By Harsh Sonawala
We all know India is a country of many facets, faces, colours and cultures, and trying to pin down top experiences is virtually impossible. That said, we're not afraid of a challenge. Here is our ultimate Indian bucket list. Let us know if you agree and what we should include in Part 2!
The Chadar Walk in Leh, Ladakh
This difficult trek is certainly not for all, but as far as treks in the Indian Himalayas go, it can't be beat. Start from Leh, the capital of Ladakh, where the Zanskar River freezes up in January, allowing hikers to pass along it up to the glacier at the top. It's 75 km and about a five-day trip (one-way) but trust us, it's worth it for the stunning landscapes, not to mention the disconcerting knowledge that as you walk the ice below is also in constant flux!
On the Chadar trek through Ladakh (Flickr/Pradeep Kumbhashi)
The ruins of Hampi
Formerly the world's second biggest city (no, really), Hampi's ancient ruins and temples are fascinating and well preserved. Not only that, but the landscape is dotted with bizarre, humongous boulders, and when the sun sets over the river and paddy fields, the dusty air filters views that are quintessential rural India.
Elephant Stables at Hampi (Tripzuki.com/Ayushi Saxena)
The hippie beaches of Gokarna
For untouched beaches you can't do better than the Karnataka town of Gokarna, south of Goa, but much less known. The names are to the point: Paradise Beach, White Beach, Long Beach... but the jewel of them all -- and still thankfully unspoilt -- is Om Beach, which has religious significance for being formed in the shape of an Om with a natural shivling at the end.
Meditating above Om Beach in Karnataka (Tripzuki.com/Matthew Parker)
Of course, the Taj Mahal
It's an obvious addition to this list, but give the experience a twist by heading across the Yamuna River to Mehtab Bagh (gardens) for a stunning view of the monument at sunset, and reward yourself with photos unlike the hundreds you've already seen. Also check out the views from Agra Fort, where Shah Jahan was arrested by his son but imprisoned where he could still see the Taj. Here's a tip for Agra: Always hire a guide here, they'll explain stuff and they'll keep the hawkers and touts away.
The Taj Mahal (Tripzuki.com/Harsh Sonawala)
A luxury palace hotel in Rajasthan
Rajasthan undoubtedly has the most stunning hotels in India, not to mention some of the world's most evocative architecture. Staying in a boutique haveli or country palace is the stuff of glossy travel magazines, plus factor in the high level of hospitality, old-world ambience and some healthy delusions of grandeur and this is a rewarding experience for all types of traveller. We recommend Deogarh Mahal.
Deogarh palace hotel in Rajasthan (Tripzuki.com/Harsh Sonawala)
A houseboat in Kashmir or Kerala
Both are experiences that demonstrate the variety of India's landscapes. In Kerala, drift through rural waterways, past sleepy villages buried in lush green countryside and feast on fish and other seafood. In Srinagar, Kashmir, the houseboats don't move but offer unforgettable mountain views and ambience, plus the chance to experience Kashmiri culture including the hearty cuisine and wonderful handicrafts. Kashmir is a good option at any time of the year.
Butts Clermont Houseboats (Tripzuki.com)
A tea plantation stay in Munnar or Darjeeling
The tea plantation is to India what the winery is to South Africa or Australia. Munnar is the highest point in Kerala and draped in gorgeous green year-round. Darjeeling has more: tea plantations, forests, snow-capped mountains and the famous toy train.
View of Munnar tea plantations (Tripzuki.com/Karen Rebelo)
Holi in Varanasi
Varanasi (or Benares) is one of India's most spiritual (and chaotic) towns. In March, the streets fill with people throwing coloured paint and tourists revelling in the photo opportunities. It's undoubtedly a unique city, which will leave an impression even if you hate it! Tip: Go visit the wrestling gym around 7am and take your camera. And at the end of the day watch the sunset from a boat on the river.
A view from the Ganges in Varanasi (Tripzuki.com/Harsh Sonawala)
Caving in the Northeast
Head way out to Meghalaya, the Himalayan state bordering northern Bangladesh. It's lush and beautiful with incredible waterfalls, national parks where you can see tigers from the back of an elephant, and, most famously, hundreds of caves that attract caving enthusiasts from across the world. Mausmai Cave (6km from the town of Cherrapunji) is one that can be visited without a guide, and is filled with stalactites, stalagmites and all sorts of weird formations.
The national parks of Madhya Pradesh
Madhya Pradesh boasts some fantastic national parks including Bandhavgarh, Pench and Kanha, with large tiger populations and all-round incredible biodiversity. The parks here are (bewilderingly) much less visited than the more famous Ranthambore and Jim Corbett parks in north India. The amazing Tree House Hideaway in Bandhavgarh has accommodation with lovely views. Parks are closed during monsoon (July to mid-October).
Entrance to Bandhavgarh (Flickr/Garrett Ziegler)