By Aron Talwar (as told to David Hochman)
Orginally appeared in April 2015 issue of Virtuoso Traveler
You can look at the Taj Mahal on YouTube, but let me tell you, it’s not the same. No matter how many images or movies you see of India, the place can’t be understood unless you feel the heat, experience the traffic, gaze up inside those ancient temples and palaces, or stare directly into the eye of an elephant.
My wife, Tina, and I both have roots in India. Our parents were born there, and we wanted to share the country’s magic and vibrant texture with our two young daughters, who are 6 and 10. As a kid growing up in Chicago, I made the trip with my family every second or third summer, but those visits were about cousins and grandparents and hearing stories about my parents that were new to me.
Six months before this visit, we contacted our Virtuoso advisor, Fran Kramer.
She’d planned our Australian honeymoon, an unforgettable ten-year anniversary trip to the Mediterranean, and a family vacation in London, so she really knows what we like. With India, we wanted an adventure that would wow the girls and that we would enjoy too. Indian culture is important to us – the girls speak a bit of Hindi and are learning Indian dance –
so historic sites were a must. But we didn’t want to travel on buses or with large groups.
The moment we landed, we knew this was the trip of a lifetime. Our driver for the next two weeks welcomed us at the Delhi airport with the gift of a bronze Ganesha statue to wish us safe travel. Porters took our suitcases, and the car was stocked, as it would be throughout our trip, with bottled water, lemonade, sandwiches, cookies, chips – whatever they thought we needed. We visited relatives for the first couple of days and then set off for Agra, the seat of the imperial Mughal court during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stopping at small local temples along the way.
Traveling with children, it’s crucial to have a comfortable base, which we found with Oberoi. We stayed exclusively at their hotels, and Fran filled them in on our likes and dislikes. In Delhi, they gave the girls beautiful notebooks and pink and purple pens, their favorite colors. Our older one loves pizza, and they surprised her with it everywhere. Virtuoso’s on-site partner gave us a Samsung phone for the trip with a complimentary SIM card so we could call our driver. In Jaipur, the girls were too tired to go touring one day, so the hotel arranged a private pottery workshop, bringing in an older gentleman from a nearby village who showed them how to work the wet clay – we have the pieces on display at home in Chicago. That level of detail made us feel like we were their only guests, even though the hotels are huge.
Tina and I appreciated the VIP treatment as well. Agra’s Oberoi Amarvilas is 650 yards from the Taj Mahal. Fran arranged for passes to see the palace before it opened to the general public. The sun was just coming up and it wasn’t too hot. Our guide showed us every gorgeous detail without rushing us and even brought along a photographer to take professional pictures of us, which we received in an album at the hotel that evening.
I’ve never been on safari, but have always wanted to, so we boarded a train to Sawai Madhopur, the gateway to Ranthambore National Park. We slept in tents in the wilderness, although this wasn’t exactly cold water and a little bucket: At Oberoi Vanyavilas, tent suites have huge bathtubs, double sinks, hot showers, beautiful desks, and a big flat-screen TV on the wall. Again, Fran arranged for a privately guided vehicle, which felt especially luxurious as we saw others in the park with 25 people bouncing around in them. We didn’t spot Ranthambore’s elusive tigers, but we did find a leopard, rare birds, some monkeys, peacocks, and pretty much everything else. Tina took more than 850 photos, 150 of which made it into our scrapbook.
The standout memory, though, is our private elephant-back safari in Dera Amer near Jaipur. Those colossal animals are so majestic, and to spend time riding them and the girls giving them a bath and feeding them lunch – even the kids had to admit it was way better than anything they’d ever seen on their iPads.
How Did This Trip Come Together?
“India isn’t your typical trip for families, and from a planning perspective, it’s challenging,” says Rochester, New York-based travel advisor Fran Kramer. “I have a granddaughter, so I thought, what would she like? That was my mantra in planning this vacation for the Talwar family. I never wanted the girls to be bored. The goal was to find something safe and not too difficult for the children, given their ages and endurance, that would appeal to them as well as their parents.
“March and April are great months to visit India: Prices are good, the weather usually cooperates, and students get time off for spring break. The Talwars had two rooms throughout the whole trip, and hotels were very accommodating in providing favorable rates. The last day of their vacation, the family was due to depart very late in the evening. Oberoi surprised them with a complimentary room not far from the airport where they could rest and shower before the long flight. Service like that makes all the difference between a good trip and one that’s world-class.”