The A-Z Guide to Cool India

It’s not all snake charmers and customer service call centers.

It’s not all snake charmers and customer service call centers.

A visit to India doesn’t have to be about spiritual enlightenment or a geriatric visit to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Here’s what’s hip and happening Hindustan style.


A trip to the North of India wouldn’t be worth it without checking out the magnificent Taj Mahal in Agra. Shah Jahan’s tribute to love truly is a wonder and worth the journey, but Agra itself isn’t exactly kicking for nightlife and partying. So our advice to add a little Vi to that Agra is to do the tour early then retire to the sumptuous surroundings of the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel bar with its views of India’s finest Mughal marble monument. Service and selection are second to none and watching the Taj Mahal glow orange as the sun sets behind the Cyprus trees will release the romantic in the most seasoned of singletons.


If you want to check out some of the most beautiful women in the world, go down to one of India’s 200-plus new state-of-the-art shopping malls and sample a Bollywood movie. The masala of action, sexy dancing and romance takes a little time to get your head around, and it’s not for everyone, but we guarantee if you like an olive-skinned brunette in a skimpy outfit, you’re about to see your Citizen Kane.  If there are no subtitles then just munch snacks and quaff beer, as most city multiplexes offer seat service. And if you don’t believe us about the hot Indian women claim then check out our Asian sister magazine, Maxim India.


This is no ordinary cow cream. This is Malana Cream, reputed by potheads to be the best weed in the world. It’s grown high up in the Himalaya in the Valley of Flowers close by to the tiny village of Malana from where the name comes. The villagers, who claim relation to soldiers of Alexander the Great, still (slowly) hand roll this mega-resin for those looking for the ultimate high. It’s possible to visit, if you can handle the 15 hour drive across the Punjab and up into the mountains, but if you can’t get your ass in gear enough to hike that far then you’ll find it in most metros and cities. Fun Fact: Malana Cream is a type of resin also known locally as Charas, so a puff on anything under this moniker will roughly come from the same areas. Be warned though, despite a religious relationship with the weed, possession of pot is illegal in India!


If you’re headed to North India it’s inevitable that you’re going to bump into the sprawling metropolis that is New Delhi. Our advice is to live it up while you’re there and save the scrimping for your out of town soirees. Okay, so Humayan’s Tomb (what the Taj Mahal is based on) is not to be missed and the phallic oppression of the Mughal tower Qutab Minar is stunning, but after all that culture you’re going to need to kick back a bit.


If you’re after a night out clubbing, then most of the busy five star hotels have big clubs that get crowded from Thursday onwards. F-Bar at the Ashok Hotel is an ostentatious blend of swank but rocks until four and is packed with a mix of Delhi’s bright young things and work weary ex-pats. For 24 hour hedonism check out Agni at the Park Hotel – it’s not cheap at about seven bucks a pop for a beer, but if you’re after a late one it’s worth sampling. Hard core clubbers will need to travel a little further afield to the outskirts of Delhi to Elevate. This is a mega-club and has played host to an army of international DJs and there are guest spots and celebrity sets regularly.


There’s literally thousands of cheap late-night bars in South Delhi and competition is hot. Most offer nightly deals on beer on a one-plus-one basis. They look rather more like restaurants than a bar and are located in colony shopping markets, so it’s best to grab a cab or drive, if you feel like going local. Connaught Place isn’t strictly a market, but it’s smack in the center of town and a stone’s throw from the major hotels. Here you’ll find Q-BA with its ambient laid back beats and views of the stone-pillared Inner Circle and across the way there’s Bonsai with its garden retreat and fantastic sushi. Take a taxi to Defence Colony Market and you’ll find a lot of boozy options with Stone at the top of the list and bars like 3s great for budget drinking. Also posh neighbourhoods Vasant Vihar and Khan Market have plenty of options for a booze-soaked night out. If you do one thing while you’re in Delhi though, treat yourself to a beer at the 1911 bar at the Imperial Hotel on Janpath. The bar is beautiful, the staff exemplary, the ice-cold draught perfect and they even manage to show sports without sullying the ambience.


For our money the best place to eat in Delhi is the Spice Route at the Imperial, so much so it gets its own slot (S IS FOR SPICE ROUTE), but here’s a few of our other faves that are all well-worth tempting your taste buds. For North Indian melt-in-your-mouth kebabs at the top-end of your budget Bukhara at The Maurya Sheraton cannot be beat, but for a less wallet-battering experience Park Balluchi restaurant in Deer Park serves superb frontier food too. For a South Indian experience we recommend Swagath (Defence Colony branch) and its awesome Malabar chicken curry and if you’re after Chinese then China Garden at the Hyatt Regency is the most authentic in town. For decent Italian pizza we’d plump for the Sicilian owned Flavors, but if you fancy a broader menu then Cibo, at The Janpath Hotel, with its grand statues, opulent water features and outdoor dining, is hard to beat. Finally for an eclectic European experience with al fresco options, the Olive Bar & Kitchen, tucked away in the Diplomatic Enclave, is a winner.


If you’re headed to South India there’s every chance you’ll encounter the legendary charm of Chennai’s East Coast Road. East Coast Road meanders its way out of old Madras to Pondicherry. The palm-lined, sea sprayed 100 mile route is littered with ancient Hindu temples, crazy crocodile farms, sumptuous shacks and gorgeous resorts. If you get the chance, stop at the shore temples of Mahabalipuram, the ruined fort of Alamparai or the ancient Tiger Caves.


If you do decide to take a trip along East Coast Road and fancy some serious chill-out en route we recommend you pull off the highway and check into The Fisherman’s Cove Resort. Built on the remaining ramparts of an old Dutch fort, Fish Cove is a luxurious way to kick back and forget yourself for a few days. Whether you’re gently rocking to the rhythm of the roaring Indian Ocean on your beach villa’s hammock or sipping cocktails at the resort’s indulgent pool bar you’re sure to feel the pressures of life loosen their tight grip. Best of all is Fish Cove’s stunning beach restaurant, Bay View, where the freshest fruits from the sea are lovingly caressed with curry leaves and the local masala spices to… yeah, we got a bit lost there – but we’ve been and it is that good. Get the lobster with some spicy prawns to kick things off.


Getting to old Hindustan from the States is a bit of a bitch (but well worth it!) and there’s more than one way to fly halfway across the globe. Getting there direct is the crap end of long-haul, but at least it’s out the way and you can start your Indian adventure with only one piece of tarmac to negotiate. Air India flies direct out of NYC to Mumbai, their fleet is top-notch and the service way better than you’ll be used to. You can bag a round-trip economy seat for around $1400 and be hitting curry central in around 15 hours. The cheaper option is to break your flight up with a brief stopover in the Gulf and most of the Arabian operators run a service – again NYC is your hub. Take a look at Etihad who are very reasonably priced, run a shiny new fleet and do the job in around 22 hours. The other alternative is to charge over the Pond to London and then hop aboard a Delhi or Mumbai bound flight with British Airways or Virgin for around $800. Again it’s worth looking at Indian operators like Jet, Air India and Kingfisher as they really do offer generous cabin service.


Though the roads are totally impassable during the winter months, a trip up to Indian-owned sections of the Himalayas during summertime is worth it. Coaches, cars and bikes make the 16-hour trip into an ever-expanding landscape daily and the journey itself is a crazy experience. Once you’re up in the clouds most folk head for hippie heaven Manali, but we think it’s just too crusty with too many glow sticks and sweaty groins for comfort. So we’d recommend you swing the other side of the river and head to Vashisht which is quieter, but still full of sweet hotels, bars and the scent of wild growing weed. There’s no comparison with some of the luxurious locations we’ve mentioned, but rooms at the Hotel Bhrigu in Vashisht are clean and the food decent for about $25-30 a night for a double with a balcony. What’s more, the views of the Himalayan giants which surround you are awesome. While you’re there test your nerve with a drive along Rohtang Pass and its hairpin laden climb to the Chinese border. For a more upmarket, and sedate experience, head back down to Shimla and the Oberoi’s Wildflower Hall where you can gaze at the peaks from the luxury of a hot tub.


If you’re traveling in March, celebrate Spring Indian style on a diet of paint, water, booze and weed-marinated bhang lassi yogurt drinks. The whole country literally stops to celebrate for 24 hours and one and all get smashed while throwing paint and water at one another – even the cops on duty get wasted.


Over 1,900 miles in length and equally as broad in places, India’s got a huge mainland to explore, but she’s also got a network of fantastic islands on your doorstep too. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands lie deep in the Bay of Bengal and are actually closer to Myanmar soil, but remained under Indian governance after the Brits left in 1947. Now the former penal colony for undesirables of the Raj is fast becoming a go to destination, its crop of coral reefs making it a water sports haven. Direct flights are a bit pricey (around $1100 return out of Chennai), but once you’re there decent hotels are on the cheap side. Check out Fortune Resort’s Bay Island in Port Blair where a decent room will dent your bank balance by about $100 a night… with breakfast.


At just five hours drive from India’s capital Delhi, the Pink City of Jaipur is a popular tourist destination. Fortunately, it’s laden with top places to stay and almost every property has some heritage connection to some filthy rich Maharaja. Nightlife is pretty much confined to the hotels, but if you want to take a drink in luxury, there are few better places on the planet to get plastered. Top of the list has got to be a visit to Rambagh Palace which is exactly what is says it is – a palace! In fact, up until 1957 it was the official royal residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur and, judging by the luxury levels of his pad, he had some serious dough. We suggest drinks in the Polo Bar followed by amazing Indian cuisine in what was his dining room. Wash this down with more drinks on his terrace and you’ve a pretty perfect evening out.


Kashmir is way up high near the border with Pakistan and is an area that’s been deeply contested by the two nations since partition in 1947. However, it does boast India’s best skiing in Gul Marg. Fly to Srinagar from Delhi for peanuts and then it’s a 35 mile taxi jaunt to the highest ski lift on the planet. Staying in the resort is dirt cheap with good hotels charging under $80 a night. Check out The Highland Park and its colonial charm if you want to show off to your arm candy. Oh and be sure to take a hard hat as the slopes have been mortar shelled before by the angry neighbours.


If you make it to the madness of Mumbai, you’ll need to seek solace and space from the madding crowd and there’s nowhere more iconic in the city than Leopold Café. It’s not really a café though, it’s more of a bar/eatery and it’s an absolute institution in the city and lively from dusk until dawn. Leo’s, as it is affectionately known locally, was name checked constantly in Gregory Roberts’ drug-running tale Shantaram (it was his local watering hole) and was also the first place to be struck in the infamous Mumbai terror attacks of 2008. If you do go for beers, be sure to ask a waiter to show you the terrorist’s bullets in the walls.


Finding a quiet space for a chill-out in Goa is almost a thing of the past. The place has fast-become a bastion for package tours and chubby Russians – we’re not kidding you, some restaurants only have menus in Cossack-speak! Thank the gods, then, for Asvem Beach at Mandrem in the north of Goa which still retains a little of what made this stretch of India famous. You can still party all night and chill all day, but you can do it without package coaches roaring by or that fat, freckled family from Omaha disturbing your peace. The beach is pretty and remains largely unspoiled by commercialism. For the ideal stay, check out the French run luxury camping tents at Amarya Shamiyana – they’re exquisitely furnished, have air-conditioning and are just 50 paces from the ocean.


Located on East Coast Road in Tamil Nadu, the Mahabalipuram shore temples have been staring silently out across the Bay of Bengal for over 1300 years now. They’re some of the oldest and most beautiful temples in India and if you’re headed from Chennai to Pondicherry, make sure you stop and take in these fantastic dedications to Shiva and Vishnu.


You won’t necessarily have heard of him but Tiger Pataudi, as he was widely known, was one cool dude. Not only was he royalty, but he also captained India at cricket and married a gorgeous Bollywood actress. Sadly he’s dead now, but he left his legacy for us all to enjoy in the shape of Pataudi Palace. An hour out of Delhi, the palace is now a heritage hotel jam-packed with sports memorabilia and photos of Tiger on tour. Meanwhile in America: Tiger Woods, you owe us a palace! Jerk! Hand it over.


If South Delhi is testimony to India’s recent march towards commercialisation, then north of Connaught Place is the place to go for a taste of days gone by. In Chandni Chowk you can still wander the markets and breathe in the heady mix of centuries of spice. If you’re feeling peckish, stop for a bite at a street food vendor or take in one of the area’s famous paratha shops that litter the labyrinthine lanes of old Delhi. On your way back burn off the calories with a stomp around The Red Fort or escape the madness with a wander around India’s biggest mosque, Jama Masjid.


Of the many five star hotels in Delhi, The Park is probably the funkiest. A stone’s throw from Jantar Mantar (Delhi’s giant stone 400 year-old astronomical instrument designed to measure the sun and planets’ movements) and a short hop from the lively Connaught Place, The Park is famous for its Sunday pool parties where DJs pump out house music late into the night while the city’s socialites play volleyball and knock back cocktails. If you get hungry, be sure to chow down at the bar and enjoy the hotel’s legendary pizzas or, if you fancy something more substantial, slip out of your surf shorts, comb your hair and feast fine dining style at Fire, The Park’s Indian fusion eatery. Rooms with a brilliant breakfast go for around a $160 a night.


If you want a real taste of the exotic that India serves up, get your head tuned into some Qawwali mystical music. In Delhi, for example, every Thursday night at Nizamuddin Auliya close by to the magical Humayan’s Tomb tourists, folks gather to listen to the mind-spinning chants that send some into a trance. Some of you might think it’s a little bit out there, but it’s magical and like nothing else you’ll have ever experienced. You don’t have to stay long and, as it’s very close to the hotel hub, it won’t be too far from your digs and a cold one.


A trip to India isn’t complete without a visit to the country’s most famous holy river The Ganges. Varanasi is an option, but we think Rishikesh offers so much more for you to do and it’s also closer to the river’s source, so it’s much cleaner. Be warned the town is dry, so you’ll have to pack bottles and drop a nip into the fresh juices the riverside bars sell. The town runs both sides of the banks and is joined by a footbridge that’s home to hundreds of greedy and audacious monkeys. After you’ve wandered the banks and teased the apes to dangerous distraction, take one of the river’s many white water rafting trips. Staying in town is cheap and basic but tolerable. If you want to really splash the cash, The Glasshouse, just out of town and nestled on the banks, is the way to go.


If you treat yourself to one culinary indulgence while on Indian soil, doll yourself up for a night and dine out at one of the country’s finest restaurant experiences, The Spice Route at The Imperial Hotel in New Delhi. Feast on chef Veena Arora’s Thai, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan or South Indian main dishes. Our pick of the bunch is the lobster served in the shell with ginger and Thai black mushrooms. Fine wine can be a little tricky to get hold of, but at the Spice Route there’s an eclectic collection and even some vintage from lesser known but reputed vineyards, and there are bottles to suit every budget.


The image of the Indian train travel to most is one of clapped out engines held bravely together by a sturdy crew while tens of thousands of grubby urchins scramble for space on dirty carriage roofs. But India boasts a pretty amazing rail network that offers greater reliability and punctuality than most “first world” train sets. It is possible to do it on the absolute cheap, but for a bit more green you can travel on Shatabdi and Rajdhani Express trains in an air-conditioned seat and dine on the network’s brilliant Railway Curry. The railway is also about the best way to travel the length of the country and take in her dramatic changes in color and vista. Departing from Delhi, trains run direct to Chennai in the south for a shade over $50. For this you’ll get an A/C seat and sleeping cabin and all your meals for the two day haul. India’s picturesque hill stations, once the refuge of the British Raj during the blistering summer heat, also have their own rail services, and in some cases, it’s the only way to reach sanctuary. These narrow-gauge ‘toy trains’ have been winding their way up and down pretty hilltop towns like Shimla in the north and Ooty in the south for over a century and are the best way to enjoy the climb. Of course if your bags are filled with money, then the Maharaja Express is for you. It’ll knock you for eight grand for a six night tour of Agra, Varanasi and Lucknow, but it’s champagne, fine dining and a luxury berth all the way for that cash.


If you’re looking to impress a lady then there are few more lavish and romantic places to take her than the Jag Mandir water palace in Udaipur. Once the palace pad of the local Rajasthani royalty, it was transformed into a five star hotel in the 60s by the then Maharana. The only way to reach your island haven is by boat, but once there you’ll wallow in absolute luxury. Some of you may even recognise the place as it was used extensively in Roger Moore’s Bond movie Octopussy.


Lake Vembanad is the largest lake in South Asia and makes up part of Kerala’s backwater network of canals and waterways that meander for 1000 miles through tropical forests before draining into the Arabian Sea. Most folk hire themselves a houseboat with crew, stock up on beer and local liquor and just cruise gently around the islands drinking and dining on local Kerala cuisine cooked up by your personal chef. But if boating isn’t your thing, hire your own personal island. Vaamika Island is perched on the lake and features two luxury villas that can comfortably cope with up to eight thirsty friends. Chill by the pool as the fishing boats drift by, lounge in the hot tub or take the island’s speed boat for a spin. There’s no fixed dining times or set places, you just order from an extensive selection of South Indian seafood dishes and do your thing.


It does rather depend which end of the country you’re headed but in the south it never sinks far below 80 degrees during the day and about 65 degrees on a winter’s night. Watch out for monsoon season that normally kicks in around October and runs out of steam in December. Up north in Delhi, the best time to visit is late September through the end of November, where temperatures laze in the mid to upper 80s and the heat is dry. February and March are also good, but leave any later and the heat soars up into the 100s. There are also crazy dust storms to contend with, blown in on monsoon winds from the Rajastan desert. For Goa and Kerala, the best times are around Christmas through the beginning of April when the rains arrive.


Indians love their food and each province of the country has its own distinctive cuisine that’s a far cry from anything any curry house catering you’ve chowed down at. Of course each region believes its dishes rule the curry roost, but if you love your curry hot, then Goan chicken Xacuti is the dish to tempt your taste buds. We recommend going local at any of the Goa beach shacks.. Wash it down with a cold Kingfisher or, better still, a local King beer if it’s available.


India’s Brit-built hill stations are famous tourist hangouts, which is fine if you don’t mind busloads of overweight non-ovulating oldies in search of nirvana screaming, “Oh-my-Gawd!” every time a Shiva shrine pops into view or there’s a sniff of a snowy peak. For the station experience without so much hustle and/or bustle try Yercaud in Tamil Nadu. Best reached by the obligatory narrow-gauge railway, Yercaud sits atop acres of coffee plantations. The best hotel option is the Grand Palace where you can bag a suite with mountain views for a pinch over sixty bucks. Once you’re settled in you can explore the hillsides trekking or watch from a more sedate distance in your own personal Jacuzzi.


If you like bling with a capital B, then you need to make a beeline for the Zuri Hotel in Bangalore. Karnataka, the state Bangalore sits in, is often referred to as The Garden State because of its warm constantly consistent climate, which means you never really have to worry about the weather. Traffic in Bangalore is a major bitch so we recommend checking into the Zuri and staying put. Rooms feel more like you’re in a plush nightclub and epitomize over the top (zebra striped armchairs and matching rug anyone?). There’s great Italian fine dining on site and even a club and cocktail bar which packs out at weekends. If it’s rays you crave, then there’s also a very cool rooftop pool and barbeque grill to soak up the sun with nibbles.