On The Road: 10 Offbeat Indian Travel Companies You Should Know [Vol. I]

On The Road: 10 Offbeat Indian Travel Companies You Should Know [Vol. I]

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

- Robert Frost. 

There are parts of the world where life is slower, the air is cleaner and the leaf-strewn earth you’re crunching down upon cradles your feet in ways that city pavements never could. In the madness and constant whirlwind of urban life, it is important to break away from the work-hard(ish)-play-hard routine and push the boundaries of your comfort zone now and then, to realise that there is more to the world. 

As Homegrown scouted the scene for travel companies that were breaking new ground, we couldn’t help but notice that all of the companies we shortlisted were unanimously engaged in a quest to separate the traveller from the tourist, with a keen eye for less-ventured locations and deeper travel experiences. Most of them being avid travellers themselves, these entrepreneurs are also clearly in it for the journey, not the destination. Veiling our envy at their nomadic profession, here’s what we unearthed from their experiences:

Based in Spiti Valley, Himachal Pradesh, Spiti United was founded by Chinmay Rane, Indrajeet Bhonsle and Kelsang, a local of Kaza, a year ago with the intention of shrugging off government funding and creating a self-sustainable society.

  The unusual company aims to show visitors around the largely unheard locale of Spiti Valley in a different way. Located in the Trans-Himalayan range at a very high altitude, it is primarily a Buddhist community with a unique culture, offset by the natural warmth and kindness of the people. Home to some ancient monasteries, this sounds to us like one of those idyllic places that urban life leaves you dreaming of at the end of every long weekday.
It’s not always rainbows and butterflies, though; Spiti valley is accessible from Manali only during the summer – a journey of two to three days - and the road is blocked by snow during the rest of the year. This makes buying and transporting the required infrastructure a gruelling and time-consuming process. Throw Spiti’s extreme temperatures - since it is a desert region at a high altitude – into the mix and you’ll soon be convinced, like us, of these guys’ nerves of steel at keeping at their initiative.  

“We want to use tourism as a tool to make self-sustainable development a reality here,” says 22-year-old Indrajeet. “We have amazing support from the locals, without whom this company cannot function. Human relationships are the biggest challenges we face. Running a company in a tribal area which has a population of approximately 10,000, it is very important to maintain good relations with everyone. Besides that, there are issues like logistics. We are based in a high altitude region, and the nearest town is Manali, which is a day’s journey away.”

Indrajeet says that the most important part is realising them and overcoming them, adding that challenges have fostered a spirit of solidarity, and brought them closer together as a team.

 Best Packages: “Spiti United conducts a snow leopard expedition in the winter, where you can spot snow leopards in the Spitian wild, and this expedition is based in the region of Kibber Village. The Snow leopard expedition is conducted at an average altitude of around 14000ft, temperatures drop down to around minus 20 degrees Celsius. We have a Homestay called the Red Fox located in Kibber, which is the basecamp of our expedition. The Red Fox homestay has all the facilities required to keep our tourist cosy even during winter. This expedition has attracted many wildlife photographers and documentary producers, who come here to shoot snow leopards in the wild.”

Run by a travel-crazy couple, Yogesh Shah and Suchna Hegde-Shah, this company offers various flexible travel options that help you discover and relish various local cultures around the world. “The Backpacker Co was founded by my better half, Suchna, and I, when we realised that there was no company to assist people who wanted to head out on backpacking trips,” says Yogesh. “Though there is a plethora of information on the internet, there is the need for a company to guide them through all this and help locate the best hostels, local bars etc. So with an aim to cater to this market - the Backpacker Co was created.

Indians are known to stay within their comfort zones while travelling, and anything out of the usual is frowned upon. However, Yogesh feels that the times, they are a-changin’. “The Indian traveller is maturing by leaps and bounds and there is a world of change in perspectives between an Indian traveller – say, five years ago, compared to the current one,he says

India’s first “experiential” travel company, The Backpacker Co offers experience-based informal travels to the Indian public. Although they have a myriad of options, perhaps the most intriguing and eye-catching is the one called “Girlfriend Getaways”, which allows a bevy of women to go backpacking anywhere across the globe sans the men. Ladies night, erry night!

 Best Packages: According to the Backpacker co, the best trips you can take this winter are the Backpack Turkey, Turkey on a Budget or their whopper of a ‘Western Rocker’ - Barcelona, Paris, Italy, Brussels & Amsterdam. Yogesh signs off by adding, “Apart from these, we have a European Escape package and a Christmas special, towards the end of the year.”  

A Pune-based start-up in love with the idea of ‘taking a break’, No Thepla Holidays has no qualms about their wanderlust, and the company was founded to thwart the usual Indian travel routine. Run by serial travellers Arjun Malhotra, and sisters Sanaya and Ayesha Ghandy, the aim is to offer the kind of holiday packages that are not just about the destination, but also indulge in and relish the events there as well, something that people generally refrain from doing. The company came about because we all used to travel regularly ourselves, and one day, we thought, ‘Why not put our knowledge to good use and become professional travellers?’” says Sanaya, who has journeyed across 25 countries in the past 6-7 years.

“The first trip we undertook was an event-based holiday, revolving around Fete de la Musique in Paris,” says Sanaya. “It was open to everyone, and it was a free music festival – from miniscule and relatively unknown artists to huge bands, everyone plays there, spanning genres.” The trip didn’t end there, though. “After Paris, we went to Haro, a small town in northern Spain known for its red wine where we played Holi with wine! After that, we also stopped by at Barcelona.” The trip lasted 12 days.

In addition to that, they’re also trying to find offbeat events in local and foreign pastures alike. 

Almost three years ago, in January 2012, the idea of India Untravelled began to brew.

“The idea of India Untravelled was born on an organic farm in the northern state of Punjab, where I was hosted by a family from the local pind (small village),” says co-founder Shivya Nath. “In the interiors of Punjab, this was a responsible travel initiative started by one family, who wanted to bring tourism to their postcard village in a way that would benefit both the local community and the environment. The warmth and hospitality gave me a glimpse of India beyond the cities, but the absence of a marketing plan meant little revenue for sustenance of this small-scale initiative.”

These were aimed to benefit the local community and the ecology of the region through her expertise in digital marketing. “We reach out to potential travellers through digital marketing tools, and inspire them to travel responsibly,” says Shivya. “Many of our partner destinations are village-run initiatives, where tourism serves as an alternate means of livelihood to volatile farming incomes, and is helping revive the culture, traditions, arts, crafts and local festivals in the region. Travel is no longer just about pilgrimage or visiting relatives. A growing number of Indian travellers want to get off the beaten path and experience what life is like in another part of the country.”

In addition to that, they also offer carbon-neutral trips in remote Himalayan villages which minimize the impact of travelling in such ecologically-sensitive regions, and also support organic farming initiatives across India. Shivya signs off by adding, “We are now a location independent team of three - the third member being Sifti Dhillon who is currently based in the Himalayas of Himachal Pradesh - who helps connect discerning travellers with experiential (and responsible) travel initiatives across India.”

Best Packages : Secrets of the Kumaon Himalayas - The trail starts at a 19th century heritage homestay, steeped in rich history and well-seasoned with the warm hospitality of urban families, in the tranquil lake district of Bhimtal. From here, you continue into the heart of Kumaon, to stay in a charming mountain village near the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary, giving you a chance to sample traditional Kumaoni life. Your trip culminates at the colonial Dak Bungalow in the terraced valleys of Peora, with a volunteering stint at a local NGO.

If the sound of plucking, rolling and sipping the world’s finest organic teas on a family-run mountain farm sounds like your thing, or if hiking along undulating hills covered by tea plantations, surrounded by majestic mountains, through charming villages to Sikkim interests you – this is where it’s at.

Fort Dansborg at Tranquebar, established in 1620.

A thirst for adventure and innovative travel ideas intertwined like long lost lovers to give rise to the cult travel outfit Breakfree Journeys, almost seven years old now. It aims at introducing city dwellers to the heritage of Bombay through walks and birding trails, the outdoor way of life through camps and treks, and to the spirit of backpacking and magic of life on the road through trips across India.

“I started Breakfree Journeys, back when I was 19 and studying economics at Ramnarain Ruia College, to promote offbeat travel including outdoor adventures and backpacking,” says Rushikesh Kulkarni, founder of Breakfree Journeys. “The idea was to to research and discover & explore lesser known destinations along with developing ways of inculcating sustainable practices while on the road.”

Long term, they’re looking at setting up sustainable trips that promote responsible travel while contributing majorly to the local economy and help in conservation efforts of the local culture, and biodiversity of that region. They also aim at creating research and reference material which will benefit solo travellers and help document the offbeat destinations they work upon. Expect more offbeat travel experiences which are more immersive and local in nature, from these guys.

A quick word for travel enthusiasts while planning a trip.

“Plan minimal, such as your entry and exit, arrive into a new place early in the morning and exit in the evenings. Do read up on user experiences and don’t just rely on your guidebook. Listen to what the locals have to say about tourist attractions and places in the region but don’t always take their word. Share your findings and experiences once you are back.”

Broken Compass, ironically enough, is the story of how Manjari Verma and Avani Patel, two women in their 30s, gave direction to their passion for travel and extensive knowledge of places around the world. Both of them had been travelling extensively since childhood and they’d been planning holidays for friends and family for a long time.“So, both of us, individually, knew that one day we would want to own a ‘holiday planning’ company,” says Manjari. “One that would make life easy for everyone by helping them at every stage; from the minute they thought of going on a holiday - through their planning - till they were off! After Manjari’s five-year stint as a Copywriter in Advertising, I became a freelance travel writer for a while. And while Avani was in her last job at an Adventure Tourism Company, we got chatting and we realized that both of us shared the same views and vision about travel and a prospective company. So we decided, instead of becoming competitors, why not pool in our resources and start this together!”

Once they realised they were on the same page, there was no looking back. Broken Compass was born in August, 2010, with a very clear agenda of side-stepping the approach of the generic travel company, offering things that others didn’t. And thus the full-fledged registered, holiday planning company reared its head, offering customised holidays for anyone on the basis of their travel personality, and their budget. You could be backpackers or a VIP, a solo traveller or a family of 10, they will plan a holiday for you based on your preferences.

What Homegrown really liked was that they also plan surprises for their guests which they come to know of only during their holiday…be it lunch at an organic farm in Scotland, a customized dinner or may be a white horse ride on a beach followed by a private barbeque on a Greek island,  if you are a honeymooner. Their value-added perks are oriented around the clients’ interests and on the basis of market trends and the clients’ personal preferences.

Best Packages : Some of the experiences they planned in the past that really stand out were: Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand Group Trip, A horse ride in Mykonos, Greece for a couple that ended in a moonlit picnic of sorts on the beach and an All-girls diving trip to the Andaman islands.

A group trip to the Valley of Flowers, Uttarakhand (2011).

Sachin Parikh and Vikrant Chheda are the guys you can thank for this offbeat travel company, the former bringing in the ‘white collar’ element of the company, while the latter complements it by lending it the ‘hippie’ vibe. Bringing together those who are passionate about our planet, this one’s definitely one for those who are all about the journey, not the destination. They have, in the past, organised an array of trips including surfing in Karnataka, trekking and camping in Ladakh, skiing in Gulmarg, and indulging in water sports in the Andamans, along with covering festivals like Escape Festival of Arts and Music, Naukuchiataal, Uttarakhand, Sula Fest in Nashik and NH7 Weekender. 

Amishi Rambhia Parikh, Head, White Collar Hippie Junior (WCH Jr), said, “Nowadays, kids are addicted to mobile phones and such other gadgets. They don’t know the importance of experiencing the outdoors. Hence, we wanted to make sure that children, at a tender age itself, step out and engage in activities that will help them develop skills. The camping sessions will spread out throughout the year so that children will be able to balance their time with academics.”

A quick word for travel enthusiasts while planning their trip:

Pack light and make sure your haversack is always load-balanced. “Always stay updated with the local weather before you travel, and always carry a personal bottle of water.”

India’s first all-women promoted and operated Adventure Travel & Outbound Training company, Base Camp Adventures makes juggling an undying zeal to live on the edge with an inherent sense of responsible travelling seem like a breeze. A proud member of Adventure Tour Operators Association of Karnataka (ATOAK), the company which is an ‘offspring of avid, well-trained and certified professionals, was founded by Kavitha Reddy, 42.

Over the last three years, they have had over 3000 participants in our programs/events, with patrons between the age groups of four to 65 years. Students, children, entrepreneurs and retired folks – Base Camp Adventures has designed programmes from people of all walks of life. They have also worked with over 36 corporates.
“Adventure & Outdoor based training is one of the most preferred training options among the HR fraternity and the corporate as it’s an effective employee engagement model,” says Kavitha Reddy. “It enables participants to learn and experience challenges in an unfamiliar ground. It also helps to enhance behavioral skills and qualities of an individual, bringing out latent facets of one’s personality.”

She states that their vision is to ‘evolve adventure as the most effective learning tool, to revive the spirit of adventure among people from all walks of life, and be environment cognizant.’

A quick word for travel enthusiasts while planning their trip:

“Breaking Myths is very important,” she says. “Adventure is not necessarily an expensive hobby, with the growing popularity of adventure travel in India, the options of adventure gear is getting wider. It’s not all fun but also responsibility. Outdoor and adventure comes with a huge responsibility of environment and self. Trekking and hiking zones pass through rich forest cover, being aware of the environment and to enjoy nature without disruption can only mean preserving these sensitive forest covers for long. Travel light but never forget the essentials. And remember that although adventure programs are generally for the people between 10-55 years, it is completely dependent on medical conditions and fitness levels. All adventure activities are generally classified as Easy, Moderate, Strenuous, Challenging and Extreme, so one can choose the program based on age, fitness and medical conditions and go to the next level. Also, being adventurous does not mean living dangerously.”

A trip to Sikkim in 1997 proved to be fateful for Rajinder Singh, Abhik Dutta and Ashis Das, three friends who went on to form ‘The Wanderers’. This is a company that knows exactly the kind of clientele they’re catering to – the discerning travellers that demand in-depth, offbeat, personalised and uncommon experiences. Introducing their genre of travelling as ‘travelling without boundaries’, The Wanderers offers you a diverse mix of tours to choose from, their outbound tours attracting ‘explorers’ and ‘wanderers’ alike. They also offer exciting eco-journeys, adventures camps, explanatory trips, unconventional luxury and romantic holidays, and unique conference venues and learning & development programmes for corporates.
Having had no prior experience or requisite knowledge of tourism, they decided to keep it simple and think like a client. “We travelled to the destination first, wrote about it, designed a customised itinerary, did the costing, and then started promoting it,” Ranjinder told Homegrown.

“We hardly knew anything about promotion either, we just knew that we had little or no money and yet wanted ‘The Wanderers’ to reach the right kind of traveller. In 1997, I stumbled upon a travel book recommended by the then CEO of Crossword, Sriram. Just a phone call later, I had an audience with Sriram and for the first time, someone evinced an interest in The Wanderers. He took the call of featuring The Wanderers in their members-only magazine and at their Mahalaxmi store – our first clients were from the American Consulate next door – and we never looked back from there.”

Rajinder reminisces about how, along the way, they learnt the art of making costing with ‘some profit’ and their clients eventually pushed us into operating outbound destinations – therein they ventured in to New Zealand, Indo-China border territories, Tibet, Australia and moved to South America and then Europe. Now they do customized trips to almost every part of the world.
“In the future you can expect The Wanderers to keep focusing on lesser known, exotic destinations for the discerning traveller, and on our unique learning & development team-building programmes,” says Rajinder.

A quick word for travel enthusiasts while planning their trip:

“Cheapest is never the best. And please do not go by what your neighbour or friend or relative has done – go by your wish list.”

A filmmaker of seven years, 30-year-old Jay Ruparel used to specialise in non-fiction TV. Travelling had always been a passion, though, that he could trace back to with how he started off exploring BEST bus routes while 10 years old, to visiting Pakistan at the age of 20 – for a holiday.

“Following that, I have been a filmmaker and travelled across India and many parts of the world,” says the founder of Ant On The Globe. “It all happened in 2010, when I quit MTV and intended to freelance for my professional growth, and a department of Viacom18 was struggling to deal with a few conventional, giant travel companies to give them a right solution for an incentive holiday, and asked me to deal with them on their behalf. Finally, they ended up asking me to do the holiday, and I just had 30 minutes to send an invoice for the quotation. The name, Ant On The Globe, was done then, and my travel company started without me knowing about it!”Ant On The Globe is self-confessedly pretty much against the standard deal of breakfast-sightseeing-Indian lunch-sightseeing-dinner-time on your own kind of deal, and thrives constantly to ‘make sure that guests have a good time, every single moment’. Whether it’s nightlife, wildlife or the local feel, the international holiday experiences they offer have catered various honeymooners, families as well as corporates like MTV to destinations like Israel, Cambodia, New York and many many more, providing them breakfast till noon, customised pub crawls, and city tours where the locals reside! They don’t believe in fixed itineraries without interaction with the client; these guys customise, and actually mean it.

“For example,” elaborates Jay. “If you have dated someone for 9 years and if I give you a nice ocean villa for a week for your honeymoon, you might ending up killing each other. So we’d rather give you some vibrant options in Europe.”
They aim provide travel solutions with really good experiences, specialising in corporate incentive holidays, sports holidays, nightlife holidays, and education tours.

“Marketing ourselves and making individuals or corporates try out unconventional services were two of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in the past,” Jay says.

Best Packages : Their customised trips are definitely worth checking out. Straight from the horse’s mouth - “We believe in exploring new destinations that people rare to go. For instance, Israel with a day trip to Palestine. It’s safe! Also, one should visit a few countries before McDonalds does. For instance - Kampala(Uganda), Vang Vieng(Laos, not Lagos), Siem Reap(Cambodia).”  

A quick word for travel enthusiasts while planning a trip:
“Stay at one place for as many nights as possible and do day trips from there. 2 nights Paris, 2 nights London...no no no. You’d rather google it.”

Angkor Wat, Cambodia, one of Ant On The Globe's destination.

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