Taj Mahal at sunrise

There are precious few manmade monuments that can rival the Taj Mahal’s magnificence and beauty

Touching down at the new international airport in New Delhi marked my first visit back to India since we left our home in Anand Lok seven years earlier. It was both strange and thrilling to back in the country where Katherine and I spent three years of our lives. While many of our expat friends had moved on and returned home to the UK, South Africa and Hong Kong, I was able to catch up with a few old friends and colleagues, including Vaibhav Kala – the owner of Aquaterra Adventures (https://www.aquaterra.in): the premier rafting and trekking operator in India.

Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra

I was in India with the Penry family with whom I had enjoyed a couple of great African safari adventures over the years. With only limited time at our disposal, this would be a whirlwind visit and, as such, we decided less was more and chose to focus on just two key destinations…

Our first stop was Agra. The new highway from Delhi is a revelation and has dramatically improved the travel experience and reduced the time required to drive between the two cities. After a painless journey, we checked into the opulent Oberoi Amarvilas (www.oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-agra-amarvilas-resort/). It is hard to do justice to this amazing hotel in a couple of sentences, but the fact it recently scooped the ‘Best Resort Hotel in India’ award in this year’s Travel & Leisure World’s Best Awards, should hint at what a special place this is to stay. The Mughal hotel enjoys an unrivalled position amongst luxury hotels in Agra, being located just 600 metres from the iconic Taj Mahal with every room enjoying uninterrupted views of this ancient monument to love.

Itmud-ud-daulah – often referred to as 'Baby Taj'

Itmud-ud-daulah – often referred to as ‘Baby Taj’

We started our sight seeing escapades at the tomb of Itmad-ud-daulah – more commonly known as the Baby Taj – that provides a great introduction to Agra’s cultural sites and monuments. It is an enduringly peaceful, white marble monument alongside the Yamuna River. An afternoon at the Baby Taj was followed by a trip to Mehtab Bagh – the 25 acre Mughal garden complex known as the Moonlight Garden. The garden lies directly across the river from the Taj Mahal and it provides spectacular views of the Taj at sunset, hinting at what lay ahead for us to enjoy the next morning.

The Penry family enjoying the Taj

The Penry family enjoying a visit to the Taj Mahal

My visit to the Taj the following day was my sixth visit to the ultimate monument to love. And I can honestly say that every time I step through the gate and behold the Taj, it is as impressive and as arresting in its beauty as the first time I saw it.

Both the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort have been deservedly been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites and these are two unique places you will never tire of exploring or appreciating. We took our time and basked in the splendor of the memorial to love along with Agra’s nearby fort.

From Agra we retraced our steps to Delhi airport and flew to Raipur: the gateway to Kanha National Park – India’s foremost tiger reserve and a hotspot for Asiatic wildlife viewing. Five days on safari here would yield a diverse array of birds and wild animals. Notable sightings included dhole (the Indian wild dog), gaur (Indian bison), barasingha (the endemic swamp deer) and tigers!

Male tiger displaying flemhen

Distinctive grimace of a male tiger displaying flehmen

We chose Taj Safari’s flagship Banjaar Tola lodge (https://taj.tajhotels.com/en-in/banjaar-tola-kanha-national-park/) as our safari base. Built within 90 acres of privately owned Sal forest, the safari lodge is split into two nine room camps strung out along the banks of the Banjaar River and overlooking the heart of Kanha National Park. Each elegant camp boasts its own swimming pool with indoor and outdoor lounge areas and a variety of intimate dining spaces under the stars. The cuisine at the camp celebrates tribal flavours presented with all-time Indian favourites to titillate every palate.

Peacock in flight

Peacock in flight

Sadly, the luxury tented camp was looking a little tired and rundown compared to my previous visits shortly after the &Beyond (formerly Conservation Corporation Africa) and Taj Hotels joint venture launched nine years earlier. While the lodge and food were perfectly adequate, it was the enthusiastic head naturalist guide assigned to show us around Kanha that made our Kanha safari such a win. Nara Rangaswami is without doubt the best field guide I have ever had the pleasure of exploring the wild areas of India, and I would certainly wholeheartedly recommend him to anyone fortunate enough to be visiting Banjaar Tola on safari.

Indian wild dogs - locally known as dhole - hunting spotted deer at dawn

Indian wild dogs – locally known as dhole – hunting spotted deer as a pack at dawn