Palace Pleasures

Oberoi’s Vilas carve a memorable passage through India

By: By David Swanson

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In response to the global economic downturn, India’s Ministry of Tourism has launched a Visit India 2009 program. The incentives are a collaboration by airlines, hotels and tour operators to provide an additional service based on one paid service. Air India, Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines are offering a complimentary airline seat for companions; and members of the Hotel Association of India are providing a second, third or fourth night free at their hotels and more.

Oberoi's Exotic Vacation package

The Exotic Vacations package, offered April 16 through September 30 avails discounts approaching 50 percent on stays of eight nights or longer at any combination of Oberoi’s resorts, plus free yoga sessions and culinary demonstrations, and a 25 percent discounts on spa treatments.    

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Sitting atop the sprawl of a rocking elephant’s back as she lumbers smoothly up the long, steep ramp leading to Amber Fort, I realize I have a huge smile on my face.

This is why I came to India, I muse.

Superior Premiere rooms overlook Lake Pichola at Oberoi Udaivilas. // (c) David Swanson
Superior Premiere rooms overlook Lake Pichola at Oberoi Udaivilas.

Named for the lustrous hue of its sandstone, Amber Fort is a highlight of a visit to Jaipur. Its ridgetop location is one of Rajasthan’s most majestic settings. Jaipur itself, eight miles south of the fort, has even more to offer, from the ornate City Palace built in the 1720s, to Jaipur’s eerily advanced outdoor astronomical observatory. Then there’s the shopping, which lures expert bargain hunters on a quest for India’s finest crafts and jewelry.

It was this setting that Oberoi Hotels chose for its first resort, Rajvilas, opened in 1997. Located five miles outside Jaipur, the 71-room hotel sits on an old plantation, reimagined as a Raj fort surrounding a green oasis. The fortress-like entrance gives way to a softer interior, where a traditional mixture called araish — a mix of lime and eggshell — was used to create a marble-like finish on walls and floors. Jaipur’s famous blue pottery, gold-leaf murals, playful marble statues and handsome wooden doors decorate the common areas. At the center of the 32-acre property is a lotus-filled pond — in it, an island with a 250-year-old Hindu temple. Every day at dawn and dusk, incense wafts from the shrine for an informal ceremony conducted by a local priest.

Rajvilas’ deluxe rooms dapple the property in clusters of four or six, surrounding courtyards and fountains. Although these are the standard quarters, they are lavish, with glass-walled bathrooms and sunken marble bathtubs that overlook private gardens. Fourteen air-conditioned tents with embroidered canopies are popular units, while three villas each have a full-size private pool and garden. (President and Mrs. Clinton stayed in the Royal Villa in 2000.)

As at all of Oberoi’s vilas — a Hindi word that means abode — butlers, 24-hour in-room dining, a full-service spa, a fitness room and yoga lessons are standard offerings. Live music and dance accompanies most meals in the hotel restaurants, and cooking demonstrations are available.

The short flight to enchanting Udaipur rewards clients with a landscape of manmade lakes, gentle hills and fairy-tale palaces. On arrival, a pair of camels, bedecked in colorful finery, and musicians welcome us to the most architecturally inspired of Oberoi’s Indian resorts, Udaivilas.

The hotel rises above the shores of Lake Pichola, just outside town, a fantasy of bulbous onion domes, accented inside by scalloped archways and candlelit foyers. Udaipur is known as the city of sunrise, and variations of a cheerful sun god motif appear throughout Udaivilas, along with pavilions and balconies, turrets and jalis (intricately carved marble screens).

Deluxe rooms at Udaivilas are more than 600 square feet, each with freestanding Victorian bathtubs and private, walled courtyards with garden views. Choice rooms are the 19 offering both a lake panorama from a private terrace and access to a grand, long swimming pool that appears to pour into Lake Pichola from its infinity perimeter.

No one comes to India without making a pilgrimage to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. On my last visit to the city, I was conscious of the dearth of a first-class hotel facility for the city. Not anymore. In 2001, Oberoi debuted Amarvilas, a resort that boasts the important distinction of being the closest tourist-class hotel to the Taj Mahal, less than 2,000 feet from the monument; the hotel’s bar has an unimpeded view of the elegant tomb (the only one in the city with such a position).

The architecture of the seven-story hotel is ingenious, making the most of a compact site by burying the lowest three floors — where the decadent pool, spa and restaurants are found — below ground level, creating a sunken garden effect. The decor makes the most of Agra’s famed craftsmen, with liberal use of Florentine pietra dura, the inlay of precious and semi-precious stones in floral patterns set within a marble base.

While Amarvilas’ deluxe rooms are slightly smaller than at other vilas properties, every one has an unobstructed view of the Taj Mahal. But it’s worth springing for the superior deluxe category, which adds a spacious balcony suitable for dining. After a day spent touring Agra, I made sure to be back for sunset, ordering a Negroni to be delivered to my balcony. With peanuts and cocktail in hand, I watched the play of light as it softened and dissolved into silky gray and the pearlescent Taj Mahal faded into the night.

Yes, this was why I came to India.