BELIEVE THE HYPE?
All good things come in threes. It also happens to be my lucky number. So it’s with bated breath that I anticipate the third Taj Palace, also signalling my final destination in Rajasthan. Following magnificent Jodhpur with it’s majestic Umaid Bhawan Palace hotel and beautiful Udaipur with it’s incomparably spectacular Lake Palace hotel, both the city of Jaipur and the Rambagh Palace hotel have much to live up to. Expectations are high and the bar is raised to the sky.
En-route, I prepare myself as I can’t imagine how it could compare with the former two, whilst desperately trying to keep an open mind and remembering advise I’ve so far been given: that the three Rajasthani cities and Palace hotels cannot and should not be compared. So it is with heightened anticipation that I arrive at the historic Rambagh Palace. Upon initial glance, Rambagh Palace is not as clean and sparkling as the other two. The exterior isn’t polished, rather dated. The colours lend themselves to a former era. But, I think, that’s the idea. Life within, however, is anything but dull. Think of it more as the original palace; the true, the historic, the quaint. In that light, I begin to see an olden charm about the castle of dusty magnolia and maroon piping. I imagine it was once the epitome of ‘Palace’. And inside, it has far from lost it’s grandeur.
Unlike Umaid Bhawan and Lake Palace, this hotel isn’t set apart from the city. It’s in the thick of it. What distinguishes the two is the long driveway into the palace, past security. Echoes of grandeur filter into the psyche. One toe in the lobby and spellbinding splendour abounds. Members of staff welcome me with big beautiful smiles and earnest eyes. The lobby is a classic and contemporary design making for an impressive entrance.
THE ORIGINAL MAHARANI SUITE
I’m led along a pristine polished corridor, lining a leafy central courtyard, towards what will become my home for the next few days; the Maharani (Queen’s) Suite.
This is the one Suite in which all the original interiors, designed by Hammonds of London as a surprise gift to the late Maharani Gayatri Devi, remain intact. Even the dressing table and walk-in wardrobe are her originals. It does pose a few awkward issues such as no hairdryer socket by the fixed mirror due to the original wall sockets, fixtures and fittings. And the water line in the bathtub, filled on request with rose petals and essence by my personal ‘Palace Butler,’ gradually falls due to the antiquated original tub and plug. But such details pale into insignificance, instead adding to the legacy and heritage. The Maharani Suite is massive and, in it’s entirety, a modern day antique. I’m too frightened to touch the beautiful ornaments, decorative vases and hand-painted Rajasthani art for fear of damaging them (I can be rather clumsy!) This suite is the most delicate to date and totals an impressive 1600 sq feet.
The principal space comprises living room, office space and two double beds. This leads to the dressing room which has it’s own TV and treadmill. Add to that a spacious walk-in wardrobe big enough for a large family, a dining area and a separate lounge / living space. And, as you’d expect of a Queen’s suite, the bathroom is roomy enough to be a family flat back at home in London. With such luxury of space, I don’t see myself needing to leave.
But I’m here to explore, so it’s straight out to the gardens for ‘Royal Afternoon Tea.’
I’m presented with an encyclopaedia of beverages, which takes some time to browse. But Rambagh Palace subtly steals time from you in these clever little ways, leaving guests feeling surprisingly refreshed. Entire pages are devoted to sweet lime sodas and Lassis; with cardamom, lemon, rose, vanilla…some extravagant & sumptuous varieties that taste as divine as they sound. It’s the ideal way to cool off in the sticky city heat.
OLD-WORLD GLAMOUR & CHARM
I struggle to rest for long though; feet itching to wander off and discover. The legend that is the Rambagh Polo Bar is first on my list. As I meander through collonaded corridors and circumnavigate imposing marble pillars, I’m a little girl pacing through an Alice-in-Wonderland fairytale castle, eyes wide in anticipation and feet throwing forward to the next adventure that lies just around that corner.
LEGENDARY POLO BAR
The Polo bar is as synonymous with Rambagh Palace as Royalty. Throwing back the magnificent heavy doors, I enter a picturesque cosy snug.
Before me, the bar twinkles amidst deep mahogany wood and modern glass. The focal point is a gentle trickling fountain, which has, no doubt, eavesdropped on many an intimate conversation over a glass of whisky, amongst friends and lovers, with the likes of singer Katy Perry and Russell Brand who were reportedly wed here. Walls enclosing the cosy sofas and high chairs boast Polo ornaments and photographs of the late Maharani, Maharaja and the celebrated Polo wins of famous jockeys.
But this is only the beginning of the palace’s love affair with the game. The gardens entertain the most infamous and spectacular sight of all, a game of polo on elephant back. It can be arranged upon guest request and is a spectacle not to be missed!
THE LATE MAHARANI, ‘WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN’
Rambagh Palace was the home of Maharani Gayatri Devi, who was named the most beautiful woman in the world by Italian Vogue magazine in 1940. She was a keen Equestrienne and Polo player and known for her distinct eye for style and detail.
For years, with her at the helm, the Palace graciously entertained Viceroys, dignitaries and artists of the world. As it stands, it’s a striking citadel of cream with burgundy piping. Capped by a panorama of turrets, the silhouette of ‘Chhatris’ add to it’s majesty; an unusually haunting parallel to Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. Designed to highlight both Mughal and Rajput style, Rambagh Palace is considered Jaipur’s ‘living legend.’
Since it’s conversion into super-luxury hotel by the Taj group in the 70s, it has played host to illustrious guests including Lord Louis Mountbatten, (after whom a suite is named), Prince Charles and Jacqueline Kennedy.
When residing in a Palace, it’s only natural to want to feel distinctly Royal. A unique Rambagh feature I overjoyously delight in, is it’s traditional horse-drawn carriage. A chauffeur escorts me onto the stately carriage and off we go on a trotting tour of the vast grounds. Such treasured moments form those stand-alone memories I’ll cherish for life.
It’s not until I take a walk into the gardens, to marvel at the proud peacocks around me, that I discover new delights tucked away at the bottom of the palace grounds.
GLORIOUS PRIVACY OF SPACE AT THE GRANDE JIVA SPA
Immense enough to be it’s own palace, I stumble upon a huge outbuilding. It features an olympic-sized temperate indoor pool, glass mani pedi boutique overlooking separate gardens filled with parrots and exotic flowers, spacious spa area and, through large glass doors, a very private outdoor pool and Jacuzzi. And to my amazement; not a guest in sight! All three of the Taj Palaces have felt completely private, as though opened up just for me.
The spa at Rambagh has steered clear of the usual claustrophobic rooms and darkened spaces. Here, glorious airy luxury tents act as treatment rooms. With oodles of space, air-conditioning, mood lighting and couples circular rose-filled bathtubs, these ‘tents’ are ultra-lavish and keep you within the bosom of nature. Whilst the knots and kinks in my back and feet are kneaded out, I’m sent into a state of bliss, bathed in the natural sounds of exotic Indian birds roaming outside the sheer tents. It’s quite simply other-wordly. Luxury in India has a way of infusing an inner calm into the body and a surreal peace into the soul. This is how life should be.
THE HIPPEST STEAM TRAIN IN INDIA
After an intensive massage and detox, I feel my stomach rumble. Food and drink are paramount to the Royal lifestyle. And even the best is meticulously checked with rigorous and constant standards tests. Rambagh comes into it’s own in this department, boasting several ‘unique selling points’. ‘Steam’ is one of them. This stylish and quirky bar / restaurant is an actual former steam train, restored and placed on train track in the gardens, alongside a ‘platform’ and Victorian-style station.
Combining European, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavours, I order my Lebanese Mezze platter to dine inside the carriage. Guests can eat on tables on ‘the platform,’ inside the ‘train station’ or within the actual carriages, which beam an olde world aura of magnificence, transporting you back in time to the faded glamour of ballgowns and knights; harking majestically to the era of the Raj.
On a Friday night, this is home to Jaipur’s young elite, styled in the height of designer fashion, air-kissing and liberal socialising. Cocktails and conversation seem the order of the night, as money and laughter are abundant. This is the only part of the palace that allows non-residents, and I’m pleased as it’s fascinating to watch the exuberance and confidence of Jaipur’s younger generations.
After a long night, I’m keen to thrown my head against the feathersoft pillows. As I walk into my suite, I’m greeted by a fabulous piece of artistry. The butler has hand-decorated the marble floor in a huge Rangoli pattern of marigold and saffron-coloured flower petals. Every minute aspect of India is imbibed in colour and suffused in effervescence. It’s a beautiful end to the evening.
Awakening next morning from a rather peaceful slumber, I gently smile to myself as I look out onto the vibrant Oriental garden ravishing in sunlight.
Breakfast at Rambagh Palace is the epitome of all the palaces. In fact food, overall, is fantastic here. I am utterly spoilt for choice. With eyes much much bigger than my stomach, I certainly want it all. I succumb to my craving for South Indian food. But I’m not just served a dish. Out comes the largest most lavish platter encompassing all my favourite dishes, along with a cup of freshly brewed steaming hot Masala Chai. I quickly glance around to see if people are watching, feeling rather self-conscious at my greed! If this is supposed to be the Royal experience, I can’t imagine how the Queens of old kept their figure! But they did, as I can see from the life-sized portraits of Maharani Gayatri Devi gracing the breakfast lounge.
Dinners are just as eccentric. The Indian fine-dining gilded Suvarna Mahal becomes my second suite. Housed within the Palace’s former ballroom, it’s my favourite as it’s the grandest of them all. Decorated in Florentine frescoes of the 4 seasons, filled with pillar candles and boasting marvellous grand gilt windows with a high Victorian ceiling, it’s the space we all imagine in our fantasy homes. The cutlery and crockery is gold-plated (and heavy) and glistens in the shimmer of candlelight which floods the room.
Choices include entire menus of dishes from every popular food state in India; being a cultural lesson as well as a foodie fantasy. The Chef makes a point of personally greeting me to learn my likes, dislikes and specific requests. I have one; a creamy Dal Makhni. What arrives is, without doubt, the best Dal Makhni I have ever tasted anywhere in the world. Just thinking about it brings on Pavlov’s dog syndrome (sorry!)
As I’m not a huge fan of Indian desserts, I opt out thinking I can skip the course. By this third Palace, I really should know better. Chef sends out an extravagant dessert platter of home-made Kheer, Gulab Jamun, Kulfi, Gajjar halwa and Rasmallai. It is astoundingly rich and distinctly Royal, loaded with saffron, cardamom, vanilla and pistachios. It’s so good, I just have to return to (over-)indulge again the following evening.
ELUSIVE JODHPUR PINK CITY
A couple of days are devoted to exploring Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan. It’s also known as the ‘Pink City’, mirroring Jodhpur’s blues. I’m a tad over-excited about seeing the pink city with it’s romantic aura of etchings and roses. But it proves more elusive than I’d imagined. Jodhpur’s blue phenomenon was a marvel. Jaipur’s pink is a comparative stretch of the imagination. There are some pink houses but they only line busy roads and routes. Behind, I’m disappointed that there are no pink houses hidden down narrow alleyways. I manage to capture what little is ‘Jaipur-pink’.
JAIPUR’S AMER FORT
Without wasting time, I head up to Jaipur’s very own version of that very Rajasthani sight…you guessed it… the fort. The heights of Amer Fort can be reached on the back of an elephant. Today is their rest day. So I’m transported to the top by Jeep.
It has it’s own rich Jaipur stories and history. By now, I do find myself battling to take as much interest in every tiny detail, to the level I have at the former two Forts. That dwindling interest does mean that I can select the parts i’m keen to see and leave a lot quicker. Don’t be fooled though, as this still means a good half a day to do it justice. By now, more knowledgeable on the history of the forts, I purposefully lose myself meandering through the nooks and crannies and up secret passageways to beautiful vistas from the top.
What I do fall in love with is the fervour and passion with which my guide recites the histoires of this particular fort in HIS city. It’s enchanting and I can’t help but become consumed, catching his love for the city. So I’d definitely recommend good local guides. Mine are pre-arranged through my initial reservation of the trip with India Travel Centre.
The views from the top of Amer Fort are worth the trek up in sweltering heat. Be sure to enjoy the stunning vistas from the front and back of the fort; both are equally breathtaking.
JAIPUR’S JANTAR MANTAR OBSERVATORY
The Jantar Mantar observatory has to be seen to be believed. If you’ve a particular interest in astronomy, cosmology and their relationship with mathematics, this is absolutely unmissable. The observatory is home to genuine timekeepers of old. I look in awe as my guide explains how particular physicists had the knowledge, hundreds of years ago, to create mathematical objects from which the position of the sun can be aligned to indicate the time, day, month and year.
HAWA MAHAL; HAREM OF THE ROYALS
One pink facade that doesn’t disappoint and is photographed as an icon of Jaipur is ‘Hawa Mahal’ or ‘Palace of the winds.’ The architecture is a marvel with 953 intricate windows carved into the front. It’s a 5 floor pyramid shaped building that is associated with the ladies of the Royal palace, or the Harem. They would watch proceedings below in the market and street from behind these stone-carved screens which would allow them to see out but no-one outside to see in.
Also worth visiting is the Royal Palace and Museum, for insight into the lifestyles of Jaipur’s former Royal, displaying armoury, ornaments and clothing.
My ultimate observations of Jaipur are less through actual sightseeing, more from absorbing the atmosphere.
It’s only when I allow myself time to stop seeing physical things that I actually start seeing life; people, ambience and underlying context to the city. This seems to happen once you’ve been on the road, travelling, for a while. I’m at natural ease with the journey now; it feels second-nature and i’m less desperate to see all the textbook sights or tick every guidebook box. That is a liberating feeling. In fact, my most cherished holiday memories of most destinations consist of mere moments and instants, no one whole day or set of sights. Rather, seconds that last an eternity through opening a window directly into that world. They’re the seconds I adore; the ones that remain for life; the ones that make an entire journey worthwhile.
Next, I head to the home of the legendary Taj Mahal, in Agra, before flying to Varanasi and finally onto Mumbai.
- Impressions of India; Portraits of a People (ani-shah.com)
- Playing Princess at Jodhpur’s Royal Palace; Surreal Luxury (ani-shah.com)
- LUXURY vs GUILT? HAVELI HAVEN AMIDST JODHPUR’S LOCAL BAZAAR (ani-shah.com)
- Rajasthan Travel – Must Visit Destinations (taxilondoncab.com)
- Sir Vivian Richards’s holiday heaven and hell (telegraph.co.uk)
- Hawa Mahal, Jaipur (cybertravelinc.wordpress.com)
- Living at the Royal Palace in Bikaner (ani-shah.com)