal forest in the wild fringes of Madhya Pradesh hold a clutch of reserves – Bandhavgarh, Kanha, Panna and Pench – where you stand the best chance of sighting wild tigers in India. Safaris are conducted in jeeps and on elephant-back, amid forest and grasslands. Between tiger-spotting trips, cool off at luxurious eco-camps such as Bhagvan – here, thatched huts have first-floor viewing platforms for first-class star gazing.
Taking in the parks, the clifftop fort at Gwalior, the ruined city of Orchha, Khajuraho’s erotic temples and the sites of Lucknow and Agra, a two-week round-tripfrom Delhi to Varanasi showcases contrasting modern India: from its chaotic, expanding cities to its rural hinterland of brick-and-mud villages, where the pace of life is still determined by the speed of a bullock cart.
Where to stay: Ganges View (Varanasi), with its antique-filled interiors and arched windows framing the holy river, is a restful spot. Eco-friendly Sarai at Toria (Panna NP) has tribal-style thatched cottages overlooking the river. Indigenous Gond architecture inspired Earth Lodge (Kanha NP), which also has an infinity pool shaded by mahua trees.
Got longer? Side-trip to Chitrakuta, where you’re unlikely to encounter another tourist.
India’s south encompasses two wildly contrasting regions: fertile, lagoon-dappled Kerala and drier, boulder-strewn Tamil Nadu. Dividing the two are the Western Ghats, where elephants and tigers roam, and lush plantations spill down misty valleys.
Hire a car and driver and, in a fortnight, you can cruise the Keralan backwaters in a traditional kettuvallam houseboat, take a wildlife safari in the hills and visit the magnificent temple in Madurai, with a beach wind-down to finish.
Start at the former colonial spice port of Fort Cochin, whose lanes are lined with 16th and 17th century merchants’ houses. The Tower House is a blissful bolthole, opposite the iconic Chinese fishing nets. From there head into the mountains, staying amid a working tea estate at Valparai; elephants regularly appear in the gardens.
Madurai and its gigantic Meenakshi temple is an easy day’s ride east. Don’t miss the rituals performed by the Brahmin priests or the pillared markets nearby.
Returning to Kerala via the mountains, break your journey at Anaerangal Camp, where luxury tents overlook a spellbinding valley. Next, pick from the string of divine beaches lining the Keralan coast. Base yourself at a Marari Villas private cottage on the edge of a fishing village.
Where to stay: Heritage Madurai (Madurai) offers stylish luxury with a Tamil twist. Less flush travellers should try Walton’s Homestay (Cochin). For something unique try Rainforest Hotel’s treehouse (Athirapally).
Got longer? From Madurai, head north to the former French, Pondicherry.