At a glance
The sheer diversity of India is impossible to unpick within a grain of time as short as five years, making two weeks of understanding India’s idiosyncrasies a mere drop in the Arabian ocean. Draw a finger down a map of India’s western plains – down through the coastline spanning the states of Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, and Kerala – and you’ve traced the impossible cultural whirlwind this itinerary promises.
Be jolted by the intoxicating and addictive city of Mumbai, formerly Bombay, through tours offered by people who live and breathe this city: sheer urban excess sits nonchalantly beside the rural, the anachronistic and the plain bizarre, coming together to create a mesmerizing cocktail of human life – from Bollywood starlets to street vendors. Retreat to the hills of Maharashtra to meet the protagonists of the panoramic Ajanta and Ellora caves; astonishing paintings, sculptures, and monasteries which bring to life early Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain civilization. Continue to slow the pace as you pick your way through an intimate city experience in Pune, and into the hedonistic beauty of Goa – a land of colonial architecture, serene sugary beaches and a relaxed, backpacker-friendly mentality.
India has a complete change of face in Kerala, where local language changes, time slows to a crawl and seafood, spices and a soft tropical breeze take center stage. At each piece of this evocative puzzle, prepare to rouse your inquisitive nature and be spellbound.
- Sample a heady mix of street food cuisine and seafood as you move down the coastline – from Pani Puri to Kolhapuri, to sumptuous fish curries
- See the offbeat beauty of Bombay through home visits and local life tours from people who grew up in the city
- Leave the city for Maharashtra’s hills to Ajanta and Ellora, holding cave temples and secrets of a lost ancient civilization through early art
- Enjoy a cooking class at a local home in Pune, a fast-paced business hub with a rich history worth unfolding
- Snorkel among colorful reefs and eat aromatic fish curries on a Goan island
- Discover the twists and turns of India’s colonial history through lingering flavors and cultures
- Indulge on Kerala’s backwaters with a houseboat stay complete with a feast cooked by an onboard private chef, views so breathtaking they anchor you to the spot, and a good dose of affordable luxury
- Opt for irresistible tour add-ons such as a weekend retreat in the surreal and stunning Lakshadweep islands, Kerala’s island haven with blinding white sands and warm crystal seas
Why we love this one
There are many ways to travel. If we think carefully about what constitutes enjoyment whilst exploring somewhere new, much of what makes up the jigsaw of experience exists in pretending to draw awe from monuments with assigned significance or spending perfectly sunny mornings in museums we don’t care for. Whilst in Mumbai, it quickly dawned on me what really shapes us. The relentless buzzing of car horns, waspishly competitive in my ears, quickly faded into the background, a symphony of the city playing on into the night. But the sight of a street kid being invited to play a game of cricket by university students at the oval did not fade. This moment pierced my indifference. A hot, perfectly spiced pakora brought on the train for 30 rupees sits like a blissful wedge in the greedy corner of my mind, as I burned my tongue in my haste to consume every inch of flavor.
Mumbai is like a drug: it swallows up all who love it. It is a city that needs tough love and separation – and so this tour has been curated to hang perfectly in the balance.
Underneath Indian skies, millions of people are moving, and the changing faces of India downwards into Goa continue to surprise and delight. Goa is a list of ticked boxes to all travelers: it’s no wonder millions of visitors flock annually to this veritable slice of the good life. Just enjoy a glass of fiery sweet cashew-nut feni, and let the local liquor lick at your nerve endings as you pick at a spicy plate of prawns, watching the sun as it sinks like a fireball into the glittering Arabian Sea. Hippie market bliss, quiet white-washed Portuguese churches, and gently swaying palms set a very different pace to Mumbai – a solitary walk along a crescent cove, where the only footprints will belong to you, your loved ones and the little crabs which share the sands with you.
Kerala takes the pace down a notch again, so slow your subcontinental stride to match a luminous languor of tropical balmy breezes, the intellectual chatter of some of the world’s friendliest people, unbeatable biryani and colonial cuisines. Drift away on the languid network of glistening backwaters, listening to the chirrup of crickets and watching village life unfold through islands of palm fronds around you. Appreciate the little details in Cochin; the fort town is the home of India’s most colorful parking lot: the decorated steeds of the famous Rickshaw Run are tethered here where the race begins – a 3,500 km race across the country. Notice the subtle street art on walls and boulders lining the beach, an etching trend started by Kochi-Muziris Biennale – an international art exhibition held here in 2012. Bathe under the impossible light of Lakshadweep’s ethereal islands, watching Sunni Muslim fishermen haul in the catch of the day.
From the bombastic Bombay to subtle nuances in off-track Goa, twinkling smiles and sharp wit in Kerala to the fast business pace of Pune, this is a selection box of the many flavors, personalities, and rhythms which make up India’s concentrated cultural fusion.
Day 1 – Touch Down in Mumbai
Your journey begins as you land in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport – a striking piece of architecture that stands testament to Mumbai, a city with the ability to absorb everything into her midst and make it her own. As you make your way to your hotel via private airport transfer, the sheer otherworldliness of Mumbai begins to crystallize: a bullock cart pulls up next to a Mercedes, business-men drink conglomerate coffee on street corners. The enthused cries of chai wallahs (tea sellers), and incessant car horns fade to a background buzz as you drive past the tightly stacked housing and hives of activity which are the city’s slums; moving seamlessly into perfectly paved streets supporting resplendent, marble-clad skylines – the very picture of classic Indian glamour. Take a deep breath, and prepare to leave the predictability of daily life behind. This is India.
Day 2 – The Big Bombay Tour: from Bollywood to Desi Beats
Rise and shine for an introduction of the very best Mumbai has to offer – from soaking up the neighborhoods of rising stars to sampling unrivaled Bombay street bites. This is a full day which covers Mumbai’s big gems for visitors: your English-speaking guide and driver will give you the grand tour, from discovery of the British Heritage monuments and the iconic skyline of India’s Gateway and the Taj Hotel to a Hindu and a Jain temple visit with insight into exciting religious mythology. Pass through the beautiful Hanging Gardens and peaceful parks – Mumbai’s oases, and sample the hearty, locally crafted delicacies of pav bhaji and pani puri. Sated from a wealth of knowledge from your local tour guide, and the best street food you’ve ever tasted, enjoy a sunset sweep of glittering Marine Drive by car with a stop-off at Chowpatty Beach to experience local family life at one of the city’s favorite hangouts.
Add on – The Other Side: Off Beat Mumbai
Follow your curiosity and get beneath the skin of this enchanting city. A half-day tour of Mumbai’s other side will offer you a surprising cross-section of India’s vast spectrum of human life – from a visit to Antilla, the billion-dollar home of the richest man in India, to the thrum of everyday life in Dhobi Ghat, the city’s clothes horse and the largest non-mechanized laundry facility in the world. Dig deeper into a religious ritual by a stop-off at the Hindu area of Malabar Hill to see the Banaganga Water Tank – a water source with a reputation for medicinal qualities, and an ancient history shrouded in myth. At a quieter time of day, you’ll take an accompanied train ride to experience the artery of Mumbai’s transport network, followed by a sensuous experience at Khau Galli, Mumbai’s oldest food lane where you’ll sample a multitude of new flavors. Continue your feast for the senses at Dadar Flower Market, filled with the perfumes of blossoming wreaths and garlands – from tropical fuchsia flowers to orange and yellow marigolds.
Add on – Dharavi Slum Tour
Forget any notions of voyeuristic poverty tourism – this is one of the most inspiring learning experiences you can opt for in Mumbai. Here, all depressing stereotypes of slum life will be challenged, allowing you to explore for yourself – with a knowledgeable local guide – the mass of humanity living here and the amazing lives they lead. The narrow streets and stacked shacks are alive with community spirit, jewels of beauty amidst the daily chaos (colorful saris are amass, especially during festival seasons), and flourishing hubs for business in thriving small scale industries. Continually holding the intimidating title of ‘the Largest Slum in Asia’, you’ll discover why Dharavi is also referred to as ‘the Land of Opportunity’ for those who really know it.
Day 3 – 5 – Ajanta and Ellora Caves Two Day Trip
Catch an evening flight from Mumbai to the historical hinterlands of Maharashtra state, landing in the storied city of Aurangabad for a good night’s sleep before exploring the remarkable 2nd century BC caves which lie outside its fringes. Make the 100km road transfer early the next morning to the folds of the Sahyadri Hills, discovering mesmerizing sculptures, paintings, and creations hewn by hundreds of generations and the hands of time itself, created over the course of 600 years with little more than a chisel. The following day, you’ll head to the nearer by Ellora Caves, another unique cave network of 34 ornate temples and monasteries, where Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism co-exist. On the return drive to Aurangabad, stop for a picnic lunch at the invincible Daulatabad Fort. Once considered impenetrable, you can dare to climb the 600 steps for the reward of a panoramic view, or enjoy the tales of its rich history before heading to catch your return flight to Mumbai.
Day 6 – Pune: Bazaar Walk and Cooking Class
The two-hour drive to the hub of vibrant New India, Pune, means an early start and breakfast at an authentic dhaba en route. In this city which offers a baffling mixture of new and old, you’ll step into Pune’s timeless hub and the heart of Maharashtra’s history – the Pune Kasba (market town). Start at the seat of Pune’s former Peshawar rulers, Shaniwarwada, and follow your guide through the scintillating story of the Maratha empire as you tread through the starring neighborhoods, passing from slow and languid temple lifestyles to crazy and colorful markets. Experience covered sprawls of vegetables and spices, silk stalls, bangle shops, and basket-makers and pick up an authentic souvenir – or a few. During the afternoon and evening, you will visit a local home in Pune for an interactive, friendly cooking session and dinner. There’s a choice of dishes varies depending on seasonality – but will be consistently delicious, and can be veg or non-veg.
Add on – Kolhapur Temple Run and Boat Ride
This stop-over at a little-visited city en route to Goa adds a day onto your itinerary, and also adds a perfectly intimate layer of understanding to India’s vibrant spirituality, through a tour of its temple complex. See the likes of the Mahalaxmi and Bhavani temples, the Old Palace and Panhala Fort, along with a stop off and boat ride at the postcard-worthy Rankala Lake, with the resplendent Rankabhairav temple creating a panorama worthy of a fairy tale. Gastro-aficionados will swoon at the included lunch of spicy Kolhapuri cuisine, famed the world over particularly for its succulent mutton and chicken dishes. Rest up at a boutique hotel in the heart of the city.
Day 7 – Goa – A Day on the Reef: Snorkelling & Beach BBQ Day Trip
Catch your flight transfer from Mumbai or any of the adjoining cities customizable by this itinerary. Make sure your swimming gear is right at the top of your luggage for a day in Goan paradise – an idyllic Indo-Portuguese cultural crockpot made all the more tantalizing by a bounty of sugary beaches fringed with swaying palms, the aqua Arabian sea, and hard-working, quick-to-smile culture. You’re collected from your hotel and dropped at one of two jetties for a boat ride to Palolem Beach (Monkey Island) where you’ll snorkel the surrounding seas, accompanied or unaccompanied, discovering a kaleidoscope of colored reef and fish. Enjoy time lounging on the soft sandy shores between dips, before an aromatic Goan fish barbecue and cold local beer on the beach (with vegetarian options available). Head back to the mainland for a transfer back to your hotel.
Day 8 – Flight Transfer to the Spice Coasts of Kerala
This morning, you’ll make the short flight from Goa to Kerala’s loveable down-tempo port town, Cochin (Kochi), famous for its spices, merging cultures, and Chinese fishing nets. India’s Deep South will offer you a warm welcome by all accounts. The people of Kerala are rightly described as some of India’s friendliest, often extending to a passionate introduction of their beloved local culture, and the climate down here is balmy and tropical. Your driver will happily drop you off at your hotel in Cochin before your afternoon tour begins, or straight to the best biryani in the whole state for your first meal of the day: Kayikkante Biriyani. This restaurant in the neighboring Jewish Town of Mattancherry was started by British army waiter V.K. Kayee, who has left a legacy of sumptuously-spiced, cashew-strewn local rice dishes in veg or meat varieties which become an addiction for those who try them. As it is officially known, welcome to God’s Own Country!
Day 8 – Cochin Local Heritage Bike Tour
Uncover the roots of this lively port town through an insightful tour by bike, offered by a friendly local guide – only taking small groups to ensure a maximum personal touch. This four-hour tour sees you passing the iconic Chinese fishing nets, which are said to have arrived from the court of Chinese emperor Kublai Khan in AD 1300. You’ll pedal past the early morning buzz of local traders to the main Bazaar Road, lined with fragrant spice houses and stalls spilling with silks in a myriad of colors. Stop for a boiling cup of sweet chai as your guide recounts a history of Cochin (Kochi) before pressing on to the Jewish Town, admiring frescoes at the Dutch Palace –and passing through the Muslim and Hindu areas. Stop at a local laundry to learn how the dhobis beat the clothes clean, before peddling past some of the area’s famous churches on the return to Fort Kochi.
Day 9 – Enchanting Alleppey Houseboat Stay
By your arrival by car at midday, you’ll check into one of the finest houseboats on the Alapuzha – or Alleppey – backwaters, 900 km of interconnected waterways interspersed with colorful village islets, floating foliate clumps, and towering palms, altogether creating a heartbreakingly idyllic skyline. What better way to see one of the most captivating geographical wonders in the world? Today aboard your private vessel you can look forward to a delicious traditional thali lunch cooked by your private chef, and a stop-off at a Toddy Shop where you can choose to buy some of Kerala’s very own palm toddy, an alcoholic form of palm wine made from the sap of the surrounding trees. Float your way into a sense of wonder before dinner is served as the sun sets – imbibe a feast of flavors and aromas from the region, including rich fish curries, tapioca, mouth-watering vegetarian curries, and tongue-tingling chutneys. Sleep in a state-of-the-art cabin for an unbeatable night’s rest before your return to shore the following morning in time for your transfer to Cochin.
Add on – One-of-a-kind Weekend in Lakshadweep: India’s Spectacular Tropical Island System
In no particular hurry to jet back to reality? Spend a couple of days languishing in silver sands surrounded by crystal clear waters on one of many islands comprising the Lakshadweep string: Kerala’s isolated archipelago paradise. Spend a day on a boat departing from Cochin to reach your chosen island by evening, enjoying a meal with a welcome drink, and your free time soaking up the incredible sunset panoramas as you gaze out to sea. Your full day is spent exploring the island’s surrounding pristine lagoons – taking part in a variety of water sports such as kayaking, snorkeling and blissful glass-bottom-boating to get a 360 degree view of the unspoiled coral reefs. Note that scuba diving is not included in the package, however trips can be organized as an extra at the local dive center. Leave for mainland Kerala again the next morning, a hearty send off with breakfast and refreshments on-board.
Day 10 – Depart Cochin
It’s time for a fond Kerala farewell as you sweep through the vibrant trading front of Fort Cochin for one last meander, picking up a couple of final handicrafts with your remaining rupees. Why not eat like a local for one last time? Choose some fresh fish from a fishmonger, take it to a nearby stall and have it cooked for you for around $2, then follow with fresh coconut water. It’s time for your private transfer to the airport, with a full stomach and a mind full to the brim with memories of this West Indian adventure. Despite the fact that you’ve covered a significant and vibrant sliver down the country’s coast, there’s still so much more to see – so get browsing for your next mind-blowing India encounter.
When to go
Goa’s main season is from June until February. Between March and May, tour operators may close and many restaurants will shut too for lack of business, leaving a much more affordable but a comparative ghost town. Mid-May to September is rainy season, and although tours to Lakshadweep are run throughout the year, it is more difficult to reach via ship during the monsoon.