25 June 2015 – Travel+Leisure
Many people avoid India during the monsoon, or rainy season—which is starting now and runs through September. But the heavy rainfall, which is vital for crops, offers its own charms for visitors: lush, verdant growth and a romantic tranquility devoid of tourist crowds. Here, our top picks for where to go during this under-the-radar time.
Most visitors to India’s capital stop through in the dead of winter, when the city is at its dreariest, en route to Rajasthan and Agra. But when the rains come, Delhi’s notoriously bad air clears, its tree-lined boulevards glitter, its red sandstone ruins glow against an invigorated backdrop of green, and its many gardens burst with life. Winter might offer cooler temperatures, but there’s nothing like seeing Lodi Gardens, the Mehrauli Archaeological Park, and the gorgeous grounds of Humayan’s Tombs freshly washed by the monsoon. The Manor is an exceptionally refined small hotel in a quiet South Delhi neighborhood, which also happens to house one of India’s finest restaurants, Indian Accent. The Rose, a charming boutique adjacent to the 14th-century ruins and reservoir of Hauz Khas Village, offers access to several of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods, and vantages on one of Delhi’s iconic landscapes.
In the high season, Goa is all about fun: restaurant hopping, late night parties, and afternoons lost to the sand and surf. But in the rains, it’s for watching the rain slant past your veranda, and for the voluptuous pleasure of doing absolutely nothing at all. For a taste of Old Goa—dreamy and almost terminally relaxed—head inland to the lush, spice-scented hills, where some of Goa’s best boutique hotels fly well below the radar (and offer seriously slashed rates for off-season travelers). Not far from the state capital, Panaji, you’ll find the Vivenda dos Palhaços, set in an old terra cotta-roofed mansion with elegant but simple rooms and well-prepared food.
The central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh is one of the most frequently—and unfairly—overlooked on the subcontinent. Its archaeological ruins and nature reserves are worthy destinations at any time of year, but in the monsoon, when the dun hills burst with green and mist rises from the valleys, they come to exquisite, romantic life—none more so than the collection of palaces and mausoleums at the ancient Afghan city of Mandu. After a day biking through the rain among solitary, mossy ruins, and climbing crooked staircases to empty ramparts overlooking monsoon-filled lakes, retreat to the elegant palace rooms at the Ahilya Fort in the riverside temple town of Maheshwar, an hour south. It’s the India you didn’t you know you’d been dreaming of.
India’s northeast is perhaps its most remote, and certainly its least visited, region: a collection of tribal hill states spread between Burma in the east, China in the north, and Bangladesh in the south. Shillong is the region’s most important town, and a fun, free-wheeling jumping off point for visiting the surrounding countryside. About 90-minutes south, overlooking the waterlogged plains of northern Bangladesh, the village of Cherrapunjee (pictured) claims to be the wettest place on earth. From here, it’s a less than two-mile hike through lush jungle down precipitous stone stairs to the celebrated Living Root Bridges, crafted by the local Khasi tribes from the roots of rubber trees, trained over the streams and waterfalls that, especially in the rainy season, pour furiously down from the highlands. The Royal Heritage Tripura Castle, perched on a pine-shrouded bluff over the city, is both quaint and elegant. To be in the middle of the action, opt for the Asian Confluence Guest House, in the heart of one of Shillong’s most active neighborhoods, Laitumkrah.
Most monsoon visitors head high up into Ladakh, India’s expansive corner of the Tibetan Plateau. Just South, in the state of Himachal Pradesh (best known as the home of the Dalai Lama and the old British summer capital of Shimla), the Spiti Valley offers a similar high-altitude desert landscape—but with fewer visitors. Jagged peaks rise from deep, narrow valleys. High above, remote villages nestle among the peaks and whitewashed monasteries burst from the rock. The UNESCO-listed Tabo Monastery, with its exquisite 1200-year-old murals, is a treasure trove of Tibetan Buddhist art. Getting here isn’t easy—you’ll have to drive 10 hours from the hippie haven of Manali over one of India’s highest passes, or come up from Shimla in the south, a riveting two-day drive—but this is part of what has preserved this exceptional place. Infrastructure in the region is also limited, but Spiti Ecosphere offers great, environmentally and socially conscious trekking tours with local guides, including overnights in comfortable homestays. The most rewarding travel is rarely easy.