Travel

Top 10 picks for an offbeat Indian holiday

Gauri Bhatia | Special to CNBC
A family decorating their house with marigold garlands in Mandu.
Marji Lang | LightRocket | Getty Images

It's a difficult task to come up with a list of 10 places to see in India, a vast country with a recorded history more than two millennia old. Asia's third largest economy with 1.2 billion people, 22 official languages and 29 federal states each with unique cuisine, dress,culture and landscapes is difficult to nail.

The Indian way of life has seen the rule of heroic rajas, invading Mughals and colonists from Europe. Diamond-shaped India is bounded on the north by the majestic Himalayas, golden beaches on coasts fronting the Arabian Sea, the Indian Ocean and Bay of Bengal along with undulating deserts. Ancient monuments across the land capture the heritage of a melange of people and places.

Its most celebrated icon is of course the Taj Mahal. But we have tried to go beyond the obvious and come up with a list that captures variety and fall outside a tourism brochure. With help from websites Holidify, HolidayIQ and travel company Outbound Travels, and after scanning many, many travel blogs, our top 10 not arranged in any order of preference is here for you to start packing.

Hampi

Part of the ruins of the former Vijayanagara Empire, which was established in 1336 by Harihara I and his brother Bukka Raya I of Sangama Dynasty and lasted until 1646.
Frank Bienewald | LightRocket | Getty Images

Described as a fantasy world of rocks and ruins by the Lonely Planet guide, Hampi is steeped in history. This UNESCO world heritage site located in the southern Indian state of Karnataka is a collection of relics depicting the ancient Dravidian style of art and architecture. Enclosed within an area of 26 square km (10.04 square miles) the structures represent a period in history that saw the resurgence of Hindu religion and culture, especially under the prosperous Vijayanagara kingdom that lasted 200 years from the middle of the 14th century.

Hampi sits on the banks of the Tungabhadra River and among its main attractions is the seventh century Hindu Virupaksha Temple, which predates the Vijayanagara Empire, and a carved stone chariot standing in front of the Vittala Temple site. Hampi also offers rock climbing opportunities. Hospet located 12 km (7.5 miles) away is the closest town and the closest airport is Hubli 160 km away. Winter is the best time to visit and there are a variety of staying options.

Northeastern States

A young female Buddhist monk on the western outskirts of Tawang in India.
Biju Boro | AFP | Getty Images

Spectacular mountains, lakes and tea plantations make the seven northeastern sister states apart from the rest of India. You could visit the quaint hill town of Tawang in Arunanchal Pradesh, the birthplace of the Tibetan spiritual leader the sixth Dalai Lama. Or take an elephant ride in the wildlife sanctuary of Kaziranga in Assam, famed for its one-horned rhinos. Or visit the little known but largest river island in the world, Majuli, on the Brahmaputra.

Another unique destination is Cherrapunji in the state of Meghalaya, which till recently was the wettest place on earth. It rains throughout the year here and interestingly mostly at night. Perched at a height of 4,500 feet above misty valleys and overflowing with rivulets, Cherrapunji is a stunning place.

Other nearby spots in northeast India include Darjeeling and it steam train and lush tea gardens. Guwahati, the commercial capital of Assam and the gateway to the northeast is accessible by air from many Indian cities. Northeastern India can be a year round destination, but November to mid-May is ideal. Foreigners may need permits to access some parts.


Great Rann of Kutch

Tourists get their picture taken on a camel in the Great Rann of Kutch.
Leisa Tyler | LightRocket | Getty Images

The world's largest salt desert the Great Rann of Kutch is marsh land in the Thar Desert of Gujarat state. A portion lies in the Sindh province of Pakistan as well. The white desert's raw pristine beauty is a sight to behold on full moon nights. Early mornings and evenings are the best time to walk in the desert, because under the sunlight the salt can be blinding. A moonlit camel desert safari, claim many travel sites, is magical.

October to March is the best time to visit as summer gets too hot and during the monsoon months the salt desert is under water. The Rann Utsav, or festival, showcasing the Kutch region's colourful handicrafts, cuisine, music and dance is another attraction and takes place from November to end February. It is recommended to stay in traditional mud huts and tents when in the Rann.

The salt desert is 86 km from the town of Bhuj which is well connected by rail and plane. Since the Rann is close to the Pakistan border a permit is required to enter the desert, which can be obtained at Bhuj.

Sundarbans Wildlife Sanctuary

A royal Bengal tiger.
Rehman Asad | Barcroft India | Getty Images

The Sundarbans Delta in the Bay of Bengal is the largest mangrove forest in the world. It offers a surreal experience for those looking for a wildlife holiday. Divided across India and Bangladesh, the Sunderbans host man-eating Royal Bengal tigers and the estuarine crocodiles as well as other rare and threatened species.

River cruises are the best way to go around and perhaps snag some fresh catch for a meal. Staying options range from eco-friendly resorts to hotels with regular creature comforts. The best time to visit is between September and March. But during the monsoon months June to August, the chances of sighting tigers are higher and the crowds thinner.

From Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengal, a drive or rail journey can take you to the several points to enter the reserve via a boat. Foreigners also require a permit to visit the Sundarbans.


Kumbhalgarh

A young girl dances at the Kumbhalgarh Festival in Rajasthan, India.
Matthew Wicks | Getty Images

The western Indian desert state of Rajasthan has fairy-tale palaces, majestic forts and some of the most colourful clothes seen anywhere. We zero in on the massive 15th century Kumbhalgarh hilltop fort surrounded by a 36 meter long wall. With its majestic watch towers, hidden chambers, palaces and over 350 temples, Kumbhalgarh showcases Rajasthan.

A great attraction for those who want to experience India's heritage, Kumbhalgarh also has a wildlife sanctuary known for its wolf population, plus trekking trails and horse safari options. A sound and light show is performed every evening. Situated at about a two-hour drive from Udaipur, which is the nearest airport, Kumbhalgarh has plenty of hotels and is best visited between October and February.


Chorao Island

Fontainhas, the old Portugese quarter of Panaji, in Goa.
John S Lander | Lightrocket | Getty Images

Goa, on the western coast of India is perhaps one of the most frequented places in the country, known for its golden beaches, cuisine and bohemian lifestyle. But few know that this beach paradise has 17 islands and Chorao is the largest among them. Accessible by ferries that can carry people and vehicles, Chorao Island can be a destination on its own or a day trip from Panaji, the capital of Goa.

Chorao is known for its flora and fauna, mangroves - beautiful forests growing in the water - and a bird sanctuary named after the famous Indian ornithologist Salim Ali.

Chorao village has a handful of whitewashed churches and picturesque Portuguese homes and the same laid-back Goan vibe. Away from the crowds, one can enjoy the peace and old world charm of the island by staying either in the villas, or home stays on offer. Best time to visit is October to March.

Gokarna Beach

Kudle Beach in Gokarna, Karnataka in India
Frank Bienewald | LightRocket | Getty Images

A road trip from one of India's most popular beaches to one that is relatively little known is fast becoming a "must do." We are talking about the 142 km/3-4 hour drive from Goa to the small sea front temple town of Gokarna in Karnataka. The drive from Goa to Gokarna along India's western coast is part of the experience.

Gokarna also boasts unspoilt beaches and low-cost lodgings and cafes-and plenty of nightlife options. One of its beaches is named OM, as it is shaped like the sacred Hindu symbol and chant. One fun thing to do in Gokarna is beach trekking. Because Gokarna is set among hills, you have to literally climb and descend hills to reach from one beach to another.

There are many vegetarian restaurants being a temple town but great sea food is also available. There are cottages and guest houses where you can live like a backpacker, chilling on hammocks and enjoying the balmy weather. According to several travel blogs the place is popular with "hippies". Best time to visit is between October and March.

Ki Monastery, Spiti Valley

Aerial view on Ki Gompa, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery located on top of a hill.
Frank Bienewald | LightRocket | Getty Images

The idiom "a picture is worth a thousand words" - comes true when you look at the photograph of the Ki monastery. It sits precariously on a hill in the Himalayas. Situated in the Spiti Valley this gigantic monastery was founded in the 11th century. It is located at a height of over 4,000 meters and is home to 100 Buddhist monks.

Located in the eastern part of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, the Spiti Valley has not been explored much because of its altitude and remoteness. But between May and mid-October if you can brave the long drive, exquisite monasteries and untouched natural beauty await. It has been described as a "museum come alive".

From Delhi it takes 15-16 hours of driving using a reliable four-wheel vehicle that will cross some of the highest Himalayan ranges. There are good camping sites in the valley plus small hotels - a good travel company can help you plan this holiday.

Mandu

Jahaz Mahal.
IndiaPictures | UIG | Getty Images

Described as a "ruined" city, Mandu in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was founded in the 10th century as a fortress by the Hindu ruler Raja Bhoj. It was later controlled by the Afghans and the Mughals. These varied influences give rise to some awe-inspiring architecture - temples, tombs and pavilions each with a story to tell.

One of the top attractions is Rani Roopmati's palace,which is an ode to the tragic love story between a Hindu singer and the Muslim ruler at the time, Baz Bahadur. Then you have the Jahaz Mahal or the ship palace - situated between two artificial lakes, this two-storey palace is so named as it appears as a ship floating in water and was the harem of one of the sultans.

The Hindola Mahal, also known as the Swing Palace because the inclined ramparts create the impression that they are swinging, is another architectural marvel. Finally the Hoshang Khan tomb is said to be India's first marble structure, which became the template for the construction of the Taj Mahal.

Best time to visit Mandu is between October and March. One can fly to Indore airport which is about 60 km from Mandu. The nearest city though is Dhar at 35km, and travel agents recommend staying here and travelling to Mandu on day trips.

Askot

The Himalayas.
Narayan Maharjan | NurPhoto | Getty Images

Tucked away deep in the Pine and Deodarforests is the remote Himalayan town of Askot. Situated at a distance of over 560 km from Delhi, Askot's main lure is that it is still to be"discovered".

Located in the Kumaon range in the northern Indian hill state of Uttarakhand, which boasts of many popular tourist destinations, little known Askot has an unparalleled view of the snow clad Himalayas.

Perched at an altitude of 3,600-plus feet, Askot borders Nepal to the east and Tibet to the North. It is also home to a Musk Deer Sanctuary and has many trekking trails and skiing ranges.

A five and a half hour train ride from Delhi takes you to the rail head Kathgodham from where hire a taxi and drive seven hours to Askot. For many the drive is part of the charm of visiting Askot. Dense forests, river streams and the sudden burst of mountain views,accompany you along the way.

There are several places like Bhimtal, Almora and Pithoragarh where you can break the journey. Staying options are limited, but there are plenty of hotels in Pithoragarh, which is 52 km from Askot. Best time to visit is the summer months.

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