Sonya Lennon: We swapped our family sun resort holiday for an Indian adventure
Spice markets, safaris, temples and hanging out as a family made it a trip of a lifetime
Sonya Lennon marked her birthday with a family holiday in India.
As a family, we are, lie under an umbrella, read as many books as possible, maximise kids activities in a relatively plush resort kinda people. At least we were. Last year, to mark a significant birthday (mine), I brought my family of four (including teen boy-girl twins) on an Indian road trip adventure.
We decided to avoid Mumbai and head instead to Delhi, working our way around the golden triangle over two weeks. Another week was added in Kerala, a flight away, to decompress before heading home.
Our itinerary was meticulously planned by Liam Higgins at Travel Counsellors. Five iterations were drafted in the run up, sometimes tweaks on my side, sometimes on his.
On our first evening in Delhi, we were whisked through kaleidoscopic street markets to Johti’s house. Johti is one of a number of celebrated home chefs making a living hosting tourists for cookery experiences. We selected a menu from Johti’s repertoire and got stuck in, spending three hours cooking, and an hour eating aloo tikki (fried potato cakes stuffed with peas mint and spices), rogan josh that tasted nothing like what we’re used to from Irish Indian restaurants, and a cauliflower dish called gohbi matar that became our staple for the rest of the trip.
The next morning we rose at 5am to meet Adi, our cycle guide, for a tour of Old Delhi at dawn. It was a hair raising, magical, spiritual experience. First stop was an ancient bakery that supplies 45,000 breads to Delhi every day; basically a furnace in an alley with bakers fermenting and baking through the night. We tasted an early bake, tangy and delicious, hot from the oven. We climbed to the top of the 500-year-old wholesale spice market and drank masala chai in a thunderstorm overlooking the city. We visited a Sikh temple and some of us rolled chapatis with the hundreds of volunteers that feed 10,000 people a day for free. We navigated 16 lanes of Indian city traffic with the advice, “don’t use your eyes, use your ears”.
Of course we did Agra and the Taj Mahal. We took the train, well worth the crazy experience of the station alone. In Agra we rendezvoused with Jussie who was to be our driver and knowledge bank for ten days.
First up was a safari in Ranthambore, home of the tiger. We waited, tracked and listened, we chatted sporadically in whispers during an incredibly zen experience, rare in our ordinary lives. There were no tigers to be seen, but we did spot crocodiles, monkeys and antelopes, and the sounds alone were exotic and mesmerising.
Next up was Jaipur, the Pink City, followed by Jodphur. It’s smaller than the other cities at 2.5 million residents and it is cool and beautiful. The so-called Blue City is painted in every tone of blue from baby to cornflour to Yves Klein and we loved it.
We reluctantly drove from there to Narlai, the most remote rural spot on our trip. Next time, I would do more of that. The people we met were so friendly, smiling and waving and genuinely pleased to see us. I asked Jussie if it was for real, his deflated look and plaintive “yes” made me feel like the world’s most accomplished cynic. We went on safari again, this time spotting a leopard. We hurtled back the hotel for a 10-minute turnaround for dinner at the “step well”, a 500-year-old 50-metre deep drinking well. This one sits in the middle of a forest, which we reached by ox cart, driven by a local shepherd.
It was illuminated in the moonlight by hundreds of tea lights all the way down to water level. We were served a luxury silver service picnic and serenaded by a traditional singer, surrounded by twinkling stars and candles. We jeeped back to our Haveli Hotel, once owned by royalty but now in commercial use.
Udaipur followed but it had too much competition. It was bye bye Jussie, as our next destination was by air.
Forts, temples and palaces were always awesome. “Templed Out” is a condition that strikes most visitors to India at some point in their trip and, no surprise, it hit the teens earlier than it hit the adults. We asked each local guide to show us only two monuments with the possible addition of a drive-by. Of course it feels sacrilegious but you could spend a lifetime in India and not experience its fullness and, we were on our holidays!
Our trip slightly breached the borders of the Easter school holidays and our hottest recorded temperature was a dry 42° in the north. It’s cooler earlier in the season but twice as crowded.
In Kerala, we opted for three days in the backwaters, with its paddy fields, tropical jungle and crazy humidity, staying at the Aveda Spa Hotel. The laws around alcohol in Kerala are extremely strict for locals, although tourists can drink illicit wine from a coffee cup and beer from a mug. We spent a day on a luxury house boat before driving to the Arabian Sea. We stayed for three nights at the magnificent Niramaya Resort, a true tropical paradise.
One of the nicest things about the trip was hanging out as a family. I asked the teens at the end, would it make them want to travel more? Yes, they both answered without hesitation. Evie said she didn’t know it was possible to learn so much in three weeks of school, let alone on holiday. Finn said it was the best experience of his life so far. Job done.