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In 1986, a Mumbai-based businessman named Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair decided to start a hotel company. He named it Leela, after his wife. Nair, then 64 and at the age when most people think of retirement, had been a very successful exporter of Madras fabric during the ’50s and ’60s. Although it had made him a wealthy man, he wanted a new challenge, and the hotel business was it.
Today, Leela Hotels, Palaces & Resorts is one of the fastest-growing luxury hotel chains in India. With seven properties already opened, Leela is scheduled to open a hotel in Chennai this summer and three more in the coming years, one of which will be located in Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal.
I recently visited two Leela properties — the newly opened Leela Palace New Delhi and the Leela Palace Udaipur, which is located on the banks of the lovely Lake Pichola.
The Leela Palace New Delhi was built on three acres in New Delhi’s exclusive Diplomatic Enclave area. It has 260 rooms and suites and has been certified as a LEED Gold hotel for its eco-friendly design. The 11-story hotel is powered by a 24-hour gas-fired generator which uses water and steam byproducts in its air-conditioning system. But don’t be fooled — this hotel delivers on luxury, with impeccable service, large comfortable rooms and proximity to most major sites, despite the usually horrendous traffic in New Delhi.
On this trip, I visited the usual tourist attractions, including the legendary Red Fort, which was built by the 17th-century Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. The fort, which was a complete city unto itself and built to ward off possible invaders, housed 3,000 people at one time and is named after its red sandstone walls that rise up out of Delhi’s old section like a huge battleship.
Adjoining the Red Fort is the old shopping area known as Chandni Chowk. There, clients can take a rickshaw ride down narrow streets choked with vendors and stores and booths of every kind. I was crowded in by foot traffic and people buying and selling just about everything, from household goods and beautiful hand-woven textiles to engine parts and flat-screen televisions. I also went to Delhi Haat, a crafts bazaar where I practiced my somewhat feeble bargaining skills and walked away with woven place mats and several cashmere shawls, all for prices I thought were good but brought amusement to the faces of our guides.
The Leela Palace Udaipur, less than two hours by plane from New Delhi, is just as luxurious as the property in the capital but the location is much more exotic. Set on the western bank of Lake Pichola, the Leela Udaipur can be reached by boat, which is how I got there. At the entrance — a jetty with a canopy — I was greeted by the friendly staff holding cold drinks and the key to my room. Udaipur is located in Rajasthan, the largest state in India, and the area is famous for endless cycles of drought and monsoon flooding. Twice in the last decade, the lake has dried up completely, with children playing cricket on its dry bed and cows chewing on what grass was left. I arrived when it was full.
With a population of half a million, Udaipur is not really a town, but it has that feel, especially in the old part, with its small, narrow streets winding up and down hills and its markets jamming every block. At times, I shared the streets with a cow. Unlike New Delhi, where Western clothes are more prevalent, the people in Udaipur sported more traditional garb, and I was dazzled by the colors of some of the saris that the women wore, as well as by their silver jewelry.
The main tourist attraction in Udaipur is the City Palace, which sits high on a hill on the eastern side of the lake. It’s a museum and a testament to a bygone era when the local maharajah ruled the territory. Even today, his descendents live part-time in a wing of the palace that’s off-limits to visitors, who clog the passageways and rooms that are open to the public.
At the end of the day, it was always refreshing to return to the luxury of the Leela, put my feet up and gaze out at the lake as the sun faded in the west and the lights of the city sparkled in the distance. One day at dusk, I heard a “slap-slap-slap” off in the distance. I looked out from a back staircase and saw a woman beating her laundry against a rock on the shore. Some things in India never change.