India is a dream honeymoon destination for so many reasons: It's big, grand, colorful, memorable. But it can also be overwhelming, intimidating, and complicated. Julia Lake told us how she did hers. It's a plan worth following. Wedding optional.
I went to India for the first time on my honeymoon. My husband Chris and I have both had a long obsession with the country and its culture, so it was a no-brainer that we'd go for our honeymoon, especially since it's the kind of place where you need more than just a week. We each took sabbaticals from work and went for a month.
What's the best advice you'd give someone honeymooning in India?
Chris' father had lived there for years and I studied India extensively in college so I felt like we were pretty prepared.
1. Hands down, the best advice I got was to be flexible and accept that things will go wrong and that the country runs quite differently from most others. If you go to India assuming it's like anything else you've experienced, you'll have a hard time. Often things don't make sense, especially with logistics. It's a waste of energy to fight it. Just relax, ease back in your seat and let it unfold. Somehow, things always work out in the end. On our way to the airport in New York City, we made a pact not to let travel or logistics stress us out. We kept referring to that pact throughout our trip and it was an immensely helpful way to stay lighthearted.
2. Bargain a lot — and do it with a smile. For most items, we ended up paying only half of what the original asking price was. Often even less.
3. Avoid trains. I love train travel, but in India they're pretty rough and unreliable. It's not uncommon for trains to run hours late, and a mouse ran under my feet at one point in Kerala. I suppose it was an "experience." I wouldn't rely on trains as my main mode of transportation throughout the country. We flew and hired drivers to take us around.
How did you get there?
We flew to Delhi from New York via Paris and on the return from Bombay to New York. It takes about 22 hours door to door, so take that into consideration. For booking planes within India, we used a great website and app called Cleartrip, which is the Kayak or Hipmunk of India. Very convenient. While sitting at a café in Udaipur drinking mango lassi, we used the Cleartrip app to cancel and rebook a flight on our iPhone. Rescheduling domestic flights is miraculously really easy and fees are not expensive. Shocking.
What was your itinerary?
We did a lot and stayed in 15 hotels in 28 days because we were just excited to see everything. It worked for us, but if you're not well traveled or exceptionally okay with moving around a lot, I'd suggest you do less.
- 1 day: Delhi
- 2 days: Agra to see the Taj Majal. We only planned to stay one day but changed our travel plans and couldn't get an earlier flight out.
- 3 days: Chhatra Sagar Reserve Camp near Jodphur
- 3 days: Udaipur in Rajashtan
- 3 days: Fort Cochin in Kerala
- 2 days: Munnar, tea estates in Kerala
- 2 days: Kumarakom for a river boat cruise in Kerala backwaters
-4 days: Varkala, a beach town in Kerala
- 5 days: Goa on Ashvem Beach
- 2 days: Mumbai
Where did you stay?
Because it was our honeymoon, we stayed in incredibly luxurious accommodations most of the time. It felt totally over the top yet absolutely necessary at the same time. Our favorites:
Chhatra Sagar, Rajasthan
Luxury tents. Our favorite place on the whole trip. We stayed three nights and could have stayed forever. The camp consists of twelve glamorous, high-end tents that are block-printed with stunning colors and perched on a private reservoir. Absolute serenity. The staff is beyond attentive and the food is out of this world. Like whoa. Every night after a sunset walkabout, you are called to pre-dinner drinks around a campfire and walk to dinner by candlelit paths.
Taj Lake Palace Hotel, Udaipur
This place is insane. It used to be the Maharaja's summer estate and sits perched in the middle of a lake. The entire palace is made of white marble and the service is incredible. You reach the hotel via their private boat. No outside visitors allowed.
Malabar House, Fort Cochin, Kerala
A lovely boutique hotel with an underlying artistic theme, so everything is very colorful. The rooms are all suites, and it's the details I remember most: The ginger soda is to die for. When you swim in the pool, pink flower petals fall on your head from the trees above.
Amarya Shamiyana, Ashvem Beach, Goa
Two pretty hip French dudes oversee the four superchic luxury tents near a fantastic beach. One of the best spots in Goa for the beach, cute boutiques, and La Plage, a fantastic French beach restaurant with an attractive scene and stylish vibe.
Taj Palace, Mumbai
We were genuinely obsessed with this palace hotel. It's in the best ‘hood in Mumbai, and it's simply bananas. Gorgeous property, in the heart of everything, incredibly thoughtful service, exquisite (albeit expensive) restaurants and shops, and an attentive staff that goes above and beyond. Built by Jamsedji Tata, a patriarch of one of the wealthiest families in India, history abounds throughout.
This was especially great:
Chhatra Sagar was great because it takes you off the beaten track and into villages where you really get a first-hand account of everyday life.
Fort Cochin felt more relaxed than northern cities and was so much fun to walk around in. Most northern cities aren't very pedestrian-friendly (there are few sidewalks, and taxis, motorcycles, and autorickshaws zoom around haphazardly), so this place was a relief.
Goa. I had heard mixed reviews, but we decided to go in the end and I'm so glad we did. I think you have to try really hard to find peaceful pockets with like-minded people: Many parts of Goa have a lot of trance music and Russian tourists looking to party. Figure out where the French people are: That's where you want to be.
But this wasn't:
Agra. The haul to see the Taj Mahal is not worth it unless you have a lot of time. It's a three-hour drive from Delhi and then back again. Oof.
Kerala. I loved parts of it, like Fort Cochin, but on the whole, it wasn't my favorite. It's really trendy to go to Kerala right now, but you should see other parts of India as well. To only go to Kerala and, for example, skip Rajasthan would be a huge mistake. Rajasthan is reaping with culture, color, and intensity. The South is definitely more chill, but you don't get the same level of awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping experiences as you do in the North.
Let's talk about stuff.
1. Glad you packed:
Shoes: I bought a pair of dorky Crocs just for the trip. They were great because they have support cause you're walking all day and you can rinse them off at night. India is FILTHY. I left behind a pair of beat up Saludos espadrilles because they got so dirty.
Long flowy dresses, skirts, and blouses or button-up shirts that were modest and loose fitting.
Layers: The north is chilly at night, so a light jacket is great. The south is super hot so bring the lightest materials you own.
Silk scarves: I always travel with a few and always use them.
A foldable empty bag to fill up with treasures to bring home.
Love Guides: Goa, Jodphur, Delhi guidebooks by Fiona Caufield. These are the best guide books I've ever come across and I'm an avid guide book reader.
A toiletry kit with 1000 medicines, wetwipes, and hand sanitizer. We brought an obscene amount of toiletries and used most of them. Be prepared. It's such a foreign country that the better prepared you are, the better you feel.
2. Wish you'd packed:
Less. We went knowing we'd buy local clothes when we got there, and even though I only brought one carry-on for the whole month, I still didn't wear everything. I wish I had brought less and allowed more space for souvenirs.
3. Didn't need:
Tennis shoes, make-up, more than one pair of pants.
4. Brought back:
So many treasures! Lots of textiles, sarongs for the beach, tablecloths, bed spreads, paper lanterns, tailored men's shirts ($15/each), fabulous dresses, art work, spices, and peppercorns from Munnar. I did a blog post on some of the textiles here and here.
Speed round of favorites.
1. Meal or meals:
Dal Roti, a charming hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Fort Cochin, Kerala, that ironically specializes in Northern Indian food. We went three times in 36 hours. It's simple and wonderful and the proprietor is a joy.
2. Neighborhood to explore:
We loved the upscale neighborhood around our hotel, the Taj Palace — the southern tip of Bombay near the Gate of India. There are fantastic shops and galleries. We fell in love with Bombay and the fashion scene. Bombay Electric (fashion for men and women) and Good Earth (homewares) are within a block of the hotel. I could have bought everything in the store. We scored — big time — at both.
3. Thing you did:
That's so tough. We saw the sunrise and sunset most every day. We didn't fight jetlag, and waking up early each morning made the trip more magical than it already was.
We ate three seriously large meals each day.
We took autorickshaws (tuk tuks) everywhere. They're a great way to explore cities.
We rode elephants.
4. Casual hangout:
La Plage in Ashvem Beach in Goa. It made us feel like we were hanging out with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein in Paris in the 1920s — if they had gone on a beach vacation.
What's the local specialty?
Garlic naan is insanely good. Forget about carbs. We steered more toward tandoori and other dry dishes rather than gravy dishes like curry, masala, and biryani unless it was a very good restaurant. Lime sodas (homemade seltzer and fresh lime juice) are the perfect refreshment, and you can ask for different levels of sugar so it's not too sweet. If you feel dehydrated, ask for sweet and salty. It's the equivalent of Gatorade.
Were you there for the right amount of time?
Yes, though I would have stayed longer if I could have. I think that three weeks or three months would be great. Less than two weeks would be very difficult unless you stick to just Rajasthan and Kerala (or Goa).
One place you didn't get to visit, but wanted to:
The holy city of Varanasi on the Ganges River. We had planned to go and then realized we just had planned too much, so we'll have to go on our next trip.
What's the #1 tip you'd give a friend who wanted to go?
Go with the flow and remind yourself every day. If you're uptight, don't go to India. If you want a relaxing, easy vacation, don't go to India. If you like adventure, go to India.
If you have to choose between Bombay or Delhi, go with Bombay. I'd skip Delhi and Agra altogether.
It's relatively easy to change your plans and domestic flights. We were shocked at how easy it was and really took advantage of it. We planned the whole trip before we left, and after 36 hours pretty much rescheduled everything and kept doing that every few days depending on what we felt like doing. (This is where being flexible comes in handy. If you're not flexible, there are tour companies that can book your entire trip, hire your drivers for you, book your hotels. We met older people who went that route and were very happy.)
The hotel tax. They add 20% on to everything, which adds up.
I sort of knew this, but in India you constantly have the feeling you're getting ripped off. To some extent, you probably are, but getting upset about it doesn't help. Just learn how to negotiate, do research, and shop around.
You can't stop thinking about:
The fearless use of colors. Everything is draped in lavishly colored fabric or paint. It's mind-blowing and beautiful in a way you just don't see in the West. I've been to six of the seven continents and have travelled extensively through most of them, and India is like nothing I've ever seen. I had high hopes for it, and it far exceeded my expectations. India is breathtaking and wonderfully beautiful, inspiring and frustrating, and filthy and chaotic — all at the same time. It's a mix of strong emotions that awaken your soul in a profound way.
Would you go back?
In a heartbeat.
See the locations in this itinerary. (Google Maps)