Touring India in style aboard the Deccan Odyssey

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Life is good aboard the Deccan Odyssey India. At home, my mornings start to the dull pulse of the alarm clock. But aboard this luxury train traversing India's Maharashtra state, they began with soft rap on my cabin door by my butler, Harish, ready with a cup of tea. He then escorted me to breakfast as I caught a glimpse of the rising sun through the compartment windows.

After complete culinary satisfaction, it was time to alight at our first stop. I was greeted at the station platform with a garland of flowers by a local welcome committee, to the accompaniment of live drums and horns, and by my private guide for the day's excursion.

This is a lot for me to absorb, a far cry from my quotidian routine, but I have no complaints.

Chugging along for four years now, the 96-passenger Deccan Odyssey, a joint venture of the Maharashtra Tourism Development Corp. and Indian Railways, is India's premier train. It crosses Maharashtra, making stops at diverse points of interest: cultural villages, historical cities, centuries-old UNESCO World Heritage Sites and beaches along the Arabian Sea coast.

Onboard, guests are treated to stately cabins, gourmet Indian cuisine and exceptional amenities, not to mention terrific views of rustic landscapes along the way.

Sure, a visitor to India can rough it, like the fictional trio of brothers do in director Wes Anderson's new film, "The Darjeeling Limited." But did I mention the personal wake-up call from my butler?

The train consists of 44 suites in 11 cars, four presidential suites in two cars, two restaurant cars, a bar car, a conference car with business center and a spa car with salon and gym.

Amenities include cell phones on demand, laundry, 24-hour room service, welcome amenity kits, daily newspapers, bottled water and flat-screen TVs.

Cabins on the Deccan Odyssey are priced from $350, double.

The following are highlights of the seven-day trip.

Day 1, Mumbai: Attractions abound in the dizzying city of Mumbai, where I arrived to board the Deccan Odyssey, but I had limited time to explore.

I had a 4 p.m. departure from Victoria Terminus station, so I made sure I cruised the short ferry ride from the Gateway of India to Elephanta Island, a UNESCO site that features sixth-century, rock-carved temples, which are admired for both historic and aesthetic value.

Thriving and inexpensive street markets made shopping a priority before a quick tour of Gandhi's living quarters. Then came a ride in one of the city's ubiquitous, vintage taxis to the train station.

After I boarded the train, Harish showed me to my cabin. As the train set forth, I explored the range of services offered.

Day 2, Ratnagiri: The contrast between Mumbai's bustle and the quiet pace of Ratnagiri was obvious as soon as we detrained, but it wasn't until I was sprawled on gorgeous Ganpatipule Beach that I understood the importance of experiencing the ambient side of India.

A modest fishing village, Ratnagiri is known for its mangos and fresh catches from the Arabian Sea as well as a coastline with miles of sandy beaches. A wealth of entertainment was provided for train guests: camel and horseback riding on the beach, bull-cart sightseeing through the village and the services of a henna artist and certified astrologer.

 

Day 3, Sindhudurg: From Sindhudurg Nagari Station, we leisurely navigated a small, local market to reach Malvan Jetty, the launch pad for the impregnable, never-conquered 16th century Ocean Fort of Sindhudurg. Small, wooden boats steered by local fishermen ferried us to the site.

Our group of 16 was later shuttled to Tarkarli, a beach resort where, for approximately $20, I received a traditional, Aryuvedic, four-hand massage.

The excursion concluded with a visit to Sawantwadi, a small town under the World Heritage umbrella for its Royal Palace and unique wadas (houses) and popular for its handicrafts and performing arts.

Day 4, Goa: This city may be a young jet-setter's paradise with its sublime beaches and European flair, but it's also rich in history, predominantly in Old Goa.

The Portuguese settled Goa in the 16th century, introducing Catholicism, so it was an interesting change of pace to visit Christian churches rather than Hindu shrines. We explored the awe-inspiring remnants of the Church of St. Augustine, its tower still rising high in the sky. Nearby, the 400-year-old Basilica De Bom Jesus is home to the remains of St. Francis Xavier.

Back onboard the train, our locomotive ascended into the mountains, passing cascading waterfalls that glimmered from the full moon's warm cast.

Day 5, Kolhapur and Pune: At Kolhapur, a city dating to the third century B.C., Chhatrapati Shivaji's three-century rule is showcased in the New Palace, which was converted into a museum. In the Old Palace, we were treated to a traditional martial arts performance.

Next stop: Pune. The train's spa was a comfortable refuge during the long haul. A rarity for trains, the Deccan Odyssey offers a full-service spa with a steam room.

Before dinner, we stopped in Pune, where I dusted off my haggling skills at the Fashion Street market, where silk scarves can be had for as little as $3.

Day 6, Aurangabad: The farther we traveled into the heart of the Deccan Plateau, we Americans became more "exotic" to the locals -- particularly so, it seemed, in Aurangabad, a city that is home to Daulatabad, a 12th-century fortress that's one of the world's best preserved.

Nearby are the Ellora Caves, a World Heritage site comprising 34 structures excavated out of the face of the Charanandri hills. They were carved between the fourth and seventh centuries.

Ellora's most popular cave is No. 34, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. It is the biggest, man-made monolith structure in the world.

Day 7, Ajanta and Nashik: We rose early to visit Maharashtra's most renowned attraction, the Ajanta Caves. These remote caves, once a Buddhist refuge, date to as early as 2 B.C. and feature some of the oldest paintings in the world. They remained unnoticed until 1819, when British officers stumbled upon them during a tiger hunt.

Still entranced, we were ushered to Nashik, one of the four ancient cities of India (founded in A.D. 150) to admire the Sita Gumpha. The underground caves of this temple are approximately 3,500 years old.

Sales agents for the Deccan Odyssey include SITA World Travel (800-421-5643; www.sitatours.com), TravBuzz (877-GO-INDIA; www.travbuzz.com) and Travel Corporation India (866-674-8687; www.tcindia.com). For more on the Deccan Odyssey and Maharashtra state, visit www.maharashtratourism.gov.in.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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