India is the second most-populous country on earth, which brings to mind crowds, noise and stress, rather than thoughts of a relaxing vacation.
But you can indeed find peace and tranquility here -- in unusual settings that you won't find anywhere else on earth.
Here are two unique places to find peace by the water:
Relax Like a Royal at the Lake Palace
In Northwest India, in the state of Rajasthan, there is the city of Udaipur, known as the Venice of the East, the City of the Lakes, the City of Sunrise, and the City of the Dawn.
When you first arrive, you'll think that's an awful lot of hyperbole, as the city seems fairly a typical one of its size in India -- a place where cars zigzag down the streets, drivers lean on their horns and cows and goats wander everywhere.
You'll start to understand how all the lyrical names came about when you reach Lake Pichola, just outside of the city. This lake is about two miles long, and a mile wide, and the red Aravalli Mountains just beyond seem to rise from its blue waters.
Udaipur was once the seat of power for the royal family that ruled the region. Over a period of centuries, they constructed a series of palaces around the lake -- and one that fully occupies a four-acre island in the middle of the lake, called Jag Niwas, or the Lake Palace.
The Lake Palace was designed to be disarming: It was constructed in 1743 by Maharana [Prince] Jagat Singh II as a place to woo the women of his court. It was certainly one site of conquest for a certain British secret agent -- the James Bond movie Octopussy (SNE) was filmed here.
You don't have to be royalty or a spy to experience the pleasures of the Lake Palace, as it's now a resort, operated by the Taj group.
The Lake Palace can only be accessed by boat, and from the time you arrive -- and are showered with rose petals -- to the time you depart for land, you will be pampered and cosseted in the old royal tradition of the realm.
The palace has tranquil courtyards, filled with flowers and reflective ponds, a full spa with traditional Indian and western treatments, a pool with a view of the other palaces lining the lake and several excellent restaurants. Neel Kamal, overlooking the lily pond, serves local Rajasthani fare.
Breakfast at Jharoka includes a Western-style buffet, followed by a service of Indian breakfast. Through the scalloped windows in the morning, you can just catch a glimpse of one of the lake's several "ghats," or bathing areas, well-used by the local population.
In the evenings, the hotel offers concerts and dance performances.
Tired of Relaxing?
Even if you're feeling extra-lazy, don't miss a boat tour of the lake. You can add to your feeling of going back in time by adding on a tour of the local area via classic car (both of which can be arranged by the hotel).
Another lovely afternoon excursion is the City Palace, which you can see on the shore just opposite the Lake Palace. This palace was constructed in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and is now a museum with room after room of the exquisite and extraordinary, from bold stained glass windows to mosaic-style walls tiled in reflective glass, to delicate trompe l'oeil murals. From its upper floors, there are views of the palace compound, the city of Udaipur and on to the mountains.
Although the royals are no longer commissioning art work to fill their many abodes, generations of artistic know-how are still being expressed today. You can haggle for quality textiles, paintings and carvings with the many vendors just outside the City Palace gate.
Float in the Kerala Backwaters
The state of Kerala is located on India's southwestern tip, hugging the coast of the Arabian sea. Kerala is home to a network of salt and fresh waterways -- a series of interconnected canals, rivers as well as India's longest lake, Vembanad -- that all together make up an area known as the Backwaters.
The Backwaters stretch approximately from the town of Kollam to Kumarakom, and thread through rice paddies, remote villages and lush aquatic habitat.
The best way to experience this is by houseboat, structures usually constructed out of palm leaf, bamboo, coconut coil, the wood of the betel nut and jack wood trees. There are hundreds of houseboats on these waters, and they range from one to 10 bedrooms, and with varying degrees of luxury.
You'll want your houseboat to have comfortable lounge seating, flat screen TVs and satellite access, comfortable bedrooms and a personal chef. (You'll find a list of houseboat operators here.)
The longest possible journey in the backwaters will take you three days. Most people who engage a houseboat spend at least one night on it.
Once aboard, you'll travel at a leisurely pace of about 15 kilometers an hour, which gives you plenty of time for close-hand observation of village life. You'll see men and women energetically tackling their chores.
When evening falls, you'll drop anchor for the night, and your crew will light lanterns and serve you a belt-popping feast of local delicacies, simply prepared. Expect lots of seafood and dishes prepared with coconut: Kerala means "land of coconut" in the local language.
Tired of Relaxing?
Each houseboat has a guide who can lead you on tours of the villages you pass through, depending on your interest and enthusiasm. You'll likely fly in and out of the city of Kochi to access the backwaters. (Kochi was formerly known as Cochin, in the way that Mumbai was formerly known as Bombay.)
It's worth taking an afternoon to explore the Fort Kochi area, particularly the Chinese fishing nets -- enormous turquoise nets that are lowered into the water through a system of pulleys.
• There are no direct flights to either Udaipur or Kochi from the United States. For Udaipur, you'll most likely connect through Delhi, and most itineraries will have you making an additional stop in Jaipur. Avoid this extra connection by flying Jet Airways, which has a direct flight from Delhi to Udaipur.
• For Kochi, you will be routed through Mumbai, where you'll connect for a domestic flight. Avoid that shuttle ride by flying Emirates, which offers a flight from JFK to Kochi that stops in Dubai.
• India can be a challenging country to travel in. Although most people speak English, the customs and rules are abstruse and changeable, and the roads and the drivers are chaos beyond description. For the most relaxing experience, you'll want assistance at the airport, and English-speaking drivers for each leg of your journey. It's easiest to turn this task over to a reputable tour operator, such as Greaves Tours.
• You will need a visa to travel to India. Apply for one here.
• Visit your doctor four to six weeks before you go to India, as the CDC recommends that travelers receive a host of inoculations.
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