Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body, and music is the food inside the heart.” – Gregory David Roberts (Shantaram)
India happens to be one of those special places that embody different things, to different people. It is a place where contemporary modernity is fused with ancient wisdom. It is a place where magic exists, as well as a healthy dose of realism. Some get lost in the bowels of its chaos, only to find their inner voice. Others stray on the path of mysticism, but end up finding spirituality. To a certain extent, and without romanticising the thought â travel to India, is a calling; and the only way to truly experience the land, is to immerse yourself body, mind and soul.
WHICH PART OF INDIA?
Earlier this year we had visited Goa, the Ibiza of the East â and soaked in the sun, whilst dancing to our hearts content amongst revellers from around the world. The hippie trail is very much alive; and Goan-Portuguese fusion is something to marvel about. But this time around, we wanted to experience true authentic rustic charm albeit seeped in history.
The more we researched, the more we were drawn to Rajasthan, the land of kings – with its forts and palaces providing a perfect backdrop for us to experience the culture of the land. Spoilt for choice â we had options aplenty – to visit Jaipur (fondly known as the Pink City) or check out historical Jodhpur and Ajmer.
Instead, we locked in Udaipur, for its beautiful lakes and lush greenery found during this time of the year. This City of Lakes, home to the majestic Leela Palace got us rooting for Udaipur. As you read through this article, youâll know why.
WHEN TO GO?
The ideal time to visit Udaipur is during its winter season (November to February), which also happens to be its peak season. With temperatures hovering in the 20s, tourists as well as Indians from around the country throng this city for a bit of sightseeing as well as to shop to their hearts content in the many craft markets that spring up.
But if youâre like me, with a knack for spotting a bargain; then youâll want to check out Udaipur during its off-peak season, especially during the tail-end of the monsoons â preferably in August. With hotels and resorts offering a steep bargain, and not many tourists around; you get the luxury of being able to enjoy the beauty of Udaipur without feeling too boxed in by other travellers. Just make sure you bring along a sturdy umbrella, in case the rain gods get up to mischief.
HOW TO GET THERE?
From our home base in Dubai, we are often spoilt for choices when it comes to directly reaching a destination. But no such luck with Udaipur. Instead we had to first fly to chaotic Delhi, endure an 8-hour layover at the Indira Gandhi International Airport., before catching a domestic flight (we opted for Indigo airlines). Thankfully, Terminal 3 is quite clean and the Plaza Premium Lounge (land side, arrivals) offered sleeping pods, showers comfy sofas and refreshments to ease the wait-time. Flight time from Delhi to Udaipur is approximately 75mins.
If Delhi isnât your cup of coffee, you may want to connect via Mumbai.
Upon landing in Udaipur, you canât help but notice that the air quality is a stark improvement â itâs clean, crisp and fresh. A far cry from what we experienced in Delhi. Maharana Pratap Airport, though small is modern and extremely clean â collecting our luggage was a hassle free experience, and in no time found our way to the exit.
There, amongst a crowd of hotel attendants, and the general public waiting eagerly to receive their loved ones â we spotted Kamal, our chauffeur proudly holding our name card. With an effervescent smile on his face, two twinkling beads for eyes he welcomed us with genuine warmth, before ushering us into a luxurious BMW 5 series.
The road trip was a mere 35min journey, followed by a short boat trip on idyllic Lake Pichola, before we could set foot on the hotel Palace grounds. During the drive, Kamal was all too kind to engage us in healthy banter; sharing insights about Udaipur, its royal history; and sights that we could explore during our time in India. Having a funny bone helped; for his conversations were peppered with humor.
âIf you wish to drive through India â you just need 3 things. Good horn, good brakes and good luck. Everything else will sort itself out.â â Kamal, Chauffeur Leela Palace, Udaipur
They say time has a habit of fleeting, when youâre enjoying the moment. Strangely, it felt like we knew Kamal for a long time; such was the camaraderie. We reached the private jetty; Kamal introduced us to the boat captain and bid adieu. With bated breath, and a mix of awe and palpating excitement we soaked in the sights of the lake.
Soothing sounds of the water, birds chirping, sunny sky; and we then laid our eyes on the structure that is The Leela Palace. In one word, beautiful.
Now Iâve seen my share of Bollywood movies, and they make for an entertaining experience. I seem to have a soft spot for Indian movies that revolve around family (for instance Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo) with the highlight being how they welcome family members into the household.
From the moment you step off the boat, and onto the Palace grounds youâre deemed as one with The Leela family. With local artistes bellowing Rajasthani folk music, rose petals raining from the sky and being greeted by a beautiful attendant who marks your forehead with a tikka (to signify welcome) â you canât help but feel that youâre in a dream like sequence.
Akansha, from the Front Office team escorted us into our luxurious suite aptly named Chand Mahal (Moon Palace). Located on the top most floor and boasting unobstructed views of the entire Lake Pichola and the Aravelli mountain range, this is the room to be had â to impress, and be impressed. It also happens to be one of only eight suites on the property, with Grand Heritage rooms making up the remaining 72.
Check-in was actually finalised within the suite, ensuring utmost privacy. Thereafter, we were introduced to Puja, our floor butler who during the course of our stay made it her mission that our every whim and fancy was catered to.
The suite itself was an embodiment of luxurious refinement and workmanship. The living room featured inviting warm dark tones, with subtle mood lighting and delicate marble design pieces that oozed sophistication. The interior design was spot on, with all elements coming together in contemporary harmony.
The bedroom is massive, ornate with exquisite embroidered tapestry gracing sections of the room; plush mattresses and pillows to offer you a relaxing sleep. Both the bedroom and living room, offered massive balcony space to soak in the morning sunrise, or sip on a drink or two whilst watching the sunset over the lake. Did I mention that the suite features two TVs, just in case you prefer catching up on a movie, whilst your better half is fixated on world affairs?
Last but not the least, the bathroom presented his and hers vanity counters, a gorgeous bathtub with scrub and soak salts; along with a bespoke range of toiletries. To say that all creature comforts were at the tips of our finger-tips would be an understatement.
Born with a restless soul, Iâve had the pleasure of constantly traveling and experiencing hospitality from across the four corners of the world. Suffice to say, it isnt easy to genuinely impress me. But what I experienced at the hands of The Leela is something I am still trying to come in terms with. From the chauffeur to the floor butler, from random hotel attendants walking through the hallway to the gardener, from the gatekeeper to the Chef â all of them through their kind mannerism and genuine warmth made us feel welcomed and safe.
Whilst out and about exploring the massive hotel grounds, we were always acknowledged with a smile and a greeting. When it rained sporadically, we were surprised with attendants rushing to us with umbrellas, lest we catch a cold. When we changed our minds and updated our experiences itinerary, it was accommodated promptly and hassle-free. Room service was a breeze. It felt like nothing could go wrong.
Understandably, these are the hallmarks of a 5 star hotel â but no hotel instruction manual could impart such stellar service; service with a dose of empathy and compassion, normally reserved amongst family members. Springs to mind a verse I read during my travels, Atithi Devo Bhava â which roughly translates to âGuest is Godâ. Looks like the staff at this property, abide by this principle and I salute them for that.
LAKE PICHOLA SUNSET BOAT RIDE
The city of Udaipur is an adventure by itself, but truth be told there are a host of experiences that one could soak in, without having to leave the palace grounds. Driven by a desire to know more about the regions history, as well as the amazing architecture of this hotel we booked a session with a senior historian. He provided an interesting insight into the heritage of the Mewar region; and was kind enough to indulge our fascination with Indian art by showing many a handcrafted pieces of work, that adorn the hotel walls and dÃ©cor.
This was followed by a walk to the private jetty, where a beautifully decorated boat was primed and ready to show us the sights and sounds around Lake Pichola, at sunset. Cruising along the lake, we witnessed the City Palace lights being switched on; giving it a golden glow â surreal at best.
The astonishing facts surrounding Jag Mandir brought a smile to our face. Did you know that the Mughal Emperor who built the Taj Mahal was given sanctury at this palace, by the Maharana Karan Singh (King of Udaipur)? Such was the impact of this act of kindness, that the Mughal Emperor took inspiration from this structure and built what is now known as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Howâs that for a bit of history themed trivia eh?
To top that, when the sun eventually begins to set over the mighty Aravalli mountain range; with the sky turning hues of orange and pink; you canât help but feel overcome by a sense of serenity and peace. Profound beauty is known to have that impact â we were mesmerized. As part of the sunset cruise, a delectable array of canapÃ©s was served along with drinks.
Note: If youâre a DISCOVERY Loyalty member, you may redeem this Local Experience online at gha.com â or alternatively, you may request your floor butler to arrange this as part of your itinerary.
The property boasts an amazing world-class restaurant, quite simplistically named The Dining Room. After spending many a morning, afternoon and evening feasting on a myriad of choice Indian Royal delicacies, Iâve come to respect that sheer amount of work that goes on in the kitchen. Nothing simple about the preparation; that much I can assure you.
Chef Rupak, the magician par extraordinaire who we had the privilege of meeting â literally cooked up a storm. For the entire duration of our trip, we had but only one request â to ensure that the Chef surprise us with Indian delicacies, not tweaked for foreign palettes. We wanted to taste Indian food, the way itâs meant to be had â and this turned out to be quite an immersive experience, that left us smiling ear to ear. From the high flavour profiles found in slow cooked meat, to the rich creamy textures of delicious curries and the delicate sweetness of desserts, we were gob smacked.
In-addition to The Dining Room, the hotel specializes in creating bespoke âDestination Diningâ experiences. The beauty of this being, the menu is entirely customisable and tailored as per your wishes. You get to select from some really exquisite private dining spots around the Palace grounds â perfect to pop that very important life changing question; or simply to celebrate a milestone.
With a month to go to celebrate our first wedding anniversary; we took the liberty to usher in this milestone. From an alcove overlooking Lake Pichola (offering beautiful views of the City Palace), to a romantic Guava garden patio, to dining on a boat (decked out in royal furnishings) you are literally spoilt for choice. Which romantic spot do you reckon we finalised on? Read along, to find out more.
INNER COURTYARD FEELS
During the day, the extremely beautiful inner courtyard with its white and black chequered floorings and water fountains serves as quite the idyllic spot to unwind and catch up on a book or two. There is a local flute artiste at hand, who blissfully plays soothing melodies, enveloping you with an aura of tranquillity.
After sunset though, the fountains give way to a podium upon which daily evening entertainment is showcased â in the form of Rajasthani folk dances.
Be it the foot tapping music of the Mewar region, or the girls dancing with fire laden pots atop their head, these sessions are as much engaging as they are educational. They are reflective of the rural customs and traditions of the region. As far as Iâm concerned, if there is music â it doesnât matter if I understand the lyrics or not; all that matters to me is if my heart connects to the rhythm of the beat; and it did on this occasion. Memorable experiences indeed, especially if you give into the moment.
One thing is certain, the hotel grounds are massive â and exploring various sections makes for quite an enjoyable experience. Iâll like to think, Iâm quite the eagle eyed lass; but even I missed out on noticing this gem of a place. Bang in the middle of a host of trees, dense enough to make this a secret hideaway yet airy enough for light rays to dance about euphorically â stood the award winning Spa by ESPA.
The spa experiences are sure to pamper and nourish your mind, body and soul; but what stole the show for us was swimming around in that quaint sized pool that gave it a tropical feel.
Those who prefer living life Godzilla-size can always try out possibly one of the biggest pools weâve ever come across. We tried this out, and all that swimming left us with a voracious appetite.
Thankfully, The Dining Room was close enough for us to refuel and rejuvenate. Howâs that for a Swim-Eat-Relax-Repeat routine eh? Bliss, I tell you.
WINE AND DINE UNDERNEATH THE TWINKLING STARS
Like the adage, keep the best for last â we decided to celebrate our first wedding anniversary (albeit a month earlier) at the beautiful Sheesh Mahal, an outdoor fine dining Indian restaurant, overlooking the lake and the shimmering lights of the City Palace. We did so, by opting to redeem our DISCOVERY Loyalty Local Experience against this â the perks of subscribing to a travel loyalty programme.
Food is love, and good food almost always puts me in a good mood. If youâve been actively following my travel journey, then by now you may have realised that I have a habit of treating myself to such bespoke romantic experiences. Remember the Dining by Design experience at the ultra-luxurious Naladhu Private Islands, Maldives? That made for a very special moment â the scenery was fantastic, the service exceptional and the food top notch. But after dining at the Sheesh Mahal, we fell in love all over again; and hereâs why.
We werenât just given a table in the alcove (which is an awesome experience by itself); the hotel took it one step further and booked the entire terrace just for us. No other table in sights, making this an extremely private and cosy affair. Talk about a seven-star treatment.
Just me and my beau, looking into each otherâs eyes, reminiscing over many a romantic memory, whilst in the process of creating new ones. The clear sky laden with twinkling stars, oil lanterns dancing in the wind, soothing Indian melodies playing in the background coupled with the sweet scent of rose petals around the table only added to the overall romantic ambiance. Words canât describe the ethereal serenity of the moment; we felt it and itâs something we will always cherish.
The food though was outstanding â we explored Rajasthani cuisine and loved every bit of the experience. Definite must-haves for mains are the Daal Batti Churma (authentically rustic), Laal Maas (dish cooked for royalty); and Malai Ghevar (texture looks like a honeycomb) and Mango Shrikhand for desserts. Dishes were perfectly seasoned, bursting with top notch flavours with every bite putting a big smile on our faces. This together, Â with Kishan our attendant carefully explaining the history behind each dish, made this experience one of our top dining experiences, if not the best. Highly recommended.
THINGS TO DO IN/AROUND UDAIPUR
Udaipur, also referred to as the Venice of the East is set around a series of artificial lakes and is known for primarily royal residences and artisans. Following is a list of venues worth exploring in a day:
- City Palace: This magnificent structure towers over Lake Pichola. It features a complex of 11 palaces, courtyards and gardens famed for their intricate peacock mosaics. The balconies, cupolas, and towers of the palace give a wonderful view of the lake and the surrounding city. You may reach the grounds of the City Palace either by a tuk-tuk or by horse drawn carriage, for that authentic Indian feel.
- Crystal Gallery: Located within the City Palace complex, this gallery is the largest private collection of crystal in the world. Seeing is believing, and this is bound to strike you with awe.
- Monsoon Palace: Also known as the Sajjan Garh Palace, this 19th-century structure is built on top of the Bansdara hills, situated just outside Udaipur. The palace offers a panoramic view of the city’s lakes, other palaces and surrounding countryside. It was built specifically to watch the monsoon clouds. Bit of a ride, but scenic nonetheless.
- If you have an additional day, it’s worth checking out the Jag Mandir, Ahar Museum and Jagdish Temple. Just make sure you bring your DSLR camera along and get trigger happy.
WHAT I LOVED MOST?
Truth be told, Iâve always been fascinated with Indian weddings and how elaborate they tend to be. The very friendly yet attentive Akansha (from the front office team) on learning about my fascination, and the fact that we were a month shy from celebrating our first wedding anniversary surprised the daylights out of us.
One fine morning, whilst strolling around the property scouting for photo-op locations; we were approached by our floor butlers Puja and Sunil, along with Enjil. Together, they suggested we visit a particular section of the hotel that offered an amazing view. Oblivious to what was going on behind the scenes, we were escorted to this quiet part of the property â which featured a 100+ year old temple.
There in, it dawned on us that the team had planned an impromptu wedding. With tears of joy in my eyes, and my heart beaming with gratitude, my beau and I exchanged garlands and were pronounced man and wife, along with the tikka (mark on the forehead) and exchange of sweets forming part of the simple ceremony.
Subsequently, we made our way back into the hotel lobby; and to our surprise there was an army of hotel attendants waiting for us. It seemed like pretty much the entire compliment of hotel staff were in, on the act. With Rajasthani folk singers, crooning to their hearts delights and being showered by rose petals, we stepped foot into the hotel once again (akin to stepping foot into your new household for the first time after marriage). Our gaze then fell onto Akansha and Remiz, who had planned and coordinated this surprise. Like proud parents, they stood silent and watched the happiness on my face. There were a lot of photographs taken; and as a keep sake memento they created a newspaper cut out with some heart-warming content that made for emotional reading.
We often hear that money can buy you luxury; but as far as I am concerned true luxury is a memory that stays with you forever; an emotional bond forged through a powerful feeling that money canât buy. Words canât express my gratitude â many thanks you beautiful souls.
WHAT I DISLIKED?
If only the team could control the rain from playing hide nâ seek (I visited during the monsoon season after all). Jokes aside, faultless experience.
There is a very fine line that separates a stellar experience from a good one; and the only way to go about achieving greatness is if itâs done with all your heart and soul. The Leela Palace Udaipur, youâve won me over with your humility. I canât wait to come back. Many thanks for all the memories. Here is an experience video to give you a feel of how much we enjoyed our stay.