This page provides more information about what you can expect and look forward to while travelling in India and Sri Lanka with us – travel and transport, accommodation, sightseeing, eating, shopping, performing arts and activities.
Hotels / accommodation
While travelling in India and Sri Lanka are still inexpensive travel destinations by global standards, the growing demand from domestic travellers, as well as from overseas, means that this is no longer a ‘cheap’ holiday.
Rates vary hugely from place to place and according to the season. The peak-season – and best time to travel in terms of climate – is November to February.
All the hotels we use are selected after assessment by India Unbound or our Indian and Sri Lankan partners, and we are constantly trying new properties and monitoring the performance of existing ones, which ensures a high standard is maintained.
• Comfort – clean, comfortable hotels with en suite western bathroom, better than average restaurant and majority of the facilities required by the traveller.
• Deluxe – as above, but with a greater range of facilities (which may include swimming pool, gym, in-room internet access) and/or larger rooms with mini-bar, a better location, and more stylishly furnished. Likely to have a restaurant with a license to serve alcohol.
• Luxury– with all the amenities you would expect in this class of hotel anywhere in the world – pool, gym, and several licensed restaurants. Modern rooms with flat screen televisions and in-room internet are becoming the norm.
• Luxury plus – Taj and Oberoi chain hotels offer the highest standards and are found in commercial and tourist centres. Apart from the properties catering to the corporate travellers, there are the luxury heritage hotels located in restored heritage buildings, particularly in Rajasthan, that have brought a great deal of acclaim. The famous ‘floating’ Lake Palace in Udaipur is one example.
Some of the more distinctive styles of accommodation:
Homestays and small guest houses are a unique part of any visit to India, and as such we encourage you to ask us to include these types of accommodation in the itinerary we plan for you. The properties we use in these categories are all tried and tested by us, and have been selected not just because of the unique experience they provide to travellers, but also because they meet a high standard of hospitality. As you will discover, the welcome you receive in homestays and guest-houses gives credence to the Indian saying ‘guest is God’.
Staying in a plantation homestead or family home provides insights into ‘India’ and how people live today. In most homestays you can see the cooking being done, be part of a family meal, and even go shopping in the local town with the head of the family home. If you like the idea of interacting with India, then seeing and being part of these ‘daily life’ activities will give you a greater insight into India and Indians than sightseeing can. In addition, we know the families and owners of the homestays and small guest houses very well, so that when you arrive you will be made to feel like a good friend returning for a visit, and not just a one-off customer. Often, all meals will be included in the room rate, so you have the chance to eat the food typical of that area. This is the safest food to eat in India, because it is freshly cooked with care and attention by your host. South India, and Kerala in particular, have more homestays and smaller guest houses than are in the north.
Heritage hotels are one of the great travel experiences of India. Staying in a restored palace, fort or maharaja’s countryside retreat is a truly special experience, and gives you an insight into India’s royal past (many of the palace and fort heritage hotels are in Rajasthan). Being a part of this meeting of past and present, even for a day or two, allows visitors to appreciate a little more of what life would have been for the lucky few at the top of the royal tree. What’s even better is that many of these heritage hotels are surprisingly affordable, with some starting at $60 per night. And if you want to splash out and live it up in a grand palace suite, then there are many properties offering as fine a five star hospitality experience as you can find anywhere in the world. We have laboriously tried and tested a great deal of the heritage properties (tough work but someone has to do it!) so when it comes to finding something that matches your particular interests and budget, we will have a suggestion to suit.
Jungle lodges and wildlife retreats can be found in some of the most picturesque locales in the country. Facilities range from simple tented camps to luxury hideaways. For nature lovers, the proximity of the hotel property to the park is a highlight – sometimes perched over a waterhole in a solidly-built treehouse, or in a resort style property with a nursery for orphaned baby elephants next door. This type of accommodation will normally include all meals and, in some places, jeep safaris, guided treks, naturalist talks and more.
Houseboats: Cruising the backwaters of Kerala aboard a private, restored rice barge or Kattuvallam is a unique Indian travel experience. Boats are generally one bedroom – meaning you will have a boat to yourselves with a crew of 3 to attend to your every need – but larger vessels with 2, 3 or even 4 bedrooms are available for groups. All meals are cooked and served on board, with most travellers spending one night aboard, though longer journeys are possible. Many boats are now being constructed with added luxury facilities, such as spa, up stairs dinning room, and television with DVD.
There are also many modern western-styled hotels belonging to both international and Indian chains. These range from three star through to five star, so if you prefer to stay in more familiar surroundings, then you have a number of options in this category.
Sightseeing and activities
India has so much to see! Every corner you turn, India’s ancient history is evident. There are the famous sights, such as the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort in Delhi, and Amber Palace in Jaipur, but there is also much more – every city has some element of its past on show. In addition to the historical monuments, there are a great deal of living ‘sights’, such as temples, mosques, markets and city streets generally. This is where India comes alive for the visitor, and is one of the ways that India differentiates itself from other countries. You only need to step out of your hotel and you will be engaged and entertained by what you see. Indians are very friendly and enjoy chatting and finding out about you and your impressions of their country. Taking a casual stroll through the streets, having a cup of chai from a street vendor, and shopping in the local market are all great ways to ‘see’ and be a part of India. If that sounds too involved for your liking, then ask you local guide (local guides are provided as part of all private and group tours we run) to accompany you on a walk. The guide can explain any perplexing things that you see – of which there are bound to be a few. And when you have had enough, you can jump in an auto-rickshaw (small taxi) and head back to the hotel.
Local guides add a great deal of depth to your experience of India. Normally one day’s sightseeing will be scheduled for each place you visit. This will give you enough time to cover the major places of interest for that city or town. Your guide will accompany you for the day, and will give the historical background to the sight at hand. Their knowledge is amazing, and you will be lucky to come up with a question about India or the sight that they are unable to answer! If you prefer the living sights, such as markets and temples, your guide can take you there also – they will assist you with whatever activities are of most interest to you.
We have developed a range of activities that take you a little bit deeper than simple sightseeing – we call these Insight Activities. A meal with a family, watching a Bollywood film at the cinema, a walk with a local history expert, or meeting a village headman all offer you an insight into daily Indian life, and will give your experience greater depth. You may find, as many travellers do, that the events which cannot be planned into an itinerary – a chance conversation, a snack at a roadside eatery, or happening upon a temple celebration for example – turn out to be the most rewarding.
We also have local representatives who will meet you on arrival and farewell from all the cities and towns you visit during your trip. They are there to meet you at the train station or airport (or help you locate your carriage if departing by train), coordinate your sightseeing activities, and along with your guide, generally make sure everything goes smoothly while you are under their ‘care’. They are generally the first point of contact if you have a question or concern about something to do with the place you are visiting. All of their contact details will be given to you on arrival in India, so that you – with the drivers help – can contact the local representative ahead of your arrival, should you have the need.
Eating and cuisine
Indian food hardly needs an introduction. However many travellers are surprised to find how varied it actually is. Much of the Indian food we eat in the west is actually North Indian, which is a heavier, more meat, bread and pulse-based cuisine than South Indian – most people know and love North Indian dishes such as naan bread, Dal Makhanhi, Chicken Tikka Masala, and Rogan Josh. These favourite dishes that you know from home will be available, as well as so many more that you would not be able to eat them all even if you had a different dish every meal for a month!
In contrast, South Indian food is largely vegetarian, with an emphasis on rice and vegetables, and with plenty of fresh seafood for non-vegetarians. As with many things in the south, each state has its own specialities: Andhra Pradesh has well spiced, quite fiery food, with the food of its capital Hyderabad being heavily influenced by its former Muslim rulers – lamb and chicken in masala (spiced) gravy with richly flavoured Biryani rice and beautifully soft and warm naan bread. Kerala has a distinctive cuisine, largely based on the use of coconut and its derivatives (Kerala means ‘land of coconut palms’), which is dryer than what you would find in neighbouring states. Seafood, especially in the form of different fish and coconut curries, is widely eaten, and is an absolute must for any self-respecting food lover. Beef – strictly taboo for the rest of Hindu India – is also enjoyed in parts of Kerala. Tamil Nadu is predominantly vegetarian; you will see many restaurants promoting ‘meals’ – which you think would be a given considering it’s a restaurant – an all you can eat vegetarian set meal including rice, pappadums, and up to eight or more samples of vegetable curries and pulse-based dishes such dal. It is all served on a big banana leaf, with waiters walking between the tables dishing out more as required. The quintessential food experience of the South, the ‘meal’ is eaten with the right hand, as is most food in South India, though foreigners are not ostracised for using cutlery if they can’t manage the hand technique!
It’s well worth trying all the variations India has to offer – from street snacks (if you have a strong stomach) through to the better restaurants, as every place and every class of restaurant create their own tastes. Your driver and local guides will recommend restaurants, so you can tell them if you want to try local favourites or would prefer to stick to the high end establishments.
India is a shopper’s paradise. Jewellery, clothes, handicrafts, textiles, homewares, folk art, carpets and toys are available at varying degrees of quality and price. Bargaining is part of the process – it might not come naturally to everyone, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll come to enjoy it. Shopping in the local bazaars and markets is lively and exciting, and though goods may be cheaper, you need to pay attention to quality. In the larger ’emporiums’, things are more relaxed and prices higher than in street. Your local guide will normally ask at some point if you want to go shopping, and if you agree, you will find yourself whisked off to one of the larger emporiums. Keep in mind the guide will get a commission on what you buy. Bargain hard, but keep a perspective on the amount you are haggling over – a dollar extra here or there isn’t going to break your bank. It is more important to bargain hard if you are making a larger purchase, such as a rug or jewellery, as the amounts in question will be larger. If you want to go to the local market for shopping, tell your guide as much and insist on doing so. Their sense of duty will win out over their short term gain of taking you to the emporium.
We provide more extensive information regarding shopping, bargaining and guides in our pre-departure ‘guide to preparation’, a 15 page booklet that provides all the information you need to be fully prepared for you time in India.
Performing Arts and Cultural Shows
India’s performing arts are as rich as they are varied, with the biggest differences being between the northern and southern states. The Kathakali dancing of Kerala in the south is well known for its colourful makeup and costumes, and for the elaborate and highly-stylised movement of its performers. In the north, especially in Rajasthan, nightly performances often take place at hotel restaurants, ranging from the simpler village-based folk dancing and puppet shows, to the highly elaborate and liveried costume and dance inspired by the many Rajasthani royal courts. Local guides will point you in the right direction if you have a particular interest you want to explore in the performing arts.
There are many opportunities for travellers to be physically active if they want to be. Bike riding, trekking, canoeing, bullock cart rides, and extended city walks are all options; some can be arranged on the spot, though if you want more than a day’s activity, then it’s best to let us know in the planning stage so it can be properly arranged and scheduled into your itinerary. Use the inquiry page to contact us, specify in the inquiry that you would like to know more about the physical activities that can be arranged.