Let a train take you back to the days of the Raj
We take a trip aboard the opulent Maharajahs’ Express.
The Taj Mahal: the world’s most romantic spot and the starting point for those who embark in Delhi
There is nothing like a train, as the old song nearly had it. Just how true that is I am about to learn. Cruise ship old hands will know the joy of not having to pack and unpack for a multi-centre holiday. Now the last word in luxury travel in India, the Maharajas' Express has launched itself as a palatial hotel on wheels and my home for a glorious week.
The first joint public-private venture between Indian Railways and travel firm Cox & Kings, the Maharajas' Express cost $50 million to build. It embarks on various journeys through India, romantic, ravishing to the eye and fabulous for its treasures and not, it must be said, the India of backpackers and gap years: from one's first sight of the turbaned and jodhpur-ed staff at Delhi's Safdarjung train station, this is the nearest thing to a return to the Raj.
As quickly became apparent, life for passengers on this train is red carpets, a garland of fresh flowers at every stop and the application of a scarlet bindi in the centre of one's forehead. We got to love the garlands; less so the bindi which tends to smudge in the heat.
But hey, who cares about bindis when there is a train to explore? Cabins are beautifully appointed with serious attention to detail: safe, wi-fi connection, flat-screen TV, ensuite bathroom (some have a bath tub) and a valet for each carriage. There are two dining cars where, yes, the cutlery is gold, the charger plates are gold and even the butter dish is gold.
I could really, really, get to like this. There are two bars, and two immaculately dressed barmen, one of whom confides that he watched Tom Cruise in Cocktail to learn bottle-tossing tricks.
Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000) offers a 10-night Royal India trip of six nights’ full board on the Maharajas’ Express, two nights’ B&B at the Oberoi New Delhi and two at the Oberoi Mumbai, from £5,895 per person, based on two sharing, including flights, private transfers and all sightseeing
The trip I took was between Delhi and Mumbai, with embarkation alternating between the two cities. Those who embark in Delhi start at the Taj Mahal in Agra, arguably the world's most romantic monument, built by Shah Jahan in 1632 for his late wife, Mumtaz. The Taj can be a disappointing experience, from the necessarily high level of security to get into the grounds, to the teeming thousands strolling around and the relentless hawkers flogging postcards and fridge magnets. The Maharajas' Express does its best to get round this by providing dedicated guides for this - and all - its expeditions, and builds in a delicious afternoon tea in the grounds of the adjoining Taj Khema hotel which has spectacular views of the iconic Taj.
Tea was a chance to get to know my 83 fellow passengers. Couple one (let's call them Mr and Mrs Minnesota) are Americans with homes there, Vail and Florida, and a yacht in the Caribbean. Then there's an artist who is a dead ringer for Sonny Bono, who bought the biggest, blingiest, ruby and diamond medallion you ever did see, then wore it with great panache. The Russian couple who spoke no English, and were invariably accompanied by a translator, were an endless source of fascination for the whole train. Mr Russia is tall and glowering, and allegedly owns mines; Mrs Russia is tiny, blonde and beautiful, with a penchant for wildly inappropriate outfits which thrill passengers, staff and locals.
On day two, we rise at five to visit the Ranthambore safari park. Everyone is agog to see tigers - the game reserve has 36 - but due to the exceptionally good monsoon rains, there is plenty of water at the top of the hills, so, except the ubiquitous monkeys, few animals (and no tigers) come down to our level. Then it was back on the train for the journey to Jaipur, the legendary pink city, with its gorgeous Palace of the Winds, now just a facade, and on to the beautiful Amber Fort, towering above Jaipur and offering astonishing views.
As we clamber around the fort, our guide explains that the doorways, barely wide enough for one person to squeeze through, were designed to stop marauding hordes storming the palace in a pack.
We end the day watching a polo match with players on elephants instead of ponies, and finding more on-board friends: a group of Brazilians, a Pole and some jolly Americans. By this time we are getting used to the superb meals, lashings of rather good Indian champagne and the diverse choice of vegetarian food wherever we stop.
We are, of course, somewhat insulated from the real India. Due to foresight, sunlight and security, the train has tinted windows; we can see out but others can't see in. When a train is alongside us, and we see the hundreds of people squashed on top of each other, it is chastening. It is the same when we venture into cities during our trip. Avoiding the cows and water buffaloes which roam the streets presenting endless hazards to traffic, we see scores of beggars, including tiny children.
The days fly by in a blur of eye-popping colour, palaces, treasures, maharajas and music. Almost every expedition offers a group of Indian musicians who break out in raucous welcome as we disembark or, as on one memorable evening, accompany us as we sway on camel carts through the rural villages of Bikaner, ending with a magical supper on the sand dunes where a girl in traditional folk costume performs astonishing dances.
We passengers are, by now, bonding big time. Groups and alliances form and re-form; one bar becomes the "cool" bar into which we all squash, while the other is virtually ignored. Purchases from our expeditions are displayed, cooed over and examined by everyone. Gossip is exchanged.
And on the last night, we all dress up: the men in white Nehru suits, the women in gem-coloured saris that we are wrapped into by the wonderful guest relations staff. Even the Russians let their hair down. Bollywood music plays and the entire train is on its feet, rocking through the sultry Indian night as the Maharajas' Express glides sedately down the rails to Mumbai. This is one train journey you never want to end.