Our Top 10 Northern India Holiday Highlights
India has completely captured my heart like no other country – to my surprise I have become a complete and utter Indophile. My first day at Ampersand involved flying to India for the first time for a three week trip; I fell in love and have never looked back. Having been at Ampersand for over three years, I have just come back from my fourth trip to the country. My previous trips have centred around Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle, or combined the ‘metros’ of Mumbai, Calcutta and Hyderabad. However, this time I wanted to combine the parts of the country I loved best as I was travelling with my sister, an India first-timer. We travelled very much outside the so-called ‘season’ (between October and March). May is one of the hottest months of the year before the monsoon comes in July. However, having grown up in the Middle East we both love and are used to hot temperatures, especially the balmy nights that you find at this time of year. Throughout the trip stopped at some of my favourite Rajasthani destinations before heading north, via Chandigarh, to Shimla in the Himalayan foothills. Visiting nine locations in as many days (and plenty more hotels besides) meant that, as well as refreshing my memory of some of our favourite properties, I picked up a lot of knowledge along the way: new hotels, great restaurants and new. Below I’ve shared some of the highlights, discoveries and photos from my trip…
As somebody who loves architecture (and India!), Le Corbusier’s planned city of Chandigarh has been on my bucket list for a long time. Despite the soaring heat of the Punjabi plains, I absolutely loved exploring the city. Built post-Independence as the new joint capital of the Punjab and Haryana states (former capital Lahore fell within the confines of new Pakistan after partition) Chandigarh was planned by world-famous socialist architect, Le Corbusier. One of the cleanest and most orderly Indian cities I've visited, with wide tree lined streets and a neat grid lay-out, Chandigarh certainly has a distinct feel. I especially liked visiting the famous Capital Complex (made up of the Legislative Assembly, Secretariat and High Court) and seeing the contrast of Modern Brutalist architecture in an Indian, rather than European, setting. Compared to Le Corbusier’s rather harsh and dour housing development ‘Unite d’habitation’ in Marseille (which is very close to my home town in France), in Chandigarh I felt as I was walking through a living and breathing social experiment.
As my colleagues know (because I never shut up about it) colonial-era architecture is one of my great passions. Having done the heritage city walk in Mumbai, explored the crumbling colonial ruins of Calcutta and spent many hours in Lutyens' Delhi, Shimla was the next obvious box to tick. Located in the Himalayan foothills, Shimla was put on the map by the British who used it as an escape from the insufferable heat of the summer months on the plains. Originally resembling a quaint home counties town, Shimla is now a busy city and the capital of Himachal Pradesh. Climbing the into the fresh pine-covered hills was an instant relief to the heat we left in Chandigarh; the time of year that we travelled was exactly when the British (before the relief of air conditioning) would have fled to the hills, meaning we got a rather ‘authentic’ experience of this migration. I spent a happy afternoon exploring the impressive Vice Regal Lodge (where the documents for Partition were signed), walking The Mall, learning about the wonderfully maintained (and still in use) Gaiety Theatre and visiting Christ Church Cathedral (with stained glass windows made by Kipling’s father). Lunch at The Oberoi Cecil, a Raj-era hotel was the cherry on the cake!
A fairly new lodge, run by Reggi Singh, who also owns Osian Camel Camp, I found Mountbatten Lodge to be a charming property that perfectly breaks the journey from Jodhpur to Udaipur. As you'd expect, this four room hotel has been designed and decorated in a tasteful colonial style with art deco hints, old sepia photographs and four poster beds. Two of the rooms have private plunge pools, and the other two share an infinity pool. Delicious home-cooked food is served under century old Banyan trees (complete with scampering monkeys) and a central lodge is a wonderful place to rest after sightseeing, countryside drives or horse riding. Mountbatten Lodge is only 15 minute scenic drive from the world-famous Jain temples of Ranakpur that were carved from the same white Mekhrana marble as the Taj Mahal.
The newest and most exciting hotel in Jaipur to open in a long time is the fantastic Rajmahal Palace (run by Sujan – the company behind Sher Bagh, The Serai and Jawai Leopard Camp). Housed in a palace building (the Maharaja of Jaipur lived here after vacating Rambagh Palace) and restored to perfection, Rajmahal Palace is the creation of Lucknow-born interior designer Adil Ahmad. Rooms all have individually designed wallpaper (matching custom-made furniture) and are a wonderful blend of both traditional and contemporary India. Excellent service, a lovely spa, three restaurants, clipped lawns, spacious grounds and an art deco swimming pool make this one of my favourite hotels in the city and the perfect place for those that love smaller boutique properties.
Amanbagh is without a doubt my favourite hotel in India – the place I dream of when it's cold and wet in London. A complete desert oasis two hours from Jaipur, it is truly a hidden gem that you'll never want to leave. A haven of tranquillity, the property is the polar opposite to India’s bustling cities. Time spent here is all about taking in the natural beauty of Rajasthan and the local way of life (whether by taking a cow dust tour through the surrounding villages, or observing the evening aarti in the local temple). Service is discreet but of the read-your-mind variety, food delicious (much of it grown in the organic garden), rooms are spacious and elegant, and the pools and grounds just divine. This was my third stay at the resort and I already can’t wait to go back.
This award-winning restaurant has been on my radar for a long time but with trips to India always jam-packed, I hadn’t yet found time to try it. This time we fitted it in by whizzing into the city while transiting for our flight home – the perfect way to end a whirlwind tour. Contemporary and stylish, Indian Accent is the country’s first real foray into inventive fine-dining and has become Delhi’s most celebrated restaurant. Celebrity chef Manish Mehrotra has achieved cult status, deservedly so, with food that bridges the gap between Western gastronomy & Indian ingredients, flavours and excitement. Located in The Manor hotel, in a leafy residential colony, dinner at Indian Accent is a must-do on any trip!
It’s always nice to break up the inevitable car journeys when touring Rajasthan. Shahpura Bagh, located just outside the small town of Shahpura, is an obvious stop between Jaipur and Udaipur. More a home-stay than a hotel, the estate is owned by the area's ruling family who live on-site and drop in to say hello as you are having drinks. Their friendly dogs roam the grounds adding a lovely personal touch missing in some of the larger, glossier hotels. With extensive gardens (including a walking trail), spacious suites decorated in heritage style, a lovely swimming pool, bikes that you can borrow and a homely living room and dining room decorated with stuffed tigers and family portraits), Shahpura gives an insight into how Rajasthan’s leading families live today.
8. Devi Garh
One of the best things about Rajasthan is the wealth of hotel options dotted around the region; from opulent palace properties and family-run lodges to toe-stubbing havelis and slick tented camps. Devi Garh is one of my favourites and one which I wanted my sister to experience as it captures much of rural Rajasthan's magic. A converted fort perched on a hillside in the Aravelli Mountain range and overlooking the colourful village of Delwara, Devi Garh’s suites offer jaw-dropping views over the surrounding countryside. Two elevated swimming pools, lots of little alcoves for private dinners and a restaurant with restored antique frescoes make you feel that you are sightseeing and learning about the history of the region while staying in a gorgeous luxury hotel.
Often described as the ‘Venice of the East’, the lake city of Udaipur is, without a doubt, one of Rajasthan’s most beautiful cities. As far as entrances go, the arrival to the Taj Lake Palace is unbeatable. After being dropped at an iron wrought jetty, a private boat sails you across Lake Pichola, past the City Palace and the ghats, to this floating, mirage-like white building. It’s easy to forget everything as the jaw-dropping views of the lake and surrounding city are utterly enchanting. Whether it’s yoga on the rooftop, an afternoon spent by the pool or a private dinner in one of the romantic alcoves, a stay at the Lake Palace is always completely unforgettable – that's why I keep going back!
10. Wildflower Hall
For those wanting to explore Shimla town and experience the peace and quiet of the hills, Wildflower Hall (run by Oberoi) is the perfect place to stay. About half an hour out of town, surrounded by pine forests and wild flowers, the hotel is built on the site of Lord Kitchener’s Shimla residence. Roaring fires and views over the snow-capped Himalayas in winter; croquet and afternoon tea served in the country gardens in summer: this is truly a year round destination – something not often found in India. I loved the indoor pool and the outdoor infinity Jacuzzi which command captivating views of the forests and mountains. With a spa, hosts of outdoor activities, an indoor cinema room and several hiking trails, Wildflower Hall is a great place to unwind after a busy tour.
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