I don’t think the Taj Mahal is all that. I don’t know how else to put it. Sure, it’s nice. I’m into the symmetry in a big way. And, yes, I lived for Lady Diana pulling that stunt in the red jacket, sitting all alone on the bench in front of the ultimate architectural homage to one man’s great love, just her and 100 or so photographers. But for me, as an experience it’s all just a bit … meh. It’s so vanilla. And relatively small. When I’ve offered this opinion, most people have said to me: “Oh, it’s just because you saw too many photographs of it before you went, you expected too much.” But I’d seen a million photos of Machu Picchu before I finally got to see it, and still nearly soiled myself with excitement at the first view of its Inca terraces.
I lived for Lady Diana pulling that stunt in the red jacket, sitting all alone on the bench
When I checked in to the Oberoi Amarvilas, which is the only hotel in Agra to sit at one of the gates to the Taj Majhal, the sun had already set, and the landmark wasn’t visible. But there was an impressively elaborate solid white chocolate version of it on the table of my suite, and a bath full of hot water and bright red rose petals. Excited to be so close to one of the wonders of the world, in such an intoxicatingly romantic milieu, I immediately got into clothing-optional shenanigans with my companion. Because what else were we going to do, apart from gnaw on a white chocolate turret?
The Oberoi Amarvilas is a paradigm of Indian luxury – the service is extraordinary, the landscaping majestic, and the wine list will grab you by the ankles, turn you upside down and shake you until it has taken your last penny. It’s also one of my favourite places to spend a night on the subcontinent. While it is a new build rather than a repurposed palace (as many five-star hotels here are), working from scratch on this site has allowed for one key benefit: every room has a view of the Taj Mahal. On one of the days I was in residence, there was a fantastic thunderstorm. When it broke, the sky was still stained bruise-blue, but streaked with a rainbow that appeared directly over the Taj Mahal. It was impossibly beautiful. When viewed from a distance, the icon retains its mystery. I enjoyed the Taj Mahal far more from the hotel than I did on its actual terraces.
The décor at the hotel is, as you’d expect, busy: lots of orange, gold and navy. This isn’t a place for minimalists. Close to the ground floor lifts, in a hallway leading to the dining rooms, there is a white marble tiger with such impressive musculature that I felt compelled to stroke its right buttock for luck each time I saw it. The food here is also as good as you’ll find anywhere in the country. The highlight is the tandoor menu at Esphahan, where you get live sitar in the evening, and the most umami, delicious dal I have ever encountered, cooked overnight with pomegranate extract to create something with an attitude closer to Marmite than anything you’ve ever spooned onto your plate from a buffet.
If I had to pick one favourite memory of time in Agra, it isn’t walking around the Taj Mahal – instead it’s swimming in the heated outdoor pool at the Oberoi Amarvilas. It’s a dream of a hotel pool – huge, and finished in ravishing deep blue tiling. I swam here for an hour, with the Taj Mahal a short walk away. I could have spent a week doing laps in that pool, immersed in the ultimate kind of Indian mega luxury. With a certain fancy mausoleum as a backdrop, it really is one of the highlights of any trip to Agra, or the country as a whole. C