More than the Taj: 11 mind-blowing trips to India

More than the Taj: 11 mind-blowing trips to India

Paragliding, lion-spotting, deep-sea diving ... that plain white dome won't be missed

Don't get us wrong -- we love the Taj Mahal. But sometimes we want to slightly sidestep that well trampled path and find something unexpected.

Sometimes we want to interact with local folks or get close to nature or do something daring.

Here are our favorite trips to India for those sometimes, filled with action, adventure, as well as spiritual and cultural insight.

1. Trekking in the Himalayas: Spiti Valley

tours in IndiaMonastic hospitality in the Himalayas.

For any trekker, the Himalayas are the ultimate draw.

From Garwhal to Sikkim, Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh there are treks to suit every peculiarity.

Artist Sharmistha Ray, recommends the 12-day trek in Himachal Pradesh's Spiti Valley, a remote area that was off limits even to domestic tourists until the 1990s.

“It was spectacular. The highlight being the small monasteries along the way and the generosity of the monks who offered us butter tea and simple food cooked on their stoves.

The drive from Kinnaur Kailash to Kaza was surreal and splendid. We passed through three different terrains in one day, from pines and snow-capped mountains to barren and rocky.”

Spiti Valley Tours organizes community homestays at fair market prices. Since starting in 2008, the response has been “astounding” with locals and foreigners trekking four to six hours a day between villages.

Also on CNN: A 'free Tibet' tour of India's Little Lhasa

2. Get into Bollywood in Mumbai 

tours in IndiaGood gyrations on a Bollywood tour.For those who love melodrama and spectacle in films there is nothing quite like Bollywood.

Mumbai is the city where it all started and continues to relentlessly roll out films. Bollywood tours are become increasingly popular for fans.

Watch how production teams often make do in difficult circumstances and figure out just what a spot boy does. If you're lucky, you'll rub shoulders with a Bollywood star.

After the success of "Slumdog Millionaire," Dharavi, the sprawling slum location, is now on the regular Bollywood tour beat.

Jiten Srivastava branched out from a regular travel agency to start Bollywood Tours in 2003 as he encountered a steady demand in requests. Tourists from the United States constitute 50 percent of this clientele. 

Srivastava includes reality shows like "Dance India" on the tour, as “dancing and action scenes are what there are the most requests for.”

Bollywood Tourism has been operating similar tours for the last three years. They focus on giving people a taste of the workings of the industry, bringing tourists to see live shoots as well as the post-production of a film.

Between September and March the demand is heavy; be sure to book if you do not want to be turned away.  Half-day to full-day tours are priced from US$135-US$180.

3. Deep-sea diving in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

tours in IndiaIndia's got a huge population, in and out of the water.Fabulous expanses of white sand with still, transparent, warm waters teeming with marine life make the Andaman and Nicobar Islands ideal for deep-sea water dives. 

Pass by Barren Island with its live volcano on the way to the sublime Radhanagar beach on Havelock.

DIVEIndia, operating since 2003, has a center on Havelock as well as one on Neil Island. They run certified courses in scuba diving from basic to instructor level -- the widest array of scuba diving courses in Asia. Check their website to find one that suits you.

For the history buff there are Japanese bunkers that dot the coast at Port Blair.

Ross Island also has tree roots that sinuously entwine ruins of British administrators' houses from colonial times. The son-et-lumière at the Circular Jail brings alive the history of Indian freedom fighters interned here pre-independence.

Also on CNN: Into the deep: World's 50 best dive sites

4. Cook and eat your way through the subcontinent 

tours in IndiaIndian cooking sorcery: turning white flour and sugar into jalebi.Much of Indian cuisine is unexplored by the tourist.

There are subtle regional differences, spices used sparingly and the most varied vegetarian food in the world. And you won’t find a plate of chicken tikka masala anywhere on the subcontinent.

Take a cooking holiday in India to delve deep into Indian culinary knowledge.

The best part of cooking tours are the visits to the local bazaars, which in their color, crowds and chaos can be a daunting prospect to the uninitiated. Some also provide ready-mixed masalas that make it easy to replicate the recipes at home.

Jacob Mathew runs The Pimenta, a farm-stay in Kerala that holds cooking tours. They specialize in vegetarian cooking holidays.

On The Menu is another great place to learn Indian kitchen skills. Specializing in holidays “for people who love food," they organize eight-day residential cooking holidays in northern Goa.

Also on CNN: 40 Mumbai foods we can't live without

5. Sip chai in Darjeeling

tours in IndiaTea-pickers in Darjeeling on the way to doing their thang.In a nation that drinks tea day-in, day-out, a tour of tea estates will help put the drinking culture into context.

Head north to Darjeeling, the scenic hill station near the India-Nepal border and the base for all early Himalayan expeditions.

At the estates, old colonial names linger, most may have changed, but Happy Valley Tea Estate, Tumsong, Makaibari, Dam Dim are where Darjeeling tea, now a household name, started over a century ago.

See how it’s all done before that pack of Darjeeling tea reaches your breakfast table. Watch tea leaves being harvested, visit a tea auction house and tea factory where the leaves are processed and sorted.

At Glenburn Tea estate, stay at the refurbished colonial Burra Bungalow and walk amid private 405 hectares of forest. The newer bungalows have panoramic views of Darjeeling and Kanchenjunga.

Take the estate’s tea experience half-day tour to see first hand how the plantation works, ending the day with a tasting session.

Navin Tamang at Tathagata farms situated in a village is “part of a collective of farmers growing tea certified organic and fair trade.”  

A tea tour through the farms in the village shows you how the collective works and “day trips to Selimbong Tea Estates are organized.”

6. Ultimate temple experience in Amritsar

tours in IndiaImpossible to take a bad photo at the Golden Temple.The Golden Temple in Amritsar attracts both believers and nonbelievers, especially during Diwali and Sikh holy days when the temple lit by oil lamps makes for a glittering spectacle.

Architect Salil Ranadive, was moved by the simplicity and spirit of service that pervaded the temple.

“Unlike other temple experiences in India, not once were we approached for money; there is no transaction. I was unprepared for the true spirituality I felt here."

Also visit the nearby Wagah border where Indian and Pakistani troops perform the stylized changing of guard and beating the retreat within handshaking distance of each other.

Ranadive got chatting with some Pakistani neighbors across the border fence; so friendly were they, he was invited to Lahore to spend time with them.

Tip: The best souvenir from Amritsar are handmade leather jooties, a traditional shoe that Delhiites wear with their jeans.

Also on CNN: The Sufi music tour: Where to hear qawwali

7. Paragliding in the Western Ghats

tours in IndiaThere are easier ways to see India, but none as breathtaking.Recently awarded World Heritage status by UNESCO for its rich biodiversity, the Western Ghats, are a mountain range running parallel to the west coast of India.

There are several hill stations located along its length. The terrain is stunning with a cool climate, great for paragliding. Apart from the monsoon months, the ghats are easily accessible through the year.

Colorful sails of the paragliders soar over the ghats, as they take off from Harrison’s folly, a rocky promontory that juts into a steep valley.

Check out Nirvana Adventures at Kamshet, just two hours from Mumbai. They have been providing courses to beginner and advanced paragliders for 15 years.

One look at the photos posted on their blog by co-owners Sanjay and Astrid Rao will convince the wavering to sign up. 

Courses are shut during the monsoon, June to September. The minimum age for paragliding courses is 15 and for paragliding rides, seven years old. 

8. Go fly a kite in Ahmedabad

tours in IndiaThe rooftops of Ahmedabad get real busy once a year. Each January 14, the sky in Ahmedabad is blotted out by kites.

It’s the festival of Makar Sakranti, that welcomes the sun after the cold winter months.

The night before the festival young and old feverishly buy kites and the glass-reinforced thread, called manjha.

The next day, the sky becomes ablaze with color. Kites of all shapes and sizes are flown and people try to cut down one another’s kites. Business virtually shuts down as families congregate on rooftops.

Anupa Mehta whose heritage hotel, Arts Reverie, is at the heart of the action in the old city, keeps an open house on the day for guests to see the birds-eye-view of the action from the rooftop.

"Special foods are cooked on this day, like undhiyu, and one can even go on a food tour,” she says.

Master kite-makers and flyers come from all over the world for the International Kite Festival held by the Gujarati government since 1989.

The kite museum situated in the Sanskar Kendra (a building designed by Le Corbusier) has kites from all over the world, including one crafted from 400 pieces of paper. 

Carry the memories home: pick up a DVD of "Patang (Kite)" a film by Prashant Bhargava, who sets a family duel amid the kite festival., 

9. Reach out with a volunteer vacation

tours in IndiaVolunteer with workers at the Kishkinda Trust.Several organizations run volunteer programs, from teaching English in rural Rajasthan or historic Hampi, to creative arts and mathematics in Shillong in the Northeast and Goa, a popular choice.

Shama Pawar, runs the Kishkinda Trust in Hampi. Young volunteers from around the world stay in Anegundi village, lending their skills in teaching English, crafts, architectural conservation, the performing arts and documentation -- Hampi’s magnificent ruins are a World Heritage site. 

The cities have several opportunities as well for working in slums improving sanitation or teaching a vocational skill.

Atma, based in Mumbai, provides training, consultancy, advocacy and skilled volunteers in education for underprivileged children.

Project-focused, their volunteers have gone on to working with larger organizations and the government in their own countries. 

Wherever in the country, there’s enough to see and do in your downtime and yet your holiday could make a difference and in doing so, perhaps, double the pleasure it brings.

10. Motorcycle diaries on the India bike

tours in IndiaBike gangs posing their most fierce in India.The British 1950s Enfield motorcycle, with few additional modifications, survives in India.

Over the years the bike has achieved cult status among aficionados.

Author of "Shantaram," Gregory David Roberts had a 350cc Enfield customized in a Mumbai garage as a gift for actor Johnny Depp and almost all motorcycle tour companies in India use these bikes on their tours.

The Indian army uses Enfield bikes for their reliability on uncertain terrain and the minimal attention needed despite the roughness of Indian roads.

Atul Bhardwaj started India Motorcycle Tours five years ago and converted “a hobby into this small business” after spotting a dearth of local companies. Most motorcycle tours operating in India were based abroad.

His company ABoriginal (his initials and being "native"), runs affordable well-organized motorcycle travel in India on Enfield bikes.

“Many enthusiasts want to do a tour in India on something "local" rather than on a BMW or a Honda. It’s easier to run and maintain them as spares and mechanics are easily available,” he says.

Four years in operation, he runs seven fixed departure tours a year, in both the Himalayas (Spiti and Ladakh) and in Rajasthan and attracts a clientele from all over the world, some who book a year in advance.

11. Asiatic lion-spotting at Gir Forest

tours in IndiaAsiatic lions make a comeback in India.The Asiatic lion was nearly extinct at the start of the 20th century.

Now we can celebrate its survival in a dry, dusty corner of Gujarat, Western India.

In 1907, the Nawab of Junagadh, declared the Gir forests and its lions as protected property -- the lion population, after years of trophy hunting, had fallen to a mere 13 in number.

A century later, after successful breeding programs in the wild, the population of the Asiatic lions stands at more than 400 in a dry teak forest and grasslands, along with some 300 species of birds and other wildlife.

Conservationists are now worried that the park may be overcrowded and have suggested that these lions need a second home soon.

Radhika Sabavala, who works with a publishing firm, visited the park in March.

“What’s very different here from tiger parks is the forest. It’s a very dry forest. Along with sightings of lionesses (we didn’t see any lions on our trip) what was amazing was the number of peacocks we saw, which were very striking against this dry foliaged barren landscape.”

Also on CNN: Will a ban on tourism help India's tigers? 

Having studied medicine at Bombay's oldest medical college, Deepika focuses on passions she could not study.
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