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Before I launch this bit of praise about a fabulous, spirit-stirring, and, to me, oddly under-appreciated travel destination (India, that is), it’s probably a good idea to qualify myself and tell you why I’m writing it. And to admit up front that I’m far from neutral, but happily unconflicted.
True, I work for Micato and I’d be happy if you were inspired to sign up for one of our Indian journeys, or to help us create an entirely custom journey for you. (As we did recently for a couple of tiger aficionados. They ended up seeing and beautifully photographing 24 of the sublime cats on one trip.)
But I’d write a letter like this to a travel-minded friend even if I’d never heard of Micato. I was entranced by India long before I followed my bliss straight into the travel business 40 years ago. During those years I helped start a pioneering adventure travel company, led mountain treks and far-flung tours all over the world, and visited India as often as I could cadge a trip. I was about ready to retire when Dennis and Joy Pinto very graciously came calling, and for the past 10 years I’ve been consulting and writing for them about another of my great loves: Africa.
People sometimes ask if I have a favourite destination and I answer, “The last place I visited.” (A rather grandiose thing to say, but accurate.) Then, I sometimes add: “But if all my travels were confined to one country outside the USA, it would be India, hands down, no question.” Why? It would be hard for me to improve on something Keith Bellows, longtime editor of National Geographic Traveler once wrote:
“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.”
Technicolor, SuperImax, not the meta, but the heart-enrichingly real world, that’s my experience too. I love many places, but very few invite me to be so alive as India.
I’m eager to enthuse over the country’s cascading charms, and what you won’t be surprised to learn are Micato’s exceptionally astute ways of presenting them. But if I may, I ask for your patience as I address a few of the reasons India is still “oddly under-appreciated.”
For many years India had the reputation even among travel-minded people as a glittering but problematic destination. Its infrastructure—i.e., getting around, staying in reasonable hotels, etc.— was unreliable. And then there was the problem of its widespread poverty.
The first two are largely things of the past. I think—and think most travel professionals agree—that the Taj and the Oberoi group of hotels, which Micato uses wherever possible, are simply the world’s most intelligently and cheerfully run, not to mention gorgeous, hotels: Jaipur’s Rambagh Palace, Agra’s Amarvilas (whose every window looks out at the Taj Mahal), the exquisite Vanyavilas in the tiger haven of Ranthambore National Park, to name just a few.
And about the poverty. On my first visit to Calcutta—now Kolkata—I was a typical American lad, shocked to see people sleeping on the streets. I live in Sonoma County, the lovely Northern California Wine Country, and today we have almost 3,000 homeless residents. In 2019, the International Monetary Fund, which doesn’t often regard the world rosily, maintained that India had virtually eradicated extreme poverty (and had held it at near zero during the pandemic). Other organizations questioned the numbers, but I think it’s fair to say that India has done much to lessen its poverty problem, and that it’s intent on erasing this stain on its reputation.
Now a perhaps jarring segue (and isn’t the modern world rife with them?):
I mentioned a while back that Micato has ancestral roots in India. Here’s the story in short: In the last century the Pinto family immigrated from India’s palmy coastline state of Goa to what was then British East Africa. When Micato’s founders, Felix and Jane Pinto, retired after successful international careers, they decided to start a little safari company, mostly for the sake of their many visiting friends and associates from around the world. And when their son Dennis left a globe-trotting career with American Express and took the rapidly growing company’s reins, he connected with an old family friend, Cecil Haidar Ali, in Delhi, and there Micato Safaris established itself.
More than a quarter of a century later, under the able leadership of Cecil’s daughter Lisa and son Michael, Micato India is deeply imbued not only with the organizational excellence that has earned Micato the title of World’s Best Safari Operator a record-shattering 10 times, but also the affectionate, scrupulous care that inspires Travel + Leisure to say that Micato “treats its guests like well-loved, out-of-town relatives,” and veteran travel writer Becca Hensley to mirror that when she writes, “Traveling with Micato feels much like being escorted through India by old family friends.”
When people ask me about traveling with Micato, whether to India or Africa, I tell them about the Travel + Leisure awards, that I believe it’s now accepted in the industry that Micato is the company of choice. But I always add that bit about being treated like a well-loved out-of-town relative. (Dennis said the other day that of all our accolades, that one is dearest to his heart.)
“They will take care of you, whatever happens,” I say, “They have the staff and resources, and most important they have the baked-in ethos. I guarantee it.”
My old journalism mentors would scold me for burying the lede, so let’s return to the cascading charms I promised, back to the country Mark Twain called “the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.”
1. The Taj Mahal. To me, the single most beautiful thing that humans have ever created. My first visit years ago coincided with a full moon. The Taj seemed to float delicately in the blue-tinted sky, and I remembered my friend Theo Cruz’ words: “The only way I could escape the feeling of being in a dream was to close my eyes.” On my last early morning visit with my wife Mary and our Micato Trip Director, the estimable Puneet, I had a strong, unexpectedly sensual reaction, as if I were in the presence of a chaste but stunningly entrancing woman.
2. An early morning boat ride on the sacred river Ganges in Varanasi, watching in the pink and gold light as enlightened individuals perform ritual sunrise baths and religious ceremonies. And at sunset, with Hemender joining the promenade of businesspeople and sadhus and families walking down to the ghats, watching tiny sacred lamps being lit during the ancient Arti ceremony. Perhaps nowhere in the world is it possible to witness so colorfully and intensely many thousands of years of unbroken dedication to spiritual exploration.
3. Setting out in Ranthambore National Park in search of tigers. Mary and I saw one in the distance on our first afternoon game drive. I thought, “Well, okay, now I’ve seen one.” But the next day, we kept company with a big male for much of the day and watched two cubs frolicking in a river. I have never seen a living creature so powerful, graceful, insouciantly imperial.
4. Having breakfast on the verandah of the exquisite Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. I had to laugh at myself; for years I’ve been avoiding the travelprose cliché of “being treated like a maharajah,” and here I was, being treated like a maharajah, feeling like a maharajah.
And so. I’m old enough to come to this task with a bit more sense of mission than of merchandising. So I’ll close by repeating something Mark Twain wrote long ago, something that had been true for centuries when he wrote it, and is still scintillatingly true: “So far as I am able to judge, nothing has been left undone, either by man or Nature, to make India the most extraordinary country that the sun visits on his round.”
My fellow India enthusiasts at Micato will be glad to talk with you about our many trip options and extensions and private experiences and wonders upon wonders.
Call us at:1-800-642-2861, or zip an email to Inquiries@Micato.com or view our Micato India brochure online.