You need three things to drive in India,” my taxi driver admitted, sailing through an impossibly small gap in heavy Delhi traffic before weaving deftly around a cow lumbering across the eight lane highway. “A good horn, good brakes... and good luck.”
He wasn’t joking. Within minutes of leaving the airport, I had already resorted to closing my eyes and crossing my fingers in the hope I’d reach downtown Delhi in one piece, while vowing never to complain about drivers in London again.
After waiting nearly 20 years to see it for myself, India was already turning out to be everything I’d hoped. I’d first planned to visit when I considered a gap year at 18, but life got in the way and I always hoped I’d make it there eventually. Two decades on, with a mortgage, an Uber habit and a Samsonite suitcase instead of a backpack, the idea of roughing it in hostels and bumpy bus journeys is no longer my idea of a good time.
These days, it’s possible to visit the world-famous Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in style. National chain ITC has luxurious five star hotels in each location and can even provide a car and driver for the entire duration of your stay so you can spend more time sightseeing and less time studying bus timetables.
I started my trip in Delhi, suffocating under a pungent blanket of smog so dense it was hitting international headlines. It made any time outdoors difficult, so I toured some of the city’s most famous places to eat instead, tucking into steaming vats of butter chicken at the locals’ favourite Kake-da-Hotel on Municipal Market, the legendary channa with fluffy bhaturas at Kwality on Connaught Place and a saffron and pistachio milkshake at Keventers, a century-old Delhi institution.
Back at my hotel, the grand but buzzing Maurya, I made a beeline for in-house restaurant Bukhara, regularly voted one of the best Asian restaurants in the world. With an open kitchen preparing food in traditional clay ovens, its tandoori lamb and signature lentil dhal is exquisite. But get there when it opens or be prepared for a long wait alongside Delhi’s most well-heeled movers and shakers.
Of course, no trip to this part of India is complete without the requisite pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal in Agra. A majestic tribute to love, it was commissioned by Emperor Shah Jahan in 1632 to commemorate his late wife and is every bit as breathtaking as he intended. Hear its full history – and jump the queue to get in – by booking a private guide, who will also point out the best spots amongst the crowds for that all-important Instagram photo.
Once I’d taken mine and watched the sun set over the distinctive dome, I finally dragged myself away to check in to the Mughal, an elegant, welcoming hotel so close-by you can climb a viewing tower for one last look at the Taj over the rooftops as night falls.
Then, following an enormous thali breakfast of curries, chutneys and breads with fresh pomegranate juice, it was time to pack up and head to Jaipur the next day. The renowned Pink City is the historic, flamboyant capital of Rajasthan and is well worth the four hour drive from Agra for an astonishing assault on the senses.
Men make flower garlands and dye fabric by the side of the road while women in brightly coloured saris with babies on their knees sit side saddle on the back of motorbikes weaving precariously through traffic. Insouciant monkeys swing between market stalls, traders push huge carts of bananas through the street and worshippers spill out of roadside temples to an ever-present soundtrack of blaring car horns. It’s exactly what I’d imagined missing in the gap year that never happened.
Built around countless forts and palaces with the original pink city at its heart, Jaipur provides a tangible and enthralling glimpse of a grand bygone Rajputana era. I marvelled at the intricate City Palace and the ethereal floating Jal Mahal palace, watched a bombastic sound and light show at the imposing Amber Fort and visited the 18th century observatory, a Unesco World Heritage site and home to the world’s largest stone sundial. Even my hotel, the Rajputana, echoed the city’s proud regal history, with a lobby waterfall and lavish decor inspired by palaces of the region.
Beyond the history, Jaipur is a paradise for both shoppers and foodies. The old city bursts with bazaars, craftsmen and markets, selling spices, copperware, swathes of silk, beaded trinkets and bangles in every colour imaginable. I navigated the narrow streets with the considerable help of hotel chef Parul Kapoor, who hosts tasting tours of the city. The secret is knowing exactly where to go: try food store Rawat for takeaway snacks including the curious golguppas – crisp pastries filled with liquid that dissolve upon eating; street food sellers near the City Palace for tasty spinach pakoras; and Indian institution Lassiwala on Mi Road for creamy lassi yoghurt in earthenware cups.
As the final stop on the Golden Triangle, this would probably have been where my teenage trip came to an end. But there have to be some perks to getting older, so I squeezed in a stay at luxurious wellness retreat Grand Bharat in Gurgaon on the way to Delhi airport for some much-needed relaxation before the flight home. A majestic country estate and Ayurvedic spa with a spectacular Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, guests at the Grand Bharat can check in and chill out by the pool, go quad biking or play croquet. I tried a cooking class, private yoga lesson, cocktail-making course and some spa treatments prescribed for me by the on-site Ayurvedic doctor.
Experiencing this vibrant, fascinating corner of India through the prism of its luxury hotels and restaurants is like the backpacking trip of your wildest dreams – if you’ve been waiting to visit as long as I have, the time is most certainly now.