x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Embark on a custom-made tour of north India

In the company of kings on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see north India's best-known sights, Rosemary Behan decides that she enjoys being treated like royalty.

The Taj Mahal at sunrise. Rosemary Behan / The National
The Taj Mahal at sunrise. Rosemary Behan / The National

"Hello, royal services?" I've only called housekeeping to ask for a pillow, but there's something so genteel about the manner of the staff at the Leela Palace in Delhi that it makes you want to sink into a reverie.

In a way, it's nothing less than you should expect from India's most expensive hotel. Yet despite the country's royal past, and an abundance of five-star hotels, the words "luxury" and "India" don't easily go together. Perhaps it's the legacy of backpacking, of the familiar tales of package tourists who have been hassled from pillar to post in the "Golden Triangle" and the general perceived difference in standards (not to mention illness) that leads so many people to give the country a wide berth.

Personally, despite five trips to southern India, I'd put off travelling to the north because it sounded too much like hard work. Rigid itineraries, group tours with too little personalisation, crowds and long distances made the prospect of let-down more likely than luxury. In luxury hotels, there's the added problem of feeling like a spoiled colonial.

But was there a way of experiencing the best of royal India without too much effort, too many other people, exorbitant cost and obsequious service? I was about to find out. On a bespoke tour designed by Emirates Holidays, a tour operator used to catering to some of the world's fussiest guests, I'll be "doing" Delhi, Agra, Jodhpur and Udaipur in a week.

An overnight flight from Dubai isn't the best way to begin. I leave Abu Dhabi at 1am for a 5am departure, but thanks to the 2010 Commonwealth Games, my tiredness isn't compounded by queues when I arrive at Delhi's international airport, which is new, shiny and spacious.

It's an easy, fitting entry to the "new India" touted by cheerleaders of growth markets and dot-com millionaires.

Within half an hour I'm at the Leela Palace, which opened last year and had a build cost of $400 million (Dh1.5 billion). The lobby has high Lutyens-style pillars, beautiful flower arrangements, pure silver artefacts and fabulous mirrors. The delicate smell of incense and fresh roses and jasmine flowers accompanies me as I'm escorted to my room for check-in. There is a butler for every four rooms; mine shows me how I (as opposed to just anyone) could use the room amenities - and she delivers her lines in such a graceful yet purposeful manner I am like putty in her hands, agreeing to every statement and feeling uncharacteristically satisfied with everything.

After a nap, I'm taken to lunch on the relaxed Bandara Road by my Delhiite guide Nittin, who takes charge of everything from finding a place to park to what to order, and puts me straight on the differences between north Indian and Muglai food. After a delicious and inexpensive meal we tour the central parts of the city, including the Rajpath and Presidential Palace, which match almost perfectly the images I'd formed after reading Aravind Adiga's novel TheWhite Tiger. It looks and feels like central London. "The British found Old Delhi too chaotic, so these wide boulevards, gardens and roundabouts are basically what they came up with," says Nittin. We pass India Gate, built to commemorate the 90,000 soldiers who died in the First World War. "Now it's nothing more than a picnic spot," he says, matter-of-factly. At the Gandhi Memorial, which features the site of Gandhi's cremation and a burning torch amid peaceful gardens, Nittin succinctly explains the politics which led to his assassination in 1948, just a year after Indian independence.

Next it's off to Old Delhi past the spectacular Red Fort, which, thanks to its huge crenellated sandstone block walls and crows circling overhead is enough even today to frighten the average onlooker. We visit the 17th-century Great Mosque, Chowri Bazar and 16th-century Humayun's tomb, the exquisite precursor to the Taj Mahal built for the second Mughal ruler of modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan and north India by his devoted wife Hamida Banu Begum. Thanks to Nittin handling the tickets and guiding us around, we can both see through the crowds to admire the Mughals' finest monuments and get a rush from them: in the bazaar, he's pre-arranged bicycle rickshaws so we don't even have to haggle. Yet we're not completely immune from reality, and that's the beauty of it. Passing a butcher's where goats's heads are being dismembered on the pavement, Nittin exclaims: "Just look at his fingers, the way they are going in. Taking out the eyes and the brain. And they do this the whole day!"

Back at the Leela Palace, we head to dinner. In the all-day dining restaurant, Qube, wealthy Delhi families order $200 (Dh735) lobster and caviar pizzas; outside in the incense-scented courtyard outside suited businessmen sit alongside 1,000 gold-plated lotuses.

At 8am the next morning we depart in a luxury minibus for Agra. I don't mind road travel as long as I'm not with a group, as I enjoy seeing life at street level. We drive through affluent south Delhi and South Extension Part II, a shopping area, and residential southern Delhi suburbs with gated streets and mansions called things like Mayfair Garden. Nittin tells stories as we go. "Here is the bloody gate where the British killed the sons of the last Mughal so they could take over completely. On your right is the south-east Asian headquarters of the World Health Organisation. Keep looking - behind it is one of the filthiest slums in Delhi."

It's certainly not possible to fully insulate yourself from poverty in India - deformed beggars, whole families of homeless people and malodorous streets remind you that Adiga's unflattering portrait of India's corruption and wealth divides, while critical, is more than apt. I settle back into the reclining seats to catch up on work over the six-hour drive, but before long Nittin starts up again. He, too, is unflinching. "We're now entering UP [Uttar Pradesh]. Lord Rama, Krishna, Buddha etc were all born here, holy rivers flow through it and there are holy cities like Varanasi. The highest number of prime ministers come from here but today things are not that good. The population is 240m, it's the most densely populated state in India. People are very uneducated and poverty and illiteracy are on the rise. "

Nittin is, however, even more animated when it comes to the portrayal of India in Danny Boyle's film Slumdog Millionaire. Four years on, he's still angry about it. "The immediate effect was negative - tourists were suddenly worried about the seals on water and that their shoes would be stolen. The portrayal of Dharavi was ludicrous and very 1980s. India should have reacted more strongly to the film but because it was getting Oscars people accepted it."

After a discussion about Bahai'ism and how many people you can fit in a rickshaw, we reach Agra, a pretty market town and home to India's most famous monument. A cliché of tourism marketing attracting around four million tourists a year, I am fully expecting to be disappointed. Yet it's Agra that has lost its lustre, says Nittin, lamenting that the city, which was the third Mughal emperor Akbar's capital, has been in decline ever since. "In the 1570s Agra was considered one of the world's best cities. In London there was a sewage problem. Here everything was running fine. Now it's entirely different. The main state psychiatric hospital is also here."

My first real view of the Taj Mahal is from my hotel room at the palatial Oberoi Amarvilas, just 600m from the site entrance. It's almost the perfect view, as the main dome is clearly visible above a canopy of trees blocking out any sign of the town. It seems wasteful to close the curtains or even the balcony windows - and I can't imagine how anyone would have time to watch television.

We get another, closer but less ideal and certainly less exclusive view of it from the impressive but crowded Agra Fort, which dates from 1565. It was, Nittin says, "impregnable until the British arrived", and he tells us how its various defences included a double moat and wall, spikes, boiling oil and a crusher for attacking forces. We pass peacefully through its exquisite main gate - carved and inlaid red sandstone - and up a ramp to the main complex. It was here that the love story between Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal started. "There was a beautiful market here in the courtyard," says Nittin. "He saw her from up there and went down to meet her. She quoted him a high price but he bought a diamond and gave his heart. You can tell the intensity of the love by the number of children." The mausoleum was built after Mumtaz died giving birth to the couple's 14th child; the main flaw in the romance is, for me, that Jahan had countless concubines.

Yet there's no doubting the romance of the Oberoi Amarvilas. The exterior courtyards and gardens are beautifully lit at night and the view of everything from my balcony, accompanied by the smell of burning woodsmoke and the slow chant of ragas from the surrounding villages, is worth coming to India for on its own. There's a marked difference in service between the Leela and the Oberoi; while the Leela is gentle and soothing, the Oberoi is stiffer. The male staff wear elaborate uniforms and march about like rajas, more poised than many of their guests. "Certainly," is their standard response, "You may chose/start/sit here."

The next morning at 6am, we reach the front of the queue at the Taj Mahal complex in the comfort of a golf buggy. Dozens of other tourists are with us, but I'm struck by my first close-up view of the main dome through an inner gateway. The white marble surface fills the frame so fully and serenely that I put my camera down and just stare. After two hours it's time to leave, but seeing the sun rise over the complex, cutting through the mist, is infinitely better than arriving with thousands of other day trippers in the middle of the day or afternoon.

It's time to head back to Delhi, where we stay at the new, ultra-modern Oberoi Gurgaon close to the airport, and take in some of the capital's remaining sights before flying on to Jodhpur. It's flying internally that security becomes a pain - countless paperwork checks and body scans, combined with a packed economy class flight on Jet Airways begin to take the shine off things. Yet Jodhpur will be worth it. Coming into land, two sights force you to take your eyes off the city's cornflower-blue houses. The first is Mehrangarh Fort, a formidable structure sitting hundreds of feet above the city on a perpendicular sheer cliff. The other is the Umaid Bhawan Palace, a slightly out-of-place, Harry Potter-esque 1930s sandstone palace sitting on a bluff amid barren scrubland. The Taj hotel group took over the property in 2005, and it's to here I'm headed.

I'm greeted at the airport by a driver in a 1940s Buick convertible and accompanied on the 15-minute drive to the hotel by a six-person royal escort. At the gate, a four-horse cavalry leads us to the entrance. The palace is a mile wide and sits on 28 acres of land. Designed by Edwardian architect Henry Lanchester for the present maharaja's grandfather, Umaid Singh, the palace was designed not just as a status symbol but to provide employment in a drought-stricken area. Some 235m above sea level on the edge of Thar desert, the area only receives around 40cm of rain a year. The building of the hotel kept 3,000 people employed for 15 years, and today, some of the staff have been at the palace for 30 years. A fascinating on-site museum presents the whole story, supported by a wealth of historical photographs and items including jewellery and 70-year-old menus reflecting the opulent lives of previous generations who seemed to spend all their time wining, dining, hunting and playing polo.

On independence in 1947, India's princely rulers were stripped of their powers and since the 1970s so-called "smart maharajas" began turning their palaces into hotels. I meet the current owner, Umaid Singh's grandson, who is affectionately known as "Babji", for drinks before dinner. Still living in a private section of the palace, the Eton and Cambridge graduate was crowned at the age of four after his father died in an air crash but was stripped of his power to rule on independence. The now-titular maharaja says the income generated by the hotel helps to maintain it. He now does charity and tourism work and organises polo events.

While there were originally 347 rooms, there are now just 64, each with gorgeous original Art Deco furniture and motifs. My room is a suite with a separate sitting room backing onto an Oxbridge-style quadrangle and a bedroom looking out over the extensive back garden, with 21 types of bougainvillaea. As for the other guests, I keep thinking I'm seeing someone famous, and other people look at me the same way. Indeed, when we are treated to a candlelit dinner at the cupola where Arun Nayar and Liz Hurley got married, and are serenaded by minstrels, a firework display, a red carpet and a shower of rose petals, a guest-turned-paparazzi is seen crawling on the lawn taking photos of us.

As for the other famous names, Sting and Trudi Styler have been three times in the last two years, and Rowan Atkinson, the crew of The Dark Knight, Prince Charles and Camilla, Katy Perry and a smattering of Bollywood stars have also visited recently. "It's unbelievable the type of networking you can do here," says the fun general manager, Ashish Rai. For really important - and wealthy - guests, he says the hotel can lay on elephants, camels, 12 horses and up to 20 vintage cars. What I most like, apart from my suite and the marble floors and fantastical architecture, is how integrated the staff seem. There's no hint of the colonialism I had feared, but quite the opposite. All the staff seemed not only proud of working at the palace but very much at home there.

The maharaja, however, goes one step further and opens up Mehrangarh Fort for a private night tour. This time, we are greeted with camels, more minstrels, fireworks, and dinner on the ramparts. "This is the best day of my life, and that includes getting married and having children," said the colleague I was travelling with. It's with a heavy heart that the next day we have to move on to the airport and Udaipur.

It's another stressful experience, combining endless security and queues to join a packed flight, and I begin to wish that a private jet had been supplied along the lines of James Bond's one-seater in Octopussy, filmed in Udaipur. Yet again the stress melts away as we come in to land and I see the green Araveli Hills below. In half an hour I'm driven through the hills and town to the edge of Lake Pichola, the largest of several man-made and interconnected lakes in and around the city. As I board a small motorboat with the sun setting over dusky mountains, and the waterside sandstone palaces turn ochre, it feels like I'm in India's Venice.

The Leela Palace Udaipur, which opened in 2009 and comprises two large wings, thankfully only has 72 rooms. It sits on the opposite side of the lake facing the second-most photographed building in India, the Taj Lake Palace Hotel. This is one of those times when it's a benefit to be staying in a less attractive building but getting the best views. The best parts of this hotel are the restaurants and huge terrace which front onto the lake and have spectacular views of the city and the Jagmandir Palace - an ornate island palace beautifully presented at night with a string of lights which make it look like it's floating on water.

On the opposite side of the lake I can see the town's ancient defensive wall snaking up the mountainside like the Great Wall of China. Udaipur is another city of living hotels and museums, the most impressive of which seems to be the City Palace Museum, which I tackle with the aid of a new guide, MK Sharma. It was built, he tells me, between the 16th and 20th centuries across 20 reigning kings.

There are various sections to this palace, which reminds me of Brighton Pavilion with its elaborate features. "You mean India exported its architecture to the UK?" says Sharma. "I thought it only worked the other way around." He embroiders his show-round with tales of Udaipur's unique royal history. Perhaps most striking is the artwork - the miniature paintings that form the Marwar school of art used stone pigments and show simultaneously side-on profile views of people and a three-dimensional aspect to the architecture.

I'm taken, lastly, to the Queens and Princes Garden in the gloriously decaying old town. "This garden was for royal ladies and princesses in summer," says Sharma. There are courtyards, ponds and fountains, surrounded by bougainvillaea, sweet peas, sunerarias, calendula, morning star, cypress trees and 100-year-old Chinese hibiscus. I look at the ruins of the old buildings, at the balconies and high walls overlooking a lotus lake ringed with marble elephants. I look at the fountains and the mango trees so old they don't produce fruit any more. It's slightly musty and overgrown, but it's enough to reaffirm in my mind that nowhere does royal better than India.

If you go

The trip An eight-night trip taking in Delhi, Agra, Jodhpur and Udaipur with Emirates Holidays (www.emiratesholidays.com; 800 5252) costs from Dh15,350 per person based on two sharing. The price includes return economy-class flights from Dubai with Emirates, internal economy flights, accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, an English-speaking guide, all ground transport, monument entrances and assistance on arrival and departure