My WORST exotic Marigold hotel tour: Ever dream of visiting India in later life? So did Jenni Murray, two nerve-jangling weeks later she says: be careful what you sign up for!

  • Jenni Murray gave her verdict of a £2,400 tour of India’s great Golden Triangle 
  • She hoped the experience would inject spice into her 38-year marriage
  • She and her husband were part of a group of 18 people all in their 60s and 70s
  • They bustled through crowds of thousands including a visit to the Taj Mahal
  • They visited nine hotels during two weeks and was given the same cuisine daily

The advert in the newspaper appeared deliciously seductive. A ‘very special’ tour of India’s great Golden Triangle, encompassing Delhi, the Taj Mahal and the forts and palaces of Jaipur and Jodhpur, finishing with two nights in a jungle camp in Vanaashrya.

We would stay in ‘spectacular heritage hotels — once the seat of ruling maharajas’. There would be ‘exceptional dining, Golden Age service, an Arabian Nights adventure under Bikaner’s desert sky and air-conditioned vehicle transfers and travel’.

What better way for a sixtysomething couple to see the highlights of India? And what better way to inject some new spice into a 38-year marriage? All for £2,400 each.

Scenes from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — with its glorious colours, gaiety and romance — flickered through my mind. I booked it.

Jenni Murray shared her experience of a two-week tour of India’s great Golden Triangle with her husband of 38 years 

A trip to India had long been at the top of my bucket list. All my life I had longed to fill a huge gap from my childhood.

I was ten years old when my father, Alvin, an electrical engineer, was asked by his company to finish a job in Madras, now Chennai. It was for only six months, so my mother and I stayed at home in Barnsley and I passed my 11-plus.

All was set for Dad to come home and for me to follow in my mother’s footsteps and attend Barnsley Girls’ High School.

Six months on, and a telegram came from Dad. He had done such a good job, they wanted him to take on another contract, this time in Calcutta, now Kolkata, and it would be for two years. He would agree only if his family could join him.

It took my mother, Win, all of five minutes to start booking the jabs she would need and buying lightweight cotton frocks. She couldn’t wait to join her husband, whom she adored.

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‘Mum,’ I spoke somewhat quizzically. ‘What about me?’

‘Don’t worry, love,’ she sounded reassuring. ‘The company won’t fly you in and out for holidays, but they’ll pay for you to go to school in Darjeeling. It’ll be lovely.’

‘Hang on a minute,’ I said. ‘That’s a boarding school. I thought you said there was no point having children if you were going to send them to boarding school. I’m not coming. I’m going to the High School.’

I couldn’t be moved, and Grandma stepped in with an alternative — I could stay with her. So I never did go to India.

Fifty-eight years later, I began to make plans. October would be a good time to go; the monsoon would be over and it wouldn’t be too hot.

Jenni says the tour began with she and her husband joining 18 people on a huge coach that had seen better days driving through traffic in Delhi (file image) 

We were right about the monsoon, but not the heat. After an eight-and-a-half-hour red-eye flight, we emerged into blazing sunshine. There were 18 people in the group — not so small after all — and the first sight of the air-conditioned vehicle made my and my husband David’s hearts sink.

Not the comfy mini-bus we had envisioned, but a huge coach, which had seen better days, required you to have the fitness of an athlete to mount and dismount, had no toilet on board and had suspension ill-suited to India’s unpredictably dodgy and extremely bumpy roads.

We were driven through Delhi’s mad traffic to the hotel, Maidens, a pretty, colonial structure. Here we were offered lassi, a drink, and advised to buy some lunch and prepare to visit Old Delhi, experience a cycle rickshaw ride and see a mosque and the site of Gandhi’s cremation.

All this after a night of no sleep on the plane. And, oh, by the way, we should unpack what we needed for the morning as our suitcases would be returned to the coach and taken to Agra. We would be up early to catch the fast train to the Taj Mahal, where we would meet the coach to continue the journey. I had planned a swim in the pool. No time. No energy.

Already I was beginning to think this trip might be a little overstuffed for 18 somewhat elderly people, all in their 60s and 70s.

That first afternoon was so chaotic that we arrived at the Gandhi site just before it was due to close and it was dark. I was so exhausted I simply stayed on the coach.

Jenni says many buffets throughout their tour were not exceptional and offered pretty much the same cuisine (file image) 

Dinner was the first of many buffets that offered neither ‘exceptional dining’ nor ‘Golden Age service’, only a self-service range of curries we would encounter time and again. The group was expected to sit together and it was clear from the outset that we might be an ill-matched collection.

There were the couples who had ‘done’ Vietnam and Cambodia and were now ‘doing’ India, two women who were returning to the country after meeting in the Seventies as hippies at an Ashram, and a couple of Welsh farmers who were fascinated by the proliferation of sacred cows on every street.

The train station was an experience; hordes of people rushing to work, nowhere to sit and so hot, even early in the morning. The train arrived bang on time and we rushed to Agra.

The Taj Mahal is every bit as exquisite as you imagine, but, oh, the crowds. Thousands of people queuing to go through security, a long walk to the mausoleum, temperatures hitting 90f. I gave in to my raging sciatica and hired a wheelchair for £10. Not the romantic experience we’d hoped for.

Then began the mad rush around. Nine hotels in two weeks. Lots of early starts. ‘Please make sure your bags are outside your room by 8am’ was a familiar instruction. The average journey was between five and seven hours. Only five of the hotels were for two nights and not all had a swimming pool. The cuisine was much the same as it had been on the first night.

Jenni claims their visit to the Taj Mahal (pictured) was not as romantic as they had hoped for due to crowds (file image) 

Certain promised treats failed to materialise, including a dinner in a family home in Jaipur and an evening cruise on Lake Pichola in Udaipur. The cruise happened, but at lunchtime, necessitating a long wait with other tours — French and German — in blazing sunshine. Not just mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!

On the whole, the hotels were, indeed, exquisite. Only the one at Udaipur, known as the Venice of India, was a real disappointment — it was modern and you could have been anywhere in the world.

The others were the former homes of the ruling royalty and were breathtaking, but then there was that uncomfortable feeling of enjoying luxury in the midst of extreme poverty.

You would walk out of the great arch at the entrance, big enough to allow the elephants to pass through in the past, and emerge into a village where cows munched their way through a proliferation of plastic debris — and that’s not to mention the inadequate drainage.

David and I did have one experience which took us closer to the real India than anything we had shared with the group. We’d had a swim at the hotel in Jaipur and as David emerged from the water, he felt something strange in his eye. The next morning it was worse. It felt as though a flock of birds was flying across the eye.

Jenni says the cruise of Lake Pichola in Udaipur happened in the blaze of the midday sun rather than in the evening as promised (file image) 

The hotel receptionist recommended a small, state hospital rather than one of the five-star expensive ones. We took a tuk-tuk there and found a very small, unimpressive building teeming with patients. We checked in and were allocated a nurse to guide us through the system. No preferential treatment for the foreigners. Everybody had the same help.

He was diagnosed with a tear in the retina. A blood test was analysed on the spot. He was offered laser treatment to repair the tear — if he waited and continued the bumpy tour it could get worse. He accepted.

Three-and-a-half hours after our arrival, he was declared done by the consultant, charged the equivalent of £17.50 and discharged. It was the most efficient, kind and caring experience of a health service I’ve ever witnessed. And we had no problems with it as we continued our travels.

I don’t think any of us had quite understood just how huge Rajasthan, one of the 29 states of the massive sub-continent, would be. Nor had we realised that the 1,500 miles we’d cover in our two weeks would be travelled in such discomfort. It was especially difficult for those who went down with Delhi belly. Some of journeys lasted as much as seven hours with one short stop at pretty basic facilities.

Our driver was phenomenal, negotiating unmade roads, undisciplined traffic and wandering cows with aplomb. He did, though, always have to break the speed limit to make the time, once getting stopped by the police and paying a 500-rupee fine.

Jenni recalls their tour driver being fined 500-rupee for breaking the speed limit (file image)

I asked him about the rules of the road in India, such as driving on the left, overtaking on the right and giving priority to traffic on the right at a roundabout. There are rules, he said, but nobody takes any notice of them.

At the end of the holiday, I asked our attentive guide, Sunil, how the travel firm could have planned such an exhausting holiday. They would, he thought, have sent one man in a car to see the hotels and based the timings on his trip.

Rather ruefully, he said: ‘They don’t allow for the fact that it takes a lot longer to get 18 elderly people on and off a coach and round the forts and palaces.’

My attempts to confirm his theory have failed. I left a message for the press officer to call me back. Not much so far.

I will go back to India, but next time I’ll take the advice of a couple I met in Jaipur. They flew independently, hired a car and driver at a reasonable rate, saw the sites they wanted to see in their own time and then flew to Goa for a restful week by the sea.

I shall go to Kolkata, find the villa that was my parents’ home and then relax in Goa or Kerala. That’s what I call a real holiday!

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