For the well-seasoned traveler, it's hard to find a country that exerts as much of a draw as India. Rich in fascinating culture, with a desperately poor populace, India attracts and repels simultaneously; unlike other countries on the Asian continent such as Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) or China, it's hard to find an easy way in.
Until now. Since 2016, Uniworld has put the Ganges Voyager II under exclusive charter, offering two-week trips that combine a land tour of India's Golden Triangle cities -- Delhi, Agra and Jaipur -- with seven nights on the Ganges. (Well, sorta. The ship never gets to the Ganges proper, sailing instead on three tributaries: the Hooghly, the Jalangi and the Bhagirathi.) It's all part of the Ganges Delta, however, and within Indian culture, the rivers are considered the same as Mother Ganges.
The colonial-themed Ganges Voyager II started life under Haimark. After that company went bankrupt, ownership transferred to River Heritage Journey Line, which runs the ship operations. On every sailing, however, there's a manager reporting directly to Uniworld who stays with the vessel for the season.
With such an extensive land portion, Uniworld's offering is really two trips in one -- and the tour feels like it. The Golden Triangle part of the trip is go-go-go, with full days of excursions in busy chaotic cities, long coach trips between destinations and some of the finest luxury hotels in the world (Uniworld partners with the renowned luxury company Oberoi and the accommodations are spectacular). While the Oberoi provides a bit of a soft landing into India, you're in a luxury bubble and spend quite a bit of time viewing the country from behind a window.
The vibe changes once you reach Ganges Voyager II. Once the ship pulls away from Kolkata, you have a front-row seat to rural India, with all of its joys and peculiarities. You'll see rice paddies and river dolphins, temples and villages. The river itself is a hub of activity; Indians use it to bathe, wash clothes, bless icons, dump cremated ashes and much more. Villagers will wave at the ship -- still a new phenomenon -- from the stone ghats (steps) that lead down to the river. When you dock, you'll become an object of curiosity. While the riotous colors will tempt your camera at every turn, don't be surprised if a villager asks to take a selfie with you!
You can't mention India without talking about hygiene, or more precisely, lack thereof. The trash and sanitary conditions are shocking for Westerners and are probably the biggest barrier toward understanding the country. On the river, you'll see people drinking out of the same water where someone just defecated. Even in the largest cities, people share the road with cows, pigs, goats, dogs, and in Rajasthan, camels -- and their droppings are everywhere (in villages, the dung is formed into patties and slapped onto houses to be used as a later fuel source). It's disturbing and yes, disgusting.
Uniworld and Ganges Voyager II counter the dangers posed by the unsanitary conditions with an aggressive offense. Closed-toe shoes are recommended, and they are cleaned every time you return to the ship. Copious amounts of bottled water are handed out for drinking and toothbrushing, and staff members squirt sanitizer into your hands constantly. Passengers are warned to give street food a wide berth, and while some of the puppies on the roads look cute, you're admonished not to touch them. Though the sheer novelty of the foods you're eating might give you some tummy issues, it's easily countered by some simple medications and a day or two of bland diet from the chef.
Speaking of the chef and the rest of the staff, they enhance the Ganges Voyager II experience with good cheer and great effort. Beyond the regular waiter and steward duties, they serve as personal interpreters for Indian culture, taking part in Bollywood dance lessons, decorating women's arms and legs with henna designs and egging passengers on at the cricket bat. Ganges Voyager II has long stretches of scenic cruising, but the staff fills the downtime with enrichment activities such as lectures, cooking classes and trivia. The tour guides and tour manager, too, are top notch, with sharp senses of humor. Before the cruise, they help navigate the logistics of traveling between numerous cities with aplomb and onboard, they help make sense of the incongruities you often witness in everyday Indian life.
The unhurried pace on the river might bore the restless. But the ship, with its teak furniture, white ironwork and colorful block patterns and murals on the walls, is a destination unto itself. The upper deck is split in two, with one side consisting of a lounge with a large bar and plenty of comfy chairs and sofas, and the other an outdoor sun deck, with chairs, daybeds and loungers where you can read or snooze (much of the outdoor space is under cover, so you don't have to worry about the heat). The small spa, with both Indian and Western treatments, does brisk business at affordable prices and the in-room flat-screen TVs have documentaries about the country for those who want even more enrichment. Cabins are on the large side and while storage is a sore point, the French balconies and colorful Indian-Colonial decor make them pleasant hideaways as well.
All in all, we give high marks to Uniworld for bringing their brand of luxury, service and attention to detail to a place where daily necessities can be challenging. If you want time to relax and get into the country, in addition to seeing the more tried-and-true tourist route, Ganges Voyager II and Uniworld's itinerary will meet your expectations, and then some.
India attracts an adventurous mindset, and the demographic on Ganges Voyager II is extremely well-traveled and, given the price tag of the trip, well-heeled. Most passengers range from late 40s to early 70s, with the bulk in their 60s (although we saw a healthy 90-year-old enjoying herself!).
The ship does not have elevators and many excursions take place in towns without paved roads, so the trip is generally not suitable for those with accessibility issues or for those who need wheelchairs and scooters. River levels can fluctuate daily and the ship pulls a sampan boat to use for occasional tenders. Some docks are little more than bamboo walkways.
American passengers are the norm, with a handful of Canadians and British, although the company reports having Australians, Brazilians and New Zealanders onboard. The official language of the ship is English. Ganges Voyager II does not make any announcements onboard.
Casual is the name of the game on Ganges Voyager II. During the day, women wear lightweight pants or long skirts and loose tops or T-shirts to comply with temple visitation requirements. Men also wear light pants for tours. Closed-toe shoes and socks are a must; sanitation in the villages is far from Western standards. When you get back from excursions, you leave your shoes for cleaning and change into provided slippers (the clean shoes are later left outside your cabin door).
While relaxing on deck, shorts, T-shirts and sundresses are the norm. Dinner is casual, with most women wearing simple shirts and blouses, and an occasional dress (as well as brightly colored scarves they've bought on the trip); men wear long pants and collared shirts. Even the welcome and farewell dinners are casual with no discernable change in the dress code. There's no need to bring a nice dress or sport coat for the ship.
The trip includes a domestic flight (two if you take the extension to Varanasi, which about half of the passengers do), and India airlines have strict baggage weight regulations of 15 kg (33 lbs) for checked bags and 7 kg (15 lbs.) for hand luggage. If you go over -- and many people in the group did -- it's not a tragedy, though. You simply pay an amount ranging from 500 to 1,000 rupees ($8 to $15).
At the end of the trip, Ganges Voyager II has an Indian-themed night where men and women can wear the saris, scarves and local garb they've purchased on the trip. It's a fun way to embrace the colors and style of Indian dress.
While on the Ganges, Uniworld has most services included, such as shore excursions, meals and airport transfers if you booked through the company or are continuing with an extension. Local wine and beer, as well as soft drinks and some liquor brands, are included at lunch, dinner and the cocktail hour. Premium wines and liquor cost extra.
The tap water onboard is not drinkable and while you can shower in it, you shouldn't use it to wash your face or brush your teeth. The ship provides copious amounts of bottled water that is replenished constantly.
Gratuities for the crew and the tour manager are not included in the fare and must be paid with cash before you leave the ship. The suggested amount is $8 to 10 per day, per person for the crew and $8 to 10 per day, per person for the tour manager; it can be given in either dollars or rupees. Since India's ATMs have a daily withdrawal limit, you'll want to plan ahead to make sure that you have enough cash on hand, as the tips can add up (seven days on the river equals $140 per cabin and because your cruise includes a six-day Golden Triangle tour before you board, each cabin will need $260 for the tour manager). Tips to local guides and bus drivers are included in the fare, but gratuities to spa service providers are not; save some rupees for them if you get a treatment.
Wi-Fi is included for the entire trip, but there's a caveat: In the hotels, it's fast, unlimited and you'll be able to keep up with the outside world; on the ship, you are limited to 150MB per cabin per day -- and it's painfully slow. (It's due to issues with India's satellite communication network and not the ship itself.) Unfortunately, this means showing off your photos will have to wait until you're back on land.
The onboard currency is the rupee. The ship does not provide a money exchange service, although your local guide will make ATM stops in Kolkata if you need it. Credit cards can be used to settle your bill, although the transaction carries a 3 percent processing charge.
On Uniworld's Golden Triangle tour before you meet the ship, several lunches and dinners are on your own, and because of the resorts' remote locations (not to mention general concerns about sanitation), dining is limited to the Oberoi restaurants. The meals at these restaurants are fantastic -- you'll eat some of the best Indian food you'll have in your life -- but they are pricy. Make sure to budget for them.
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