There are myriad delights here, from fascinating Indian mainland coastal ports formerly part of the trade routes fringing the Arabian Sea, to the Indian Ocean islands, bite-sized samples of paradise with magnificent sandy beaches, sparkling clear seas and horizon-to-horizon blue skies. You’ll discover stunning wildlife, jaw-dropping landscapes, exotic flora and delicious cuisine, with contrasting experiences from the frenetic assault to the senses of mainland India to the all-encompassing peace and serenity of the islands.
Cruising in this region is generally as part of a world cruise, or else within 14 or 16-day itineraries from Middle Eastern ports like Jebel Ali (Dubai) or Abu Dhabi. Depending on the particular itinerary, flights home may either be from the Indian Ocean region, for example Colombo in Sri Lanka, or from further afield at the cruise’s end destination, eg Singapore.
Kochi is the second largest city in Kerala state, located on the stunningly beautiful Malabar coast near the southernmost tip of India.
It’s a sight to behold when seen from the deck of a ship, so try not to miss the arrival at the port. Like other ports on India’s west coast, this ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’ has long been an important trading post, and through the centuries the Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese have left indelible marks on the history and development of the city.
You’ll see giant cantilevered fishing nets dating back to 13th-century China, a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj, all mixed together in an intriguing blend of cultures and set in a tropical location. Kochi’s delicious cuisine is flavoured with tamarind and coconut, and fruit is used in many dishes, both sweet and savoury.
As this is a major banana-growing area, food is often served up on a banana leaf, accompanied by a drink of coconut water which provides a lovely contrast to the spicy food. Kochin is also a famed centre for Keralan arts, notably Kathakali, stylized Indian dance-drama distinctive for its dramatic make-up and costumes and the body movements set to percussive music, and kalaripayattu, a form of martial arts peculiar to the Kerala area involving gymnastic-style steps and postures combined with weaponry like swords, shields and knives.
Cruise operators mostly offer excursions to two main destinations, first exploring the old, historic parts of Kochi (Fort Cochin and Mattancherry), and the second heading a bit further afield to cruise the Kerala Backwaters, a beautiful, peaceful network of freshwater canals, rivers and lakes which lie inland, parallel to the coastline. The backwaters are a two-hour (at least) drive from the Port, and you should be warned that, compared with what you are used to in Britain, Indian driving is not an experience for the faint-hearted! You will probably find a single excursion incorporating both elements for a full flavour of what Kochi has to offer.
Twenty-six coral atolls forming well over a thousand individual islands make up the republic of the Maldives, draped north to south in the Indian Ocean like a string of pearls. Dazzling white sands, crystal-clear blue, blue sea and almost guaranteed sunshine and blue skies make the Maldives an idyllic luxury beach destination.
A few of the islands are inhabited by permanent residents, some have been turned into private, exclusive resorts, most are uninhabited, but there are still a few developed islands which welcome transient visitors who wish to sample a little taste of paradise.
Water sports are the main tourist activities here; diving, snorkelling and windsurfing are all popular, or of course you could simply sit back on one of the gorgeous beaches and totally unwind, leaving all your cares behind…
The capital of the islands is Malé (the name of both the island and the capital city), and it is here that cruise ships dock when visiting the Maldives. Shore excursions here tend to be low-key; either a look around Malé itself, or a visit to one of the island beaches, usually on either Kuda Bandos or Resort Islands, where you will be able to take part in water sports if you wish.
Ironically Malé has no beaches of its own, other than an artificial beach on the north-east corner, as the island is bounded by a sea wall. Walking tours of Malé are likely to include the 17th-century Old Friday Mosque, plus a visit to the National Museum and Sultan Park housed in the former Sultan’s Palace.
Visitors should be aware that the residents of the islands are Muslim so out of courtesy you should remain covered from shoulders to knees when on Malé or if you visit any of the village islands.
Here in the twenty-first century, the capital of India is resolutely independent yet still retains much of the flavour of colonial times. Some of the place names may have been changed to reflect the city’s predominantly Hindu population, but many of the most popular tourist sites date back to the days of the Raj, and are part and parcel of the city’s history. In addition, no visit to Mumbai would be complete without seeing some of the sacred buildings dedicated to a variety of religious traditions. Sightseeing tours of the city incorporate elements of both aspects of Mumbai’s heritage and are likely to include some of the following:
The Gateway of India, a bold basalt arch reflecting Hindu and Islamic architectural styles. Located at the waterfront, this monument welcomed visitors who arrived in Mumbai by boat.
Victoria Railway terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), Mumbai’s most famous example of Victorian Gothic architecture. Its remarkable stone dome, turrets, pointed arches and eccentric ground plan are close to traditional Indian palace architecture and it is an outstanding example of the meeting of two cultures, as British architects worked with Indian craftsmen to forge a new style unique to Bombay.
The Prince of Wales Museum (Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), built in the early 20th century to honour the visit of King George V to India in 1905. It is one of Mumbai’s most prized architectural gems, a blend of 15th and 16th century Gujarati and Islamic design, with English brickwork, all adorned with an impressive Mughal white dome and bordered by lavish green gardens. The museum holds several collections of ancient artworks, sculptures and artefacts, and after a renovation in 2008, new galleries showcasing artworks of the Hindu God Krishna, textiles and Indian traditional costumes were opened.
Balbulnath Temple, dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. You may see devout Hindus carrying milk and water to pour over the Linga, the abstract sculpture which symbolises the energy and strength of Lord Shiva.
Haji Ali Mosque, built in the 14th century in Indian Islamic style and located on an islet off the southern coast of Mumbai.
Jain Temple, the most elaborate and colourful style of Temple in India.
In this religious melting pot of a city, there is also a Catholic Holy Name Cathedral, an Anglican St Thomas’ Cathedral, and a Presbyterian Church of St John the Evangelist, also known as the Afghan Church, dedicated to British soldiers who died in the Afghan War.
Further afield, you may find tours visiting the Elphanta Caves, just a few miles outside Mumbai, a network of 7th-century sculpted caves dedicated to the cult of Shiva. This UNESCO-protected site features a stunning 7-metre-high sculpture representing three aspects of the God; Shiva The Creator, Shiva The Preserver, and Shiva The Destroyer.
Imagine bone-white sand, palm trees, a turquoise sea and a bright azure sky and you might be thinking about paradise on earth… or perhaps about the Seychelles, a sprawling, remote archipelago of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean, located north east of Madagascar and almost 1000 miles off the east coast of Africa.
The inner islands are granite bastions covered in lush tropical vegetation, surrounded by outer islands of low-lying coral atolls covered with palm trees. The islands are known for stunning beaches, coral reefs, diving, nature reserves and rare wildlife.
Many species of flora found on the islands are endemic to the Seychelles – the jellyfish tree, the carnivorous Seychelles pitcher plant and the Seychelles vanilla orchid for starters. Rare examples from the animal kingdom are also found, including giant Aldabra tortoises, black parrots and the Seychelles nightingale. The islands host a rich diversity of marine life too.
Cruise ships dock at the capital, Victoria, on Mahé, one of the largest of the inner islands. As well as the cruise port and the international airport, Mahé is home to the mountain rainforests of Morne Seychellois National Park and the white beaches of Beau Vallon and Anse Takamaka.
If you don’t want to stray too far from the ship, Victoria itself still has a sprinkling of buildings dating from colonial times, including the Clock Tower of the Roundabout, a reduced-size reproduction of Big Ben built in 1903 in honour of Queen Victoria, and a lively market selling spices, fish, fruit and vegetables as well as craft shops set among beautiful Creole houses.
A visit to the six-hectare Victoria Botanical Garden is an interesting way to get a flavour of the archipelago’s biodiversity if hiking in the rainforest seems a bit too strenuous, though excursions into the forest are also generally available.
Lovers of marine life may like to visit Sainte Anne Marine National Park, where you may be able to dive or snorkel, or see the marine life from a semi-submarine if you prefer to keep dry. Island-hopping tours may also be available.
Sri Lanka, once known as Ceylon, is a tiny island nation off the southern tip of India, a rugged land of rainforest, diverse wildlife and endless beaches. It’s an intriguing mix of ancient ruined cities and edifices and a modern capital city, Colombo.
The country has been shaped by Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and European influences, and has a long history as a port on ancient east-west trade routes, ruled successively by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Sri Lanka’s delicious cuisine reflects its history as a maritime hub and cultural melting pot.
Once your ship docks in bustling Colombo port, you will have a choice of different excursions to suit all tastes. Cruise operators’ excursion selections vary, but a good tour to take would be one showing the highlights of Colombo City including colonial buildings built under British influence, ornate Hindu and Buddhist temples, Muslim mosques, Christian churches, and the lively Oriental bazaar at Pettah Market as well as the city’s botanical gardens, once a royal pleasure park. Or for a complete contrast have a chilled-out day on one of the world’s finest beaches, often complete with a delicious Oriental lunch.
If you fancy travelling further afield you could take a trip to the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in the hills of central Sri Lanka, passing through scenic countryside incorporating fruit trees, rice paddies and charming villages as you go, or to Udawalawe National Park where you can see elephants in the wild.
Alternatively, you may prefer to embark on the 3-hour journey to visit the temples, halls and palaces of the last Sinhalese kingdom in the sacred city of Kandy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where you will find The Temple of the Tooth, repository of Buddhism’s most sacred relic, a tooth said to have belonged to the Buddha.
A visit to Kandy often incorporates the Royal Botanical Gardens in nearby Peradeniya, where impressive collections of orchids, spices, medicinal plants and palm trees are on display.