If India seems a rather daunting prospect, then staying in a homestay takes away a lot of the potential pain. It also allows you to experience a side of the country that no hotel can offer and your hosts may become lifelong friends.
I've travelled to the sub-continent a number of times, often staying in dingy back packer dives or cheap hotels. I must say I had no real problems but I wanted to try out the homestay experience as I'd heard that it was another way of experiencing the "Real India". Mahindra has years of experience and they meticulously inspect every location before adding them to their lists. And the great thing is that you get to stay in all sorts of places - palaces, villages, estates, even eco-homes
I start off in Delhi. The Banyan Tree is only half an hour from the airport and you don't have to travel across the centre of the city to get there. Even better it's quiet as the area used to be farmland and there's also a swimming pool. Unfortunately the hosts are away but the staff are welcoming and the accommodation is spacious and comfortable. It takes about 45 minutes to drive to the centre but taxis are cheap and, after a hot day's sightseeing, the pool is very welcome.
Next it's a five hour drive north to the borders of Corbett National Park to stay at The Homestead. Wheat, sugarcane, litchis, mangoes and a variety of other fruits and plants flourish in the farmland which surrounds the house. This time the hosts, Bunny and Amu, are here to welcome me and their stories over dinner are fascinating. In the early morning, I set off for Tiger hunting in the National Park, but am sadly disappointed although an Elephant is some sort of consultation
Further on, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a short drive from the hill resort of Nainatal is Garden Valley. It nestles on the hillside, besides a fast flowing mountain stream, and amongst the exotic vegetation is their archetypal English garden. They grow organic fruit and vegetables including oranges, plums, asparagus, artichokes, kiwis, pepper, and cabbages. Akshay is the chef owner and he's worked in high class restaurants all over the world. The banquet I consume for lunch is a dazzling display of his skills, a welcome respite from a diet of curry and rice.
So now I backtrack to Delhi and fly to Jodhpur in Rajasthan. After visiting the fort, I get lunch at Indrashan, lovingly prepared by Bhawana Shekher. This is the best meal I eat in India, so good that I keep asking her for the recipes which she's gracious enough to provide. The family is related to the Maharaja of Jodhpur and the house is dotted with traces of the family's past, from photographs and paintings of military Rajput ancestors, to antiques and artwork handed down over the generations. It's a great base to explore Jodhpur.
In the afternoon it's a drive South to Castle Bera almost on the border with Gujarat and it's already dark as I drive through the village and through the archway on the palace into the courtyard. I can make out crenellated towers and ornate balustrades and feel that I've arrived somewhere special. Baljeet Singh and his daughter welcome me with drinks out on the terrace and regale me with tales of their aristocratic ancestors. Next morning, at the crack of dawn, they take me out to see Leopards and I watch the parents with their cubs cavorting in the early morning sun on the mountainside. This is a new reserve so we have the animals to ourselves. Later on they're pointing out crocs on the nearby lake before returning for cocktails on the terrace and a slap up meal. I must say that it really does feel like the last days of the Raj and I could easily settle for this life of luxury.
Madhu Pushp Bhawan
I take the train to Jaipur and struggle out through the chaos of the railway station and take a taxi to Madhu Pushp Bhawan on the outskirts of the city. This used to be a farm before they built this enormous house of traditional Rajasthani architecture which is home to three generations of the same Rajput family. The father used to be the Chief-Conservator of forest and wildlife in Rajasthan and every night, he holds court over the dining table, as you enjoy their excellent food. Their swimming pool also come in handy after a day out in the city.
Finally I take the train back to Delhi and really do feel privileged to have shared some of the experiences of my genial hosts. Staying in the homestays is a window into a different world and I can heartily recommend the experience.
Tours with Mahindra Homestays can be tailor-made to suit g individual needs. For a typical 15 day itinerary of the North, prices start at £750 per person on a HB basis, not including flights.