The Pilgrimage of a Lifetime: Kumbh Mela

Kumbh Mela India - religious offerings

It was difficult to imagine, as I sat munching on my cornflakes, listening to the BBC breakfast news, what event could possibly be so important that it could draw crowds from all over India to one single location.

I am sure many of you will be familiar with the feeling of wanting to return to India the moment you arrive home. So when I read about the 2013 Kumbh Mela I knew I could not put off this trip any longer.

For those of you who have been to India before, you will be aware of the vivacious approach most Indians have towards life. Nowhere, in my experience, was this more apparent than at the Kumbh Mela. This was not only a festival for only the devoutly religious, but for friends, family and travellers too.Kumbh Mela - India

As we drove along the long road from Varanasi to Allahabad we began to see a glowing haze in the distance. The sight that greeted our eyes, as we pressed our noses against the jeep’s dusty windows, was a world turned upside down. A universe of street lights expanding in front of us as far as the eye could see, blotting out the natural starlight with its own man made galaxy. No newspaper report or personal account could have prepared us for the sheer scale of this pop up “tented city”. You simply have to see it to believe it; and even then you don’t.

To (attempt to) put it into perspective, the site is divided up into sectors, each containing around a million happy campers. This is over three Glastonburys in one sector.

There are 28 sectors.

That’s around 84 Glastonburys all going on at once over the course of not a weekend, but an entire month. And that only includes the die-hard devotees who stay for the entire festival. There would be an additional 100 million festival goers attending for the main bathing days. A bit like the entire population of Mexico deciding that they wanted to join in the fun.

But what could possibly be so important that it could draw such a colossal number of people to one place? I struggle to imagine anything creating such frenzy in the UK as the Kumbh Mela did in India. Hindus believe that four drops of nectar fell from the ‘Kumbh’ or ‘pitcher’ carried by the gods, creating the holy rivers sacred to Hindu religion: the Ganges, the Sangam, the Yamuna, the Godawari, the Shipra and the mythical Saraswati. It is believed that at certain times of the religious calendar these rivers take on increased religious properties and have the power to cleanse anyone who washes themselves in the river’s waters of their eternal sins.Kumbh Mela India - saddhu

As the sun began to rise, the street lamps dimmed and the festival spirit began to take on momentum. We watched the first of the pilgrims quietly making their way to the banks of the river Ganges before quickly de-robing and even more quickly braving its chilly waters: just three dunks is all it takes to rid one of their eternal sins.

For anyone that has not been to India, in my opinion the Kumbh Mela would be an incredible introduction to this country so rich in history and culture. And for those who have been several times it will offer something new.

If you want to experience your own trip of a lifetime, the next Kumbh Mela takes place in Nashik between August-September 2015. To book your tailor-made journey please get in touch with us on +44 (0)20 7819 9770 or email megan@ampersandtravel.com. Thank you to Megan for sharing her very special experience and photos of the Kumbh Mela. Megan is the newest member of the Ampersand team and we are thrilled to have her on board! She is quite the globe-trotter (she once drove from London to Mongolia, for example) and will be sharing more of her stories here on our Blog. 

Kumbh Mela India - women about to take a dip

Kumbh Mela India - child wrapped up after early morning dunking

Kumbh Mela India - woman selling religious offerings

Kumbh Mela India - Our Indian Daddy

Kumbh Mela India - Saddhu's apprentice

Kumbh Mela India - self proclaimed king of the babas

Kumbh Mela India - pensive monkey

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Ampersand’s foodie favourites: culinary experiences worth travelling for!

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Ampersand is currently more food obsessed than ever… we have all recently returned from research trips throughout Asia and our taste buds are suffering withdrawal symptoms after our mouth-watering culinary adventures. Hunting down sizzling street food, fine dining restaurants, hands-on cookery courses and exotic spice bazaars is undoubtedly one of the highlights of our job. If you love food too, read on for our pick of the best culinary experiences from our destinations.

  • Indian food culture tour: From 7–19 January 2014 our favourite elite guide, Jonty Rajagopalan, is hosting a specialist culinary tour of India exploring four food-mad cities: Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Calcutta and Hyderabad. From street food to Royal feasts, Jonty will give you an insider’s view on the history of how India’s different cuisines evolved and how it affects every aspect of Indian day-to-day life. Dine with local families and leading chefs, take part in festivals and a wedding, and even visit temple kitchens for an adventure that will not only tickle your taste buds, but also let you taste the soul of Indian culture. Places are limited; for further details contact me on james@ampersandtravel.com or +44 (0)20 7819 9770.
  • Urban street food safaris: For those of you who enjoy street food, we now arrange half-day food safaris in Delhi, Bangkok, HanoiSaigon, Luang Prabang, Beijing and Shanghai. A walking tour through busy lanes, people-watching and snacking on authentic dishes allows you to discover hidden highlights and offers the ultimate insight into what makes these cities tick. Our guides will take you into these cities’ most colourful areas where local dishes are prepared and enjoyed. Try your hand at making some of them yourself and dig in knowing that we have carefully sourced the very best (and safest) delicacies for you.luang prabang (4)
  • Food-lover’s tour of Bali: Touted as the best new restaurant in Bali, Sundara is located on the southern point of Jimbaran Bay, which is only a short drive from Uluwatu, Nusa Dua, Seminyak or Legian. It got top marks from Mark, who visited two weeks ago – he highly recommends the succulent Jumbo Prawns, which were the freshest he has ever tasted. Our ultimate foodie tour of Bali would involve staying at 3 hotels: the holistic food favourite, COMO Shambhala in Ubud; the completely exhilarating Alila Uluwatu; and the charming boutique bolt-hole, Puri Ganesha in Pemutaran. Puri Ganesha is owned and hosted by the culinary legend Diana von Cranach (world authority on raw food and South East Asian cuisine), who by prior arrangement can take you on a special food tour of Bali, right through Indonesia and South East Asia; these can range from a half-day tour to two weeks.
  • Gastronomic China: After cycling from London to Hong Kong last year, Mark developed quite an appetite by the time he hit China! With a 5,000 year old history, Chinese food is renowned for its far-reaching influence and multi-layered regional cuisine. Mark and I designed an foodie tour of China for people who want to witness the classic sites and stay in the best hotels, whilst savouring dazzling cuisine and exciting culinary adventures – from dumpling making in Xian, traditional tea ceremonies in Hangzhou, going behind the scenes of a Peking duck kitchen in Beijing, enjoying a private banquet on the Great Wall of China, to attempting to acquire a taste for spicy chicken feet!
  • Cookery course in GalleI have just returned from Sri Lanka where I had the most wonderful cookery class in Galle. The chef from Amangalla takes you to the morning markets where you pick fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruit, whilst sampling the best street food along the way. Armed with your ingredients, you are then taken inland to whip up a killer curry in a beautiful paddy field with a fully-fitted traditional kitchen. I made nine different Sri Lankan specialities, all under expert supervision, which I later enjoyed for lunch. Jaffna (54)
  • Singapore eating extravaganza: Ampersand’s Singapore specialist, Sacha, lived there for 20 years and travels back three times a year – partly to see her family and partly to eat! She is always seeking out the tastiest new eateries and revisiting old favourites. She can construct a bespoke eating itinerary of restaurants and neighbourhood tours catered to your favourite style of eating – from fine dining to street-side hawker food; from barbecued sting ray in Chinatown, masala dosa in Little India, to beachside chilli crab on the East Coast.
  • In the last year of travel, these were the Ampersand team’s favourite food experiences:
    Mine: Tea Leaf Salad at the remarkably named vegetarian restaurant: Be Kind To Animals, The Moon in Bagan, Burma.
    Mark’s: Full moon private BBQ dinner on the beach at Amanusa, Bali (accompanied by a giant turtle who had come up to nest!)
    Catriona’s: Hyderabadi Biryani at Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad.
    Ellie’s: A traditional Rajasthani thali at Ambrai, Udaipur, on the edge of Lake Pichola overlooking the Lake Palace.
    Sacha’s: Full Keralan curry prepared in the tiny Houseboat kitchen on the Backwaters.
    Louisa’s: Dhal Curry, steamed fish & king coconuts at Bar Reef, Kalpitiya, Sri Lanka.
    Megan’s: Chaats at Bademiya in Colaba, Mumbai.

My mouth is watering just thinking about it all!

Best wishes,

James

James_Grace_Jayasundera_2
James Jayasundera

Managing Director
Ampersand Travel
www.ampersandtravel.com
info@ampersandtravel.com

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DIWALI FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS: 3 NOVEMBER 2013…

NEW ITINERARY: Diwali – India’s Festival of Lights
14 days from £4595 per person
Delhi | Agra | Jaipur | Jodhpur | Udaipur | MumbaiDiwali Festival Tour of North India

At Ampersand, luxury and culture are what we do best and our 2-week ‘Festival of Lights’ tour is the epitome of both. Be a part of one of India’s most famous festivals, Diwali, whilst staying insome of the country’s very best hotels. Make your way through the Golden Triangle and feel like a modern day maharaja or maharani, staying in several former palaces along the way. Have a look at our suggested itinerary here: ‘DIWALI – INDIA’S FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS‘ but do bear in mind each Ampersand holiday is entirely tailor-made.

In 2013 the main festivities take place on 3 November. For more details on this Diwali festival tour or to start planning your tailor-made journey to India please contact Catriona Deredas at catriona@ampersandtravel.com or +44 (0)20 7819 9770.

INSIDER’S Q&A – with Mr Graham Grant, GM at the Leela Palace Udaipur

To provide a local perspective on some of our favourite destinations Ampersand is doing a new series of Q&A Blogs with some of our special contacts on the ground who will be sharing their insider tips on their location.

Here at Ampersand we absolutely adore India’s Leela Palaces. Over the last decade we feel it has emerged as the rising star of the luxury Indian hotel brands, perfect for guests who are looking for an opulent and uplifting experience that is fit for a modern day prince or princess. There are now Leela Palace properties in Udaipur, New Delhi, Bangalore and Chennai, plus a highly anticipated Leela Palace Agra due to open in 2014, splendidly located near the Taj Mahal.

Sharing his insights with us this time is Mr Graham Grant, the General Manager of the utterly gorgeous Leela Palace Udaipur.

I’m new here. Please tell me something interesting about The Leela Palace Udaipur…
There are 270 Elephants (a symbol of purity and prosperity) in silver, wood, metal, stone and print drawn across the property and the hotel also features a 150 year old Shiva Temple on the premises. Without exception, every room at the Palace offers a lake view or lake and heritage view. There is no better location than the Leela Palace to visually appreciate Lake and City Palace Heritage sites. ESPA is the only lakeside tented luxury spa in the country with plunge pools and open air treatment facilities. Leela Palace Udaipur Sheesh Mahal Restaurant

I’d like to try something off-the-beaten track here – what do you recommend?
A ½ day trip to Delwara, a local village that has been engaged with wonderful NGO work by Seva Mandir. Meet local residents, visit historic Jain temples and see the practical day to day life of a village community.

Which attraction should I definitely make time to see?
The City Palace – best reached by The Leela’s own tuk-tuk, which winds through charming old city lanes to arrive for a 1-2 hour Palace excursion. This will be 3 hours very well spent capturing Udaipur’s heritage.Leela Palace Udaipur spa tent exterior

Which of the “must-visit” attractions should I avoid?
Monsoon Palace; there is no need to visit as it can be captured best in evening from The Leela grounds.

I’d like to buy an unusual souvenir – what do you recommend?
Buy a miniature painting by local artists.

Where can I take the best picture of City Place, Lake Palace, Jag Mandir, Lake Pichola and the Aravali Mountains?
From any Leela Palace hotel room! leela palace udaipur suite__bed_room

I’d like to explore the surrounding area. Is there a particular day trip you’d recommend?
Explore Ranakpur Temple and Kumbhalgarh Fort on a full day tour.

I’m going to propose to my partner while I’m here – where should I do it?
On a sunset cruise in the middle of Lake Pichola or at Spa Alcove’s exclusive destination dining. Leela Palace Udaipur boat_arrival

What’s the best restaurant in the city right now?
Sheesh Mahal offers fine Indian dining on the bank of Lake Pichola with majestic views in the foreground of Lake Palace and the City Palace beyond.

And where’s best for drinks?
Library Bar at The Leela Palace Udaipur.

Are there any cultural events or exhibits I should see while I’m here?
There are Cultural Folk Dances every evening at The Leela Palace Udaipur between from 7:40 pm to 8:45 pm and the City Palace has a sound and light show in the evenings. Leela Palace Udaipur inner_courtyard_with_dancer_and_musicians_opt_iii

Thanks for your help. Should I tip at The Leela Palace Udaipur?
It is certainly not expected, but if you wish to tip you may leave it at check-out as tips are distributed fairly to all staff.

We would like to thank Graham for his tips on Udaipur! If you are interested in visiting for yourself, please speak to our India sales consultant, Catriona Deredas on +44 (0)207 819 8905. Catriona recently stayed at Leela Palace Udaipur and has this to say about it:

The Leela Palace Udaipur is a fabulous hotel with sensational rooms overlooking the lake and the famous Taj Lake Palace. The pool service here is second to none with a constant replenishment of ice cold water and towels, with frozen fruit treats and fresh sorbet. The Leela Palaces have uber luxury and decadence down to a fine art… I could not be more in love with the Leela Palace brand.

South India photoblog: Hyderabad & the Taj Falaknuma Palace

After 16 unforgettable days revisiting South India, Catriona and I are now back at our desks in London, but we have one final destination to tell you about. It was the crowning jewel in our itinerary and the most magnificent place to end any journey to India: The Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad.

This time last year we were doing a grand two-week research trip across North India – from Delhi to Agra, Ranthambore, Jodhpur, Jaipur and Udaipur. There is no denying that Ampersand’s primary focus in India is Rajasthan; the quality of luxury hotels and service in this region is unrivalled anywhere in the world. However, not many people know that South India is where it all began for Ampersand and this year we are eager to promote it to our clients, who we know will gain so much from visiting. For those who have been reading our South India Photoblogs, you will know that after a cold and seemingly endless UK winter, we have loved getting our feet into some warm Keralan sand, drifting slowly along the Backwaters, gulping down some tea-scented mountain air and drenching ourselves in culture at intoxicating temples and archaeological sites.

North and South India are very different, but what is it that distinguishes them? Some say the south is slower, more relaxed. What sums up the south for me is the incredible seafood curries, the ever-present smell of jasmine flowers, the astonishing natural beauty of Kerala and the impressive gopuram temples of Tamil Nadu – so exotic, so Indian! Our Hyderabad guide, Jonti, had an interesting theory. Historically, the northern half of India has been hugely influenced by Persia in terms of food, religion, ethnicity and Mughal architecture; it has had a more violent history and it has needed to fight for survival against invasion. By contrast, the south’s history was more about the trade of spices and its influences were relatively peaceful, so it had the luxury of nurturing its traditional arts and crafts, and preserving its Dravidian roots. The people of South India are known to be well cultured and so laid-back that they slip naturally into hammock position.

Hyderabad is the capital city of the central Indian state of Andhra Pradesh and it is often referred to as “the gateway to the South”. It feels like a blend of both north and south India, yet it retains a distinct personality of its own. Now a very modern and  metropolitan city, it was founded 400 years ago by Muhammad Qutub Quli Shah, the Sultan of Golconda, and is famous for its Islamic architecture, art and jewellery – pearls and diamonds in particular (in the 16th Century Hyderabad was the world’s only source of diamonds; they were not discovered in Africa until 1867). In recent decades it has emerged as one of India’s most exciting IT hubs, hence its nickname, ‘Cyberabad’. It has an impressive new international airport with direct British Airways flights to London. Within Hyderabad’s city limits you can explore ancient bazaars, the monumental Qutab Shahi Tombs, the impenetrable Golconda Fort and follow in the footsteps of Lieutenant James Kirkpatrick, whose story is told by William Dalrymple in the White Mughuls.

However, the event that put Hyderabad firmly on the luxury travel map was the opening of the Taj Falaknuma Palace in 2010. It is now the forth time an Ampersand member of staff has stayed here and we believe it is the most exceptional palace hotel in India, if not the world. The palace, constructed in the late 19th Century, has a fascinating history: It was built by Nawab Vikar-Umra, the then-Prime Minister of Hyderabad, and was “gifted” to the sixth Nizam of Hyderabad, Mahboob Ali Pasha, after he visited the palace and expressed a fondness for it. The palace was then passed down from Nizam to Nizam, playing host to heads of states and European royalty until the palace parties fell silent after the 1950s when the Nizam moved to his abode next door.

It was not until 2000 that Princess Ezra – the current Nizam’s first wife – began the process of supervising the Taj restoration of the palace, spending over 10 years making every element as true to its original form as possible. The palace is dripping in Venetian chandeliers and masterful paintings, and lavishly decorated with the Nizam’s original furniture, including the world’s longest dining table in the formal dining room upstairs. The last Nizam to reside here was Nizam Mehboob Ali Khan, who was the richest man in the world at that time. Guests are immediately transported back to his royal era, filled with opulence and pampering… starting with a fairytale arrival at the palace in an open carriage pulled by two gleaming white horses! And the impeccable service carries on surprising and delighting you until the moment you leave – there are 240 staff to 120 guests and each and every one of them go the extra mile to make you feel like prince or princess during your stay here.

Where else can one retrace the steps of Nizams, European royalty, enchanting Begums, distinguished heads of state and walk the walk of kings staying in one of India’s most beautiful palaces perched 2,000 feet above the city? For those who can drag themselves away from the palace, we have excellent guides in Hyderabad who will engage with you and allow you to get under the skin of this vibrant city. Here are a few snaps from our time here…

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In the west of Hyderabad, Golconda Fort has stood strategically at the top of a large granite hill since the 13th Century. It is famous for being virtually impenetrable – it kept out Mughal invaders from the north until 1687 and was only conquered due to insider treachery

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Golconda Fort is one of the biggest fortresses in the Deccan Plateau, once famed for its diamond mines from which the Kohinoor diamond of the British Crown was mined. These extensive ruins bear witness to the engineering genius of the Qutub Shahi architects

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At the upper part of the fort is Ibrahim’s Mosque… admiring it up close is a great reward for hiking up to the crown of the hill

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Qutub Shahi Tombs are the last resting place of Qutub Shah dynasty. Surrounded by well-maintained gardens, the tombs are remarkable in their uniformity of design, each crowned by onion-shaped dome

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Qutub Shahi Tombs

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The seat of the Asaf Jahi dynasty, the magnificent Chowmahalla Palace was built over 200-years ago for the Nizams to use when entertaining their official guests and royal visitors. Completed by Nizam Afzar-ud-Dawla Bahadur in 1869 but initiated by Nizam Salabhat Jung, the Palace took over 100 years to complete

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The pillared Durbar Hall at Chowmahalla Palace has a pure marble platform on which the royal seat was laid – a lavish place for celebrations and ceremonies. 19 spectacular Belgian chandeliers have been reinstalled to recreate the lost splendour of this regal hall

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The entrance to the Taj Falaknuma Palace

Falaknuma Palace arrival

We cannot even begin to describe how magical the white horse and carriage arrival at Taj Falaknuma Palace is, but do click on this video to get a better idea!

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Taj Falaknuma Palace: a real-life fairytale!

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Suites set around harem section of the palace, where the Nizam would once have housed a harem of over 100 women

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The Grand Presidential Suite at the Taj Falaknuma Palace

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The Falaknuma’s cool and curvaceous swimming pool is set next to a lovely banyan tree, complete with over-water bridges and a rock waterfall

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The beautifully tiled terrace outside the Jade Room – the ideal High Tea venue

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Hyderabad city stretches out beneath you and atmospheric sounds drifts up to the palace during Muslim prayers

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The impressive facade of the palace, which was built in the shape of a scorpion with two stings spread out as wings in the north

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The pale blue reception hall which welcomes you as you step inside the palace with frescoed ceilings and gilded reliefs

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The grand marbled staircase with carved balustrades, figurines and candelabras

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The stunning courtyard which links the main palace building to the Italian and Indian restaurant in the Gol Bungalow at other end, with the Palace rooms situated along the edges of the courtyard

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Live sufi music is performed at the Gol bungalow at dusk every evening overlooking the twinkling lights of the city. This group were absolutely phenomenal!

So there you have it! The perfect end to our trip. If you have any questions about Hyderabad or any of the places we visited in South India you can contact me, Sacha Smith-Laing at sacha@ampersandtravel.com or to start planning a tailor-made journey please contact our India sales specialist, Catriona Deredas at catriona@ampersandtravel.com.

South India photoblog: From Kerala’s Backwaters to old colonial Cochin

In Kerala we journeyed from the Backwaters of Kumarakom and Alleppey to the palm-fringed beaches of Marari, and ended at the colonial heritage city of Cochin, home to Portuguese, Dutch, Arabic and British traders at various times in its history. We have inspected all the good hotels in the region (43 hotels at our last count since arriving in South India) and eaten many delicious seafood curries. Here are a few photos of our Keralan adventure…

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The quirky turquoise houseboat at Privacy, part of the Malabar Escapes group of properties, set in a secluded spot on Lake Vembanad

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Lake view swimming pool at Privacy

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There are thousands of kettuvallom houseboats (rice barges) in the Backwaters and they are the perfect vessels to explore these interconnected canals, rivers and lakes as a half day activity. Some people feel they want a few nights sleeping on a traditional houseboat, but once night falls you cannot see your surroundings and the reality of it is often less romantic than assumed

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You will see ladies washing clothes in the river, children playing and couples fishing outside their homes. Life has changed little here through the ages and it is extremely idyllic and peaceful

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Can you spot the kingfisher? The backwater’s lush landscape attracts a huge variety of birds – from egrets, terns, kingfishers, darters, cormorants and other migratory birds

Sit back, unwind and observe local life playing out as you drift by waterfront churches, temples and villages

Sit back, unwind and observe local life playing out as you drift by waterfront churches, temples and villages

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Lunch on board the houseboat is freshly prepared by a fantastic cook

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The kitchen is small but the feast was immense! It was utterly delicious

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The sun falls over Lake Vembanad. In the distance you can see what are known as Chinese fishing nets, which have become ubiquitous with the Malabar coast

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The ‘Meandering Pool Villas’ at Kumarakom Lake Resort where you can step straight from your villa into a curvaceous, 250-metre long swimming pool

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Marari Beach Resort is the perfect place to kick off your shoes and relax with your feet in the sand. It’s very sweet and simple, and we consistently get glowing feedback from our clients who stay here

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Ultra luxury arrives in the Backwaters in the form of Carnoustie Beach Resort & Ayurveda Spa on Marari Beach. It is a brand new property with forty villas of exceptional quality, each with their own pool, lavish bathrooms and a spot-on fusion of contemporary luxury and traditional Kerala architecture

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At a Kathakali performance in Cochin. Arrive half and hour before it begins to watch the performers preparing their make-up on stage

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Kathakali is a classic Indian dance-drama originating in Kerala, known for its elaborate costumes, make up and emotive facial expressions

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A trading port since Roman times, Cochin is a fascinating yet supremely relaxed city. It has an atmospheric colonial vibe and a slow seaside pace – particularly the Old Town, where most of the hotels are. ‘Jew Town’ is an area of the Old Town with a mix of old shops, warehouses, spice auction rooms and a beautiful Jewish synagogue

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Fresh catch straight off the boat at Cochin harbour

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The Old Harbour Hotel in Cochin is a charming boutique hotel, set in a 300-year old building built in the Dutch style of architecture with hints of Portuguese influence

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Handmade tiles and traditional Keralan carvings at Chittoor Kottaram. The house was originally built by the Rajah of Cochin, Rama Verma, and is now run as a boutique CGH property sleeping 6 people for exclusive use

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Hello breakfast! Brunton’s Boatyard serve a mean Masala Dosa. The hotel itself is excellent, too – a Cochin favourite of ours, set right on the harbour

Next and final stop on our South India research tour: Hyderabad, to stay at the Taj Falaknuma Palace…

South India photoblog: Dindigul, Madurai and Munnar

Follow us as we continue our journey through South India; this time from the fresh and fertile countryside of Dindigul, to the cultural hub of Madurai and into ‘God’s own country’, Kerala, to the emerald green mountains of Munnar, carpeted with tea fields.

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It is always exciting when you find a new secret gem, and discoveries don’t come more delightful than this one in Dindigul… Opened in October 2012, Rajakkad Estate is an intimate garden hotel with 7 unique bedrooms within an 18th century wooden structure, which was built in the Keralan style with thousands of interlocking beams, panels and screens

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The Rajakkad mansion has been re-assembled here at an elevation of 1000 metres above sea level deep within the Palani Hills in Tamil Nadu

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Rajakkad’s rooms are set around a pattern of courtyards and pools

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Rajakkad’s building style is traditional and refined, with pretty interior decorations using splashes of colour. Each of the bedrooms leads directly out into the garden, so you can always see this outdoor paradise, a few small steps from your bed

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Twinkly lights in the bathroom at Rajakkad

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The main living room at Rajakkad is decorated with original antiques as well as contemporary furnishings

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Rajakkad’s 45 acre estate is bursting with agricultural life; cows wander through the forest, which is made up of coffee, cotton and pepper plantations, papaya trees, jackfruit trees and colourful flowers

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Thirumalai Nayak Mahal Palace in Madurai was built in 1636 by King Thirumalai Nayak with the help of an Italian Architect. It is a breathtaking blend of Dravidian and Islamic styles with a sense of Italian flair and extravagance

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The palace is a magnificent example of Indo-saracenic style, with incredibly impressive stucco work on its soaring domes and arches

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The ceilings of the palace are decorated with beautiful paintings… apparently many Indian carpet makers have come here for inspiration

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The palace has 248 pillars which are 58 feet tall and 5 feet in diameter

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The Dance Hall at Thirumalai Nayak Mahal

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Floor decorations being drawn outside the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Photography is currently forbidden inside the temple but take our word for it: it is one of the most beautiful in India!

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Night falls over Meenakshi Temple but she remains Madurai’s centrepiece, towering high with little lights

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The start of the Chithirai Festival outside the Meenakshi Temple. Madurai is known as the city of festivals, and this one occurs every April to re-enact the wedding of Lord Shiva and Goddess Meenakshi, Lord Vishnu’s sister. Click on the image above to watch the video or click here to watch the festival in full swing!

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An ancient legend unfolds at the Chithirai Festival as Lord Vishnu rides to his sister’s wedding on gleaming real-gold horse chariot

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Windemere Estate in Munnar is a charming 15 bedroom property perched on a hilltop surrounded by a working cardamom estate – the perfect antidote after the excitement of the Chithirai Festival! It is cool up at this elevation, hence the cosy fireplaces to warm up next to in winter… a blissful welcome to the state of Kerala after saying goodbye to Tamil Nadu

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Munnar’s hills are carpeted with tea plantations

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Another great new find: Talayar Valley Bungalow in Munnar. Open since October 2012, it is an original bungalow with four suites built for a British plantation manager. Anyone who has experienced Sri Lanka’s Ceylon Tea Trails will no doubt love this. Talayar plan to offer tea excursions where you can learn to pluck tea from the field and operate the machinery in the tea factory. We’re sure you’ll get a cup of tea at the end of it, too!

Next stops on our tour of South India: Kanam, Kumarakom and Alleppey (The Backwaters), and the colonial port city of Cochin…

South India photoblog: Tanjore, Trichy and Chettinad

We have a few more photos of our tour of South India to share with you, this time taking in Tanjore, Trichy and Chettinad. We hope this gives you a flavour of Tamil Nadu’s fantastically rich culture. The number of exotic, often UNESCO-protected temples in this region is truly remarkable – including the magnificent Chidambaram, Brihadeeshwara and Darasuram temples.

In a few short days we’ve been lucky enough to experience Tamil New Year, Puthandu, as well as some atmospheric local festivals, specialist local craft workshops, such as the famous tile making of Atthangudi, and the gorgeous ancestral mansions of Chettinad, which are packed with imported period furniture, chandeliers, curios and paintings. Southern India’s ancient tapestry hides many cultural treasures off the beaten track. The Chettiars were and are prosperous traders with a far-flung diaspora, stretching away to Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia – but their roots are here, in the age old dust of Chettinad, deep in Tamil Nadu’s interior.

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Darasuram Temple

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Along the edges of the main Darasuram Temple structure you will find these shallow ponds which would once have been filled with water and lined with oil flames in each of the exterior circles – it must have been a magnificent sight!

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Beautiful stone carvings at Darasuram Temple bring this ancient site to life

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This pregnant carved figure at the Darasuram Temple is a manifestation of Lord Shiva who is showing his people the correct position for childbirth

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Ancient warfare depicted in the intricate wall carvings at Darasuram Temple. The creature above them is Yali, a mythological animal to keep away evil, who has the face of a lion, the body of a sea horse, the trunk of an elephant and the tail of a bull

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Priests at Amma Mandapam in Trichy. Three horizontal lines of holy ash on the forehead represents devotion to Lord Shiva, whereas three vertical lines represents devotion to Lord Vishnu

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Streetside masala chai stall… Click here to watch the video!

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Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, Srirangam, Trichy

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The ubiquitous Ambassador car parked outside the Vellai gopura at Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

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Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple

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The smell of jasmine is all around you in South India – most of the ladies tie strings of these little flowers in their hair and a wonderfully sweet smell pervades the air when they waft past

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We stopped at Attangudi to see the production of their famous handmade tiles

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The steady hand of the talented tile makers of Attangudi

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These tiles were made in front of us in a matter of minutes; they are then dried out in the baking sun for a few days and voila… no need for a kiln!

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Visalam Hotel near Karaikudi village in Chettinad is a beautiful art deco mansion restored to its former glory by CGH Earth

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The chilled-out living room at Visalam Hotel

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A treasure-trove of junk and gems at the Karaikudi antiques market, which is completely jam packed with original pieces sourced from the hundreds of old mansions in Chettinad

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Stunning architecture at an ancestral house in Karaikudi, Chettindad. This is the home of the owner of Bangala Hotel

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A living slice of Chettinad history – we were honoured to be shown around this splendid home, furnished entirely with antique pieces and original tiles

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The jaw-droppingly atmospheric main hall of the mansion

Next stops on our tour: Dindigul, Madurai and Munnar

Photoblog: On the road in Tamil Nadu

Vanakkam” and hello from Ampersand’s marketing manager, Sacha, and India sales consultant, Catriona! We hope you enjoy this photo tour of the first 3 days of our research tour of balmy South India. We flew into Chennai and have travelled to Mahabalipuram and down the coast to the picture postcard town of Pondicherry. Keep your eyes on this blog and Facebook – we have got another 13 days out here and will be updating you with our discoveries, photos and videos.

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San Thome Basilica, Chennai

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Trademark Leela glitz and glamour at the newly opened Leela Palace Chennai

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Beautiful bedrooms at the Leela Palace Chennai

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Dreamy beach panoramas from the Leela Palace Chennai

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The swimming pool at the Leela Palace Chennai

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Taj Fisherman’s Cove hotel

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Morning beach walk at Taj Fisherman’s Cove

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The welcoming port city of Mahabalipuram, famous for its carved granite temples

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A stone wall carving at Mahabalipuram portraying a classic pastoral scene

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The Five Rathas of Mahabalipuram. (Click here to view a video of local school kids coming over to say hello)

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The famous Shore Temple of Mahabalipuram

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Maison Perumal hotel in Pondicherry is a serene haven from which to sight-see

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Drenched in Franco-Tamil heritage, the riad-style courtyard layout of Maison Perumal keeps it cool and quiet

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Natural hues and chic furnishings at Maison Perumal

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Fresh and tasty fish curry at Maison Perumal

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The brand new Palais de Mahe, the second CGH Earth property in Pondicherry, along with Maison Perumal

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Lovely light-filled lobby at Palais de Mahe

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Late afternoon stroll along Pondicherry promenade

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Vibrant stalls pop up along Pondicherry beach

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Pondicherry beach fruit cart

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Pondicherry snacks

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Pondicherry

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Faded seaside charm in Pondicherry

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Mahatma Gandhi statue at the heart of the Pondicherry promenade

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We were totally enchanted by the colours and French colonial architecture of Pondicherry

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Pondicherry is a very laid-back and safe town to stroll for hours through sun-dappled streets shaded by big trees

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Nuns walking through Pondicherry

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At the Manakula Vinayagar Temple in Pondicherry, the resident elephant, Lakshmi welcomes you with a blessing (in return for a little snack and some rupees)

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Flower and necklace stall outside the Manakula Vinayagar Temple, Pondicherry

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Is this France or India, you ask? Le Foyer du Soldat in Pondicherry is a legion hall for Indian soldiers who served in French wars

Next stops on the tour: Tanjore, Trichy and Chettinad

THE BEST FAMILY HOLIDAYS IN THE UK – our pick of the best places to stay with children in England and Scotland

Chewton Glen, New Forest, Hampshire:

Chewton Glen

Endless grounds, two swimming pools, a nearby beach and inhabitable tree houses make this New Forest hotel a firm family favourite. Chewton Glen has a wonderful country house feel but is easily accessibly from London and its airports. Families are made to feel incredibly welcome; at Easter there is an egg hunt in the garden and outdoor activities are endless – from croquet, tennis, pony treks and kite flying. Rooms in the main house are named after characters from well-known children’s book ‘Animals of the New Forest’. In addition to a large indoor pool, there is an outdoor pool located in a delightful suntrap, meaning that watchful parents can while a way a few hours in the sun while happy children splash away. After all that, if you still feel like exploring, Pepper Pig World and Monkey World are a short drive away. In terms of accommodation, the Chewton Glen tree houses are really one of a kind; tucked away down a forest path, all of the suites look out over the woods below. Different suites cater to varying group sizes and family tree houses have bedrooms reached via a stepladder while mummy and daddy sleep downstairs. These rooms come with toy trunks absolutely full to the brim, meaning that rain or shine, kids will be very content!

Gleneagles, Perthshire, Scotland:

Gleneagles

It would be a struggle to find a hotel that is better suited to family holidays than Gleneagles in Perthshire. From the moment you arrive at the hotel’s dedicated train station, with its slightly Harry Potter-esque feel, children are made to feel like royalty. As well as its obvious golfing credentials – Gleneagles will play host to the Ryder Cup in 2014 – this rural retreat is absolutely bursting with fun activities, facilities and day-care that will delight parents with young children. For those with young babies, there are mother and baby bonding sessions in one of the hotel’s many pools, a playroom bursting with Heuristic toys and expansive kitchen facilities. For toddlers there are swimming lessons, rides on Shetland ponies and even putting classes, if you’re keen to get your child on the green early. When staying at Gleneagles on school holidays, children are able to take part in seasonal picnics, tea parties and a range of classes from ‘spy school’ to pond dipping. For parents keen to have a bit of time to themselves the playroom offers 2 hours of complimentary fun for all your children, who will be safe in the hands of qualified staff. Sandpits, vast toy-boxes, dressing up trunks and craft activities will keep them occupied! For slightly older children and teenagers, Gleneagles takes some beating. There is golf (children can play for free if parents are playing), as well as off-road cars to drive, tennis courts, swimming pools, horse riding and grooming. Oh, and there is also gun-dog training, falconry, ice-skating, fishing, bicycling and much, much more! If you want to train up your offspring to be real country gentlemen, Gleneagles’ ‘Children’s Country Sports Passport’ package is perfect. Guiding your children through a range of classic Scottish activities, by the end of your stay there won’t be much they don’t know! Dining is also completely family-friendly; rather than be made to feel like unwanted outsiders (as might be the case in slightly snootier hotels), the vast food hall with Deseo restaurant and Braid’s Coffee Lounge, couldn’t be better suited to large and loud playful groups.

Le Manoir, Oxfordshire:

Le Manoir, Oxfordshire

Although at first glance this Michelin-starred Raymond Blanc-run hotel appears adult-only, Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons is well suited to cultured young whippersnappers. As well as the hotel’s beautiful rooms and suites, the country manor boasts large grounds, Japanese gardens and a two-acre kitchen garden, meaning that children will have plenty of space to run around after a delicious meal at the restaurant. Open to both adults and children, the on-site Raymond Blanc Cookery School offers a range of fun classes, sometimes hosted by the man himself. To make the experience that bit more accessible for younger guests, the school puts on exclusive classes that have been specially devised by Raymond Blanc to introduce and inspire budding young chefs to the world of haute-cuisine. Classes are available as kids-only classes, or can be set-up so that parents and children can take the courses together – all are offered for children as young as seven. Depending on your age groups young chefs will be instructed on how to prepare anything from caramelized banana soufflé, fresh pesto, fish pie, floating islands and fresh fruit smoothies. The day package includes tuition, morning and afternoon snacks and tea, an informal lunch and a certificate to take away with you at the end of the day. Le Manoir also puts together a ‘Family Escape’ package, which is available for certain half-term or school holiday breaks. Children under 12 years old stay free (with breakfast) and while adults indulge in a six course seasonal dinner for adults, younger guests will be able to enjoy complimentary dining from the Children’s menu. If you’re coming with babies, don’t fret: all baby purees provided are organic.

Coworth Park, Berkshire:

Coworth Park

Finding a hotel that is more perfect for children than Coworth Park is a difficult task. Absolutely everything about this luxurious country-house retreat makes it a family holiday heaven. Strategically located less than an hour from central London, Coworth Park is easy driving distance from some of the UK’s best amusement parks; Legoland, Chessington World of Adventures, Thorpe Park and Windsor Great Park (home to the castle) is practically next door if you fancy a horse-drawn buggy ride. The amount of creative activities put on by the hotel’s supervised kids’ club takes some beating; children can bake cookies, go horse riding, feed the ducks, compete in a mini Olympics, carve wooden dinosaurs, design butterfly wands, paint t-shirts, partake in estate-wide treasure hunts, play tennis, croquet and computer games or go swimming in the indoor pool. A qualified crèche takes care of youngsters and babysitting is widely available if Mummy and Daddy just can’t tear themselves away from the eco-luxury award-winning spa. While children under four eat completely free, older kids are spoilt rotten with a delicious specially designed children’s menu (the strawberry mousse is delicious!) that you eat on equestrian-themed crockery inline with Coworth’s love of all things ‘horsy’ (including Polo). The Barn, a short walk from the main house, surrounded by stables and cottages is the perfect place for relaxed family dining. It has an informal homely atmosphere with open fireplaces and al fresco dining in summer; no one will bat an eyelid if the kids make a mess. Coworth Park has recently launched its own Pony Club Centre where children can enjoy themselves while training for badges and certificates. Their yearly Summer Camp boasts a professional photographer, feet painting, pony grooming, riding lessons, treasure hunts and obstacle courses.

Four Seasons Hampshire:

Four Seasons Hampshire

It is rarely the case that you can arrive at a hotel and check your children into a complimentary on-site kids’ club. The Four Seasons Hampshire, an hour’s drive from London, is a country retreat where children will want to return again and again. The ‘Hampshire Kids For All Seasons’ programme means that parents can enjoy their downtime while children make news friends and partake in an array of activities on any weekend, bank holiday or school break. As well as board games and craft making, story-time, kite-flying and treasure hunts, Four Seasons Hampshire boasts an impressive Equestrian Centre tucked away by the lake on the hotel’s vast grounds. The ‘Own a Pony Day’ has all the ingredients to make horse fans very happy indeed; over the course of a day you’ll learn how to care for your very own pony, and obviously get the chance to ride it. If it’s just good old fashioned exploring that your children are interested in, they will be in for a treat when they see this outdoor playground and the front desk will happily hand over as many pairs of Hunter wellies as you need, in whatever size. Outdoor activities are available catering to both adults and children; try your hand at fishing, croquet, clay pigeon shooting or falconry, or if you feel like venturing further afield, take a cruise on a canal boat down at the nearby Basingstoke Canal.

Lucknam Park, near Bath:

Lucknam Park

Located just outside Bath in the rolling countryside, Lucknam Park is a beautiful period mansion set on a large estate. Surrounded by beautiful grounds and boasting its own Equestrian Centre, this hotel has masses to offer families. Outdoor activities include a gigantic adventure play area with rocking horses and swings, all weather tennis courts (with private tennis coaching), pony rides and escorted family hacks, a football pitch, clay pigeon shooting, go-carts, bikes and scooters to ride. If the weather isn’t on its best behaviour then worry not, Lucknam Park’s indoor offerings are just as good! From board games and DVDs to a 20-metre swimming pool and a brand spanking new cookery school with special children’s classes, there is plenty to keep kids occupied. As you would expect there are plenty of interconnecting rooms and bed and cots are always available. If you fancy paying a visit to The Park – Lucknam Park’s Michelin-starred restaurant – then baby-sitting is easily organised through the front desk. When eating with the kids themselves, The Brasserie, a garden-facing all day dining restaurant is relaxed and informal, and has a great kiddies’ menu. For children who fancy trying a stint in the kitchen themselves, Lucknam Park’s half day kids-only cookery courses are fantastic. As well as introducing children to the basics (think pizzas, pies, cookies and cakes) there is also the opportunity to learn how to make ice-creams and sorbets. At the end of the course, cookery books and goody bags are handed out as a reminder of a special day.

The Balmoral, Edinburgh, Scotland:

The Balmoral

Nowhere in Edinburgh is more welcoming to families and younger guests than the iconic Balmoral Hotel. Perfectly located at the end of Princes Street, overlooking Edinburgh Castle, Scott’s Monument and Prince’s Street Gardens, The Balmoral has a wide range of programmes, whatever the age of visiting guests. If staying with babies the hotel will provide luxurious cots with super soft linen, bottle warmers, sterilisers, milk on turndown, baby baths, nappies and nappy mats, toys and a teddy to take home; nothing is forgotten! Younger children benefit from the hotel’s fun ‘Five-Star Kids’ programme; on arrival kids receive a check-in card that gives them access to everything from Balmoral bath ducks, teddy turndowns, customised bathrobes and slippers and a VIP gift on arrival. The hotel’s spa offers ‘Girlie’ manicures to young teens and the indoor swimming pool is perfect for rainy days; that is if they have already completed the Balmoral hotel customised quiz. In celebration of Disney’s recently released Scottish-themed ‘Brave’, The Balmoral now offers the ‘Mythical Family Affair’ package which includes fast-track entry to Edinburgh Castle, Brave welcome gifts and gingerbread treats.

The Ritz, London:

The Ritz

From its well-known grand belle-époque exterior and gilded Palm Court, the Ritz doesn’t seem like an obvious place for families. However, with the introduction of the impressive ‘Kidz @ The Ritz’ private members club, the Ritz is actually one of the best places to stay in London with children if you aren’t willing to compromise on luxury. Whether you’re staying with young children or teenagers, the Ritz has something guaranteed to make their stay feel special. From the moment children check in they’ll be presented with a welcome gift, and the presents don’t stop there; every evening they’ll be the lucky recipient of a turndown treat. Check-in also provides kids with time to meet their ‘Teen Concierge’ who will be able to help their every wish come true while staying in London. Under 16s stay free in an adult’s room; interconnecting rooms are a plenty and extra beds or baby cots can be brought in, no problem whatsoever. Children eat free at breakfast and can indulge to their heart’s content on complimentary ice-cream when dining at The Palm Court or The Restaurant – but make sure to remember to flash your member’s card. If parents feel like taking a well-earned break, the hotel offers baby sitting on demand and Wii or Playstation consoles in the rooms (as well as a good range of books and DVDs). They can also dine in-room with dedicated children’s room service. If this wasn’t enough to tempt families to the capital, The Ritz boasts a fantastic location for exploring London. Green Park is on your doorstep – literally, this is the only hotel in London that borders a Royal Park – and Hyde Park isn’t far away for those looking to stretch little legs. The Ritz is also a brilliant hotel to stay at throughout the Christmas period; as well as having beautifully decorated trees and festive garlands to get them in the spirit, children get spoilt with extra presents and an indulgent Christmas dinner.

51 Buckingham Gate, London:

51 Buckingham Gate

Located mere minutes by foot from Buckingham Palace, 51 Buckingham Gate is as family-friendly as it gets while staying in the capital. A suite-only property, 51 Buckingham Gate offers one, two and three bedroom suites that all come with roomy kitchens (which come with a stocked fridge and much appreciated dishwasher!), large bedrooms and separate living areas – meaning that children can play or watch TV without disturbing anybody else. Rather than a hotel, you really feel as if you have your own London apartment while in town. As well as its perfect location and room layout, 51 Buckingham Gate has teamed up with Hamely’s to create an exclusive family package. On arrival at the hotel children will be delighted to find hampers complete with sweet treats and sweets. If all that sugar gets a bit too much, parents can call a qualified babysitter up to the suite and explore the city on their own or simply indulge in the hotel’s luxurious steam and sauna. Kids will be well looked after: in addition to top babysitters, your package includes a personalised cooking or baking lesson in the suite with a personalised chef’s jacket. If you manage to tear yourself away from the hotel and visit Hamley’s, one of the world’s most famous toy shops, families will benefit from Hamley’s toy hampers, tailor-made tours of the store and discounts.

We would highly recommend timing your holiday to coincide with one of the UK’s most exciting and exclusive summer events. Ampersand can book your arrangements, including hotels, transfers and tickets for you and your family to attend the following events (we do recommend planning ahead, as these events are extremely popular):

  • Queen’s Tennis: 10th June to 16th June 2013
  • Wimbledon: 24th June 7th July 2013
  • Ascot: 18th June to 22nd June 2013
  • The Derby at Epsom: 1st June 2013
  • The Last night at The Proms (as well as tickets for all other performances): 12th July to 7th September 2013
  • The Chelsea Flower Show: 21st to 25th May 2013
  • Cartier Polo (upon request): 21st May to 16th June 2013
  • Henley Regatta: 3rd to 6th July 2013
  • The Grand National: 4th and 6th April 2013
  • The British Grand Prix: 5th July and 7th July 2013
  • FA Cup Final: 11th May 2013
  • Goodwood Revival: 13th to 15th September 2013

For more information, please contact Ellie Boulstridge on +44(0)20 7289 6100 or email ellie@ampersandtravel.com to start planning your own tailor-made UK family holiday, or browse our suggested UK & Ireland tours.