Travelers planning an India tour have myriad options

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For generations of travelers, the myriad charms of India have been irresistible. An exotic mix of high-altitude hiking, ancient Hindu temples, soothing spas and luxurious British-era hotels such as the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai have long enticed both hippies and well-heeled tourists from the West.

Yet, in the wake of 9/11 and India's ensuing nuclear standoff with Pakistan, the country's tourism industry went into a tailspin. Today, travel to the subcontinent is on the rebound.

"Inbound travel is on the up," said veteran guide Vaibhav Kala, proprietor of Delhi-based adventure outfit Aquaterra Adventures. According to Kala, better roads, automated railway reservation systems and cheaper domestic flights have made travel easier.

Last year, National Geographic Traveler magazine, perhaps forgetting India's long history as a destination for visitors, named the fast-developing nation "one of the world's emerging 'next places to go.' "

Indeed, by 2009 the Indian travel industry, including domestic and foreign tourists, is expected to earn $50 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, in 2006, increased bookings prompted Abercrombie & Kent to open its third India office in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan.

"India is once again attracting large numbers of Western visitors," said A&K President George Morgan-Grenville. "Our business is up dramatically."

Luxury and adventure

The one thing that has not gotten easier when it comes to visiting India is choosing what sort of trip visitors prefer: A luxurious tour of legendary monuments, such as the Taj Mahal in Agra; a multiday whitewater rafting adventure with riverside camping; an Aryuvedic retreat to the Himalayas; or perhaps a safari through one of India's national parks to search for a Bengal tiger.

What follows are a few new trips of note:

" The Soul of India: An Extraordinary Journey by Private Jet: This exclusive offering from Abercrombie & Kent is a three-week trip taking in India's top cultural destinations.

Stops include the sacred temples of Khajuraho; the scenic backwaters of Kerala, the Mughal monuments of New Delhi and Agra, including the Taj Mahal; and the cremation stands on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi.

Accommodations are in India's finest hotels. What's more, A&K offers the chance for personalized journeys with its Design Your Day options at many junctures. For instance, travelers can choose from yoga and cooking classes; outdoor activities such as golf and horseback riding; spa treatments; and visiting villages and markets off the beaten path.

In-country air travel takes place aboard a roomy, reconfigured Boeing jet staffed by gourmet chefs.

Dates: Sept. 23 to Oct. 14. For more information, call (800) 652-7984 or visit www.abercrombieandkent.com.

" Dharmsala Trekking Adventure: This Himalayan expedition is just one of many trips offered by the California-based outfitters at Mountain Travel Sobek in response to renewed interest in India. Other new MTS trips include a south India cultural tour and a tiger safari in India and Nepal.

Located in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, the picturesque town of Dharmsala is the home of the Tibetan government in exile, the Dalai Lama and about 8,000 Tibetan refugees.

The nearby mountains reach elevations greater than 20,000 feet, and this challenging, six-day guided hike reaches its highest point a little above 14,000 feet, meaning travelers will want to be in shape if they intend to join.

Other activities include temple visits; a stop in Brahmaur, the ancient capital of the Champa region; and shopping for traditional crafts at the Norbulingka Institute, which is dedicated to maintaining Tibetan culture. Clients also spend two nights in New Delhi.

"I invite you to share the culture and beauty of this region," said MTS trip leader Ramesh Gurung, son of a member of the British Gurkha Regiment who grew up nearby.

Dates: Oct. 8 to 19. For more, call (888) 687-6235 or visit at www.mtsobek.com.

" The Total Tons Tonnage: Kala and the crew at Aquaterra Adventures know a thing or two about whitewater, having pioneered commercial rafting trips down the Brahmaputra in India's northeast and leading the way for outdoor adventures across the subcontinent.

For the past two years, they have also been offering a river trip on the Tons River in the newly formed state of Uttaranchal.

Outside magazine features this river runner's dream in its Best Trips 2007 package.

Kala and friends also put on a great feed, so if paddling rapids is not your thing, you may still want to book a few days at the Lunagad Camp, a day's drive from Delhi, where the 11-day expedition kicks off. Either way, Lunagad provides an escape from India's urban crowds.

Dates: April 24 to May 4. Contact Aquaterra Adventures at (011) 91-112 921-2641 or visit www.treknraft.com.

On, off the rails

" The Deccan Odyssey: India's answer to the Orient Express is Mumbai-based luxury railway the Deccan Odyssey, which got its start back in 2004.

This five-star train experience offers a week's worth of activities, starting with the historical Victoria Terminus rail station, eventually reaching the tiny state of Goa with its golden beaches overlooking the Arabian Sea.

Stops are made in Ajanta and Ellura for a tour of Buddhist-carved caves dating back to the fifth century.

The Odyssey further sets high standards for service, offering a spa, Aryuvedic treatments, a bar car and a lounge area with cable television in each coach.

If that is not enough, you can contact Abercrombie & Kent to arrange a Tailor Made rail trip, adding two days in Delhi.

Nature lovers, on the other hand, might want to travel with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, an Austin, Texas-based birding outfit that combines a safari with the rail trip.

The Odyssey runs year-round; the next VENT safari runs Feb. 1 to March 6, 2008. For the Odyssey, call (800) 824-6342 or visit www.deccan-odyssey-india.com. For VENT, call (800) 328-8368 or visit www.ventbird.com.

For more, visit India's tourism ministry Web site at www.incredibleindia.org.

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

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