Instead of Rajasthan: Kutch Region of Gujarat
AddressRann of Kutch, Gujarat
The vast Kutch region of Gujarat is sometimes described as India's "wild west." Much of Kutch consists of seasonal wetlands known as the Great Rann of Kutch (famous for its salt desert) and smaller Little Rann of Kutch (famous for its Wild Ass Sanctuary). The region's handicraft villages are also a highlight.
Instead of Leh Ladakh: Spiti in Himachal Pradesh
AddressSpiti Valley, Marango Rangarik, Himachal Pradesh 172114
When it comes to high altitude desert in India, you've most likely head of Leh and Ladakh. But what about lesser-known Spiti? Bordered by Ladakh in the north, Tibet to the east, Kinnaur to the southeast, and the Kullu Valley to the south, Spiti has an average height of around 12,500 feet above sea level. This stark alpine desert land is scattered with small villages and monasteries, and enclosed by soaring peaks crowned with snow.
Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited river island, sits amidst the imposing Brahmaputra River in Assam. A world within a world, ride bicycles through the fertile green landscape, go bird watching, and visit Hindu Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries. La Maison de Anand is a quaint bamboo stilt house homestay there, designed by a French architect who fell in love with Majuli. The Majuli Ras Mahotsav festival, held in mid-November each year, celebrates the life of Lord Krishna with plays, folk dances, puppets, masks, songs and dance.
Instead of Varkala Beach: Kannur in Kerala
The small town of Kannur, in northern Kerala, is known for its secluded beaches, mysterious masked spirit-possession theyyam rituals, and hand loom weaving. The theyyam season runs from October until May and Kerala Tourism has a comprehensive calendar of theyyam events. There are some delightful, laid back (and inexpensive) beach houses in the Thottada beach area, such as Kannur Beach House, Waves Beach Resort, Chera Rock Beach House, and KK Heritage Homestay. Kannur district is also home to Muzhappilangad Drive-In Beach. You can drive all the way along its vast stretch of sand.
Instead of Varanasi: Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh
AddressMaheshwar, Madhya Pradesh 451224, India
If the hustle of Varanasi is too much, Maheshwar is a more peaceful alternative. Often referred to as the Varanasi of central India, this small holy town is set along the banks of the Narmada river and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. Stroll along the ghats and take a sunset boat ride along the river and out to the Baneshwar temple. If you want to splurge you can be a guest of the Holkar family at their Ahilya Fort hotel, which has been established in part of the palace. Maheshwar is also renowned for its weaving.
Instead of Khajuraho or Jaisalmer: Osian in Rajasthan
AddressOsian, Rajasthan 342303, India
Osian, situated about an hour and a half north of Jodhpur on the way to Bikaner, is often referred to as the "Khajuraho of Rajasthan" for its intricately carved temples. They date from the 8th to 11th centuries, and the town was an important trading center during this time. Osian's Thar Desert location also means that camel safaris through the sand dunes are offered. Stay at Osian Sand Dunes Resort and Camp. It's a great alternative to the touristy environment in Jaisalmer.
Instead of the Sundarbans: Pichavaram Mangroves in Tamil Nadu
AddressPichavaram, Tamil Nadu 608102, India
You can be forgiven if you didn't know about Pichavaram mangrove forest, despite it being one of the world's largest mangrove jungles (the Sundarbans National Park in West Bengal is the largest). After all, it's not on the tourist trail. However, this remarkable and fascinating place is definitely worth visiting. Spread over nearly 3,000 acres, it has 4,400 big and small canals that can be explored by boat.
Instead of Kanha National Park: Kawardha in Chhattisgarh
AddressKawardha, Chhattisgarh 491995, India
Thinking of visiting the famous Kanha National Park but want to avoid the crowds? Bhoramdeo Jungle Retreat is 3-4 hours drive away and has three ambient cottages nestled in the Maikal Hills, close to the ancient Bhoramdeo temple complex. The owner is a native of the area and has an excellent rapport with the indigenous villagers, who belong to the Baiga and Gond tribes. Guests can visit their tolas (villages) and colorful weekly haats (tribal markets). Treks into the jungle are offered, and the butterflies, birds and wildlife are exceptional. It's also possible to go on longer treks into the Maikal Hills, staying in villagers' homes.
AddressKalap, Uttarakhand 249128, India
Manali in Himachal Pradesh attracts plenty of adventure seekers, who come to enjoy its surrounding village trekking trails. However, to go where very few tourists have gone before, head to Kalap, 7,500 feet above sea level in the upper Garhwal region of northern Uttarakhand. This tiny village is not accessible by road or rail (you'll need to trek, and porters and mules are provided). A responsible tourism project was started there in 2013 to help the villagers generate an income. You can stay with them and experience their way of life, as well as spend time in the pristine surroundings.
Instead of Fatehpur Sikri: Champaner-Pavagadh in Gujarat
These days, the abandoned 16th century Mughal capital of Fatehpur Sikri near Agra is annoyingly overrun by touts and beggars. A lesser-known, short-lived, capital that's also a UNESCO World Heritage is Champaner-Pavagadh, situated about 145 kilometers (90 miles) southeast of Ahmedabad. Notably, it's the only unaltered and complete Islamic pre-Mughal city in India. Its historical treasures, dating back to between the 8th and 14th centuries, include a hill fortress, palaces, places of worship (Jama Masjid is one of the most spectacular mosques in Gujarat), residential areas, reservoirs and step wells.
Nagarhole National Park is one of the top national parks in India. It gets its name from the snake-like river that winds its way through it. However, the government-run minibus safaris through the park tend to be rather disappointing and noisy and private safaris are costly. Alternatively, Pollachi in the Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu is an unexplored place teaming with wildlife, plus Anamalai Tiger Reserve is in the area. The annual Kongu Nadu Cattle Festival, held in January, is also a highlight. Thadam Experiences offers customized trips including bird watching, nature walks, boat rides, village and farm visits, and tea tours. Grass Hills Tours and Travels is also a reputable company that specializes in local nature and wildlife tourism. Stay at Coco Lagoon Resort, or the cheaper Coconut County Farm Stay.
Over the border in Maharashtra, the Konkan Coast offers a bounty of beautiful beaches, which are among the most pristine in the country. Delightfully off the tourist trail, they are devoid of much commercial development and many are practically deserted. Inexpensive beachfront homestays are popping up in many places, and you'll get mouthwatering home-cooked coastal cuisine. The Konkan Coast is a fantastic route for a motorcycle road trip too!