x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Hotel on wheels: grand adventure aboard the Indian Maharaja

Minty Clinch enjoys a rich pageant of sights during a week's stay on the magnificent Indian Maharaja.

The Indian Maharaja starts her journey in Delhi, taking in several famous cities along the way before pulling into Mumbai, the last stop. The train was recently refurbished and relaunched by Thomas Cook.
The Indian Maharaja starts her journey in Delhi, taking in several famous cities along the way before pulling into Mumbai, the last stop. The train was recently refurbished and relaunched by Thomas Cook.

Minty Clinch enjoys a rich pageant of sights during a week's stay on the magnificent Indian Maharaja

The tigress closed in on spotted deer and wild pig, grazing peacefully in the new dawn. Birds screamed an alert, then all went silent. Heads raised, eyes glassy, the potential prey stood motionless, trying to pretend they weren't there. Ears flat to her skull, T17 sprang into action, a blur of gold and black chasing her prey randomly through the trees. Too randomly. With so many potential targets, she ran out of steam, slowed to a walk and stalked huffily off through the long grass 20 metres ahead of our Jeep. My fellow travellers snapped and sighed with relief. In a sentimental age, the bloody reality of death in the morning is more popular in theory than in practice. T17 is a four-year-old tigress, lean, muscled and pregnant for the first time. She is one of an estimated 34 tigers in the Ranthambore National Park, once a dedicated killing field for the Maharaja of Jaipur and his guests. Nowadays, the terraces of his ruined lake-front hunting lodge are popular with big cats looking to stretch out in the sun.

Unlike T17, our breakfast was waiting for us on the Indian Maharaja train, parked at a nearby station. This was day four of its maiden voyage from Delhi to Mumbai, a trip that takes in the key sights of Rajasthan. Pramod, my butler from Varanasi, was waiting in my coach's common area with cold flannels, sweet drinks and his default welcome smile. Soon we were tucking into breakfast, Indian or full English, in one of the two dining cars.

The Indian network has 63,327km of track and 18 million passengers a day, the most ambitious rail operation in the world. Started in 1853, it had multiplied into 42 separate systems stretching into every corner of the country at the time of independence in 1947. The network was nationalised four years later, but streamlining the various gauges and accurate time-keeping have never been top priorities. No point fretting on an Indian train- sit back, enjoy the ride and assume it'll get there in the end.

On the Maharaja, this is certainly no penance. The train works on cruise-ship principles: travel by night, sightsee by day, no repacking, a minimum of white-knuckle rides on hairpin bends in the speed bump capital of the planet. Its brief is simple: Wednesday to Wednesday, Mumbai-Delhi one week, Delhi-Mumbai the next, throughout the high season (October-April). Likewise its staffing policy: chefs, waiters and cabin attendants are provided on a rota by the Taj Hotel group, guaranteeing silky smooth service all the way. A spa, a small gym and a business centre provide the comforts high-end travellers take for granted.

On the inaugural Delhi leg, our group gathered for a full day's sightseeing in the old and new cities before heading for the railway station at dusk. As always, chaos reigned, with groups sitting cross-legged on the platform to eat or chat while children and dogs scrabbled in the dust. The long, dark-blue train was an oasis of calm, but our excitement levels rose as we scrambled on board to check out our cabins.

The Indian Maharaja sleeps a maximum of 96 with a choice of accommodation; a standard two-person cabin - double or twin - with a shower room or a suite with two shower rooms. The suites also have sitting rooms with fold-down bunks, ideal for families. All have butler service 24/7: there are no keys except by special request (although everyone has a safe) so this is a relationship of trust. Soon guests relaxed to the point of asking their butlers to fetch laptops or books from their cabins to the bar car. Making like a maharaja is all too easy once you have the opportunity.

Aged 11 to 80, the passengers were a diverse bunch, flying into Delhi from America, Russia, Belgium, the UK and Dubai. India was well represented too, both at home and abroad. Maybe our two on-board Mrs Khans shared a sense of humour: one had called her son Genghis, the other Luv. Both men lived up to their names with panache. Genghis, from Kenya via Milton Keynes, is a lively player in many aspects of life's rich pageant. Luv, from Pune via Manchester, is the face of contemporary India, a photographer and website designer with elegant clothes and a sophisticated outlook.

As the train chugged off into the night, we joined the Khans in the bar car to toast our journey. The cocktail list, both virgin and non, is comprehensive, but the barman was keen to add to his repertoire by popular demand, making up any and all suggestions as accurately as his ingredients allowed. The spicy canapés that circulated freely were the perfect accompaniment, delaying the dinner hour until the 9.30pm deadline every evening. There were no complaints from the chef, who provided dishes from an exhaustive Indian and international menu, nor from the waiters, consummate professionals no matter what the hour.

By morning, the train was parked at Agra station ready for the 7am visit to the Taj Mahal. The spectators gasped and the honeymooners clasped at their first sight of the dome of Shah Jahan's ethereal tribute to his beloved shimmering above the mist: Agra's meal ticket was gearing up for another perfect day at the office. The impressive red fort and the shopaholic's market edged into the itinerary ahead of the afternoon visit to Fatehpur Sikri, Emperor Akbar's Mughal capital, constructed in the early 1570s and abandoned in favour of Lahore (now in Pakistan) in 1585. Four centuries later, it is a red sandstone ghost town, pristine and perfectly preserved, relatively unsung, totally unmissable.

It was long dark by the time we returned to the train, now relocated at Bharatpur for the overnight to the rosy pink city of Jaipur. At 7am, we alighted to a welcome of marigold garlands, red dots on the forehead and local dancing before we boarded a coach. First stop, the elephant ride up to Amber Palace followed by the City Palace, the Observatory, the Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds) and the central market. In the evening, the Maharaja went AWOL for a couple of hours courtesy of Indian Railways before letting us back on at 9pm.

This schedule is standard for the Silver package, as the basic agenda is called. It provides an intensive overview for people - possibly first timers to India - who want to cram as much as possible into a week. Guests rush from sight to sight in the coach accompanied by guides who are chatty and colourful but often misinformed. If, like me, you can only take in one world-class sight a day, it's worth considering the Gold package, which provides the freedom to choose that comes with your own car and driver/guide. The Platinum package factors in a suite as well.

By way of testing the Gold standard, I ducked out after Amber Palace and spent the afternoon at the Rambagh Palace, opened as India's first maharaja hotel in 1957. A restorative ginger punch in the Polo bar, lunch under a parasol on the lawns, a jet-lag busting siesta on a double charpoy outside the spa and a carriage ride at dusk - now that's what I call civilisation. Our midweek treat was a day in Udaipur, the capital of Mewar, a kingdom ruled by 26 generations of Sisodia Rajputs for more than 1,200 years. For the last 450 of them, their headquarters has been a vast palace overlooking Lake Pichola, the largest of several lakes that have given Udaipur the nickname "Venice of the East".

The current Maharana (as Udaipur's monarchs are known) has cut his premises in half, one for him and his family to live in, the other to inform the public about the singular qualities that underpin his dynasty. He shares his portion with mounted guards and vintage Rolls Royces, while visitors stroll through rooms decorated with vivid pictures of Sisodias winning battles, shooting tigers and riding elephants in elaborate wedding parades.

In the evening, we sat on a platform above the formal gardens to relive those 1,200 years of history through a flagrantly self-congratulatory sound and light show. Swords clinked and shields clanked as Sisodia warriors took on superior Mughal forces, often defeating them with cunning guerrilla tactics. Screams echoed as harems of womenfolk threw themselves into the roaring flames, preferring death to dishonour if ever a conflict should be lost.

By the end, we were in no doubt as to the supremacy of Clan Sisodia in all departments. Only then were we allowed into their home to dine regally in the durbar hall under glittering chandeliers and ancestral portraits. The gallery above displayed 7,000 pieces of lead crystal, ranging from tumblers to glass sofas and beds, as ordered in bulk by a 17-year-old Maharana from a firm in Birmingham in 1877. If Sisodias like something, they like a lot of it. They no longer have the right to rule in modern India, but in Udaipur the power of their money is laid out for all to marvel at.

The last stop before Mumbai was Aurangabad, the launch point for the Caves at Ajanta, an astonishing complex carved out of the cliffs by Buddhist months from 200BC to 650AD. After they were abandoned, they lay untouched for more than 1,000 years until a British army officer called John Smith came across them on a tiger hunt in 1819. Out of 30 now excavated, five are prayer halls and the remainder monasteries, many of them decorated with extraordinary frescoes.

Once we were back on the train, that last-night feeling took over. A New York banker, virtually silent throughout the week, took up the microphone and launched into a name-and-shame stand-up comedy routine. We, his not so innocent victims, struggled to mask our pain and a great time was had by all. There were verdicts of course, not least from Douglas and Jane, a Scottish couple who live and work in the oil business in Dubai. Was the trip as they expected? More or less, at least once they'd come to terms with the vagaries of train travel in India. Was it fun? Much more than they'd thought possible when they first got on board. Would they go again? You bet. travel@thenational.ae