I’m a serious travel-phile.
As much as I love fashion, offer me a choice between the latest Balenciaga or Nicholas Kirkwood, and a trip to some far flung place on the planet, and you’ll find me on the next plane out.
It’s a love my parents unwittingly instilled in me from childhood. My earliest memory in life is when I was 3, on a plane crossing the Pacific. Every summer, my dad would load up the kids in our station wagon and we’d take long road trips all over the mid-West and East coast. (We even drove from Michigan to Florida once!) I made my second trip across the Pacific at the age of 14 (this time, alone), and I haven’t stopped since.
Now as a full-fledged grownup (chronologically, anyway), I’ve been to every continent on earth, save for Antarctica, and have gone abroad almost every year of my grownup life. And in my travels, I’ve stayed in 5-star beachside resorts, cozy bungalows, $5-a-night hostels — even sleeping bags in the middle of nowhere.
But by far — by far — the most amazing place I have ever stayed at — no, I have ever seen — is the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, India.
Now, when I travel, I normally don’t focus on my accommodations. After all, hotels are for sleeping in. I like to spend my time exploring the area, eating locally, and getting lost in circuitous alleys. But the Umaid Bhawan is a destination in and of itself. To say this is a 5-star hotel in the northern province of Rajasthan, or even that it’s one of the best hotels in the region, doesn’t even come close to doing it justice. To stay there is the closest I’ve come to being a royal.
First of all, you can’t even visit the hotel without staying there. It’s because the Umaid Bhawan was originally constructed as a palace by the then Maharaja of Jodhpur in 1928. His grandson, the current Maharaja of Jodhpur, and his family still live in its west wing, though the hotel part of the palace opened its doors in 1977. The glowing sandstone behemoth, with its massive Indo-Saracenic domes and towers resembling something out of a Star Wars movie, is perched high above the desert capital. You have to go through two towering-gated checkpoints as your car makes its way up to one of the largest private residences in the entire world.
When you enter the Umaid Bhawan, you instantly feel like you’re entering a castle, not a hotel. The soaring, gilded entry hall seems to serve no other purpose other than to give royal guests a prelude of the jaw-dropping grand domed cupola, soaring 105 feet overhead.
There’s no bustling of bell boys lugging suitcases. No elevator dings. No lines. No check-in counters. In fact, nothing to indicate you’re in a hotel. There’s a dignified quiet throughout the palace, with only the occasional lilting of a British-accented greeting breaking the serenity.
Sixty-four rooms of the 347-room palace have been transformed into guest rooms. When we stayed there in October, the palace was less than half full, so we really were treated like personal guests. We were checked in within the comfort of our historical suite, decorated in the original Art Deco style of the time, had our own personal butler, and every staffer we encountered as we explored every niche of the palace’s expansive interiors and 26-acre grounds somehow knew us by face and name.
But don’t take my word for it. Gallivanter’s Guide just awarded the Umaid Bhawan its Editor’s Choice – Hotel of the Year Award in its 19th annual award for excellence issue.
The Taj hotel group includes stellar properties all over the world, everywhere from San Francisco to Bhutan to South Africa. (The Taj’s Lake Palace is the crowning glory in Udaipur, India, voted Travel + Leisure magazine’s number one travel city in the world in 2009.) But even Taj calls the Umaid Bhawan its “Jewel in the Crown.” It’s truly a once in a lifetime experience. And, for me, worth every penny.
For more information on Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces: 866-969-1825 or www.tajhotels.com.