Inspiring • Authentic • Tailor-Made

Inspiring • Authentic • Tailor-Made

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Our team’s highlights of their recent inspection trips

Author: David Pettitt

Over the last month we have been busy exploring India and South Africa, testing and checking, discovering new experiences, visiting hotels, gaining valuable first-hand knowledge and, in the process, bringing back a wealth of ideas and inspiration that we cannot wait to share with you.

Helen and Katie traversed a swath of India starting in Mumbai before travelling via Rajasthan to Delhi. David was also in India but headed further north through lesser-known Uttar Pradesh whilst Lauren has recently returned from Kwa-Zulu Natal in South Africa. Below are some of the highlights of each of their visits which we hope will whet your appetite for future adventures.

1 Helen Howard, Senior Travel Consultant

Helen and Thakur Durga Singh, the owner of Dera Mandawa in Jaipur

Returning to India always fills me with excitement; it’s a country that continually surprises me with new and memorable experiences. Mumbai kicked off with a dazzling and colourful early morning tour to fruit, vegetable, flower and fish markets which were a whirl of activity while the rest of the city slept – porters carried large baskets laden with goods, the scent of jasmine and rose drifted in the air and egrets fought for scraps of fish thrown away by fishermen.

In Udaipur I enjoyed a stunning sunset, with the lakeside palaces glowing gold and fruit bats lazily making their way from their roosts. Onto rural Rajasthan where a local train slowly weaved through the Aravalli hills, past goat herders, monkeys lounging in trees and rugged countryside as we chatted with fellow passengers.

Onwards to Jaipur for a fascinating walking tour in the bustling backstreets and bazaars. It was wedding season and people were busy selecting gifts, elaborate outfits and jewellery. We sampled street food, munching on delicious pakoras and kulfi while watching families negotiate with bangle-makers - it’s clear why Jaipur is considered by many as the craft capital of India. Jaipur is also known for textiles and unique designs and many shops were filled to the ceiling with vibrant fabrics – it was a feast for the eyes!

In complete contrast to the cities one of the most serene experiences of this trip was an early morning boat safari on the river Chambal. Just a couple of hours from Agra but an entire world away I was transfixed by numerous bird species, and outstanding views of many gharial. This endangered fish-eating crocodile with a long, slender snout is only found in a small number of places and despite being renowned for its skittishness many were relaxed basking in the sun while we floated by. I was even treated to a fleeting view of a river-dolphin!

I love the blend of traditions and rituals that sit alongside India looking ahead to a future with positivity. From chaiwallahs taking payment for a simple cup of chai through an app to e-rickshaws becoming commonplace it was another stimulating and unforgettable trip to beguiling India.

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2 Katie Hanes, Senior Travel Consultant

Katie and Helen during their Pink City Rickshaw trip in Jaipur

From the very warm welcome on arrival at the iconic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai, to the historic Imperial Hotel in Delhi at the end, my recent trip to India was brimming with unforgettable experiences.

Our first stop in Rajasthan was the enchanting city of Udaipur. We enjoyed a serene sunset cruise on Lake Pichola, followed by a fabulous dinner at the Jagat Niwas Palace rooftop restaurant. The view of the city lights reflecting on the water was magical. Next, we retreated to the rural town of Deogarh, where we stayed at the beautiful Dev Shree. The rural ramble jeep ride and sundowner with the family was very enjoyable and we were thrilled to spot a leopard! The tranquillity and warm hospitality of Dev Shree offered a perfect escape from city life.

Our journey continued to the pink city of Jaipur, where we were fortunate to witness the vibrant Gangaur festival. The streets came alive with marching bands, dancers, camels, and even an elephant! Another highlight was the ‘Wake Up Jaipur’ tour with ‘Pink City Rickshaws’ – a company that provides employment opportunities to women from low-income households. This fun 2-hour tour by electric rickshaw offered a unique glimpse into the city's daily morning rituals.

From Jaipur, we travelled to Agra. Even though I had visited before, seeing the incredible Taj Mahal at sunrise was mesmerising and worth the early start. The beauty and serenity of the Taj in the soft morning light are beyond words. We then ventured into the countryside and stayed at Mela Koti - Chambal Safari Lodge, just a short drive from Agra. Ringing bells and smiling faces greeted us at the Bateshwar Temple, another memorable highlight of our trip.

Our final destination was Delhi, where we felt as if we were stepping back in time while wandering through the bustling streets of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. The chaotic yet charming atmosphere, with its narrow lanes and historical architecture, provided a fitting end to our journey. This was my fourth visit to India, a truly wonderful country that beckons you back again and again!

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3 Lauren Curd, Head of Leisure Travel

Lauren's cheetah sighting, Babanango Game Reserve

I was delighted to be back in South Africa as my last visit was 7 years ago when I travelled to both the Eastern and Western Cape. This time I headed to KwaZulu-Natal – my first night being in Umhlanga Rocks, a coastal resort town just to the north of Durban. Umhlanaga is home to the cherished Oyster Box Hotel, a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, and where I was able, as a guest, to take full advantage of its idyllic setting, fabulous High Tea in the Palm Court and first-class service.

The next morning it was a three hour drive to the Babanango Game Reserve, situated in the heart of Zululand. Babanango occupies over 20,000 hectares of wilderness, has an ambitious rewilding project and is set amongst the most beautiful landscape of rugged mountains and sweeping, serene valleys. The reserve is home to the ‘Big Five’ as well as an impressive variety of plants, insets, reptiles, birds and mammals. It is, importantly, also within a malaria free zone. On the drive through the reserve to our first lodge, Valley Lodge, we encountered wonderful sightings of zebra, giraffe, impala and buffalo to name a few. A fabulous day ended with an authentic Boma dinner and display of traditional Zulu dancing!

The next morning, we set off to the Battlefields to learn about the history of the Anglo-Zulu War and, particularly, the events of Islandlwana on 22nd January 1879. After a brief stop at the museum we then headed to the battlefield and, whilst sat under the shade of a tree, our knowledgeable guide relayed the battle in detail to us and all the events that unfolded between the Zulu nation and the British including Rorke’s Drift.

The next two days were the best part of my trip, as we enjoyed morning and evening games drives across the Babanango Game Reserve. We also moved from Valley Lodge traversing the reserve to stay for two nights at the magnificent luxury tented camp, Madwaleni River Lodge. Our excellent naturalist Ed introduced us to the landscapes, flora, fauna and wildlife, explained the history of the land and how the reserve was formed with the help of three local communities. We were also lucky to enjoy fantastic sightings of rhino, buffalo, hippo, elephant, giraffe, zebra and cheetah – the absolute highlight of my trip being a cat lover!

Sadly, we had to leave Babanango, returning to the coast and Thompsons Bay close to Durban’s King Shaka International Airport and staying at a lovely boutique property called Sala Beach House. The coast here is good for swimming and surfing and from June to November it is possible to see whales on migration from Antarctica. This was a perfect way to end my journey through the wonderful region of Kwazulu-Natal.

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4 David Pettitt, Head of Product

Tiger sighting in Dudhwa National Park. Credit: R. Vasudev

After a recent visit to Sri Lanka I was really looking forward to returning to the subcontinent. I have been fortunate to travel to India a number of times over the years and the opportunity to explore some of the lesser-visited parts of Uttar Pradesh was one I could not resist!

We left Delhi early with the day’s aim to reach Chambal after a brief stop in Agra to see the Taj Mahal. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve visited the Taj but that first glimpse as you enter the complex always takes the breath away. Leaving Agra, and following hard on the heels of Helen and Katie who had left Chambal a few days earlier, we arrived at the lodge and squeezed in a wildlife walk before dinner. The river safari the next morning was breathtaking and the wildlife exceptional. Gharial, mugger crocodile, Indian skimmer, a lone jungle cat and an astonishing acrobatic display from an extrovert Gangetic dolphin.

It was a long drive to Jaagir Manor, a beautiful 1940s hunting lodge set amongst three wildlife reserves – the best-known being Dudhwa National Park. Stretching along the border of south-western Nepal, Dudhwa is a must for wildlife enthusiasts and I would even go so far as to say that this was the best wildlife experience I have had in India in over 30 years of travelling to the country. The animals, birds and reptiles spotted is too long to list here but the seven tigers encountered on the first morning will live long in the memory.

At the time it felt a wrench to leave Dudhwa but all was forgotten as we entered Lucknow and caught a glimpse of the impressive, even ostentatious, architecture for which the city is rightly famed. A wonderful morning was spent exploring the cavernous interior of the Bara Imambara and Chota Imambara then, as the sun set, an atmospheric evening stroll through the ruins of the Residency complex.

My time in Uttar Pradesh concluded in Varanasi, fitting in many ways as this is a city that best sums up the complexity and contradictions of India, the confusion and the commonplace, the noise and colour but also the undeniable beauty and serenity. I stayed at the beautiful Brijrama Palace with its enviable location overlooking Darbhanga Ghat and where early morning walks of old city lanes and a candlelight evening aarti ceremony served as a fitting conclusion to my time in India.

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