Last Stop: Hope You’ve Enjoyed Today’s Ride
The city of Jaisalmer is like a fairy-tale castle out of “Arabian Nights.” Dating from 1156, its amber-colored walls blend with the surrounding elements and seem to emerge from the desert sand. Located at the edge of the Thar Desert, near the border of Pakistan, Jaisalmer was founded on the historic crossroads of lucrative trade routes. The “Golden City” was an important gateway for the camel caravans from Central Asia and grew prosperous from this trade. Thus within the scorching heat of the desert, this remote frontier settlement developed a beautiful and isolated cultural tradition. For years the city was unscathed by outside influences, its rulers the last to succumb to British rule.
The 800-year old Jaisalmer Fort looms 30 meters over the city. Enclosed within its ramparts is an entire living city, the narrow lanes lined with shops and beautiful Jain temples dating from the 12 century. The citadel preserves a medieval way of life, its resident craftsmen weaving traditional rugs and designing silver jewelry. Stroll through the cobblestone streets of the old city and see the havelis, the mansions of the rich and powerful Jain merchants. These businessmen hired stonemasons to design their sandstone mansions, the facades delicately carved like intricate sculptures. Patwon ki Haveli is the most elaborate and magnificent of all the Jaisalmer havelis.
Where to Stay?
From Jaisalmer, visitors can venture on overnight camel expeditions into the Thar Desert. The ride? Blankets are piled high across the camel’s hump, the reins in hand elaborately decorated with leather tassles. The vistas? An endless sea of sand stretching in all directions, the dunes shifting and changing in the wind. But a word of warning: camels can be full of personality, and lots of gas. I mean, so flatulent—LAWD!-- they stink to high heaven.
Third Stop: Tracking the Tigers
This former hunting ground of the Maharaja of Jaipur was declared a national park in 1980. Set between the Aravalli and Vindhya ranges, the park occupies 1,334 sq km of rugged, hilly terrain and deciduous forests. Ranthambore is most famous for its tigers, as the park began a conservation program in 1972 and has now stabilized the tiger population. The park offers opportunities for sighting these elusive predators on expeditions. At the lakes and water holes, visitors can also spot antelopes, sloth bears, wild boars, jackals, leopards and marsh crocodiles.
Where to stay?
Amanresorts has newly opened a wilderness retreat, Aman-i-khas, on the edge of Ranthambore. The 10 luxury tents are set in a quiet rural area, and are decorated in a rich, Mughal style, with king beds and spacious bathrooms (and soaking tubs!) The camp operates from October until the end of April-- the best period for wildlife spotting.
(Aman has a second resort in Rajasthan, called Amanbagh. Opened in February 2005, the resort’s 24 havelis and 16 pool pavilions are set within a walled oasis, within the Aravalli Hills near Alwar. Not far from Jaipur, the resort echoes the region’s Moghul architecture. Swimming pools, gardens, a decadent spa, and a Roof Terrace for dining beneath the stars.)
Aman-i-khas, Official Site
Aman-i-khas, Five Star Alliance
Second stop: The City of Lakes
Founded in 1567 by Maharana Udai Singh on the advice of a sage, Udaipur was the last of the Mewar capitals. Its romance and intrigue are almost mythical, the enduring source of inspiration for poets and artists. (And, um, this was the setting for that James Bond flick, Octopussy.) Surrounded by mountainous terrain, situated next to three lakes-- Pichola, Fateh Sagar and Udai Sagar—the city is like an oasis in the desert. The maze of narrow streets are lined by colorful markets, temples and gardens exploding with color. Set on a hill along the shores of Lake Pichola, the white City Palace seems to soar above the city. Enter through the Elephant Gate, wander the courts with carved arches, through pavilions and terraces with hanging gardens, and notice the blue tiles, inlaid mirrors, and miniature paintings depicting heroic historical scenes. Head to the markets for excellent shopping: pick up a few of the engraved miniature paintings depicting historic battles and epics, and leather books made with handmade paper (pressed with dried flowers).
Udaipur’s Lake Palace is one of the most romantic spots in the world. It appears like a brightly lit castle floating on water. Though when we visited last year, Rajasthan was suffering a serious drought, so the lake had dried up to nothing. We walked along the treeless plain of the lake-bed and noticed the water buffalo navigating the emptiness. In the distance, women’s saris appeared like billowing sails of color. The white marble palace seemed to be its own solitary island. And to think-- this 250-year old palace has been transformed into a magical luxury hotel. The Taj Lake Palace was originally built as a summer residence, designed with marble pillars, elaborate glasswork, colorful murals, and all the sumptuous details of a royal residence. Rooms offer stunning views of the Lake and Aravali mountain range. The Grand Royal Suites offer Jacuzzi tubs, marble bathrooms with rainforest showers, beautifully detailed artwork and crystal chandeliers.
The Taj Lake Palace, Official Site
The Taj Lake Palace, Five Star Alliance
First Stop: Shop Til You Drop in Jaipur
Known as the “Pink City,” Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, founded by Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727. The rosy color of the city is alluring and magical at sunset, set against the backdrop of desert sky. By decree of the Maharaja, the entire city was painted pink when the Prince of Wales visited in 1876. Today, laws dictate that every building maintain this hue. The walled city of Jaipur was designed with the City Palace at its center, with tiers of public buildings and noblemen’s residences spreading out from it. Main attractions include the Amber Fort—the temple within showcasing the exquisite Sheesh Mahal (hall of Mirrors)—and the Hawa Mahal, the “Palace of Breezes.” This palace’s latticework is like a beehive, the red and pink sandstone intricately carved. The elaborate facade has 953 windows, where the royalty used to glimpse secretly the city life below. The old city boasts some of the best shopping in the world. At the bazaars and markets, visitors find world-renowned jewelry (semi-precious stones, silver, bangles), brilliant fabrics, prints, embroidered textiles, shoes, and rugs.
Where to stay?
Taj Hotels operates the Rambagh Palace, a destination resort that used to be Jaipur’s Royal Palace residence. Spread over 47 acres of gardens, courtyards and fountains, the Rambagh Palace embodies the rich culture and history of the former rulers of Rajasthan. The palace hotel was first built in 1835 as a hunting lodge, converted to a palace in 1925 as the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur and finally converted as India’s first palace hotel in 1957. Pampered by personalized butlers and exemplary service, guests are invited to relive the royal lifestyle within this architectural masterpiece. Rambagh Palace offers 90 opulent rooms including the former chambers of the Maharaja.
The Oberoi Rajvilas is set in an oasis of thirty-two acres of beautiful gardens, pools and fountains, just seven kilometers from the city. Like the surrounding palaces and architectural treasures, the hotel is designed with reflective pools, decorated pillars, cool interiors and tented canopies with hand-embroidered fabrics. The hotel combines the royal elegance of the past with the modern conveniences of the 21st century to provide guests with an indulgent experience. Enjoy the very best of Western, Ayurvedic and Oriental therapies in the fabulous spa.
Taj Rambagh Palace, Official Site
Taj Rambagh Palace, Five Star Alliance
The Oberoi Rajvilas, Official Site
The Oberoi Rajvilas, Five Star Alliance
Opening Scene: Backdrop and History
The Rajasthan landscape flies by outside the car window. A wash of sandy beige interrupted by dazzling color: the bright-orange turban tightly coiled on the head of a passing motorcyclist, women clad in magenta or turquoise saris with water jugs balanced on their heads, carts of lemons piled high. And the ubiquitous water buffalo and Brahmin cows with their cute, dropping ears.
Even on a short trip to India, it’s easy to become intoxicated by the country’s chaotic energy, noise, and cultural history. Rajasthan’s temples, palaces and forts are architecturally magnificent. The bazaars are brimming with handicrafts and clothes you’ll see in trendy Soho boutiques (marked up umpteen hundred times.) But more than that, traveling through Rajasthan is an experience of the senses: tiny clay pots of sugary chai tea, the smells of spices and sweet fragrances, the kaleidoscope of color in the markets, delectable tastes dancing on the tongue. It’s a constant sensory explosion.
Rajasthan’s history is shrouded in myth. For over 1,000 years, the northwestern desert state was fiercely guarded by the Rajput clans. These legendary warriors defended their turf with a serious code of chivalry and honor. Thus Rajasthan remained independent from all the encroaching great empires throughout history. Indeed, Rajasthan’s city of Jaisalmer was the last kingdom to succumb to British colonization.
No longer just a budget backpacker’s paradise, India has become an inspiration for the international jet-set as well. Rajasthan’s beautiful Palace hotels can make anyone feel like a modern-day maharajah. The winter is the perfect time to make the trip; the monsoon rains are kept at bay for at least half a year. Hire a driver, bring out the map, and dream up your perfect itinerary.
Today is devoted to travel in Rajasthan. I’ve outlined a circular itinerary through the mythical land of the Maharajahs that I hope will entice you to click and scroll away. But what have I missed? Where would you go, what would you see, on a winter’s trip through India’s cultural oasis? Would you endorse a camel-trek into the dunes of the Thar desert, fully-aware of the sore ass that results, and the nasty stink that the camels emit with each clomp through the sand?
(Photo credits: yours truly and my dear friend Maggie)
Check this out. A recent article in the International Herald Tribune highlighted a fantastic new trend: shopping wars escalating across Asia. With every big city in Asia competing to draw tourists, shopping festivals have become the focus of retail-themed vacations. July’s Great Singapore Sale generated incredible retail sales and record visitor arrivals. For the eight-week shopping fest, 1.9 million tourists indulged in tourism-shopping sprees. And these folks know how to shop. Apparently, more than half tourist expenditure went to shopping. Likewise, Kuala Lumpur has consolidated three discount shopping periods into the six-week Mega Sale Carnival, running from the end of July to the beginning of September. Not to be outdone, Hong Kong has created its own HK Shopping Festival, which transformed the usual slow end-of-summer-season into another peak travel season. Bangkok’s Amazing Thailand Grand Sale also runs during June and July.
What does this mean for consumers? Aggressive marketing campaigns and hefty competition means consumers score big with competitive pricing, give-aways and promotional gimmicks, like free foot massages in Malaysia and Lucky Draw prizes in HK (including diamonds and luxury watches.)
PS. In case you missed the summer’s shopping extravaganzas, never fear. The Dubai Shopping Festival takes place from January 4 to February 5, and includes raffle prize give-aways worth $2.7 million, 100 kilograms of gold and 10 cars.
Situated in the heart of Mayfair, surrounded by charming antique stores, boutiques, and public gardens, the Connaught is a hop and a skip from London’s Bond Street stores and all of the best theaters, museums and parks. The 67 rooms and 24 suites boast sitting rooms with open fires and exquisite antiques. But what I’m really lovin’ is 24 hour concierge service and butler service on every floor. (And the Penthouse balcony overlooking the Mayfair rooftops, accessed through French windows from the sitting room.) The restaurant MENU, the mahogany-panelled interior designed by Nina Campbell, offers award-winning cuisine by Angela Hartnett. From now until December 31st, check out this special offer. The Inspirational Interiors Weekend is a brand new weekend promotion for those with a taste for Interior Design. Guests are greeted with a bottle of champagne in their room, along with a Connaught handbook of the chicest places to shop. In addition, guests have the option of a chauffeured car service for two hours (additional fee). The Inspirational Interiors weekend is available any Friday/Saturday/Sunday.
The Connaught, Official Site
The Connaught, Five Star Alliance
Courtesy-- again-- of Island Magazine. Any that didn't make the list? What's your tropical dream?
Islands Magazine has put together a pretty snazzy events calendar for this November. Their picks? Hawaii, for the incredible star-gazing of the Taurid meteor showers. (You've never seen falling stars like this!) Moorea, on November 3-6, for Tattoonesia, the island’s first International Tattoo Convention. (Ooops, the revival has already come and gone.) St. Barts on November 16, to taste the first Beaujolais Nouveau wine of the year (six hours ahead of France, confined to the traditional midnight uncorking). And Australia, on November 4-13, for the Whitsunday Fantasea Reef Festival, celebrating the marvels of the Great Barrier Reef.