At the time my interview was scheduled with world traveller, Bollywood star, actor, model, philanthropist and Insight Gold Brand Ambassador, Lisa Ray, a tropical storm had descended upon Brisbane. Thankfully the gracious Lisa was more than sympathetic to my state on arrival: dripping wet with a broken umbrella and a damp note pad.
We sat down to a hot coffee and joked about monsoonal weather – having lived in India for many years, Lisa is no stranger to torrential storms. Lisa was in Australia for the very first time to rep her new gig with Insight Vacations, and there couldn’t be a more perfect person for the job.
Half Hindu-half Polish, Lisa grew up in Canada but was discovered as a model in India when she was 16. Voted one the Top Ten Most Beautiful Indian Woman of the Millennium, she has lived in several continents, starred in a collection of films and even co-hosted Top Chef Canada.
Lisa starts out our interview commenting how renowned Aussies are for their wanderlust, and how appropriate it is that she is now here, where the wanderers hail from...
Where have you travelled from to reach Australia?
I was in Canada, then Mumbai, then Hong Kong to here. I’m sort of making my way around the world. From here I’ll circle back to Mumbai which is where I’m spending a lot of time these days. The good news about being based in Asia is that Australia is now more accessible to me than when I was based in Canada. Aussies are amongst Insight’s best and most enthusiastic clients, and I’ve personally experienced this having travelled through India and Italy with a bunch of them. Particularly in India, we had an amazing group and I’d say around 70 per cent of the group was from Australia.
I’ve met Australians all over the world in my wanderings, but in the group they were the most adventurous ‘give me that snake; I want to put it around my neck’! [Laughs] I love that they’re so open-minded, so ready for anything.
India is very close to my heart, I like to spread the word about what India is today and what it has to offer. Australia is a great place to be able to talk about India, and also engage people’s opinions on the destination here.
"India is a relatively new destination for Insight, but we are really seeing some positive traction with our tours there,"says Joost. [We are also joined for coffee by Joost Trimmer, Managing Director of Insight Vacations].
India is on the ‘bucket list’ for a lot of people.
It’s seen as the quintessential exotic location. It’s exotic but it’s also familiar. It’s an interesting collision between the modern and the traditional. It’s exhilarating and vibrant, startling and dusty – it’s literally everything. It’s a full on experience.
I have a lot of friends who always say ‘I really want to visit India, but I’m not sure about going solo’ especially for the first time. And I myself am someone would say yes, you need a guide, someone to help you transition to the country, especially on the first visit. I’m really happy because I can recommend genuinely with confidence Insight Vacations. It’s a fantastic program; you can get a sampling, a smorgasbord of everything. You get some opulence in the five star hotels, which are actually incomparable with anywhere else in the world, to be honest.
The trip is coupled with these very authentic vignettes of everyday life – like jumping into a rickshaw and going through old Delhi. Because, let’s face it – that’s why you go to India, to connect with daily life, to see both the divine and the daily.
That’s the charm, and when India starts unfolding to you, that’s when the magic happens.
Being an avid traveller, you would be no stranger to solo travel, how do guided tours compare to doing it all on your own?
It’s been a huge revelation for me. I’ve always thought there are ‘travellers’ and’ tourists’ of the world, and never the twain shall meet... for me I was a very self-righteous traveller, who thought unless you got all grimy and get into the little lanes of the city you can’t call yourself a traveller. But as a matter of fact, after my first Insight experience I thought to myself, ‘I’m such a fool, what have I been missing out on!’
With Insight they get the balance right; you’re protected and you get guidance, but you also get a very unique insight into local culture. A lot of the irritating facets of travel, the things that take the steam out of our experience, like hauling your own luggage, haggling in markets, figuring out how to get from A to B, standing in line to buy a train ticket – all of that is taken care of. What ends up happening is that you can emotionally invest greater in your trip because all the logistics are taken care of.
When you’re in front of the Taj Mahal you don’t want to be thinking about how you’re going to get to that evening’s accommodation. Many people don’t realise, you also need to walk quite a distance to reach the actual site, for security measures you need to park then walk about a mile and a half or arrange some other transport, before you get to have the moment when you walk through the arches and lay your eyes on the Taj Mahal. You don’t want to get ripped off by someone, or get hot and dehydrated walking. That’s what Insight does so well, getting you to these places so seamlessly, and everything is selected so well from the signature hotels; the accommodation in Udaipur, the ‘Venice of India’ ... walking into Taj Lake Palace, there are no words for that. Or going into Chandni Chowk, jumping into a cycle rickshaw, and winding through the lanes was something I have never experienced before. It’s not easy to arrange that kind of experience for yourself, you’d be haggling all day.
You feel secure, you feel happy and you’re totally ready to follow your senses.
There’s also a lot of free time. A lot of the programs Insight offers, have really slowed things down, so if you do want to spend some time apart from the group, you can set the pace, you can go and explore – but you still have access to local guides and the tour director. They’ll organise just about anything you want.
What’s the average age on an Insight Vacations tour?
"57 on our summer programs and 49 on our winter programs", says Joost.
How about older travellers with mobility problems, how do they go?
"Generally, it works okay. People help each other out on the tours. The tour director will help that person go at their own pace, without holding up the rest of the group. On more tours, there’s a tour guide and a local guide present – the local guide will direct everyone, and the tour guide can act like ‘the fixer’.They make sure everyone is happy, and the local guide is there to offer their expert advice. The local guide gives it an extra layer of experience actually, they are locals, and they want to show off and share their city," says Joost.
Even a moment like the Taj Mahal, is really just all stones – it’s about learning the story, the meaning the building is imbued wit, the context the history and the stories.
On our tour to India we had all ages, from ‘Gram’ who was 75 and really enthusiastic and travelling solo, and then plenty of younger people too. My favourite part of the group travel experience is the group bond that forms, you can be as social as you like going out to meals together, or you’re welcome to explore on your own, or take a romantic dinner with your husband or wife. The fact is you have a choice.
‘On the Gold Luxury program this year, we’ve introduced a new concept ‘freestyle dining’. You can go dining on your own, you can choice your own restaurant or ask the guide for recommendations, or maybe you have your Michelin guide on hand and want to try a particular place, and then Insight will cover the cost of the meal, or at least a portion of the meal if you’re dining at a three Michelin-starred establishment.’ says Joost.
[Lisa laughs, ‘‘I’ll have all your white truffles please’’].
Knowing India and Italy very well, Lisa wondered what Insight could show her she hadn’t already experienced?
It blew me away. For instance in Italy, we visited a small restaurant in a tiny little medieval town called Spello, it’s even hard to find on the map. I’m a big foodie and here in this town we were taken to the one and only restaurant with a Michelin star, Il Molino, and aside from the fact the food was absolutely stunning and the setting was amazing, the chef is female and its run by herself and her sister.
I just kept thinking, ‘how did they even find this place?’
We had to wind through narrow streets and then walk the rest of the way because the transport wouldn't fit. It was so special. The city is known for its flower festival, we got a glimpse as we were walking through, of the residents plucking petals preparing for the festival. These locals are so proud of their town; they sprinkle these petals over every path, all over the town. How romantic and wonderful is that!
In Spello we were joined for dinner by Insight’s CEO, John Boulding, we dined as group, we were rowdy and laughing and having a good time, toasting endlessly... and there was one other couple in the restaurant dining independently, and they kept sort of darting glances across at us. We were worried we might be being a little to cheerful for them, but then they came up to the table and asked “who are you people?” because we just want to tell you, next time, we want to be part of your group, you look like you’re having fun! They said they’d been married for 20 years and love to travel with each other, but how great it would be travel with a fun group like Insight and meet new people. They asked us how we found Il Molino, saying they’d been doing months of research to find where to dine across the country. I think that’s really a testament to the digging deep that Insight does. We never did anything typical.
"A lot of Insight’s clients are repeat travellers, travel styles have changed too – people want a deep, engaging experience. They don’t want to just go to a destination; they want to be in a destination. It’s not about going there; it’s about what you eat, who you meet, what you experience when you get there.
People still want to go to the Vatican, but we do something to make it even more special. We went and made a deal with the Pope a couple of years ago and we now take our guests to the Bramante Staircase, a private area where the Carindals run," says Joost.
We were literally running with Carindals through a special door. The general public would never have access to this kind of tour, and we don’t have to queue outside for hours either.
Sites likes these are popular for a reason and there are always queues, which can really dampen your experience. There is something to be said for having a tour group access and getting in quicker and easier.
"Insight Gold is about those iconic experiences, but also about the boutique ones. This year we’ve introduced new ‘signature events’ into the program. From glass blowing in Prague to joining a baker to learn how to make rustic bread in Fes. The Insight philosophy carries over to the accommodation, our ‘Signature Hotels’ are the opulent properties we use; for example the Taj Hotels and Oberoi Hotels in India and in Venice you’ll stay right in St. Mark’s Square, while many other tours groups will stay on the outskirts or islands . These are not the types of properties used on most coach tours, but we wanted to do something different," says Joost.
It’s about warmth and hospitality with our Signature Hotels; they’re not snobby or pretentious. I’m not interested in stuffy establishments where you almost feel like you have to apologise for being there, what Insight offers is opulent hotels with excellent service that still have warmth. Particularly in India, I have to say, we stayed at the Leela Palace, a stunning property in Udaipur. We had this incredible personalised butler service, it was something that came very genuine from the staff, it didn’t feel like being kind and nice was imposed upon them, the level of hospitality you experience in India, you won’t experience probably anywhere else in the world.
We actually have a saying in India, “atithi devo bhava” which translates to “the guest is God”; we literally say the guest is god. When you arrive at you’ll get some sindoor on your forehead, a gardland made of flowers to wear around your neck. It’s such a signature experience.
Where would you like to see Insight Gold go next?
I’m very bullish on Egypt, I know that certain parts of the Middle East have had a little bit of negative press in the last few years, much like India, But India is a complex nation, and you’ve got to remember it’s the world’s largest democracy, and democracies by nature are chaotic. India is an ancient culture, but a new country, it was formed in 1947. So considering that it’s doing pretty well, it’s the second largest population in the world. And recently, with the assault on that Indian woman, India rose up and has changed the legislation, is a testament to the power of democracy and the power of the human spirit in India. You’re very safe on an Insight tour and in general there isn’t a lot of random violence in India.
Insight also offer tours to Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Nepal around the India program. Bhutan is a must. It’s where they measure gross national happiness – you have to see the Dragon Kingdom.
As for Egypt? "Its coming back to the Insight offering on 8 January 2015, and John Boulding our global head of company is hosting that tour,"says Joost.
Ancient kingdoms, ancient culture and places with complexity – those are the places that really draw me, something that has a strong food culture and history. I’ve done Italy and India now, but I actually draw a lot of comparisons between them, they have family food and feuding in common! And by feuding I mean the passion with which they approach their lives.
"So far this year, India is our number one product; it has the highest customer satisfaction across the board. So we think we’re onto something! We think it comes down to the hospitality, the guest is god mantra," says Joost.
Lisa, where are you living at the moment?
I’m bouncing along between a number of places, I still have a foot in Canada and I always will. But I’m spending a lot of time in Bombay at the moment because I have work going on. I call it Bombay, technically its Mumbai now, but I lived in it before the name change.
Are you going back to Bollywood?
I am doing a film next year. I’ve got a few projects going on in India which is also testament to the fact India is growing, it’s exploding in everything! As much as we [Insight] go to see traditional India, modern India has a lot to offer in terms of art and fashion – there are five fashion weeks in India! There’s a lot of work there also, there’s more motivation for me to be in India right now, there is an independent film scene that is developing alongside mainstream traditional Bollywood and they’re telling really interesting stories. Creatively, India is going through a renaissance right now. India is one of the youngest countries in the world, I think 60 or 70 per cent of the population is under 35, there’s a young, dynamic energy in the country right now.
I should also mention our India video we produced for Insight Gold has actually won some awards, which is a great affirmation.
What’s your ‘happy’ place? Where in the world do you feel the most at home?
I would honestly have to say in both Italy and India. India because of my personal history, and certain parts of India I’m very drawn to, such a Kerala in the south. That’s my special place, the back waters and the green landscape, it’s so serene. It’s also the birthplace of Ayurveda yoga. On the other hand, you can’t beat Italy. I love the medieval towns; Lucca near Tuscany is the birthplace of Piccinni and one of my favourite spots in the world. When you’re an experienced traveller, you start looking for those more emotional connections – the vibrations when you step into a place and you feel warm, welcome and at home.
I have to say I’m loving Australia and I can’t believe I’ve never been here before. Fortunately it’s much more accessible for me now, from India. I want to go to Uluru and spend more getting to know the country. I’m very attracted to openness to wide vistas and nature. There’s such a unique geography here.
My day to day life is so about engaging people and talking. So when I take a trip I often seek out peace and serenity. I want to see the horizon and nothing else and I feel like the Outback is obviously the place to do and experience that.
I did a retreat recently in California for 10 days; it was almost like a fast. For the first few days you start getting a little loopy, but on the last few days, something happens, you almost start transcending yourself and with that clarity, you start seeing things in a new light.
They say your eye needs to a clean horizon, if you’re always seeing a cluttered horizon; it does something to us psychologically. A clear horizon opens the mind and relaxes the soul.
Where are three places you haven’t yet been, that you want to go?
Morocco. Peru. Bhutan. I actually have a friend I met when I started out living and modelling in Bombay, who’s actually one of the sons of the King of Bhutan. His name is Kelly Dorji and he’s been inviting me for years to go. I do have a thing for the mountains and that serenity and spiritual tradition.
Joost adds, "we’re seeing a big trend in travel to Scandinavia at the moment, including Iceland. Spain and Portugal are doing very well too. Greece has a really good run last year and we had a record travelling year to the USA this year. And of course, India is doing very well."
It’s really significant whats happening in India politically at the moment, our Prime Minster is the first Indian head of state to come to Australia in 30 years. Our countries are building significant bridges; it’s a great time to go to India! The infrastructure is growing and the bureaucracy is changing.
Insight has created its own self-contained infrastructure that bypasses all the bureaucratic hurdles you’d have to jump through otherwise. But I think the country is evolving and it’s an interesting time to get in and see it!
Two to three weeks is optimal time for a trip to India, Insight also recommends combining a trip to India with a trip to Bhutan, Nepal or Sri Lanka.