India with children

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Sound daunting? It needn't be - with these tips, you'll be whisking them round temples before they can say 'But why?'

We decided to explore Northern India with our three-, two-, and one-year-old toddlers in tow: 10 hot days in Delhi and Agra, followed by a fortnight heading up to Darjeeling and then on to Sikkim (by train and bus) and back again.

Northern India proved a fabulous destination for a family. The climate's forgiving, the food gentle on tiny tummies, transport networks are good, and the people are extremely welcoming. Delhi was chaotic but fun. Agra was a mixture of breathtaking grandeur and infuriating dilapidation. In West Bengal, on the road to Kalimpong, the end of the monsoon brought cool breezes and heavenly views of Kanchenjunga.

'Mummy, is this ketchup spicy?'

In Delhi, you'll have no difficulty in helping children adapt slowly to local fare. Stalwarts such as the United Coffee House offer tame versions of Indian cuisine, along with snacks like pizzas and toasted sandwiches (beware, though, of spicy ketchup). Ranged around Connaught Place are many more familiar sights, including a predominantly vegetarian, Indian-spiced McDonalds, Pizza Hut and TGI Friday.

If, like our two youngest, your kids' adventurous palates urge them to experiment in local joints, have boiled rice and curd on hand to soothe flaming mouths. Further north, the simple thukpa soups, fried noodles and momos of Tibetan cuisine slip down easily.

On the road, fresh pineapple, bananas, and hot, sweet chai - with malted milk Parle G biscuits to dunk - provide sustenance, and a few vitamins to boot.

'But where's my bed?'

If you're planning on going budget, be prepared for shoebox hotel rooms and a probable dearth of fold-out beds or baby cots. Most lower-range hotels, however, will fall head-over-heels to accommodate, catering to requests for special breakfasts, sterilised bottles and extra hot water for baths. Higher-end places should have all the necessary facilities, and under-12s sharing their parents' bedroom frequently stay for free. If you're planning a night out alone, most top-end hotels offer in-room babysitting (usually requiring 12 hours notice). Services are reliable, and you can call your room to check on progress during the evening. Some budget hotels will also be able to rustle up a porter or cleaning lady willing to babysit for extra cash.

'Why is everyone staring at us?'

Children - especially of the blonde, blue-eyed variety - will inevitably cause a commotion in India. At Old Delhi's Red Fort, cries of 'One photo, one photo!' sent our kids scurrying in terror. Respond politely but firmly to unwanted attention (watch out for bubble gum or small toys being thrust kindly into the hands of babies) and alert your children to do the same. Our standard reaction to the jostling crowds was 'You can take a picture if they'll let you.' The kids, responding to cameras like Hollywood pros, did the rest, deciding who was - and who was not - worthy of a smile, a wave or an elusive snap.

'That cow just ate my Dora the Explorer!'

India is a treasure trove of cheaply made plastic toys that whirr, flash and screech, so you'll have no problem in replenishing throwaway novelties when stocks run low. It's wise to check for safety and quality, however, as few are made to last. For more edifying entertainment, check out India's fabulous bookshops for bedtime stories, colouring books or even Children's First ABCs/123s/Lessons in Morality, which rarely run to more than INR30 a throw.

'I'm bored!'

Long-distance travel in northern India breaks down into three alternatives: train, bus or plane. Buses - even the 'deluxe' variety - are generally the cheapest and most torturous way to get about with children, with infrequent stops for food, drinks and toilet breaks. At the other end of the spectrum, airlines like Kingfisher and Jet Airways serve regular routes throughout northern India, and are swift and reliable. Infants under two pay taxes only; under-12s usually pay 50-80% of the full fare.

Train travel offers a taste of adventure without the price of flying or the pain of the bus. The Rajdhani Express, connecting Delhi with New Jalpaiguri, the West Bengal gateway to the Himalayas, charges roughly INR3600 per person (one way) for a 1st class air-conditioned berth, whilst children travel free. All meals are included and with enough windowside 'I Spy', a journey can pass quite pleasantly - though be prepared for delays. Our scheduled 18-hour return trip took more than 28, leaving toddlers tired and parents ragged.

'But I don't like temples.'

Whilst northern India might not possess a host of ready-made activities for children, there's plenty to entertain small people when stupas and gompas fail to impress. Hill stations such as Shimla and Darjeeling come equipped with narrow-gauge trains and pony rides; Shimla also has an ice rink, and Darjeeling a mountain zoo. In Delhi, take the kids boating on fibreglass swans or to the massive playground, both beside the India Gate. Check out First City, Time Out Delhi or the Delhi City Guide magazines for listings of citywide kids' events and activities. If you're heading into trekking country, it pays to hire an additional porter or two to help lug a tired toddler, leaving both parent and child free to admire mountain vistas.

'I need pee-pee!'

No restaurant, hotel or shop proprietor in northern India can resist the appeals of a small child in the throes of bathroom anxiety - so never be afraid to ask. This can also come in useful when it's you who's caught short: simply bustle your child through to the bathroom, before he or she has time to object.

'My tummy hurts...'

The words a parent on the road dreads to hear. At home, take your doctor's travel and inoculation advice and put together a basic medical kit, including fever-reducing medicine, rehydration preparation, treatment for diarrhoea, antiseptic spray, a thermometer and plasters. If your child seems unwell, your hotel should be able to direct you to doctors, 24-hour pharmacies, and, if necessary, hospital facilities. You can also check Lonely Planet's relevant destination chapters for up-to-date listings. Some travelling parents swear by locally available homeopathic or ayurvedic treatments to cure minor aches and pains: ask at a pharmacy for recommendations.

Want more? Check out ourĀ Travel with children resource page, which features links to all our family-travel tips and tricks.