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The roads less travelled

Piyush Nangru
founder,
Indomania Cultural Tours

It was a revelatory tour of Kochi for Mumbai-based documentary photographer Jyotika Jain. When a friend put Jain in touch with Maneesha Panicker of SILK ROUTE Escapes (SRE), she had expected just another tour of the city. Instead she got a behind-the-scenes peek into the meticulous preparation that goes behind a Kathakali performance. Followed by getting up, close and personal with caparisoned elephants during the Ernakulam Shiva Temple festival.

“I got to see parts of Kochi which I’d have probably not been able to discover on my own. My trip was unique, customised and off the beaten track,” Jain reminisces.

Back in the City of Joy, Sandra Schittengruber, a Viennese visiting on business last year, overcame her initial trepidation to dig into essential Calcutta delights like churmur, Nizam’s roll and Anadi Cabin’s chingrir kobiraji cutlet. She was on a gourmet tour with Compact Calcutta (CC) that specialises in bespoke local tours in Bengal.

“They introduced me to dishes I’d have never tasted on my own. They allayed my concerns about street food, which are just delicious,” says Schittengruber, who also went with CC to the Pot Maya Festival in Pingla and Santiniketan.

Panicker is part of a small bandwagon of Indian travel entrepreneurs who are spinning the idea of a holiday on its head. Chuck out the travel blueprint where you rushed from one destination to another, ticking off a got-to-see list. The emphasis instead is on slow and experiential travel — concentrate on fewer places but imbibe their indigenous culture. Choose journeys over vacations, local ways of life over touristy joints.

The three-day surfing workshop in Manipal, Karnataka is an inexpensive way to become a surfboard star ; PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SHAKA SURF CLUB
Vikrant Chheda
co-founder, White Collar Hippie
 

“We encourage clients to get to know a few locations well rather than pack many cities into one rushed itinerary,” says Panicker, who gave up a corporate job in the US to start SRE in 2010.

Vikrant Chheda, co-founder, White Collar Hippie (WCH), a Mumbai-based travel outfit, agrees. “It’s a new concept and involves pushing people out of the box. But it’s catching on slowly. We encourage guests to take each day as it comes and engage with the local people. So, if you’re going to Ladakh with us, you’ll go camel riding in Nubra Valley as well as stay in a village and learn about traditional farming amongst other things,” he says.

These independent travel outfits characteristically focus on small groups — anything between one and 12 — with an average of two to five trips a month. The founders are avid travellers themselves and have put together each trip based on first-hand research. Says Salmoli Mukerji, co-founder, CC: “Most of our experiences are pre-planned with meticulous groundwork and two-three recce trips by our local experts. A naturally and culturally rich state like Bengal holds huge unexplored ground for experiential tourism. Slow travel adds to the experience.”

While most of them are attracting foreign guests, there are a fair number of Indian travel enthusiasts too. “We’ve had more American guests though we’re tapping the European and Indian market now,” says Panicker. CC too has clocked about 70 per cent foreign guests. Another company, HighOnTravel (HOT) says it has roped in more Indian tourists.

PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DIPANJAN MITRA
Rakesh Verma and Chirag Bhandari
founders, HighOnTravel

Desi is the buzzword here. “Every place has its own local flavour — in traditions, music, food or lifestyle, which is very different from our own city lives. We want people to experience them as they really are,” says Chirag Bhandari, co-founder, HOT.

Take HOT’s tour to Mon in Nagaland during Aoling, the annual headhunting festival. You’ll get to interact with Konyak Naga warriors, who practised headhunting in living memory. Count the tattoos on the face of the guy you talk to — they correspond with the enemy heads he has collected. But rest assured — they don’t headhunt any more. So, you’re in no danger of losing yours!

Colourful celebrations that give a unique insight into the local culture are a huge draw. Attend a Baul soiree in Santiniketan with CC or book yourself on a 10-day Hornbill Festival tour in December with Delhi-based Indomania Cultural Tours (ICT). It will take you to Kisama, 12km from Kohima where 16 Naga tribes, dance troupes from other northeastern states and even from South Korea, Thailand and Myanmar gather to showcase their talent. Traditional headgear adorned with boars’ teeth and hornbills’ feathers, multi- coloured spears and folk dances — it’s a photographer’s paradise.

The Rasa Trail is a hit with
foreign tourists; a fisher-
woman displays the day’s catch for visitors (below); PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SILK ROUTE ESCAPES
Maneesha Panicker
founder, SILK ROUTE Escapes

There are tours designed around special interests too. If you’re keen on surfing, learn to catch the perfect wave in a three-day surfing workshop with WCH in Manipal, Karnataka. For the art aficionado, SRE will offer an art tour in Kochi this December to coincide with the country’s first Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) — an international exhibition of contemporary art. “It’ll include gallery visits, conversations with renowned artists, photography walks, and front-row seats at KMB,” promises Panicker.

Gastronomic trails are a great favourite with both foreign and Indian guests. Opt for a three to five-day Konkan Kitchen tour with HOT in the heritage town of Sawantwadi, Maharashtra or drool your way through SRE’s seven to nine-day Rasa trail. Think temple feast to food with Dutch influences in Fort Kochi, fishermen’s fare in the backwaters to Mappila cuisine in North Kerala. You’ll also exchange recipes with housewives, go tea and wine tasting and get a peek of the state’s famous spice trade.

A lot of research has gone into accommodation and meals too. SRE, which caters to the bespoke luxury segment, offers handpicked but authentic boutique hotels. So, if you’re into tea tasting, you might stay in a plantation bungalow. Tours cost between Rs 15,000 and Rs 75,000 per person per day, depending on the choice of accommodation.

HOT on the other hand lets guests choose from homestays, villas and boutique hotels — be ready to shell out anything between Rs 2,500 to Rs 7,000 per person per day. CC’s tours cost from Rs 3,500 per person for a half-day tour to Rs 25,000 for two nights. WCH has fixed departure tours that cost anywhere between Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000 per person per day. “We stress on cleanliness and authenticity over luxury. So, usually accommodation is in camps or homestays and meals range from barbecues to a typical local eatery,” says Chheda.

Daylong tours are another significant trend in the experiential travel category. So if you’re in Varanasi, HOT can take you on a tour of Bengali Tola — a centuries-old Bengali settlement, immortalised in Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar — or the intriguing gullies and temples of the old city that usually remain hidden to tourists. From kite flying in Lucknow to a walk through Kumortuli in Calcutta, they have loads of local thrills on the platter.

A glimpse of the Pot Maya festival in Naya village in Bengal; PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY SANJOY MUKERJI
Sonal Jindal and Salmoli Mukerji
founders, Compact Calcutta

CC has daylong trips to the Pot Maya festival in Naya village, Midnapur, where patuas showcase their age-old craft accompanied by poter gaan. Guests can interact with artists and even create their own pot in a workshop. Another interesting day excursion is to North Delhi’s Little Tibet by ICT. Home to more than 350 Tibetan families, this is the place to drop in if you want to learn about their way of life, taste Tibetan food and watch thangkas taking shape. “In our tours you’ll find everything in its natural setting. I won’t tell the local guide to wear a turban because his roots are from Rajasthan. No, never,” emphasises Piyush Nangru of ICT.

Bangalore-based The Yellow Cycle (TYC) offers a wine-tasting trip for aficionados to Grovers Vineyard, 65km from the city. It’ll begin with tasting seven varieties of wines, followed by a tour of the vineyards. Tagged at Rs 2,950 per person, it also includes a tutorial on the art of wine drinking, tour of the winery and a picnic basket along with a bottle of full-bodied wine. “We’re into gifting out-of-the-ordinary experiences in Bangalore for the moment. But we’re looking to expand to other cities soon,” says Neha Arora, CEO, TYC.

Some of these entrepreneurs are looking to take their distinctive travel experience overseas too. WCH has already set up a London office and is planning tours to Cambodia, Tibet and Africa next year. HOT is also looking to expand its repertoire with trips to Tanzania and Sri Lanka.

As they say, the road beckons!