One of the greatest advantages of luxury travel is access. Insider experiences — for instance, a tour of a museum's warehoused art or a behind-the-scenes look at a royal palace — are signature experiences being offered by some luxe operators.
But one of the greatest dangers of luxury travel is that, while one may get an exclusive look at what is typically inaccessible, one may never be exposed to the heartbeat of a culture — its commonplace street life — because, by definition, it doesn't contain luxe or exclusive elements.
On a recent trip to India, Greaves Travel, a self-described luxury operator based in Highland Park, Ill., put together an FIT for me that, in part, combined immersion into a very common Indian experience as well as an option very few Indians or visitors exploit.
Both, interestingly, involved transportation.
On previous visits to India, I had used bicycle rickshaws when they seemed to be the only mode of transportation still moving through otherwise jammed streets. But it turns out that the humble bicycle rickshaw is really a superior way to see certain aspects of the country's urban areas, and on my first full day in India, my Greaves guide organized a 20-minute rickshaw ride.
Starting near the entrance of Jama Masjid, the city's main mosque, the rickshaw driver's route purposefully plunged into the crowded, narrow lanes in the frenetic heart of Old Delhi.
Part of the unanticipated benefit of a bicycle rickshaw is that it makes one invisible. While it's great to walk through the streets, an alien presence — you — often modifies the behavior of people around you. But even though you're deeply embedded in typical city scenes while moving through them on a bicycle rickshaw, no one seems to notice you. It was an unexpectedly exhilarating ride; it provided a form of uncommon access to commonplace scenes.
Later in the trip, I would stay in some of the most opulent palace hotels in the country, enjoy treatments in some of the finest spas in Asia and eat at what is considered to be the best restaurant in the nation, but when all was said and done, the hard seat of the bicycle rickshaw provided some of my most vivid memories.
The second form of transport that made a big impact on me was a Greaves signature offering: private plane transportation. There are currently no scheduled commercial flights between Delhi and Agra, site of the Taj Mahal. And unfortunately, the 120-mile overland route from one city to the other is not particularly interesting and, depending on conditions, can take about half a day, one way.
Greaves, however, is sister company of Cambata Aviation, the largest independent ground handling company in the country, and it's possible to arrange a trip on one of their small, private planes nonstop from Delhi to Agra. (Although I stayed in Agra two nights, Greaves also offers the unusual possibility of taking a comfortable day trip from Delhi just to see the Taj Mahal.)
One begins the journey in style in terminal 1D in Delhi's Indira Gandhi Airport, in a lounge that's nicer than many airline club lounges one finds in the U.S.
Although I took only this one short leg of my trip by air, Greaves also offers customizable tours of the entire country by private plane.
The plane I was on didn't have the latest luxury bells and whistles, but it was comfortable and ultimately provided one of the most prized benefits of luxury travel: the ability to leapfrog over the tedious or dull. By that measure, it's the best mode of luxury transport in the country.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.