WE dined like kings on the luxury Maharajas’ Express from Delhi to Mumbai. But we topped it on the last day when we dined with real royalty!
Prince Salauddin Khan Babi had recently been crowned Prince of Balasinor, a state in Gujarat, western India.
The Garden Palace at Balasinor was the setting for a sumptuous lunch with the royal family for my 50 or so fellow train travellers.
His wife, the Begum, a renowned cookery writer, created an impressive spread based on family recipes.
I wish I’d read the menu (a scroll no less) before I filled my plate with tasty morsels, then ran out of room on the plate and in my tummy.
His sister, Princess Aaliya, took us on a tour of the Dinosaur Fossil Park, one of the largest in the world.
Renowned as the “Dinosaur Princess”, she passed round some of the dinosaur eggs.
Imagine holding an egg 66 million years old.
More than 1,000 were found in the fossilised remains of the many dino species which roamed here.
Fossilised bones and skin were visible in the volcanic rocks scattered across the site.
But what astonished us even more as we travelled through India’s most fascinating cities was that RATS dine like kings too.
Those at at the Hindu temple of Goddess Karni Mata near Bikaner are treated like Maharajas.
They’re well fed with water and milk put out in bowls and, unsurprisingly, they never leave the temple.
This optional excursion from the Maharajas’ Express is not for the squeamish, but I wouldn’t have missed it.
Surrounded by worshippers of the Goddess, we watched as hundreds of rats scurried all over the temple complex, supping together around the edge of big bowls of milk.
We watched aghast as a devotee scooped up that milk into his mouth, to receive a blessing.
Some prostrated themselves to kiss the dirty floor.
There are conflicting stories behind the legend with most saying the rats are believed to be the reincarnation of dead villagers or descendants of the goddess.
Either way, they’re treated as sacred and feeding them bestows a blessing.
Feeling like Maharajas we ate dinner in the beautiful dining car, with its white linen, gold crockery and wonderful service.
This is a bucket-list journey — not cheap but an incredible way to see India where the dirt, noise and madness of the cities is in utter contrast to the peace and opulence on board the train.
Bright fruits and fabrics
John Stone, the executive chef, is keen to hear just how he can make our mealtimes perfect.
I ate almost entirely Indian cuisine for the week, with a choice of spiciness.
A tour of the kitchens was fascinating.
Spotless, all the fruit and veg is organic, even the herbs.
Spices are ground fresh.
After a few glasses of wine and a nightcap in the Safari Bar, it was off to bed.
The movement of the train was quite bumpy, and I remember thinking I’d never get to sleep.
Next thing, my butler was knocking to wake me up with a pot of tea for our early start to see the Taj Mahal.
This iconic monument to a beloved wife never fails to amaze with its tranquil beauty and moving love story.
It took 22,000 labourers and 22 years to build, with jewels inlaid in the marble.
Sitting on “Diana’s bench” for a photo, seems to be a must do for all nationalities, not just us Brits.
Afterwards, to be able to walk a few minutes to breakfast at Taj Khema overlooking the mausoleum, serenaded by musicians, was nothing short of magical.
Each day we explored forts and palaces.
No packing or unpacking, every day was different.
Colour, colour everywhere.
Pink City, Jaipur.
Blue City Jodhpur, jewelled elephants, markets full of bright fruits and fabrics, and the people wearing glorious colourful saris, even to work in the fields.
I loved just watching the people on the station platforms but real India can be a shock too — polluted, rubbish-strewn cities though give way to incredible countryside and an ever-changing vista.
Every time we left the train we were garlanded and greeted by music or dancing.
Locals would wonder who we were — they must have been disappointed I’m not a famous celebrity.
The few tigers remaining in Ranthambore National Park kept themselves out of sight when I visited but the national bird of India, the peacock, gave a colourful display for the females he was trying (and failing) to impress.
So after a cold early start on an open-top vehicle we returned to a hot breakfast on board and set off for Jaipur.
There we lunched at the City Palace and rode elephants around the garden.
I fed mine bamboo sticks and bananas before painting him pink on his lovely rump.
The camel ride to a barbecue dinner on the sand dunes of Bikaner as the sun set was unforgettable.
We were guided round the 1459 Mehrangarh Fort at Jodhpur before a scary tuk-tuk ride to the old clock tower market, then dinner at Hanwant Mahal.
Next was fabulous Udaipur, where we enjoyed a boat ride before lunch at yet another palace.
This itinerary was paced just right for me.
A variety of experiences along with the historic monuments you want to tick off your bucket list.
And all included in the price.
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At the end of each day, my butler would escort me back to my cabin, ensure I had everything I needed and, next morning, bring me that lovely cup of tea.
Maharajas’ Express is not cheap.
But you get what you pay for and this is the ultimate way to explore the very best of India.