Ghillie James takes on India with her kids (ages 3, 8 and 10) and finds herself learning some life lessons from them along the way.
If you had asked me six months ago if I had ever considered taking my three young children to India for a holiday I would have responded ‘Not on your nelly!’ (which conveniently rhymes with both ‘Delhi’ and ‘belly’… you see where I’m going here?).
Luckily I was given a new insight to this extraordinarily diverse country by India travel guru and mother of two under-fours, Gemma Moffatt, who persuaded me that India can in fact be a great country to take kids to. Having lived in India for seven years and worked in the travel industry for even longer there really isn’t much she doesn’t know about the place and how to plan the perfect trip.
Lucky for us she is now settled and living in Singapore with her family and has recently relaunched her small, bespoke travel consultancy, Hyde India Inspired. Taking on only a small number of clients a year, she coordinates highly personalised trips for couples, small groups and families to India to really help people make the very most of the country in the time they have. Her trips are tailor made, and really well researched to suit individuals’ wishes (whether it be focused on culture, wellbeing, wildlife, shopping or food or a mix of all). Her expertise is crucial — slick organisation, interesting guides and experienced, safe drivers along with a well-planned itinerary are key when planning a trip to India with children in tow.
Exposing my children to different cultures and opening their eyes to diversity at a young age, is to me, far the best the way to produce open-minded, worldly grownups. There is no doubt that a trip to India is a great way to do this, as it offers such a rich experience. Everywhere you go there is a fabulous story to tell, from the maharajas to the moghuls, Bollywood to the British Raj.
The temples, palaces, street markets and bazaars are a feast for the senses. We hit the jackpot with THE best guide in Delhi, Seema – a lady who, at about 5ft (think Mrs Pepperpot), has the capacity to capture the attention of anyone from, in our case, a 3-year-old Paw Patrol fanatic (my youngest) to a 43-year-old history geek (my husband!) with her fabulous anecdotes and activities.
We decided to go for a mix of city and country (“temples and tigers“), and we asked Gemma to weave in an educational/charity dimension, too. As well as knowing India well, Gemma has a wealth of great contacts and she immediately told us about a charity walk we could do visiting a shelter in Delhi for street kids and a small primary school we could visit when we were in Rajasthan. This, for all of us, was a highlight and I was astounded by my own kids’ sensitivity and the fact they asked some really sensible questions! They played darts together with the kids at the shelter and showed no reservation when joining in with an eager class of 8-year-olds all playing animal snap (and learnt to write their names in Hindi). Most of all I was pleased to see they had really processed what they had been told and later in the trip referred back to our visits with more questions.
Gemma has herself travelled with her own kids and has loads of top tips on how on earth you plan a trip with little ones coming along for the (rickshaw) ride too. She gave us a personalised travel book prior to our trip with everything from our itinerary to maps, essential packing guides, and even quizzes for the kids to do on the longer journeys.
So, here’s our trip with a few options for hotels depending on budget, plus my ‘Be prepared guide’ to avoid surprises!
Our 10-day trip in a nutshell:
Train (a must!) to Agra (1 night): Sunrise at the Taj Mahal
Drive to Ramathra Fort (2 nights): Staying at a 350-year-old Rajput battle fort. Visit to cave temple, a farm, pot painting, cricket, cooking and a local school
Drive to Ranthambore National Park (2 nights): Two jeep safaris into the Tiger Reserve and a stay in Khem Villas, where the children enjoyed learning about the flora and fauna and got a few tips on how to become junior rangers!
Drive to Jaipur (2 nights): Rajasthan’s capital, also known as The Pink City. Temples, palaces, a block printing lesson, some shopping and a chance to camp with elephants in the Aravalli Hills!
Drive to Delhi: 1 night in airport hotel before early flight home
My ‘Be Prepared’ list:
- If your kids are blonde like mine, be ready for them to be treated rather like celebs.
- Be flexible. India does things in its own time and if you are ready for that you won’t stress about it!
- Distances between locations are quite far, meaning long car journeys.
- Taking some story CD’s to play in the car was a lifesaver, as the children could listen WHILST looking out of the window at ‘the culture’!
- Be wary about what you eat/drink so as to avoid any tummy troubles. Never drink from the tap, or an already opened water bottle. Avoid ice, fruit and salad, too, unless you are in a good hotel. Always carry hand sanitiser gel for post activities and pre-lunches!
- Take probiotics/hydration tablets every day and carry a first aid kit with some antibiotics/diarrhoea meds – just in case!
- Pack your own inflatable booster car seat.
- Sharing larger family rooms is sometimes easier than trying to get interconnecting rooms. India doesn’t seem to do that much
- Beware the spicy ketchup!
Air India and Singapore Airlines are your best options for family travel. There’s a handy early morning flight with Air India, which arrives in Delhi in time to drop your bags and make the most of the afternoon. Scoot were offering direct flights to and from Jaipur, too, but have temporarily suspended this route. If it resumes it’s a great option to consider.
When to go
The season for North and South India (avoiding the monsoon) is October to the end of March. The end of September and April can offer good pre/post season deals. Planning your trip to coincide with the festivals of Diwali (October or November) and Holi (February or March) is a great idea (although Gemma recommends these are best experienced in the more rural areas away from the main cities, which can become too boisterous).
Delhi: Where to stay
There are many options from high end to budget. I suggest somewhere in the middle! The Shangri-La (Eros Hotel) works well for families as you can opt to have interconnecting rooms and they have a fabulous buffet breakfast (which probably topped the Taj Mahal in my 10-year-old’s eyes!).
The Claridges is a smaller, more intimate hotel brilliantly positioned in the heart of Delhi. It has a pool and a pretty lawn where you can have drinks in the evening. If you really want to blow the doors off, then The Imperial is THE place to stay in Delhi.
Delhi: What to do
So much choice depending on the age and stage of your children.
For day one we opted to hire a guide (as mentioned earlier) to do a whistle stop tour of India gate and Lutyens Delhi (Edward Lutyens was a British architect who was responsible for much of the design and structures built when India was part of the British Empire in the 1920-40s); a stop off game of hide and seek and a history lesson at Lodi Gardens (90 acres of gardens containing 15th century tombs from the ruling time of the Lodi, an Afghan Dynasty).
Then a hop on hop off rickshaw tour of Old Delhi Bazaar – visiting the flower market, a chai stall, the Bridal market, and seeing the many stalls where they make samosas and kachori – two of India’s favourite snack foods.
If you have time you should try to visit Gandhi Smriti, formerly known as Birla House, which is a museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. It is where Gandhi spent his last 144 days of his life and was then assassinated on 30 January 1948. There is a fabulous multi-media section upstairs which the children will enjoy.
A visit to the Imperial Hotel is also a must, whether for tea or an early evening drink and to do a prior arranged historical tour. The Imperial was built in 1931 and has the largest collection of colonial and post-colonial art anywhere in Delhi. The Patiala Peg bar is where Nehru, Gandhi, Jinnah and Lord Mountbatten met to discuss the partition of India and the birth of Pakistan!
On our second day we went on a street tour run by the charity, Salaam Baalak Trust. It’s gritty and might not be for everyone but I highly recommend it (do take your own guide with you, too). It’s worth taking packs of pens, games, and books if you can as it’s great to give something on arrival and the charity as well as the primary school we visited were really grateful for the gifts. We then stopped off at Khan market for lunch (I recommend Latitude Café above Good Earth) and a wander around a few of the many great shops in the city. Good Earth (homewares) and Anokhi (kids and adults clothing/tablecloths and bedding) are great pit stops if short on time. This is also a great place to try on/purchase a sari or Indian dress for the girls or kurtas for the men/boys from Fab India.
Other options for Delhi are also the Railway Museum and the craft museum, but we couldn’t fit anymore in!
Then off to the train station to take the train to Agra (pre-booking tickets is essential). India’s Railway Network carries more than 25 million people every day (more than the population of Australia!). The buzz on the platform and on the train itself are both as fascinating as each other! However do note that trains can be delayed/cancelled (see ‘be prepared’) – as ours was! Thankfully our trusty rep was on hand to sort us alternative transport. What could have been a disaster was sorted in a matter of minutes.
Agra: Where to stay
The Oberoi, Amarvilas is the daddy of all hotels in Agra but with a price tag to match. Four Points Sheraton, where we stayed, was affordable, clean and comfortable and what we needed for our brief stop off.
Agra: What to do
The main reason to visit Agra is for the Taj Mahal! Depending on the age of your children you might well want to give it a miss as it’s a big detour. A sunrise visit is the least crowded and once there parents, you’ll be pleased to have hauled everyone out of bed! Not sure the kids will agree, though!
Ramathra Fort: Where to stay
Ramathra Fort is the place and the accommodation! A 350-year-old Rajput battle fort owned by the same delightful family, who lovingly restored it to make what is now a very family friendly and beautiful hotel/guest house. I would opt for rooms in the fort instead of the bell tents as they could be noisy. Food is great for grownups but it may be worth pre-arranging some Western food for the kids.
Ramathra Fort: What to do
The views are off the charts and they have the best positioned bubble pool in the world! Activities can be organised and our kids loved the pot painting, cooking class and henna decoration as well as a peaceful sunset and bird watching in a rowing boat on the lake.
…Well, as peaceful as anything can be with three children who all insisted they should row even though one couldn’t reach the oars, one rowed us backwards, and my daughter nearly fell out of the boat when attempting to stand up and swap seats with the completely mystified Indian gentleman who had been paid to take us!
The next day we took an early morning jeep ride with Ramathra’s very experienced in-house guide and visited a nearby cave temple, as well as a 300-year-old hunting lodge, the local village, and the school. Sunset games of cricket with the other children staying at the hotel were a highlight and I loved to see my kids making new friends.
Ranthambore National Park: Where to stay
There’s a lot of choice with over 100 hotels and guest houses in the area. We loved Khem Villas. It’s a small hotel which can offer families two cottages side by side with a shared entrance door. Food is vegetarian only, but the Western food offered for the kids was the best we ate in India, and all homemade. There’s a small pool which was a welcome cool-off after safaris.
Ranthambore: What to do
Rathambore National Park is vast and the hotel was conveniently positioned very close to one of the main entrances. Sunrise and sunset safaris were expertly organised and the children loved spotting mongoose, peacocks, monkeys, deer and buffalo on every turn. Did we spot a tiger? It’s never guaranteed but we were super lucky – albeit in the distance. Our 3-year-old’s highlight wasn’t the tiger, as he couldn’t see it. Instead it was the pre-arranged thermos of hot chocolate and cheese sandwiches which appeared halfway round!
The hotel will kindly organise ‘Walk Walks’, which were loved by our eldest. A chance to take some binoculars and look for the freshwater crocodiles who live in the lake at the bottom of the garden and to see the small veggie farm run by the hotel. In the evenings there are regular wildlife talks and movies about Indian tigers shown.
Jaipur: Where to stay
We split our time between Dera Amer elephant rehabilitation camp about an hour outside the city and the Samode Haveli Hotel. Dera Amer is one of the most incredible places we have ever been to and definitely #1 on the children’s list of highlights. Tents are kitted out with beautiful beds, ensuite showers and rugs – so don’t think camping – this is serious glamping! Marshmallow toasting and G&T’s around the camp fire followed by an incredible dinner. Pre-organised, they will cater wonderfully for kids’ tastes, too. Breakfast is the full monty with eggs and bacon served just beside Laxmi the elephant, having her breakfast too!
Samode Haveli is one of four hotels owned by the Samode group. The Haveli is in the centre of Jaipur, close to tourist sites and shops, but also has a lovely lawn, and a heavenly pool for a well-earned dip! The Samode Palace and Samode Bagh are about one hour out of the city and they also own a safari Lodge in central India. Samode Bagh is great for kids as they have tennis, cricket and large gardens to play in. The Palace is as its name suggests and is perhaps more suitable to a couple’s getaway!
Jaipur: What to do
There is SO much to do! You might want to visit the city Palace, the Jantar Mantar observatory or like us, Amber Fort. Built in the 16th century, it’s famous for its Palace of Mirrors, inlaid with millions of tiny glistening mirrors, the hall of Public Audience and the beautiful manicured gardens. We had a great time at a block printing workshop, especially designed for children. It’s fascinating to see the workmanship that goes into creating the fabrics and we all loved trying it out ourselves – seriously difficult! The children got to take their work home as well as a beautiful block printed apron. A lasting memory of the holiday is in fact glancing over at my husband sporting a purple paisley apron and deciding whether he wanted the peacock or the butterfly block for his design!!
Samode Haveli in Jaipur. will discuss with you which activities you might like to partake in at the hotel. They have a lovely early morning (sunrise) walk around some old parts of Jaipur town, or you can do it by cycle ride. They also offer cooking demonstrations and if there is enough wind, some kite-flying from their roof.
Dera Amer is also a possible base from which to see the sights of Jaipur. When we arrived in the afternoon we were quite literally whisked off our feet and onto the back of Laxmi, one of the resident elephants. She took us to our campsite, through the forest! Drinks, dinner and a good night’s sleep…then we were then up early to wash our elephant (well, felt like our elephant for 24 hours anyway), eat a fabulous breakfast (while she ate sugar cane) and watch as Laxmi had fun using the trees as her loafah whilst throwing water over herself.
A very sad goodbye, as we were led back to our car, this time in a camel cart! What I loved about this place is the obvious compassion for all the animals. The owner set up the camp to raise money to give the working elephants in India a well-earned break. Owners have to be paid handsomely to let their elephants go (it’s often the elephants who lug tourists up and down from the fort in the heat of the day), and Dera Amer might have different elephants staying with them each time you go.
Finally, it was back to Delhi for one night in an airport hotel and back to reality!
Truly an amazing trip in one incredible country.
All images courtesy of the author