Once in a Lifetime Journey was invited to join the Golden Chariot Train as part of the Great India Blog Train Journey. As always, all opinions are our own.
In 2012 I booked my first ever trip to India onboard the Maharajas Express luxury train and it still remains one of the most memorable luxury travel experiences of my life. The decadence and opulence of the Raj could not have found a better match than the regal carriages of the famed train.
But the Maharajas Express is not the only luxury train in India, there are four other trains competing in giving rail lovers an experience of a lifetime. Luckily, in 2018, I was invited to experience another one of them, The Golden Chariot. So continue reading for a detailed account of my journey and a review of The Golden Chariot, the only luxury train in the south of India.
This review includes everything you need to know about the journey onboard The Golden Chariot such as the itinerary, what the train looks like inside, the food onboard, the route on the two itineraries available, as well as plenty of photos to give you a sense of the space.
The Golden Chariot train layout
The Golden Chariot train follows the same layout as the rest of the luxury trains in India and, in fact, across the world. Luxury trains are usually organised across a central piece where the bar, restaurant and kitchen coaches are.
The cabins are then attached at either side of the restaurants so that there is the least amount of walking from the rooms to the common dining areas. In a lot of cases, the boarding and offboarding of the train happens only through the bar carriage door but that was not the case on The Golden Chariot. In our train, there were 19 coaches, making the length of the train around 600-700m long from one end to the other.
The Golden Chariot has two restaurant cars with similar design and serving the same menu, the duality is just to provide enough seating space for everyone to eat at the same time. Tables are set at either side of the isle in sets of four with two seats and intended for sharing.
There are also two kitchens, one cooking Indian food and one cooking Western food. The separation is for practical reasons as both types of foods require different cooking methods and utensils and use different ingredients.
Take a look at this live video that I did on Incredible India Facebook’s page during one of our stops…
The kitchens onboard The Golden Chariot are incredibly fascinating to look at. They are smartly organised and very compact, it is incredible that the 80 meals served at every sitting are all cooked in such a small space with so many cooks not spoiling the broth. What is more, everything is cooked with electricity as there is no gas onboard, and often times, while the train is moving.
At one end of the train is the train captain and at the other end, the staff quarters. Each of the room cars have a cabin attendant helping the four cabins. The attendants have a small kitchenette where they can prepare tea or coffee and provide snacks in your room.
They also sleep in the cars, on a foldable bed that is tidied away during the day. They are there to be your butler and iron your clothes, bring you an early morning cup of tea or unpack and repack your luggage.
The room coaches are all decorated and named after a different dynasty ruling Karnataka through the centuries, Ganga, Sangama, etc. That means that the curtains and carpets are slightly different in each coach.
The Golden Chariot also offers two other facilities onboard: a gym and a spa. They are both quite compact but able to provide the services you would enjoy in a full fledged hotel. In the gym you can find a treadmill, an elliptical machine and a bicycle and the spa has two rooms.
The rooms onboard The Golden Chariot
The Golden Chariot only has two types of ensuite rooms: twin or double. Inside, both types are largely the same except for the bed configuration. The twin beds have two beds against each wall and a third bunk bed that is folded away, whereas the double bedrooms have the bed in the middle of the room.
The rooms on The Golden Chariot have beds along the length of the train instead of the usual luxury train layout outside of India where cabins have sofas that convert into bunk beds for the night and which are perpendicular to the train.
This means you get an actual bed of an appropriate length to sleep in without much compromise over a regular hotel bed. Except for the fact that the train does move on some nights.
While the double beds are more comfortable, the twin bed configuration means that one of the beds is by the window as opposed to in the middle of the room. It also allows for sharing bringing the prices down significantly.
The rooms also have a small closet, a small desk area that can be folded up if not in use, a bedside table in the middle or two at either side of the double beds, and a fully equipped bathroom.
I have traveled on a lot of luxury trains across the world from South Africa’s Rovos Rail to the Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian, and the luxury trains in India have the best bedrooms available with proper full size beds and ensuite bathrooms.
Even the all time luxurious and decadent Venice Simplon Express has shared bathrooms at the end of each car (like on my train to Lhasa) and the very expensive Golden Eagle Trans-Siberian train has small bathrooms where you shower basically over the toilet.
The Golden Chariot and other luxury trains in India like The Maharajas Express, all have full size bathrooms with walk-in sealed showers you can comfortably wash in, no more awkward showering on top of toilets creating puddles on the floors as the train rocks from side to side.
The train also provides bathroom amenities, bathrobes, towels and a full length mirror. To be fair, the cabins are pretty compact but comfortable and you have everything you need. It may get a bit crowded if there is two of you but you are in a train after all, so you should be ready to compromise a bit when comparing to a hotel room.
These are some of the best train rooms you will see unless you can splurge in the Presidential Room at the Golden Eagle or the newly refurbished Venice-Simplon Orient Express suites which are truly sensational.
The food onboard The Golden Chariot luxury train
There is no doubt that The Golden Chariot train offers some of the best food there is from the south of India, from Karnataka in particular, as well as from the rest of the country.
The international dish selection was also fantastic. It is impressive to think that all the food is cooked onboard, often times, on a moving train in two tiny kitchens by a dozen staff members.
Have you ever tried to cook on a moving boat? If you have you will know how hard it ts to get anything done when the surface keeps moving. It is really difficult.
And Indian dishes are the result of slow cooking techniques with lots of ingredients, spices and textures cooked for long periods of time. Indian food is definitively the labour of love!
This is why the teams start preparing for breakfast at 4,30am making everything from scratch, including the bread rolls and all the Indian breads which were always delicious. Dinner is prepared from 1,30pm onwards.
At every seating there were always three options, two Indian set meals of thali with either vegetarian or non-vegetarian options as well as international dishes to choose from.
There was always a soup and a small salad to start off and delicious desserts. The menu changed at every meal and were never repeated. Even the breakfast options changed daily offering from idlis to dosas or puris. Everything was always delicious.
It is impossible to leave the train hungry and, more likely, you will leave with a couple more kilos on because of all the indulgent food you can’t say no to.
There is a drinks menu as well which includes local wines from India and several international options. A fully stocked bar has a decent selection of liquors and other options to choose from.
In India, whiskey is big so there were also a few labels. Tea and coffee, both Indian versions or international options, were always available. You cannot leave without trying the Masala tea or the Indian coffee. Since I could not choose, I often had both!
The route plan and itinerary on The Golden Chariot
The Golden Chariot focuses on the states of Karnataka, Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, this is why it is considered the only luxury train in India which travels through the south of the country as the other four luxury trains cover the states of Maharashtra (Mumbai), Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Bikaner, Jaisalmer) and Uttar Pradesh (Delhi) with famous stops such as the Taj Mahal.
Bonus reading: If you are planning on visiting Rajasthan, I have written extensively about it. You can read about the best places to stay in Jaipur (like Amanbagh), Udaipur (like Shiv Niwas Palace), or Jodhpur; and see my travel guides to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaiper and Jaisalmer.
As these four states are vast (except for maybe Goa which is the smallest in India) and have a lot of sights, The Golden Chariot train offers two itineraries that split the south both starting and ending in Bangalore.
The Pride of the South itinerary covers Karnataka and Goa while the Southern Splendour itinerary explores Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In both cases, the journey lasts seven nights and eight days with several stops along the way. In the table below you can find both itineraries for comparison.
|Day no.||Pride of the South||Southern Splendour|
|Day 2||Mysore and Kabini safari||Chennai and Mahabalipuram|
|Day 3||Kabini safari and Mysore||Auroville and Pondicherry|
|Day 4||Shravanabelagola Monolith, Belur and Halebidu||Brihadeshwara Temple complex and Tiruchirapalli|
|Day 6||Pattadakal and Badami Caves||Kanyakumari, Wooden Palace and Kovalam beach|
|Day 7||Goa||Kerala backwater rice boat and Fort Kochi|
The two itineraries are very different mostly because the four states are very unlike each other despite being commonly bundled in together as the south of India. The architecture and construction styles to be expected will also vary significantly in the two itineraries.
The Pride of the South itinerary focuses mostly on discovering Karnataka, a very much unknown Indian state that is rich in heritage and history and which has Bangalore as its capital. In this itinerary you can expect to find out more about the wealthy historical past of Sultans and their fights with British forces.
The modern and incredibly exotic Mysore Palace contrasts with the ancient carvings in the UNESCO-listed Badami caves or the Pattadakal Temples, the source of most of India’s architectural movement. The ancient city of Hampi is an expansive area with impressive constructions and a glorious Medieval past.
The two half day excursions to Kabini Wilderness Park and the overnight stay within the park also gives the chance (if not guaranteed) of some wildlife sightings, which is not part of the Southern Splendour train journey.
In contrast, the South Splendour traces the sea shore with plenty of time for seaside culture and several encounters with water, from the sunrise at India’s most southern point to see the confluence of three seas to the backwaters of Kerala. The changes in architectural influences and customs here are also large.
From the French inspired Pondicherry to the Portuguese and Dutch Fort Kochi (Kochi is in Kerala) this is an itinerary for a more recent outlook into Indian culture with dashes of southern Tamil culture and rich heritage landmarks.
How do you choose between the two itineraries on The Golden Chariot?
If you have never been to India before, I would think The Pride of the South gives you a good look into some of the country’s richest past. However, Southern Splendor might be an easier way to get in contact with what is a very complex country. Both itineraries are fantastic and provide glimpses into lesser known parts of India beyond the popular Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.
The service onboard The Golden Chariot
Any luxury trip in India always starts and ends with amazing hospitality. I have experienced this eagerness and true service focus on numerous trips. Sometimes, it is even too much as you are constantly offered things. Another cup of tea? A snack? Perhaps help booking a taxi?
The Golden Chariot was no exception. The entire staff onboard the train were fabulous. They were kind, friendly, helpful and willing to give a hand with anything you require.
The train employs some of the staff members to help you while onboard and then come out on the excursions with you so you are always taken care of by someone who knows you. There were always two staff members in the bus with us ready to give us fresh water or make sure we were not left behind at some of the crowded sites. It is difficult to find a better service level than the one they provided.
Additionally, every four cabins in a coach have a cabin attendant whose only job is to help you with anything you need. I asked mine to help me iron some of my creased clothes and he immediately brought the iron out to get it all crisp and ready to wear.
I also availed of many a masala tea in the morning or afternoon which was always served in silverware and a side of biscuits. As the cabins don’t have their own AC units, the cabin attendant is there to help with increasing or decreasing the temperature. In my case, always to bring it up as I am always cold.
Lastly, the cabin attendants can help unpack or repack a suitcase so you don’t even have to worry about that hassle.
Aside from the staff, there were also a few other service-related details which caught my attention. Announcements were made every morning and evening about the day’s program giving us tips about what to wear and the disembarkation times we had to be ready for.
This information and more was always included in the daily cards that were left in our room which were perfectly updated with the changes in the schedule that we had.
I found these cards to be of immense value as they provided us with the time we would spend on buses, the train, where we would eat, and what we were supposed to wear. They also gave short introductions to the sights of the day and indicated if we were supposed to remove shoes and if photography was allowed.
Special mention always goes to the chef who not only cooked us fabulous meals but was also a great serviceman always ready to cook anything we felt like or give us another dish to try.
Things to see on The Golden Chariot Pride of the South itinerary
I was invited by the Ministry of Tourism of India to join their Golden Chariot Pride of the South journey along with other 14 bloggers and influencers and here are the main sights and stops on the itinerary.
Day 1 onboard The Golden Chariot Pride of the South – Bangalore
I arrived in Bangalore a day before the start of the train journey so I technically had day 0 and day 1 in Bangalore which was a good idea because the city has a lot more to see than most articles and listicles with the best things to see in Bangalore will have you believe. In fact, I put together a list of things to do in Bangalore collecting all the best activities and places of interest.
As part of the train journey, you will meet at the Taj West End Hotel and after a briefing and cultural performance you will be taken to the ISKCON Temple, which is believed to be the largest Krishna Temple in the world. The temple is well worth the visit as I discovered on my last day in Bangalore.
Because we were on a slightly different schedule to the rest of the passengers on the train, we had an extra half day tour of the city which included the Tipu Sultan Palace and the Botanical Gardens (Lalbagh) in the morning before heading to the Taj West End.
Additionally, in my extra day, I also visited the Court House (from outside as you can’t get in) and the Vidhana Soudha building, the main landmark of Bangalore and the seat of the State legislature of Karnataka. And also immersed myself in the color, smells and sounds of the KR Market, an explosion of color which was a highlight of Bangalore for me.
Once at the Taj West End, you will attend a briefing, do the formal check-in, rooms will be assigned, keys given and luggage tagged so it can be taken to the train directly.
The briefing has all the guests together in a hall being addressed by the General Manager of the train as well as other officials from the Karnataka Tourism organisation followed by a cultural performance. I found the cultural performance to be quite impressive and interesting.
If you arrive earlier, you are also invited to join a historian from the hotel to tour the property grounds which are steeped in heritage rich storied. The Taj West End is one of the best luxury hotels in Bangalore, and while I did not stay there this time, the hotel deserves some additional time to hear more about its rich past.
After all the formalities were finalised we were supposed to visit ISKCON Temple but since we had been delayed by other matters we had to skip that visit and went straight to the train so that we could make an entrance through the masses of people who had congregated at the station and were wrapping around our red carpet.
The rest of the passengers did indeed visit the temple. Given how large the complex is and how new to me the Krishnan variant of Hinduism is, I would have welcomed a guide who could have explained what was happening. Read more about my visit to ISKCON Temple on the last day to find out more about this unusual and most fascinating temple.
Useful things to know on day 1 onboard The Golden Chariot
Although today is mostly an arrival day, it is useful to make sure you arrive with plenty of time to explore the Taj Hotel. What is more, if you can, you should arrive a day earlier and spend a night at the hotel as you explore Bangalore. If you are coming from far away, this will also help you fight jet lag better because it might be tough to sleep on the noisy moving train if you are a light sleeper.
Day 2 onboard The Golden Chariot Pride of the South – Mysore and Biligiri Ranganna Hills
Our first night on the train saw little movement until mostly in the morning before breakfast, when we traveled from Bangalore to Mysore.
In the morning, we got off the train ready to explore the royal Mysore Palace, an utterly mesmerising palace that was as intricate as it was colourful. The train journey includes knowledgeable local guides at every stop who will tell you everything about each place.
The Mysore Palace, also known as the Ambavilas Palace, is one of seven palaces in the royal city of Mysore. The building used to the be the residence of the Wadiyar Dynasty and the seat of the Kingdom of Mysore.
Although the original palace was built in the 14th century in the same location, the building standing there today was finished in 1912 and was commissioned to a British architect with the intention of designing an exotic palace and I am pretty sure the brief was fulfilled.
The construction is stunning to see from the outside, especially at night when it is lit with thousands of lights, but it will leave you speechless once you walk inside and marvel at the incredible halls, all of which have painfully detailed floors, walls, columns and ceilings.
You could easily spend hours inside but are likely going to want to come out because of the sheer number of visitors amounting to 6 million every year who visit the palace. That is more than 15,000 people a day.
After the visit we drove straight to the park for an afternoon safari.
The usual Pride of the South itinerary on the Golden Chariot includes a night at Bandipur Tiger Reserve. However, because our trips were booked late and the park is very popular, there were no more rooms for all of us so we were offered the possibility of staying at Kyathadevara Gudi Wilderness Camp in the Biligiri Ranganna Hills (BR Hills).
The park is about 2,5 hours drive from Mysore and is a wilderness area where tigers, leopards and elephants roam freely. However, like in most parks in India, the likelihood of seeing tigers or leopards is low because the area is usually large and the animals in lower numbers than you would find in African safari parks.
Also, the vegetation is lush and there is plenty of water so animals can easily hide. Wildlife is best seen in the summer months but the train only runs in the winter.
We arrived at K Gudi for lunch and after a quick bite jumped on our jeeps for the afternoon safari drive. Unfortunately, we only saw deers but no feline or elephants. Back from the drive, we tried to clean from the dust that unavoidably covers it all in the Indian safari parks, and got ready for dinner under the stars.
The staff lit a campfire, very much appreciated in the cooler hilly area, and we enjoyed snacks and drinks under clear skies.
K Gudi offers a combination of a tented camp and log cabins both of which are relatively basic and have running hot water available for showers after game drives. Buckets are available for washing outside of these timings when hot water is not available.
Useful things to know about Mysore and the safari
A lot of time is spent in the bus or the jeeps and the day is pretty active too. Dressing appropriately for the safari will be very useful given the cold and dusty weather. I have a detailed safari packing guide to help you out.
|Mysore Palace||Kabini / Bandipur / BR Hills|
• Shoes will have to be taken off at Mysore Palace but temple socks will be provided
• Photos and video are not allowed inside the palace
• The palace is very very full at all times so it can be a bit stressful
• The drive to the park is 2.5h from the train so it can get quite tiring, especially as the roads in the park are narrow and winding at times
• You have to bring an overnight bag
• It can get really cold in the evenings and mornings so bring a jacket and a scarf
• The game drives are very dusty so it pays to bring a mask to protect your nose and mouth
• A hat is a must as the jeeps are open
• Shower facilities can be basic
• Wear clothes in colors of nature, earthy greens and browns and avoid bright colors of white which do not exist in nature
Day 3 onboard The Golden Chariot Pride of the South – Biligiri Ranganna Hills and Mysore
In the cold morning, at 6am, we jumped back on the jeeps for a second chance at spotting animals but were equally unlucky. The elusive cats did not show up.
Seeing wildlife in India is certainly a very hit or miss situation. I saw tigers in Ranthambore onboard The Maharajas Express but that followed 3 hours of driving in an open-top jeep at freezing temperatures and there was little else to be seen otherwise.
I always recommend visitors to focus on the many other sights in India beyond the wildlife and to leave that for an African safari but since it was part of the program and it only involved a couple of drives, it was a nice way to break the cultural theme. Also, the guests who went to Bandipur did in fact see leopards and elephants.
After breakfast, we drove back the 2,5h to the train for lunch and continued to Mysore in the afternoon to visit the rest of the sights in Srirangapatna, a town near Mysore where a lot of the most important sights in the area are located: Srirangapatna and the Ranganathaswamy temple, Daria Daulat and Gumbaz.
Tipu Sultan Summer Palace also known as Daria Daulat, was a really stunning building. Made entirely of wood with carvings, paintings and beautiful colours it was one of the highlights of the trip.
Tipu Sultan’s Mausoleum, Gumbaz, was located in a mini-Taj Mahal structure and we also got to visit that. The tomb was surrounded by gold and tiger stripes as was famous and favourite of the Sultan who was known as the Tiger of Mysore.
The remaining sites in The City of Palaces, as Mysore is known, were visited from the bus but you could tell there was a lot more to see in Mysore. We saw Tipu Sultan’s rocket launch site, the ruins of the old fort and several other constructions now half destroyed.
The itinerary also included a shopping stop before a cultural performance and dinner at the Lalitha Mahal Palace hotel but we were all quite exhausted from the 5,30am start so skipped the shopping. Before we were served a buffet style dinner at the palace, we participated in a cultural performance by a single dancing lady.
I always find these Indian traditional dances very intimidating and intense but also very fascinating, especially since people still practice them today. The movements of the hands and face and the expressions are truly mesmerising.
The safari is a nice addition to the itinerary on The Golden Chariot but for me, having been on so many African safaris, it is a part I would easily exchange for more time in Mysore which is such a heritage rich and beautiful city.
Here is my complete tour guide of the Tipu Sultan Summer Palace in Srirangapatna, Mysore.
Useful things to know on day 3 of The Golden Chariot
A lot of time is spent on the bus today as the drive back from the park to the train is long and in the afternoon, the ruins of the Mysore Fort as explored on the bus. It is also a very long day from the 5,30am wake-up call to the 10pm return to the bus.
|Kabini / Bandipur / BR Hills||Mysore|
• Early morning game drives can be really cold so bring a thick jacket
• Tea and biscuits will be provided before the safari and full breakfast after you return
• As the shower facilities may not be the most convenient, you may want to shower back in the train
• Daria Daulat Bagh does not allow photos inside and the outside is covered from the sun to protect it. Shoes can be worn in the palace
• Gumbaz, the mausoleum of Tipu Sultan, also does not allow photography inside and you need to take your shoes off to get in
Day 4 onboard The Golden Chariot Pride of the South – Shravanabelagola, Belur and Halebidu
The day usually starts with a climb up the 700 steps to Shravanabelagola village where the 10th century statue of Jain Monk Gommateshvara Bahubali is located. The statue is 58 feet high.
However, because we happened to be there at the time of the once-every-twelve-year “mega-event” festival dedicated to the gods which was attended by the Indian Prime Minister, the train management decided to swap the itinerary with a tour of the coffee and spice plantations at The Serai luxury resort followed by Belur and Halebidu.
This made for a different and fabulous day combining time outside and some culture although we missed the famous statue and the event which gathers millions of people coming to anoint and venerate Jainism’s most important tirth (sacred place) with honey, milk and flowers.