India's palace hotels are incomparably grand and atmospheric. I vividly remember my first visit to Rajasthan, wandering awestruck through vast ceremonial halls beneath stupendous crystal chandeliers. From the walls, life-size portraits of bejeweled potentates gazed sternly down. A uniquely exotic phase of history seemed close enough to touch. Most such palaces were constructed during the 18th and 19th centuries by maharajahs who controlled vast fiefdoms and were immensely rich. Able to indulge their apparently insatiable appetites for display, the rulers strove to outdo one another in magnificence. Following India's independence in 1947, however, the new government moved promptly to curb the power of the princes and to ensure that tax revenues made their way to the central coffers in Delhi. Although the famous palace hotels of Rajasthan have been well-known to international travelers for decades, a number have been recently restored and refurbished. And elsewhere in the past three or four years, new palace properties have opened. At the end of my recent trip, it occurred to me that it might be fun to construct a palace hotel tour. Of course, to be enjoyable and rewarding, such an itinerary would also have to introduce travelers to a wide variety of India's cultures and landscapes. In the following pages, I outline just such a journey.
Traveling around India can be complicated: Indian trains are generally slow and uncomfortable; and long-distance road travel is hair-raising and dangerous. The good news is that air travel in India is much more pleasant now. Most airplanes are modern, and business class is usually available.
My itinerary begins in Mumbai (to which there are daily 15-hour nonstop flights from New York). Mumbai is not one of my favorite cities, and apart from an imposing enclave of Victorian Gothic architecture — best toured in the relative calm of a Sunday afternoon — I see little to recommend it. (Today, the notorious extremes of wealth and poverty are made even more glaring by the 27-story, $2 billion mansion of Mukesh Ambani, chairman of Reliance Industries, which dominates the city's downtown skyline. Said to be the world's most expensive private home, its lower floors are occupied, apparently, by a fleet of limousines and around 600 members of staff, while the roof has a heliport and its own air traffic control. Maybe the age of the maharajas has not ended after all! For the other side of Mumbai life, I recommend the astonishing book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers" by the brilliant American journalist Katherine Boo.)
Fortunately, Mumbai does contain one of my favorite hotels, The Taj Mahal Palace. The old wing is wonderfully atmospheric, the staff are exquisitely polite, and the swimming pool, partially screened by frangipani and bougainvillea, provides an oasis in which to recuperate after the transcontinental journey. And one of the few compensations for chronic jet lag is sitting at your bedroom window to watch the sun rise over the Gateway of India. Mumbai's tourist attractions include the house where Gandhi lived from 1917 until 1934 (worth a visit) and the Buddhist cave temples on Elephanta Island (buy the picture book).
Hyderabad, a teeming metropolis of 7 million people, lies just 90 minutes by air to the southeast in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The city provides a glimpse of the refined Islamic culture that flourished from the height of the Mughal Empire in the 16th century until the outbreak of World War II. For a full account of my stay at the sumptuous and newly refurbished Taj Falaknuma Palace hotel, see my review in this issue.
Few places are more conducive to lounging, strolling and daydreaming than the Taj Falaknuma, so on your first day it is quite unnecessary to stray more than 300 yards from either the pool or the belvedere overlooking the city. Even if you are not entirely convinced that you like Indian food, be sure to try the Adaa restaurant. Spices may not be your thing, but the biryanis, a rice-based Hyderabad specialty, are delicious.
Most visitors to Hyderabad go to see the ruins of Golconda, a vast 13th-century fortress historically linked to the famous diamond mines nearby. However, I found that the reality diminished rather than enhanced the glamour of the legend. The highlight of my stay was unquestionably an afternoon spent in the Chowmahalla Palace, where the hereditary rulers of Hyderabad were crowned. One of the most remarkable exhibits in the palace museum is a 1911 Rolls-Royce limousine. Painted canary yellow, it has a gold silk interior and solid silver fixtures. Used by the Nizams solely for state occasions, the car has traveled just 356 miles in the past 101 years and is valued at $4 million.
Alas, to continue my journey, you must retrace your steps to Mumbai, connecting on a 90-minute flight to Udaipur in the dramatic desert state of Rajasthan. Udaipur is untypical of the region in that it is a leafy city, surrounded by hills and built overlooking a large artificial lake dating from 1362. Despite being a fixture on the Indian tourist circuit, it is still an extraordinarily romantic place.
The Taj Lake Palace is a property I have long recommended, and the view across to the City Palace is quite simply one of the most beautiful in the world. However, the hotel's atmosphere can suffer from an excessive number of tour groups. An alternative is provided by the wonderful Oberoi Udaivilas, but this is a modern resort and hence is disqualified from my palace itinerary.
Located 18 miles northeast of Udaipur, Devi Garh is a 39-suite hotel housed within an immense 18th-century sandstone fortress that overlooks the picturesque village of Delwara and a timeless rural landscape, framed by the austere Aravalli hills. Devi Garh blends traditional and contemporary design — the avowed intention of its owners is to "create a new image of India for the 21st century" — and the combination is a startling success. The accommodations are all individually decorated, the most lavish being the Devi Garh Suite, which comes with its own Jacuzzi and black marble swimming pool. One of the great attractions of Devi Garh is its serenity. India can be frenetic and exhausting, and in any itinerary, you need to set aside time to relax. Here, you can lounge by the pool, read in a quiet courtyard or indulge yourself at the L'Occitane spa. Personally, I have spent a good deal of time just gazing off the battlements at the sublime view. Every visitor to Udaipur takes a cruise on Lake Pichola to marvel at its temples and palaces constructed from golden stone. This remains an indelible experience. I love exploring the city's bazaars. Udaipur is justly famous for exquisite miniature paintings. A delicate picture of Radha and Krishna, the archetypical lovers of Hindu mythology, enjoys a prominent position in the Harper residence.
The state capital of Rajasthan is Jaipur, which lies 260 miles northeast of Udaipur (six hours by car). A city of some 3 million inhabitants, Jaipur has grown out of all recognition in the past 20 years. But it is still an exotic, if chaotic, place where camels and the occasional elephant pick their way through the rush-hour traffic. The late Maharaja of Jaipur, Bhawani Singh, was a significant figure in Indian politics until his death in 2011, and the royal family retains a prominent role in the life of the city. Jaipur has long been a cultural capital, and nowadays, it is the scene each January of the Jaipur Literature Festival, a focal point of Anglo-Indian letters founded by the well-regarded British writer William Dalrymple.
Travelers to Jaipur may choose between two remarkable hotels. Just outside of town, The Oberoi Rajvilas resort is an idyllic rural enclave. In the city itself, however, the Rambagh Palace is arguably India's finest palace hotel. Built in 1825 and occupied by the Jaipur royal family until 1957, it has been entirely remodeled and upgraded, a program of improvements that was completed in 2010. Its garden is frequently cited as one of the most beautiful in the world. On your first day in Jaipur, you should perhaps confine yourself to its architectural highlights, which include the immense City Palace, the Amber Fort and the Jantar Mantar, a remarkable 18th-century observatory that is now a World Heritage site. These are stops on a well-beaten tourist track, but are remarkable nonetheless.
The city's Johari Bazaar is one of the most famous in the subcontinent. And no trip to Jaipur is complete without a visit to the Gem Palace, a legendary emporium for both contemporary and antique jewelry founded in 1852 by the Kasliwal family, former jewelers to the Mughal emperors. Prices here are approximately a third of those in the United States for equivalent stones.
From Jaipur, it is a 45-minute flight (165 miles) to Delhi, where you can connect onto a 90-minute flight (496 miles) to Varanasi, the cultural capital of Hindu India located on the banks of the Ganges. (The city has several names, including Banaras, Benares and Kashi.) Varanasi is a paradox: Even by Indian standards it is a mess, but to visit the ghats (bathing piers) before dawn, where tens of thousands of pilgrims await the appearance of the sun god, Surya, the visible manifestation of the divine, is an extraordinarily moving experience.
Varanasi has long lacked a hotel of the first rank. This deficiency was remedied by the 2009 opening of the wonderful 10-suite Nadesar Palace, the former residence of the Maharaja of Varanasi, dating from 1799 and located amid gardens and orchards less than a quarter of a mile from the banks of the river. Today, the palace is managed by Taj Hotels, which has restored its accommodations and public areas to sumptuous splendor.
After having spent time on the ghats, it can be rather a relief to visit the tranquil deer park of Sarnath, eight miles northeast of Varanasi, where the Buddha is said to have delivered his first sermon. The nearby museum contains the national emblem of India, the so-called "Lion Capital," erected by the Emperor Ashoka around 250 B.C. And it also holds a sublime sandstone Buddha sculpture, widely regarded as the consummate masterpiece of Buddhist art.
For centuries, Varanasi has been famous for textiles, especially fine silk saris often embroidered with gold. I have passed many happy hours exploring the city's bazaars, but here, a knowledgeable guide is even more important than usual. Varanasi is not for the fainthearted, but it is assuredly unforgettable. (My favorite book about the city is "Banaras: City of Light," by Diana L. Eck, professor of comparative religion at Harvard.)
At the end of a trip to India, you should plan to spend a few days doing very little, recovering from the assault on your senses that the country invariably delivers. From Delhi, it is a one-hour flight to Dehra Dun, from where it is a pleasant one-hour drive to Ananda in the Himalayas, a remarkable spa based around the palace of the Maharaja of Tehri Garhwal and the adjoining Viceregal Palace, which was added in 1911. The hilltop location of the resort is idyllic, and from its lawns guests may gaze down at the Ganges, here a fast-flowing mountain river, as it winds through the famous ashram town of Rishikesh. Most of the accommodations are of modern design, but the glamorous Viceregal Suite offers a thoroughly traditional version of luxury.
Ananda is not just the best spa in India, but it is increasingly regarded as one of the finest in the world. Unsurprisingly, it specializes in traditional Indian therapies and disciplines, such as Ayurveda, yoga and meditation. Activities at Ananda include white-water rafting and trekking through the serene forests that cover the surrounding foothills. But in my experience, few guests venture from the property itself. It is simply too blissful to leave, until reality compels your return.
PRICE — Based on a party of two passengers traveling together, the above itinerary would cost an estimated $12,500 per person, excluding international flights. The price includes all accommodations on a shared basis, most meals, internal air, applicable taxes and tourism levies.
Should you wish to find out more about this "Andrew Harper Itinerary," consultants in our Travel Office would be more than delighted to assist you. Tel. (800) 375-4685 or email reservations@AndrewHarper.com.
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