India is the kind of country that can completely overwhelm to the point of trepidation and draw the visitor in its warm, comforting fold, all at the same time. It’s also incredibly diverse, offering diametrically different experiences. If the mighty Himalayas in the north can mesmerism then so too can the magnificent colors and creatures of the deep sea in the south, as can ancient monuments, forts, palaces and haunted villages scattered all over the country. In fact there’s something at every step of the way to fascinate, charm and sweep the visitor under its spell. The country is large enough that there is something new to discover during every visit, and then come back for some more.
Far away from crowded, tourist-saturated destinations, there are such adorable gems – some vaguely familiar, others totally obscure – that are both extraordinary as well as deeply satisfying, and worth putting on the vacation list this year.
1. Andaman Islands
Miles from the Indian coast in the middle of the Bay of Bengal, the Union Territory of the Andaman Islands boasts incredible marine diversity and offers the perfect holiday destination. The capital – Port Blair – is ideal as a base. See the famous Cellular jail and National Museum, and add on Samudrika Naval Marine Museum if marine life interests you. Go island hopping to North Bay for snorkelling, sea walking or just lazing, Ross Island to see the surreal ruined building landscape of the British, and Viper Island to see the gallows where Indian freedom fighters were hanged.
An entire day is required to visit Baratang Island in the north, which has thick, dark forests, Jarawa tribals, mangroves, limestone caves and mud volcanoes. Marine life and water sports enthusiasts will love the Mahatma Gandhi National Marine Park approached from Wandoor. It has many islands rich in reefs ideal for snorkelling. Havelock island is best suited for leisurely holidays far from crowds.
How to get there: Flights from Chennai and Kolkata; ships from Kolkata, Chennai and Visakhapatnam (but the journey could take up to 60 hours).
Stay at: The Peerless Sarovar in Corbyn’s Cove is the only beach resort in the city, with 50 garden and sea facing rooms and cottages. From INR 4150 Onwards
2. Lakshadweep Islands
Literally meaning a hundred thousand islands, Lakshadweep, a Union Territory, is a group of islands off the west coast of India towards the south. It comprises over a dozen atolls and numerous reefs, so water-based activities such as snorkelling, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking, water skiing and deep-sea fishing are the attractions here, though a leisurely seaside holiday is also an option.
Agatti is the gateway and is full of lagoons with stunning turquoise waters and powdery white sands. Foreigners are allowed on Agatti as well as Kadmat and Bangaram, two other islands that have stunningly beautiful seascapes, fringed by lush greenery and smooth sand beaches. Only Indian citizens are allowed on Kavaratti, which has a number of architecturally pleasing buildings, often with a fusion of styles, including mosques, and Kalpeni, which is the furthest and has stunning coral reefs and dive locations.
How to get there: All visitors require special permit to enter; the best way to obtain it is to book a trip through the state-run Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports. Fly there or take a ferry from Kochi.
Tour packages start from From INR 15000 Onwards for a five-day tour; more details contact email@example.com
3. Sakleshpur (Karnataka)
The lesser known of Karnataka’s troika of coffee-growing areas, Sakleshpur is modest but packed with incredibly stunning vistas of greenery. Located in the middle of the state’s Malenadu (rain-fed) area and adjacent to the lush green Western Ghats, it is filled with beautiful hills and valleys that are carpeted with coffee plantations.
Opt for a homestay anchored within a plantation for a typical experience, and go for long walks or drives through the countryside with thick, dark green plants on either side, protected by a canopy of tall trees whose bark crawls with pepper and other vines. These are interspersed with little streams and waterfalls, making for a stunning experience.
For history buffs, the moss-covered, 18th century Manjarabad fort, with panoramic views of the ghats, is bound to mesmerize with its unusual eight-sided star shape pioneered by French military engineer Marquis de Vauban. Built by Tipu Sultan to fight the British, it had a strategic location, massive underground cellars to store gunpowder and extensive military facilities.
How to get there: The nearest airport is Mangalore (125km); take a bus or hire a taxi.
Stay at: Golden Wood, a coffee estate with sustainable, independent cottages (and nightly barbecues at a nearby waterfall). From INR 9,500 Onwards per couple per night on a full board basis.
A coastal enclave that was once ruled by the Portuguese, Daman is part of the Union Territory of Daman and Diu within Gujarat on the western coast of India. It is a charming colonial town with architecture veering predominantly towards traditional Portuguese. Fort walls with beautiful arched gateways going back a few centuries are still visible and make for a surreal sight.
Wander around town through little villages for a slice-of-life experience, or head to the beaches such as Devka and Jampore to watch fisher folk haul in their catch and for stunning sunsets. Daman is also known for its Portuguese ancestry and plethora of ancient churches such as the 17th century Bom Jesus Church, the Church of Our Lady, the Chapel of Our Lady of Rosary and Church of St Augustus.
How to get there: The nearest airport is Mumbai (180km; the drive from Mumbai is scenic) and the nearest railhead is at Vapi (15km).
Stay at: The Deltin, a large, modern hotel with a pool, rooms from INR 7,100 Onwards
5. Auli (Uttarakhand)
Auli is India’s answer to the skiing slopes of the world. What it lacks in ambition, it makes up with the background – the snowy and mighty Himalayan peaks. Auli’s landscape is enchanting to say the least, with towering oak trees and coniferous forests, making it the perfect winter destination. More irresistibly, on good days, peaks such as Nanda Devi, the second highest peak in India, and others in the range, are clearly visible against a lovely blue sky.
Auli’s slopes are also ideal for winter sports, especially skiing. Though they cannot be compared to Europe, Auli has a certain charming vibe that makes it endearing to visitors. But for those not interested in sports, long walks through inches of snow with the misty slopes, fruit orchards and deodar trees as the background are exciting in themselves.
How to get there: The nearest airport is at Dehradun (305km); a better option is to arrive in Delhi, take a train to Haridwar (280km) and hire a taxi to Auli.
Stay at: The Clifftop Club Resort, at an altitude of 3,000m with access to slopes and a ski life, from INR 8,000 Onwards
6. Orchha (Madhya Pradesh)
Located on the river Betwa, Orchha, a little town in north Madhya Pradesh in the Bundelkhand region, goes back to the early 16th century. The city is almost medieval and filled with grand palaces, temples and heritage buildings that take the visitor back in time. Begin the visit with the impressive fort complex, which comprise three palaces including the Raj Mahal and Jehangir Mahal. Don’t miss the Ram Raja temple, around which Orchha revolves, as well as the Lakshminarayan temple and the Chaturbhuj temple.
Other places to visit include Phool Bagh gardens, a formal and aesthetic garden with fountains; cenotaphs along the river dedicated to the former rulers, with intricate carvings and architecture, and offering panoramic views from the roof; and Sundar Mahal, a small palace with exquisite carvings, in ruins but with an air of both serenity and mystery.
How to get there: The nearest airport is at Gwalior (120km) but it has limited connectivity; Delhi is better: You can take a train to Jhansi (15km), and then an autorickshaw or taxi.
Stay at: Amar Mahal, overlooking the palaces, from INR 4,250 Onwards
7. Bhangarh (Rajasthan)
A little village in eastern Rajasthan’s Alwar district, Bhangarh has the distinction of being a historical place with a bit of an edgy atmosphere to it. Locals believe that the place is over run by spirits between sunset and sunrise and have banned outsiders from entering during this time.
Established in the late 16th century by the brother of Man Singh, Akbar’s general, it flourished for a couple of centuries when beautiful palaces, fortifications, temples, havelis and mosques were built. It began to decline in the late 18th century and acquired a dark reputation. Of special note is the Bhangarh fort, a massive and formidable structure surrounded by fascinating legends pertaining to saints, wizards and a princess who turned into a ghost.
How to get there: The nearest airport is Jaipur (85km); hire a taxi or take a train to Dausa (28km) and then take local transport.
Stay at: Umaid Lake Palace, a large property with a pool, activities and its own farm. From INR 5,000 Onwards
8. Tawang (Arunachal Pradesh)
A lovely little hill town located at an elevation of over 3,000m in the country’s northeast, Tawang feels a bit like floating above the clouds. Getting to Tawang takes some effort but the journey through hills and valleys is an experience in itself. Once there, wander around to absorb the sheer beauty of staying in a place surrounded by peaks and rolling hills. Life revolves around the Tawang Buddhist Monastery – the country’s largest – built in the late 17th century and its 8m tall Sakhyamuni Buddha statue. For nature lovers, Jang falls, Pangateng Tso lake and Sangetsar lake offer fabulous views while Bum La pass, a picturesque Himalayan pass, is about an hour’s journey.
How to get there: The nearest convenient airport is at Guwahati (440km); hire an SUV or take a shared taxi since bus services are sketchy.
Stay at: Gayki Khang Zhang, with basic but clean rooms from INR 3,600 Onwards.
9. Yuksom (Sikkim)
Calm and peaceful, Yuksom village in western Sikkim sits under the shadow of the Kangchenjunga with stunning views of the snow-capped range. Though it was the former capital of Sikkim, it is a tiny place surrounded by monasteries such as Dubdi, which is accessed through an hour’s trek. Other sights in the area include Kathoklake and Coronation Throne. But Yuksom is known more as the starting point for the trek to Kangchenjunga or lesser treks such as Goechala and Dzongri, both of which offer stunning views of the mighty Kangchenjunga peak. For the less adventurous, there’s also the one-day trek to Tashiding.
How to get there: The nearest airport is at Bagdogra (155km) and nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri (150km); however, the journey takes nearly 7 hours due to winding and narrow mountain roads. Hire a taxi or use a shared SUV for the drive.
Stay at: Yuksum Residency, with clean rooms, hot water and mountain views, from INR 1,800 Onwards.
10. Bhandardara (Maharashtra)
Located among the peaks of the Sahyadri range in Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district, Bhandardara is a relatively unknown hill station. At an elevation of over 750m, it is rich in flora and fauna and makes for an ideal getaway with plenty of activities such as trekking and bird watching. In the heart of Bhandardara is a beautiful lake, ideal for picnics or long walks. There are at least three waterfalls in the area, one of them at the Wilson Dam built across the river Pravara.
For heritage and culture buffs, treks to Harishchandragad fort and Ratangad fort are bound to prove eminently worthy; for a more hefty dose of history and heritage, there are three more forts in the area located on hills of Alang (a natural fort with a plateau, caves, water cistern ruins – popular but arduous), Madan (a natural fort on a tilted plateau without structures and a difficult trek) and Kulang (a square plateau fort with ruins, a gateway, a cave, cisterns and rock-cut steps).
How to get there: The nearest airport is Mumbai (170km) and the nearest railhead is at Igatpuri (45km). Take a bus or hire a taxi from Igatpuri.
Stay at: Anandvan Resort, overlooking a lake, with cottages, villas and a tree-top nest, from INR 2,500 Onwards