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There seems to be a lot of buzz in the air about India lately. It is currently referred to as the "it" destination which should come as no surprise -- it's a country that has long held the fascination of western tourists with its unique color, vibrancy, history, visual beauty, attractions and intriguing culture. And it's not just about the destination itself -- it's the growth of their domestic tourism industry, its sophisticated online travel market and increasing numbers of low cost carriers servicing the local market. Most package tours of India tend to concentrate on what is referred to as the "Golden Triangle" -- the area in and around Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, but if you venture beyond these cities, you will discover a vast and diverse country and will undoubtedly be rewarded with a richer cultural travel experience.

There are no less than twenty six world heritage sites in India including natural sites (such as Nanda Devi National Park, Manas Wildlife Sanctuary, Sunderbans National Park, Keoladeo Ghana Bird Sanctuary and Kaziranga National Park), cultural sites (Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri, Sun Temple at Konark, Champaner Pavagadh Archeological Park, Chhatrpati Shivaji Terminus at Mumbai and of course the timeless Taj Mahal), religious sites (the great Chola Temples in Thanjavur, Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya and the temple complex of Khajuraho) and the stunning geological sites including the rock cut caves of Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta plus the Rock Shelters at Bhimbetka.

Friendly Planet (tel. 800/555-5765; www.friendlyplanet.com) has the most affordable package that I could find on the market right now -- the "Taj Mahal Express", which is priced from $1,399 per person for an eight-day adventure in India. This price reflects a saving of $200 off the regular tour price is you reserve before November 15, 2006 and unlike several companies that advertise its cash price, this price remains the same even if you pay by credit card. The $1,399 rate is for tours departing April 24 and May 8, 2007 (the March 6, 2007 date is priced from $1,799 and the January 23, 2007 trip is $1,899). The tour goes to the "Golden Triangle" of India, from Delhi to Agra and the Taj Mahal, and the pink city of Jaipur. It includes round-trip airfare from New York flying Air India 747, fuel surcharges, airport transfers, ground transportation, 11 nights' accommodations at deluxe hotels, full American buffet breakfast daily, a farewell dinner in Delhi, Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri tours including entrance fees and an experienced English-speaking tour director.

On The Go Tours' (tel. 877/541-0882; www.indiaonthego.com) "Taj Express" is a land-only tour with departure dates from Delhi on October 7 and 28; November 11 and 25; December 9 and 23, 2006 plus 2007 dates in January, February, March and April.

The tour is priced at $779 plus a $349 single supplement. It includes airport transfers, seven nights' accommodations in three and four-star heritage hotels, breakfast daily, one dinner, ground transportation, a rickshaw ride to the Taj Mahal, entrance fees to the Taj Mahal, an elephant ride to the 16th century Amber Fort in Jaipur and an English-speaking tour leader (entrance fees to various sites and museums are an additional $32). In Delhi visit the Red Fort, Jama Masjid, Raj Ghat, India Gate and Rajpath, in Agra the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal, the ancient Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri, Jaipur, Alsisar and the Shekawati region.

Its 13-day "Deserts, Palaces and Ganges" tour starts in Delhi and is priced at $1,365 per person based on double occupancy with a $545 single supplement (plus $45 for entrance fees). Departure dates for 2006 are September 30; October 21; November 4 and 18; and December 2 and 16. Visit Delhi, Jaipur, Keoladeo Ghana National Park -- a UNESCO site, Bharatpur, Fatehpur Sikri, Agra, the temples of Khajuraho and Orchha, Varanasi and the Ganges. The land-only trip includes airport transfers, economy class domestic flight from Khajuraho to Varanasi, 12 nights' accommodations in three and four-star heritage hotels, breakfast daily, one dinner, ground transportation, a rickshaw ride to the Taj Mahal, entrance fees to the Taj Mahal, an elephant ride to Amber Fort, bicycle rickshaw ride in Keoladeo Ghana National Park, a sunrise boat cruise on the Holy Ganges at Varanasi, private motorcoach transportation throughout, a train ride from Varanasi to Delhi and English speaking guides.

Go-today (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com) has an "Incredible India" tour priced from $1,969 for departures from October 1 to November 21, 2006 and from January 16 to March 31, 2006. The price goes up to $2,079 from travel from November 22 to December 5, 2006 and again from January 5 to 15, 2007. The package includes round-trip airfare to Delhi from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, airline fuel surcharges, round-trip transfer between airport and hotel, six nights' accommodations (three at Hotel Vikram in Delhi, one at the Holiday Inn Agra and two at the Holiday Inn in Jaipur), private car transportation, continental breakfast daily, hotel taxes and service charges and sightseeing. Visit Delhi (Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, the Red Fort, Raj Ghat, the 12th century Qutab Minar, the mausoleum of emperor Humayun, the imposing Lakshminarayan temple and the India Gate), Agra, the Taj Mahal, the Agra Fort, Fatehpur Sikri and Jaipur, (the Amber Fort, Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), the City Palace and the Jantar Mantar). Add $170 from Boston and Washington, D.C., $290 from Miami, Atlanta or Detroit (other departure cities also available fro additional cost). Purchase by October 5, 2006.

Odysseys Unlimited (tel. 888/370-6765; www.odysseysunlimited.com) features a 14-day "India's Golden Triangle Plus Ranthambore Tiger Preserve" package priced from $2,995 for a departure from New York on April 12, 2006 (January, February and March 2007 dates are available at between $3,195 and $3,395). While staying at deluxe and first class hotels, discover the classic Golden Triangle - Delhi, Agra, the Taj Mahal and Jaipur, plus stay at a celebrated tiger preserve. The trip includes round-trip airfare, 12 nights' accommodations, 25 meals (breakfast and dinner daily plus three lunches), extensive sightseeing with all entrance fees, services of an Odysseys Unlimited tour director, private motorcoach transportation throughout your trip, gratuities and a $100 frequent traveler credit towards your next Odysseys Unlimited tour. Tour Old and New Delhi, experience a home-hosted reception with a local Delhi family, visit the S.O.S. Children's Village, Agra, the Taj Mahal, take an elephant-back tour of Amber Fort , an excursion to Fatehpur Sikri, visit Sanganer village, Jaipur including the Amber Fort and Palace of Winds and two-nights at Ranthambore Tiger Preserve, a 512-square-mile nature preserve that is home to a rich diversity of flora, as well as hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, mammals, and of course, tigers and leopards (including morning and evening game drives). Add $220 from Boston or Washington, D.C. and $300 from Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles or Miami.

Indus Travels (tel. 866/978-2887; www.traveltoursindia.net) offers a selection of ten different tours ranging from nine days to three weeks in duration. The itinerary for their "South India Tour" includes visiting Singapore, Chennai, Mamallapuram, Bangalore, Mysore, Mudumalai, Coonoor, Cochin, Kumarakom, Alleppey, Kovalam and Trivandrum. With a maximum of 16 participants this trip is priced from $2,595 per person based on double occupancy and includes round-trip airfare from Los Angeles to Singapore, flights from Singapore to Chennai, 15 nights' accommodations, daily buffet breakfast, a Singapore city tour, one night aboard a house boat on full board basis, a farewell dinner, all transportation by air-conditioned vehicle, sightseeing, all applicable taxes and the services of a dedicated English speaking local guide. Highlights include exploring 1,100-year-old stone carvings at a UNESCO Heritage Site, watching skilled weavers transform silk threads into elaborate sari fabric, visiting an ancient hill temple with magnificent views of Mysore city, viewing tigers, bison and deer in one of India's finest wildlife sanctuaries, a train ride aboard a historical narrow-gauge steam train past spectacular waterfalls from Ooty to Coonoor, a Kathakali dance performance at Cochin and relaxing in a luxurious Arabian Sea beachfront resort. Departure dates are October 12 and November 16, 2006; February 1 and 15 plus March 8, 2007. The December 21, 2006 departure is priced at $3,132.

Its "India in a Hurry" package visits Singapore, Delhi, Neemrana, Jaipur and Agra. It includes round-trip airfare from Los angels to Delhi, five nights' accommodations, daily buffet breakfast, two dinners, an elephant ride at Amber Fort, Jaipur, all transfers/tours and excursions in an air-conditioned motorcoach, sightseeing, an English speaking local guide and all applicable taxes. The trip is priced at $1,641 and departs on October 7, November 11, 2006 and January 27; February 10; and March 3, 2007. The December 16, 2006 departure is priced at $2,041.

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