KDHamptons Travel Diary: Kim Hopkins Explores Incredible India
Contributing lifestyle editor Kim Hopkins shares her incredible trip to New Delhi and Agra in this gorgeous KDHamptons Travel Diary below: “New Delhi is a city like no other; a potpourri of religions, cultures, classes and chaos. In a place known as much for its history and politics as its museums, monuments, and traffic, Delhi has become increasingly more manageable and modern,” says Kim (above).
On this trip, we explored New Delhi and Agra. The capital’s enormous “new” airport terminal has eased congestion substantially, making arrivals and departures much more pleasant. [From NYC, there are direct flights to Delhi, and it takes about 14 hours.] It is not easy to travel from one city to the next within the subcontinent, as road conditions are poor [except from Delhi to Agra], making travel exhausting. It is best to fly into Delhi and choose one other city to visit during your stay, or tour the Golden Triangle: 150 miles on each side, linking the unforgettable sites of Delhi, Jaipur and Agra. [Beware, it takes six hours driving time from Delhi to Jaipur.]
The capital of India is divided into two parts: [New] Delhi, in the central part of the city, with broad, tree-lined streets designed by British architects and inaugurated in 1931; and Old Delhi, a maze of small streets and alleys, and home to the famous Red Fort and Humayum’s Tomb. Only 1 million of the 22 million population of the metropolis live in New Delhi.
We stayed at the Oberoi New Delhi, conveniently located across the street from Humayun’s Tomb, next to Delhi Golf Club, and close to my favorite shopping area, Khan Market. Service is excellent at the Oberoi, as are its restaurants, especially the Italian fine dining restaurant, Travertino. The rooms are spacious and 5-star by India standards, but in need of some refreshing in the furnishings. Hermes, Gucci, Burberry and other luxury shops are located on the ground floor of the hotel. Other hotels worth considering are the historic Imperial hotel, and The Lodhi Delhi, formerly an Aman property, with modern style and architecture.
Shopping in Delhi: Some of the best shops are in Delhi’s “upscale” Khan Market, an unattractive U-shaped strip of stores selling everything from textiles and Ayurvedic medicine and skincare, to clothing, high-end home decor, and beautiful books. Good Earth, a famous home furnishings store is here too, but on the expensive side, especially for India. Shops are open from 10:30am-8 pm. Closed on Sundays.
Don’t miss in Khan Market:
Cottons: Just opened this month, Jaipur-based Cottons is the Indian version of Roberta Roller Rabbit, selling colorful kaftans, kurtas, palazzo pants, scarves, pillow covers and even the decorative comfy quilts we all love. Quality is high, prices are low.
Fab India: Ethnic apparel for men and women, in a large multi-level shop. Table and bed linens, darling children’s clothing, and other handicrafts from around India. The kaftan selection is one of the best.
Sarita Handa: High-end home furnishings
Silverline: A pretty shop with silver and other inventive costume jewelry
Dilli Haat: A rustic open-air market selling a wide variety of arts and crafts, rugs, lamp shades, jewelry, fabric, wooden toys, saris, and Indian shoes. Also a good place to get henna application. It is government-recognized, but bargaining is still allowed. Open every day 11am-8pm.
Sunder Nagar: Close to the Oberoi Hotel, this charming market attracts Indian socialites for its art and antique shops. It’s a well-designed market in an upscale neighborhood, where you’ll find silver jewelry, art, textiles, carpets, and antiques, as well as a few wonderful tea shops. Try the Regalia Tea House and Mittal Tea House; La Boutique, for Indian handicrafts and antique and new furniture; and Vidhi Singhania for upscale Indian clothing.
Santushti: A pretty, upscale shopping experience amid lush green grounds, Santushti houses some of the top Indian and international brands, selling quality garments, shoes and jewelry, paintings, artifacts and more. Don’t miss: Noorjehan, for colorful Indian bedspreads and cushions; Ensemble, fabulous Indian clothing by top designers; Sozy for pashmina shawls; Amrapali for ethnic jewelry; and Art Indus gallery. Stop at Basil and Thyme Italian restaurant for lunch. Located near the diplomatic area of Chanakyapuri near The Ashok.
If you are tired of haggling, head to the multi-story Cottage Emporium, across from the Imperial Hotel. Prices are fixed, and you’ll find handicrafts from all of the Indian states. Souvenirs, kids toys and cute girls’ clothing; furniture, pottery, fabric, dishes, art/paintings, jewelry, and much more. Worth the trip.
Best place to buy:
* Pashmina and cashmere shawls and carpets:
Shaw Brothers (D-47, Defense Colony)
* Kashmir Loom House (C-65, Nizamuddin East)
Janavi (Emporio Mall)
HP Singh and Textures, both located in India Howe House, Nehru Place. Closed on Sundays.
Here are my top choices for Museums and Monuments:
India Gate: [above] A war memorial arch, built in honor of 90,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives in WWI. The eternal flame burns here in tribute to the fallen fighters. Centrally-located, this is a quick photo-op while your driver waits. Take a drive-by of the government buildings and president’s palace across the street.
Humayun’s Tomb: Built in the mid-16th century, the emperor’s tomb is one of the first examples of Mughal architecture using red sandstone and white marble. The Mughals loved gardens and water features, and are famous for their charbagh design: square gardens divided into four [char] square sections. Beside Humayun, several other important Mughals are buried here, included Isa Khan. Go in the morning to avoid crowds. Across from the Oberoi Hotel in South Delhi.
Red Fort: One of the most beautiful monuments in India, Red Fort was built by Shah Jahan [same emperor who built the Taj Mahal], in 1638, and housed 3,000 people at its peak. It was here that the national flag was raised for the first time, when India gained her independence in 1947. Located in Old Delhi, near the Yamuna River.
Gandhi Museum: One of the world’s first multimedia museums housed in a huge colonial bungalow, this is a must-see for adults and children alike. Be inspired by Gandhi’s life in pictures and words; view his worldly possessions [11 items including his glasses and walking stick]; see his humble bedroom where he lived the last months of his life, and walk in his last footsteps to the garden where he was assassinated while praying. Central Delhi, open 10am-5pm
Lotus Temple: Named for its floral shape, the Bahai temple is recognized around the world for its amazing architecture and design. Made of marble, cement, dolomite and sand, it is one of the more visited monuments in India. Completed in 1986, visitors flock to the Lotus for meditation and inspiration. Located at Kalkaji in New Delhi. 9:30-5:30, closed on Mondays.
All About Agra:
Agra is famous for one reason: the Taj Mahal. The best way to get there is to hire a car from Delhi for the three-hour drive on the Yamuna Expressway. The route is well-paved and pleasant, with Indian farmland on both sides throughout the trip. There are rest stops along the way.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the poverty and chaos upon entering Agra. Cows, dogs, and monkeys share the narrow roads with Tuk-Tuks, taxis, tourists and farmers. As you get closer to the Taj, there are tons of shops selling everything from colorful faux pashminas and umbrellas, marble plates/coasters, souvenirs, to clothing and other Indian handicrafts. Have your driver come with you if you want to stop here, as the vendors are often too eager and crowd around.
The best place to stay in Agra is the famous Oberoi Amarvilas, the only hotel where all rooms face the Taj Mahal. Designed to emulate the opulent lifestyle of the Mughal emperors, the gardens, pool, rooms, and views are breathtaking. No detail has been overlooked here…from the wooden tray [with sunscreen, water, cold towels and a cell-phone compartment] given at the pool, to the linens and pillows in the beautiful rooms. The marble bathrooms are gorgeous, beds are super-comfy, Internet works well, and you’ll have a butler at your disposal 24 hrs.
There are two restaurants in the hotel, as well as dining by the pool or in the handsome bar. The only negative is the outdoor veranda off the bar, facing the Taj, becomes invaded by mosquitoes after sunset, so you cannot sit outside. But, considering the Taj isn’t illuminated at night [because it’s a mausoleum], you’re not missing much.
The food is excellent, with an international selection. Even the shopping is lovely in the hotel’s arcade, selling everything from the coveted marble inlaid tables to kurtas, kaftans and cotton floral robes. The Taj Mahal is a short drive out of the hotel gates, another reason to stay here.
Visiting the Taj Mahal:
The story of love and loss that sparked the building of the Taj Mahal is as beautiful as the site itself. The Taj was built by Shah Jahan, the fifth Mugal emperor, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal [“Jewel of the Palace”], who died after giving birth to their 13th child. She requested Jahan build an elaborate mausoleum after her death so the world would never forget their love. The two met as teenagers, while Mumtaz was hawking silk and beads on the roadside. It was love at first sight. He was 14, and she, a Muslim, Persian princess, was 15. They were married five years later. Of course Shah had other wives (ha!), but Mumtaz was his favorite. After her death, he promised he would never marry again. They are both buried inside the Taj, which took 17 years and 20,000 laborers to build. It was completed in 1649.
One of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj is truly a sight to behold. The monument’s size, scale, and perfect proportions are like no other, and while the structure appears to be all white, it is actually crafted in multi-color marble. The monument changes color depending on the sun: at sunrise the hue is pink and at sunset, it turns yellow, then orange. After the sun goes down, the marble looks stark white against the darkness.
The Taj sits at the end of an enormous garden divided into four sections by pools of water. The Lotus pool in the middle reflects the monument, providing for the perfect photo-op. The garden in front of the Taj was designed to symbolize Paradise, because Islamic books from that period described Paradise as a garden of abundance with four rivers separating it.
Inside the Taj is small, but designed like a jewelry box. The marble and intricate mosaic design are beautiful, with a recurring theme of flowers. The screens are carved from a single block of marble, with intricate latticework that looks like lace. Unfortunately the crowds make for a hurried trip around the tombs, but the outside is the real show-stopper.
Tips for visiting the Taj Mahal:
* Arrive early as possible to avoid the crowds and the heat.
* Arrange a tour guide through your hotel and request “high-value” tickets, so you won’t have to wait in line or take your shoes off. [You will be given shoe covers to enter the mausoleum.]
* The Taj is open daily from sunrise to sunset, closed on Fridays. Go early or late, avoiding the midday sun and crowds.
* “Professional” photographers will approach you to take pictures throughout your visit [inside pics are not allowed], and will give you an album when you leave the gates of the Taj. It sounds shady, but it’s a good idea. Agree to a price before you start [half of what he suggests], and he will get shots in the most desirable spots. Once you are outside of the Taj, just walk straight, and he will be waiting for you there with your album. Easy!
* Don’t miss a quick view of the Yamuna River, behind the Taj Mahal. Across the water you will see a foundation of a second Taj that Shah Jahan started to build, before he was put in jail by his own son, who didn’t want him to spend the family fortune on another more expensive monument.
Other stops in Agra: The enormous Agra Fort, very close to the Taj, was home to a succession of Mughal emperors, including Humayun, Akbar, and his son Jehangir, and grandson Shah Jahan. Really a palace instead of a fort, it was the seat of the government, as well as a royal residence, mosques, assembly halls and even a dungeon. Running along the Yamuna River, the fort was protected by a moat, as well as a 1.5 mile-long wall that stood 69 feet high. A must-see!
Shopping: There is lots to buy in Agra, including rugs, jewelry made from precious and semi-precious stones, kaftans, scarves, statues and so much more. The most coveted items are tables, vases or other pieces made from Makrana marble, the same kind used to build the Taj Mahal.
Makrana is a small Rajasthani village about 250 miles west of Agra that is renowned for its beautiful marble. Artisans pass on the skills to their children, and many of the businesses have been around for hundreds of years. Makrana marble is the best quality of marble in the world, made from Calcite, and coveted for its beauty, reliability and endurance. It will not scratch when walked on, or stain when any liquid is spilled on it, including red wine. It can also endure heat and cold without changing color or deteriorating, as witnessed by the marble in the Taj Mahal from the 17th century!
The best place to buy authentic marble inlaid pieces is the Agra Marble Emporium, located not far from the Oberoi, on 2 Fatehabad Road. I bought a marble blue-and-white inlaid table and had it shipped to me in Abu Dhabi with the wooden stand [didn’t pay for the stand]. They ship all over the world, and guarantee in-tact delivery. Prices depend not on the size of the marble piece, but on the intricacy of the design, meaning the more inlay work, the higher the cost. It can take months to make some of the special designs.
* Travel Tip: On the streets, hawkers will try to sell you what they say is marble, but is really soapstone, a cheaper, softer substitute, that looks very similar. The best way to tell the difference is by scratching the surface. The Makrana marble won’t scratch but the soapstone will.
Best time to visit India:
The best time to visit is November-March, with the weather being less humid in the north and wetter in the southern states, such as Kerala. April-June are extremely hot months, and to be avoided. Keep in mind the five days of Diwali, one of India’s largest festivals, celebrated around mid-October, will be busier than usual and hotel rooms will be booked well in advance. Be careful when planning your India itinerary, as certain cities may appear to be a fairly short distance apart, but will take many hours to get there, because of the poor road conditions and traffic.
Hire a car from your hotel for the day. Driver will wait for you as you tour, shop and eat. Another inexpensive option is taking a taxi from the hotel and having him stay with you for several hours. Waiting time is about $1 per hour. Tuk-Tuks are fun to look at, but unsafe, and of course don’t attempt to drive yourself.
* You will need a travel visa
* Bring bug spray, medications and an anti-malaria drug if you’re visiting in summer
* Leave your luxury items and jewelry at home
* To avoid “Delhi Belly,” eat at hotel restaurants or local outlets suggested by your hotel/tour guide. Never street carts.
* Always bargain at the markets that aren’t price-controlled. Start at less than half of the price offered.
* Do not drink tap water, and don’t buy bottled water from street vendors. The bottles are often emptied and refilled.
* Although it may seem insensitive, it is best not to give money to beggars while in the car/taxi. You will get ambushed by many more. And, as in any place you travel, watch your bag/wallet, especially when large groups of children crowd you.
**Kim is the founder of Kim Hopkins Travel. Book your own Indian adventure with her:
Kim Hopkins Travel