Still a relative newcomer to the river cruising world, India has allure for the "been there, done that" traveler who wants to explore the colorful country, yet doesn't know where to begin.
And no wonder; India is a complicated place to wrap your brain around. The culture is fascinating, the food is delicious, the sanitation is challenging. Having an experienced river cruise company that can guide you through it all makes a world of difference.
Come along with us as we showcase an India river cruise, taken on the Lower Ganges with Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection. The trip included a week in the country's Golden Triangle cities -- Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur -- which is often added to India river cruises, both on the Ganges and Brahmaputra.
No easy way to put it: India is a long flight away, and you'll be in transit for hours; many flights arrive to Delhi in the early morning (2 a.m. is not uncommon). Passengers on river cruises are responsible for getting their own visas; e-visas are easy and must be done within 30 days of the trip. Even when you have your papers, lines at immigration can be long.
Tips: Don't schedule anything too strenuous your first day, as the jet lag is no joke. Even if you're dying to get out and see everything, resting up and even hitting the pool could save you later. Tonight, try your first bites of Indian food. Just make sure it's from your hotel or a hotel-approved restaurant -- or risk Delhi belly!
Delhi is a sprawling mess of a city, where three lanes of traffic can turn into seven. It can take some time to get between attractions. One not to miss is Gandhi Smriti, the home where the civil rights pioneer and Father of India lived his last days -- and was assassinated. A Martyr's Memorial is there in his honor, and people come from around the world to pay respects.
Tip: Getting places takes time; make sure your itinerary visits Old Delhi, in addition to New Delhi (ours didn't).
Delhi has three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Humayun's Tomb pre-dates the Taj Mahal and is the first spectacular mausoleum built by the country's Islamic Mughal rulers. Also on the New Delhi side is Qutb Minar, a red sandstone minaret on the burial grounds of the first Muslim ruler of Delhi.
Tip: On the Uniworld trip, the excursion to visit the Delhi monuments was $20 extra. Go -- it's worth it -- not just for the sights themselves, but to see the tourists from around India visiting, and their different styles of dress.
During this first portion of the trip, you'll realize how much of an influence the Muslim Mughal rulers had on northern India, in food, culture and architecture. Agra Fort, in the same city as the Taj Mahal, shows exactly how powerful they were. The fort dates to 1573 and served as the center of power for nearly 300 years.
Tip: In your haste to get to the Taj Mahal, don't overlook the beauty of Agra Fort. It's a UNESCO site in its own right, created from various stones and colors, and worth the time exploring.
It's hard to express the feeling of wonder and satisfaction that comes when you see the Taj Mahal for the first time. Sure, there are crowds, particularly at sunset. But the iconic mausoleum is so gorgeous and so famous, it can catch your breath if you allow it to. Take it all in before you start taking photos.
Tips: It requires some patience to get the perfect sunset shot, so don't get frustrated. The crowds really cluster at the benches at the top of a platform before the final reflecting pool, but that's not necessarily the best photo. The monument looks interesting from side angles as well.
Visiting the Taj Mahal for the second time at sunrise is an optional excursion, but it's one we recommend. The crowds aren't there, and the light is different due to the mist and fog from the river. This is the time to really see the intricate marble work inside the tomb, as well as get the perfect shot without a bunch of people in the way.
Tips: Timed tickets, along with your passport, are required to enter the Taj Mahal and the government doesn't allow large bags, food or chewing gum. You'll also need socks or booties covering your shoes to enter the structure. (The marble is slippery, so be careful.)
The world's largest sundial resides at Jantar Mantar, an astronomical and astrological observatory in Jaipur, the capital of the western state of Rajasthan. Built in 1734, the park has 19 instruments and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Tip: Many Indians consider astrology a force in their lives and consulting astrologers isn't unusual. So why not give it a try? At Oberoi Rajvilas, the hotel can bring in an astrologer so you can get your own horoscope done. You'll need to know the date, time of your birth and where you were born; the latitude and longitude are important.
Jaipur is known as India's "Pink City," with many major buildings painted a rosy hue. It dates back to 1876, when the reigning maharaja ordered the color changed to welcome England's Prince of Wales. The pink palace is where Rajasthan's wealthy maharajas lived for centuries; members of the royal family still reside here.
Tip: Jaipur is a center for India's textile trade, and it's the place to shop for scarves, pashminas, jewelry, rugs and more. Remember to haggle; Indian vendors are generally aggressive with the pricing.
Since 2016, Uniworld has exclusively chartered Ganges Voyager II for the river portion of the trip. The 56-passenger vessel combines colonial styling with Indian colors. It's a luxurious, yet comfy home for the next portion of the voyage.
Tip: After the go-go-go of the first half of the tour, the river cruise portion will come as a welcome slowdown. Don't expect big monuments here; the best part of the river cruise will be the interactions you have with locals in their small towns and villages.
The dock in Kolkata will come as a surprise to those who are used to more formal river cruise docks in Europe. It's right near a shanty town, and while you will have seen poverty on the trip, it will have been through a bus window and not outside your cabin. Expect to see everything happening in the river: bathing, washing clothes, drinking and bathroom activities.
Tip: The Ganges Voyager II staff are diligent with the hand sanitizer and you should be too. Your cabin will have a set of slippers that you will bring down to a cubby wall before you head out on excursions; the staff cleans your shoes once you get back.
Ganges Voyager II offers a tour of Kolkata before the ship leaves. Don't miss seeing Mother Teresa's order. It's a moving exhibit of her life and path to sainthood serving Kolkata's poor "untouchable" caste.
Tip: You might see people begging during your trip, although it doesn't happen as often as you might think. Uniworld's policy is to ignore them, lest the entire group get mobbed. If you visit an orphanage, resist the urge to give out gifts. Instead, make a financial donation at the office.
Kolkata, once known as Calcutta, was the center of the British Empire and many vestiges remain, including St. John's Church, an Anglican building that dates to 1787. It's been said that no city in India gained -- and lost -- from British rule more than Kolkata. It created the Indian intellectual class that led to the country's independence, but also left the city desperately poor.
Tip: The stop at Victoria Memorial might seem like overkill after a morning of colonial buildings. But the museum inside is quite fascinating, and lays out the British rule in an easy-to-understand manner.
Ganges Voyager brings on local dance performers at least twice during the cruise. What the troupes lack sometimes in precision, they make up for in heart. We especially loved the night the performance ended in Bollywood-style dancing; the crew showed off their moves and all had a good time.
Tip: Get familiar with the video settings on your camera or smartphone. This trip has many moments where a simple snap isn't enough to capture the energy behind what you're seeing.
The centerpiece of your first stop, Kalna, is a temple complex consisting of a palace and 108 Shiva temples. Get up close so you can view the intricate terra cotta statues.
Tip: You'll have to take your shoes off to go into most Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. Bring socks to wear, or get used to the idea of bare feet. Lightweight pants or a longer dress instead of shorts are also recommended for women.
The Kalna vegetable market looks like many in small-town India, with vendors sitting on the ground and selling their wares. It's a different level of sanitation than what we're used to, but the markets are lively to watch and great places to take pictures.
Tip: No matter how good the food looks in the market or on the street, resist eating it. Delhi belly is no joke, and while you can wipe it out with medication, why waste some of your trip being sick?
Small village scenes, like this one where women are gathering water at the town pump in Matiari, are common on the river cruise. Western tourists are still fairly unusual here, as river cruises are just beginning to take off; you'll be met with equal amounts of curiosity, surprise and indifference. Just remember, a smile is universal.
Tip: Bring closed-toe shoes to wear on excursions; cows, dogs, pigs, goats and -- in Rajasthan, camels -- roam freely and their deposits are everywhere.
Murshidabad was once the capital of Bengal, and there are signs of different eras of its ruling class. The Katra mosque served as a center of learning, and the first Nawab of Bengal is buried there. In a completely different style, the Italianate Hazarduari Palace channels 19th-century norms and boasts 1,000 doors -- 100 of which are false. It's now a moderately interesting museum.
Tip: How do you know if a town is historically Muslim or Hindu? Look at the end of the name. Towns that end in "bad" were centers for Muslim rulers, while those that end in "pur" historically had Hindu leaders.
Ganges Voyager II has a lovely top deck, with sun loungers, wood and wicker chairs and daybeds in colorful fabrics. Since most of it is covered, it's a nice place to hang out and watch the river go by, even during the heat of the day. Keep your eye on the stone staircases, called ghats, on the shore. These are the heart of Indian villages and are usually bustling with activity.
Tip: Ganges Voyager II has a small spa with two treatment rooms, and the prices are low compared with what you'd find in other resorts and cruise ships. You might find room in your budget for more than one treatment!
Don't be surprised if the younger generation is bolder than the adults you meet; Indians take English in school and many want to practice even a few words. We were asked for selfies and in some cities, our autograph.
Tip: If you do take a picture and you sense the kids are willing, it's nice to show them the result on your smartphone. You'll be rewarded with a big smile.
Ganges Voyager II keeps the activity going during scenic cruising passages with enrichment lectures and activities. These might include sari tying, Bollywood dancing, mehendi (henna tattoos) or, in this case, a cooking class.
Tip: Ganges Voyager II is small enough that the chef takes personal requests, either for spicier foods or for favorite dishes, if you have the recipe. Just make sure you know it by heart or have it with you -- the ship's internet is slow and passengers are limited to 150 MG per cabin, per day.
Cows are sacred in India and in many states, it's illegal to slaughter them. The Indian people still get use from the animals, however, beyond milk. Cow dung is shaped into patties or sticks and used as heating fuel. It's not unusual to see the patties stuck on houses, waiting to be burned, or in this case, lined up in a field.
Tip: While it might seem gross to take a picture of animal dung, you still will want to. Some things in India need to be seen, and with photographic evidence to be believed!
After days of interacting primarily with Indians, it's a bit of a culture shock to see other Western tourists at Mayapur, the world headquarters of the Hare Krishna movement. The movement is currently erecting a new temple, which will be the size of the Vatican when it's done.
Tip: ISKCON, the official name of the Hare Krishna movement, has plenty of books and literature to sell at the temple, and we noticed Americans getting the hard sell. That being said, it's interesting to talk to the pilgrims, if you can, and find out where they came from; we met a man from Illinois who has been coming to Mayapur yearly since the 1970s!
The Hooghly Imambara, in the colonial town of Bandel, has been a mosque and learning center since 1861. Its founder stressed the education of women.
Tip: Want to buy a sari of your own, but wonder where you'll wear it? Ganges Voyager II throws an Indian-themed dinner on the second-to-last night of the trip, where passengers are encouraged to wear the saris, scarves, pashminas, turbans, tunics and other Indian clothing they've bought during the trip.
The closer you get back to Kolkata, the more spectacular the sunsets -- which is all well and good until you realize the vibrant colors come from the city's smog. Still, the air on the river is much easier to breathe than what you'll find in Kolkata or Delhi.
Tip: At the end of two weeks, you'll be exhausted, enlightened and possibly enamored with India. It's a confusing place that takes years to understand; don't be surprised if you can't wrap your head around it until you get home.
Updated November 21, 2019