This story was originally published in TravelDine India by Vernika Awal.
The Leela Palace, Udaipur, in Rajasthan is an emotion that stays with you, long after you’re back from your trip. That, perhaps, is its biggest triumph as a destination that isn’t for everyday.
What, really, is it that makes us spend on luxury? In a casual chat with a friend a few years ago, I heard a take that has since remained rooted in how I’ve seen luxury travel and holidaying. You see, luxury is what makes us kings and queens, even if for just a day. It is an escape — away from the million bills and spreadsheets, emails and video conference reminders, which we see everyday. So, for 24 (or maybe 48) hours, when we’re at the cusp of the much-wanted long weekend break, a luxury holiday is what takes us truly away, from everything.
It is this stream of thought that kept flooding my mind, as a pristine new limousine swept me towards my destination for the next four days — a palatial residence, in the middle of a lake. To be sure, Udaipur’s lake palaces are legendary around the world, and the luxury experiences that India’s hospitality majors have spun around the Pichola lake are rated among the very best, worldwide. I wouldn’t shy away from admitting that even after a decade of travelling and writing about such experiences, this one did have me excited.
Perhaps it was fitting, I thought, that the experience begins in near-complete silence inside the insulated interior of a well-appointed German limousine — in many ways the exact antithesis of India’s luxurious hospitality. Because, you see, what you get at The Leela Palace in Udaipur is nothing short of a sensory kaleidoscope.
A royal welcome
To reach the hotel, however, we must first traverse half the length of Pichola, the lake on which this palatial hotel is located. I’m greeted at the quaint private port used by The Leela group, and escorted to a stately motorboat painted in the sort of rich wood varnish that you’d see in army clubs. The gentle drone of the motor overlaps the sound of the water below us, and in a brief, five-minute sail, we’re at the first marble steps of the hotel.
I’m escorted to the reception lobby, up a marble-laden corridor, with an ornate bandhani-work umbrella. Kesariya Balam played live on a ravanhatta — an ancestor to the (relatively) modern-day violin. There is a fragrance that you’d commonly find amid freshwater places, but strewn with a hint of the sort of musk you’d whiff in warm bars, or even at the edge of a pine forest.
Just as I step into the lobby and I’m greeted by five members of the hotel’s staff, I’m showered with a cascade of rose petals.
It’s not that The Leela Palace, Udaipur is massive in size. It felt resplendent, but not expansive. The managers of the property who welcomed me for my stay were courteous, warm and affable, yet not over-reaching. You probably can’t quite put a finger on it, but the welcome hits all sorts of right notes for your trip to be. You’re made to feel at ease, but it’s clear that what you’re about to experience is different from most others.
It is the small touches that make all the difference. For instance, as soon as I’m at the lobby, I’m escorted to my room. All check-in formalities are completed once I’m in the room — a touch that makes a major difference simply because in comparison to being in the lobby, where you still feel in transit, being in the room you’d call your own gives you a sense of finality.
This took me back to my train of thought during my journey to The Leela Palace, Udaipur — that of being kings and queens, even if for a day. Wouldn’t this be just what it may have felt like, a few centuries ago?
‘Capture The Dream’
For what it’s worth, however, you wouldn’t expect any less from the hotel. After all, you’re paying upward of Rs 50,000 per night for a luxury stay. This puts the onus on The Leela Group to create an experience — and a property — that stands out. After all, flanking The Leela Palace on the iconic Pichola lake are titanic properties such as the Taj Lake Palace and The Oberoi Udaivilas.
For some reference, the story of the birth of The Leela Palace, Udaipur is so engrossing that celebrated author Bachi Karkaria penned an unputdownable account of it in her book, ‘Capture The Dream’. A narration of Captain C.P. Krishnan Nair, the mercurial mind behind the erstwhile Hotel Leela Venture Limited, tells you of all the litigations and logistical struggles that the family went through in order to build its palace.
After years, they did get their wish. Soon, the property became known as ‘the palace in the lake’ — different from Taj’s ‘palace on the lake’, and Oberoi’s ‘palace away from the lake’. In a battle of the titans of Indian hospitality, this fine margin was worth many a mile on the highway. Today, what you see is a fantastical property that is owned by a US-based real estate and hospitality corporation — the literal antithesis of emotion-streaked splendour and opulence.
A modern day palace
The lake property seeks to weave the fantasy of royalty in a rather ‘maharaja’ manner. The corridors, for instance, carry a uniform motif of the jharokha — a leitmotif for erstwhile balcony-windows of Rajasthan’s great palaces. Yet, in a rather modern take, the motif has been fused with the Aztec style to create a modern appeal, something that also goes well given that you are surrounded by a water body.
The property seemingly took 15 years to be built, often amid great difficulty due to the logistical challenges of building a castle in a lake. But, the resultant effect is true to what was likely desired: The Leela Palace, Udaipur does feel palatial. Step out into the main courtyard, for instance, and you face the great lake. The two flanks of the main area are aptly named Sunrise and Sunset Boulevards, as they offer stunning views of the rising and setting sun, respectively.
While you would have definitely seen bigger rooms in luxury hotels, what The Leela Palace offers is a heightened sense of warmth, thanks to its choice of colours. Many balconies of the hotel are nestled in jharokha-styled structures, although not all face the lake. There’s no amenity that goes amiss here — you have your usual crop of walk-in cupboards and a sizeable bath tub. But, given its positioning and competition around, you can’t be expected to be enamoured by the seemingly regular offerings.
A walk around shows you corners that add a touch of added luxury just the way it should when you’re in a palace. For instance, one of the many fountains on the outer courtyard, the one right beside Sheesh Mahal, transforms into a platform for a live santoor recital in the evening. In the inner courtyard, the marvellously decorated wall — inlaid with a tone of gold — forms the backdrop for Rajasthani folk performances in the evening.
Before the evening begins though, you are met with some of the most glorious scenes of the famous lake Pichola sunset. It reminds you why you paid a fortune for a luxury holiday — for the absolute riot up in the sky, reflected with near nonchalance on the lake surface. It plays out like a taut, multi-starrer West End play. The palace, as if perched on a balcony seat, is the silent observer.
It is at this sunset, out in the courtyard of a hotel that has received many awards of being among the world’s best, that you realise why The Leela Palace, Udaipur stands out.
A befitting yet modern meal
The Leela group has also brought along its acclaimed The Library Bar to the property — a destination known for its excellent cocktails. This is accompanied by The Dining Room, the hotel’s sole all-day diner, and Sheesh Mahal, a North Indian cuisine specialty restaurant.
In every way, it is fitting that The Leela Palace, Udaipur plays host to The Library Bar, for the latter’s pan-India aesthetic is a personification of the palace hotel. On the culinary front, Executive Chef Simran Singh Thapar offers among the best meals that the city plays host to. Even amid its North Indian speciality, Chef Thapar and his team serve a mean Tom Yum soup at the all-day dining, while a highly personalised Italian degustation menu makes sure that the venture is catering to the ongoing food trends, too.
For instance, you get a multi-course Italian meal, where every item features foraging, and sourcing locally. It’s not an afterthought, either. For instance, in the Italian fare, two particular highlights of my experience were the white millet tortellini with foraged greens, parmesan cheese crisp and a basil butter sauce, and the mushroom risotto with millets.
It is a dining experience that has been carefully crafted to make sure that the food on service at The Leela Palace, Udaipur is not left behind in the wake of the palace’s sheer presence. For those with an extra eye on their health metrics, The Leela Palace also serves Aujasya, a multi-course wellness menu. In future, The Leela group will extend Aujasya as a wholesome wellness product, which makes its presence in Udaipur imperative.
The weight of an experience
What you see at The Leela Palace, Udaipur, is the full spectrum of India’s famed luxury hospitality. The palace hotel carries itself with a personality worth its weight and makes a definite effort to make every guest feel personally catered to. You’re accompanied — but not guided — and left on your own. The palace’s corridors make for solemnly opulent stretches to explore.
The property, as I mentioned earlier, is not mammoth in size. As a result, it makes for a very personal venue to get married at. Just like the royal families would, The Leela Palace shuts itself to the rest of the world if you book this as your wedding venue — it would be just you and yours, in the middle of the iconic Udaipur lake.
It is perhaps this that makes certain destinations worthy of the weighty luxury tag that they carry. For them, giving yourself an indulgent holiday is definitely worth the weight of the experience.