A Better Tour of India Because We Used Abercrombie & Kent

Agra market we would not have seen if it were not for our guide, Manu Pathak.

Agra market we would not have seen if it were not for our guide, Manu Pathak.

By Jean and Peter Richards

We don’t herd well, but Abercrombie & Kent may have tamed us.

For half a century we have traveled by planning hundreds of our own trips, making arrangements directly and wandering about on our own in nearly 40 countries on five continents.

India stumped us. Twice, well into planning, we abandoned a trip as too daunting — especially after we learned that the independent traveler could find confirmed bookings unavailable, accurate information unobtainable and communication unsatisfactory.

An email from  Abercrombie & Kent changed all that. India was on sale — a 10 day private tour of the Golden Triangle – Delhi, Jaipur, Fatehpur Sikri and Agra – in November 2013, complete with personal guides, driver and top tier accommodation at $2,230 per person double occupancy, exclusive of international air fair and travel document fees. We opted out of an insurance fee.

Our first thought, even given A & K’s fine reputation, was how bad can this kind of tour be? We had visions of being hauled out at dawn, herded through sites and hounded to shop, but those were the concessions to be made to comfort and ease. We knew people who took tours, but we didn’t do that. Well, now we have and there were no meaningful concessions to make.

It’s difficult to conceive of a travel company with a higher standard than A & K. The attention to detail was extraordinary.

Little did we know that Tej Kapoor — dapper in the signature A & K  blue blazer, grey slacks and yellow striped tie — who greeted us at Indira Gandhi International Airport was no mere host but the negotiator of the intricacies that make one feel in good hands from check in to final send off. He was superb.

Our guides, licensed by the government of India, were independent contractors who frequently work with A & K. In Delhi, Mahesh Ramnani’s breadth and ability to adjust to the clients’ interests was remarkable. His was not a recitation, but a cultural survey adjusted to our speed. Vivrendra (Viru) Singh seemed to know every other guide in Jaipur since he was a leader of their association. His patter was more perfunctory, but no less knowledgeable. And then there was Manu Pathak, a pioneer amongst females who endured the clichéd hijinks and sometimes hostility known to women world-wide breaking into male bastions. Her experience as a former teacher of history and English served us well: her grace, substance and flexibility enhanced our experiences in Agra immeasurably.

Guides often get a commission when clients make purchases. None of these guides took it amiss that we bought practically nothing.

Rajinder Singh Bala was with us for a week. We couldn’t have asked for a better driver. With confidence and steady foot on the pedal, he negotiated our comfortable van through incredible traffic and around cow, water buffalo, rickshaw, festive parade, barrow and bike through the whole trip. Whenever we exited a sight, he was right there waiting for us.

Manu looks after an Old Maine Traveler.

Manu looks after an Old Maine Traveler.

Good accommodations are part of the A & K experience. The Taj Palace in Delhi was a refuge from its teeming streets. The Jai Mahal in Jaipur was as much a destination as the pink city itself. The ITC Mughal, a Starwood Hotel, is showing signs of wear and its buffet dining room left much to be desired. When we complained about the poor quality of a dinner, a manager graciously removed it from our bill. The Crowne Plaza in Delhi offered a spacious and comfortable final stay.

But for breakfast and one lunch we forewent, we were left to forage on our own for evening meals. A little research and the occasional tip from a guide yielded spectacular results at Blue Ginger, a Vietnamese pan-Asian restaurant at the Taj Palace, at Cinnamon, the wonderful Indian restaurant at The Jai Mahal where we wanted to take the chef home and at Charcoal Chimney across the street from the ITC Mughal in Agra. (A review of Cinnamon appears separately.)

Jai Mahal Palace.

Jai Mahal Palace.

The highest compliment we can pay Abercrombie and Kent is to say that we would not hesitate to travel with them again under the same circumstances. Unfortunately, we later learned that A & K seldom offers this sort of personalized program at such a reasonable price.

Copyright © 2014 Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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