It's hard to believe it’s already December! With the holiday season fully underway, we’re featuring some of our favorite places to unwind in front of a fireplace this winter—hopefully with some of your favorite people. Speaking of winter, we’re highlighting a recent trip to the Scandinavian Arctic, complete with a viewing of the Northern Lights. Beaches more your speed? We’ve got the lowdown on some of the best hotels in Anguilla. From all of us at First in Service, we wish you and your families a wonderful holiday season and a very happy New Year. Cheers to 2019!
Erika Reategui and Fernando Gonzalez
It’s impossible to grasp all of India in one trip. The world’s seventh largest country is so dense with traditions, people and landscapes. Our leisure specialist Joanna Kuflik raves about her recent adventure through the North, exploring Rajasthan before heading to the spiritual town of Varanasi and cosmopolitan Mumbai.
India had long been on my bucket list. Whether you’re trekking the Himalayas, Bengal tiger spotting on safari, relaxing on the beaches of Goa, or navigating the busy streets of Delhi and Mumbai, there is so much diversity. Indian hospitality is unique too; the people are so welcoming and kind, proud of their heritage and wanting to share their experiences with foreigners. The ancient history and architecture provide a cultural weave that is hard to rival. The food is out of this world, and just like the country- incredibly diverse- with the fusion of spices and flavors being integral to the cuisine. Finally, it offers great value, with luxury accommodations and private experiences costing much less than many other popular tourist destinations.
What type of traveler do you think would appreciate it most?
Those with an adventurous spirit. I wouldn’t say India is for everybody – you need to be willing to embrace the chaos, even when travelling in style. But if you are open to new experiences, I believe you will get more out of a trip to India than any place else.
You deliberately took the long route getting there?
I’m a huge aviation geek and wanted to experience Etihad’s new A380 first class apartment! I flew from NYC to London, then from London to Abu Dhabi on Etihad’s A380, before connecting to Delhi. Their new first class product blew me away – from the service to the size of your “suite.” It truly feels like a mini apartment!
Describe your itinerary.
Mostly Northern India, with a few days in Mumbai. We started in Delhi before driving to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Heading west to Jaipur, we stopped at the UNESCO World Heritage site Fatehpur Sikri, built entirely of red sandstone, before ending in the Pink City. After several days in Jaipur, including the majestic Amber Fort, we took a quick flight to Udaipur, the City of Lakes. We toured the Old City, took a sunset boat cruise, and experienced the rare water art of Jal Sanjhi. We then flew to Varanasi, where devout Hindus flock to see the riverbanks of the Ganges. I ended in Mumbai, where I saw the 7th-century cave temples on Elephanta Island, the famed dabbawallas (otherwise known as lunchbox carriers) in action, and met the incredible residents of the Dharavi slum.
What was your trip highlight?
Every moment in Varanasi, India’s spiritual capital, was truly life-changing. At the banks of the Ganges, we boarded a long-tailed boat to witness centuries-old cremation traditions from afar. Accompanied by the hypnotic beat of drums, bells and chanting, we spent the evening watching priests perform an aarti ceremony to put the river gods to sleep and ward off evil. The next morning, we boarded our boat before sunrise, watching people bathing in the sacred waters, before floating our own diya – small candles surrounded by flowers – as an offering to the River Gods to ensure that our own dearly departed were at peace, celebrating their lives rather than focusing on their absence. I never considered myself particularly spiritual, but Varanasi made me feel things I had never felt before.
Was seeing the Taj Mahal up and close and personal as spectacular as you imagined?
I was a bit nervous that seeing it in real life would be anti-climactic. We arrived just before dawn. As the sun rose over the mausoleum, I was one of the first people to approach it. Watching the rays hit the white marble so it sparkled and changed color in every which way was nothing short of magical.
What were your favorite properties?
It was a toss-up between the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra and the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur. At Amarvilas, I’d wake up with a view of the Taj from my bedroom. It’s the only property in Agra to offer anything close to this! Udaivilas is just stunning, sitting on the bank of Lake Pichola with 50 acres of peacock-filled gardens and a wildlife sanctuary. It was hard to find a spot that wasn’t Instagram-worthy!