If ever a train deserved star billing, it is this one. Heralded by its creators as the jewel in the crown of India’s luxury trains, the $12 million Maharajas’ Express took nearly a year to build and is the first-ever venture between a British tour operator and the Indian Railways. Most important of all, it traverses one of the most interesting and varied routes in the entire country.
Luxury trains in India are nothing new, of course. There are now at least four (see “India by Train”) that tackle a variety of routes and visit some of the country’s great sites. Easily accessed and tourist-friendly, Rajasthan is the most popular of these itineraries, led by the nearly 30-year-old Palace on Wheels. Recently several new trains have begun to explore sites in South India as well.
So what makes the Maharajas’ Express stand out? First off, it’s the only luxury train licensed to go anywhere in India. This means it can rather easily reach some wonderful but far-flung sites that, unlike those in Rajasthan, often don’t have much in the way of five-star accommodation. The other big difference is the sheer cost of the trip: a starting price of $6,400 for a seven-night, eight-day journey (compared to $4,130 for the most expensive of the other trains, $3,000 for the least). It’s a lot of money, but then this is a lot of train—23 luxurious carriages stretching nearly a mile.
The train debuted in March with two main routes. The first, and more standard, takes in Rajasthan, but it’s the Delhi–Lucknow round-trip that’s much more interesting. Many stops along this path just wouldn’t be accessible otherwise—at least not without long drives over bad roads, slow rides on crowded local trains, multiple air transfers, or a combination of all three.
The trip embraces India’s full history, including stops in Varanasi, Khajuraho, two UNESCO World Heritage sites, and Bandhavgarh National Park for tiger spotting. Without the train, seeing all this in eight days would be a logistic nightmare, only possible for someone with endless enthusiasm, time, and patience.
Which isn’t to say this trip is an entirely easy one. Despite the train’s many comforts—elegant dining carriages, luxurious marble bathrooms—the itinerary and pace can be exhausting. Visiting these great sites requires time, which often means getting up at 6:30 a.m., breakfasting at 7:30, and not returning to the train until dinner. (There is, however, always a midday stop at a luxury hotel—the Taj Gateway Hotel Ganges in Varanasi, say, or the Usha Kiran Palace in Gwalior—for lunch, a swim, maybe a spa treatment.)
For the most part, the schedule is worth it. Even after a dozen trips to India, I saw new wonders on this one: monolithic Jain statues, the great fort of Gwalior, and the sensual, exquisite carvings of the ninth- and tenth-century temples at Khajuraho. One evening, on our way back to the train, we joined a small village celebrating the festival of Navratri. Another afternoon we had high tea on the lawn of the Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior. We arrived in Varanasi as the sun set over the Ganges and watched as thousands of pilgrims washed, bathed, and prayed in the holy river.
At every stop there were excellent English-speaking guides, and Mark Tully, for many years the voice of India on the BBC, served as a wonderful onboard lecturer. (There are plans for more guest speakers this fall.) The train’s tour directors looked after everyone carefully, and nothing was seen as too much trouble, be it a stop for a special brocade in Varanasi, a visit to a certain museum in Gwalior, or a delivery of Gwalior’s famous sweet sesame Gajak biscuits, which, once mentioned, rapidly appeared in a guest’s cabin.%new_page%
The train carries 84 passengers and more than 50 staff, plus a paramedic for good measure. My room was a revelation: queen-sized bed, flat-screen TV, panoramic windows, and, oh, the bathroom! A marble shower and basin would have been enough, but the pale rosy-pink Indian marble tub and mother-of-pearl mosaic tiles on the wall were out of this world. And the rosewater sprays and saffron soaps made for quiet comforts after a long day. (Admittedly this was a suite—$11,200 per person for the week—but several passengers who had been on other tourist trains in India remarked that the Maharajas’ was indeed the most luxurious.)
In the two dining carriages—the crimson-hued Rang Mahal (Red Palace) and the blue-and-green Mayur Mahal (Peacock Palace)—there’s a four- or five-course dinner menu that changes nightly, with a choice of Indian and Western dishes: lahsooni jalpari (Indian-spiced prawns roasted with garlic) or foie gras and wild mushroom ravioli to start, followed by local bekti fish sautéed in butter or prepared Indian-style in tamarind sauce with cashews and poppy seeds. Best of all was the selection of decadent Indian desserts.
The trip isn’t yet perfect. Certain dishes, like a strange chicken with sweet corn and chocolate, were too ambitious. And some leisure time, to be spent looking at the passing countryside, would have been nice. The charming young butlers in each carriage were willing but relatively inexperienced, and wake-up calls weren’t entirely guaranteed.
When the train starts back up in September, however, after a five-month hiatus for monsoon season, the staff will have received more training, guests will be able to skip afternoon excursions to rest back on the train, and the menus will have been completely revamped. The kinks, in other words, should be worked out.
But in India there is always an element of the unexpected: No two journeys are ever the same. That’s just one part of what makes the country so extraordinary. Its long-standing passion for trains and train travel is another. There is something uniquely personal and profoundly touching about the pride Indians take in their railways, and so it is with this train. Those with the stamina for it are in for an adventure. Bookings can be made directly at rirtl.com or through an India specialist like Greaves Travel (800-473-2837; greavestravel.com).