Beyond Delhi: Royal Rajasthan

Courtesy Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces

More than anywhere else, the area called Rajasthan—and its grandeur—attracts Westerners to India. Fiona Caulfield checks in to a few of our favorite places.

Rajasthan translates to “the Abode of Princes,” and it is the rich culture and opulent architecture of the royal Rajputs—the ruling clans that rose to prominence here in the seventh century—that still draw visitors to this vibrant state, the largest in India. After independence and the subsequent abolishment of their British allowance (the so-called privy purse) in 1971, many Rajputs converted their palaces, townhouses, and forts into hotels, and these now number among the most lavish and romantic in the world, ranging from true heritage palaces to faux ancient complexes modeled on the same. While some of these properties are in the main cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur, all easily accessed from Delhi by plane, several of the best are outside these hubs and reached only by car.

The Delhi Day Trip

Neemrana Fort-Palace

About a two-hour drive from Delhi, this 15th-century fort is one of the oldest and most accessible heritage hotels in Rajasthan, so it’s a popular day-trip destination. The ruins that make up its 11 floors have been restored into a maze of terraces, corridors, and 54 rooms, the best of which are in the original fort and include the Mata Mahal and the Chandra Mahal, a fantasia of white limestone. The comforts are basic, the bathrooms in need of an update, and the helpful staff members less than fluent in English, but the antique furniture, original features, and surprisingly wonderful audio tour make up for it all. From $60 to $380. At Village Neemrana, District Alwar; 91-11/4666-1666; neemranahotels.com.

In Jaipur

Rambagh Palace

Service at this Taj flagship, the first palace in India to become a hotel, is paramount, as it should be, what with the Rajmata Gayatri Devi still in residence. The royal treatment includes personal butlers, folk performances, carriage rides through the 47-acre estate, and occasional games of elephant polo. The compound marries regal Rajput and Moghul motifs, and each of the 46 rooms is appropriately opulent. But it’s the 33 suites, many with original chandeliers and fountains, that are most interesting: The Suryavanshi and Prince’s have terraces, and the Pothikhana was once the maharaja’s study. At the Polo Bar, bartender Girwar Singh makes a perfect G&T, and the private Champagne heritage walk, led by R. D. Singh—whose family has worked here for five generations—reveals palace details like the Italian marble stairway built so that the maharani could meet the maharaja in secret. From $850 to $9,300. At Bhawani Singh Rd.; 91-14/1221-1919; tajhotels.com.

Samode Haveli

Jaipur’s Singhji family converted their almost-200-year-old residence into a 30-room hotel tucked into a hillside in the old walled city. Many of the original frescoes and mosaics remain, and the property, laid out among a series of courtyards, offers views of the picturesque town from every vantage point. The daybeds around the large pool are the ideal place to relax after shopping expeditions, and all the rooms are appointed with Rajasthani antiques. (Guests should request one with a courtyard or a terrace.) The Sheesh Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) Suite is the most romantic, with original carved archways. Specify room 114, as the Sheesh Mahal numbered 115 is unrenovated and offers no natural light. From $150 to $250. At Gangapole; 91-14/1263-2407; samode.com.

Beyond Jaipur

Aman-I-Khas

The look of this Aman resort, opened in 2003, pays homage to customary Moghul traveling tents, but even those courtly accommodations surely couldn’t match these ten 20-foot-high marquees, stylishly furnished with leather and dark-wood campaign-style furniture (daybeds, chairs, trunks). At the edge of Ranthambore National Park—prime tiger territory—three hours southeast of Jaipur, the hotel offers twice-daily wildlife safaris, and guests can see scads of birds right on the property itself. There’s a pool built in the style of a traditional stepwell and a spa with yoga and meditation sessions. The dining tent offers a menu that incorporates vegetables from the on-premise organic garden, and private dinners can be arranged under a canopy of stars. From $875. At Sherpur-Kiljipur, District Sawai Madhopur; 91-74/6225-2052; amanresorts.com.

Samode Palace

Unlike some other hotels in Rajasthan, Samode is a destination in and of itself, offering plenty to do: private dinners in the Sheesh Mahal, morning Hindu prayer services at the palace temple, sunset cocktails on the dunes, a village stroll to see artisans crafting bangles, and laps in the mosaic-tiled pool or the new infinity one next to the spa. If the shopping at the hotel were better, in fact, one would never have to leave the grounds. The four royal suites have fireplaces, courtyards, and outdoor whirlpools, and rooms 104, 106, and 110 are large enough to qualify as suites, with balconies overlooking the hotel’s entrance. Less than an hour’s drive north of Jaipur in the Aravalli Hills, the 400-year-old, 43-room palace has views of the quaint village of Samode. From $370 to $815. At Samode; 91-14/2324-0014; samode.com.

In Jodhpur

Umaid Bhawan Palace

Set amid expansive gardens, this yellow-sandstone palace is one of the finest examples of Art Deco in Rajasthan and among the last great Indian palaces. The royal family of Jodhpur remains in residence and reviews the guest list often. Many of its 24 palace rooms have fine views of the courtyard, but it’s the 4,845-square-foot Maharani Suite, a vision in pink, black, and silver with its own spa and yoga room, that delivers the most drama. From $875 to $12,500; 91-29/1251-0101; tajhotels.com.

Beyond Jodhpur

Rawla Narlai

Located halfway between Jodhpur and Udaipur, this former hunting lodge has been a tranquil rural retreat for the royal family of Jodhpur since the 17th century. Ragu Rathore, one of India’s most talented fashion designers and son of the Rawla Narlai’s present-day owners, has put together the stylish look here, fusing a somewhat rustic local village aesthetic with a certain majestic splendor. Twenty rooms and five tents are scattered around the three-acre property and vary significantly in size, decor, and view. Of the nine luxury rooms, no. 9 is the oldest and most atmospheric, with original frescoes. Private lantern-lit dinners can be arranged at Amba Bagh, the nearby stepwell. From $130 to $355. At Narlai, near Desuri, District Pali; 91-29/3426-0425; narlai.com.

Rohet Gargh

An hour’s drive from Jodhpur, near the edge of the Thar Desert, this 36-room heritage property pioneered rural tourism in the eighties. Its well-appointed rooms—British author William Dalrymple wrote part of his travelogue City of Djinns while staying in suite 15—maintain their gentle luster despite being popular with large groups. The hotel also claims one of India’s finest stables of Marwari horses, the breed typical of the area, and its equestrian program ranges from day trips to six-day journeys through the state’s western regions. All excursions are customized to meet guests’ specific wishes, and themed workshops and trips are available, too—culinary, birding, and otherwise. From $105 to $140. At Rohet, District Pali; 91-29/3626-8231; rohetgarh.com.

In Udaipur

Taj Lake Palace

In 1746 Maharana Jagat Singhji II inaugurated this sprawling white-marble confection on an island in Lake Pichola. Built as his summer residence, it eventually became a museum and then, in 1963, a hotel. The property had management issues, but since the takeover by Taj, things have been running smoothly. All 83 rooms sport luxe Ploh featherbeds and Frette linens; the Khush Mahal suite has a particularly warm ambiance, and the Sajjan Niwas has a terrace. Soothing traditional ragas played on a flute accompany breakfast in the spa garden, and on the upstairs Bhairo terrace, pomegranate Bellinis and jasmine sour martinis kick the morning off deliciously. At the spa, a therapist named Roma has hands that can heal anything. The pool is small but perfectly fine for a dip. From $735 to $8,390. At Lake Pichola; 91-29/4252-8800; tajhotels.com.

Oberoi Udaivilas

Across Lake Pichola, the Oberoi Udaivilas is a sprawling palace built in 2002, a style referencing both Moghul and Mewari architecture. It took more than a decade—and 120,000 square feet of Greek marble—to complete, and its domes feature hand-painted murals incorporating traditional gold leaf. Of the 36 rooms, the four luxury suites, each with a private pool, are best. But even the standard rooms feature yards of silk and pounds of marble and have Victorian freestanding bathtubs, cushioned daybeds, and terraces. Thai therapists work their magic at the on-site Banyan Tree spa, and the service is quietly efficient and gracious throughout. Croquet and yoga are available, but sadly no tennis. Rooms are surprisingly low-tech. From $690 to $3,740. At Udaipur; 91-29/ 4243-3300; oberoihotels.com.