February 21, 2017
Looking for the next frontier in exotic river cruising? Then India needs to be on your list.
Since early 2016, luxury river cruise company Uniworld has been offering a two-week trip through India, which pairs a week of exploring the Golden Triangle cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur with a weeklong cruise on the "Ganges." (We put Ganges in quotes because the ship never really travels the Ganges proper. Instead, passengers sail on three tributaries: the Hooghly, Jalangi and Bhagirathi. Guides will tell you that as part of the Ganges delta, it's all considered the same Mother Ganges.)
Semantics aside, Uniworld's cruise tour encompasses a wide swath of India, both the good and bad. You'll walk through rural villages on the river bank, where residents will clamor to take pictures with you. You'll see piles of trash from your luxury coach window, as well as shanty towns and public urination. Best of all, you'll learn about all aspects of Indian culture, from beliefs about astrology to the fundamentals of the Hindu religions and the importance of cricket.
The first part of the tour bases itself in Oberoi hotels, which are among the most luxurious in India (and indeed, the world). While some aspects of Uniworld's coddling are well worth it -- who doesn't want to see the Taj Mahal from their hotel window or sleep in a glamourous tented villa? -- the extensive time in coaches makes you feel that you're seeing India from a bubble. (Although, with all the chaos happening in big cities, that's OK with many.)
The mood changes when passengers fly to Kolkata to board Ganges Voyager II. The ship itself is gorgeous, with white ironwork and British colonial decor. It's the river itself, though, that serves as a tonic. Everyone visibly relaxes, from the passengers to the tour manager and the local guides. Excursions are mostly to small villages, where you visit temples and markets. The ship sails only in the daytime, and there's plenty of free time for reading, naps or simply watching the rural towns float by.
This is the second year that Uniworld has chartered Ganges Voyager II, and from what we saw, the operational side of the cruise keeps getting better. On its first few sailings, the ship did not have the sanitary capabilities to flush toilet paper, and passengers were asked to put their used TP in the waste basket. Luckily, the company has fixed that issue, and we're happy to report that the ship has working toilets, as well as strong water pressure, spacious cabins and an Indian crew that cares deeply about making people feel welcome in their country.
Do you think you're ready for India? The country is still challenging, and there's a certain amount of culture shock that you go through when you arrive. One travel agent on our trip said she'd recommend that people try China's Yangtze, Vietnam's Mekong or Burma's Irrawaddy before going on the Ganges. We don't think previous experience in developing nations matters as much, as long as you arrive with an open mind and are prepared to look for beauty among the poverty.
After spending two weeks with Uniworld in India, we think you might be ready to cruise the Ganges if ...
... You like exploring rural areas.
While the cities of the Golden Triangle are well traveled by tourists, the Ganges section of the trip takes you to villages that you're hard-pressed to find on a map. You won't see a lot of blockbuster attractions there. (That's what the first week of the trip is for.) Instead, you'll take the ship's sampan -- a small tender -- to a bamboo dock on the side of the river. From there, you'll meander through a village, passing cows, goats and dogs, as your guide explains local customs and culture. Or you'll take a horse-drawn carriage or tuk-tuk out of town to an Islamic temple undergoing restoration. Either way, you'll be going where few Western tourists have gone before.
... You enjoy encounters with locals.
Because river cruises on the Ganges are so infrequent -- only one other American company, Vantage, offers them, and for both companies the season is short -- the arrival of Ganges Voyager II is a bit of a production. Men, women and children in colorful saris and scarves will line the banks of the river to welcome you, smiling shyly when you say hello. Bolder residents will ask for selfies. In these times when the Internet has made the world seem small, it feels unusual to become the center of attention as a tourist. If the idea freaks you out, this might not be your trip.
... You like trying new flavors.
Foodies will rejoice at the vast repertoire of Indian spices and dishes that can be sampled on Uniworld's trip. The Indian restaurants at the Oberoi hotels are among the best in the country, and the meals we had there -- on our own dime, as several dinners during the Golden Triangle tour are not included in Uniworld's fare -- were outstanding. The food on the ship is good, too, although the chef does dial down the spice level for pickier passengers. No matter. A simple word when you order, and your meal can make you sweat. We loved it.
... You like luxury hotels.
In the scheme of river cruise lines, Uniworld has always been at the upper end with its partners. The company uses the Four Seasons in Egypt, for example. The Oberoi is all that, and beyond, with each hotel on the trip having its own character. While we wished the Oberoi Guaranon, our base in Delhi, was closer to the city, we appreciated the soft landing it provided to the country. With a view of the Taj Mahal from every room and a pool complex that looks like it's from the Arabian Nights, Amavilla in Agra felt hard to beat ... until we went to the Rajvillas in Jaipur, a 33-acre Colonial-themed oasis with tented villas, lantern-strewn pathways and preening peacocks. Call us officially spoiled.
... You can handle squeamish sights.
No matter how luxurious your surroundings, India is still India. You can't drink the tap water, even in the finest hotels; the minute you let down your guard, you'll encounter Delhi belly. The remedies are fairly simple -- the dual power of Xifaxin and Xanax got several of us back on our feet within 24 hours -- but the chances that you'll have some discomfort are medium to high. The ship staff does everything in its power to keep you clean, from issuing sanitary lotion to constantly to cleaning your shoes when you come back from excursions. Still, some of the sights you see will make you queasy; in many villages, cow dung is a form of fuel and patties literally cover entire buildings. You'll see men urinating into the same river where people are bathing, washing their clothes and drinking the water. Trash is everywhere, as are animals eating it. To our American eyes, the lack of hygiene is startling, and it's hard to prepare for it.
... You don't mind seeing chaos.
The streets of India, too, are a shock to the system. Horns beep from tuk-tuks and scooters, store keepers yell out to patrons, customers haggle. In Delhi, three lanes of traffic can quickly turn into seven. Cows, pigs, dogs, goats -- and, in Rajasthan, even camels -- wander into the middle of the road. It's wild and noisy and doesn't seem to make any sense at all. That's India.
... You like long stretches of cruising.
Ah, but then there's Ganges Voyager II. Once you get on the river, the stress level winds down, and it's time to relax. Unlike those on some rivers, the Ganges itinerary provides lots of scenic cruising, and the staff is always around to provide a cocktail as you lounge on the sun deck. The small spa is available for massages -- both Western and Indian. Meanwhile, enrichment seminars tackle sari tying and tea tasting, or you can get intricate henna patterns drawn on your arms and legs.
All in all, Uniworld's Ganges river cruise and Golden Triangle trip gave us everything we wanted to learn about India, and more. As long as you come with an open mind and adventurous spirit, you'll enjoy the country's wild ride.
--By Chris Gray Faust, Senior Editor