Udaipur: Embracing the opulence and majestic beauty of this royal lake city
Leading travel writer Anuja Gaur visits Udaipur, also known as the City of Lakes, and explores the crown jewel of the state of Rajasthan.
The memory from 2002 is still as bright as yesterday; flicking through my favourite Asian magazine, longingly eyeing up the gorgeous saris and couture, when, suddenly, I was captured by a photo of a white marble palace built in the middle of a lake. A special spread on the Taj Lake Palace Hotel and Oberoi Udaivillas followed and, suddenly, I was being chauffeured by boat across the majestic Pichola Lake, welcomed with pink rose petals perfuming the air and finally guided to my grand chambers like a royal princess.
Fast forward to the present, an hour flight from Delhi, two high-pitched, wailing babies either side of me and a no check in baggage escape; I was finally in Udaipur. I was warmly greeted by my chauffeur, who made a quick call to my hotelier friend regarding my intact arrival. With just a brief two night stay and the promise of a VIP tour of the Leela Palace Hotel, I was recommended the comforts of the Fateh Niwas Heritage Hotel for my accommodation. A little lesser known on the radar, compared to its larger royals, but a 45-minute drive, focus of eyes and a welcome with fresh rose lemonade, the richness of this place appeared no less mesmerising.
Intricate stone carvings and statues played the signature theme on the grounds, with the property itself a pale yellow gold, which was in sync with the neutral outdoor surroundings. I was no less disappointed with the reception’s handwoven carpets, antique style furniture and paintings adorning the whitewashed walls. The decor remained limited to key pieces as opposed to over-cluttered beliefs that lots is more and the staff were nothing but warm, courteous and evidently proud of their workplace.
My room continued with the minimalistic theme, keeping the furniture to the essentials, while empathising the already large space and I was pleased to find door that opened up to a spacious balcony, which was ideal for morning chai (tea) sessions.
The manager insisted I check out the rooftop pool with the company of a cocktail. A quick freshen up, walk up to the rooftop and swing of the door, and my heart nearly stopped…The rooftop? Average; the pool? nice; but the views; oh my the views. Sipping cosmopolitans at the Radio Rooftop, or vodka hot chocolates at 230 Fifth in the concrete jungles of London and New York didn’t come even remotely close to this moment. With my second beautifully fresh rose lemonade in hand, I sat back, lost in the deep, rich emerald sparkle of the lush greenery enveloping each corner, stretching out as far as the eye could see. Million dollar views is an understatement.
An hour later I received a back-to-reality phone call that my carriage was waiting, the Fateh Niwas is a 10-minute drive to what cannot be anything other than a gateway to paradise. The stunning palace boat was floating on the shores of the serene Lake Pichola as the gentle boat man greeted me warmly and fired up the engine.
I lost count on the skips of my heartbeat during the 5-minute ride. Among the darkening skies a full moon welcomed me to its home with an orange luminous glow, lighting up the skies and dancing down on the royal treasures of the Taj Lake Palace, City Palace and Jag Mandir. The engine slowed down as we approached a palace shimmering like a jewel ahead of me, while a mysterious gentleman made his way down the red carpet with smiles galore, welcoming me to heaven on water… aka The Leela Palace.
I was helped out of the boat by the gentleman, none other than the Leela’s exceptionally handsome (cough) assistant general manager and my fellow dessert and Rajasthan loving BFF, Mr Prateek Virendra Swarup; widely known for this #localnottourist tag on social media posts on every place he’s lived, holidayed, dined and now honeymooned with his beautiful bride Damini.
Due to the dark hours I unfortunately missed out on what otherwise includes a grand welcome reception true Maharani style, with handfuls of fresh rose petals showered on me in all directions. Several staff are still on hand greeting me profusely as I walk by basking in a happy glow.
The reception flawlessly handles the gold touches without being over the top and I resisted the urge to sink my face in the fresh flower centrepiece, while narrowly avoiding knocking the priceless ornaments when staring at the gorgeous Murano glass chandelier.
I scored the jackpot as one of the top luxury suites was available for viewing, which, on entry, easily rivals the proportions of a one bedroom apartment. Everything sings aristocratic elegance, from the chocolate wooden flooring, Zardozi embroidered cushions, Aladdin’s cave furnishings to another exquisite Murano crystal chandelier, supported on a mosaic dome ceiling in rich warm colours of white and gold.
I was fortunate to receive a brief behind-the-scenes encounter of the staff’s offices, all working the most unsociable hours around the clock just to keep this beauty, the much deserved winner of the TripAdvisor’s Traveller’s Choice Award.
We moved on, walking past the outdoor dining area of The Sheesh Mahal, where diners get treated to some of the most heavenly Venice of the East views. A stunning centre pool feature caught my eye with its natural stone slabs, black and white mosaics and twinkling lights – I had to take a moment to catch my breath. The lake spa is no less breathtaking, housed in a luxury tent adorned with the richest linens and silk, where guests are offered the award winning ESPA products to create a truly outstanding Ayurvedic experience fit for the royals of Rajasthan.
We ventured back inside just as a traditional folk dance was about to begin in the courtyard. Releasing Prateek to wrap up his day I sat back with a (shaken not stirred, naturally) pomegranate and mint Martini as two dancers took to the marble stage. Beautifully dressed in traditional outfits of the richest fabrics and colours, they could rival the highest priced couture gracing the pages of Vogue and Elle. A group of talented musicians sang away in their native language, while the girls moved effortlessly around the stage, their ankle bells jingling away, mesmerising the audiences.
Just as Prateek reappeared I watched in fear as the dancers took to the audience to pull the women for some shakes and moves on stage. A childhood phobia of stage performances, I vigorously shook my head as one of the girls approached me for a dance off, much to my relief leaving me be on my polite refusal (unlike a particularly borderline aggressive belly dancer in Dubai). As my tummy grumbled with a request to be fed, we made our way to a quiet local for a long overdue catchup and mammoth lecture for missing the #localnottourist wedding of the year.
After a solid 8-hour shut eye in one of the most comfortable king size beds to date and a morning tea on my room balcony, I headed to the Fateh Niwas’s dining room for breakfast where, somehow, my request for a pot of Darjeeling tea and simple continental basket also turned into a fresh orange juice, lightly spiced cheese and mushroom omelette and an Aloo Paratha. Not at all used to heavy breakfasts, I also didn’t have the heart to return the dishes so excitedly brought out to me.
The waiter did assure me to manage whatever I could and I can’t deny the Aloo Paratha did well to tempt me with its delicious aroma and piping hot crispiness. Considering the size and initial lack of appetite I successfully put away half and polished off the majority of the omelette, perfectly cooked and without the oily ooze of overstuffed cheese. I was touched when the chef came out to check on me and insisted on having the untouched continental selection sent to my room, should I feel a little peckish later in the day.
A lazy stroll around the beautiful hotel grounds, yet another rose lemonade and an afternoon nap to beat the peak burn of the sun’s rays and I headed off to Monsoon Palace, much to the delight of my 007-loving father, as well as experiencing the regal splendour of City Palace.
The daytime boat ride back to the Leela Palace for breakfast the following morning was just as gorgeous as the night and seeing this fairytale city amongst blue smog-free skies and sparkles of the crystal Lake Pichola was beautiful.
Guests are spoilt for breakfast choices in the dining room with classic Indian, continental, healthy or forget-the-calorie content options. Keeping it light, I opted for scrambled eggs, toast and Darjeeling tea, which was brought to me in a beautiful solid silver teapot. The bread basket contained a white and wholegrain selection and the small, but great-quality, eggs portion had a super-rich and creamy texture. A sprinkle of chives enhanced the flavour, while some grilled tomatoes and a crispy potato rosti kept the eggs company. As I rounded my breakfast off with a chilled glass of fresh orange juice, a box of chocolate and vanilla muffins was handed to me in the event of a munchies attack on the flight back.
Stomach content, muffins firmly in grasp and set for departure, I gave my #localnottourist BFF a final bear hug and million gratitudes for helping make my Udaipur Palace Heaven dream come true. Sighing with happiness I embarked on my final boat ride, soaking up my last moments of the illustrious sights in this city before departing back to my beloved Delhiites.
Udaipur truly signifies the epitome of luxury, opulence and history in every corner. The Leela Palace has left no stone unturned to provide guests the Maharaja/Maharani treatment they envision before even setting foot in the hotel. The Fateh Niwas truly deserves its grand reputation, although a niggling feeling that select visitors wanting to quench their thirst with the full-on experience of rainbow silk drapes, antique dhabka embroidered throw covers, 24 carat gold taps and tigers roaming in the garden, may be left feeling dehydrated with the understated richness and non flashy elegance of this property. For the masses and yours truly it’s a struggle to find faults and I’ll surely be keeping my promise of making this home once again.