The India Today Tourism Awards 2019 recognize popular travel destinations and attractions across the country in a range of categories. This year we commissioned market research company Ipsos to sample opinion through online and offline surveys in 10 urban locations from all corners of India. The list of winners holds some surprises and reflects the public thirst for variety: from thronging beaches to mountain wildernesses, and from riverbanks to highways. To keep things interesting, we’ve introduced some novel categories, such as ‘Iconic Landscapes’ and ‘Scenic Roads’, which we suspect will be bucket-list fodder for many readers. We’re sure you’ll have plenty of opinions on who should have won what. We did too, and since the survey results were out of our hands, we introduced an Editor’s Choice award to anoint our in-house favorite state-tourism-wise. These are the India Today Tourism Awards, after all
Best adventure destination: Chadar Trek Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir
The never-ending sheet of white under your feet can be as thrilling to the mind as it is exhausting to the eyes. Walking over the frozen Zanskar river, battling loud winds and temperatures below minus 20 degrees centigrade, this trek can stretch for as long as 105 km should you have the heart to go the whole hog. The trek is best done in February when the ice sheet is most stable, but be prepared for surprises nevertheless. Recommended for experienced trekkers only, the long march starts from the village of Chilling, where the Zanskar river begins to freeze. Magnetic Hill and the confluence of Zanskar and Indus rivers are must-sees along the way. Other stunners include the frozen waterfall at Nerak. The nights are long and best spent in caves. But you can also choose to find a ‘safe’ spot on the ice and pitch a tent.
Getting there: Direct flight from Delhi to Leh. Adventure sports companies drive you to the starting point of the trek.
Best beach or coastal destination: Palolem, Goa
The thing about Goa is no matter where you go, the classic combination of sea, stretches of sand and sunshine almost always comes through. While regulars to the state are sharply divided into ‘southies’ and ‘northies’ depending on which part they choose to sink their toes into, it’s a well known fact that those looking for a slice of quintessential Goa as it was 20 years ago make a beeline for the south? Here there is more curate, hotel and resort-driven tourism, and far fewer tourists scrambling for their share of sun and sand at the beach. Palolem beach, located in southern Goa, emerges as the most favored beach in the state, given its location, natural beauty and the range of activities on offer.
Blessed with a bounty of swaying palm trees, the 1.5-km curved white sand beach transforms into a happy place in season. You are likely to find bamboo hut shacks dishing out seasonal, local fare, locals selling their colourful wares, and yoga and spirituality too. Interestingly, this is one beach that caters to both families and backpackers. The northern part of the beach has gentler waves and the water doesn’t get deep quite as quickly as the rest of the beach, so this is a preferred spot for families while the southern tip is popular with those looking to party by the waves and unleash the hippie within. Palolem has held its position as one of the finest beaches in Goa because of the diversity in experiences it offers.
Getting there: There are two railway stations located close to Palolem. The Margao (Madgaon) station is 40 minutes away and is serviced by the Konkan rail line, as is Canacona station, which is a 10-minute drive. Most people fly into Goa’s Dabolim airport, which is a good 90 minutes away from Palolem. You will have to depend on local taxis.
Best heritage destination: Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park Jodhpur, Rajasthan
Mehrangarh Fort is a must visit attraction in Jodhpur, but the truly transformative idea was the creation of Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park in its lee, transforming a 70 ha rocky terrain full of volcanic rocks and sandstone. Decades of neglect had made it a wasteland, but a sustained effort to restore it ecologically has resulted in this unique desert heritage park.
Work on the park started in 2006, but it only opened to the public in 2011. Before 2006, the area was overrun by the baavlia (Prosopis juliflora), an invasive, thorny shrub that is extremely difficult to get rid of. The local Khandwaliya miners did it by chiselling into the volcanic rock, often 45 cm deep to kill the baavlia’s roots. Native plants adapted to growing in the arid, rocky areas of the Thar desert were planted in the vacated pits. The Gully, an ancient aquaduct, was also restored and now leads to a network of trails along the driveway to the fort. Also restored was the Singhoria Pol, a 17th-century gateway into Jodhpur city. It now houses the visitors’ centre. The Jodhpur Welded Tuff, columns and terraces of weathered Malani volcanics in the fort hill area, has been declared a National Geological Monument by the Geological Survey of India. The park offers lovely views of the fort, parts of Jodhpur city and a cenotaph, the Jaswant Thada.
Best mountain destination: Gulmarg Jammu and Kashmir
Rated the seventh best skiing destination in Asia by CNN, Gulmarg is the winter sports hub of India, attracting thousands of tourists and sports lovers from across the country and the world for skiing, tobogganing, snowboarding and heli-skiing. In 1968, the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering was set up in Gulmarg to train ski instructors, and millions of rupees were poured in by the central government to metamorphose the place into a world-class ski destination. However, tourism suffered a massive setback after militancy erupted in Kashmir. In the past few years, however, tourist footfalls have increased. Though also boasting of the world’s highest golf course (at 2,650 metres) and other attractions, such as the Maharani temple, Gulmarg Gondola and St. Mary’s Church, it is essentially skiing that is synonymous with this saucer-shaped valley in the Pir Panjal range. On a clear day, the breathtaking Nanga Parbat peak, which is over 100 km away, can also be witnessed. The best time to visit Gulmarg is in the winters.
Getting there: The nearest airport is Srinagar and Jammu is the closest rail link. From Srinagar, taxis/ buses take two hours to reach Gulmarg.
Best wildlife destination: Gir National Park Gujarat
Often called the last refuge of the majestic Asiatic lion, which is on the brink of extinction, the Gir Wildlife Sanctuary is spread over 1,153 sq. km in the semi-arid Saurashtra region of Gujarat. Of this, an area of around 259 sq. km comprises the Gir National Park. The census puts the lion population in the Gir forests at over 500. Gir is also home to a variety of species-the sambar, chowsingha or the four-horned antelope, jackal, hyena, fox, the mugger crocodile that lives in the Kamleshwar lake and over 200 types of birds, such as the Malabar whistling thrush, paradise flycatcher, black-naped blue flycatcher, Indian pitta, Bonelli’s eagle and crested hawk eagle. The park offers lion safaris for eight months between October and June and is closed to visitors during the breeding season.
Getting there: The nearest railway station is Junagadh, about 1.5 hours away. Rajkot is the closest airport. A taxi from there to the sanctuary takes 4-5 hours.
Best festival destination: Kumbh Mela Prayagraj, Uttar Pradesh
The Kumbh Mela is routinely the world’s largest public gathering and collective act of faith and, in 2017, it was inscribed in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage. The festival’s location rotates between the sacred sites in Prayagraj (commonly known as Allahabad), Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain, with a ‘Maha Kumbh’ alternating between Prayagraj or Haridwar approximately every 12 years, depending on astrological calendars. This year’s Ardh Kumbh (the ‘half Kumbh’ held between two Maha Kumbhs) in Prayagraj began on the festival day of Makar Sankranti, January 15, and will end on Mahashivratri-March 4. A total 150 million people had visited the festival by mid-February. The event was an unprecedented logistical exercise by the UP government and the arrangements made to receive visitors included 4,200 premium tents, 122,000 public toilets, selfie points for youngsters and more than 40,000 LED lights.
Getting there: Prayagraj is connected to all major cities via railways. The new civil airport is served by regular flights, connecting it to Delhi and Lucknow.
Spiritual Destination: Golden Temple Amritsar, Punjab
Considered the holiest shrine of Sikhs and a major pilgrimage for people across religions, the Harmandir Sahib or the Golden Temple is the star attraction of Amritsar, a city that looks as spellbinding during the day as it does during the night. Guru Arjan Dev started the gurdwara’s construction in 1581 and it took eight years to complete. The Golden Temple has been planned at a level lower than the city to emphasise on the need to let go of one’s ego before entering, and the compound is open on all sides, symbolising no discrimination against anyone. In 1830, Maharaja Ranjit Singh donated gold for overlaying of the sanctum. Over centuries, the revered site has seen much destruction from invading armies, but was always rebuilt. In October 2016, the path from the city’s Town Hall to Harmandir Sahib was given a massive facelift, with over 150 buildings lining both sides of the street getting new facades, artwork, metal awnings and wood and metal balconies.
Getting there: Flights from Delhi. A vast rail and road network links Amritsar to other cities.
Most scenic road: Srinagar-Leh Jammu and Kashmir
The mesmerising Leh to Srinagar drive, once an arduous 400-plus km overnight journey, has turned into a pleasant trip thanks to the BRO’s efforts in ensuring good connectivity of the border areas to both Leh and Srinagar. The dreaded Zoji La too has been tamed, thanks to a new alignment and the traffic jams are a thing of the past.
Starting from Leh, the journey winds along the Indus to the Pathar Sahib gurdwara and Magnetic Hill, past the ancient village of Alchi onto the confluence of the Indus-Zanskar rivers. It then climbs onto the Zanskar range to cross Fotu La at about 14,000-feet, past the 1st century Lamayuru monastery. The scenery is spectacular and rugged as one arrives at Kargil, a town that now, unfortunately, needs no introduction. The Kargil-Drass road follows the Drass or the Shingo river and the joyful sound of gurgling water is dampened only by warning signs that you are under enemy observation.
Cross the Zoji La and there’s a total change of scenery. The mountainsides are green and at the base flows the Sindh river. From then on, it’s a straightforward drive to Srinagar.
Iconic landscape destination: Mangrove forests, the Sundarbans West Bengal
Sundarbans is often described as one of nature’s most mystical creations. Sprawling across the India-Bangladesh border, where the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Mehgna rivers converge in the Bengal basin, the Sundarbans delta has the largest strand of mangrove forest in the world, spread over nearly 10,000 sq. km across the two countries, with about 40 per cent within Indian territory. A complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of mangroves intersects this delta. It is the biggest delta, backwater and tidal phenomenon of the region and provides diverse habitats for several hundred aquatic, terrestrial and amphibian species, including 260 types of birds and several threatened species, such as the saltwater crocodile and the Indian python. But the biggest attraction is the Royal Bengal tiger-approximately 100 of these big cats rule the area. In fact, the Sundarbans is the only mangrove tigerland in the world. However, spotting a tiger is a matter of luck.
The World Heritage property comprises three wildlife sanctuaries and demands time and patience to be explored. Take a week off your work and spend mornings and evenings snaking through the canals of these mangroves, shadowed by an unbroken canopy of dense forest. Even if you fail to encounter the tiger, the breathtaking sites, enhanced by creeks, rivers and meandering streams, along with their rich fauna, will leave you mesmerised. The Sajnekhali Tourist Lodge, run by the West Bengal government, is a good option to stay at. It is well located and reasonably priced. There are several private resorts and homestays as well. They offer budget stays and organise boat safaris.
Getting there: The nearest airport is Kolkata. The nearest railhead of Canning, connected to Kolkata, is approximately 50 km away. Sundarbans is accessible only by riverine waterways. One can drive from Kolkata or Canning to multiple spots, such as Namkhana, Raidighi, Sonakhali and Najat, from where motorboats are available.
Best state for travel: Goa
Over the past few years, there’s a Goa that has emerged from the shadow of its past-quicker, surer but equally charming, inviting not just those looking for a beach vacation but others seeking a slower, more immersive cultural experience.
With the state stretching at one end to Karnataka and to Maharashtra on the other, and an enviable coastline travelling the entire expanse, every village or wado here has a culture and sensibility of its own. Goa has the finest, most well-maintained beaches in India.
And what makes it so special is that each beach has a distinct personality; while those looking to fall off the map head to the extreme north or south (Arambol or Palolem), regular partygoers favour Baga and Calangute, which is younger and swisher; those looking to unwind at private villas and five-star resorts prefer Palolem and Colva in the south, while Anjuna, with its annual night market, is still a big hit with families and solo travellers alike.
The north and south are as different as chalk and cheese in terms of topography, food and activities on offer. Goa is for the tourist who loves nature, wants to be a beach bum, is a foodie, loves art, wants to study its brilliant architecture and also drink its local beers and wine while going on a tour of a spice or cashew estate. In recent times, the state has also emerged as a destination for spiritual seekers as its natural beauty and zen personality attracts yoga lovers and alternative medical practitioners by the dozens.
Editor’s choice: Arunachal Pradesh
The largest state in India’s Northeast is also blessed with an incredible expanse of forest (covering 79 per cent of its land), mountains that rise to 23,000 feet and rivers that empty snowmelt and the abundance of the monsoon into vast floodplains fringed by some of the last extensive stretches of intact terai landscape in the country.
The diversity of languages and cultures of the people in its lush valleys is still a pleasant shock to travellers from the monotonous plains, as is the unselfconscious confidence with which these communities seem to negotiate modernity while holding tradition close to their daily lives and pleasures. In recent years, some infrastructural development and tourist entrepreneurship have made it easier to travel in Arunachal-but, fortunately, not too easy. This is one of the few states that still holds the promise of profiting from tourism without destroying its landscapes in the process (long live the Inner Line Permit!). We love Arunachal Pradesh because it’s very beautiful and it seems to want to stay that way.