Truth to be told, I was a little scared of going to India. I desperately wanted to see its wonders – the Taj Mahal, Agra’s Red Fort, the Golden Temple. But as for the country that created them, I was rather wary.
I’d seen Slumdog Millionaire. I’d heard about the mad traffic, the crazy crowds and the heartbreaking poverty.
So I was thrilled when Fred Olsen, that British-based and most reliable of cruise lines, launched its Incredible India itinerary – a voyage down the west coast of the sub-continent, from Mumbai to Sri Lanka.
There were excursions showing off the best India has to offer, and every night you got to retreat to the comforting arms of the MV Boudicca. Result!
But that very first trip into the mayhem of Mumbai, in the care of a one-eyed, limping taxi driver with a vehicle in worse shape than he was, turned out to be a revelation. I didn’t just love the craziness. I found it thrilling.
OK, India might be to health and safety what Las Vegas is to a quiet night in, but its vibrancy, its cheerfulness, the sheer, relentless optimism of its people is like a shot in the arm.
My husband Les and I asked our amiable driver to take us to the Gateway to India, built to mark King George V’s state visit in 1911, and were a bit surprised when he pulled into a space just over the road.
It seemed like the Mumbai equivalent of parking up on Piccadilly Circus.
Then we discovered the price for that space was our presence in his friend’s pashmina emporium.
“OK,” we sighed. “We’ll have a look, but we’re not buying anything.”
Twenty minutes later I was the proud owner of a soft, shimmering silk shawl – my prize from a lively negotiation that started at £70 and finished at £35. I was amazed by my own haggling skills – until I saw a shipmate pick up a similar one from a street vendor for £7.
The Gateway was impressive, but I preferred watching the thousands of locals who’d gathered there in their best clothes to eat kulfi, take boat trips and grab selfies.
From there our cabbie proudly showed us the best that colonial Britain had to offer – the Victorian train station, the Town Hall, the General Post Office – standing palatial and proud beside scenes of desperate poverty.
It was shocking to see how so many Indians live, sleeping in the street outside the shops and factories where they work. But their energy and determination was inspiring.
‘Never give up’ seems to be their mantra – whether they’re trying to sell you a trinket or squeeze a tuk-tuk into an unfeasibly small traffic gap.
Our next port was Mormagao in Goa where we visited the 1605 Bom Jesus Basilica, a Unesco site. The remains of Saint Francis Xavier, founder of the Jesuits, reside here in an ornate silver casket.
We also took a walk around the state capital Panjim, where the Portuguese colonial influence lives on in its vividly painted houses.
Only in the Caribbean have I seen such a rainbow of decor. Scarlet, ochre and indigo blare out from elegant villas with red-tiled roofs, ornate balconies and discreet clues to their original owners’ political loyalties.
Little statues of roosters or policemen show support for the Portuguese invaders, while a plaster lion face marks the home of freedom fighters.
As Boudicca sailed steadily south we came to Kochi, the state capital of Kerala, where reality show The Real Marigold Hotel was filmed.
We were told that people who’d had TV cameos were now local celebrities. One tailor shop even advertises itself as “Lionel Blair’s dressmaker”.
But there was no time for shopping. Our mission here was to see the beautiful backwaters of Alappuzha, in one of Kerala’s famous houseboats.
Once used to transport rice or spices along a vast network of rivers and lakes, today their cargo is tourists, and they come with air conditioning and bathrooms.
Apart from that, not much has changed. As we glided across the water, herons, cormorants and kites fished for their supper.
Women (always women) washed clothes or dishes standing knee deep in the river and fishermen paddled from house to house selling their catch.
The sheer size of Vembanad Lake is hard to fathom. At 2033 sq kilometres it dwarfs greater London.
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If I hadn’t spotted the occasional spit of land with houses and shops, I’d have thought I was at sea.
On board the friendly staff served us tea, coffee, soft drinks and a selection of fruit and snacks – including freshly fried spicy banana fritters.
The lake was a 90-minute drive from Kochi. Normally, I’d dread spending that long on a coach but in India every journey seems magical. We passed beaming schoolchildren waving frantically, colourful markets and weird little shops selling everything from darning services to coffins.
It has to be seen to be believed. I took a book and didn’t open it once.
But as much as we enjoyed exploring, it was good to return to the relaxed efficiency of the Boudicca – and the non-stop treats from the ship’s kitchen.
Full board is included. You can eat in one of the main restaurants and be served by friendly waiting staff for breakfast, lunch and five-course dinner or opt for the more informal vibe at the Secret Garden Café’s buffet.
In the Four Seasons our chicken and vegetable curries with dhal and naan bread were truly delicious – spicy, fresh and fragrant.
But there’s always a Best of British option too. The steak and ale pie melts in the mouth.
One night we ate at The Poolside Grill, which costs a £20 premium, but it’s so worth it. I had fat, perfectly-cooked scallops followed by surf and turf – a juicy ribeye and lobster – plus pudding.
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The afternoon tea is pretty good too. You can get tea, sandwiches and cakes in the regular restaurants. But for a £6.75 supplement you can upgrade to the premium version in the Observatory Lounge – tasty finger sandwiches, elegant patisserie and dinky scones still warm from the oven. It wipes the floor with some of those that cost £50 a pop in posh London hotels.
All this deliciousness, from breakfast kippers to hand-made petit fours, comes from a team of 64 working out of one kitchen.
But while we were troughing down four meals a day, Boudicca was approaching her last port of call – Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka.
We did two tours here. The first was in Pettah, the lively market district. Each street here sticks to one type of products – one for jewellery, fabrics, dried fish, spices etc.
Street food fans are spoilt for choice. We loved the mango achcharu, pickled fruit with a real chilli hit.
Next day we saw the other side of Colombo – the elegant city of manicured parks and pristine monuments.
We visited the stately Independence Memorial Hall, and the Asokaramaya Temple, a peaceful place with a unique collection of Buddha statues, both beautiful buildings.
But what I miss, when I look back on this amazing trip, is the crazy, colourful, chaotic energy of places like Mumbai and Pettah.
Peace and order, I’ve come to see, is a bit overrated.
Book the holiday
A similar cruise with Fred Olsen Cruise Lines in 2020 will be a 14-night Authentic India fly-cruise, departing from the UK on February 6.
Joining Boudicca in Colombo, Sri Lanka, ports of call include: Cruising the Maldives’ Northern Atoll; calling at Kochi, Mormugao and Mumbai (all for an overnight stay); followed by a call into Porbandar, with the cruise ending in Dubai, where guests will disembark to fly home.
Prices from £2,799 per person, based on an interior twin-bedded room, subject to availability, and includes all food and entertainment on board Boudicca, return flights from the UK, port and airport taxes, and transfers.
Find out more about the 2020 Authentic India cruise at fredolsencruises.com or call 0800 0355 242.
Overnight trip to the Taj Mahal
The chance to see the Taj Mahal, possibly the most iconic building on earth, was my main reason for going to India.
So my expectations as we arrived were higher than a January credit card bill.
But the genius of this famous monument is that it hides from sight. Four vast gatehouses guard it from view and you approach through an enormous arch reached by a tall flight of stairs.
Only when you are at the top and step blinking into the light can you see it in all its perfect, shining splendour – a monument to love, beauty and symmetry.
We listened to our guide’s story of how the grief-stricken emperor Shah Jahan commissioned it in1632 to hold the remains of Mumtaz Mahal, his favourite wife who had died in childbirth.
We toured the formal gardens and queued to see the finely carved interior of the white marble tomb. We posed for photos, Princess Diana-style, on the benches.
But really, nothing surpassed that first glimpse. Because, like a wonderful magic trick, the Taj Mahal all about that big reveal.
It was part of a two-day excursion that might have been called Trains, Boats, Planes…and Buses.
We left the ship in Mormugao and caught an Indigo Airlines flight to Delhi. Like all the public transport we used in India, it was punctual, efficient and came with excellent snacks. The charming cabin crew even told us which baggage carousel to head for as we disembarked.
The drive to our Delhi hotel (the very comfortable Meridian) was initially terrifying. Vehicles crammed themselves into every spare inch of road, and three-lane highways had at least six lines of traffic.
Sacred cows and whole families on scooters weaved in and out of the mayhem as the odd bus and lorry thundered towards oncoming traffic, forcing its way through on the wrong side of the road.
But at some point, you don’t have the energy to stay scared. First, you get used to it. And then you actually start to enjoy it.
At 6.45 the next morning we assembled for the transfer to the station where we would catch the Gatimann Express for Agra, and encounter a whole new level of madness.
The walk from the bus stop to the platform was like some sort of crazy obstacle course. Taxis, tuk-tuks and rickshaws charged at each other like jousting knights, stray dogs sniffed around chai and chapatti sellers.
A couple of female porters ploughed through the multitudes, balancing huge, bulging suitcases on their heads. Teenage boys, who recycle plastic bottles, camped between the tracks and child beggars worked the crowds, twirling the tassels on their hats to amuse tourists.
I was almost sorry to board our train and leave it all behind. But, again, this was another eye-opener.
Compared to the cattle-trucks that pass for trains in the UK, it was paradise. Our air-conditioned carriage had large, well-padded seats with plenty of legroom and huge picture windows.
Attendants walked the aisle delivering breakfast – omelette and chips with lots of extras – as well as newspapers, fruit, tea, coffee and water. And you don’t get a sitar soundtrack on the 7.55 to Charing Cross.
We arrived in Agra bang on time and set off for the Taj Mahal, undoubtedly the highlight of the whole cruise.
Nothing stands much chance of following that. But the other great Agra draw, the Red Fort, had a good stab at it.
It’s more of a walled town than a fort. And while the Taj Mahal is all about grief and death, the Red Fort, dating from the 16th Century, was a home for the living.
Four generations of Moghul emperors ruled from here behind 70 ft walls that stretch for more than a mile, guarding palaces, mosques, towers and gardens.
Shah Jahan and his beloved wife lived here in the Khas Mahal within white marble walls inlaid with gold and studded with precious stones.
From windows at the back you can see her renowned resting place.
Me? I think I’d quite like to be buried at sea after eating myself to death on the MV Boudicca.
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