Love it or hate it, India ignites the imagination and unsettles the soul. After 8 fabulous trips to India, you can guess how I feel about it. One of the most luxurious experiences of my life, shared with my daughter, was staying at historical palaces in Rajasthan.
My first experience, when I was traveling alone around the world, I crisscrossed India for five months from mountains to desert to jungle. I trekked, rode camels, swam, and explored from the Himalayas of Kashmir and Ladakh, to colorful Rajasthan and the tip of the subcontinent.
There’s not just one way to explore huge, diverse India. I stayed in budget hostels, tented camps in game parks, and heritage properties of restored mansions and forts, and palaces. Reputable tour operators can custom design the adventure you want, for all budgets and tastes.
Luxury on the Lake in Udaipur
Enter the fabulous world of the Maharajas at the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur—a magical island rising from Lake Pichola made of pure white marble. Embrace the palace’s most romantic features: lakes, fountains, and hibiscus-filled gardens. Built in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II, this palace was rumored to be the Maharana’s pleasure hideaway in Lake Pichola after his father forbade him from throwing moonlight picnics nearby Jag Mandir. Now, this elegant white marble dream, which was featured in the James Bond flick Octopussy, has 83 rooms, including 18 opulent suites. The descendants of the royal butlers are still here, and ready to do anything they can to make you feel like royalty, too.
Perched on a four-acre island, the Taj Palace provides most rooms with views of the lake. If you’re looking to splurge, book one of the suites, which offer amenities like in-room Jacuzzis, brightly colored silks and intricately-carved wood furniture, even marble bathrooms to ease you into your royal home. You can also get personalized yoga instruction, see traditional puppet shows, exercise in the pool and fitness center, or take a range of sight-seeing tours in and around Udaipur.
Best Lake Cruises
Historically, the palace’s residents held decadent feasts and intimate gatherings on Lake Pichola. You can do the same. Take a dinner cruise on the royal barge, complete with sitar music, traditionally dressed oarsmen, candlelit laughter among friends—and a firework grand finale. Or, if a more intimate tête-à-tête seems better, try a Shikara, a narrow boat with cushions and bolsters, perfect for sipping champagne and dishing the real dirt. At night, you can lie back and gaze at the stars, smell the jasmine in the warm air, and hear the temple bells ringing.
Every treatment begins with a warm foot bath and a cool drink of coconut water. One specialty treatment starts with a sandalwood and turmeric rice-grain scrub to exfoliate, and then ends with an hour-long massage using Ayurveda oils tuned to your needs. The spa menu has something for everyone in your group– coconut scrubs, pedicures, Indian head massage— you might just have to spend the whole day here.
Roll in Style
Take one of the Taj Palace’s vintage cars and have a chauffeur escort you around Udaipur.
Strolling Arm in Arm with History
The Taj Lake Palace’s 250 years of history open up like a book in the company of a hotel guide, who will take you through the historic buildings. The palace’s helpful concierge can also make recommendations for interesting places to walk throughout Udaipur and directions to its best markets.
Dine in Style at the Taj Lake Palace
After a day exploring Udaipur, relax at the Lake Palace’s Amrit Sagar, or the “Sea of Nectar” bar, for fine wines. Choose from one of several restaurants—the Neel Kamal is known for its Rajasthani cuisine in an elegant setting filled with gilded arches, crystal and rich upholstery. You can also have the royal butlers set you up with your own personal feast by the lily pond, in your room, or nearly anywhere else you can imagine.
The Jewel of Jaipur: Rambagh Palace, Jaipur
The Rambagh Palace began with a woman in mind. It started as a gift: from the queen, in 1835, to her favorite handmaiden. The palace has since gone through many incarnations: a hunting lodge, a home for the Maharaja of Jaipur, and now, an 85-room luxury hotel that returns to its roots as a spot where women can retreat and recharge.
The palace itself, known as the Jewel of Jaipur, has 47 acres. You might spot brightly colored peacocks strutting through the grounds. Linger in the Mughal Gardens or the Chandani Chowk courtyard, with its beautiful fountain.
Tea for You
Take the afternoon the traditional way, with a cup of tea on the verandah with views of the gardens and fountains. Too warm for tea? A glass of champagne goes great with a good book, too.
Dine Like a Queen
The Suvarna Mahal, Rambach Palace’s dining hall, will have you feeling as if your chair is a throne. After being swept through the long, mirrored hall by liveried waiters to your table, gaze up at the frescoes and crystal chandeliers. You’ll feast on the original menus from several of India’s royal houses. Live classical music plays to accompany the clink of silverware, fine china, and your glasses raised in a toast.
Polo at the Palace
The Maharajah of Jaipur, who took this palace as his residence in 1925, was a polo aficionado. If you’d like to follow his footsteps, visit the nearby Rambagh Polo Fields to watch a game or practice. Or, just sip cocktails at the swanky Polo Bar surrounded by the Maharajah’s polo memorabilia.
There’s plenty here to get your heart pumping: a fitness center with cardio equipment and weights, indoor and outdoor pools, and games from tennis and golf to croquet. You can also take yoga and meditation classes from renowned experts.
Beat the Heat at the Spa
The Rambagh’s spa is the perfect place to cool off during warm days. If you’re feeling like you’ve gotten more than your share of India’s golden sun, try a Chandana treatment—under an organic linen wrap, your skin will be cooled by sandalwood and aloe. Other cooling options: the indoor and outdoor pools, both with intricate blue tiling; or the copper tubs, showers, and air-conditioned lounge area in your own spa suite.
If these palaces just seem like the tip of the iceberg, they are.
Go on your own, or book through a reputable tour company. I recommend Ibex Expeditions, an award-winning Indian Travel Company recognized by National Geographic Adventure for stellar adventure travel and ecotourism. They specialize in adventure, custom trips and luxury.
For more information about India, visit www.incredibleindia.org. In the summer monsoon season, the Taj Hotels and Oberoi Hotels offer great discount packages.
“Inspired by this story? Want to help out? Check out these conservation, volunteer and community projects in India here.
Part of this story was excerpted from my book, Best Girlfriends Getaways Worldwide. Publisher: National Geographic.