Jewel In The Crown

The Sun-Herald Traveller

8 May 2016 

Stunning views, impeccable service and sleeping in a royal bedroom await the first class traveller in India, writes Tatyana Leonov.

We step off the boat and onto a floating platform where an impeccably dressed man with a fabulous moustache waits for us. Holding an umbrella adorned in colourful jewels to shade us from the scorching Rajasthan sun, he greets us with a wide smile. It’s maybe six metres from the boat ramp to the Taj Lake Palace hotel entry, but clearly protecting us from the sun is vital.

As we approach the entrance we are engulfed by a shower of fragrant rose petals – sweet smelling bursts of pinks and reds finding their place on our sweat- drenched bodies. When I turn to look back seconds later, somebody is already sweeping them away.

It has been 10 years since I’ve been to India. Last time my husband and I explored the intoxicating and addictively odd country in true backpacker style. We roamed the streets eternally hunched over thanks to our weighty backpacks; we scoured tattered notices advertising cheap hostels in cafes we’d read about in Lonely Planet; we joined the locals on buses so jam-packed we’re probably in the background of one of those ‘‘only in India’’ photos.

This time we’re on a customised private tour with Pure India Collection, a boutique travel company, and it’s completely opposite in terms of experience. We have no backpacks and we seldom touch our suitcases. They vanish once we’re packed and reappear in our next room. On one occasion I’m sure they come back cleaner than when they’d left ...

Our focus is to simply soak up ravishing Rajasthan. Having visited Delhi and Agra previously, we’re voyaging further south beyond the Golden Triangle route (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur). Jaipur is the only Rajasthan city in the circuit and our starting point.

Rajasthan translates to ‘‘Land of the Kings’’ and back in the heyday of regal supremacy there were hundreds of royals – or maharajas and maharanis, as they’re known in India. When India gained independence in 1947 India’s royalty lost their official powers, but many retained their wealth.

Working towards democracy, in 1971 Indira Gandhi, India’s only female prime minister, stipulated that royal families pay high taxes on their properties. Some became influential businessmen and women, others transformed their residencies into sumptuous hotels and enormous museums; many did both. It’s thanks to this strategic move that guests – like us – are able to sojourn at former palaces and get a taster of royal life. Our first stop after Jaipur, the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, is one of the most spectacular examples.

Our driver Ram is a master at navigating and our trip from Jaipur to Jodhpur is as humdrum as a drive on an Indian highway can be (plenty of beeps and commotion). We coast into Jodhpur early afternoon as dappled sunlight bathes the blue city in a deep orange hue.

There are many cities in India with colourful nicknames (Jaipur is known as the pink city; Nagpur orange), usually stemming from unique architectural features. The bulk of Jodhpur’s buildings are painted blue and there are several theories as to why. Some say locals painted their homes blue to keep them cool; others say the blue keeps insects away. It’s also believed that Brahmins (members of the Hinduism priesthood) painted their residences blue to stand out. Whatever the reason, residents upheld the tradition, with the highest density of blue edifices found in the Old Town. Every time we transfer cities Ram ensures our first stop is our hotel, and since we have just one night at Umaid Bhawan Palace, we join an early evening tour of the grounds.

Small in stature and sporting long lustrous hair, our chaperone is wearing the shiniest shoes I’ve ever seen; so glossy I can see chandeliers reflected in them. She takes us on an expedition, weaving through various chambers and halls chatting royal history.

Built between 1928 and 1943 for Maharaja Umaid Singh, the grandiose yellow sandstone palace is still home to the royals – who reside in a portion that we regrettably don’t get to visit. But we do amble through many magnificent rooms that were once only accessible to the royal family and their guests. I admire the vast antiques collection, the gilded furnishings and the exquisite artworks. Our guide explains that the palace was built as an additional residence for the royal family, whose numbers at the time had outstripped the colossal Mehrangarh Fort. Upon completion it was used as the chief residence.

Outside the sheer size of the manicured lawns dumbfounds. The palace itself is gigantic, but its grounds seem to stretch on endlessly. I challenge a fellow guest to a game of squash on the marbled courts, pretty sure I left my husband behind in the Trophy Bar, a moody space decked out in hunting-themed decor, with some of the other guys.

Come sunset everyone re-emerges outside as the palace edifice transmutes from sandy yellow to flaming orange and finally an escalating series of pinks. We stare, snap photos and the clever ones run to the restaurant to snag a courtyard table for dusk drinks.

Although not maintained to the same standards, the hilltop Mehrangarh Fort is managed as a museum by the royal trust. It’s just as impressive and we while away a few hours here the following day.

Like many of the forts in India, it was built primarily for military use. Inside we explore several beautiful palaces and lavish apartments, my favourite being the Rang Mahal (Palace of Colours). Decorated with intricate mirrors, multi-coloured glasswork and gold leaf motifs, it shouts India to me – colourful, chaotic, sometimes mismatched, yet irresistibly beautiful.

We conclude the tour on the roof. The sprawling vistas of the Thar Desert snatch my attention, so peculiarly do they contrast with the indigo blue homes.

But extraordinary panoramas soon become the norm. Our arrival at the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur seals the I’m-in-paradise deal.

The hospitable concierge with the umbrella impresses us first off, but then we’re ferried away, drinks in hand, to our suite – that just so happens to have a brass swing in the middle of it complete with velvet pillow. I jump on and come to the conclusion that the Princess (our suite was once her room) and I would have been friends.

Next I sink into a bay window nook to gaze at the City Palace complex, our first stop tomorrow.

Tonight we have other plans. How often can you go on a boat cruise in the desert? Our private hotel boat whisks us to another jetty where we join a small group for our sunset cruise.

We drift past extravagant havelis – homes to Udaipur’s elite. We pause outside the majestic City Palace and cruise around the islands, slowing as we near other palaces, such as our hotel and Arsi Vilas, an 18th-century home.

When the sun begins to sink into the horizon the lake transforms into a shimmering splendour. When it’s time to get off the boat we linger. Although our palace awaits us, we have just one night left and will do whatever we can to prolong our royal Rajasthan experience.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION: incredibleindia.org

GETTING THERE: Air India flies from Sydney and Melbourne direct to Delhi and from there, connects to Jodhpur and Udaipur. Phone 1800 247 463; see airindia.in.

SEE+DO: Pure India Collection is designed to be the ultimate in enriching and unique luxury travel experiences. Itineraries are fully customised and include accommodation, activities, guides, drivers and transfers. Phone 1300 365 060; see pureindiacollection.com.au.

STAYING THERE: Taj Hotels’ Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur and the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur offer the ultimate royal Rajasthan experience; see tajhotels.com

Tatyana Leonov was a guest of Pure India Collection and Air India.