City hopping by private jet, mingling with maharajas in their palaces, hanging out with world famous artists in their ateliers or being serenaded by a group of classical musicians in the middle of the desert – for a tiny, elite group, travel in India is far removed from the backpacker trail.
Inexpensive food and lodging are still readily available in India, and the country still draws a patchouli-scented crowd. But a subset of globetrotters are booking lavish holidays that stretch into six figures, taking advantage of India’s fast-growing “luxury infrastructure” – goods and services popular with India’s own expanding pool of deep-pocketed businessmen and travel connoisseurs.
Pallavi Shah, the owner of Our Personal Guest, a New York travel consultancy which specializes in bespoke India holidays, says the options for the luxury traveler have multiplied in the past 5 to 10 years. Previously, she said, “travelers to India looking for extravagance were limited to getting it by staying at five-star hotels from a few chains.” Choices were few, and “finding a private plane was a struggle,” she said. “But today, there are several smaller high-end hotel chains, and a battalion of private jets to pick from.”
As the options for fancy travel to India have increased in the last decade, so have the number of U.S. visitors, according to the India Ministry of Tourism. Around 916,000 U.S. passport holders traveled to India last year, up from 348,000 in 2000.
The winter is peak travel season in India, as blistering temperatures cool, and comfortable weather stretches into early March, depending on the area. If money is no object, here are four ways to make the trip.
Adventures in Art – New Delhi, Jan. 22-27
Focused around an annual art fair in New Delhi, this trip will bring 10 guests into the homes of India’s top art buyers to see their collections, introduce travelers to critically acclaimed artists like Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher in their own studios and bring guests on private tours of India’s art museums led by the museums’ curators. The trip also includes meals with art experts like Amin Jaffer, the international director of Asian art at Christie’s and lodging at the Oberoi hotel.
The woman behind the tour, Karen Stone Talwar, previously worked at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bodhi Art Gallery.
Price: $8,000 per person, excluding airfare.
Ten days in Northeast India: Varanasi, Calcutta, Darjeeling & Sikkim
Remote Lands, Inc.
Burdwan Palace, Darjeeling, West Bengal.Travelers will visit the usual tourist destinations in the northeast, including the Ramnager Fort in Varanasi and a tea plantation in Darjeeling, but will also choose from several unique experiences in each city. In Darjeeling, for example, they can stay in a palace on the edge of a mountain, as guests of the Maharaja of Burdwan and his wife, Pussie. In Kolkata, they can attend a cocktail party at the home of the royalty, meet the city’s intellectual and socialite circuit, dine at the world’s oldest private polo club while watching a match or be a guest at a fancy Indian wedding. In Gangtok, they can dine with Sikkim’s remaining royalty, or have dinner in the home of a top local chef.
Along the way, they’ll stay at the Glenburn Tea Estate outside of Darjeeling and the Oberoi in Calcutta.
Price: Starts at $15,000 per person for 10 days, excluding airfare
Sixteen days in Mumbai, Varanasi, Rajasthan and Delhi
The customized trip includes an elaborate private puja (prayer ceremony) in Varanasi by Dr. Kalyan Krishna, an expert in Hinduism and rituals from a prominent local family, a meeting with the designer Jamini Ahluwalia in Mumbai for a briefing about the India fashion scene, private concerts by musicians in Jaisalmer and Jodhpur and a historian as a guide on all historical visits. All travel between cities is by private plane.
Price: $200,000 for five people. Includes travel throughout India but not international airfare.
A week bicycling through Kerala.
Travelers stay in small luxury properties, like the Relais & Châteaux Malabar House in Fort Cochin, and bike 50 to 60 kilometers, or 30 to 40 miles, a day, past coconut and banana trees along the Arabian Sea and through tea and cardamom plantations where they can mingle with elephants. Riders go through the Western Ghats and along Vembanad Lake, where they spend the night in a private houseboat. They also visit local homes to learn about skills like the art of mat weaving.
Price: Starts at $9,000 a person, excluding airfare.