Tips on visiting northern India

We wish to commend Margo Wilson on an excellent report, “The South of India — a Good Choice for the First-time Visitor?” (June ’07, pg. 44). Also for the first-time traveler, our comments apply mainly to northern India.

My wife, Sandi, and I traveled to both northern and southern India for four weeks, with a one-week side excursion to Sri Lanka, in February and March ’06. This was my fourth visit to India, my travels there dating back to my flight surgeon days in 1957, and my wife’s second. To avoid overlap, I elected to “cherry pick” the areas that I thought were the most interesting, with about 20% of the territory being relatively new. For instance, we skipped the Taj but only because we both had seen it before.

Our tour of 28 days, including eight days in Sri Lanka, cost $8,000 per person, including airfare within India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. We used our frequent-flyer miles to travel from San Diego to Delhi and back on British Airways in first class, which was a thoroughly enjoyable upgrade experience.

Like the Wilsons’, our arrangements were handled by Nino Mohan of Worldview Tours (Newport Beach, CA; 800/373-0388, www., selected from his ITN display. He did a great job, selecting excellent hotels at prices roughly 45% cheaper than those of similar hotels in Europe or Northern Asia plus good guides and their drivers. He was able to arrange, at our sudden urge, a revisit to Nepal at the end of our trip. He has very extensive contacts in India coordinated through his Delhi office.

We used Delhi as the center of a hub-and-spoke itinerary, and while we traveled we would leave unnecessary luggage, books and souvenirs at our hotel, the world-class Imperial Hotel (Janpath, New Delhi 110001, India; phone +91 11 2334 1234; fax +91 11 2334 2255 or visit It’s a centrally located, great, old-empire hotel with huge rooms and great service — better, in our opinion, than any of the international chain hotels in which most tour groups are lodged.

For anyone visiting India for the first time, I have the following comments.

First, try to rest up for at least two or three days in your arrival city, usually Delhi or Mumbai. The approximately 11-hour time difference (from New York) will give most some degree of jet lag, and there’s plenty to see on city tours when you arrive. Make it an experience, not a visitation.

Second, try to visit between October and March to avoid the blazing heat and the rains. Try to coincide your trip with a national event such as the Pushkar Camel Fair in November or, as in our case, the dance festival at Khajuraho, which is always Feb. 25-March 2, or the rites-of-spring festival of Holi in Udaipur, which was great. Holi is usually in late February or early March and in 2008 will be on March 22.

It’s been my experience that you can’t fly into the Himalayas in Bhutan anytime other than from the end of March until the beginning of November, so consider your priorities.

You can fly to Nepal year-round; however, we found Nepal overpopulated with native Nepalese and refugees and Western-style strip malls and therefore disappointing compared to how it was on previous visits, though it might be good for a first-timer. Nevertheless, it’s small enough to get around in easily and has many interesting Hindu and Buddhist sites. There are almost no Buddhist sites in India proper; there are many in Sri Lanka.

Third, go to India with a tour if you wish — you’ll have camaraderie and a good time — but accept that you will spend a lot of time traveling between areas and you will have rather minimal time to enjoy the better sights.

I’m an architecture and art fancier, myself, but I don’t think you should miss a visit by air to Varanasi and Khajuraho. Similarly, I strongly recommend arranging an overnight in Agra to enjoy the view of the Taj and luxuriate in a great hotel rather than taking the “you can do it in one day” trip — exhausting.

The jewel in the crown of India is Rajasthan with her five main cities, each of which used to paint its houses and buildings a different color. For the most convenient travel, I can recommend only the three closest cities: Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur, with the colors pink, white and blue, respectively. No doubt, Jaisalmer and Bikaner are interesting, but they take too much time to get to, time which could be spent elsewhere.

There is so much to see and the terrain is so pleasant that I recommend you definitely go to Rajasthan by car, if you can. If you cannot, a minimum of two nights in the Big Three will give you a taste of the cities and palaces. What you will miss is the colorful countryside with its women in lovely saris.

Jaipur has some lovely places with gorgeous palaces, now converted to hotels, but the population has grown from about 350,000, when l first visited in 1957, to over five million, so you spend a lot of time in traffic. Jodhpur is good, with about a million people.

However, my favorite city in Rajasthan is Udaipur, with a population around 500,000, because things are very accessible and located about Lake Pichola and the Lake Palace Hotel, a former maharajah’s palace in the midst of the lake. It is also within an easy drive of the fabulous Jain temple complex of Ranakpur and the ghost city of Chittorgarh.

By all means, visit the sites of Varanasi, Khajuraho (only 10,000 people), Agra and the Rajasthan and then whatever you choose. You may be petrified by the traffic and its occasional last-second avoidance of disaster, but once you’re safely on your way home with all those great photos and souvenirs, I think you’ll agree it was well worth it.


San Diego, CA