Another decade has bitten the dust, but one thing remains a constant — this country is still among the greatest places on earth to travel. Winter hasn’t yet said goodbye and the weather’s perfect for setting out on a long drive, so here’s a selection of places you can drive and ride to. Before you ask, the list is almost entirely random and isn’t in any order of ranking —they’re all great destinations. There are, of course, thousands of other equally great places you can go to, so if you know any, feel free to ignore this article and do just that — the ultimate aim is to get out and about!
It might be smelly, dusty and a little overwhelming, but the Karauli Animal Fair, held in February every year, is still a spectacle and a half. Thousands of domesticated animals (goats, cattle, camels, horses and the like) are brought here to be sold and traded, and their owners camp out alongside them, putting up colourful tents and merrily carrying on their daily activities in and outside them. You’ll see some truly magnificent specimens of animals here, and the owners are more than happy to have visitors wander around.
Produce a camera and you’ll be mobbed by people with requests for photos to be taken alongside their prized beasts. Apart from the fair, the Karauli City Palace is a magnificent edifice that is little-visited (compared to other well known Rajasthani palaces, anyway), which is a good thing because there won’t be hordes of noisy tourists around. Some of the intricate stucco and fresco work here has to be seen to be believed. The Bhanwar Vilas Palace (www.karauli.com) is the best (and pretty much the only) place to stay here, and it’s a fascinating structure by itself, being the royal residence — the current Maharaja and his wife are quite likely to be your dining companions.
CHETTINAD, TAMIL NADU
The ancestral area of the well known Chettiar community, Chettinad and neighbouring Karaikudi are renowned for two things (well, three, if you count the Chettiars as well) — huge, opulent mansions and mouth-watering food, chiefly non-vegetarian. The mansions were built by the enormously wealthy Chettiars and the prime example in the region is the huge Chettinad Palace. It’s not really a palace, since it’s actually a traditional Chettiar mansion, only much, much bigger.
Inside, it’s a bewildering mix of styles and influences — Spanish hacienda meets Japanese tile meets Belgian mirror meets intricate south Indian wood carving meets Italian marble meets Burma teak meets neo-Classical meets Victorian — and we’re sure there’s a few we’ve left out of the party. It all somehow comes together in a quite charming manner, though! The Bangala(www.thebangala.com), a former Chettiar clubhouse that’s been convertedinto a boutique hotel, is the priciest stay option, but it’s worth every last rupee for the glorious traditional food they serve — the softest idlis possible, tangy chicken and quail curry, melt-in-the-mouth prawn and fish curry and delicious vegetables. They’re no slouches at Continental food either – we were fed some of the best soups, bakes, tarts and pies and jams we’ve ever had.
RUKHLA, HIMACHAL PRADESH
Don’t bother looking for Rukhla, a remote apple-growing village, on a map, because you won’t find it — at least not on any map we’ve seen. This is the best possible state of affairs, since it’s virtually guaranteed you’ll be the only person there. In fact, we’re almost loathe to tell you how to get there! We’ll resist the temptation to be greedy and divulge the information, but be warned that it’s a good 11-hour drive from Delhi which is best done in a hardy 4WD vehicle.
From Shimla, the route reads Dhalli-Kufri-Fagu-Theog-Chaila-Gumma-Rukhla. It’s not too difficult, since you’ll find any number of people to ask for directions. Once there, the ‘to do’ options are limited. This is the sort of place where you spend whole days tucked in bed, reading a good book and drinking endless cups of tea. The potential for walks is immense — simply arm yourself with stout walking shoes and a packed lunch, pick a direction and wander off. It’s an unbeatable feeling to lie under an apple tree on a sunny afternoon, reading a book.
You can visit the Kiari temple, a very pretty spot, and also go further down to the Deori. Although there’s an absolutely delightful Forest Rest House in Rukhla (bring your own provisions, cutlery, bedding, the works), the best place to stay is the home of Jagjit Singh Chauhan and his charming wife (Ph: 01783-58259, 098160 77977). They’re a gracious, hospitable couple and Mrs. Chauhan’s cooking is the sort that cures terminal illnesses.
In Dharmasthala, a picturesque temple town in Karnataka, you will find a most unexpected thing – a vintage car museum filled with classic beauties. Dodges, Studebakers, Rolls-Royces, Cadillacs, Renaults — all of these and more call the Manjusha Car Museum home, and they’re all in running condition. Just think about it — where else but in India would you find a repository of vintage cars , tucked away in a temple town? If you manage to meet Veerendra Heggade, the 21st dharmadhikari of the temple and a most interesting gentleman, you might even be given access to the inner areas of the museum.
The town’s centre of attraction is, of course, the lovely Manjunatha temple, with a Shiva idol, a Vaishnavite head priest and a Jain family at the helm of affairs. Every single person visiting the temple is served a delicious, piping-hot lunch. The Manjusha Art Museum looks so-so from the outside, but don’t let that fool you — there’s a great collection inside, including a whale-skeleton. A little outside town, there’s a nice bathing ghat where you can sit under the trees and while away some time. Dharmasthala is about 275 km from Bangalore and the drive is just superb. Go via Hassan and Belur, because the back road is a driver’s dream. All the accommodation in Dharmasthala is run by the temple trust and is simple but spotlessly clean.
THE SUNDARBANS, WEST BENGAL
It’s not much of a drive from Kolkata to the point where you take a ferry to the Sundarbans, so perhaps this isn’t strictly a driving getaway. Nevertheless, the place is so beautiful that it doesn’t really matter whether you drive or take a boat. The largest single block of mangrove forest in the world, the Sundarbans (‘beautiful forest’) is a unique ecosystem. It’s pretty much the only thing preventing Kolkata from being submerged by flood waters caused by cyclones, and apart from being a crucial barrier, it’s host to a rich variety of wildlife.
The magnificent Royal Bengal Tiger is to be found here, and if you can spot one, consider yourself blessed. You’ll also see spotted deer, wild boar, crocodiles, jungle cats, monitor lizards, terrapins and perhaps even the rare fresh-water dolphin. The place is a birdwatcher’s delight, with over a 100 species in residence.
The only way to explore the area is by boat, and the boat ride itself is a lovely experience. Help Tourism (www.help-tourism.com), an organisation specialising in responsible tourism involving local people, has a superb camp on one of the islands, and they’ll set everything up for you. The food they serve is delicious, and the camp is near a village, in which you can wander about to get a taste of the local life.