Journeying through India can be a heady mix of dust, noise and crowds. Step on board a train and you enter a world of attentive service, gilded dining cars and parlour games in the bar. Once only used by maharajas and dignitaries, a selection of trains now run itineraries from three to seven nights to let travellers experience India in style. Some stop at well-known sites including the Taj Mahal, others delve into the forgotten states of Gujarat and the Deccan. These are the three trains that we feel offer the best experiences, from high-end luxury to genuinely unique activities.
The luxurious train: Maharajasí Express
Many of Indiaís touring trains claim the luxury title, but few compare with the gilded, thick-carpeted, teak-clad beauty of the Maharajasí Express. You walk up a red carpet to board the train for the start of the journey, greeted by a sharply dressed butler and a welcome drink. This sets the tone for arriving into each station, where you descend onto a platform that has been painstakingly decorated with flowers and garlands, as local musicians and dancers perform traditional songs.
The cabins have been made to feel as spacious as is possible on a train ó book a suite and you can luxuriate in the bath as the Indian countryside passes by. Meals are served in the palatial-themed dining carriages, and the food served is made from scratch on board. The attention to detail runs from handmade chocolates on your pillow each night to a newspaper of your choosing arriving carefully folded every morning. Drinks, which are included in the cost, are served in the leather-clad bar, which leads on to the games room and library.
Experiences on the Maharajasí Express
The trainís routes focus on the north of India, stopping at key sites as well as more difficult to reach cities and towns. One three night route, the Treasures of India, takes in the Taj Mahal, tiger spotting in Ranthambhore National Park and Jaipurís Amber Fort and City Palace. Youíre guided around the stop-off destinations in small groups, but with the aid of personal headphones to hear your guide.
This short tour is an ideal taster of luxury train travel, and you can easily incorporate it into a longer trip to India.
The heritage train: Palace on Wheels
One of the oldest luxury trains running, the Palace on Wheels offers the luxury of decades past. Its steam train has been replaced with a modern diesel engine, but the saloons and cabins still boast traditionally carved furniture and hand-painted wallpaper. A welcome talk on your first evening introduces you to the trainís long history.
Meals are a full silver-service affair, served on the trainís traditional embossed crockery and silverware. The food is a slightly eccentric mix of continental and Indian dishes, cooked with ingredients sourced in each stopping place on the route.
The grandeur may be a little faded, but each coach contains four cabins and a small lounge, looked after by a dedicated attendant. A well-stocked bar leads onto the lounge, which is always freshly primped with fresh flowers and bowls of snacks. The on-board spa offers Ayurveda treatments and therapeutic massages.
Experiences on the Palace on Wheels
The Palace on Wheels keeps things simple, offering a single, well designed, seven night route. Crossing Rajasthan, itís one of the most comprehensive, carefully thought out, routes offered by a luxury train. Starting in Delhi, it travels 752 km (467 miles)across Rajasthan to the desert city of Jaisalmer, stopping at Jaipur and the lakes of Udaipur along the way. On the return to Delhi youíll also stop at the blue city of Jodhpur and the Taj Mahal.
The route makes full use of the advantages of travelling by train. One stop is Chittogarh, a rural fortress thatís challenging to visit by road and offers only very basic accommodation. With jeep safaris in Ranthambhore National Park, a visit to Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary and rides through sand dunes, the itinerary is as varied as it is broad.
The exploratory train: Deccan Odyssey
The Deccan Odyssey was set up with exploration in mind: to make it possible for visitors to discover offbeat states, like Gujarat in Indiaís west, and the Deccan plateau region in comfort. With poor roads, little infrastructure, and few hotels, these areas were difficult to travel to, but the Deccan Odyssey provides transport, comfortable rooms and experienced guides.
Step aboard the Deccan Odyssey and youíll be greeted by a troupe of local musicians, a refreshing towel and a welcoming glass of wine. The carriages themselves arenít as grand as on the trains above, but the attentive service ó thereís a dedicated guest services manager ó and facilities compensate. Book one of the four presidential suites, with a private lounge and extra bathroom, for more luxury.
As a guest, youíre treated to a complimentary massage in the on-board spa and steam room. The train also has a small gym.
The food is a mixture of Western and Indian cuisine. Youíll often see the chef wandering down the restaurant carriage to make sure his dishes have met with approval.
Experiences on the Deccan Odyssey
The train runs six and seven night routes that depart from Delhi or Mumbai.
The Hidden Treasures of Gujarat itinerary offers the chance to explore this little-visited state. Not a region of huge monoliths or forts, activities here include visits to tribal villages and rare temple complexes.
The train follows a circular route, heading north from Mumbai. Gujaratís Sasan Gir National Park is the last refuge for the Asiatic lion, and on a jeep safari into the park you might be able to spot one. The train also stops at the Rann of Kutch, a surreal, barren salt marsh that looks like an alien landscape. The region is also Indiaís largest producer of hand-woven textiles, and youíll have the chance to meet families who have been weaving for generations.
Craig Burkinshaw is Founder of†Audley Travel.