Hotel test Rath checks in: hotel palaces in India

I am visiting a country that is bursting with culture and diversity and produces the most beautiful palaces in the world. The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur, the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur and the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur were originally built for Maharajas and their royal families. Over the past century they have been transformed into luxury hotels that today attract guests from all over the world.

After my round trip, it doesn’t surprise me that India has millions of tourists every year and is considered one of the most exciting travel destinations in the world. The history of the country, marked by trade, spirituality, science but also invasions, can also be seen in the houses I visit.

All three palaces are known for their spectacular architecture, sumptuous furnishings and first class service. But what particularly fascinates me is its location. They offer a breathtaking view of the surrounding area – whether with a direct view of lakes and mountains, a panoramic view of the surrounding desert landscape or majestic forts and other cultural sites.

One destination of my trip is Udaipur in western India – a city as clean as I otherwise only know from Singapore or Tokyo. In addition to the government, the residents also seem to be very concerned that any dirt stays away from the public streets and facilities. Even the falling petals are disposed of immediately.

Taj Lake Palace

The monumental house is situated on Lake Pichola.

(Photo: Taj Hotels)

The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur is located on a small island in Lake Pichola. During my stay, I learned from one of the extremely friendly hotel staff that the freshwater lake was artificially created over 900 years ago and fed by the Ahar River and other tributaries – the reason why the water of the lake is so crystal clear.

The arrival alone is worth the journey. I am greeted by a doorman. He wears light blue and thus blends seamlessly into the soft pastel tones of the palace. With the white facade, this building looks feminine, the design of the interiors is playful with the stained glass from Belgium and the pink and light blue tones. When I put my foot over the doorstep, red rose petals fall from above as if by the hand of God and let me walk on them into the entrance hall.

With the bindi on his forehead through the hotel

There, soft drinks are served to me and a bindi is painted on my forehead. The red dot is an important part of Indian culture and tradition and has a long history. I am learning that the symbol represents wisdom and spirituality and is made from a blend of sandalwood, saffron and other natural ingredients. It also has deep spiritual meaning and is said to help achieve inner peace.

Admittedly, it’s hard for me to feel anything else in this environment. It’s a royal welcome like I’ve never experienced before. Built in 1746 as a summer residence for the Maharaja Jagat Singh II of Udaipur, the five-star hotel is now one of the city’s most famous landmarks and offers the other guests and I a unique experience amidst the spectacular waterfront backdrop. It is a masterpiece of architecture and craftsmanship with a mixture of Mughal and Rajput styles.

Historical references

The Taj Lake Palace has a total of 17 suites and 66 luxury rooms.

(Photo: Taj Hotels)

Although the name of the palace is probably unknown to many, it is secretly known to everyone who has seen the James Bond film Octopussy. The palace provided the stunning setting for the 1983 action thriller starring Roger Moore. I too think that every corner of the palace is ready for film and I can understand the choice of this location.

The restaurants serve a variety of Indian, Continental and Oriental dishes. The Bhairo and the Jharoka offer me not only a special culinary experience, but also a view of the lake and the surrounding mountains.

Marble as far as the eye can see

The drive from the Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur to Jodhpur takes around four and a half hours. I see one thing in particular: marble as far as the eye can see. The mountain range stretches over several hundred kilometers and is one of the oldest in the world. Marble and granite were quarried here for the construction of royal palaces, but also for international trade. So also for the palace, which I visit next.

Blending Western and Indian architecture, the Umaid Bhawan Palace sits on a hill overlooking the city of Jodhpur in northwest India. In relation to the Water Palace in Udaipur, I think it looks massive and coarse, yet incredibly elegant.

Visiting India: Carsten K. Rath in conversation with the manager of the Umaid Bhawan Palace

The palace houses an impressive collection of works of art and artifacts, including antique clocks, paintings and sculptures. A visit to the nearby Mehrangarh Fort is an absolute must. Its walls are over 36 meters high and more than ten kilometers long. The fortress consists of several courtyards and palaces built by different rulers over the centuries. I was able to see the fortifications up close and enjoy the view of the structure and the rose garden while having breakfast at the palace’s Pillars Restaurant.

During my stay at Umaid Bhawan Palace there was never a dull moment. According to my taste, the days were planned from morning to evening – with visits to the surrounding sights, great breakfast, lunch and dinner locations and sporting activities. The diversity of the country and the service of the palaces is overwhelming. In a few days I get so much on offer – I have to pause consciously to let the impressions work on me in their fullness.

Another place of longing in India is the city of Jaipur, also known as the Pink City. The city lives up to its name, as the buildings are mostly made of pink sandstone and give the city an almost fairytale appearance.

Umaid Rambagh Palace

In 1957 the palace was converted into a luxury hotel.

(Photo: Carsten K. Rath)

Rambagh Palace was built in 1835 and originally served as the Maharaja’s hunting lodge. In 1957 the palace was converted into a luxury hotel and in 1972 the Taj Group took over and renovated it.

Taj is a company of the Indian Tata Group and has been managed very successfully for many years by the excellent hotelier Puneet Chhatwal. Chhatwal has taken this venture to new heights. It is now one of the best hotel companies in the world and is on par with the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton companies, but is much more expansive.

I’m curious when the second hotel will open in Europe – London already has a Taj Hotel.

The opulent interiors, with gold-studded ceilings, marble floors and intricately carved wooden doors and windows, are lavishly decorated with antique furniture and works of art – historical artifacts that reflect the history and culture of Rajasthan.

Suite at Rambagh Palace

Historical artefacts also reflect the history and culture of Rajasthan in the rooms.

(Photo: Taj Hotels)

Although not surrounded by water, the location of this house is spectacular. The palace is set in 47 hectares of lush gardens, a lake, a golf course and a polo course. The activities of the palace that are offered to the guests and me here are as diverse as its furnishings: from peacock feeding to traditional dance performances to a visit to the nearby Johari jewelry bazaar.

Rath’s travel rating (current rating in bold)

1. Explicit Travel Warning
2. Better than under the bridge
3. So-so, not oh, là, là
4. Complaining at a high level
5. If only it were always like this
6. Great cinema

Insider tips:

Yoga and street food in Jaipur: Jaipur has many yoga centers and Ayurvedic clinics offering a variety of wellness programs and treatments. After such a treatment, you should indulge yourself with some street food. Try famous traditional dishes like the lentil dish dal baati churma or pyaaz kachori, a fried pastry stuffed with onions.

Zip Lining over Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur: At Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur, adventurous visitors who are not afraid of heights can fly over the fort on a zip-line, enjoying stunning views of the city and surrounding area.

Boat trip on Lake Pichola: A boat trip on Lake Pichola offers spectacular views of the city and surrounding hills. Also visit Jag Mandir Island and the Lake Palace located on the lake.

About the author: As a former grand hotelier and operator of the travel platform, Carsten K. Rath is a professional globetrotter. He travels to all the hotels he writes about for the Handelsblatt on his own account. Rath is the brain behind the ranking “The 101 best hotels in Germany”, whose partners include the Handelsblatt. Rath is also the author of the book on the ranking, co-authored by Michael Raschke (Handelsblatt).

Carsten K. Rath, Michael Raschke: The 101 best hotels in Germany 2022/23.
Institute for Service and Leadership Excellence AG/Handelsblatt
594 pages
39.90 euros
ISBN: 978-3033094574

More: This is what makes the 101 best hotels in Germany so successful

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