Imagine what it would be like to spend a night in a royal palace. Well you can – in Rajasthan, India, where you can live like a modern day Maharajah. There’s no longer any need to rough it in a country which has some of the world’s top resorts and retreats – most of which are actual palaces and forts.
They say India is not for the faint hearted –that it’s a shock to the senses. But things are changing in a country with a burgeoning middle class and a predicted future as an economic superpower.
I remember, on my first trip to India, alighting from the night train in Jaipur onto a dark station platform smelling of excrement and lined with sleeping human bodies and how it sent my senses reeling.
The smells of human and animal waste and rotting rubbish; the air hot, dust-filled and choked with exhaust fumes; voices calling out and clutching beggars, dirty and bedraggled, holding out tin bowls or bare hands.
This time however, I went five-star and flew into Udaipur where an immaculately turbaned mustachioed gentleman waited with an air-conditioned limousine to whisk me away in style to a jetty on the lake’s edge. There before me lay the mesmerising magnificence of the white 18th century Taj Lake Palace which floats, like a mirage, in the middle of Lake Pichola. Built in 1743, today it is the stellar attraction in Udaipur.
Dubbed the Venice of India, Udaipur is dotted with floating palaces and lakeside havelis. The lake and the city palace (Jag Niwas) were the setting for scenes in the James Bond movie Octopussy. Two months before my visit it rained and the lake, which had been dry for the past 6 years, filled in the space of two days. Timing is everything!
“The Lady of the Lake” as the Lake Palace is known, is a fantasy of pearlescent white marble and coloured mosaic that glisten in the twilight. The view from the palace rooftop with its scalloped arches and niches is quite special – one of the best I’ve seen anywhere. This ethereal hotel with its old world charm has features you won’t see anywhere else – incredible coloured stained glass windows that look out over the water, intricate mirror work, fine glass mosaic inlays, thekri, fretwork screens and bejeweled swings that hang from the ceiling in some rooms.
The coloured glass and mirrorwork here is something unique to the Lake Palace and the city palace across the water. You can sit in your own bay window having breakfast and look out over the lake and the city beyond as if from a Venetian palace or a spectacular floating liner.
The Lake Palace is the kind of place that takes you back in time, leaves you open mouthed and gob smacked, feeling decidedly overwhelmed and underdressed, wondering whether you’ve just stepped into a fictional world; a little like Alice in Wonderland stepping through the Looking Glass to find visual perfection and wonderment at every turn.
Rajasthan literally means “Land of the Kings” or as they were known “raj”, and many of the formerly grand residences of the princes and maharajahs of Rajasthan in northeastern India have now opened as luxury resorts, new sources of revenue for their former owners and opulent, once-in-a-lifetime experiences for visitors.
Much like England’s nobility and landed gentry, Rajasthan’s maharajahs have leased or sold off the family “pile” to hotel groups like Taj, so Taj resorts, quite literally, are renovated palaces.
There are few hotels that can be described as islands unto themselves. The Lake Palace floats regally in the midst of the 696 hectare man-made Lake Pichola. The lake is prone to drying up during droughts. Even when there is no drought, the level of the water can vary by up to 4m in a season. So much so, that camels were used to ferry hotel guests from the mainland to the Lake Palace a few years ago. But the water taxi was purring as we arrived.
The gentle boat ride from the mainland, provided by the hotel, is the start of your trip down luxury lane.
A liveried doorman unfurls a beautiful umbrella and escorts us into an enchanting era.
The marble foyer, a sight to behold with its remarkably angled architecture and splendid cushions, is but a teaser of things to come.
The staff are uber-courteous and ever-ready to make your stay pleasant. A personal butler is at your beck and call.
The 83 rooms and suites are spacious individual and tasteful, the fittings in keeping with the royal past – splendid silk, carved wooden furniture, coloured murals. Every nuance takes your breath away. Your eyes skip from one thing of beauty to the next – the symmetrical and serene Lily Pond, the terraces, the alcoves, the gardens, the corridors.
To top that ultimate experience in luxury, the Palace spa offers aromatherapy, body scrubs and wraps, yoga and meditation.
Tourists can take a drive in one of the many vintage cars on hand to experience the city of Udaipur.
Australian-based lighting architect Dhruvajyoti Ghose was tasked with lighting this extraordinary heritage hotel to highlight its beauty.
The Lake Palace is one of the few buildings in the world that is completely surrounded by water. At night the shimmering fairytale palace is reflected in the inky blackness of the lake best admired as you sit on a sultry evening on the mainland and admire the Lake Palace from afar.
Dining at the Palace is a delight. The Neel Kamal restaurant which overlooks the Lily Pond, boasts a red hot lamb curry called “laal maas”, which should be tried by those who have an iron-cast stomach. It is ably accompanied by the phulka, a local bread that rises into an airball when on the fire.
One of the most-enchanting culinary experiences you can have is floating down the lake in a barge at sunset. Staff, in small boats, fluently ferry food and drinks to and from the hotel as you dine in tranquillity.
Jag Mandir, also called the Lake Garden Palace, is a summer resort at the far end of the lake and worth a side trip for the sweeping views.
On the mainland stands the City Palace Complex. It houses among other attractions a crystal gallery, which boasts an intriguing collection of rare crystal – from chandeliers to an entire living room suite and even a bedroom suite.
And on the grounds of the City Palace an evening light show traces the history of the royal dynasty of Mewar of Udaipur.
All of this comes at a fair price, but there’s real value for money if you are a luxury traveller looking to savour the good life in the vein of the ancient royals of India.
In Udaipur, make sure to visit the City palace which overlooks the lake and the Lake Palace. It incorporates the Crystal Gallery, numerous rooms walled with mirrors, Moghul-style stained glass and elaborate glass and porcelain mosaics. You can buy silver jewellery, colourful fabrics and Indian miniature paintings in galleries within the Palace walls or haggle in the many shops which fill the streets just outside.
Karen Halabi travelled five-star on the ground courtesy of Incent Tours. www.incent-tours.com
The Taj Lake Palace is part of the Taj Group. www.tajhotels.com