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A fantasy trip onboard the Deccan Odyssey
Arati Menon Carroll in Mumbai
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October 17, 2005
Anybody who's watched the 1974 whodunit Murder on the Orient Express or read The Mystery of the Blue Train will find it hard to resist the fantasy of a week on a luxuriously languorous train ride through ever-changing landscapes - without the action accompanying a serial killer, of course.

The Orient Express may be a prohibitive indulgence for most, but there are cheaper (but not cheap) options in India that are just as magical - with efficient porters who appear and disappear just as quickly with your luggage, heavily draped windows, warmly lit dining cars and liveried butlers in attendance.

Some have heard of the 'Palace on Wheels' but last week, the new kid on the block � 'Deccan Odyssey', Maharashtra Tourism's brand ambassador on wheels - was flagged off on her second season of guiding enthused travellers through a diverse land.

The eight-day journey commences at Mumbai, winds through little-known backwaters of Ganapatipule and Jaigad, chugs into the tip of the Konkan coast - Sindhudurg - to Tarkali, the virgin beach at the confluence of river Karli and the Arabian Sea, weaves through the Panchvati Ghats to the site of the Nashik Kumbh Mela, and makes the standard halts at Goa, Pune and Aurangabad before returning to Mumbai.

At every stop are organised day trips to adjoining areas of interest and a sampling of regional fare.

On board, there's enough to keep you entertained for a few days, although it really is about sitting back and letting the luxury of time wash over you. The health centre offers ayurvedic massages, houses a steam and sauna, and a beauty parlour as well as a gym.

Or you could choose to tarry over a drink at the bar (although it might take a while for them to master a connoisseur selection of wines, standard alcohol is available), a tome in the library, or re-discover the art of letter writing - did I mention mobile phones are ineffectual for much of the journey?

But the train is not completely old-fashioned either, for it is complete with plasma televisions, CD players, onboard laundry - designed, as they say, to combine the luxury of a hotel with the charm of train travel.

"Our USP," says Vijay Chavan, chief project officer, Deccan Odyssey, "is that we're associated with the Taj group of hotels. Besides the fact that they handle the operations of the spa, restaurants and housekeeping, our lunch and dinner stops in Pune, Goa and Aurangabad are always organised at Taj properties which the guests love."

The trip doesn't come cheap at $485 per person per night, but they have made an effort to subsidise it for Indian travellers by offering a reduced fare of Rs 15,000 a night. (Although a night in the presidential suite will set you back by Rs 30,000 a night.) In the pipeline, though, are efforts to position the train at lower price points in the off-season, May to October.

Chavan says, "We're in the midst of discussions with the railway ministry to organise shorter journeys, maybe even trips from Mumbai to Shirdi and other conventional destinations." But with an initial investment of Rs 32 crore (Rs 320 million), not to mention operational costs, and having run on an average of 30 per cent occupancy last season, innovation will be key.

However, to be fair, this is only its second season, and even the 22-year-old Palace on Wheels doesn't run anywhere near full house. But with the memory of the bust of the Royal Orient Express (which journeyed through Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh) fresh in their memories, Maharashtra Tourism is taking marketing very seriously.

This journey may not have the tourist-y savoir-faire that Rajasthan has acquired after several years of playing favourite, complete with caparisoned elephants and strains of the shehnai, and don't expect the grandeur of latticed havelis or mansions with their distinctive facades, but Maharashtra has the advantage of being relatively under-hyped and therefore novel.

There is of course a third option for locomotive locos - The Fairy Queen, which finds mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, is the oldest running steam locomotive in the world and offers the perfect junior-version weekend trip between Delhi and Alwar.

"An advantage," adds Chavan, "is that we touch both Mumbai and Goa which are tourist destinations, so we're looking to tap into existing traffic." From this season on, they're open to shorter bookings of three nights between destinations; the ideal itinerary being Mumbai-Ratnagiri-Sindhudurg-Goa; with Tarkali the star attraction for its unsung sands.

So, as an alternative to cruises that are really quite talked to death this year, and planes that are high on convenience but abysmally low on everything else, try taking a train on your next holiday. Perhaps the nicest part of the experience is the return to a time when getting somewhere was just as much fun as arriving.

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