The Maharajas’ Express. Just the name makes you think of a turbaned prince draped in silks and jewels charging across a magical land in the era of Raj. But this iron horse is not only a modern rendition of bygone days, it’s also one of the most luxurious trains in all of Asia. With forty-three cabins featuring hand-carved wooden furniture, private bathrooms (some with roll-top bathtubs), personal valets, and laundry service—plus two elegant restaurants, an observation car with a library, and a round-the-clock lounge car—this five-star hotel on wheels promises all that is enchanting about incredible India, with none of the ew.
On the evening of your arrival at the Delhi station, the train’s staff rolls out an actual red carpet. The minute you step onto it, you’re leied with a garland of marigolds, smudged between the eyes with a bindi, served watermelon juice in a highball glass, and serenaded by sitar-players. A fourteen-foot-tall elephant made of orange and yellow marigolds watches while you’re escorted down a sandalwood-scented corridor to your junior suite, fit for a king as promised, and you feel the door of familiarity close behind you. As the train whistle blows and the wheels begin to turn beneath your feet, you feel a little frightened, a little giddy. What adventures will the next eight days and seven nights bring?
The Indian Panorama Route snakes through Delhi, Jaipur, Ranthambore, Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Varanasi, and Lucknow. The government-owned Indian Railway Catering and Tourism (IRCTC) website promises that this route, often called the Golden Triangle, is the perfect way to explore northern India in just a week. From the Taj Mahal to the Ganga, you’ll see it all. As you rock to sleep in your cozy bed, the Orient Express of the East will whisk you along the rails, from one magical destination to the next.
But first things first. Dinner. We chose the restaurant with the gilded green interior, and our enthusiastic chef with a Western name but an Eastern heritage introduced us to the concept of thali (small dishes served on one plate that represent the six flavors of sweet, salty, bitter, sour, astringent, and spicy).
“Each night you will, if you like, sample food from the region which you have visited that very day,” said Mr. North as if he were explaining that we’d just been granted eternal life. Palms pressed together, he gave each of us a nod and smiled into our eyes. If anyone loves his job, it’s this guy.
Our meals came out on silver platters served by men with elaborate turbans and impeccable manners. I scanned the complicated tableware in hopes that my limited mastery of fine-dining etiquette would see me through all three courses. I’d hate to disappoint Rajesh, the head waiter who’d already caught me eating left-handed, a big no-no in these parts.
After stuffing ourselves like oligarchs, we were greeted in our cabin by hand towels twisted into swans with coffee beans for eyes. Carefully perched atop each pillow was a small box of chocolates and an itinerary (complete with an “amusing anecdote”) for the following day’s destination. What else could a passenger want or need on a train trip, I couldn’t imagine. The whole night it felt like we’d been pulled into a fantasy.
“Wasn’t the dining car amazing?” I yelled to Chris as I washed my face in the full-sized adjoining bathroom. “All that silver and gold and the whole peacock theme? I felt like we were in a movie. But I thought it was kind of strange how the window shades were all shut. Did you notice?”
Chris was about to answer when someone knocked softly at the door. It was Sita, our handsome swan-twister from Rajasthan. Would we be wanting anything before turning in for the evening, he asked. I ordered a cup of chamomile tea, which made me feel awkward and guilty, until I realized that, as our personal butler, Sita would be at my disposal all hours of the day and night. I could ask for almost anything, anytime. What a delightful system!
“And I’ll have coffee at 7:15,” I quickly added. “With warm milk, not too much, though. Just this much.” I held my thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart. Sita nodded and smiled and left backward through the doorway.
“He didn’t understand any of that, did he?” I asked Chris.
“No. But to answer your other question,” he said as he pulled off his shoes. “Yes, I did notice the shades were shut, and I think it probably has to do with the fact that we were parked at a station platform.”
“Well, I think most people onboard would find it uncomfortable to dine in luxury while people with next to nothing stare at you.”
His words pinched me awake from my Bollywood dream. I’d been so busy gawking at other passengers and gushing over all the luxurious amenities onboard that I hadn’t even thought about what was outside. It was too late to open our cabin’s shades now. The train had left the city lights, and the countryside would be dark as pitch. I switched off the lamp and promised myself that tomorrow I would pay better attention to the other India. The one outside the Maharajas’ Express.
(Photo courtesy Susan Hunsberger)