There are equally spectacular rail journeys in Europe, but there’s something about the world’s attachment to the iron horse that means a train ride around India deserves a place on everyone’s travel wishlists. One could explore this vast and fascinating country by plane, of course, but it just wouldn’t seem right; the trundling pace of a train is far more suited to the laid-back way of life.
The familiar image of rail travel in the region is one of long delays and overcrowded carriages, but the country of the Taj Mahal knows a thing or two about luxury and there are an increasing number of tourist trains aimed at a Western audience that wants to travel the easy way.
My favourite, the Deccan Odyssey, describes itself as a “palace on wheels” and certainly lives up to that claim. Built by Indian Railways to cater to the growing number of tourists keen to experience India’s enthralling cities without the day-to-day hassle of its Byzantine bureaucracy, it is the best way to see the country.
The train boasts 10 sleeping coaches, which each have only four cabins – ensuring enough room for all guests to enjoy an en-suite bathroom and shower. And if those are not sufficiently spacious there are four presidential suites, each taking up half a carriage and offering a king-size bed and a much larger bathroom. The food is a highlight – always delicious and copious, whether you opt for local or Western fare.
Golden Eagle, a luxury train tour company with more than 30 years’ experience, combines the train journeys with coach tours to temples, forts and other sights. If you’d prefer to explore at your leisure, there is often time just to wander around the cities where the trains stop, savouring the hustle and bustle in the knowledge that a comfortable bed and a gentle ride through the night await.
Its holidays start and end with stays in five-star hotels, including, for those on the Madras Mail route, in Hyderabad’s truly astonishing Taj Falaknuma Palace, which sits on a hill above the city and, unlike many pretenders, is a real palace built in 1894 by the local Nizam. A succession of beautiful cities await, with the Madras Mail beginning in Mumbai and including stops in Ooty (via the twisting Nilgiri Mountain Railway), seaside Cochin, easy-going Trivandrum, the venerable temple town of Madurai, Pondicherry, with its French heritage, and bustling Chennai, before reaching journey’s end in Hyderabad.
One key facet of Indian rail travel, even on luxury trains, is that speeds rarely exceed 60mph, which is a positive, not a negative – providing time to see life slowly unfolding before you. This serves as a constant source of entertainment; there’s always something to see as the train trundles gently but purposefully through the vast distances between major cities.
One moment you are watching the local farmers plough their fields – usually with the help of an ox, often accompanied by an egret pecking away at the insects on its back, rather than a tractor – while the next you almost feel like an intruder as the train passes so close to the little bungalows in which most people live that you can see them going about their daily chores.
In contrast, there are long stretches through the little populated ghats that run parallel to the coastline, or in the wetlands of Kerala, where the scenery is as spectacular as anywhere on the planet. It’s a truly unforgettable adventure through one of the world’s most seductive countries.
The Daily Telegraph