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Old Delhi, Mumbai, Rajasthan, the Himalayas – India is full of contrasts and layers, diverse landscapes and notoriously hard-to-reach villages.
“The palace hotel experience in Rajasthan, in particular, is something you don’t see anywhere else in the world,” Jay Tindall, co-founder of ultra-luxury bespoke travel service Remote Lands, tells CNN Travel.
“It’s really uniquely India and it tends to be the starting point for luxury travelers. That’s a challenge for us as well, because we encourage visitors to get off the beaten track and explore more of the country.”
Taj Lake Palace
Set in the middle of Lake Pichola – in India’s storied Udaipur region – Taj Lake Palace has long been praised as one of the world’s most romantic hotels.
It’s almost hard to believe your eyes. The white marble marvel appears to float above the water, all the while surrounded by the majestic Aravalli mountains.
“If you want that more-than-250-year-old history, you’ll find it at a Taj hotel,” says Tindall. “This is where Taj really shines. The service is impeccable, and they are all special properties where you can feel a sense of history at the centuries-old palaces.”
It’s an opulent experience from start to finish, beginning with a boat ride to the royal island, where guests are immediately welcomed with a shower of rose petals and a welcome drink.
From there, travelers can lounge around in 18th-century splendor – originally built as a pleasure palace by Maharana Jagat Singh II in 1746 – dine on authentic Rajasthani cuisine, or book a treatment on the famous spa boat.
Taj Lake Palace, Post Box 5, Udaipur, Rajasthan, India; +91 0294 242 8800
Featuring white marble corridors and red brick accents, the Rambagh Palace was used by the Maharajas of Jaipur in various capacities over the years, first as a handmaid’s residence then a hunting lodge and finally a royal guesthouse.
Dating to 1835, the palace is not only celebrated for its marvelous architecture but also for the 47 acres of royal gardens where peacocks strut throughout the day.
The hotel offers countless ways to unwind, including two pools, a grand spa, a Polo Bar, boutique shops, and a labyrinth of romantic courtyards.
During the day, guests are invited to take a historical walk about the grounds escorted by a Palace Butler and, by night, the palace’s front lawns come alive with performances and music.
“The one thing India really does exceptionally well is service – it’s the entire experience,” says Tindall. “From the moment you walk in the door, it’s very regal, detail-oriented, personable … and you just get this sense of colonial-influenced old India.”
Rambagh Palace, Bhawani Singh Road, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India, +91 141 238 5700
Umaid Bhawan Palace
Still a residence of the Jodhpur royal family, this meticulously restored palace from Taj hotels makes an unforgettable first impression.
The commanding Art Deco-styled facade, made of desert sandstone, rises atop a hill at the highest point in Jodhpur, in northwest India.
Designed by English architect Henry Lanchester, this opulent abode aims to please with spacious suites, antique furniture, personal butlers, an on-site museum, alfresco restaurants and 26 acres of gardens.
Umaid Bhawan Palace, Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India, +91 291 251 0101
Taj Falaknuma Palace
The jewel of Hyderabad, Taj Falaknuma Palace captures a gloriously gilded past.
In its past life, the 19th-century palace was the residence of the Nizam of Hyderabad. In fact, Princess Esra, former wife of the current titular Nizam of Hyderabad, worked closely with Taj hotels during the careful renovation process.
The goal was to preserve as much of the original as possible, including everything from leather upholstery to paintings and stucco work.
Sitting atop 32 acres of gardens and courtyards, the hotel is a living museum of murals, Venetian chandeliers, antiques and statues – plus 60 lavish guest rooms, croquet lawns, labyrinthine gardens and stables.
Taj Falaknuma Palace, Engine Bowli, Falaknuma, Hyderabad, Telangana, India; +91 040 6629 8585
SUJÁN Rajmahal Palace
Located in Jaipur, SUJÁN Rajmahal Palace is easily one of the most stylish hotels in India.
Decked out in contemporary colors and eye-catching wallpapers, the Relais & Châteaux address hotel adds a modern touch to the otherwise ancient surrounds.
Staying true to its regal identity – built by Maharaja Sawai Man Singh II of Jaipur for his favorite queen – the 250-year-old Rajmahal Palace boasts pristine lawns, lofty bay windows, marble staircases and glamorous decor.
If you feel like a celebrity here, you’re not too far off the mark – over the years, the guest list has included Queen Elizabeth II and Jackie Onassis.
SUJÁN Rajmahal Palace, Sardar patel Marg, Jaipur, India; +91 11 4617 270
TENTED CAMPS / SAFARI-STYLE LODGES
SUJÁN The Serai
A nostalgic outpost in the middle of the golden Thar desert, outside of Jaisalmer, SUJÁN The Serai is a 100-acre oasis set amid dunes and starry night skies, promising memorable dining experiences and musical campfires.
Featuring terrace lounges and locally made textiles, the 21 tented suites are scattered across the dramatic landscape and share a communal tented restaurant, spa and reception area.
The six Luxury Tented Suites come with added perks, such as private stone plunge pools and walled gardens.
Meanwhile, the Royal Tented Suite stands alone as its own abode, complete with a personal butler, outdoor pool and private spa.
SUJÁN The Serai, Bherwa, Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, India; +91 11 4617 2700
In the heart of leopard country, SUJÁN Jawai provides an enthralling jaunt through rural Rajasthan.
“A special place is SUJÁN Jawai, which our clients always love,” says Tindall.
“The accommodations are really nice; the experience is great … You get to see leopards in a beautiful environment. It’s the closest thing to an African safari in Asia.”
On the grounds, travelers will find just nine suites and one royal suite, set amid the peaceful landscape.
The design embraces subdued shades of gray and black to create a contemporary atmosphere, combined with bits of retro industrial touches and pops of scarlet red (inspired by the local Rabari tribe) for energy.
Here, travelers might fill their days with a safari drive or a visit to nearby Bisalpur village, dine by the campfire at night, or enjoy a private picnic in the bush.
SUJÁN Jawai, Jawai Bandh, Bisalpur, Pali-Marwar, Rajasthan; +91 11 4617 2700
The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambhore
Just adjacent to the Ranthambore National Park, in north-central India, The Oberoi Vanyavilas is the ideal base from which to explore the territory of Bengal tigers.
While majestic beasts roam the reserve, travelers can take off on a safari or admire the views from the hotel’s panoramic Observation Tower.
Later, you can unwind with a treatment at The Oberoi Spa or take a wander through the hotel’s 20 acres of manicured gardens.
Designed to recall royal Raj caravans, the tents come complete with canopied four-poster beds, teak wood floors, deep-sink clawfoot tubs and tiger-print accents.
The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur City, Ranthambore, Rajasthan, India; +91 7462 22 3999
A collection of 18 stylish tents across two separate campsites, Banjaar Tola draws a steady stream of nature lovers.
Set inside the Kanha National Park, the tented camp revolves around flora and fauna with the highlight being the tiger, leopards and bird sightings during game drives.
On site, travelers will also find amenities including a spa, pool, restaurant, butlers and river views from almost every tent.
Arrive by road or turboprop plane – there’s an airstrip just a few miles from the campsite.
Banjaar Tola, Kanha National Park, Mukki, Balaghat Madhya, India; +91 22 6601 1825
Chamba Camp, Thiksey
One of several beautiful nomadic tented camps run by The Ultimate Travelling Camp, Chamba Camp Thiksey is located in the far north of India.
Spacious and elegant, the tents overlook the dramatic valleys and craggy mountains of Ladakh – also home to the oft-photographed Thiksey Monastery.
On the grounds of the camp, travelers can partake in a variety of activities, including polo, river rafting, picnics, village walks, archery, cycling and trekking.
“I’m very intrigued by what The Ultimate Travelling Camp is doing,” says Tindall. “They really brought luxury to that northern part of India, in Ladakh. They have been able to bring travelers to that region whereas, previously that area was really hard to access for foreigners.”
“Typically, people stay away from India during the monsoon season, June through August, but actually that’s the time to go up to these Ultimate Travelling Camps and visit the mountains. It’s the opposite season there.”
Chamba Camp, Thiksey, Ki Ki Naga, Leh Manali Road, Thiksey, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir; +91 1982 267 144
With just 10 tented suites, Aman-i-Khas is among the most exclusive tented camp experiences in India.
The oasis sits on the edge of Ranthambore National Park, surrounded by flora and fauna. On site, there’s an outdoor fire pit, alongside a spa, swimming pool and a romantic dining tent.
Twice a day, travelers can take off on open-top safaris through the nature park, where you will likely spot tigers and their cubs, leopards, deer, birds and crocodiles.
Aman-i-Khas, Sherpur-Khiljipur, Ranthambhore Road, Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, India; +91 7462 252 052
Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas – An Oberoi Resort
A mountain getaway with views of the majestic Himalayas, Wildflower Hall is in a league of its own.
Surrounded by nature at 8,000 feet above sea level, the grounds on which the colonial-style hotel stands on the grounds that was once the summer home of Lord Kitchener, former Commander in Chief of the Indian Army.
For an unparalleled experience, we’d recommend splurging on the Lord Kitchener Suite – it’s 1,450 square feet of handmade rugs, antique furniture, marble bathrooms and views of the Himalayas.
Wildflower Hall, Shimla in the Himalayas – An Oberoi Resort, Chharabra, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, India; +91 177 264 8585
Ananda in the Himalayas
An Ayurveda spa sanctuary in the heart of the Himalayas, Ananda stretches across the 100-acre Maharaja Palace Estate.
Inspired by colonial hill stations of old, guest rooms and villas combine classic furniture with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook peaceful forests, the Ganges valley and palace gardens.
Also on site, there’s a cliffside infinity pool and a slew of wellness offerings, from physiotherapy to nutrition consultations, yoga and meditation.
Ananda in the Himalayas, The Palace Estate, Narendra Nagar Tehri, Garhwal, Uttarakhand, India; +91 124 4516650
A remote getaway in the foothills of the Aravalli mountains, northwest of Jaipur, Amanbagh seems at home in its all-natural setting.
The 37 suites and pavilions embody the best of Mughal architecture, showcasing incredible attention to detail in the latticed stone work, pink marble bed platforms, vaulted entrances and lofty domed ceilings.
Outside of the hotel, there’s lots to do but the highlight is a Bengal tiger safari, which traverses Sariska National Park to the northeast.
Nearby, the 17th-century Bhangarh ghost city, villages, and Neelkanth temple town are also within easy reach via a jeep or camel ride.
It’s advised to visit between October and March, as the resort closes during monsoon season in June and July.
Amanbagh, Village Alwar, Rajasthan, India; +91 14 6522 3333
Providing a unique scattered hotel concept, Shakti Himalaya comprises several village-style accommodations throughout the Himalayas.
The company partners with local villagers to lease and renovate unused houses in some of the most remote areas of India, then designs “village walks” from one village to the next.
There are four main sites, the most striking of which is the Shakti 360° Leti.
Far removed from the modern world, this mountain-top retreat provides all-around glass windows and cliff-top dining experiences.
Shakti Himalaya, +91 124 456 3899
Overlooking the tiny village of Narlai – between Jodhpur and Udaipur – Rawla Narlai was once used as a hunting lodge by the Jodhpur’s royal family.
It still retains a regal vibe, evident in the open-air courtyards and wide verandahs, tented pool villa and Rajput paintings.
The 32 rooms and suites come kitted out with handmade textiles and antique furniture, ornate mirrors and white marble.
While you’re there, we’d recommend dinner at the 16th-century Step Well, a romantic stone courtyard where you can dine under the stars.
Rawla Narlai, Village Narlai, Rajasthan, India; + 91 29 3426 0443
In the far northwest corner of India, Suryagarh sits on the edge of the Thar desert – providing an off-the-beaten path experience for adventurous travelers.
The haveli-style accommodations look like a grand sandstone fortress from afar. Inside, you’ll find winding corridors and open-air courtyards, gardens, latticed stone, and nostalgic old-world touches.
Choose from a mix of more contemporary Fort Rooms and heritage-style haveli rooms and suites – kitted out with modern amenities and vast desert views.
Suryagarh, Kahala Phata, Sam Road, Jaisalmer, India; +91 29 9226 9269
Alila Fort Bishangarh
Just opened earlier this year in the Aravalli mountain range of northern India, the blush-colored Alila Fort Bishangarh was a beast to renovate.
Led by Jaipur’s own Sthapatya Architects, the process took nearly 10 years from start to finish due to the building’s organic floor plan and 10-foot-thick walls.
Inside the 230-year-old building, find a wonderland of spiral staircases, courtyards, columns and latticed windows.
Alila Fort Bishangarh, Off NH-8 at Manoharpur, Bishangarh Village, Jaipur, Bishangarh, Rajasthan, India; +91 1422 276 500
About a 2.5-hour drive southwest of New Delhi, Tijara Fort-Palace is hard to miss. The grand building sits atop a hill in the middle of a valley.
Originally built by Prince Maharaja Balwant Singh, the fort-palace was left incomplete and abandoned after the ruler’s unexpected death in the mid-19th century.
In 2009, Neemrana Hotels leased the 19th-century beauty and set to work restoring it.
The result is magnificent – picture terraced gardens, turrets, courtyards, open-air corridors and imposing Rajput-Afghan-style architecture with carved arched doorways, pillars and domed ceilings.
Each of the 62 rooms and suites has its own heritage character and charm, many of which overlook the fort’s gardens and lawns.
Tijara Fort-Palace, Alwar Hasanpur Mafi, Tijara, Alwar, Rajasthan, India; +91 9587 885 003
White marble, stone latticework, parapets and sprawling ramparts … Ramathra Fort oozes history.
The 17th-century fort was originally owned by Thakur Bhoj Pal – the son of the Maharaja of Karauli – and is still owned by the family.
The hotel’s rooms overlook the inner courtyards or the green farmland below, where travelers will find Kalisil Lake and Ramathra village.
As for rooms, guests may choose from a mix of types, including tented suites in the garden.
Ramathra Fort, PO Sapotra, Karauli, Rajasthan, India; +91 89 5561 6532
The Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra
Promising continuous views of the Taj Mahal – just 600 meters away – The Oberoi Amarvilas is the place to stay in Agra.
It’s not an ancient property, by any definition, but the Mughal-style design and gold leaf accents certainly look the part of a royal residence.
It’s five minutes from the pedestrianized street leading up to the Taj and the hotel will transfer guests to and from the site by electric buggy (vehicles releasing carbon emissions aren’t allowed within 500 meters of the mausoleum).
As you might hope, every room at Amarvilas has a view of the Taj Mahal.
“It’s really untouched and unparalleled,” says Tindall.
The Oberoi Amarvilas, Taj East Gate Road, Agra, India; +91 562 223 1515
The Lodhi Hotel
Located near the historic Lodi Gardens and Delhi Golf Club in south-central New Delhi, The Lodhi Hotel is the definition of an urban retreat.
“I like the Lodhi because it’s more of a modern hotel,” says Tindall. “You’re going to see the palace, the tented camps and these other old-world type places during a longer India journey. So I enjoy this modern experience in Delhi.”
The calm and contemporary hotel is home to 48 rooms and suites – the largest of which is the Sultan Suite.
This apartment-like setting stretches across 4,500 square feet and boasts its own private plunge pool, kitchenette and balconies.
The rooms aren’t the only lure: The Lodhi is known for its excellent Indian-inspired culinary offerings, alfresco courtyards, a spa, 50-meter pool, and tennis and squash courts.
The Lodhi Hotel, Lodhi Road, New Delhi, India; +91 124 4653 333
The Taj Mahal Palace
Few hotels in the world embody old-world glamor quite like the Taj Mahal Palace.
Opened in 1903, the hotel was built by Jamsetji Tata (known as the “father of Indian industry”) and has been used to host maharajas, visiting dignitaries and celebrities over the decades.
Located in south Mumbai, the 285-room palace is the epitome of grandeur. There’s the luxurious Arabian Sea-view rooms (with marble bathrooms), gold fabrics, grand chandeliers, fine-dining restaurants (including Masala Kraft, serving contemporary Indian cuisine), a harborside bar and sky-high ceilings.
To keep the place running like clockwork, on any given day there will be more than 1,500 staff on duty and at least three dozen butlers.
The Taj Mahal Palace, Apollo Bunder, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India; +91 22 6665 3366
The Leela Palace New Delhi
From the city’s only rooftop infinity pool to the grand reception area, The Leela Palace New Delhi knows how to spoil travelers.
“The Leela Palace is also really lavish,” says Tindall. “It’s built in the older traditional palace but it’s new and fresh.”
Opened in 2011, the Palace pays tribute to classic royal residences of old with stately pillars, lush drapes, marble bathrooms, handmade silverware, classic furniture and signature butler service – not to mention the fleet of Rolls Royce Phantoms and personal shoppers at your disposal.
If you like what you see, the Leela hotel group has several other urban retreats across India, including addresses in Bengaluru, Chennai and Mumbai.
The Leela Palace New Delhi, Diplomatic Enclave, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi, India; +91 11 3933 1234
The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata
The favorite of Bollywood stars and international Heads of State, The Oberoi Grand is impossible to miss.
Dating back to the 1880s, the colonial-style property towers over the business district with a fresh white facade, balconies and imposing columns.
Highlights include the lobby’s antique piano and colossal chandelier, the award-winning Baan Thai restaurant, a charming old-school bar and immense suites.
The Presidential Suite stretches across 1,350 square feet and features four-poster beds, hardwood floors, hand-made rugs, billowing drapes and antique furniture.
The Oberoi Grand, Kolkata, 15 Jawaharlal Nehru Rd, Kolkata, India; +91 33 2249 2323
Known as India’s “City of Joy,” Kolkata is one of the world’s most fascinating. A three-day tour, which includes spend the day around Chowringhee, the most impressive promenade in town, allows you to see the highlights.