Jeannine Williamson sails along the Ganges with G Adventures and finds that, unlike their rigidly timetabled European counterparts, Indian river cruises just go with the flow
Lazing on steamer chairs with gin and tonics in hand we feel like royalty as children jump up and down excitedly on the ghats – the stone steps leading down to the river – men pause from their ritual ablutions and women set aside piles of washing to watch our progress.
After four days on the Ganges we are already taking it in turns to be on ‘waving duty’; ready to return the omnipresent greetings of smiling locals in a two-way reciprocal arrangement. The river, immortalised as the goddess Ganga in Hinduism, is both India’s lifeblood and a sacred waterway. Only ten per cent of travellers to India visit West Bengal where the 2,525km-long river flows into the Bay of Bengal and out into the Indian Ocean.
The 24-passenger Varuna provided us with the perfect viewpoint to watch the ever-changing panorama of river life in a region where few tourists set foot. On our voyage from Farakka to Kolkata we see timeless scenes of jam-packed wooden ferries traversing our path to transport townsfolk, goods and even a horse between communities, fishermen casting their nets from tiny boats and even a ritual cremation near the water’s edge. And, as one of only five hotel boats operating on the Ganges, wherever we docked a curious crowd was always waiting to greet us.
Operated by the Assam Bengal Navigation Company and chartered by G Adventures, the colonial-style ship is decked out in gleaming teak and brass and provides a really authentic and accessible way of experiencing India. Crew members are all local and trained by the line and on shore excursions passengers are taken to small, individually run restaurants and transported by rickshaws and tuk-tuks to support the local economy.
Totally different from river cruising in Europe, where daily schedules run like clockwork, daily programmes are variously influenced by the ebb and flow of the tidal Ganges, weather conditions and spontaneous stops, which all add to the sense of adventure for open-minded clients who are happy to go with the flow. One day we spotted a riot of colour on one of the ghats where a women’s festival was taking place. The captain decided to launch Varuna’s tender so we could go over and join in the celebration where the air was thick with incense and the scent of flowers offered to the gods.
Our guide Subho – who was, essentially, a walking encyclopedia – accompanied us for the duration of the cruise, imparting information, thought-provoking philosophy and humour in equal measure. There
was naturalist Baba, too, who was the first to spot elusive Ganges river dolphins breaking the surface of the still water ahead of Varuna. Completing the trio was G Adventures’ easygoing CEO (Chief Experience Officer) Duyshant, who hosted daily briefings over cocktails in Varuna’s cosy wood-panelled bar and kept an expert eye on things.
Brian Young, managing director of G Adventures, said: “River cruise is one of the fastest-growing segments in travel, showing travellers a very different side to some of the world’s greatest places. There’s no better
way to experience some countries than on a small vessel, in a small group. This is slow travel at its best and at G Adventures we break away from the all-inclusive model to get travellers off the boat and into local communities, and making a difference to the destinations we’re visiting by bringing tourist dollars to the local economies.
“India is one of our top destinations and a cruise is perfect for those who are looking to see a different part of the country, or to take a more relaxed mode of travel in what can be a challenging country for travellers going it alone.
“Agents might also be able to identify customers who aren’t what they would consider a traditional ‘cruise’ customer and convert them to this way of travel through our very different approach. Likewise, there might be customers who are already into cruising, and are ready to graduate to a more cultural experience.”
Each day certainly brought an intoxicating mix of contrasting sights and things to see and do, with up
to three excursions paced throughout the early morning and late afternoon to avoid the hottest times of the day. In the brass-making village of Matiari we watched every stage of the labour intensive manufacturing process – from raw materials being smelted in fiery kilns, metal being beaten by hand and finally being turned
into decorative and practical objects that made wonderful and inexpensive souvenirs.
At the Plassey battlefield site – now a lush, rural backwater – Subho explained how Clive of India defeated Siraj-ud Daulah in 1757 and changed the course of Indian history. In Murshidabad’s imposing Hazarduari Palace we discovered many of the 1,000 doors are false to confuse and deter latter-day intruders.
We visited all kinds of temples and, in the charming French colonial town of Chandannager, saw an 18th century Catholic church presided over by an Anglo-Indian priest called Orson Welles. Adding to inevitable jokes about his name he told us his father, Michael Thomas, was known as MT Welles (think about it!). Walking back to the ship we were enchanted by monkeys that jumped out of trees to sit on waterside benches and survey passers-by. Another day we strolled through a teeming market where stall holders sat cross-legged between an array of vegetables and glistening fresh fish and a street vendor turned the wheel on a Heath Robinson contraption to produce tiny, tooth rattling cups of raw sugar cane juice.
The ever-smiling crew were always there to welcome us back on board, handing out restorative drinks and cool towels before cleaning our shoes. All cabins have panoramic windows, so passengers never miss out on passing scenery and the open deck is the perfect spot to enjoy a cocktail as the sun dips over the horizon and turns the river the colour of burnished gold.
Meals are all buffet style and feature an ever-changing array of delicious Indian dishes (not all of which are spicy), washed down with refreshingly large bottles of Indian beer and surprisingly good domestic wine. One day the chef gave us a lesson on how to make a chicken or vegetable curry using some of the country’s 50-plus spices – you won’t find any basic curry powder here – and handed out a printed menu. The final ingredient listed was “lots of love”.
It was another delightful touch in a really personal small ship cruise that will take clients into the heart and soul of this mesmerising country. On the final morning the temple bells rang out at sunrise and Hindu worshippers lowered themselves in the waters to bathe. For us it signalled the end of a culturally immersive week on the Ganges.