Adventure

The rail India

Rajasthan’s new luxury train promises intense cultural immersion and palatial comfort. Jonathan Margolis takes an eight-day joyride.

October 08 2010
Jonathan Margolis

It was last winter, the snow was falling in lumps and we were Googling for holidays. My wife fancied Rajasthan, and I, well, I didn’t not fancy it; but we were probably unique among everyone we know in never having been there. Jaipur and Jodhpur, Udaipur and Bikaner seem to be talked about like old friends at every dinner party we go to; so we were certainly aware of it, in the same way that Americans are dimly conscious of the “Yorkshire Moors” (by which they normally mean the Dales). It summoned up a fuzzy image of deserts, camels and banquets served in once-magnificent palaces lately converted into stunning hotels by the Harvard-educated sons of moustachioed maharajas – who were dispossessed on Independence of all but their palaces and 1947 Rolls-Royces and have had to make a living ever since.

And the palace-hotel idea did sound good to us. But the Rajasthan-lovers we know spend a week or two at one pleasure dome and go home; we were thinking of a multi-palace approach over only about eight days. It’s the kind of trip for which a cruise would actually be ideal, were our desired destination not an inland one.

And India held another drawback – history and culture. We’ve reached a weird stage at which we’ve been to so many interesting places that we actively don’t want to learn any more about anywhere. We’ve got enough education, thanks; what we’re hungry for, especially on holidays, are pleasure moments. And we usually want to acquire our pleasure moments in the most luxurious way possible.

It was that night, as we were thus defining our holiday philosophy over the laptop, that we happened upon the Maharajas’ Express – a new, live-on train of unparalleled luxury that has come up with a “Royal India” itinerary taking in Rajasthan. “Yesss,” we hissed in unison, “a portable Rajasthan palace.” We booked the seven-night tour for late spring and were almost pathetically excited as the departure date approached.

The Maharajas’ Express is the extraordinary achievement of luxury tour operator Cox & Kings and Indian Railways, who jointly stumped up the £8.8m it cost to custom-build it. More than half a kilometre long, it takes nearly 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other and weighs 1,158 tonnes. Its 23 carriages (including two restaurants, two bars and a huge, gleaming, stainless-steel kitchen said to be the world’s biggest on rails) are insulated – almost – from the ravages of India’s vast, but often bumpy, railway grid by a German air-suspension system.

We had the presidential suite: an entire carriage with marble floors throughout, two bedrooms, two bathrooms (both with power showers, one with a sizeable bath – it bears mentioning that the plumbing is nothing short of miraculous), a huge living room, a personal butler and superb air conditioning throughout.

Rail-o-philes among our fellow passengers assured us that the basic cabins are bigger and more comfortable than on other luxury trains. All the accommodation has a direct-dial phone, multichannel satellite TV and wireless 3G broadband.

We set off from a suburban station in Delhi, decked out with red carpet, musicians, garland-proffering maidens and discreet but not inconsiderable security. Indeed, the Royal-calibre welcome was to become our daily routine in every city en route, because the Maharajas’ Express is still big news in India even though it’s done a few trips now. “Another day, another bloody garland,” we soon found ourselves harrumphing each morning in mock-Prince Philip tones. (For your information, as you may not have been garlanded before, it is pleasantly cooling on the neck.)

We had a fine breakfast (Indian or English, either way the food is magnificent) on the way to Agra and visited the fort and the Taj Mahal – mandatory, and worth it to the power of 10. Then it was dinner on the train, and an overnight trip to Ranthambore National Park for an early-morning wildlife safari on a 20-seat open-topped canter. The tigers are, naturally, the stars of this show, but there aren’t many to be found in the 1,334sq km reserve – estimates vary wildly from 20-ish to 40-ish – and seeing one isn’t guaranteed. So when a particular beauty strolled insouciantly out of a thicket, passed us at no more than 5m away and sauntered off in search of a lunch of sambar deer, our sense of privilege reached critical mass.

The need-to-know take on Rajasthan, we were beginning to appreciate, is this. As the biggest state in India, and a mix of inhospitable desert and lush countryside, it has always been strategically important; plus, historically, like so many beautiful places, powerful men have greatly enjoyed owning it. Thus it has been a battleground for nearly 2,000 years, fought over between Hindu Rajputs, invading Muslim Mughals and, latterly, the British.

One result of this history of one-upmanship between princes (Shakespeare could have re-versioned most of his oeuvre with this material) is the proliferation of the massive, hilltop palace-cum-fort. It is the Rajasthan tourist industry’s blessing that, along with being notoriously bellicose, the maharajas were also spectacularly rich and possessed extravagantly good taste; each fort is enough to give a modern tourist the vapours – and spring temperatures that rise into the 40s (although delightfully non-humid) don’t help. So it was that on the way back to the train from Ranthambore (guests with suites on the train get a private car and personal guide for the excursions, while those in regular cabins go by luxury bus), we stopped for coffee at the dreamy 1930s colonial Sawai Madhopur Lodge, a Taj Hotel property where the Queen once stayed. On to a corking brunch on the train, then escorted sightseeing in the pink city of Jaipur and the beautiful Amber fort.

In the evening, we headed outside the city to Dera Amer to drink, eat and watch a game of elephant polo involving eight elephants, four camels and an Indian Army bagpipe band. I’m still not quite sure whether this was a sophisticated ironic joke or not, but a six-star experience all the same. We overnighted on the train again to Bikaner, took in the Junagarh Fort and ended the day being driven by camel cart into a desert encampment for a delightful sundowner in the dunes with food, folk music and dancing – the latter not as grim as it sounds.

Another morning, another railway station. Now it was Jodhpur, the blue city, with a tour of probably the most absurdly impressive fort of all, Mehrangarh, and then a 70km-ish drive out to a sweet little town called Rohet Garh, where we stopped off at the exquisite nearly-400-year-old Rohet Garh hotel, another former palace, where Bruce Chatwin wrote The Songlines and William Dalrymple began writing City of Djinns.

The hotel organises a “village safari” to meet tribespeople living on the owners’ old feudal lands. A bit of an uncomfortable concept, a people safari, but it still made for another major PM (pleasure moment, that is). We also had the opportunity to see some of the rituals of a traditional opium ceremony in a village house with Sidharth Singh, the local lord, who took us on to his new and stunning desert hotel, Mihir Garh.

We moved on the next day to a day-long tour of Udaipur, which has one of the world’s largest palace complexes, and then the next morning to Vadodara (also known as Baroda, as in Bank Of). Along with a lot of fellow passengers, on account of experience overload, we missed a morning trip out to the World Heritage Champaner-Pavagadh archaeological remains; but we joined the party again (the Cox & Kings organisers seemed endlessly flexible) for a delightful 40km drive through deep countryside to a memorable lunch at another magnificently faded old colonial hotel, Jambughoda Palace, and then for tea at the Buckingham-sized Laxmi Villas Palace, with the Maharani herself.

On our last night on the train, after dinner and much socialising in one of the grand bar cars, we rattled and chugged on to Mumbai, watching Gandhi in bed on the laptop. And in Mumbai, our itinerary culminated in a top-notch tour, coincidentally (don’t you love it when this happens?) taking in Gandhiji’s atmospheric and wonderfully kept Bombay home on Laburnum Road.

So to the train experience. It’s important to accept that the Maharajas’ Express is an Indian train done in an Indian way. The website photos, which had us slightly concerned at the start, weren’t entirely deceptive; the interior design, while indisputably someone’s interpretation of “palatial”, does look in places as if it was perhaps done by that someone’s wife in lieu of a top-notch hotel designer, of which there’s no shortage in India.

It’s also worth remembering that railways and stations rarely present a country’s prettiest face. Cruising through occasional trackside rubbish piles or surveying station beggars while you’re eating fine cuisine from 24ct-gold-plated tableware is discomforting, particularly for the un-India-initiated. And trains are noisy: rattles, whistles and announcements from stations you’re passing through ensure that the zeds you get are fairly aeroplane-style. This is certainly no reason not to go, but the trip is not for those who must have their eight hours undisturbed.

In almost every other respect, though, the experience is outstandingly good. The sheer fun of living on a train for a week is slightly underplayed, if anything, by the brilliant Maharajas’ Express crew. Our intensely busy schedule was sometimes almost too much of a good thing, and everyone looked forward with childish delight to the full travelling days, drinks, lunches and dinners taken on board. C&K says it is working to increase the on-train time for the coming first full season.

The Maharajas’ Express is almost impeccably done. It’s India lite, but that’s not to say it’s a small undertaking. You will no doubt be astonished when you look back at what you did – as I am, writing this – and realise that most days packed in several memorable, different (and, yes, educational) experiences. For us, it was also the most concentrated collection of pleasure moments in a very long time. I’ve forgotten much about my unforgettable holidays. I suspect that this one will be different.

See also

India