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Probably the best way to experience India is on its roads. The fancy new highways, the interior roads, the small towns along the way, cows(!!) that always have right of way, landscapes that soothe the eyes and smiles that soothe the soul. So we've picked the best road trips our country has to offer. Let us hit the road.
1. Golden Triangle: Delhi-Agra-Jaipur
It's not called the Golden Triangle for nothing. This is probably the most popular route among travellers and is packed with magnificent historic sites. Start in Delhi with the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. Move on to Agra for the most extravagant monument to love, the Taj Mahal and then the Agra Fort.
Head next to the amazingly well preserved Fatehpur Sikri and the birder's paradise of Keoladeo Ghana National Park (aka Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary) en route to the Pink City of Jaipur. Don't miss the City Palace and Amber Fort before heading back to Delhi. On the way back, catch a night at the painstakingly renovated Neemrana Fort Palace hotel located just off the Delhi-Jaipur highway.
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2. Mountain Madness: Manali-Leh
Though it can be exhausting, rough, unpredictable and even give you altitude sickness, this is one ride you can't miss. Crossing four mountain passes over 4900m and the forever unpredictable Rohtang pass, you're sure to have an unforgettable time.
Roads are normally open from June to late September and the Lonely Planet India has a great section on planning the route with plenty of suggestions for places to stay overnight, en route.
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3. Southern Masala: Chennai-Mahabalipuram-Pondicherry-Chidambaram-Thanjavur-Trichy-Madurai
Start off from Chennai and hit the East Coast Road (ECR), a scenic highway hugging the coast. Stop by at the Cholamandala Artist's Village before heading on to the World Heritage Site of the ruins at Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram).
Get a taste of French elegance mingled with Tamil flavour when you stop in Pondicherry. Stay in one of the heritage properties in the French Quarter. Hotel de l'Orient and Maison Perumal are our top picks.
Move on to visit the great temple complex of Nataraja in Chidambaram. It is one of the holiest Shiva temples in South India and an architectural highlight. Next along the route is Thanjavur, the ancient capital of the Chola empire. Today a sprawling mess of honking buses and the chaos of small-town India, it is best to head straight to the Brihadishwara Temple and the Royal Palace, before moving on.
After a brief halt in Trichy (catch the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, possibly the biggest temple complex in India), head to the soul of Tamil Nadu -- Madurai. It is one of India's oldest cities, one that traded with ancient Rome, though the highlight is the magnificent Sri Meenakshi Temple.
Carry the Lonely Planet South India & Kerala for planning.
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4. Royal Rajasthan: Jaipur-Pushkar-Udaipur-Kumbhalgarh-Jodhpur-Jaisalmer
Starting in Jaipur, browse the bazaars, eat at the famous Laxmi Mishthan Bhandar, check out the Amber Fort before driving off to the holy town of Pushkar. Visit the lakeside temples and spend some time just chilling out here. Head next to the stunning Udaipur. Shimmering Lake Pichola, the surrounding Aravallis, the palaces, temples and havelis, all add up to an unmatched setting.
Head next to Kumbhalgarh along roads twisting through the Aravallis. The journey is the highlight here, but don't miss the remote fort and the Kumbhalgarh Wildlife Sanctuary. When you're done, the blue city of Jodhpur beckons ahead. Check out the Mehrangarh Fort and the sprawling and atmospheric old city.
Finally, complete the last leg of your trip and head to Jaisalmer. It is the farthest to get to, but the most worthwhile. Ramble through the maze inside the golden fort and spend at least one night by the sand dunes (at Khuri, about 40 km away).
Find all the details you need for planning the trip in Lonely Planet Rajasthan, Delhi & Agra.
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5. God's Own Road Trip: Kochi-Alappuzha-Varkala-Trivandrum-Kovalam
Start off with soaking in the colonial elegance of Kochi. Stay in the Fort Cochin area at the exquisite and well-preserved Brunton Boatyard. Next drive along the coast on NH-66, stopping by in Alappuzha to cruise in the languorous backwaters. Spend some time on the beach towns near Varkala, then check out the off-beat museums and old Kerala architecture in Trivandrum. Finally end your Malabar sojourn along the beaches of Kovalam.
The Rough Guide to Kerala is a great resource for making this one happen.
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6. Himalayan Odyssey: Darjeeling-Gangtok-Pelling-Tashiding-Darjeeling
This one may seem small on a map but roads in India's mountains have a way of taking much longer to navigate than you might anticipate. Also this is one where the journey offers more than the pit stops, with plunging valleys, lush forests, rice terraces and flowering bushes along the route with plenty of diversions you can take spontaneously.
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Start off in Darjeeling with sampling some of the world's best teas. Set off for Gangtok where you can visit the surrounding Buddhist monasteries. Drive off to Pelling which offers mind-blowing views of the Khanchendzonga at dawn.
After visiting some of the surrounding Buddhist Gompas, head to Tashiding for yet another spectacular drive back to Darjeeling.
While in Sikkim, plan to do a trek or two to really soak in the Himalayas. Lonely Planet's Trekking in the Indian Himalaya has a detailed section devoted to this region.
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