I’ve just experienced the most luxurious way of travelling in India. Red carpet welcomes, chai-bearing butlers, expert-led excursions – a journey on the Maharajas’ Express is pure indulgence.
Voted the world’s leading luxury train 5 times in the row, rail journeys on the Maharajas’ Express combine utmost comfort with some of India’s most iconic destinations.
The ruby-red train chugs along 7 different itineraries (including 2 routes in the south of India) and I was a lucky guest on The India Panorama, which travels from Delhi to Jaipur, Ranthambore, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, Gwalior, Khajuraho, Varanasi and Lucknow.
Many people have fears about travel in India – yes it can be crowded and confronting, particularly for first-timers – but the Maharajas’ Express removes many elements of doubt by taking care of all the logistics for you.
Certainly, if you want a more immersive India travel experience, this is not it. But if you’re keen to explore the heritage, culture and lip-licking cuisine of India in a stress-free and stylish fashion, then this luxury train is the way to do it.
Review of the Maharajas’ Express
The Indian Panorama route
The Indian Panorama is the perfect itinerary for a first-timer in India. It covers most of the big-ticket items in the north of India with a local guide by your side to share expert insights into their city.
Highlights for me included learning the love story of the Taj Mahal, exploring the mirrored ceilings and pink walls in Jaipur, searching for tigers on safari in Ranthambore and cruising down the River Ganges in Varanasi, observing life and death on the Ghats and the daily Aarti ceremony.
Excursions on the Maharajas’ Express
As a guest of the Maharajas’ Express you are whisked past entry queues and all visitor fees are covered. The local guides are on hand to direct your attention to significant parts of the World Heritage Sites and many of them are truly adept at bringing the history to life.
The palaces Emperor Akbar built for his 3 wives at Fatehpur Sikri suddenly meant so much more when myself and my fellow travel companions had claimed one each. (I regretted going for the small, gem-filled one when I saw the size of the other wives’ palaces.)
Seeing Lucknow through the eyes of a local who could share stories of the people’s famed politeness gave a new spin on the city and the salacious sculptures at Khajuraho somehow seemed so much naughtier with a professional guide sweetly pointing out delicately carved scenes from the Karma Sutra!
A journey on the Maharajas’ Express not only shows you historic sites but offers the unique opportunity to dine in them too. I thought breakfast on a mound overlooking the Taj Mahal would be hard to beat but when we arrived for dinner in the twinkly-lit grounds of Jai Vilas Palace in Gwalior, everyone was left speechless.
Dining on the Maharajas’ Express
Speaking of food, everything we ate during the 8-day experience was sensational and just to make sure Head Chef John Stone wanders the restaurant cars each evening asking how your meal was.
There is an a la carte menu for each meal with a mix of local Indian (with regional changes as the journey progresses) and international options. Personally, I could have dined on Thali for breakfast, lunch and dinner – and sometimes did.
Aside from the amazing variety and presentation of the dishes (especially considering the cramped and swaying conditions they were whipped up in) you can rest assured that every diet restriction and spice preference will be taken care of. Furthermore, the dishes are safe for Western bellies – only 1 of our group of 15 got sick during the trip and she thinks this was due to something consumed in Delhi.
The meals off the train are just as impressive and not just for their unique locations. Off-train meals are buffet style with drinks and starters circulated at the tables. I’m not a buffet fan but found it worked well in the circumstances. (In other words, I could pile as much paneer on my plate as I fancied!)
Local spirits, wine and beer are included in the price and are served at 2 lounges on board the train, as well as by the butlers (called valets) who can kindly bring a night cap to the room for you.
The Maharajas’ Cabins
I think the part that surprised me the most about the Maharajas’ Express were the cabins. After travelling on Australia’s luxury train, The Ghan, I was expecting the cabins on Maharajas’ to be a similar size but they were actually almost twice as big.
I stayed in a Junior Suite which has a double bed, desk, wardrobe and full sized en suite bathroom. There were enough drawers and wardrobe space for me to unpack and slide my case under the bed (never to be seen for a week), although I cannot vouch for how it would work with two people sharing.
The bathroom was also surprisingly good with a powerful and warm shower that worked even when it felt like we were moving at 100 km per hour. A number of toiletries and handy amenities, like ear plugs and eye mask, are left in the room and there is a TV, although English language channels were limited.
Service on the Maharajas’ Express
Overall, the service on the train was exemplary. There are multiple people to attend to your needs and service in the restaurant, in particular, was always swift and smiley.
The welcomes at each station, often involving guests being serenaded by local dancers and musicians and draped in floral garlands, were very impressive (sometimes overwhelmingly so – I’m sure all the locals wondered who on earth we were) and the guest relations team who come on excursions with you have thought of everything. (The bug spray Sheeti whipped out on the Ganges cruise was particularly helpful.) There is even a doctor on board who comes on excursions in case of any problems.
In my experience, the service from my valet was a little inconsistent – sometimes I was escorted to my room and offered refreshments and sometimes his welcoming smile when I returned to the train was nowhere to be seen. (I must admit I am probably a lot more independent than the train’s usual guests though so it could be I never saw my valet simply because I never called nor looked for him!) Other guests, however, spoke of excellent service from valets who woke them with chai and biscuits in the morning and gave them the agenda for the next day every evening.
I was a huge fan of the card that was left on the bed each evening with an interesting anecdote about the next day’s destination. (I’m such a geek I kept them as a souvenir.) Although personally I would have liked a more detailed daily agenda about departure, arrival and meal times just because I’m a planner and like to have everything noted.
What is travelling on a luxury train in India really like?
This style of travel with group excursions won’t suit everybody but it really is a great way to see a lot of India in a seamless, stress-free way.
You have some downtime on a couple of days to either read in the lounges or watch the scenery roll past the windows, this was some of my favourite times on the train to be honest.
There are also optional extras you can do book such as private shopping trips and spa treatments, but on our trip most of us were keen to get back to the train and soak up the rail experience. (Or should I say the surprisingly fast and free Wi-Fi – we are bloggers after all!)
Most of the moving is done of an evening and on certain stretches of the track things can get rather bumpy. You learn quite quickly how to brace yourself in bed on the first evening!
On mornings when you arrive early at the stations you may be woken by the jingle of the train announcements – both from the station and inside the train – but it’s nothing that some earplugs can’t fix. I sort of miss being woken by the bing, bing, bing of the tannoy system.
Our journey was unique as I was travelling with 14 other bloggers but we had a chance to talk to and observe other guests on the train who were mostly couples from the UK and US with one family (grown up kids) from Australia.
In terms of socialising, you’re welcome to keep to yourself of an evening if you’re done with chatting to the group but I noticed many guests made friends and would meet up for drinks in the Safari Bar after dinner.
For some daytime meals I preferred to dine alone, content to watch the scenery roll past the window, and on the livelier evenings it was fun to mingle with guests and learn about what they thought of the trip. None had regrets – at least that’s what they told me.
A journey on the Maharajas’ Express does not come cheap, but it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience like nothing else you can do in India, maybe even the world come to think of it. (Note: there are other luxury trains in India but Maharajas is said to be the best of the best – and from what I read/saw of the others I have to agree!)
If you’re a fan of rail journeys this one really needs to feature on your wish list. It combines the romance of rail travel with some of the most incredible world heritage sites in India – not to mention a New World Wonder. What more could you want from a train journey?
Fares for the 8-day Indian Panorama on the Maharajas’ Express start from $5980. Visit the official Maharajas’ Express website for special companion offers and further details on the train experience and journey.
Disclosure: I won my place on the Maharajas’ Express in a blogging competition hosted by Incredible India. No fees were paid for this post and all opinions are my own.