Have you traveled to India yet? See what it’s like to explore the colorful country via the Maharajas Express, the most luxurious train in India.
I was scared to visit India. Though I’ve loved Indian food ever since I first ate the spicy cuisine on London’s Brick Lane during my very first trip to Europe, I never had the gumption to visit the country full of exotic spices and hot flavors.
Though such a trip was always in the back of my mind, something held me back.
But why? Certainly, there was fear of chaos and the unknown, but mostly it was plain old intimidation of how to approach a country so vast in size and rich with culture in just one visit. Let’s face it, India is overwhelming to the uninitiated – even to a world traveler such as myself.
When I was invited to explore India on a luxury train trip on the Maharaja Express, I couldn’t say no. The time for me to visit India had finally arrived. I was ready, willing and able to learn all the facts about India and eat all the Indian food.
My Trip on the Most Luxurious Train in India
Like most people, I wasn’t sure what to expect in India before my first visit. I arrived in Delhi with mild trepidation about the country as well as a tinge of sadness since I was experiencing India without Daryl, my partner in life, love and work.
Plus, train travel in India is not something I had done before this trip. After seeing Indian train travel in movies like Slumdog Millionaire, I wasn’t sure that it was for me.
Within moments of my arrival at the luxury train, my fears regarding India train travel and my melancholy about missing Daryl started to fade away. Perhaps it was walking down a red carpet to the sounds of festive music, or maybe it was the eager staff who greeted me with a flower wreath, the first of many gifts that I would receive during the week, and toothy grins.
By the time I was seated in the luxurious dining car and ordering dinner from the rotating menu, I understood that not every Indian train journey is the same and that I was in for an experience of a lifetime on what many people believe to be the best train in India – if not the world.
My week of luxury train travel provided me with a front-row view of India.
While on the Maharajas’ Indian Panorama Route, I slept in a Junior Suite while the train whisked me from Delhi to Jaipur, Ranthambore, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Varanasi, Lucknow. Our journey spanned 1,500 miles from start to finish, covering India’s circuitous Golden Triangle and more.
In many ways, this Maharaja Express route is a “best of” tour showcasing India’s greatest gems including the pink city of Jaipur, the iconic Taj Mahal and the holy city of Varanasi.
Maharajas Express Train
One of five luxury trains in India, the Maharajas Express offers various routes and cabin options to global guests primarily hailing from the US, the UK and Australia. Other luxury tourist trains in India include Deccan Oddysey, Golden Chariot, Palace on Wheels and Royal Rajasthan.
Each Indian luxury train offers a unique experience with similar perks and service around different regions of India, but the Marahajas Express, owned and operated by the IRCTC, has the distinction of winning “The World’s Leading Luxury Train” year after year.
With its vintage design and narrow corridors, the Maharaja train harkens back to the days of elegant train travel I had previously seen in movies like North by Northwest. However, unlike the movies, my luxury train journey did not include any international espionage or murders.
The Maharajas Express offers four cabin options from Deluxe Cabins on up to the grand Presidential Suite. Regardless of the selected room type, all cabins include a television, wi-fi internet, a safe, air conditioning and an ensuite bathroom.
I was impressed by the shower’s water pressure as well as the wall of panoramic windows in my Junior Suite cabin. Though I found the 150 square foot room small to share with a roommate, the size would be ideal for a couple.
Days are busy on the Maharajas Express, so it’s no surprise that I slept well at night. Beyond being tired, I enjoyed drifting to sleep to the faint sounds and rolling motion of the train. The only thing that would have made me sleep better would have been having Daryl by my side.
The Dining Rooms & Bars
Dining on the Maharajas Express is an epic event that occurs three times a day in two different dining rooms – the Mayur Mahal and the Rang Mahal. The Mayur Mahal, which translates to Peacock Palace, is the more casual of the two rooms with tables that encourage groups of two or four guests to linger over meals.
I preferred dining in the Rang Mahal, otherwise known as the Palace of Colors, with its handpainted ceiling and gold-edged plates. It’s not every day that I get to dine on plates made with real gold!
The Maharajas Express also has two bars – the Rajah Bar and the Safari Bar. Both bars serve as social spaces with tables fit for working during the day. At night, though, the bars come alive with guests drinking all types of cocktails, wine and beer beverages.
Not a drinker? The train’s amiable bartenders are happy to whip up non-alcoholic smoothies and coffee concoctions on request. As for me, local wine and cocktails featuring India’s Old Monk rum were my drinks of choice during the week.
In many ways, the best part of the Maharaja experience is the staff.
Attentive and friendly from their initial greetings in Delhi to their final farewells, also in Delhi, each staff member showed a true commitment to service and hospitality during my luxury train journey. Special kudos go to three of the staff in particular – my butler, the executive chef and the paramedic (more on that later).
I enjoyed my first butler experience during a South African safari, and the Marahajas Express butler experience did not disappoint. Dash, my assigned butler, made it his personal mission during the week to make sure I got a cup of hot Earl Grey tea every morning and that I left for each excursion on time. Thank you Dash!
Another star was Chef John Stone who runs the train’s kitchen with quiet leadership and commitment to quality. Stone learned the trade while working for Celebrity Cruises for nine years and now uses that knowledge to run the train’s mobile kitchen.
In many ways, he runs the luxury train kitchen much like a cruise ship kitchen. The result is a wide variety of dishes that satisfy people with various food preferences and allergies.
Although I wish I hadn’t needed to meet the train’s paramedic, I respect that he provided the support and drugs necessary to get me through a 24-hour bout of extreme stomach distress. Since luxury train passengers in India skew older, the paramedic is a very important person on the Maharajas Express!
As a dedicated food traveler, trying local cuisine is an important part of my travel experiences. I was curious about the food on the Maharajas Express prior to the trip and wondered if it would be spicy or bland.
Long story short, the food was solid with every meal providing a range of both Indian and Western food choices. Though I would have preferred that the food be spicier, I appreciated the choices designed to satisfy various passengers and their palettes.
Similar to dining options on a riverboat cruise, the Maharajas Express offers several regional Indian dishes and familiar western dishes for all passengers. Regional India options like samosas and jalebi reflect the cuisine of the train’s location each day, whereas western dishes run the gamut from pasta to fish and chips.
I opted for the thali option for most of my meals. Thali, a traditional meal with an assortment of small plates filled with different foods, was always served with bread on the side.
Though I’m not a vegetarian, I usually ordered a meat-free thali to feed my addiction for paneer. Just like I adored cottage cheese in Zagreb, I couldn’t get enough of India’s popular fresh, soft cheese in every variation offered on the train.
As the week progressed, I mixed things up by trying some of Chef Stone’s a la carte Western items. Regardless of my food choices, I always washed down my meals with sparkling water and bottomless glasses of wine. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of Indian wine, particularly the red wine.
During the week, I got to try a few meals at fancy hotels during excursions. These meals were served buffet style, offering me the opportunity to try additional regional dishes. Ironically, or not, I liked the paneer dishes best at each hotel. Did I mention that I developed a paneer addiction in India?
Surprisingly, the Indian luxury train experience doesn’t involve a lot of exclusive time on the train. Unlike a cruise ship, there are no days at sea. Most of the travel occurs at night when passengers are eating dinner or sleeping, leaving the days free for excursions at each destination.
Regardless of the selected train or Maharaja train route, guests can expect to visit sites that are both exciting and memorable. To me, the excursions were the best part of my Maharajas Express experience!
Visiting India can be a challenge for most travelers but not for those traveling on one of India’s luxury train trips.
During my Maharaja Express journey, I traveled to many of India’s top destinations in comfortable buses stocked with bottled water, hand wipes and hard candy. Though I normally prefer slow, independent travel, this type of travel suited me for my first time in India.
Plus, I loved receiving gifts, mainly beautiful scarves and cute trinkets, at the start of each excursion. And, at each destination, informative guides skillfully escorted me through historic sites while making India come alive with hard facts and fanciful tales. I would not have had access to these excursions if I had been traveling solo or as a couple.
Though I hate to pick favorites, these were the most memorable excursion during the week:
Pink City of Jaipur
Seeing the pink city of Jaipur in real life was way better than seeing the city on my Instagram feed where I’ve seen it time and again over the past few years. Though a few hours wasn’t enough to properly experience India’s pink city, it was just enough time to motivate me to return in the future.
Seriously, I could have happily gazed at the palatial Hawa Mahal all day. While in Jaipur, I also enjoyed visiting the impressive Amber Fort and haggling with street vendors over colorful scarves and tiny painted elephants.
For most people, visiting the Taj Mahal is the highlight of their India trip. I am NOT one of those people.
Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed seeing one of the world’s most famous structures in person. The issue is that I had my bout of stomach distress on the day I was in Agra. Talk about bad timing!
As sick as I felt, I couldn’t miss seeing the Taj Mahal. Without doubt, this is a true bucket list experience whether one is visiting the Taj Majal with kids or with other adults.
Long story short, I rallied to get to the iconic mausoleum and then promptly collapsed after capturing a couple snapshots from afar. The train’s paramedic took care of me and made sure that my recovery was as speedy as possible.
In retrospect, I think that my body wanted me to save the Taj Mahal experience for a future India visit with Daryl. When I return, I will be as dilligent as possible to avoid getting sick in India.
Safari at Ranthambore National Park
Seeing a tiger in India is a special experience – or so I’ve heard. Though I woke up at the crack of dawn for the tiger safari excursion, I didn’t actually spot any tigers.
I did see lots of deer, monkeys and peacocks. Peacocks are India’s national bird, so that’s cool, but it would have been way cooler to see a tiger.
Getting Kinky at Khajuraho
The UNESCO World Heritage Site in Khajuraho is notable for many reasons. The temples are photo-worthy, the flowers are glorious and the sunset views are spectacular.
However, the real draw of Khajuraho is that it’s ground zero for Karma Sutra. A close look at the temple wall carving reveals provocative poses and activities among men, women and animals. If you’re into history or kinky sex or both, this site is not to be missed.
Holy City of Varanasi
Powerful. There’s no other word to describe the feeling of experiencing Mother Ganges as the day turns into night. The Indians are a spiritual people and there’s nowhere better to feel the spirit than when the sun sets over the Ganges.
My Varanasi excursion started on a light note with a visit to Mehta Silk where I learned about silk, nature’s gift to human beings. Sushil Mehta walked us through his family’s silk factory and explained how artisans spend over a week weaving wedding dresses with intricate details and vivid colors. The tour was fascinating but, as I soon found out, the real action in Varanasi happens in the dark.
In Varanasi, people of all ages congregate along the river at night, honoring the recently deceased with prayer chants and floating candles. I joined the crowds of tourists and pilgrims by taking an evening river cruise that gave me an up-close view of the nightly Aarti cremation ritual.
Though I felt voyeuristic while photographing the spiritual event, my feelings became more introspective after I set my lit candle into the river and watched it float into the dark night. Like the rest of India, the layers in Varanasi are deep but the rewards are deeper.
India is not the kind of country where you should wing it. Before your trip, you should plan as many details as possible. I recommend that you start with these logistics:
Apply for an India Visa
Don’t forget to arrange your Indian visa in advance!
Apply for an online visa. Prices vary by country, so check this official website for your specific details.
Book Your Luxury Train Trip
One of the best train journeys in India, the Marahajas Express is a bucket list experience (for those who make such lists). At the time of my journey, prices started at $5,980 for the Indian Panorama route but vary based on route and cabin size. However, you’ll want to research full details as you plan your trip.
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About the Author
Mindi Hirsch left corporate America to embark on a never-ending quest for the next great meal. The award-winning Food & Travel writer lives in Lisbon with her partner Daryl.
Original Publication Date: April 29, 2018