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This is the best way to see India in style

Exploring India with Abercrombie & Kent is a treat for all the senses, uniting palaces, bazaars and legendary monuments across some of the country’s most colourful (and historic) cities, writes Cathy Wagstaff.

India is the kind of place that delivers a sensual slap in the face the minute you step off the plane. The heat, smells, colours and constant chatter envelop you, sinking into your clothes, your skin and your hair; lingering as a constant reminder of your visit for days, sometimes weeks, after you leave.

My introduction to India is at once chaotic and yet extremely comfortable thanks to the fact that I’m visiting with luxury travel purveyors, Abercrombie & Kent. Over the next 10 days travelling west we’ll rub shoulders with clubbing socialites, sip wine with a maharaja, visit medieval ruins and glittering shops. We’ll check in to some of the most opulent hotels on the planet, such as The Oberoi Amarvilas in the city of Agra, home to the Taj Mahal.

The Oberoi Amarvilas have Taj Mahal views from your room
See the Taj Mahal from your room at The Oberoi Amarvilas

Luxurious travel in Delhi

I’ve touched down in Delhi, the Indian capital, anxious to immerse myself in the thick of the country’s milieu. Delhi is the third-largest urban area in the world, after Tokyo and Jakarta respectively. It doesn’t take long for the thrum of millions of people converging to become my backdrop – it’s almost hypnotic, in the same way white noise is.

New Delhi

Despite its name, New Delhi is old. It has  been continuously inhabited since around 600 BC. Its heritage is almost comparable to the likes of Rome, Istanbul and Cairo. Some of this history peeks from behind tangles of electric wires and pancaked layers of Bollywood posters as we jump in our own rickshaw to explore the Old Town – a glimpse of the Turkman Gate; the towering minarets of India’s largest mosque; the Red Fort, the residence of Mughal emperors until 1857.

Chandni Chowk markets

At the heart of the Old Town is the 17th-century markets of Chandni Chowk. Clinging to the narrowest of alleys, the stalls here seem to be held together by ramshackle concrete and tarmac. But what treasures they reveal. There are perfectly poised pyramids of spices, dried fruits that twinkle like gems, actual jewels gleaming from hula-hoops of bangles, vivid saris and petite bottles of perfumed oils redolent of jasmine, patchouli and sandalwood. I flip through books precariously piled to the ceiling, stationary with gilded letterheads; then I soak up the aroma of grilled corn doused in garam masala, cumin and lime; and tooth-achingly-sweet desserts like gulab jumun (donuts in honey and saffron syrup) and pistachio kulfi (a thick ice cream).

Chandni Chowk markets, New Delhi, Delhi, India
1. © Sachin Singh Parihar, 2. © Memories Over Mocha

Haveli Dharampura

We head to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Haveli Dharampura, a glorious 19th-century building once derelict and now lovingly restored. The hotel has retained the buildings intricate Mughal-era architecture with extraordinary ornate archways. We enjoy a chef’s tasting menu mingling street food with traditional Indian dishes at Lakhori restaurant – think masala fish curry, matia mahal rarha gosht (a type of mutton stew) and purani Delhi ki paneer tokri (a cheese curry, served in the style of Old Delhi).

Haveli Dharampura in new delhi
Haveli Dharampura is a glorious 19th-century building once derelict and now lovingly restored

Agra and the Taj Mahal

Nothing quite prepares you for the first time you glimpse the Taj – it’s hauntingly beautiful, whether you’re visiting at sunrise, sunset or any hour in between. From dawn to dusk, the sun transforms this epic mausoleum. It may seem pearly grey and pale pink at sunrise, dazzling white at high noon, or an orange-bronze when the sun sets. In the evenings, the Taj can appear translucent blue. It’s the epitome of exquisite craftsmanship and a sublime shrine to eternal love. The Taj Mahal was built between 1631 and 1648 by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and dedicated to Jahan’s favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth.

The Taj from The Oberoi Amarvilas

It’s one thing to wander the grounds of the Taj; it’s another to glimpse this World Heritage Site from your hotel room at The Oberoi Amarvilas, where we check in. You can also see it when you sip a cocktail on a silk sofa in the bar or on the terrace. Not to mention the pool, arguably the most spectacular in India with its tiered waterways and arches positioned just so amid impossibly manicured gardens.

The Chand Baori stepwell

From Agra we begin our road trip to Jaipur and the state of Rajasthan. We travel along roads where rickshaws compete in traffic with wide-eyed cows, rainbow-hued Tata trucks and rickety bicycles. We pause at the ancient village of Abhaneri to see the Chand Baori stepwell, an architectural marvel that’s like something out of an Escher painting, its various terraces consisting of more than 3,500 narrow stairs cascading down 13 stories – tilt your head and it resembles an inverted pyramid. Built in the 9th-century AD, the structure was once used to conserve water, and as a place where royals and locals alike would gather to keep cool. Today, it’s a magnet for those looking for a postcard-worthy image. Not that they’re in short supply in Rajasthan.

The Chand Baori stepwell
The Chand Baori stepwell

Mountbatten Lodge

Mountbatten Lodge is located high in the Aravalli hills near Kumbhalgarh Fort. This four-room estate evokes Kipling-era India, replete with wingback chairs and a restaurant serving old-school hunting recipes. Then there are the vintage photos, which we’re shown by owner Reggie Singh. Reggie twirls his moustache while he regales us with stories of his misspent youth, of coming face-to-whisker with tigers, of exploring soaring mountains… Of course, there’s jazz and gin-and-tonics while we gossip.

Jaipur

Jaipur was founded in 1727 by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II and today the capital of the state of Rajasthan. The city began its life as a place where leathermakers, weavers, furniture builders and jewellers created custom pieces for rich merchants – and richer royals – who passed through town on their way to other outposts in the Mughal empire. Today, the city remains a site of pilgrimage for anyone interested in shopping, not to mention architecture – this is the ‘pink city’, after all, known for its beautiful palaces, forts and bazaars.

Much of Jaipur’s regal history is preserved at the City Palace, where a museum holds a cloister of precious Rajasthani costumes and armoury of the Mughals and Rajputs, including swords, antiques and artefacts. It’s also on display at Hawa Mahal (‘Palace of Winds’), a five-tiered building with a wedding-cake façade.

Jaipur city palace
Jaipur City Palace © Tanarch, Adobe Stock
Hawa Mahal in Jaipur India
The five-tiered Hawa Mahal (‘Palace of Winds’) © Adobe Stock

Leela Palace Jaipur

The wedding theme continues at our accommodation, the Leela Palace Jaipur, a palatial hotel close to the Amber Fort and complete with intricate latticework, glittering thikri (traditional glass inlay work) and colourful murals in Mughal tradition. The lavish reception on arrival is the stuff of royalty: we’re showered with pink rose petals in the way a bride is doused in confetti. Then we’re handed pink champagne and a bouquet of 24 pink roses. Welcome to the ‘pink city’.

Rambagh Palace

Jaipur is not short of regal establishments; another awaits us at Rambagh Palace, one of India’s finest hotels. Built in 1835 as the hunting lodge (and later, primary residence) of the Maharaja of Jaipur, and now managed by the venerable Taj hotel group, the Rambagh Palace is one of those places where history is alive and well, thanks to plenty of nods to the former occupants and their 1930’s heyday. At the front gates a horse and carriage awaits to transport us along the driveway flanked by gardens ablaze with vibrant blooms, fountains and prancing peacocks, the national bird of India.

The whole setting is a romantic tale of the Maharaja, as well as his legendary consort, Maharani Gayatri Devi, widely considered as being the most beautiful woman in India. Looks aside, Gayatri was a pioneer for women, starting the first all-girls college in Rajasthan, Maharani Gayatri Devi Girls’ Public School, alongside being a successful politician, a social reformer, an equestrienne and a polo player. Quite a trendsetter in the fashion stakes as well.

Read: Exploring the palace hotels of Rajasthan

© Rambagh Palace, Jaipur

Udaipur: The city of lakes

Around the world, many dynasties live and die beside the water. It’s no different in Udaipur, surrounded by lakes Pichola, Fateh Sagar and Swaroop Sagar. It’s on the banks of Pichola that we check in to The Oberoi Udaivilas. Arriving here is like stepping into a fairytale. The welcome is all flower petals and floaty music, only outshone by the grand architecture, nodding to the palaces of Rajasthan through its resplendent pavilions and domes; the interiors are a beguiling union of hand-painted frescoes, intricate mirror-work and artefacts. In this oasis in the fertile Girwa Valley, it’s hard to believe that desert sands are just kilometres away. I’m besotted by the extraordinary architecture.

The same stylings are in full force at sunset, when we board a boat and glide across Pichola toward the swoon-worthy Taj Lake Palace hotel. The shimmering water is blushing in the end-of-the-day sunlight; the surface so still that it mirrors the Aravalli range in the distance. I can’t imagine a more dreamy setting – small wonder it was featured in the James Bond film Octopussy.

© Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur

The Blue City of Jodhpur

It’s said that Jodhpur’s buildings are painted indigo as the colour reflects the sunlight; some believe it also deters termites. Whatever the reason, the ‘blue city’ dazzles. The aromas of incense and rose follow us through the narrow streets to the bustling Sardar Market, selling everything from trumpets and temple decorations to snuff and saris. Towering over us is the mighty Mehrangarh, a muscular fort with such intricately carved walls that you’ll think they’re stencilled on. Indeed, artistic traditions are preserved in this part of Rajasthan, as we learn visiting local potters and weavers, who keep up a century-old tradition of crafting dhurrie works (heavy cotton floor coverings).

Blue city and Mehrangarh fort on the hill in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India..
Jodhpur © Adobe Stock

The clamour of the Old Town fades when we check in to the Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, the largest, most magnificent, most dramatic palace in the land. The Maharaja and his family still live here in what was once entirely his family home. Today, he shares it with an exclusive posse of guests. The Maharaja is a busy man. But thanks to Abercrombie & Kent’s ‘little black book’ of connections, he makes the time to not only meet our group, but spend a few hours entertaining us with stories over wine and snacks delivered by elegantly attired waiters.

Because when you’re travelling with Abercrombie & Kent, royalty comes to you.

Where to go in India

In the north you’re in the land of Rajasthan and all its wild treasures; the foothills of the Himalayas beckon to the adventurous. Inland you become lost to the bustle of Delhi and the ‘Golden Triangle’, for who would want to miss seeing the white spires the Taj Mahal and the famous pink hues of Jaipur?

Life has a slower speed in the south, with the beach-fringed west coast boasting a string of coastal gems. Then, if you venture away from the coast, you find yourself amid forests, tiger reserves, national parks and cities speckled with temples and steeped in history.

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