Udaipur is a city of half a million built around several lakes in the rugged hills of south Rajasthan. A little off-the-beaten track, it is spared the tourist blight that has overwhelmed Jaipur, and has an ideal mix of history, vitality and natural beauty.
The family-run Amet Haveli in Chand Pol, a 20-minute drive from the airport, is almost as beautiful as the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, which is framed by scalloped white arches, and resembles a cruise ship at anchor. Both were built as residences in the 18th century, opening onto the water and commanding a panoramic view of the City Palace to the east and bare hills to the west. Although the Amet Haveli lacks the meticulous service, spa and other delights of the Taj Lake Palace, its waterfront Ambrai restaurant stands out as one of the best in the city and it is more affordable. Sandwiched between these two sybaritic retreats are the ghats, where the poor wash themselves and their laundry in the polluted water for free.
The major sights in Udaipur can be explored in less than a day, leaving plenty of time to laze beside the water or loll on the cushions of a rental boat. An auto rickshaw serves as a fine way to explore the narrow streets and squeeze through the dense traffic to the City Palace—an Arabian Nights fantasy of fretted screens and airy turrets that sprawls for half a mile. Within, it’s an obstacle course of narrow stone steps leading up to the roof for views over the city, and down to courtyards lined with mosaic peacocks and dreamy couples proffering flowery garlands. There’s a room lined with mirrors lit from jewel-like panes of colored glass, and paintings of local festivities in the 1930s attended by the maharajah and his British guests, who look as though they have strayed in from a production of Private Lives. “But darling, this is all too, too divine…”
Back on the rickshaw, a brief stop at the Jagdish Temple proves worth the steep climb for its fantastic stone carvings before continuing on to the central market. A cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, mounds of spices, and an array of colored silks spill out across the street. This is a good place to buy scarves and tiny phials of Kashmiri saffron, a basket or a CD of traditional Indian music. It’s also the social hub of the old city, where locals gather to gossip while running their errands, and musicians escort wedding parties of women dressed in gorgeous saris. In contrast to Jaipur, there are no touts, and the stranger can wander freely, absorbing the atmosphere and taking group shots of kids who seem never to tire of being photographed.
Two of the newer luxury hotels worth noting are the classy Devi Garh and the showy Oberoi Udaivilas. The Oberoi is a lavish recreation of a Rajput palace—the buildings alone cover eight acres and are as over-the-top as the Venetian in Las Vegas. Everything feels a bit too big, shiny, ornate, and over-extended; it looks like a honey trap for high rollers. In contrast, the elegant Devi Garh, a former fort, looms above a village and bare hills, 15 miles north of Udaipur on a truck-clogged road. The harrowing drive enhances the feeling of serenity within. It took five years to convert a warren of rooms into forty spacious suites, preserving the old textures, faded murals, inlays of colored stone and mirror glass, and even furniture, but giving it an entirely new character with some radical contemporary touches, such as the water labyrinth in one of the three courtyards. There are breathtaking vistas from upper levels and across the courtyard. Each suite has a different theme and configuration, but there’s continuity in the monochromatic palette.
The city of Udaipur and the retreat of Devi Garh combine to distill the essence of princely India, before and during the Raj. To spend a couple of days in each is to be transported to a world of magic and delight.
RATES: The Amet Haveli has 20 rooms and suites ranging from $60-90 p/night. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. The Taj Lake Palace Hotel on Lake Pichola starts at $700 p/night. At Devi Garh, suites start at $440, dropping to $370 in April. The Oberoi Udaivilas offers rooms starting at $600 p/night. Look for substantial discounts during the present downturn. Wandermelon recommends flying Jet Airways, and warns that Kingfisher, another independent airline, is apt to cancel flights at short notice.
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