Mumbai, Delhi and sure, even Jaipur – I had heard of all of these cities before leaving on my first trip to India, but Udaipur was different. It had never come across my radar before, a relative unknown and another Indian mystery I couldn’t wait to explore. Traveling with luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, although my first introduction to India was in Mumbai, I feel like the first real introduction was in Udaipur. Mumbai is a mega-city and an intensely worldly one, but Udaipur is different and provided me with my first glimpse into what traveling around India was like. However, just as with all of my stops in the country, I quickly fell in love with the formerly unknown to me Udaipur, a fact that surprised me because of why I came to enjoy it so very much.
The Oasis City
Flying into Udaipur, I couldn’t help but notice the burnt terrain. A scrubby land bright red from the heat, it’s that contrast that has made Udaipur so popular for so very long. As the plane descended I saw my first lake, just one of many bodies of water that came to define my time in this Rajasthani city. Known as the City of Lakes, it’s those waters that not only cool the city, but add to its charm. Also called the most romantic city in India, this getaway isn’t just popular for 21st century honeymooners, it’s been a resort city for centuries. Rajput-era palaces seem to pop up everywhere, on lakes as well as inland, creating a certain majesty to visiting, which was also the case in my luxury hotel for the duration, the Oberoi Udaivilas.
Truly one of the most remarkable hotels I’ve ever visited, the Oberoi Udaivilas stands on 200-year old hunting grounds of the Maharana and is spread over 50 acres. With only a limited number of rooms and suites, it creates a private and secluded feeling; perfect for a getaway. It also has incredible views of Lake Pichola along with the palaces both on and along the banks of the lake. Of course great hotels aren’t just about their surroundings, it goes much deeper than that and like most Oberoi properties, the staff at the Udaivilas excels at providing incredible comfort. As soon as guests arrive they’re made to feel like members of the noble classes, a feeling that never goes away. While the estate is sprawling, the number of guest rooms and suites are kept to a minimum, which ensures luxury service that is nearly unparalleled. Enjoying a poolside suite, it was one of my favorite hotels during my trip not because of any amenity, but because of how I felt. It’s rare for me to be as relaxed as I was at the Oberoi Udaivilas, a testament to the travel magic they’ve created at this remarkable resort overlooking the city.
Palaces and Lakes
At the heart of any travel experience in Udaipur though are those stunning palaces built for princes and their courts. One of the most impressive sights is the City Palace that towers over Lake Pichola. Still occupied by the regional royal family, the older sections of the palace are open to the public so everyone can enjoy the rich opulence of the Maharanas over the years. With incredible lake views it’s easy to see why they chose this as their home, and I quickly fell in love with the entire palace complex. After admiring the lake all day, I was excited to experience the city in a slightly different way, on the water.
A special excursion organized for Abercrombie & Kent guests is a sunset cruise on the lake, but in true Maharaja style. Although it was just me, the small boat was stocked with a high tea service that could feed a small family. As the boat putted out into the heart of the lake, I sat back enjoying the views, sipping on chai and eating one too many cookies. It was a special afternoon though, not just thanks to the small sandwiches, but for the opportunity to experience Udaipur in a different way. I’ve always said that it’s important to see new cities from different vantage points, and from the water is always a personal favorite. Floating around the lake I noticed scenes of daily life I’d never see from land. Locals washing their clothes and even themselves, honeymooners posing for photos and throngs of kids lined up along the shoreline to wave hi. Yes, the boat ride is a fun way to see the city and its palaces, but more importantly I think is the opportunity it provides to experience real life in Udaipur as well. A theme that carried on as I visited a local school.
It wasn’t my first trip with Abercrombie & Kent so learning about their philanthropy project in Udaipur wasn’t a surprise, but what was a surprise was the opportunity to visit and meet with the kids. Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy supports projects all around the world from rhino conservation to schools like the one in Udaipur. Spending some time there I met a few of the more than 100 girls of all ages who attend classes, learning in a safe and encouraging environment. At the school they are protected from prejudice and even violence, allowed to just be normal kids. I read through their school projects, admired their artwork and even congratulated a budding photographer on her skills. Without a doubt it was the unexpected highlight of my time in Udaipur and is probably what has so endeared the city to me forever.
Before visiting India I expected to enjoy certain aspects of the trip. I knew I’d like cities like Jaipur and Mumbai. I knew that the Taj Mahal would blow me away and I couldn’t wait to try the food. But I didn’t really expect much from Udaipur and that’s too bad. I bet I’m not alone in underestimating this peaceful city, one that I think all visitors to India should spend some time experiencing not for any one site or building, but for the general feeling of contentment that rewards nearly everyone who takes the time to explore the city.