By Kristie Kellahan
The strutting peacocks are your first clue that the Rambagh Palace is no ordinary hotel. Given the regal run of the sprawling 19 hectare palace grounds, the peacocks are fitting mascots of this glorious former royal residence and hunting lodge in Rajasthan.
If it’s the royal treatment you seek, look no further than India.
Once home to the Maharaja of Jaipur, Rambagh Palace is opulent, gilded and bejeweled with lavish decor and cascading fountains, now admired by paying hotel guests.
Studded with sumptuous palace hotels, extravagant royal residences and breathtaking displays of architectural wonder, India is fit for kings and queens, and for those who aspire to such white-glove treatment. It’s decadent and over-the-top glamour, but softened by the warmest of heartfelt welcomes.
There is stark contrast, certainly — cruel poverty lives side by side with unheralded wealth in India — but for the fortunate traveller, the destination is sure to impress.
Insight Vacations’ Luxury Gold offers several escorted tours in India with an emphasis on luxury hotels, fine dining and VIP experiences. The tours visit some of the most iconic royal landmarks, including the Taj Mahal in Agra, that great monument of love, built by a heartbroken emperor in memory of his love.
As guests of Insight, visitors receive the VIP treatment and have dawn access to the Taj Mahal complex, hours before the masses. There’s also a visit to the imposing red sandstone Agra Fort on some of Insight’s Gold tours, with a tour of the palatial Royal Pavilions. Private dinners in royal reception halls and mystical music performances on the rooftops of palaces are all part of the experience.
Celebrating my birthday in India, I came away feeling that if hospitality wasn’t invented there, it was certainly refined in the nation.
Showered in a fragrant confetti of red rose petals, handed more bouquets of flowers than a beauty queen, and served up no less than four scrumptious birthday cakes during the course of the big day, it was clear to me that India is the perfect destination for celebrating in style.
It’s also a dining destination worth getting excited about. At the Leela Palace New Delhi, the capital’s only modern palace hotel, there’s something for everyone in an atmosphere of approachable sophistication.
Purpose-built and opened with great fanfare in 2011, the Leela Palace stands out as the modern face of Indian grand hospitality. Five stars don’t seem to do it justice. Compared to the more traditional, historic palace hotels in India, the Leela is shiny, new and state-of-the-art.
Fine dining from around the world can be enjoyed at specialty restaurants: an outpost of New York’s Le Cirque, Japanese delicacies at Megu, North Indian flavours at Jamavar, and cocktail nibbles in the Library Bar. At The Qube, the international breakfast buffet is one of the best we’ve seen, a heady mix of French patisserie temptations, South Indian dosas, freshly made smoothies and Asian bites.
The devil may be in the details, but so too is the delight. Leela Palace’s curated collection of modern art would stand up to any private gallery’s holdings; ask for a private tour. Breathe in the scent of the sublime fresh flowers displayed throughout the hotel: 14,000 blooms are delivered each day. Ask and you shall receive butler service, personal shopper attention or a lift to the airport in a Rolls Royce Phantom.
More traditional luxuries are to be found at the other-worldly Taj Lake Palace Udaipur on Lake Pichola. Built in 1743 in the state of Udaipur as a royal retreat and summer palace, the hotel has been accommodating paying guests for more than 50 years. A five minute boat ride delivers guests to the palace hotel, which sits regally in the middle of the lake. The luxury rooms have been given the royal treatment, with intricately handwoven Indian textiles on the beds and sumptuous soft furnishings, but the ambiance remains timeless. Driven to town in a vintage car, it’s not difficult to imagine the princely era when the Maharana’s guests played here during elegant summer parties.
One of the most revered heritage hotels in India, Rawla Narlai is a meticulously restored 17th Century royal retreat. Just 32 rooms make this epic Rajasthan country house a boutique accommodation option, replete with a beautiful pool secreted away in a private walled garden.
And at the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai, almost 4,000 works of art — many of them antique — grace the rooms and public spaces of this grand old wedding cake of a building. Gothic, Greco-Roman, Islamic and Rajasthan architecture is incorporated in what can best be described as a fairytale retreat.