Lively New Delhi
The first stop for most visitors is the vibrant capital, New Delhi, with its majestic Red Fort, historic India Gate, and buzzing Connaught Place. Old Delhi’s bustling medieval bazaars contrast New Delhi’s modern designer shops, swanky restaurants and fashionable nightspots. Dine at trendy OTW in the The Lodhi Hotel (www.thelodhi.com) with its gallery-like art filled lobby and chic boutique featuring artisanal evening clutches by women of Umeed.
Arrive in style with a Rolls Royce transfer at the opulent Leela Palace (www.theleela.com), a favorite of diplomats and royalty. This ultra luxurious property showcases a lavish lobby where afternoon tea is served, striking art objects, posh suites overlooking gardens, rooftop pool, spa by ESPA and butler service. Check out Amalya Boutique for a stunning selection of handpicked artifacts and clothing. The hotel offers exceptional Indian cuisine at Jamavar, plus an offshoot of New York’s acclaimed Le Cirque.
Marvels of Varanasi
Resting on the banks of the holy Ganges River, Varanasi is India’s most sacred city. Most Indians make a pilgrimage to this spiritual capital. Many Hindus believe that death at Varanasi lets them bypass the cycle of rebirth. Buddha gave his first sermon at Sarnath, located near Varanasi. Needless to say, the place is rapturous.
Highlights: Watching the evening ritual, a devotional song called Aarti, at sunset, from a boat on the Ganges - a group of priests in saffron colored robes on the banks of the sacred river chant melodiously while waving large flaming lamps to the clang of cymbals and sound of the conch, as thousands of pilgrims join in. Cruising the Ganges as devotees bathe in the holy water against a backdrop of the architectural splendor of the city’s ancient buildings. Strolling the ghats (riverbank steps) passing small shops and open temples. Visiting the very place in Sarnath, where Buddha spoke. You cannot help but be changed by a visit to this mystical ‘City of Light.’
Stay at the elegant Nadesar Palace (www.tajhotels.com), frequented by royalty and celebrities such as Queen Elizabeth ll, set amid lush gardens and mango orchards. It is an oasis of luxury and tranquility close to the Ganges but a world away from the hustle and bustle. Ten supersize suites are decorated with art from the Maharaja’s collection and fabrics in lotus petal pinks and marigold yellows. With pool, butler service, veranda dining and horse and carriage ride around the jasmine scented grounds, guests receive true royal treatment.
With only ten suites, the Nadesar Palace is often booked so another option is the Taj-Gateway Hotel Ganges (www.thegatewayhotels.com), just a three minute walk across the way. The property offers contemporary rooms and exceptional cuisine. Don’t miss their superb restaurant known for regional specialties prepared by local women. I also recommend dining alfresco on their excellent barbecue.
Charms of North Kerala
The sleepy backwaters of Kerala are the perfect antidote to Varanasi’s bustle and excitement. The less traveled North is not as touristy and crowded as the more popular, built up South Kerala. This is the place to kick back and relax, drifting on a houseboat through dreamy backwaters past pastel colored houses, tropical palms, singing birds and locals casting their fishing nets. With golden beaches, a delectable ‘Kerala’ cuisine, luxurious resorts and those dreamy backwaters, no wonder the region is called ‘a mini paradise.’
In picturesque Bekal - set across 25 acres with lush gardens, on the backwaters by the Kappil River and near the beach, Vivanta by Taj Bekal (www.vivantabytaj.com) offers utmost indulgence. Luxurious villas with Chitra Pothi art feature huge private courtyards with large plunge pools, rain showers, soak tubs and daybeds. Jiva Grande spa offers Kerala’s renowned Ayurvedic, as well as traditional treatments. Of the two dining options the open-air restaurant has superior cuisine, including the freshest seafood.
Luxury Destination Spa in the Himalayas
Located on a 100 acre mountain estate overlooking the Ganges in the foothills of the mystical Himalayas, acclaimed Ananda Resort & Spa (www.anandaspa.com) was once a Maharaja’s Royal Palace. Luxurious and serene amid lush greenery, this heavenly abode with plush suites with balconies is a favorite of celebrities such as Oprah, Kate Winslet and Uma Thurman. Close by is the holy town of Rishikesh, the birthplace of yoga. Whether you come to Ananda for wellness, rejuvenation, a tune up or merely to relax in the splendor of sublime creature comforts, you’re bound to experience Himalayan bliss.
After your Ayurvedic (holistic Indian) consultation with the doctor at the dazzling 21,000-square-foot spa, head to the luxurious rooms. An array of Ayurvedic treatments, pampering Western massages, scrubs, facials, rituals, beautifying, detoxing and relaxing therapies await. Don’t miss the boutique, a veritable shopper’s paradise.
Meditation and yoga classes are held outdoors in the garden amid fountains and gazebos. The facilities include a pool, tea lounge and a lovely restaurant. Dine indoors or out choosing from either the tasty menu geared to your body type or the delectable local and international specialties. There’s something about taking the time to slow down, purify and pamper that speaks to our body, mind and soul.
Vana, Malsi Estate (www.vanaretreats.com), in Dehradun, also in the Himalayan foothills, is a multi- discipline wellness retreat that opened this past January. The Tibetan and Yoga Buildings, Watsu and Indian Restaurant were still being built when I visited. I had a consultation with a remarkable Traditional Chinese Medicine doctor followed by acupuncture. My colleague was impressed with her Ayurvedic consultation. If the Yoga and Tibetan Centers are equally estimable Vana will be a highly regarded wellness center. The place looks like a modern ashram, with comfortable, contemporary spacious rooms.
See the Bengal Tiger
It’s not easy to see tigers in India, with crammed jeeps and gobs of noisy crowds. That is unless you stay at Sher Bagh (www.sujanluxury.com), a Relais & Chateaux tiger camp. Owner and guide extraordinare Jaisal Singh practically grew up in Ranthambhore National Park, former domain of the Maharajas in North India and home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Jaisal also runs his company Sujan and oversees his other camps in India. He and his exceptional guides really know these majestic creatures - within an hour on my first drive I saw T19, known at Sher Bagh as Brat, frolicking in a pond. Over the next two days I saw two male tigers, leopards and, in what seemed like a thrilling farewell, Brat returned to hunt prey.
Back at camp, two brand new tent suites, one with a pool and one with a Jacuzzi, complement the other 12 large canvas tents with king beds, Edwardian furniture, historic photographs, bathroom, air conditioning and excellent European/Indian meals served outdoors around a fire. A private salon car with hotel staff can be arranged as an attachment to the Delhi train.
A Mumbai Gem
The 5 star Leela Mumbai (www.theleela.com), just five minute’s drive from the airport, was a perfect choice to overnight for my early morning flight. The hotel’s eleven acres of verdant gardens and cascading waterfalls make a welcome contrast to the city’s pulsating nightlife. A glass of champagne by the outdoor pool was followed by a dinner of tastiest Indian curries at Jamavar. Returning to my stylish suite, I looked at the view of Mumbai and smiled as my butler repacked my suitcase. I knew I would return.
Pallavi Shah, the Indian-born, well connected, New York based owner of Our Personal Guest (www.ourpersonalguest.com) travel company specializes in arranging the best experiential luxury and culturally rich itineraries. Call 646-284-2454 and & Beyond India.
Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) is a great choice of carrier to India. With their superb service, comfy lie flat seats, top amenities, an on board chef and international WiFi it’s not surprising that they have been recognized as the “Best Airline in Europe” for the fourth year in a row. I flew through Istanbul to Delhi and returned from Mumbai. The carrier offers direct service from New York, Washington D.C., Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and Boston to Istanbul. They have a wide ranging international network and connections are easy in Istanbul where their newly renovated business class lounge is like a 5-star hotel. If you have a layover longer than six hours, the airline will take you on a sightseeing tour. Or you can break up your trip and stay for a few days in enchanting Istanbul.