India holidays

Travel

Mysuru, India, city guide: what to see, plus the best yoga centres, hotels and restaurants

Famed for ashtanga yoga, wellbeing is a way of life in this magical south Indian city – and fantastic markets, food and architecture all add to the allure

Mysuru (formerly known as Mysore; it was renamed in 2014) has hovered under the tourist radar for years and is often overlooked in favour of southern cousins such as Kochi and Puducherry. But the former royal capital of the erstwhile eponymous princely state is a slow-reveal pleasure, a place of culture, eccentricity, architecture, beauty and manners; a gently pious, highly literate and quietly arresting city, connected to nature and imbued with the sacred.

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Travel

Chhattisgarh: the heart of rural India

Kate Eshelby and family enjoy the pristine lands and age-old ways of the people of Chhattisgarh state

Three men in huge straw hats covered in peacock feathers and tinsel are playing wooden flutes as they herd cows and water buffalo on the edge of the jungle. Even the animals sport necklaces of bright flowers.

This is Chhattisgarh state, in east-central India: little visited, yet rewarding, it’s a land of elusive leopards, tigers and animist beliefs that gained independence from neighbouring Madhya Pradesh in 2000. I’m here with my husband Mark and our two boys, aged four and two. This may sound an unusual choice for a family holiday but Chhattisgarh works, because it’s quiet and rural and free of India’s city chaos.

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Travel

‘It was like being Alice-in-India.’ Artist Natasha Kumar on Bundi, Rajasthan

The light, dust, colours and street life mean this town is as artistically inspiring as St Ives is to other painters

I heard about the step wells of Bundi, in southern Rajasthan, about 10 years ago. I was travelling in the Thar desert, which divides India and Pakistan, and in that landscape of scorching heat, the idea of exploring damp, shadowy caverns of possibly bottomless dark water was tempting.

The first place I stayed at was Bundi Vilas, a family-run boutique hotel built into the walls of the crumbling Bundi Palace. Mr Sharma, who could have inspired Dev Patel’s character in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, had been left in charge by his brother. He had the keys to the palace, and when he learned I was an artist, he insisted on giving me a tour, not just of the standard rooms, but of areas forbidden to the public too.

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Architecture

Taj Mahal gets a facelift – and slaps on a mudpack

Pollution means India’s most famous monument is in urgent need of a thorough clean, but tour operators fear that the work may put off visitors

The Taj Mahal, Agra’s near four-century-old monument to love, is beginning to show its age. Air pollution is turning its ivory-white surface yellow. The heavily contaminated river Yamuna, on the banks of which the Taj sits, is a breeding ground for insects that leave green patches on its marble domes.

The past two years have seen a flurry of restoration work to the monument, built in 1631 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, as a tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Scaffolding around the outer minarets was prominent in the background of photographs when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited India in April 2016. Less clear from a distance is the precise treatment being used to clean the modern wonder: mud packs, similar to those slapped on faces around the world, and in pursuit of the same youthful effect.

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Travel

Local heroes in India: readers’ travel tips

By using local guides, homestays and non-profit groups, visitors can benefit people’s lives and gain rich insights. They could also gain weight, as our tips include some superb home-cooking
Enter next week’s competition – the best tip wins a £200 hotel voucher

Vijeesh Vimalan is a brilliantly hilarious local host. He runs a small homestay on Munroe Island in southern Kerala, right in the heart of the backwaters. You will be warmly welcomed to stay with his family and eat glorious home-cooked (by his lovely mum) local grub. On top of this, Vijeesh will canoe you round for hours at sunrise or sunset (or midnight, if you’re keen) but be warned: he’ll definitely try to push you in! This is easily the best way to see Kerala and afterwards he’ll take you round the local village on bikes … it’s non stop! The guy and his family are awesome, he gets his guests involved and will absolutely make your trip. It won’t break the bank and is easy to get to. We won’t forget our stay or his insistence that my girlfriend’s name was Colin (it’s Claire).
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Will Barton

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Travel

Women lead the way on a tour of northern India

Being shown the beauty and history of Old Delhi and Agra by women pushing back against traditional gender roles makes a trip to India all the more uplifting – and a fitting salute to next week’s International Women’s Day

• Women’s tourism enterprises around the world

At dawn, the hazy morning light lends Delhi’s Jama Masjid mosque a dreamy, soft-focus quality. One of India’s largest mosques, it can hold 25,000 people, but only a handful of early visitors wander the vast courtyard and imposing red sandstone and marble creation beyond. Built by emperor Shah Jahan in the 17th century, with a workforce of 5,000 men, it’s a tribute to Mughal pomp, a blend of Hindu and Muslim design, all elegant pillars, onion domes and minarets piercing the sky. A flock of birds takes flight, breaking the near silence and adding atmosphere to my Instagram shots.

It’s hard to fathom that at the foot of this peaceful, elevated, oasis lies the chaos of old Delhi. The day is just beginning, but already the narrow lanes seethe with life and colour. As we spill out of the gate, our guide Sana leads our group of seven across the frenetic main road, fending off hawkers, weaving between carts, dodging gung-ho tuk-tuks.

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Travel

Tamil Nadu’s gorgeous beaches, temples and tea plantations

Tamil Nadu has sweeping beaches, the world’s greatest collection of ancient temples, pretty tea plantations… and remarkably few British tourists

How many people can you get on a motorbike? How many letters in a word? How many dishes in a meal? The answer, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, seems always to be a lot more than you’d think.

Extreme feats of motorbike usage are not rare in Asia, but a family of six on one bike was a record sighting for me, and we spotted them outside a temple that notched up a new high in word length: 21-letter Gangaikondacholapuram.

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Travel

An idyll no more: why I’m leaving Goa

The beautiful, laid-back Goa of old is disappearing amid pollution, over-development and fears over personal safety. It’s time to leave, says resident Deepti Kapoor

Sometimes, when the sun is setting over a village called Aldona, and the evening bread is delivered on the backs of bicycles, you can convince yourself that Goa is all right. When Reginald or Tulsidas or Lata or Maria stand at the front gate speaking to that passerby at dusk, and the urak season starts slipping into the feni days, so all you smell on the road is the arch fermentation of cashew apples: yes, it’s OK.

But then you think about the beaches, the ones with the plastic bags in the water, which you mistook for jellyfish, and the shards of glass from the beer bottles carried into the waves, which now churn with sewage from the septic tanks. Those beaches; you can forget those beaches.

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Travel

Sunrise to sundown, Mumbai is a vegetarian’s paradise

Speciality dishes from all over India are showcased at the street food stalls and cafes of Mumbai. Here, food writer Meera Sodha spends a whirlwind 24 hours sampling as many vegetarian ‘greatest hits’ as she can

In a few decades Mumbai will be the biggest city in the world. Already a sprawling megalopolis that stretches out like a giant crab’s claw, you can travel from the tip to the north for two hours by train or car without breaching its borders. Its growth – fuelled by trading cottons, silks and tobacco overseas for the past 500 years – has beckoned workers from all over India, transforming it into a glorious mix of cultures, people and food. It has made it what it is today: the best place in the world to get a snapshot of Indian food from all around the country.

Among these offerings, the vegetarian food is unrivalled. India is home to half a billion vegetarians, which is more than the rest of the world’s vegetarians put together; naturally, many of India’s greatest hits are served here. It is a vegetarian’s paradise.

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Travel

Top 10 yoga retreats in India

India is a dream destination for many yogis, but with so many ashrams and courses, how do you choose wisely? From the hardcore to the boutique, we select 10 of the best places to practise yoga

Though this list includes some of the best ashrams, retreats and shalas India has to offer, there are three notable omissions: BKS Iyengar’s school in Pune, Pattabhi Jois’s in Mysore, and the pan-Indian Sivananda Centre, excluded on account of their existing popularity and fame. They are highly recommended nonetheless. Several other places were vetoed on account of various scandals and disputes, and I have also excluded luxurious and obscenely priced retreats.

As with many things in India today, yoga doesn’t necessarily come cheap but all of these are very good value given the quality of teaching on offer. Be advised that customer service in India isn’t always the best, and some of the more traditional places might prove hard to contact. But be patient, persevere, switch to “Indian-time” and, if you must, see it as the first step in letting go of your ego.

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Travel

Mumbai by bike: a night cycle tour

Pedalling around India’s biggest city would, by day, mean taking your life in your hands. But a night tour offers a new look at its palaces, temples and gardens, while most inhabitants sleep

It’s almost pitch black as I freewheel down the hill, a warm breeze in my hair. It’s 2am and I’m cycling around the streets of Mumbai. Those who have visited India’s largest city might question my sanity, but I’ve joined a new cycling tour for visitors who want to see another side of the metropolis. Its starts at midnight and ends as the sun rises.

By day, Mumbai – one of the world’s most populated cities, with more than 20 million inhabitants – rages like a beast unharnessed. The chaos, with giant open-air laundries alongside designer shops, street markets and Bollywood cinemas, is all-engulfing. But as I step out into the night from my hotel in the touristy Colaba district, the streets are almost deserted, the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic vanished.

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Travel

My secret hideaway: foreign correspondents reveal all

Foreign correspondents know how to get under the skin of a country. But where do they go when they want to get away from it all? Here, well-travelled journalists reveal their ultimate holiday escapes

At first I felt critical of the many Africans I spoke to who had never heard of São Tomé e Principe. It is after all an African country, albeit one of the smallest (population 194,000) and remotest – an archipelago of tiny islands nestled in the watery armpit of west and central Africa, deep in the Atlantic, with Gabon to the east and Nigeria to the north.

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Travel

10 of the best restaurants and street food snacks in Goa

Goan cuisine has been influenced by an exotic blend of sea, spices and foreign invaders – first the Portuguese, then the hippies and lately food-savvy travellers – which means delicious Indian snacks, fantastic fish and modern fusion are all on offer

Goan food falls into the rich tradition of the Konkan coast, happily complicated and enriched over the years by two very different invasions: first the colonial Portuguese and then the hippies. For all that, it’s not one blended cuisine: Konkan Hindu and Goan Catholic have their distinct dishes, the former typified by the heavy use of coconut and fish, the latter by vinegar, pork and beef. Then there’s the international cuisine, sometimes a fusion, and sometimes the legacy of foreign immigrants holding onto their old cuisine. Often, the big-name restaurants on the beach belt get all the attention, but smaller places also deserve praise and attention. As ever look for those with fast turnover and local customers. On the liquid side of things, try the caju feni, made from fermented cashew apples – it’s an acquired taste, sometimes compared to nail varnish, but the quality stuff (usually in the local bars, from jungle distilleries) can be complex and rewarding – and get you very drunk. Tourists drink it with Limca (a fizzy lemon and lime-flavoured drink), those in the know with water and lime.

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Travel

Slow houseboat to Kerala

Houseboating Kerala’s backwaters is now a travel staple, but a new cruise set up by a local entrepreneur takes our writer away from the crowds to meet islanders thriving on mussel farming

Sunrays danced on the mud-green river, peeping through a veil of lingering mist. The water was still but for the soft splash of a fisherman’s oar. I was aboard the Honey Dew houseboat, chugging through the sleepy Valiyaparamba backwaters, which snake through Kasaragod, Kerala’s northernmost region.

The newly launched Honey Dew Backwater Cruises offers a cruising experience unlike tourist-thronged Alleppey, where roughly 1,500 kettuvallams (converted rice barges) depart daily in high season. The number of other houseboats I saw on our two-day tour of the 30km waterway could be counted on one hand.

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