Ashutosh Sharma brings the story of the Taj Mahal to life on a Total Holiday Options famil Ashutosh Sharma brings the story of the Taj Mahal to life on a Total Holiday Options famil

Love is... the Taj Mahal

One of India’s greatest love stories was brought to life for three Kiwi travel agents recently when they visited one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal in Agra.

The story of Moghul emperor Shah Jahan’s intense grief after the death of his wife, and subsequent construction of her mausoleum, the Taj Mahal, was told by Total Holiday Options guide Ashutosh Sharma on the lawns of India’s most famous monument.

‘Visiting the Taj was quite emotional,’ explains Vanessa Brocklehurst from helloworld Thames. ‘Ashutosh really knew his stuff and hearing the story while at the Taj means it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

‘It also emphasised to me the value of having a knowledgeable local guide. You get so much more out of the experience.’

Total Holiday Options’ Anita Thomas who accompanied the famil says all of the company’s guides are certified by Tourism India. ‘We have local guides at each city to make sure clients can fully experience the destination.’

The tale of Shah Jahan actually started the day before the visit to the Taj, at his palace, the imposing Agra Fort. He was eventually help captive here by his own son and spent his final years looking across the river to the tomb of his beloved wife.

The group also visited the ‘Baby Taj’, the first Mughal structure built completely from marble, and often regarded as the ‘draft’ for the Taj Mahal.

Dinner at the home of sisters Sana and Enam Zaffar offered the agents a glimpse into local life.

‘Having a meal in someone’s home is a good concept,’ says Bridget Middlemiss, helloworld Cambridge. ‘It would be great for small groups or a couple – they could help prepare the meal and really connect with the hosts over the evening.’

The Kiwis were joined by eight Australian agents and began the famil in Delhi.

Spice, and all things nice in Delhi

'Organised chaos' is the best way to describe Old Delhi where nearly four million people, packed into an area of five square kilometres, go about their daily business.

Part of this daily business occurs in Chandni Chowk, home to the city’s ancient spice market where the Kiwi travel agents felt the pinch of spice in their noses as they toured just a few of the 4000 spice wholesalers.

While in Chandni Chowk, the group also visited India’s largest mosque, Jamir Masjid. Travelling between the mosque and the spice market, the agents put their faith in the skill of the rickshaw drivers to negotiate their way around traffic in a constant state of gridlock.

‘Distance in Delhi is measured by time, not kilometres,’ explains Uttam Kumar from Total Holiday Options. Because of the difficulty in travelling in Delhi, Total Holiday Options has ‘cherry-picked’ the best sights for inclusion in its tour programmes.

One of these is Qutb Minar, the tallest brick minaret in the world. Built in 1199AD and standing at 73m, the tapering tower of Qtub Minar is part of the picturesque UNESCO World Heritage Qtub Complex that also includes the Iron Pillar of Delhi, a mosque, tombs and other minor monuments.

A royal way to travel

After two years in the making, THO has released its Royal Experience, a luxury journey in India.

Launched to the agents while in Delhi, the Royal Experience offers travel by custom-made luxury vehicle complete with bathroom, fridge, reclining armchairs, tableand butler.

'Fourteen people from New Zealand and Australia have already booked a Royal Experience journey,' says Anita Thomas. 'We received our first booking in August last year when it was floated in the market.'

Priced at A$70,000 per couple, the 10-day Golden Triangle journey is tailor-made for each couple who stay at either Oberoi or Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces properties.

The Royal Experience 'brochure' is presented as a coffee table book outlining activities for clients to choose with their travle agent. Total Holiday Options then puts the itinerary together.

Bird spotting

Not far from Agra is Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur where hundreds of bird varieties can be spotted along with snakes, lizards, turtles, amphibians and non-predatory mammals. It’s also a temporary home to thousands of migratory birds.

The park was previously the private duck shooting reserve of the Maharaja of Bharatpur since the 1850s. The trophy board still stands with a list of the maharaja’s kills. The last big shoot was held in 1964 but the maharaja retained shooting rights until 1972.

After just an hour at the park, the agents saw around 20 varieties of birds, spotted deer, and lizards.

Palace dining in Jaipur

Heading west to Jaipur, the agents soon discovered that the 'pink city' offers visitors everything from princes and palaces to shopping and culture.

The cultural immersion began when the group spontaneously joined a wedding procession on the street as the famil pulled into Jaipur. There was music, lights and dancing as the groom, astride a decorated horse, and his entourage made its way to meet the bride and her family.

Towering over Jaipur sits Amber (Amer) Fort, the best example of Indo (Hindu)-Islamic architecture in India. Dating back to the 11th century, the fort has never been conquered, and, like many of India’s monuments, displays engineering feats of temperature regulation that could put present day architects to shame.

THO guide Jitendra Singh related tales of life in the fort, including the maharaja’s jinana (harem) of 12 wives. A secret passageway between the 12 apartments meant the king could move between the wives unseen.

A major attraction in Jaipur is the shopping. THO’s Anita Thomas, advises agents to ask clients what their shopping interests are so that guides can tailor make a shopping experience. 'Jaipur is known for its jewellery, textiles, interior design and antiques. It is important for clients to plan what kind of shopping they want to do here. We can take them to reputable shops so they have the security of knowing they are buying authentic and certifed products.’

‘Jaipur is fantastic,’ says Bridget Middlemiss, helloworld Cambridge. ‘The Amber Fort is a must-see and the shopping is not to be missed.’

The grand finale in Jaipur was dining at Narain Niwas Palace clad in traditional saris, followed by an audience with the prince.

Other key sights in Jaipur include the Pink Palace within the walled old city, and the ancient Observatory which consists of 19 instruments for measuring time, predicting eclipses, tracking major stars as the earth orbits around the sun, and ascertaining the angles of planets.

Make it the Marigold – the Best Exotic Marigold

Clients wanting to stay at India’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel should book early. That’s the advice from Anita Thomas, Total Holiday Options.

‘The hotel has only 12 rooms, and over October and November, around the time of the Pushka Camel Fair, it is sold out.

'Clients are choosey,’ explains Thomas. ‘We have had clients who, if they can’t get in to stay at the hotel, won’t book the rest of the itinerary.’

About an hour out of Udaipur, the equestrian hotel Revla Khempur was chosen as the site of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Guests are offered a morning tour of Khempur town by bullock cart followed by high tea at a lake, and a visit to a local cottage industry.

Guests are asked not to give gifts or money to the local children, advises Nitin Kumar, from Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. ‘If guests want to give something, we suggest donating books etc to the local schools,’ he says.

Developments at the hotel include a swimming pool and adjacent dining area in what was previously horse stables.

Village people

Visiting a tribal village was one of the highlights of the famil. The 7am start out of Udaipur meant that agents arrived in Dhar Village, home of the Bhil Tribe, in time for the morning milking of goats, daily preparation of chapatis and a visit to the school.

Clients have the option of travelling to the village by jeep (with some walking), or can cycle to the village if booked in advance. The excursion also includes a look at the village’s Cave Temple, cut into the side of a hill.