Tips for your first time travelling to India

I travel to have stories to tell, and boy do I have some stories to tell from India! If you abandon your expectations and develop a relaxed and flexible attitude, you will be blown away by the rich, cultural diversity of India and the fabulous opportunities it presents.

Having said that, I’m not going to pretend that travel in India doesn’t take a bit of getting used to – so here are a few tips that may come in handy to make your trip a little smoother…

#1: BEFORE YOU ARRIVE

Let’s get the initial practicalities out of the way first: it is more than likely that you’ll need a visa to visit India. Do not overlook this, and make sure to leave plenty of time for your application. The process is speedier than it used to be, and visitors can now apply online for an e-visa – but this can still sometimes be a hassle.

I’d recommend that even the most seasoned travellers should book at least their first night’s accommodation for when arriving in India, this will give you chance to get your bearings, get used to the heat and refresh before starting to explore. India is also a cash economy, and you shouldn’t rely on paying by card except at large hotels or shops. Most of the international airports have ATM machines, but all have withdrawal limits; usually around 10,000 rupees (approx US $156 at the time of writing).

girl and two men in front of water

#2 KEEP THE ITINERARY FLEXIBLE

It’s joked that IST does not stand for Indian Standard Time, but actually Indian StretchableTime. Indeed when filming and travelling across India, meeting times, start times, deadlines and journey times have all had to be viewed fairly flexibly – if not with a pinch of salt. Working in India has taught me great things about patience, and going with the flow.

Generally, I’d recommend maintaining a relaxed/flexible pace and trying not to get worked up unless you really think that it will benefit the situation.

I’VE ARRIVED AT STATIONS TO CATCH TRAINS IN INDIA ONLY TO FIND THE SERVICE RUNNING 9 HOURS LATE, AND A FRIEND OF MINE HAD AN IN-DEPTH DISCUSSION WITH A MAN IN DELHI ABOUT HOW THE TRAINS THERE WERE THE BEST IN THE WORLD – ONLY TO DISCOVER HIS TRAIN WAS ALMOST A DAY BEHIND SCHEDULE!

Having said all of this, it’s important to be open minded in terms of time and what we might perceive as effectiveness, as certain feats that would be unimaginably difficult in London or NYC are undertaken with relative ease in Indian cities. In Mumbai for example, there are 58 different newspapers, in 29 languages, which are sorted by hand and delivered across the city. Even more impressive is the famous tiffin lunch box delivery service ‘dabbawalas’, which collects lunches from homes and delivers them to places of work and back again, with only a reported one mistake in every six million deliveries.’

#3: PAY ATTENTION TO LOCAL CULTURES

Generally the attention you receive as a foreigner will be friendly. Some people might be unnerved by potential staring – but remember, a smile goes a long way in any country, and can turn a situation around! Some of my most rewarding experiences in India have been when I’ve gone with the flow and sat with local people, listened to their stories and eaten what they have suggested.

India is a very diverse country, one of the most diverse I’ve visited. As such, on a visit to the South, one will have a very different experience to someone visiting the North East. There is great pride within each state, and massive differences regionally in food, traditions, style of dress and religion. Observing the customs in one region doesn’t necessarily mean that they will be observed in the same way elsewhere in the country. Don’t be afraid to ask what is expected of you, if you visit any places of worship for example. People will usually be welcoming and happy to answer any questions or guide you towards what is appropriate.

IN ONE TEMPLE I WAS HANDED A SMALL BOWL OF CUCUMBER WITH NO EXPLANATION, AND I SPENT THE NEXT FEW MINUTES IN A PANIC AS TO WHETHER I WAS MEANT TO PRESENT THIS AS A DEDICATION, OR TO EAT IT MYSELF.

Just ask, as you don’t want to offend anyone! (Just for the record, the cucumber was intended as an offering, which was luckily the option I went for!)

Alex Outhwaite in India

#4: FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT INDIAN FOOD

In the UK we are used to lists of curries; Bhuna, Jalfrezi, Korma etc, followed by a list of meats. Do not expect this in India! You might see some names you recognise on your travels but be prepared generally to throw out what you thought you knew about Indian food and embrace true Indian cuisine.

Secondly, meat isn’t as common in a lot of restaurants, and eating establishments describe themselves as either ‘Veg’ or ‘Non veg’, with veg being the standard. Certainly in the more rural areas such as the Himalayas of Jammu and Kashmir, meat is rather scarce particularly during certain months; whilst filming in this region my diet mostly consisted of daal and roti.

IF YOU’RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO MEET SOME LOCAL FRIENDS WHO INVITE YOU TO DINE WITH THEM, DO IT! IT’S THE BEST WAY TO DISCOVER LOCAL FOOD YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE TRIED OTHERWISE.

Water is served in most restaurants in a jug, and often tourist’s initial reaction is to be wary of it – but it’s going to have been filtered and will generally be fine to drink. I’ve never had any problems from drinking it. One thing that’s interesting to note is that people regularly share water bottles. People tend to not put their mouth to the bottle but tip it in from a slight height so that their lips don’t touch.

Many Indians eat with their hands, which I actually love doing when I’m over there. Hygiene of course is very important when doing this, so most restaurants (or hotels as they are sometimes confusingly called) have sinks inside the eating area.

#5: TAKE YOUR TIME

If this is your first trip to India, or indeed your 2nd or 3rd, there will be hundreds of things on your to do list. Bear in mind that the heat, noise and dust can be overwhelming, even to experienced travellers. Make sure you have plenty of time to rest and recuperate during your day.

When exploring Mumbai recently, I actually started my day at 4:30am to see the streets nearly empty and visit the vegetable markets. At 9:30am I went back to my room for a rest and a refresh before a late breakfast ready to restart my day! I’ll stress again, be flexible with your plans and leave plenty of time if you have a flight to catch or somewhere important to be as rush hour traffic can be crazy in the cities!

Alex Outhwaite on boat in India

#6: IF YOU DO GET SICK…

A phrase I love to use is ‘local drugs for local bugs’. Sure, it’s probably sensible to carry a first aid kit with you including medication from home, but my experience travelling in India has lead me to believe that when you get sick (and you probably will at some point), your local legitimate pharmacist will be able to assist you more than just blocking yourself up with Imodium.

To a certain extent I’d say this is true with old wive’s tale type remedies too. The suggestion of chewing local ginger proved incredibly helpful when I developed travel sickness on all the winding roads of Meghalaya. Equally, salted chai was super helpful for altitude sickness in the Himalayas.

Alex Outhwaite in traditional clothing

#7: A SCARF WILL BE YOUR NEW BFF

My suggestion here is to be more be comfortable, both physically and socially. I tend to carry a scarf with me at all times. Visiting a temple? Cover up with a scarf. Getting a bit chilly at night in the mountains? Wrap up with your scarf. Wearing a vest top and want to be a bit more modest in a village? Throw your trusty scarf over your shoulders.

In the heat, loose clothing is helpful of course, and don’t be afraid to wear colour. Indian traditional dress is often fantastically patterned and bright, often worn alongside fairly bling jewellery.

ABOVE ALL, ENJOY YOURSELF AND GO WITH THE FLOW!

Southampton Harbour Hotel & Spa

Opened in October 2017, I had the pleasure of visiting Southampton Harbour Hotel & Spa within it’s first month of opening. The hotel has introduced 5 star luxury design to the marina and with it’s nautical inspired interior concepts it still maintains a boutique feel.

One of my favourite things about the hotel, which I kept noticing throughout my stay was the little touches, that could be found all over the hotel as well as in the rooms. The Lonely Planet coffee table books, the lemon & cucumber water dispensers strategically placed on tables with nice views, I could imagine the designers walking around the hotel and noting where would be nice to sit…and what would our guests like to do when they sit there?

810_3616 810_3624

My magnificent room had some fantastic examples of these well thought out touches. There was the complimentary sherry & gin in Crystal glassware so elegant I had people messaging after I posted photos on Instagram stories saying they needed to know where they could get their own versions! There was The White Company toiletries & the delicious sweet treats & welcome pack left for my arrival, every aspect of the stay managed to find that difficult balance between maintaining top quality but still being cool.

810_3618

My room also had fantastic views over the marina from it’s own personal terrace, and despite not visiting in the Summer, I made use of the winter blankets to sit out at midnight with a glass of Sherry and truly appreciate the tranquility of the area at night.

810_3884

You might think that the staff knew I was a blogger and treated me differently, but from check in to leaving I noted how staff interacted with guests; everyone is important, everyone is an individual. From the barman who mixed a special cocktail to my tastes, to the staff member who turned up with a fresh duvet at 1am when I came in from my balcony and spilt a drink; every one went out of their way to make my stay that bit more comfortable and that bit more special. This even included an evening knock to ask if I would like a turn down service, after a quick google it turned out, yes I would like one, thank you.

810_3840  810_3822

Even without staying, the hotel is a top food & drink destination for the city, and I must admit I did take advantage of this. HarBAR on 6th is a stylish rooftop bar and eatery with views over the Solent. It’s trendy without being pretentious and as with every aspect of the hotel, a great deal of thought has gone into the individual pieces decorating the area, including an original welcome home flag displayed in the corner, and the Sailor Jerry artwork framed pictures.

810_3845

810_3792

810_3672

We dined downstairs in the The Jetty restaurant, eating what my dining partner described as “one of the best meals he’s ever had.” Genuine quote. Award-winning Chef Patron Alex Aitken is a clear draw to the restaurant, it’s such a pleasure to see someone getting so much satisfaction from what they do. Despite the restaurant being fully booked he still took the time to speak to guests, delighting them with stories of his love for foraging and inspiration for the dishes. I had the pleasure of trying the tasting menu, in all it’s seven course glory, accompanied by a wine pairing including a De Wetshof Estate Bon Vallon Chardonnay which is so delightfully fruity and will most certainly be making an appearance in a wine glass near me again soon.

810_3701810_3905

The ingredients are locally sourced wherever possible and the seafood dishes change depending on what is caught in the area by their trusted fishermen, but with the regional  produce the courses also drew inspiration from Alex’s travels; a particular favourite of mine was the slow cooked pork belly with plump grilled prawns, lime & ginger sauce, with it’s nod towards Singaporean cuisine.

810_3692    810_3630

I went for a 40 min massage in the Spa area as well as testing out the sauna, steam room & relaxation room. Even my treatment was incredibly personalised with my masseuse discussing which oils I would like, how I’d like to feel after the treatment and her recommendations. Everytime I interacted with a staff member during my stay it felt like no request or query would be too awkward or too difficult to undertake.

810_3689810_3685 810_3733 For me, my stay was luxurious and exciting yet still relaxing, and is up there with one of the finest hotels I’ve stayed in worldwide. Southampton Harbour Hotel & Spa is definitely setting the bar for 5* stays and I’m sure others will be rushing to keep up.

https://www.southampton-harbour-hotel.co.uk

Make Hull your next UK City Break

When you think of UK city breaks where do you think of? Cambridge for the architecture? Manchester for the bars? Glasgow for the Art? Well I have a new suggestion for you….Hull. You might be surprised by my suggestion, but I bet you in a few months time you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t go sooner.

I’ve just had a wonderful trip there myself, and it’s ticked so many boxes I’m kinda embarrassed I already had this set vision (wrongly) of what Hull was like. So let’s see the reasons why you need to add it on to your list.

810_3034.jpg

  1. It’s the UK City of Culture 2017
    Hull is 2017 City of Culture for the UK, the second city ever to receive the accolade. What does this mean you ask? Well the term itself means that one location in the UK will be specifically promoting arts and culture as a means of celebration and regeneration and as such may host events such as the Turner Prize which Hull is indeed doing this year.When you walk around Hull there’s a large number of art installations, open air theatre spots and interactive street pieces such as a box you speak into that projects your words onto a nearby building. (Swear words not allowed, despite my initial amusement that it might just be curse after curse!)20171010_113619.jpg
  2. There are an unbelievable amount of drinking establishments 
    Hull has a lot of pubs, and I’m not talking about your chain pubs (although of course they have snuck in), I’m talking about unique boozers, with scores of craft ales, local brews & horse shoes on the walls. The kind of pubs that you see in UK travel guides but have been all but eradicated in London and replaced by imitations of the same. Somehow Hull has managed to find a wonderful middle ground, between keeping these old establishments authentic but equally making them a little more friendly for city-folk like me and making sure they stock a range of gins and slimline tonic.
  3. It’s London cool without the pricetag
    Humber Street looks like Williamsburg in NYC. With it’s brick buildings, re-purposed furniture and vintage shops it’s a pretty cool hang out. However, the price tags haven’t reached Southern levels yet and you can search for vintage designer label clothes without breaking the bank, or try 2 giant artisan chocolate brownies plus two coffees from Cocoa Chocolatier with plenty of change from a tenner. Try doing that in Shoreditch.

    20171009_162456.jpg

  4. You can have so many days out for free!
    Hull has an entire museum quarter where virtually everything is entirely free of charge. The Wilberforce Museum, Streetlife Museum, Ferens Gallery (where the Turner Prize is exhibited) and many more don’t change for entry and you could spend whole days looking round. There’s plenty there to entertain kids too!There are tours of Hull Old Town for only £4 per person, which while not free is pretty cheap! (Read about the tour here.)

    There’s also the Fish Trail, part street art installation, part self guided tour, that takes you round many of the sights of the City passing by some great pubs and bars.

    Plus there’s the marina, whilst not necessarily a full day out, is certainly a lovely area to explore and take photos of, whilst being home to a number of lovely bars and restaurants.
    810_2965.jpg

  5. It’s easy to get to. 
    We got the train from London, quick, stress free, and much cheaper than a lot of the West Coast routes.
  6. The Deep
    I remember The Deep being advertised when I was a kid on the buses on my way to school. Yet despite being well established in Hull, through regularly updating The Deep has managed to stay ahead of the game and has continuously been one of the most impressive aquariums in the world. On top of it’s wonderful range of aquatic life it has an incredible lift that takes you up through the aquarium in a Charlie & The Chocolate Factory style glass elevator.

201710101347843960

7. It’s so friendly!
I’ve put out quite a few tweets since I’ve been here and everyone has been met with replies from locals welcoming me to the city. Equally, in cafes and restaurants I’ve had the staff politely offer me a piece of paper with their own suggestions for favourite bars or places to visit. When I stopped to ask for directions I didn’t get the usual wave in a vague direction, the passer by asked if I’d like them to show me exactly where my destination was, as a Northerner myself I’ve always believed this but trust me, it is more friendly ‘Up North’.

810_3028

Top 5 places to visit in Peru

5. Arequipa central market – Arequipa is often only glanced over by tourists visiting the surrounding hiking trails and volcanoes, but in the city itself are a number of fascinating places to visit.

My favourite thing about the city was the colourful and bustling market occupying the large central square. It’s not massively highlighted in local guides but that just means that it’s mainly visited by locals and seemingly only the odd tourist.

Highlights here are the food areas with numerous stands selling crispy pork with local corn and potato. If you’re not comfortable in Spanish then a smile and some low key pointing will usually end in a generous portion of the day’s speciality for only a few dollars.

Finish off your meal with some local fudge.

 

       4. Huanchaco – It’s not quite so beach picture perfect as Brazil or Panama but Huanchaco is laid back surfer cool.

Plenty of beach space with endless surf schools to help you practice your skills, plus a good enough wave to keep the experts happy, Huanchaco has something for everyone on the backpacker circuit.

Equally it’s not quite the full on party scene of Mancora further north but it has cool hostels with a relaxed drinking vibe and handful of bars to party into the night.

 

      3. Ollantaytambo – Ollantaytambo is usually just a pass through point for people getting the train before the final Machu Picchu descent but it is beautiful in it’s own right.

Full of Inca ruins and surrounded by cloud laden mountains it’s particularly spectacular. Also, after mid morning when all the minibuses have rushed past, you’re likely to get the whole place virtually to yourself.

 

 

      2. Huacachina – Desert oasis Huacachina is hidden amongst the dunes near Ica. Known for it’s parties  there’s endless activities to do like sand boarding, dune buggies and boating on the lake.

Huacachina has some pretty cool hostels too, with happy hour offers all round before you head to the top of dunes to watch the sunset.

 

  1. Machu Picchu – Magnificent Machu Picchu is possibly the most awe inspiring place I’ve ever visited. The photos I’d seen before visiting didn’t even begin to prepare me for sitting there and looking out across the Inca city in the clouds.

The site itself is huge and the rolling clouds only add to the mystery and magic of the place. Despite the hoards of tourists heading there every day it still manages to feel like a place that you’ve discovered first. Truly unforgettable.