MV Mahabaahu -- owned and operated by the Indian company Adventure Resorts & Cruises Pvt. Ltd. but sold through agencies like Far Horizon Tours -- is the largest and newest riverboat offering cruises along the Brahmaputra River, which winds its way through the verdant 'tea country' of Assam, in the northeast of India.
Bordered on the northeast by Bhutan and the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, on the south by Bangladesh and by West Bengal to the west, Assam is a spectacularly beautiful region, rich in wildlife -- particularly in the vast Kaziranga National Park, which National Geographic calls 'the Serengeti of India.'
So the Brahmaputra is the only river, apart from Africa's Zambezi, on which you can take boat, jeep and elephant-back safaris to view big game animals like tigers, elephants, wild buffalo and white rhino. Its sandy and ever-shifting banks are also home to large herds of deer and to a fabulous array of colorful birdlife, including great hornbills, greater adjutant storks and black-necked cranes.
Mahabaahuprovides an unshowy but very comfortable base from which to view all this action. Its large-windowed cabins -- several of which have balconies -- allow good views of the riverbanks (though for closer attention to the animals, guests board one of two well-cushioned, open-topped tender/expedition boats).
Though not a 'luxury boat' by today's Western standards, Mahabaahu is well presented with crisp linen cloths and napkins in the dining room, silk hangings and cushions on the beds, and comfortable seating in the main Soma Lounge, up on the sun deck, and around the pool.
The crew is friendly and attentive, and the itinerary fascinating and a good introduction to the subcontinent for those wary of the crowds and chaos along the banks of India's most famous river, the Ganges.
MV Mahabaahu runs seven-night sailings along the Brahmaputra, either upstream, from Guwahati to Jorhat, or downstream in the other direction.
Downstream itineraries depart from Neamati Ghat, near Jorhat (accessible by air from Kolkata).
International travelers tend to take the seven-night cruises, which can be packaged with 'Golden Triangle' tours of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. But for local travelers, or those on a tighter time scale, two-, three- and four-night Brahmaputra cruise sectors are also available.
You can expect a fair number of older, adventurous and well-heeled English speakers onboard Mahabaahu, as its cruises are represented in the U.K. by Saga Holidays and feature in the programs of several other operators, including Fred. Olsen, Pandaw, Noble Caledonia and Ultimate Travel Company. In the U.S., the cruises are offered by Road Scholar and International Expeditions, among others.
Far Horizon is also making inroads into European markets, and this is reflected in a more cosmopolitan mix of passengers. On my cruise, for example, we were joined by a lively group of Norwegians, as well as some wealthy Indians who came aboard for a shorter cruise sector.
Casual is the order of the day onboard; after a steamy day spent exploring ashore, passengers tend to shower and smarten up for evening drinks and dinner but the atmosphere is relaxed, and no formal dress is required.
A fun exception to this is a weekly Assamese evening, when a traditional menu is served and the cruise director helps everyone dress up in full local costume, often to stunning effect.
For those who'd like an outfit made from silks they've bought ashore, Mahabaahu even has an onboard tailor able to run up an outfit before the end of the cruise.
All excursions on Mahabaahu -- including an elephant-back safari -- are included in the fare, as are transfers between the ship and Jorhat or Guwahati airport.
Onboard, passengers pay for drinks and mini-bar items, but bottled water is freely and liberally provided. Two free drinks per person are offered at the welcome and farewell dinners. Drink prices are reasonable (c 300 rupees -- about £3.75 or $4.50 -- per glass of wine or beer, 400 to 500 for cocktails). Spa treatments cost extra.
Guests are asked to pay 800 rupees (about £10 or $12) per person per day for crew gratuities at the end of their cruise; this is paid in cash and ideally as rupees, but pounds or dollars would also be acceptable.
Spa tips -- a recommended 300 Rupees (£3.75 or $4.50) per treatment session -- are also paid at the end of the cruise.
Awesome cruise ... definitely not disappointed !!!