INDIA: OFF THE BEATEN TRAIL
KUTCH REGION OF GUJARAT
The vast Kutch region of Gujarat is sometimes described as India’s “wild west”. Much of Kutch consists of seasonal wetlands known as the Great Rann of Kutch (famous for its salt desert) and smaller Little Rann of Kutch (famous for its Wild Ass Sanctuary). The region’s handicraft villages are also a highlight.
SPITI, HIMACHAL PRADESH
When it comes to high altitude desert in India, you’ve most likely head of Leh and Ladakh. But what about lesser-known Spiti? Bordered by Ladakh in the north, Tibet to the east, Kinnaur to the southeast, and the Kullu Valley to the south, Spiti has an average height of around 12,500 feet above sea level. This stark alpine desert land is scattered with small villages and monasteries, and enclosed by soaring peaks crowned with snow.
MEGHALAYA, NORTHEAST INDIA
Meghalaya, in remote northeast India, used to be part of Assam. Known as the Abode of the Clouds, it’s famous for being the wettest place on earth. The state has an abundance of natural attractions. Much of the population is made up of tribal people — Khasis (the largest group), Garos, and Pnars — who predominantly earn their living from cultivation.
MAJULI, ASSAM, NORTHEAST INDIA
Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited river island, sits amidst the imposing Brahmaputra River in Assam. A world within a world, it’s accessible by a two hour public ferry ride from Nimati Ghat near Jorhat (famous for its tea). Ride bicycles though the fertile green landscape, go bird watching, and visit Hindu Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries. La Maison de Anand is a quaint bamboo stilt house homestay there, designed by a French architect who fell in love with Majuli. The Greener Pastures runs tours to the Majuli Ras Mahotsav festival in mid November each year. It celebrates the life of Lord Krishna with plays, folk dances, puppets, masks, songs and dance.
Thinking of visiting famous Kanha National Park but want to get away from the crowds as well? Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat is only 70 kilometers away and has three ambient cottages nestled in the Maikal Hills, close to the ancient Bhoramdeo temple complex. The owner is a native of the area and has an excellent rapport with the indigenous villagers, who belong to the Baiga and Gond tribes. Guests can visit their tolas (villages) and colorful weekly haats (tribal markets). Treks into the jungle are offered and the bird life is exceptional. It’s also possible to go on longer treks into the Maikal Hills, staying in villagers’ homes.
MAHESHWAR, MADHYA PRADESH
If the hustle of Varanasi is too much, Maheshwar is a more peaceful alternative. Often referred to as the Varanasi of central India, this small holy town is set along the banks of the Narmada river and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Stroll along the ghats and take a sunset boat ride along the river and out to the Baneshwar temple. If you want to splurge you can be a guest of the Holkar family at their Ahilya Fort hotel, which has been established in part of the palace. Maheshwar is also renowned for its weaving.
If you really want to go where very few tourists have gone before, head to Kalap, 7,500 feet above sea level in the upper Garhwal region of northern Uttarakhand. This tiny village is not accessible by road or rail (you’ll need to trek, and porters and mules are provided). A responsible tourism project was started there in 2013 to help the villagers generate an income. You can stay with them and experience their way of life, as well as spend time in the pristine surroundings
Conveniently located not far fromJodhpur, Bishnoi village provides an authentic experience of rural Rajasthan. The fascinating Bishnoi people revere nature and live in harmony with it, so much so that they bury their dead (instead of burn them like other Hindus) to preserve trees as wood is used in cremation. For a traditional stay, two of the best options are Chhotaram Prajapat’s Homestayand Bishnoi Village Camp and Resort. Alternatively, you can go on a Bishnoi Village Safari from Jodhpur. You’ll be able to visit artisans such as weavers, potters and block printers, and spot wildlife.
If you’re an art lover, or even someone who’s into architecture and history, the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan is well worth including on your itinerary. Located in the triangle of Delhi, Jaipur and Bikaner, many people overlook it in favor of more popular destinations in Rajasthan. However, this unique region is often referred to as the world’s largest open air art gallery.
The small town of Kannur, in northern Kerala, is known for its secluded beaches, mysterious masked spirit-possession theyyamrituals, and hand loom weaving. Thetheyyam season runs from October until May and Kerala Tourism has a comprehensive calendar of theyyam events. There are some delightful, laid back (and inexpensive) beach houses in the Thottada beach area, such asKannur Beach House, Waves Beach Resort, Chera Rock Beach House, and KK Heritage Homestay. Kannur district is also home to Muzhappilangad Drive-In Beach. You can drive all the way along its 4 kilometers of sand.
PICHAVARAM MANGROVE FOREST, TAMIL NADU
You can be forgiven if you didn’t know about Pichavaram mangrove forest, despite it being the world’s second largest mangrove jungle (the Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal is the largest). After all, it’s not on the tourist trail. However, this remarkable and fascinating place is definitely worth visiting. Spread over nearly 3,000 acres, it has 4,400 big and small canals that can be explored by boat.
Orissa (renamed Odisha) is one of India’s less frequented states, as it’s predominantly rural and “off the beaten track”. However, tourist interest in Odisha’s eclectic combination of attractions is growing. Odisha offers picturesque national parks and wildlife, unpolluted beaches, traditional music and dance, temples, handicrafts, tribal culture, and Buddhist relics. Stay at the boutique Chandoori Sai Guest House in the heart of tribal Odisha.