Is sybaritic luxury in India an oxymoron? Decidedly not, if you are fortunate enough to book a reservation at the intimate Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel in picturesque Udaipur.
While the thought of India can rightfully conjure teeming masses of humanity and widespread poverty, it is possible to visit this mystical country and retire each night to live like an Indian prince of yore.
When India gained its independence in 1947, the Raj--British rule--came to an end. Although the maharajahs, or Indian princes, gave up their lands to have a free India, they retained privileges such as privy purses and exemptions from wealth taxes that allowed them to maintain their elegant way of living. All that changed in 1973, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi withdrew these and other grants, effectively consigning the fabled wealth of the maharajahs to history.
To fund the preservation of their ancestral homes, many royal families took in recommended, paying guests. Over time these palaces and hunting lodges were converted into startlingly luxurious small hotels, which flourished throughout the exotic state of Rajasthan in northwest India. The Shiv Niwas Palace Hotel is certainly among the most glamorous examples of this twist of fate.
Constructed in 1920, the crescent-shaped building has commanding views of placid Lake Pichola and the more famous, but less appealing, Lake Palace Hotel. Originally the palace of Maharajah Fateh Singhji, Shiv Niwas was used by his descendants until 1978 as guest quarters for visiting dignitaries. Between 1978 and 1982, the owners added a second story to Shiv Niwas in preparation for its conversion to a 35-room luxury hotel. These second-floor rooms, though less expensive than the suites on the main floor, are gracious and comfortable and have spacious balconies.
The best place to stay is in one of the enormous suites. They are all unique and look like the guest wings they once were, with 18-foot ceilings, crystal chandeliers, marble floors, glass inlay borders and antique furnishings.
Entering one of the three Royal suites, there is a 50-foot-long, albeit somewhat narrow, formal living room with adjoining service bar--once used for grand receptions. Today it serves primarily as a spectacular walk-through to an equally gargantuan, square twin-bedded room with several sitting areas. Off the bedroom is a small study and in another direction, a large dressing room and marble bathroom with shower and bathtub. Each suite also comes equipped with a well-stocked minibar, satellite television, international direct dial telephones and air conditioning. The hotel staff is extremely courteous and remarkably efficient.
Near the suites is the cocktail lounge, which resembles an elegant living room, with photographs and portraits of its royal owners scattered about. It's a great place to go for a drink and to soak in a spectacular sunset. A dramatically lit swimming pool is the centerpiece in the bougainvillea-shaded marble courtyard. Here, guests can dine on a delicious repast of delicately flavored tandoori chicken, lamb or fish, as well as curries and vegetarian dishes, while relaxing to the strains of a sitar played by a classically trained musician.
My favorite dish was a local Rajasthani delicacy called safed maas--tender pieces of lamb in a light cream sauce flavored with poppyseeds and cashews. If you feel like a night off from Indian cuisine, try the delicious homemade pastas served with a choice of sauces.
The predominantly French wine list is modest in scope, if not price, and includes Moet & Chandon ($115) and Pouilly-Fuissé ($46). After dinner, feel free to savor the cigar you have remembered to bring with you (Shiv Niwas does not sell them).
Unlike the desert cities that dominate Rajasthan, Udaipur is favored with white marble palaces, calm blue lakes and steep green hills. While there are plenty of sights to keep the most avid visitor busy, Shiv Niwas is so inviting and such a world unto itself, one should yield to the temptation to stay within its glamorous walls and bask in a glorious time gone by. --Clint Fitch
Clint Fitch is a freelance writer living in New York.
SHIV NIWAS PALACE HOTEL
Phone (91 294) 528016
Fax (92 294) 528006
Rates Rooms from $100, suites from $300