Walking home from work one evening, I stumbled upon the red carpet shenanigans around the BAFTA awards. A fleeting glimpse of Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t a patch on the entertainment value of the spectacle surrounding him: from super-fans who had come armed with gifts to bestow, to burly bouncers and giddy teenagers falling over each other for a selfie. His reward for not so much running as awkwardly negotiating the gauntlet: a glass of fizz and a goodie bag at the finishing line. This reception at Britain’s premiere awards ceremony could never compete with the welcoming committee at India’s most extravagant hotel, the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Here, my arrival with my partner was met with a Broadway-worthy production of bugle players, rose petal throwers and bowing mustachioed gents in ceremonial dress. It was namaste galore, complete with marigold garlands and an auspicious turmeric tilak blessing on the forehead… As much as I adored the razzmatazz of it all, rather like Benedict Cumberbatch at the BAFTAs, I too was thankful that there was an ice-cold glass of champagne at the end.
This, the poshest suite, in the poshest hotel, in the most flamboyant state of India has certainly had some fancy residents;
The last of India’s palaces, this decadent Indo-Colonial cocktail took 15 years to build by the royal family of Jodhpur. When completed in the 1940s, it was the world’s largest private residence with 347 rooms. The family still live in one wing of the palace (there’s clearly the room!), the rest now belongs to The Taj Hotel Group.
The hotel has done rather well in dividing up the palace, securing the extraordinary main entrance and grand dome hall. They also snared the palace’s original royal bedrooms, including the Maharani Suite, an eight room, 451 sq metre art deco wonderland. Once the realm of the queen, it was our home for the weekend.
This, the poshest suite, in the poshest hotel, in the most flamboyant state of India has certainly had some fancy residents; Madonna, Prince Charles, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger, Naomi Campbell, Brad Pitt and Liz Hurley have all shared the same enormous bed – never on the same night, of course, but I spent quite some time pondering the what ifs and the most winning combinations. Sorry Charles, you were always on the sub bench.
The suite has original period furnishings, including a dining room set for a banquet of 10, swan shaped folded napkins and candelabras that would have impressed Liberace, huge pink deco sofas, a personal his and her’s massage suite, rose petal filled footbaths, balcony swings and a bath tub carved from a single block of pink marble. It’s fair to say the Maharani’s taste was fabulous. Baz Luhrmann would probably have toned it down a bit.
Extravagant is an understatement. Maples in London handcrafted all the original furniture for the suite, only for it to be torpedoed off the coast of Africa during World War II, sinking to the bottom of the ocean. A team of Indian craftsman was tasked with meticulously recreating exact copies from the watercolour designs. These pieces are still in situ. A visit to the palace’s own museum will tell you all of this which, by the way, is the nearest you can get to the hotel if you’re not staying. Even the bar and restaurant are strictly residents only and local taxi drivers will proudly tell you about the famous people turned away from eating dinner here.
The rest of the hotel is no less modest. The architectural dome centre piece is just four metres shorter than the Taj Mahal, but rather than housing a tomb this one has an impressive indoor cupola-shaped pool in the basement. It’s a serene scene, with astrological mosaics and loungers around every pillar.
For attentive royal treatment, the outdoor pool was pretty hard to beat. I’m sure if I didn’t want to lift my own glass up to my mouth I wouldn’t have had to. Champagne, mango lassi and ice creams appeared repeatedly just when we most fancied them, as if the attendants had been given a module on telepathy as part of their training. It was all so peaceful and then I did the unthinkable… I stepped on the grass in my bare feet to take a photo. Time stood still as a previously unseen pool attendant broke into a sprint with a pair of slippers for me. Disaster averted, I had come into contact with nature for less than 10 seconds.
Whilst playing our new favorite game of what delectable would be brought next (it was never more than five minutes between each treat) I glanced over at my slipper hero feeding crumbs to a peacock. What a delightful sight I thought, even the animals get the royal treatment here. Except… the trail of crumbs led down to the hidden place where our champagne was coming from. Neither of us had expected peacock feathers as our next treat, but suddenly here they were, two huge feathers, gifted with a massive smile.
Dinner was at the Pillars Restaurant on the candlelit terrace with almighty sunset views of the Mahrangarh Fort and the blue city of Jodhpur. No peacocks on the menu, we opted for local Rajasthani delicacies, with subtle but fiery flavours. Service was, again, attentive to the max, including a waiter employed to circle with a flag on a stick to stop pigeons landing on top of the deco columns.
Having your own spa in your suite is quite time consuming – we hopped from the rose petal filled marble bath to the jacuzzi to the steam shower. We were so engrossed, we missed dinner on our second night. Instead we feasted on finger food and Turkish delight flavoured cocktails in the Trophy Room bar, a theme bar like no other: a full on colonial taxidermy carnival, an homage to when hunting was de rigueur around these parts. Filled with tiger heads, elephant footstools and leopard skin cushions throughout – this is not a venue for vegetarians.
Nothing is understated at Umaid Bhawan Palace, nor would you want it to be – from the flute player at breakfast, to the marble squash courts, the astrologist on call for private readings and the Palace’s own fragrance. (If you can’t make it to this neck of the woods, you can snap it up at Penhaligons – it’s called Vaara). This is palace life at its most fairytale. C
Umaid Bhawan Palace, Circuit House Rd, Jodhpur, Rajasthan 342006, India
+91 291 251 0101; tajhotels.com