10 April 2014

Incredible India - A review of luxurious Maharaja's Express

For New Year last year I embarked on a journey through the Rajasthan with the Maharaja's Express train. 

The trip we chose was described as follows:

Heritage of India Journey

7 Nights / 8 Days
Mumbai - Ajanta - Udaipur - Jodhpur - Bikaner - Jaipur - Ranthambore - Agra - Delhi 

Maharajas' Express Heritage of India itinerary offer insights into the rich heritage and culture of India.

Starting from Mumbai, the train crisscrosses through the medieval caves of Ajanta, forts and Palaces of Rajasthan and the majestic Taj Mahal during the Heritage of India Tour.
The highlight of the tour includes cultural immersion during local sightseeing tours, insider experiences such as sundowner cocktails amidst sand dunes and Exhibition Elephant Polo Match and some shopping experiences among others

And it did live up to expectations. 

Although the experience will be the focus of another blog post I wanted to write a review of the trip for those considering joining it.

India has a few high-end luxury trains connecting some of the most beautiful parts of the country. The Maharaja's Express is a well known one because of the area it tours, the Rajasthan, and because it is a very historical journey covering most of the Imperial and culturally rich sights. It is truly a blissful trip too ideal for those wishing to visit India without having to "deal" with the poverty and misery of India, with the extremes and the begging. It is a selfish wish but nonetheless a human one linked to our internal fears of being confronted with the cast system, with the less priviledged, with loss, with amputated limps, with human beings treated like animals.

One of many beautiful castles
This was, I will admit, one of the reasons why India was only my 70th country. I ahd purposely delayed visiting it for this very reason. Travelling is an exercise of discovery and a passion to experience different cultures, peoples, places but I tended to avoid being put into extremely sad situations where I would return home feeling frustrated at the impossibility of changing something so unfair and saddening. 

Luxury at its best - feeling like a Maharaja

I am not a demanding traveller. Long ago I forfeited the complaints and high demands in favour of enjoying any trip, no matter how negatively affected it is by bad service, bad weather, unpleasant travel companions or harassment from locals. In my mind, I won't let anything spoil a trip. This is something that I learned in Africa where life passes at a different speed. But that will be the focus of another post.

So, I do know what a high-end luxury experience should look like after years of beng lucky enough to travel with a consultant's budget (company paid weekends getaways and generous salaries). And the Maharaja's Express is one of them, hands down.

From the moment we stepped into the check-in room at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai until we disembarked in Delhi the entire trip was exquisite. The staff was attentive without being overwhelming, the food was traditional and local without too much spices, the chef was accommodating even to a temporarily delicate stomach (nothing to do with India by the way) and the itinerary, the stops, the sightseeing and every single element of the trip, unforgettable.

Personally, what truly makes a trip memorable, aprticularlly the very seldom times I choose to go on an organized tour, is the feeling of seeing something out of the ordinary. In this journey, we enjoyed several unqiue experiences not available to most travellers to India. This included an elephant polo game, not watching, playing! 

Another favorite was the opportunity we ahd to chat to one of the Maharaja's who is still alive, royalty at its best.

It was perfect so where is the trick?

It is sadly not a trip for every wallet. At around USD6-7,000 per person for the 8 days/7 night for the lowest category cabin it is not an affordable trip. We did get a complimentary night stay at a Taj Hotel in either Mumbai or Delhi making the trip 9 days/8 nights and the overall nightly rate at USD750-850 per person per night but this still did not make any significant change in the rate. 

On the positive sie, this price includes everything and there are hardly any additional costs unless you choose some of the out of itinerary excursions, go shopping or indulge in international wines or liquors. Local wines and liquors are included and you have your own butler who makes sure that all your needs are met and even goes the length of checking that the room has the right temperature. I am sure he would tuck you into bed if you asked him!

Perhaps the only criticism is the size of the rooms, although expected given the llimitations of train travel. 

The dinning carriage
For the simplest room, the one we chose, space is an issue so you should travel light. There is at most half a meter around the bed, just enough to walk around and your luggage goes under the bed. The butler will help you unpack and repack your suitcases so that everything is neatly placed inside the wardroves but aside from a tiny desk and two small bedside tables there isn't anything else to keep you in your room. Instead, there are a few lounges and bars to relax in, read a magazine, enjoy a drink and snacks or simply watch the world go by through the window. 

For more space, you can upgrade your cabin to a suite. The largest and most expensive cabin, the Presidential suite, can go for as much as USD23,000, per person!

During the day, you are out and about discovering the area  and we never felt that we were either bored or dragged too much up and down to see places - the mix of excursion time vs. relaxation time was perfectly balanced. 

Every adventure off train was met with a team of local dancers performing the skills or dances typical of the area with colourful dresses, artifacts and instruments. The girls with elaborate saris or traditional outfits, the men on camels or horses. And we were greeted with scarfs, silk pashminas, flower necklaces or other typical decorations. 

Excursions involved a group bus ride with the remaining 35 passengers on board the train. I calculated that the train must have been around 2/3 full which made for a good amount of people if you wanted to meet others and socialise over dinner or in the buses without being too much that you just feel like a sheep in a herd, treatment was very much personalised. 

What type of people were on board?

As expected this is a trip for those with an interest in culture and history and who do not wish to compromise on comfort and luxury even when travelling to remote, inaccessible or very poor areas. 

Lake Pichula Taj Hotel
The Rajasthan has some of the most beautiful hotels in the world. The floating palace in Lake Pichula, a Taj Hotel is one of the most romantic settings in the world, not to mention the Taj Mahal's declaration of love or some of the most incredible palaces which are reminiscent of the British Imperial times and exude glamour and elegance in old world surroundings.

Nonetheless to get to some of these places one still needs to endure terrible Indian driving and road hazards not fit for the faint of heart. Travelling by train allows to swap the roads for the more comfortable, quieter and safer rails.

Down to the details, expect guests to be middle aged and mostly Eastern European/Russian. They were also wealthy in a very obvious way (read ostentatious luxury brands, large diamonds, perfect hair and make-up). 

The ones who were not Eastern European or Russian were couples in their late 30s to 60s from a range of nationalities in the Western World: English, American, Canadian, European. There were also a few families with grown up kids

Everybody was well travelled, well "behaved", educated, respectful and mindful of other guests. There was no waiting time for other passengers, no late arrivals, no loud, obnoxious or stubborn guests.

What if I want a more personalised experience?

If you don't want to sit in a bus with many other or be in a group with a shared guide you can upgrade yourself to personal drivers, private guides and exclusive excursions. It is unclear how much this feature would cost but judging by the overall pricing of the trip this could be a relevant amount of money. The other guests in this category were two Russian couples who also spoke barely any English so it could also be a matter of practicality or an offer the train operator makes to attract Russian/Eastern European or imply non-English speaking clients.

Shopping opportunities

Pardon my sarcasm and cynicism here but I have been taken to enough "cousin's carpet shops" to know what a "shopping opportunity" really means. 

A shopping opportunity at a carpet store
You get taken to a friend or relative shop which grants the driver or guide a commission on your purchases and then you are almost coerced into buying something. It is not that they force you to but after the host takes out and displays almost his entire inventory and invites you to several rounds of tea sugared with lots of explanations about the beauty and uniqueness of the fabric and the amount of craftsmanship that went into making it no human being is then able to walk away without buying anything. And if you try, you will not only be offered discounts and special offers but eventually, if you insist in not buying anything, you will be emotionally blackmailed. I dare you to try and see if you can walk away empty handed.

Given the price tag and expectations on luxury and exclusivity of the Maharaja's express these opportunities are truly voluntary and up to the guests to chose. You can be taken to shops selling your choice of souvenir or even to high-end jewelry stores. Rajasthan is known for its gold and precious stones so you are sure to find your pick in the many luxury jewelries around.

I will admit though that, although I was expecting at one point to be taken to someone's back yard for a speech on how great the carpets are, that only happened in one occasion and as soon as the seller realised we were not interested at all we quickly left the place. I am sure this was not meant to be part of the itinerary nor did the organisation team know but it is India after all and these sort of things happen constantly. We were glad we were not harassed and left shortly after arriving.

The service level  - what is all this butler thing about?

I will have to praise the organisers and the staff on board for the many details they had throughout the trip. From trying to find me conditioner when I ran out (not easy in remote India) to sorting out our pick up upon arrival in Delhi to making sure I had a diet of banana and rice for 2 days when I was sick (nothing to do with the trip, I came with it) it all went smoothly and no trouble was too much. 

Because we were travelling during NYE we also got an out of trip dinner at a special location and access to the hotel's dinner and dance celebration so we welcomed the New Year with the largest buffet I will ever see, it sprawled several tables and it had everything you could think of including a large 2013 ice sculpture.

We decided to stay at the hotel party with the DJ and all the rest of the high-end Indian society until past midnight with a gay couple who was travelling with us but the rest of the guests went back to the train after dinner. Not that the night ended there. Back at the train the staff had organised an after party with Indian music to go with it and lots of Indian Bollywood moves for all of us to learn and practise. It was really fun to dance with everyone, laugh at the staff's great dancing skills and learn some moves which were sure to make anyone loosen up. The mood was up as we retired to our cabin at around 2am and I am sure many of the guests danced until the wee hours. Some of the passengers looked like they had not danced in such a free and "I don't care what others think" way in years, loosening up shirts, ties and bending over and backwards as the crew showed us how to do it.

At risk of spoiling the surprise, on the last evening in the train there is a farewell dinner with traditional outfits. We came back from the Taj Mahal to find pretty saris and men wear on our beds ready for the evening. The staff came to help us dress up for the occasion and I was very happy to wear a nice sari for the first time

The nicest part of this was that we all got an appropriate dress. The children all got special outfits adequate for their age, the girls got different lengths and arrangements all suitable to each's physical appearance. So the older ladies got saris without too short a top, the younger with sexier looks and the men all go different colours, patterns and turbans so we did not look like lemmings all cut the same which made for a very colourful postcard when putting us all together. 

The verdict

Would I go back? Yes, absolutely

Would I recommend it to someone? Yes, absolutely

Is it good value for money? Yes, expensive, but you get what you pay for

What it is not: an adventure trip, you do get to go out and walk around but the amount of physical exercise is limited. 

Lastly, if you expect to romantically travel the Indian plains and deserts and watch the day go by through your window you may be disappointed. The travel time usually takes place in the evening and on some mornings and it is much less than I expected. The Indian railway system is, as you may have seen in many a photo, quite in dire state. No matter how high end the train in itself is, the railway system is the same as for the low end trains that make travelling in India so affordable but so extreme. We were delayed and stopped continuously and there was always an expected delay which the staff were all too used to seeing. They had been Incorporated into the schedule as part of the journey.

As a once in a lifetime experience the Maharaja's Express is sure to please everyone. Come with an open heart and enjoy the epace of mind of luxury India but don't expect to see the real country.

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