It's our second edition of Gothamist's travel content, Gothamist Getaways. Four times a year, we'll have a week of posts featuring looks at travel, food, products and tips—near and far—for making your trips more enjoyable. So sit back, dream of your next journey and let us know if you have any hints for us—email email@example.com.
Wake up. Breathe in. The air is a bit stale, strongly perfumed with spices whafting off the hot samosas and chai cups your Indian train companions snack on. You've been snoozing. This morning, at an unreasonably early hour, you boarded this train in Delhi, but now you're pulling into the station at Haridwar.
Haridwar is where the holy Ganga leaves the Himalayas and travels down into the plains of northern India. Hundreds of thousands of tourists, both Indian and foreign, flock here yearly to bath in the holy water, visit temples and make offerings to their favorite gods. Sadus and monkeys jockey for position at the water's edge.
A prayer at Haridwar (istockphoto © arindambanerjee)
Your sleep-blurred eyes peer out the window, out at the wall of humanity you will soon fight to get out of the station and into a taxi. The train stops, you grab your stuff and brace yourself. Ten minutes later, after wading through beeti smoke and saris, vendors selling chai and more children than you can count, you are in a bicycle rickshaw careening through the streets. At every hairpin turn made by your friendly driver, you grab your stuff lest it tumble onto the pavement.
Drop your bags at your hotel, Dewa Hotel, a Ganga-side venture that will put you front and center for the action to come later tonight, and head down to the river. Take your time here, checking out the ghats, dipping into the water (although maybe just a toe here, the Ganga is cleaner up north), and visit a few of the temples, each one devoted to a Hindu diode. Nearby suggestions: Mansa Devi, Jain Temple and Chandi Devi, the latter of which is accessible by cable car only.
Have lunch at Invitation, a hotel restaurant that serves the best saag paneer and lime sodas in Haridwar, then hit Moti Bazaar for some serious bargain hunting. The bazaar—a twisting, maze-like moving animal filled with vegetables and Indian house wares, knick knacks and souvenirs, saris, juttis, bangles, idols, incense, candles and homemade mix CDs filled with chanting and prayers—is where you'll find all the things you never knew you needed. Stop in one of the many sari shops to be wowed with flourishes of fabrics tossed in the flicked out and spread smooth over carpeted surfaces by eager sellers. Haggle over prices with vendors.
Street food in Haridwar (Natalie Rose)
If your stomach is solid, sample the various street offerings. The most notable options are the sweets and achar, or Indian pickle, which comes in varieties such as jackfruit, bamboo shoot and ginger. For refreshment, stop at Prakash Lak for lassi, a sweet yogurt drink whipped until it's fluffy and light.
Head to Hari Ki Pauri for aarti, a nightly prayer ceremony performed on the banks of the river. Holy men will chant and sing, their voices blared through crackly speakers to the masses. Buy a little boat of flowers to send floating down the river as an offering with your intentions, then head to supper at Haveli Hari Ganga Hotel and Restaurant. At this vegetarian hotspot (all restaurants are veg in Hardiwar), the Indian buffet rules supreme. Try Indian specialties like idli and chana masala, all enjoyed on the rushing riverfront terrace. An early night for you, as tomorrow will be a long day.
Wake up. Breathe in. The air is permeated with the scent of wild running water and aarti incense and laundry detergent from the locals washing clothes on the banks of the Ganga.
After a quick breakfast at the hotel, you arrange a taxi to take you to Rishikesh via "the jungle road", not "the boring way" that follows Highway 72.
Rishikesh was a sleepy little Indian tourist town similar to Haridwar until 1968 when a foursome of British mop-topped musicians made their way here. They stayed at a local ashram, studied yoga, spirituality and ancient philosophy while the world watched with bated breath. Then the floodgates opened to Western tourists who wanted to follow suit. Today, aside from being the self-appointed "yoga capital of the world", Rishikesh is a haven for travelers looking for a few comforts of home after hard days backpacking.
A yoga complex in Rishikesh (istockphoto © intek1)
You arrive in no more than an hour, and drop your bags off at Ganga Kinare, a boutique hotel on the banks of the Ganga. With rooms starting at $100 a night including breakfast, it's not the cheapest option in Rishikesh, but it provides the most bang for your rupee. Via tuk tuk, head to Ram Jhula, an iron suspension bridge about 3 kilometers north of Kinare where you'll start your tour of various religious sites between here and the next bridge, Lakshman Jhula. The bridges provide awesome views of the river valley in both directions. (Note: When temple-hopping in India, unless told to do otherwise, please remove your shoes.) Of particular note in the 1.8 kilometer stretch between bridges is the 13-story temple of Tera Manzil, dediated to not one but a cast of Indian deities.
From Lakshman Jhula, you're in search of lunch, so you head to Ramana's Garden Cafe, a home and school for orphaned children that started an organic garden and restaurant in 2006 to provide vocational training to its older pupils. (When this writer first went there in 2007, it was the only place you could eat raw salad greens without wishing you didn't later that evening.) The vegetarian menu offers a range of delicious salads, pastas and pizzas, as well as Mexican favorites like enchiladas. After lunch, tour the gardens and school grounds to see different projects the organization also sponsors.
After lunch, you hook up with Paddle India for a white-water rafting excursion down the Ganga. For 1500 rupee a person (about $25 USD), this local team will drive you 20 kilometers north, set you in the water with an experienced guide and let you glide down the holy waters. Depending on the season, this can offer a fair bit of rapid adventure. Back in Rishikesh, you take your famished self to South India Restaurant inside the Madras Hotel for snacks. Load up on masala dosas, slightly sour rice flour crepes, dipped in coconut chutney and idli sambhar, rice flour pillows, dipped in dal.
A ghat in Rishikesh (rajkumar1220/Flickr)
At this point you're pooped, so you head back to the hotel to nap and refresh. After a quick stop at the ghats for aarti, you head to dinner at a local establishment, Chotiwala's, where a plump, shirtless man in a very stiff ponytail and makeup greets you outside. No one knows which one is the original, as there is a Chotiwala's to your right AND left, so make your best judgment based on whatever feels right. At either establishment you can sample delicious Indian thalis (mixed plates) or if you're beginning to tire of Indian food, you can try their Chinese delicacies. From there, back to the Ganga Kinare where you stare out over the midnight blue water, listening to the river lap tranquilly at the hotel walls.
Wake up. Breathe in. The air is perfumed with rose, sandlewood and jasmine oils. Your bed is so soft you feel like you're floating above the covers.
You're at Ananda, a luxury spa trained in ancient yogic and ayurvedic traditions, tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas. Oprah was just here last week. You've spent three days being pampered in Ananda's 24,000 square foot spa with wild rose salt scrubs and Himalayan honey and rose facials and Swedish massages, not to mention the daily yoga, meditation and pranayama classes, all included in your $515/night price tag. (*Prices go up from there depending on room and season.)
Peacocks strut the grounds of the Ananda (Josh Friedman/Flickr)
The almost freakishly perfect and attentive staff has seen to your every need on your "Himalayan Bliss" retreat. The spa cuisine team has worked with you to find the perfect culinary balance for your body (breakfast and dinner are included in your package). You have almost forgotten what it feels to wear real clothes and are considering taking your soft, spa-issued uniform with you when you leave.
Reluctantly, after morning mediation and another scrumptious breakfast, you don real pants for the first time in three days and hop into the idling taxi waiting outside of Ananda's gates. Before you know it, you're back at the train station, working your way through the wall of humanity, finding your seat, and settling in for your trip back to Delhi, the car gently rocking you back and forth and the scents of samosa and chai spice once again infusing the air.