We wanted to make the trip from Agra to Delhi on our own, so I began researching Indian trains. Right away, the relatively new Gatimaan Express train caught my eye. The Gatimaan Express makes the trip from Agra to Delhi (and vice versa) once per day in each direction. The Gatimaan actually goes beyond Agra to Gwalior and Jhansi, but it seems largely geared towards people in Delhi wanting to see Agra and the Taj Mahal on a day trip. The Gatimaan leaves Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin station at 8:10 am IST and returns from Agra in the evening at 5:50pm.
Agra: the Taj Mahal at last!
Our guide from the previous day’s visit to Agra Fort met us at Coral Court Homestay to walk with us to the nearby entrance to the Taj Mahal. Visiting the Taj was a highlight of this 3-month travel extravaganza, but I worried a little that the iconic landmark would be a let down after the countless images I’d seen over my lifetime. I needn’t have worried. The Taj Mahal was spectacular and we loved every minute of our leisurely visit on a gorgeous day.
We opted to skip sunrise at the Taj, something that’s touted a lot, but which sounded to me like a gimmick…and I just plain didn’t want to get up that early. Besides, we’d put off our visit to the Taj until this year so that we’d see it just after the major cleaning that had its domes covered in purifying mud for much of 2018. I had no particular desire to see it turned pinkish by the rising sun. I wanted to see its freshly-restored gleaming white. The choice turned out to be a good one. We chatted with fellow guests at Coral Court Homestay who got up for a sunrise visit and said they were disappointed to find the entrance queue long and the Taj Mahal grounds crowded. They said it was pretty, though. We arrived around 10am to find only a short line and sparse crowds. And the Taj a brilliant white in the sunshine. The April weather was ideal, too: warm in the sun, cool in the shade. Fantastic!
En route from Jaipur to Agra: Chand Baori and Fatehpur Sikri
We opted to hire a driver to take us from Jaipur to Agra, splurging a bit for an SUV so David could stretch his legs. I wanted to make two stops en route: Chand Baori, an ancient step well and Fatehpur Sikri, a town founded as the capital of Mughal Empire in 1571 by Emperor Akbar and later completely abandoned in 1610.
Chand Baori is located in a small village a short distance off Hwy 21 that connects Jaipur and Agra. We’d heard mixed accounts of the road in India, but this stretch of Hwy 21 is modern, wide and in excellent shape. The road out to the village of Abhaneri where the step well is located is good, too. Our driver dropped us off just at the entrance of Chand Baori, parking to wait for us at a market set up across the street. Surprised to find free entrance, we ignored the many guides hawking their services and entered to stroll around the 100 ft. deep well, admiring its 13 story depth and 3500 steps. Architectural stone artifacts lined porticos around the well. The oldest parts of the well date to the 8th century, but upper parts date back to the Mughal period in the 18th century. Chand Baori has appeared in several movies, including the The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Jaipur and the Amber Fort by tuk tuk
We hired driver Abès for a full-day of Jaipur and environs by tuk tuk. David and I are both fans of tuk tuks. We enjoy the exhilarating feel of being in the thick of things, weaving through traffic, eye-to-eye with those in other vehicles, then enjoying the breeze when our driver hits a straightaway. I try not to focus on the fact there are no seatbelts much less airbags or even walls in these vehicles. They’re fun! Since tuk tuks are vehicles of southeast Asia, it’s often hot, but surprisingly not as much as you might expect. With the temperate springtime weather in Jaipur, we strongly preferred tuk tuks to taxis. And, boy, are they cheap.
The Pink City of Jaipur, India
I was excited that Jaipur was our first stop in India after Myanmar. After last year’s visit to the west coast of India, it was time to do the famous Golden Triagle: Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. Flying from Yangon to Jaipur (via Bangkok) meant we could travel just two legs of the triangle since we planned to fly out of Delhi to Kathmandu.
I’d read about Jaipur for decades, dreaming over photos of the fabled Pink City, walled forts and luxurious hotels. Since Jaipur was just one stop on a 3-month odyssey, I skipped the expensive iconic hotels and found a wonderful bit of luxury at a very affordable price at the Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel. The Pink City and all the other wonders of Jaipur still awaited, though.
Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur, India
I don’t often do straight-up lodging reviews and then only when there’s something really worth mentioning. Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel in Jaipur is one of those places that deserves a separate write-up. Located in a neighborhood that’s gated at night, Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel is safe, convenient, clean, comfortable and reasonably priced, but above all, it’s gorgeous. Housed in an elegant historic building, the decor is over-the-top in places, but fun and displaying impressive craftsmanship and artistry. The hotel has been named #1 Romantic Indian Hotel on Tripadvisor and a portion of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel 2 was shot there in 2014. Photos are necessary to do this place justice, so here you go:
Port of Mumbai (Bombay), India
We’d booked a small group (10 person) tour of the city of Mumbai with fellow Cruise Critic-ers. We were with the same group with whom we’d done the houseboat excursion in the Alappuzha Backwaters and Cochin so it felt like a group of old friends. The cruise terminal in Mumbai is not particularly large or impressive. They’ve broken ground on a new terminal or terminal extension just beside the existing one. Inside the terminal there is some duty free shops with scarves, jewelry and the like. There’s also another security check and immigration check before you can exit the far side.
This is not a port that you can walk out of. Only authorized vehicles are allowed just outside the main terminal door, although our private tour bus (the same company, Muziris Heritage Day Tours, we used in Cochin–see practical info at the end of this post) was able to pick us up just beyond a barrier to the right as we exited (just in front of the construction site for the new terminal building).
Unlike Cochin where we had a 10-passenger mini-bus, this time we were in a full-sized motor coach, a mixed bag. Our guide for the day was a diminutive older Indian woman with a sizable hunchback. Despite her infirmity and her petite size, she was spry and a quick walker. She also spoke excellent English and told us her name means monsoon rain.
Our tour followed an itinerary that seemed pretty prevalent: We drove through colonial English buildings to a main train station to watch the dabbawalas on their amazingly-organized daily delivery of lunch from home to Mumbai’s office workers.
Then, we caught a local train for about a 15-minute ride to Mahalaxmi to view the huge outdoor laundry of Mumbai.
David and I both succumbed there to the impressive sales pitches of a young girl of 9 selling magnets and a lovely young teenage girl selling purses. They’d learned English, they said, selling on the streets. An impressive feat, and we could only wish the future held more real schooling for these bright, but poor, girls.
Our bus picked us back up at the laundry and drove us to the Krishna Radhagopinath Temple to view a ceremony in progress.
We rode along the seafront promenade to the Gateway of India, a 1924 triumphal arch built to commemorate the visit of English King George V and Queen Mary. Locals gathered at the large square in front of the arch, taking photos of themselves…and us. Throughout India, we were asked to pose for photos with locals. Our guide confirmed that the motivation was our “white skin.”
After the Gateway, we had an hour to kill at the swank Taj Mahal Palacce Hotel. This was our least favorite part of the tour as the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel is Mumbai’s equivalent of the Ritz, with equivalent prices for restaurant options and high-end Western designer shops. There was nothing of interest to us there (other than the heavenly air conditioning and luxe restrooms).
Our group split up here and David and I ended up ducking into Le 15 Café in Colaba, a French café just around the corner from the Taj Mahal Palace. It wasn’t the Indian food we’d envisioned for our last meal in India, but they did take credit cards (We had no rupees and didn’t want to change money this late in the game.), had great air conditioning, decent prices and good sandwiches. We also struck up a conversation with a young woman from New Jersey who’d moved back to her parents’ home city to try her luck starting an IT business.
After lunch, we battled our way through Mumbai traffic, past the University of Mumbai to a photo stop in front of the classic Victoria Station (see lead photo above), and on to Crawford Market, also known as Mahatma Jotibe Phule Market. The market was a large, bustling affair selling produce to locals as well as dry goods and spices to locals and tourists. Traffic is especially horrific in Mumbai now as the roads are torn up everywhere while the city installs a much-needed subway system.
All in all, we enjoyed seeing Mumbai, although it was our least favorite India stop on this cruise. Unlike our other ports of call in India (Cochin and Goa), Mumbai has banned cows on the streets and tuk tuks. We saw lots of garbage and poverty as elsewhere in India, but there was definitely a more cosmopolitan, urbane vibe to Mumbai. Of course, this was a only brief glimpse of the city, so opinion here is limited to our experience and the tour we took in Mumbai versus what we did in the ports of Cochin and Goa.
I had mixed feelings overall about this tour of Mumbai. The main con for us was the lunch break at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. I wasn’t wild about the larger motor coach, but watching taxis stuck in traffic, I couldn’t help but think we were cooler and more comfortable. Sitting higher also allowed us to see over the mass of cars (and we weren’t breathing exhaust fumes like many of the people we saw in cars, taxis and on motorcycles). The biggest pros were our knowledgeable guide, the professionalism of the tour company, and the quality of the bus. Our guide’s timing was excellent so that we managed to be on site just as the dabbawalas, those amazing lunch delivery men, began their routine near the train station. We also arrived just in time to watch a ceremony at the Krishna Radhagopinath Temple, remaining right up until the end. We passed another group of tourists on our way out whose guide had delivered them to the spot just in time to miss the ceremony entirely.
Practical Stuff: We paid Muziris Heritage Day Tours $80 per person for this tour. The bus was clean, in good condition, and well-air-conditioned. It arrived and dropped us off promptly. We were able to pay in US dollars at the end of the tour. They also accepted credit cards with a 3% surcharge.
Port of Mormugao (Goa), India: Old Goa and Colva Beach
12-2019 NOTE: SEE COMMENT FROM MARTIN FOLLOWING THIS POST REGARDING CHANGES FOR THE WORSE AT THE MORMUGAO PORT.
I decided that Goa was the Indian port where we’d go it on our own. Researching ahead of the trip, I’d read warnings about Goa port taxis (the “taxi mafia”) and local newspapers decried the state of affairs at the port and the port authority’s slow pace at installing a promised taxi stand with fixed prices that cruise ship passengers could trust. Happily, we arrived to find that a taxi stand was now in place and the system works smoothly and cheaply. Goa turned out to be fun, cheap, and just what we wanted.
Immigration booths are set up on the dock just outside the ship’s ramps. Just beyond immigration is a money exchange that takes both cash and debit cards. Right next to the money exchange is the official taxi stand. Cash is required for the taxis. Eight tours are offered in guests’ choice of a compact car or SUV. Alternatively, you can create your own itinerary and rent either a car or SUV for 8 hours with either 100, 125 or 150 kilometers. Any overage is charged at a very reasonably 14 rupees/km to be paid directly to the driver. All vehicles are air-conditioned.
We opted for 8 hours with a compact taxi and 100 kilometers since I wanted to see Old Goa (“Velha Goa”) and then spend time on one of Goa’s famous beaches. (I calculated distance and drive time in advance using Google Maps: We’d basically be traveling a triangle with about 1 hour of driving on each leg.) Our total cost was 1700 rupees (just under $30), an awesome deal, especially when compared to the sky-high tour prices offered by Celebrity. (For example, Celebrity wanted $109.75 each–$219.50!–for transfer to and from a beach where we’d get 4 hours free time and lunch at a beach-side restaurant. And no Old Goa included in that excursion.)
We paid for our taxi, got a voucher in exchange with the license plate number of our taxi and the driver’s name and were directed to walk to the nearby port gate where someone would help us find our taxi.
There’s a bit of a chaotic air outside the gate with lots of taxis and drivers milling about, but with the help of some of the drivers standing around, we quickly found our taxi.
I was a little worried at first when our driver brusquely shrugged off my first choice of a South Goa beach, saying he would take us to another just a bit farther on that was also on my list of 3 beaches I was interested in (provided by a native-Goan assistant waiter on the ship). Not absolutely wedded to my first choice, I went along with his suggestion. Our next point of contention came when we pulled out of the port and he seemed to disagree with David’s request to roll up the window and turn on the air conditioning. A crazy idea in the brutal heat! We told him we’d get out of the car if he didn’t turn on the air conditioning and he acceded. After those initial conflicts, I was worried we’d be stuck for the day with a surly driver, but he was fine after that and took good care of us for the rest of the day. His English was limited, so some of the subtleties were no doubted missed on all sides.
The main roads we traveled to Old Goa were in great shape and obviously newly paved and expanded. Still, it’s an hour drive from the port at Mormugao to Old Goa due to winding roads and small towns that we had to pass through. We drove through the city of Vasco da Gama, pausing for a quick visit at a Hindu temple before continuing to to Old Goa.
Our first stop in Old Goa was at the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine, built in 1602 by the Portuguese. The sole remaining tower belfry created a dramatic highlight to the extensive ruins of the church and adjoining convent.
Our driver waited while we wandered the ruins, then informed us that we would stop at 3 shops before continuing on to the churches that form the center of Old Goa. We weren’t thrilled about the all-too-common store detour, but quickly realized this was something our driver needed to do. We gamely looked around the first store, a glitzy place reminiscent of People’s Stores in China, offering high-priced trinkets, jewelry, furniture and more. There were some lovely things, but we had absolutely no interest. Heck, most of our belongings are in storage during this vagabond period of our life! I tried to talk our driver out of the second store, but had no luck so we made an even shorter stop. (We ran into a group cruise excursion at that 2nd store and we were more than happy to be free to leave as they were stuck until the last person had made a purchase or made their way through the long line for the toilets.) Back in the taxi, I told our driver we would go in the last shop, but only “for him.” No, he insisted, “for you.” We back-and-forthed that a couple of times, but all in good humor. David and I made one last, speedy stop in a nearly empty store–taking advantage of the clean, western-style toilets and no line–and finally we were on our way the few blocks to the center of Old Goa.
Our driver let us off near some souvenir stalls, pointed the way to the Bom Jesus Basilica and then indicated how we should proceed to the other sites and where to meet him when we were through. He left the length of our visit entirely up to us.
With the Indian school summer vacation (April-May) in full swing, most of the tourists to the basilica appeared to be Indian families, although we spotted some fellow cruise ship passengers inside. We joined a line to file to the right of the main altar and to a back section of the church that held a holy relic, a large excessively-bloody crucifix and other religious items. We circled an inner courtyard before exiting the basilica to head across the road to the main grounds of the Archeological Survey of India, which consists of a manicured lawn area surrounding seven churches, cathedrals, the basilica and an archeological museum. We opted to skip the museum, but took in the grand Se’ Cathedral and the smaller, but beautifully-painted Church of St. Francis of Assisi (both free-of-charge).
Walking the short distance back to the road, we met our driver and started off on the approximately 1-hour drive to Colva Beach. I’d originally wanted to visit the smaller, less-visited Betelbatim Beach which is adjacent to Colva, but at our driver’s suggestion/insistence, Colva it was. At first, I was worried that he’d steered us to an over-crowded, cheesy touristy beach, thinking that was what we Westerners must want. The area just around the main access to the beach is dotted with tourist shops and little dive-y cafes. Lots of people milled about, too. Hmm. Not looking great. At least they were locals and we weren’t stuck in a Western-style resort. We walked over a small footbridge to the beach and saw that a string of casual waterfront restaurants spread out to our left along a naturally wide white-sand beach.
Happily, we could see that the throng thinned out pretty quickly further away from the main access road. We took off our shoes and strolled through the delightfully warm water to the last restaurant, Luke’s Place, attracted by both the look of the place and the location in spite of the uninspiring and less-than-exotic name.
Noticing another Western couple on two of a string of otherwise-unoccupied lounge chairs under an umbrella in front of the restaurant, I asked if they spoke English and discovered they were English and had been staying near this beach and frequenting this restaurant for two weeks. The woman was wearing a bikini and assured me I’d get no odd looks or hassles for wearing my bathing suit at Colva, despite the fact that all the local women were wading into the ocean in full saris. (I couldn’t believe how casually they treated those gorgeous dresses!) We did have the usual people wanting to take photos with us pale-skinned foreigners. I told David that in our “skimpy” Western bathing suits, it must be for them like Victorian travelers posing with topless natives! The Brits also informed us that the restaurant made excellent food, the large (strong) Kingfisher beer was a good buy, and that the owner would watch our things if we used the lounge chairs and they’d had absolutely no problems. Proving their point, they wandered off for a long stroll, leaving their belongings. This sounded perfect and turned out to be just that.
We enjoyed a good, made-to-order Indian food meal (only Indian rupees accepted) with a great view, then planted ourselves on the cushioned loungers to sunbathe a little before swimming in the ocean. I lost my sunglasses to some great body-surfing and stupidity, but oh well. It was high time I retired those anyway…and I felt pretty sure I could find a cheap pair in India to tide me over until I got back home where I had a good pair waiting.
The ride back to the ship was about another hour and we rolled into the port parking lot, using all but about a half a kilometer of the 100 km we’d paid for. Not bad!
Port of Cochin, India: Houseboat through the Alappuzha Backwaters & Old Cochin
Our first stop in India was Cochin (a/k/a Kochi) in the state of Kerala on the southwest coast. My first time in India, Cochin was a port I was really looking forward to and it didn’t disappoint. We loved this stop! I used Cruise Critic connections to book us with a group of ten fellow cruise passengers on a full day tour, including lunch and a cruise on a traditional houseboat on the Alappuzha (a/k/a “Alleppey”) Backwaters near Cochin. (Find details at the end of this post.)
It’s about a 2-hour drive from the port of Cochin to the Alappuzha Backwaters where we boarded our houseboat. Kerala is one of the most prosperous and well-educated states in India with a nearly 94% literacy rate. Women have higher standing than elsewhere in India as it is a traditionally matrilineal society with inheritance following the female line and mothers the heads of households. While more than 50% Hindu, there are large populations of Muslims and Christians in Kerala. The drive to the Backwaters took us through lush green rural areas, small towns, markets, ubiquitous garbage and ramshackle buildings, as well as some upscale-looking homes and apartment buildings; the chaotic hodgepodge we came to expect of India.
Our Backwaters houseboat turned out to be a 2-bedroom, 1-story boat of the traditional type, in very good condition. We sat in the bow, just behind the captain at his wheel, on benches that ran along the sides of the boat under the shade of a canopy. Four chairs around a cocktail table and a large dining table occupied the center of the space.
We spent a couple of hours leisurely cruising the Backwaters, making a lazy loop that took us out into a big wide-open lake. We spent most of the time in narrower canals bordered by homes that sit below sea-level and flood regularly each year despite low dams built along stretches of the canals. We passed people bathing, doing laundry, fishing and, in general, going about their daily lives.
The call to prayer began as we passed a small mosque, music played from somewhere out of sight. Many other houseboats and smaller boats plied the waters. It’s a unique place and I really enjoyed the whole experience.
A cook prepared our Indian food lunch in the galley at the stern of the ship, then served us buffet-style on the dining table under the canopy. Due to recent regulations in Kerala, beer is not allowed and we were served juice and water. The food was good and plentiful, if not spicy enough for my tastes.
After our Backwaters cruise, we drove back into Old Cochin. We visited the dhobi khana or town laundry operated by Tamil-speaking members of the Vannar Sangham community of untouchables whose ancestors were brought here by the Dutch in the 1700’s to wash army uniforms. (Even though our guide told us the caste system was no longer followed in Cochin, he seemed to think the Tamil origin of these people explained the difference.). The only woman ironing at the time was using an old ember-filled iron since the electricity was out due to a recent electrical storm. Old-fashioned, labor-intensive cleaning and ironing methods are used. Clothes are starched prior to ironing by dipping in rice water.
Washed clothes are hung to dry on wooden frames in a large field. In monsoon season, they use dryers, but it takes a long time as the workers hang the clothes out whenever they can so have to continually hang them and take them down. Washermen and women can lose half of their income during monsoon season.
We walked along the riverfront to view fishermen using “Chinese nets,” fishing nets of ancient design, operated with weighted structures of the size and shape of a fair-sized sailboat sail. Some of the seafood on offer was entirely new to us like weird, flathead “river lobsters.”
In another historic neighborhood, we took a short walk to the only remaining synagogue in Cochin which occupies a dead end on a shopping street. The Paradesi Synagogue was built in 1568 by descendants of Spanish, Dutch and other European Jews and is now maintained by the five remaining Jews in the city. A clock tower attached to the synagogue, built in 1760 and under restoration, adds the only architectural detail of interest visible from outside the plain blue synagogue (which is not open to the public). We had a little free time to explore the many shops on the street leading to the synagogue before heading back to the ship.
Practical info: Our tour operator was Muziris Heritage Day Tours. Our pre-trip contact (not our guide) was Lijo Jose who was recommended by a fellow cruiser who’d used him before. The company apparently does a lot of cruise excursions and their site has a whole section on those. They were waiting to meet us, holding signs, as we debarked. They did several similar-sized tours on the day we were in port, so have the capability to handle a fair number of customers. We were very happy with the tour, pre-trip communication, houseboat, and the value (especially when compared to the cruise price and product as discussed below). The only snafu in the tour came at the very end when we spent about 15 minutes parked on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere while we waited for someone from the tour company to arrive with a credit card machine for those wishing to pay by card. (We paid cash in U.S. dollars. There was a small charge for credit cards, I believe 3%.)
To give you an idea of just how outrageous cruise excursion prices usually are: We paid $80 each versus the $220.75 apiece the cruise ship wanted for the same itinerary. We had ten people in a very nice, mini-van-style small bus vs. a cruise excursion which would have been 40 or so people on a motor coach. From complaints we heard later, our houseboat was nicer than what the cruise excursion people got. The only downside to our mini-bus was that, while we had three “captain’s chairs” on either side of our main aisle, the remaining four us had to take the four seats across the back that were not as spacious. We had a great group with us, though, and volunteers swapped the front seats for the back seats on the return ride. Given the huge price difference, the small size of our group, and the quality of the tour, we were more than happy.
Back in Antwerp for 6 weeks and a preview of travels to come
David and I are happily back in Antwerp, Belgium, for 6 weeks once again cat- and house-sitting for some of our favorite people and cats in one of our favorite cities. As always when in Belgium, we’ll be exploring this beautiful country and scouting great beer. We’ll spend a month in Paris when we leave here, just to touch base in my old home and enjoy the holiday season before heading back stateside.
Coming up in the spring [March-June]: Another Korean Air First Class mega-flight from DFW to Seoul to Singapore(!), a few weeks in Indonesia (Bali, Java, etc.), then back to Singapore to catch a month cruise to Europe (via Sri Lanka, India (Cochin, Goa, Mumbai), Oman, UAE (Dubai, Abu Dhabi), Suez Canal, Jordan (Petra), Greece, Italy). When we get off the ship in Italy, we’ll spend a couple of weeks in Umbria (in an agrotourism farm) and Tuscany (at a small-town apartment) before flying from Florence back to Antwerp.
If any of these interest you, check back in. I’m also always open to suggestions!