By Audley India specialist Alison
Living and working in Mumbai for a number of years, I spent weekends exploring my surroundings by hopping on local trains, sleeper trains and toy trains. In a country that relies on its rail network like no other, it’s little surprise that a range of luxury trains is available for you to tour India from a different perspective.
Choosing to travel in India by luxury train
Join a luxury train tour across India, and you’ll cover more ground than you could by car. You’ll be able to visit far more places and, as most trains travel during the night, won’t feel rushed.
Tours and activities are usually conducted in small groups, and dinners are enjoyed together with your fellow passengers. I’d agree that this wouldn’t suit the more independently minded, but if you’re keen for a little more privacy, some trains provide complimentary private tours if you book a suite or presidential cabin.
Luxury trains in India
Palace on Wheels
The bar on board the Palace on Wheels
The Palace on Wheels feels a little dated, but that’s part of its charm. One of the first luxury trains dedicated to leisure — those that came before were for royalty or dignitaries — it started running in 1982. The General Manager then is still running the train now. On my first night aboard, we were given a short talk on the history of the train: as a passenger, there’s a real sense of becoming part of its heritage.
The train is made up of 14 saloon coaches, each named after a place on the route. On the coach named Kishangarh, a village noted for its Bani Thani miniature paintings, local artists have painted examples of their work. There are also two restaurants, a lounge car and four service cars for staff.
Four cabins fit into each saloon and share a small lounge. Two valets are assigned to each saloon — Opi and Rasjish who looked after me were always keen to recommend their pick of the day’s menu. The deluxe cabins are clad in polished teak and have sash windows and wall hangings. Upgrade to the presidential suite and you’ll also get a private sitting area.
Palace on Wheels route
View from the Victory Tower, Chittorgarh
View of Lake Palace Hotel
Departing every Wednesday, the Palace on Wheels follows a set seven night route across north India. For me, the range of wildlife, key highlights and more offbeat rural areas it covers makes it one of the most comprehensive insights into India. Journeying long distances as you sleep, the train halves the amount of time it would take to complete this trip by car.
Arriving at Delhi Railway Station, I boarded the train in the evening, ready for dinner. Food is a white-gloved, silver-service affair. Service can feel a little slow, but this doesn’t seem to matter when you’re surrounded by gilded mirrors and printed wall paper. With set dining times, you’ll eat alongside your fellow guests each night.
The first few days of the route, visit the fortress city of Jaipur and Ranthambhore National Park. The train then delves further into Rajasthan, starting with Chittorgarh, a fortress town built by the Rajputs, a prominent Indian ruling family.
Look at a map and you’ll find that Chittorgarh is surrounded by nothing but the odd tiny hamlet. A long drive from the nearest city and with only a couple of very basic hotels, it’s rarely visited. After touring the fort — the largest in India — we settled down to watch the evening’s sound and light show. The fort walls are lit with a succession of moving lights as a voice narrates the history of Chittorgarh.
After dinner on board, the train then continues south to Udaipur. A greener city, Udaipur is set around two lakes, protected by the Aravalli Hills. The Lake Palace sits in the middle of Lake Pichola, a once pleasure palace for a young Mughal prince. It’s now one of the most luxurious hotels in the world. It isn’t usually possible to visit unless you stay at the hotel, but as train passengers we had the opportunity to dine there.
The blue city of Jodhpur as seen from Mehrangarh Fort
The fortress city of Jaisalmer, which marks the gateway to the Thar Desert in Rajasthan, has no airport and is a dusty seven hour drive from the nearest city. As part of the Palace on Wheels route, you wake there after an overnight ride from Udaipur. Jaisalmer’s fort is the only lived-in example in India, and a guided tour takes you past local schools, temples and shops squeezed in between the military and palace buildings.
The train then begins its journey back towards Delhi, stopping in Jodhpur, India’s blue city, before heading onwards to Bharatpur. Here you’ll visit Ghana National Park, flourishing wetlands that protect thousands of nesting birds. It’s a key route for migratory birds, and you’ll often see Sarus cranes, egrets and waterfowl.
The train’s finale is a visit to Agra and the Taj Mahal, before returning you to Delhi.
The Deccan Odyssey
The Deccan Odyssey train
The Maharashtra Tourist Board conceived the Deccan Odyssey train as a way to encourage visitors to explore alternative, less-visited parts of India. States such as Maharashtra and the Deccan in central India were difficult to travel through, even for the most determined, with few hotels, guides or roads. Setting up a train service swiftly solved the problem.
Running since 2004, the train has been fully refurbished recently. Its light, airy cabins are now furnished with locally sourced fabrics. You’ll find the wooden furniture, under close scrutiny, is veneered rather than carved wood, but everything is clean and fresh. There are two dining cars, a lounge, a spa and a small gym.
Two deluxe cabins occupy each car, with a butler per car providing a personal service. The service on board is very attentive — I enjoyed tea in my cabin each morning — and you’re given a mobile phone pre-loaded with your butler’s number.
I couldn’t fault the food served on board, enjoying racks of lamb, a traditional Indian thali and far too many desserts. The dishes are beautifully presented, and the chefs take a real pride in their cooking, walking along the dining cars to check how their dishes have been received.
Deccan Odyssey routes
Market day, Gujarat
Lion, Gir National Park
Each of the Deccan Odyssey’s six routes is focused on a hard-to-travel-in part of India. The seven-night Central India route is by far the most leisurely way to reach the remote ancient monuments at Hampi. But, it’s Tthe seven- night Hidden Treasures of Gujarat route which particularly appeals, as it journeys from Mumbai into the rarely visited northwest state of Gujarat.
Touring through Gujarat, you won’t cross big-name sites off your list, but you will see a part of India that has changed very little. In this predominately tribal state, you’ll be welcomed into the villages of the Agarias and Rabari tribes. Little is known about these farming communities who live on the outskirts of the Rann of Kutch, the largest salt marsh in the world and an otherworldly glowing white landscape stretching as far as you can see.
The salt marsh is slowly being encroached on by the Gir National Park, the last surviving habitat of the Asiatic lion. Slightly smaller than their African counterparts, Asiatic lions have a shorter mane and are speckled with black, giving them an almost silvery tone. As part of the train’s tour, you can take a safari into the park to track the lions; although they’re notoriously cautious, sightings are common.
Completing a circular route back to Mumbai, the train stops at Hindu and Jain temple sites as well as workshops where you can see some of the state’s textile production. Gujarat silk is well-known as one of the finest fabrics produced in India, made into sarees hand-woven with intricate patterns and a popular Indian wedding attire.
Extending your trip
South Goa beach
Most of India’s luxury train journeys finish in Delhi or Mumbai, making it easy to extend your trip by jumping on a short flight. If you’re looking for some time to relax, Goa is a direct flight from either city.
You won’t find pristine white-sand beaches but exotic dark-gold sands, dotted with fishing boats, cafes and craft markets. Panjim, now known simply as Goa’s Old Town, was once the capital of the Portuguese Estado da India (State of India). Streets of Portuguese townhouses have been recently restored and painted bright yellow and pink, mango and papaya trees growing out front.