On an eight-day luxury train journey through India, F&W's Jen Murphy meets a Calcutta art dealer and runs with the army in New Delhi, all while hunting down northern India's best recipes.
I am not used to being treated like Angelina Jolie. So it was fairly overwhelming to discover a crowd of paparazzi at the Calcutta railroad station, the departure point for my eight-day journey across northern India. The fanfare, however, was more for the Maharajas' Express than for me: I was among the first passengers to board this new train on its inaugural trip to New Delhiand so (temporarily, anyway) I had attained star status.
Built at a cost of more than $15 million, the Maharajas' Express is as opulent as its name suggests, with blue and green tiled ceilings, velvet upholstery and mother-of-pearl panels; cabins have LCD TVs and even bathtubs. But the real appeal for me was not the outrageous interiors; it was the ease of this epic journey. The Maharajas' Express is the first luxury train to cross Indian state borders, covering more than 1,500 miles and taking in a mix of iconic landmarks (like the Taj Mahal in Agra) and lesser-known spots (like the erotic temples of Khajuraho). On my own, I never would have been able to see so much in eight days. Here, I didn't even have to unpack a suitcase.
Each of the train's four itineraries often features a guest speaker on board; the one on this tour was journalist Sir Mark Tully, the bureau chief of BBC New Delhi for 22 years. He'd long experienced the worst of Indian Railways's overcrowded, unreliable trains and was openly impressed with this fancy upgrade. I understood how he felt on my first morning. Rising up for a sun salutation in my room (yes, the rooms were so spacious I could practice yoga), I was shocked to find myself eye to eye with people on the ordinary train across the tracks, a few of them brushing their teeth and spitting out the windows.
Our days began early. Each car has a butler, which sounds like a lovely idea until he wakes you up at 5:30 a.m. yelling, "Miss Murphy, Miss Murphy, I wish you good morning!" At each stop we were greeted by a spectacular performance, like an acrobatic act put on by local villagers; then a minivan or bus took us on a day-long expedition. The itinerary allowed me to indulge in a mini eating tour of my own devising (the organizers on the Maharajas' Express help create bespoke itineraries for passengers). One morning I wrangled an invitation to brunch at art dealer Surajit Bomti Iyengar's apartment in Calcutta, where I ate Bengali and Anglo-Indian dishes like potato slices tossed with toasted cumin and fennel seeds. Another day I scored a table at New Delhi's glamorous new restaurant Varq, where I tasted a haute version of pickling-pot lamb curry, a dish traditionally cooked by housewives in northern India.
After eight days of this I was feeling very pampered. In fact, by the time we reached New Delhi, I had not only tasted my way across northern India, I'd completely embraced my new identity as Angelina Jolie.