India invites hyperbole. 'Spectacular', 'magnificent', 'breathtaking', 'awe-inspiring', 'unforgettable' are all words that have become almost clichés for this remarkable subcontinent. But India is also diverse and enigmatic - where different regions are, in effect, countries in their own right, filled with unique culture and history, and studded with the most amazing monuments and architecture.
From the time of the Raj, railways have been the arteries that provide the life-blood to the far-flung regions of this huge country. Founded in 1853, 71,000 miles of track now crisscross the vast and varied Indian landscape, and 7,500 stations buzz with the journeys of more than 20 million travellers a day. Even the trains themselves have names that are as evocative as the superlatives applied to the country: Golden Chariot, Palace on Wheels, Maharaja Express, Royal Rajasthan.
India is such a vast country that, even travelling by rail, it's impossible to see it all in one go. But no other form of transport lets you see so much. Travelling by road just isn't a feasible option unless you have a few months to spare or only wish to take in a small area, and by air you'll merely hop from one place to another and miss the true joy of India, which is the changing and remarkable landscape, from the heat of the plains to the cool lushness of the Himalayas, and the whole mesmerising, chaotic, colourful and engaging spectacle that comprises this country of a billion people and a myriad of different cultures.
For Great Rail Journeys' customers, India is an ever-popular destination and with 8 different tours to choose from in 2015, running from February through to December, there's something for everyone. The India tours have been designed to ensure that you see as much as possible, get a real feel for the atmosphere and spend time exploring, but do so in a relaxed and leisurely way.
On the Grand Tour of India & Nepal, you'll be escorted to the most famous sights, including the Taj Mahal, the Golden Temple of Amritsar and the Agra Fort. But you'll also have ample opportunity to experience the noise, bustle and frenetic energy of Delhi and contrast it to a serene sunrise on the Ganges, and the awesome gorges and glacial falls of the Himalayas.
On the India's Golden Triangle tour, as well as visiting the iconic sites that you would expect, you'll be able to contrast the air conditioned 'Chair Class' luxury of the Shatabdi Express, the pride of Indian Railways, with the charming and totally unique Toy Train, awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, which travels from the Shivalik foothills through 102 tunnels, over 864 bridges and around 919 curves, up to the colonial town of Shimla in the Himalayan foothills.
A train that carries the name The Palace on Wheels creates great expectations - and does not disappoint. On the Great Rail Journeys tour of that name, you travel on this special heritage train which has 14 air-conditioned sleeper coaches each with four compartments equipped with en suite facilities and twin lower beds, and a personal attendant or 'Khidmatgar' who is available at all times. Dining is in one of two opulent restaurant cars, the Maharaja and Maharini, serving Indian, International and Chinese cuisine and there is also a comfortable lounge car and bar. Throughout, the décor and furnishings reflect the colours and traditions of Rajasthan. On its journey, the train winds through unique countryside, and traverses some of Northern India's greatest cities. Beginning in New Dehli, it travels to Jaipur, home to the Palace of the Winds, then continues into the heart of the Thar Desert to Jaisalmer, with its legendary sandstone fort. From there it progresses to the walled city of Jodhpur, then to Sawai Madhopur, and a visit to the Ranthambore National Park, and via Udaipur and Bharatpur to magnificent Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, that most iconic and moving of monuments and rightly called the eighth wonder of the world.
Relaxing on a beach may not be something you'd expect on a tour of India, but on the Kerala & Exotic Southern India tour you can do just that at the quiet Marari Beach Resort, in an idyllic setting between an almost impossibly blue sea and palm tree forests. Prior to that, though, you will have had 14 days to experience the marvels of Southern India. Starting in the city of Chennai (formerly Madras), where the aromas of Tamil and Creole street food fill the air, then on the Golden Chariot hotel train to exotic Mallamapuram and ancient Trichy, and then to the atmospheric and colourful towns of Madurai and Coimbatore. For anyone who has wondered where our national drink is produced, a visit to the tea plantations of Tamil Nadu will be a revelation, especially as it's reached by a journey on the Blue Mountain Railway, one of the world's steepest rack-and-pinion railways, still powered by steam. A short walking tour and a gentle cruise on Kerala's unspoilt natural backwaters, where kingfishers perch attentively and egrets swoop low, end a journey that has contrasted the frenetic and the serene, the exotic and the natural - which is, in fact, the very essence of India itself.