Each week, we spotlight a dream vacation recommended by some of the industry's top travel writers. This week's pick is Madhya Pradesh, India.
If seeing a wild tiger is on your bucket list, "put it near the top," said Lisa Grainger at Travel + Leisure. Though tiger populations are on the rise this decade, the global count has fallen by fully half since 1993, and in India, home to two-thirds of the world's tigers, rapid deforestation has penned the 2,200 remaining cats into an area equivalent to just 7 percent of their original habitat. But India is also a place where conservation efforts have produced a leap in the tiger population since 2010, so I was eager to join a six-day safari in Madhya Pradesh. "Five years ago, I went on a tiger safari and came away totally disheartened, having seen not a single big cat." This time, I was hopeful that I'd be luckier.
My first stop was Bandhavgarh National Park, where I stayed at the Samode Safari Lodge, a polished camp with knowledgeable guides and "supremely comfortable" rooms. Seeing tigers is a matter of being in the right place at the right time, though, so we didn't loiter. Instead, we were out in our jeeps for seven hours on our first day and scheduled for an even longer second day, when we had our first tiger sighting: a male cub lounging on a slab of sandstone. Banbayi, I learned, was a regular in the area. As I studied his long whiskers through binoculars and watched the flick of his tail, he occasionally glanced our way. "I was so thrilled my eyes welled up." Only when he padded off into the tall grass, while langurs hooted overhead, did we push on.
I later saw a tigress and her cub in Kanha, Madhya Pradesh's largest reserve, while staying at Kipling Camp, a rustic operation run by tiger conservationist Belinda Wright. Wright "knows every turn of the road, every tree," and she pointed out many rare species, including the copper-winged Indian paradise flycatcher and the barasingha deer. Best of all, I got to know Tara, a rescue elephant, and I spent an hour with her at a river scrubbing her bristly hide as she contentedly wallowed and spurted water. Seeing such a menagerie of creatures, I decided, is "the real point of coming on a tiger safari."