For the well-seasoned traveler, it's hard to find a country that exerts as much of a draw as India. Rich in fascinating culture, with a desperately poor populace, India attracts and repels simultaneously; unlike other countries on the Asian continent such as Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma) or China, it's hard to find an easy way in.
Until now. Since 2016, Uniworld has put the Ganges Voyager II under exclusive charter, offering two-week trips that combine a land tour of India's Golden Triangle cities -- Delhi, Agra and Jaipur -- with seven nights on the Ganges. (Well, sorta. The ship never gets to the Ganges proper, sailing instead on three tributaries: the Hooghly, the Jalangi and the Bhagirathi.) It's all part of the Ganges Delta, however, and within Indian culture, the rivers are considered the same as Mother Ganges.
Along with a sibling, Ganges Voyager I, the colonial-themed Ganges Voyager II started life under Haimark. After that company went bankrupt, ownership transferred to River Heritage Journey Line, which runs the ship operations. On every sailing, however, there's a manager reporting directly to Uniworld who stays with the vessel for the season. (Vantage runs its India sailings on the company's older ship, Ganges Voyager I, although the company currently has no Indian river cruises scheduled past 2017, instead concentrating on land-only trips to the country.)
With such an extensive land portion, Uniworld's offering is really two trips in one -- and the tour feels like it. The Golden Triangle part of the trip is go-go-go, with full days of excursions in busy chaotic cities, long coach trips between destinations and some of the finest luxury hotels in the world (Uniworld partners with the renowned luxury company Oberoi and the accommodations are spectacular). While the Oberoi provides a bit of a soft landing into India, you're in a luxury bubble and spend quite a bit of time viewing the country from behind a window.
The vibe changes once you reach Ganges Voyager II. Once the ship pulls away from Kolkata, you have a front-row seat to rural India, with all of its joys and peculiarities. You'll see rice paddies and river dolphins, temples and villages. The river itself is a hub of activity; Indians use it to bathe, wash clothes, bless icons, dump cremated ashes and much more. Villagers will wave at the ship -- still a new phenomenon -- from the stone ghats (steps) that lead down to the river. When you dock, you'll become an object of curiosity. While the riotous colors will tempt your camera at every turn, don't be surprised if a villager asks to take a selfie with you!
You can't mention India without talking about hygiene, or more precisely, lack thereof. The trash and sanitary conditions are shocking for Westerners and are probably the biggest barrier toward understanding the country. On the river, you'll see people drinking out of the same water where someone just defecated. Even in the largest cities, people share the road with cows, pigs, goats, dogs, and in Rajasthan, camels -- and their droppings are everywhere (in villages, the dung is formed into patties and slapped onto houses to be used as a later fuel source). It's disturbing and yes, disgusting.
Uniworld and Ganges Voyager II counter the dangers posed by the unsanitary conditions with an aggressive offense. Closed-toe shoes are recommended, and they are cleaned every time you return to the ship. Copious amounts of bottled water are handed out for drinking and toothbrushing, and staff members squirt sanitizer into your hands constantly. Passengers are warned to give street food a wide berth, and while some of the puppies on the roads look cute, you're admonished not to touch them. Though the sheer novelty of the foods you're eating might give you some tummy issues, it's easily countered by some simple medications and a day or two of bland diet from the chef.
Speaking of the chef and the rest of the staff, they enhance the Ganges Voyager II experience with good cheer and great effort. Beyond the regular waiter and steward duties, they serve as personal interpreters for Indian culture, taking part in Bollywood dance lessons, decorating women's arms and legs with henna designs and egging passengers on at the cricket bat. Ganges Voyager II has long stretches of scenic cruising, but the staff fills the downtime with enrichment activities such as lectures, cooking classes and trivia. The tour guides and tour manager, too, are top notch, with sharp senses of humor. Before the cruise, they help navigate the logistics of traveling between numerous cities with aplomb and onboard, they help make sense of the incongruities you often witness in everyday Indian life.
The unhurried pace on the river might bore the restless. But the ship, with its teak furniture, white ironwork and colorful block patterns and murals on the walls, is a destination unto itself. The upper deck is split in two, with one side consisting of a lounge with a large bar and plenty of comfy chairs and sofas, and the other an outdoor sun deck, with chairs, daybeds and loungers where you can read or snooze (much of the outdoor space is under cover, so you don't have to worry about the heat). The small spa, with both Indian and Western treatments, does brisk business at affordable prices and the in-room flat-screen TVs have documentaries about the country for those who want even more enrichment. Cabins are on the large side and while storage is a sore point, the French balconies and colorful Indian-Colonial decor make them pleasant hideaways as well.
All in all, we give high marks to Uniworld for bringing their brand of luxury, service and attention to detail to a place where daily necessities can be challenging. If you want time to relax and get into the country, in addition to seeing the more tried-and-true tourist route, Ganges Voyager II and Uniworld's itinerary will meet your expectations, and then some.
Ganges Voyager II cabins get you in an Indian state of mind with bold block prints on the walls and ceiling, painted trim and in the suites and colonial-era murals. All cabins have French balconies and the beds face the river so you don't miss anything. The bathrooms are some of the largest (and prettiest) we've seen while cruising, with modern glass-enclosed showers, rainforest showerheads, a makeup mirror and strong water pressure. Even here, you'll find Indian ambiance, as a band of decorative tile runs the length of the bathroom.
What the cabins lack is storage. Each stateroom has a wardrobe with a safe and three puny drawers. Bathrooms, while spacious, have no drawers either. And unlike the setup you find on almost every other cruise ship out there, the beds are too low to store your suitcases underneath, so you need to find room for them elsewhere.
Another note about the cabins: Ganges Voyager II is noisy when it sails, to the point where several suites at the back of the ship on the third floor should be avoided. The ship alleviates some of the annoyance by sailing only during daylight hours, but if you are sensitive to noise, stay clear of rooms 315 through 318.
All cabins have queen beds; most can be separated into twins with the exception of the top three suite classes where the beds are stationary. Most rooms have two chairs and a table in front of the French balconies, along with a desk and a complimentary mini-bar in the corner stocked with sodas and mixers and a daily fruit plate. Hair dryers are provided; toiletries are Kama Ayurveda Les Jardin d'Indie brand.
Signature and Colonial Suites: Located on Decks 2 and 3, the Signature and Colonial Suites are the same size, 256 square feet. The only difference is that the decor of the Signature Suites on Deck 2 is blue, while the rooms on Deck 3 are red. Another note for restless sleepers -- the suites on Deck 2 are all located toward the front of the ship so the noise from the engine isn't as bad as you might find a deck above.
Heritage Suites: The two Heritage Suites, measuring 280 square feet, are located at the very front of the ship on Deck 3 and have curved windows, which lend a unique view for sightseeing. The curved shape of the room does make the dilemma of storing suitcases even more pronounced, however. The bathrooms in these suites, as well as the upper two categories, have some extra drawer space. The king-sized beds in these rooms are four-posted and cannot be separated into twins. The Heritage Suites come with a welcome bottle of Champagne, butler service, a choice of premium Khadi Pure soaps, a bottle of premium (Australian) wine, free laundry service, a daily fruit plate and evening canapes.
Viceroy Suites: If you're looking for space, the two Viceroy Suites provide it. Located midship on Deck 3, the suites are significantly larger than the regular cabins, at 355 square feet. These rooms have a full daybed, along with two chairs and a table and a desk, as well as a mini-bar. The bathrooms in these suites contain extra drawer space. The king-sized beds here are also four-posted and cannot be separated into twins. Inclusions for this category are a welcome bottle of Champagne, butler service, a bottle of premium wine, a one-hour spa treatment for each person, laundry service, a daily fruit plate and evening canapes.
Maharaja Suite: The single Maharaja Suite onboard, located toward the front of Deck 3, is a sumptuous 375 square feet, but oddly it lacks the daybed that's in the Viceroy Suites. What makes this suite different is a double wardrobe, which provides more storage, and a separate bathtub from the shower. Extra storage space can be found in the bathroom as well. The four-posted king-sized bed cannot be separated into twins. Inclusions for this category are the same as in the Viceroy Suites.
One would hope that travelers to India would be open to at least trying the country's flavorful food. The chef on Ganges Voyager II makes it easy for even the most hesitant to take a bite, with spice levels that are severely dialed down for Western palates. Those who want hotter food can request chili-charged choices at dinner and a bowl of spicy sauce is always set out at lunch.
India is a boon for vegetarians, as many Hindus do not eat meat; meals on Ganges Voyager II usually have two or three delicious vegetarian choices. This is not the country to request a steak, however; in several Indian states, the slaughter of cows is illegal. Chicken, pork, prawn, fish and goat are all served up as options. Rice is the starch of choice, which should please those looking for gluten-free options; other items can be made available upon request.
Indian wine, beer and spirits are included in the fare and poured liberally at lunch and dinner. The local red wines taste a little immature, but the whites are more palatable. Premium -- i.e., international -- wines can be bought off the wine list.
Dining Room (Deck 2): The Ganges Voyager II dining room is a cheerful restaurant with square tables for four and two, as well as one round table for six. Larger parties can be accommodated by pushing several tables together. There are no reservations or set seating, and passengers can eat when they want to during service hours.
Breakfast is served in the dining room between 7 and 8:30 a.m., although the time can differ if excursion times change. The meal is served buffet style, with an omelet station and a la carte choices like pancakes, waffles and eggs Benedict also available. The buffet station holds several kinds of fruit, including dragon fruit and papaya, meats and cheeses, cereals, yogurt, muesli, bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and pastries. There's usually at least one Indian choice as well, such as paranthas (stuffed pancakes) or besan ka cheela (a type of vegetarian omelet).
Lunch usually runs for 90 minutes, with the time varying according to afternoon excursions. It's also served buffet style. Hot items always include made-to-order pasta, a Western choice such as fish and chips, and several Indian options such as vegetable curry, local fish wrapped in a banana leaf and sauteed mustard greens. The spicy sauce for heat lovers changes daily. On the buffet, you'll find everything you need to build a familiar green salad, as well as interesting cold salads with Indian flavors (such as mango, avocado and shrimp). Small tea sandwiches, smoked meats, cheese and crackers, two choices of soup and numerous breads round out the options. At least three desserts, including Western-style coconut cake or an Indian bread pudding, are offered.
Dinner begins at 7 p.m. and runs for two hours. It's a four-course affair, although you can eat as many or as few dishes as you wish. Typical appetizers might include a roasted tomato cocktail, methi pakoda vegetable dumplings and fresh salmon rosette; followed by a choice of soups including mulligatawny (chicken and lentils) or kaddu ka shorba (pumpkin). There's a choice of four entrees, with at least two of them vegetarian. Menu choices might consist of penne arrabiata, royallu vepudu (Indian prawn stir-fry), roasted leg of goat and Mumbai pav bhaji (a vegetable stew with potatoes). Fresh naan (similar to pita bread) is given at every meal. Always-available choices are green salad with house dressing, consomme, grilled chicken breast or grilled salmon with vegetables. There are usually two desserts offered: an Indian sweet such as balusahi, a sugar-soaked doughnut, or ice cream. We did see chocolate desserts created upon request, however.
As noted earlier, the ship's chef makes the Indian food onboard very mild, unless you ask. That's in contrast to the Indian meals that Ganges Voyager II passengers have earlier in the tour, at the Oberoi hotel restaurants. Most dinners at the beginning of the trip are purchased on your own and the menus are as varied as you'd find in any luxury hotel restaurant. If you like Indian food, don't miss the chance to eat at these restaurants, as the meals you'll have might be some of the best examples of Indian cuisine you've ever tasted; it's worth the splurge.
The Lounge (Deck 4): An early-riser breakfast of crustless sandwiches and pastries is served in the lounge, beginning at 6 a.m. These offerings repeat at 9:30 a.m. for late risers. The lounge is also the location for daily tea at 4 p.m., where a lovely array of sandwiches and cakes are served, as well as small snacks during cocktail hour. Cookies are always available at the bar's coffee and tea station, and there is also a basket of potato chips that passengers can grab at any time.
Room Service (if applicable): Ganges Voyager II does not have official room service. If you come down with a stomach bug, however, or simply want something less taxing on your system, the chef will send up a tray of vegetable broth, white rice and boiled apples.
Casual is the name of the game on Ganges Voyager II. During the day, women wear lightweight pants or long skirts and loose tops or T-shirts to comply with temple visitation requirements. Men also wear light pants for tours. Closed-toe shoes and socks are a must; sanitation in the villages is far from Western standards. When you get back from excursions, you leave your shoes for cleaning and change into provided slippers (the clean shoes are later left outside your cabin door).
While relaxing on deck, shorts, T-shirts and sundresses are the norm. Dinner is casual, with most women wearing simple shirts and blouses, and an occasional dress (as well as brightly colored scarves they've bought on the trip); men wear long pants and collared shirts. Even the welcome and farewell dinners are casual with no discernable change in the dress code. There's no need to bring a nice dress or sport coat for the ship.
The trip includes a domestic flight (two if you take the extension to Varanasi, which about half of the passengers do), and India airlines have strict baggage weight regulations of 15 kg (33 lbs) for checked bags and 7 kg (15 lbs.) for hand luggage. If you go over -- and many people in the group did -- it's not a tragedy, though. You simply pay an amount ranging from 500 to 1,000 rupees ($8 to $15).
At the end of the trip, Ganges Voyager II has an Indian-themed night where men and women can wear the saris, scarves and local garb they've purchased on the trip. It's a fun way to embrace the colors and style of Indian dress.
While on the Ganges, Uniworld has most services included, such as shore excursions, meals and airport transfers if you booked through the company or are continuing with an extension. Local wine and beer, as well as soft drinks and some liquor brands, are included at lunch, dinner and the cocktail hour. Premium wines and liquor cost extra.
The tap water onboard is not drinkable and while you can shower in it, you shouldn't use it to wash your face or brush your teeth. The ship provides copious amounts of bottled water that is replenished constantly.
Gratuities for the crew and the tour manager are not included in the fare and must be paid with cash before you leave the ship. The suggested amount is $8 to 10 per day, per person for the crew and $8 to 10 per day, per person for the tour manager; it can be given in either dollars or rupees. Since India's ATMs have a daily withdrawal limit, you'll want to plan ahead to make sure that you have enough cash on hand, as the tips can add up (seven days on the river equals $140 per cabin and because your cruise includes a six-day Golden Triangle tour before you board, each cabin will need $260 for the tour manager). Tips to local guides and bus drivers are included in the fare, but gratuities to spa service providers are not; save some rupees for them if you get a treatment.
Wi-Fi is included for the entire trip, but there's a caveat: In the hotels, it's fast, unlimited and you'll be able to keep up with the outside world; on the ship, you are limited to 150MB per cabin per day -- and it's painfully slow. (It's due to issues with India's satellite communication network and not the ship itself.) Unfortunately, this means showing off your photos will have to wait until you're back on land.
The onboard currency is the rupee. The ship does not provide a money exchange service, although your local guide will make ATM stops in Kolkata if you need it. Credit cards can be used to settle your bill, although the transaction carries a 3 percent processing charge.
On Uniworld's Golden Triangle tour before you meet the ship, several lunches and dinners are on your own, and because of the resorts' remote locations (not to mention general concerns about sanitation), dining is limited to the Oberoi restaurants. The meals at these restaurants are fantastic -- you'll eat some of the best Indian food you'll have in your life -- but they are pricy. Make sure to budget for them.
On the Ganges portion of the cruise, all shore excursions are included. Passengers are divided into three groups, randomly (and not by activity level), and stay with their local guide for the duration of the trip. Because most of the villages along the river are small, excursions generally last a half-day or less; on some days, there might be two 90-minute excursions offered. Ganges Voyager II does all of its sailing during the day so there's plenty of time for scenic cruising.
On the Golden Triangle section of the trip, shore excursions last much longer, often a full day, and can involve long coach rides. Again, passengers are separated into three groups, which means you can spread out among the buses. In Delhi, an optional half-day excursion to two of the city's UNESCO World Heritage Sites -- Humayun's Tomb and Qutub Minar -- cost $20 per person. In Jaipur, the optional excursion runs to Amer Fort and costs $55 per person.
Vox headsets are used for the entire trip.
Daytime and Evening Entertainment
Because the stops along the river aren't always that long, the Ganges Voyager II staff fills the free time with lectures and enrichment activities, usually at least one per day.
In the evenings, dance performances by local entertainers take place at least twice per voyage. And finally, an Indian-themed movie is shown several nights after dinner.
Ganges Voyager II has daily lectures and activities, sometimes even more than one activity, depending on how much time is spent sailing. The sari/turban tying session is great fun, and the Bollywood dance lesson allows the Indian crew to show off their moves (trust us, they are much more coordinated than you'll be). Other seminars include a lecture on the significance of the Ganges, a spice-smelling session, a tea tasting and a cooking class. On one day, there's a cricket game so passengers can learn the sport -- and the staff can again show off. Women lined up to get mehendi -- intricate henna tattoos -- done.
Local guides are also available during free time to answer any questions you might have about the Hindu religion, the prevalence of astrology, the caste system (which is still very much part of Indian life), politics and infrastructure, and India's current development; really, we found no topic off limits. The ship also has an open bridge policy and you can visit anytime.
With early morning and late afternoon excursions, and -- let's be honest here -- the well-attended cocktail hours and free-flowing wine at dinner, Ganges Voyager II shuts down early at night. Most passengers go back to their staterooms after dinner.
Lounge (Deck 4): The lounge is the beating heart of the ship, decorated in Indian fabrics, carpets and teak. It's the main venue for port talks, lectures, enrichment activities, cocktail hour, afternoon tea, late- and early-risers' breakfast or just a fabulous spot for an after-dinner drink. It contains the ship's computer stations, book and game library, as well as a coffee and tea station.
Ganges Voyager II boasts an extensive outdoor sun deck on the fourth floor, with plenty of comfy teak chairs, loungers and daybeds. It's a popular spot to sit during the day, as much of it is under shade; passengers can spend hours up here. Bar service is available outside and on some evenings, dance performances are held on the sun deck, too.
A small deck for smokers, with two lounge chairs, is provided at the back on the ship on Deck 3. Smoking is not permitted anywhere else on the ship.
Ganges Voyager II has no official "check-in" desk. There's a breezeway on Deck 2, between the cabin hallway and the dining room. That's where you are met after excursions by a phalanx of staff, bearing hand sanitizer, cool towels and fruit juice. The ship keeps track of passengers by asking them to turn in their keys when they leave, in exchange for a small plastic boarding card. Passengers on Deck 2 receive their keys back in the breezeway, while a separate butler hands out keys for those in the suites on Deck 3.
The breezeway is also the location for shoe cubbies, one for each cabin. Passengers are asked to bring their slippers down when they leave for excursions. When you return, you remove your shoes for the staff to clean them.
Within the lounge, you'll find a small library with books about India. The room also has games to lend out and two computers for passengers who have run out of their daily Wi-Fi allowances (although the internet is slow here, too).
A small boutique counter run by the company Jackfruit on the Ganga is located in the Deck 4 breezeway. The shop sells handmade scarves, tunics and other souvenirs that are directly sourced from local artisans and artisan-run organizations.
Laundry is available onboard for a fee; the top suites have at least one bag included in their fare. It arrives attractively presented, folded in a small wooden box and on hangers.
While Uniworld offers family itineraries in Europe, it doesn't on its exotic river cruises (at least not at this point). There are no facilities or programs for kids, and we'd think the program (as well as hygiene issues off the ship and lack of Wi-Fi) would be challenging for most children and teens.
India attracts an adventurous mindset, and the demographic on Ganges Voyager II is extremely well-traveled and, given the price tag of the trip, well-heeled. Most passengers range from late 40s to early 70s, with the bulk in their 60s (although we saw a healthy 90-year-old enjoying herself!).
The ship does not have elevators and many excursions take place in towns without paved roads, so the trip is generally not suitable for those with accessibility issues or for those who need wheelchairs and scooters. River levels can fluctuate daily and the ship pulls a sampan boat to use for occasional tenders. Some docks are little more than bamboo walkways.
American passengers are the norm, with a handful of Canadians and British, although the company reports having Australians, Brazilians and New Zealanders onboard. The official language of the ship is English. Ganges Voyager II does not make any announcements onboard.
Ganges Voyager II has a spa on Deck 4. There are two treatment rooms and two spa attendants who are kept busy; if you want an appointment, go early. The spa menu is a mix of Indian and Western treatments at reasonable prices. A classic 60-minute Swedish massage is 2,500 rupees ($37); a 60-minute Abhayangam massage, which incorporates Indian oils and techniques, is 3,000 rupees ($45). Other more exotic treatments include a chakra head massage (30 minutes; 1,000 rupees, $15); foot reflexology (30 minutes; 2,500 rupees, $37); sandalwood, jasmine and orange wraps and scrubs (30 minutes; 1,500 rupees, $23) and facials (60 minutes; 2,000 rupees, $30). Manicures and pedicures, both 1,500 rupees ($23), are also available. We found the services excellent, if a little heavy on the oil.
A small fitness center adjoins the spa. The room has a treadmill, an exercise bike and an elliptical machine.
Complimentary yoga classes are offered in the mornings at 6:30 a.m. The classes are geared toward beginners, but advanced practitioners are invited to attend as well and do their practice at their own pace.
Country of Registration: Basel
Maximum Capacity: 56
Crew Nationality: International
Officer Nationality: International
Language(s) Spoken:< Multiple Languages
OverviewThe ship's spacious, high-ceilinged suites are a serene sanctuary, with beautiful hand-painted murals and all the comforts of a five-star hotel. All suites have a cozy sitting area and a French balcony with floor-to-ceiling glass doors. A bed dressed in soft linens, with a choice of pillows. Your roomy bathroom has a rain shower, comfy robes and slippers, and spa-quality bath products. Other high-end amenities include a generous amount of closet space, under-bed storage, a flat-screen television with a wide selection of on-demand movies, individual climate control, bottled water replenished daily, fresh fruit and flowers upon arrival, an iPhone docking station with alarm clock, makeup mirrors, and universal electrical plugs.
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