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Fantasy Fortnight: Mary-Anne Denison-Pender's India

Updated: May 1, 2020

None of us so can travel right now so I've asked a few friends in the travel industry to tell me about a fantasy fortnight that they'd recommend to friends for a getaway when things get back to normal.

First up is Mary-Anne Denison-Pender, the managing director of Mahout, a company that specialises in finding the most amazing places to stay in India.

"For anyone thinking of visiting the magical, mystical land of India my dream trip would be two weeks combining the glory of the Himalayan foothills and then a short spell in both rural and urban Rajasthan.

Given that all our travel habits may well change as result of Covid-19 and more mindful, slow travel will possibly be on the cards, I'd suggest flying into Delhi but then go straight up to the fresh mountain air of Kumaon.  

A five-day walk ambling through the hills and villages of this untouched area, under the trusted care of Shakti Himalaya is the most gentle, dreamy introduction to India.  You can experience the romance of train travel as you slowly head north and then spend a few days staying in rustic village houses which have been beautifully done up by the Shakti team. 

Walk from house to house on local trails, passing temples and schools, with not a tourist in sight, and only friendly locals and children waving you on your way.  Return each night to the comfort of a different, cosy village house replete with fine linen, deep mattresses, soft pillows, hot-water bottles, a feast of a dinner, a warming log fire, a glass of chilled wine or beer, and the company of fascinating mountain people.   

All this finery is entirely understated and natural with locals being involved in all aspects of the houses’ ‘development’, along with local materials having being sourced and used.  For those who seek space, peace and natural beauty, Shakti offers a rare opportunity to discover compellingly beautiful and remote regions of India.  It provides privilege and access to far-flung places, removed from the noise and clutter of the modern world by opening up the beauty of the Himalaya – sustainable, slow travel at its best. 

What makes Shakti stand out, given the remote wilderness regions in which it operates, is the exceptional service; the character and atmosphere of the houses; the staff’s charm, passion, knowledge and experience, along with their subtle understanding of the area; the ingenuity and creativity of their hand-picked walks – each is tailored to suit an individual’s fitness, age, wants and wishes; the company’s superb and mutually respectful relationships with the people they work with.

After time in the mountains, I would advise travelling back south to Delhi and into the rural heartlands of Rajasthan for a very different but equally calm and peaceful experience at the delicious Deeppura Garh, tucked away in a village in Shekhavati

Stay in this majestic old fort which has only 10 rooms, oodles of space, one of the great pools of Rajasthan, and sophisticated, lofty rooms scattered around the premises.  

Beautifully restored from ruin by a hugely talented lady from Italy, it’s a joy to spend a few days here feasting on sumptuous Italian and local cuisine, seeing a bit of rural life, taking strolls in the surrounding farmlands and exploring exquisitely painted, abandoned havelis in nearby towns.  A place to rest and enjoy fort life and the grandeur of bygone eras, after the moveable feast experienced in the Himalaya.

Perhaps ready for something more active after Deeppura Garh, take a drive south to Dera Amer for a night in this very special tented camp set up in the wilderness, outside Jaipur. It is home to and geared entirely around spending time with elephants – ‘the family’ – and was set up originally to provide a home to stressed, abandoned or sick elephants and camels who have been cast out, or rescued from the rigours of life in the city.  Whilst here one can get deeply involved with elephant life and interact with the resident elephants in their natural habitat. 

Correctly against the use of howdahs (elephant saddles) or riding at all, you have the fabulous opportunity to stroll around in the wilderness with them, listening to their ‘chat’ and rhythm, getting to know one of these incredible animals. Walk with a local villager through village hutments, fields and ancient monuments in the jungle - the walk of a lifetime.  It must be noted that Dera Amer puts the elephants first and it’s all about them! Their lives and routines are not changed for the good of the guests and they do exactly what they want, wandering around the camp and its environs in what is as close to their natural environment as it can be. A totally non-commercial venture, it’s magical to simply ‘live’ amongst these magnificent beasts as they go about their daily business.

Finally, travel a short distance to the buzzing metropolis of Jaipur – the pink city.    Ready for a bit of urban life, culture, noise, glamour and shopping, Jaipur is a wonderful place to end as it’s easy to get back to Delhi to fly home from there.   

Jaipur makes a fabulous base for almost anything you want to do – discover the boundless and beautiful architecture; make the most of the superb shopping; dine out at great restaurants; visit beautiful palaces; learn about the famed art of block printing; take early morning walks or cycle rides through deserted streets, colourful flower markets; enjoy breakfast with the street vendors as they open up with great chat and banter; attend the dawn temple service full of noise and camaraderie – it’s all there for the taking. 

Stay at the delightful Samode Haveli, tucked away in the heart of the old town and a wonderful former royal home, full of hidden courtyards, gardens, terraces, and exquisitely frescoed rooms.  Or stay at the beautiful Sujan Rajmahal Palace in the new town.  Surrounded by gardens, this former royal guesthouse has been outrageously well renovated in a very modern take on traditional style – wallpaper to die for.

India, with its intoxicating and beguiling sights, sounds, smells, cuisine, customs, festivals and wonderful people, has been like a spiritual home to me for 35 years and I strongly urge everyone to go there at least once in their lives.  To me, this would be a perfect introduction to India and would leave you longing to return.  It combines so many of India’s best and essential elements, is hugely varied and would keep all sorts happy, active and entertained.   And it can be done without taking a single internal flight, thus keeping the carbon footprint low!  

The joy of India is that its diversity and size allow you to return time and again, each time discovering somewhere new and equally special."

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