50 Shades in Jodhpur: A Royal Holi-day

Celebrate the festival of colours, Holi, with a king in the land of kings (Rajasthan, India).

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Red, pink, yellow, green, purple…colours rain down and scatter in the wind. Water balloons sail in the air, bodies flail in tubs of coloured water and water gun fights are accompanied by war cries and wild laughter. Only one Indian festival  turns adults into havoc-wreaking children – Holi…the festival of colour.

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Trays of colour await

For most people, colours are a part of life, but for India, they are an annual cause for celebration. Every March, the country celebrates the most vibrant of all Indian festivals – Holi. For one day the earth becomes a veritable rainbow and the pot of gold is hallucination spurred by copious amounts of bhang (a traditional marijuana-laden drink).

The celebration ranges from spiritual and cultural to wild and insane. From funky beach parties and bonfires to elaborate house and foam parties, the country cheerfully goes crazy and what might normally be considered vandalism, is considered joyful celebration.

A Holi-day to remember: Mingling with a king in the land of kings

While there are many ways to experience the festival around the country, head to the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur (Rajasthan) for a truly extraordinary experience. Guests of the palace hotel have an opportunity to experience Holi with Maharaja Gaj Singh II  (current owner of the property) and his family – a truly grand affair.

Operated by the über luxury arm of the Indian Hotels Company Limited (Taj), this impressive property is one of the world’s largest living residences and can only be described as ‘magnificent’. Rising dramatically above the desert capital, the Umaid Bhawan Palace offers panoramic views of the Blue city with the Mehrangarh Fort in the distance. The stunning sandstone exterior, luxurious Indo-Deco interiors, gorgeous landscaping, rich history, indulgent cuisine and superlative service make this authentic palatial beauty a living fantasy.

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Besides the grandeur, the Umaid’s heritage, heart and hospitality set it apart. Originally commissioned to provide a source of income to famine-struck villagers, the Umaid Bhawan Palace embodies the caring spirit of its commissioners. The palace hotel’s welcome folk dance sets the tone for this one-of-a-kind hospitality experience that is a combination of its royal heritage and the legendary Taj ethos.

Over the years, the Palace has not only played host to numerous dignitaries, glitterati and other A-listers, but also formed the set for many incredible weddings and events. The Umaid, and more importantly, the Maharaja (or Baapji as he is well known) know how to throw a party. Not just ‘a’ party…a royal party.

In keeping with tradition and its inherent grandeur, Holi at the Umaid is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – complete with celebrity guests that may include the likes of Sting and Chelsea Clinton.

Royal, classy and colourful - Holi at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
A royal, classy and colourful celebration

Come Holi, the vast lawn transforms into a backdrop for a glamorous and colourful fete. Pretty white tents adorn the lovely lawns, while a bright sprawling tent features a fabulous feast and dining tables with festive centerpieces. Colourfully dressed elephants add a royal touch to the event. Plates of colour and tubs of water are spread across the lawns for guests to soak, splash, spray and paint each other.

Dressed in traditional Rajasthani attire, folk dancers and musicians entertain guests and villagers alike as they line up to put gulal (coloured powder) on the Maharaja, maharani, prince and their friends.

Colourful gathering - Holi at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
The colourful gathering paints a pretty picture

Guests are given the royal treatment. From breakfast to lunch, the party continues and all senses are completely overwhelmed: the brilliant colour against the sandstone palace is a visual treat while folk music and musical laughter set the rhythm; delicious food and drink indulge the taste buds and the perfume of sunshine and fresh grass fills the air as joy overflows all around.

An alternate reality exists for those that choose to indulge in some customary bhang-laden food and drink. If the world suddenly appears too bright, or you question your existence or cannot stop doing whatever activity you are doing, or doze off into deep slumber, know that you are probably experiencing the effects of bhang.

Colours of life…

Holi at Umaid Bhawan Palace is as much about celebrating an age-old tradition in a timeless setting, as it is about the royal treatment. For some, this celebration may seem a bit contrived, but for the fortunate, it is a great way to experience the festival in a glamorous, safe and extraordinary manner.

For one day, royalty and normalcy merge till it is impossible to differentiate where one begins and the other ends. Reluctance gives way to total loss of inhibition as grown adults embrace their inner child and celebrate the colours of life.

Bhang or no bhang, memories of Holi at Umaid Bhawan Palace continue to shimmer in mind-altering hues…

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Timeless grandeur

Beyond Holi

If you are upright the next day, be sure to visit the Mehrangarh Fort for beautiful views of the blue city. An architectural gem and famous for its cameo in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, the fort now features the ‘flying fox’ zip line for the more adventurous. 
Alternatively, plan to arrive a day before Holi to take in the city, and stay a day after to enjoy the luxurious Jiva Grande Spa treatments. After the sensory overload, relaxation is a must. 

 

10 Unforgettable Dining Experiences

Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure. A bucket list for those that love food, dream about it, salivate over it and are inspired by it.

Why do we celebrate special moments with our palates and bellies? When does a meal become memorable and a memorable meal, unforgettable?

It may seem obvious, but not all dining experiences are created equal. Case in point: The husband and I once went to a highly recommended restaurant in Hue, Vietnam for a special 7-course vegetarian Vietnamese meal. Course #1 was a vegetable sculpture of a peacock, with tofu and veggie spring rolls poking out of the body instead of feathers. I should probably mention that I hate tofu. Onto course #2: meat-like tofu sans vegetables. Though the husband loves tofu, the meaty resemblance was a turn-off. As were courses 3, 4, 5 and 6.

Starving by then, we hoped dessert would revive us. Just then, the waiter left a mysterious potted chili plant on our table. After awhile, I requested the waiter to bring our dessert. He pointed to the “plant” and said “That’s it.” Taken aback, I asked him how it had to be eaten. He pointed at two hanging chilies and asked us to pluck them. The chilies were made of marzipan. Bland, tasteless, marzipan. Delirious with hunger, we quickly wrapped up, but by this time all nearby restaurants were shut and our food luck ran out on us. Once the hunger pangs subsided, we shared – and continue to share – a good laugh over the unsavory experience. Just like that, the shared experience became a cherished memory.

Fabulous gastronomical experiences are those that make you sit up and pay attention to the details; truly unique experiences wrapped up in the joy felt when fantasy meets reality at a party in the mouth. Fabulous dining experiences are different in that they are sometimes greater than the meal itself. While great dining experiences may involve gastronomical ecstasy, other elements play a large role e.g. uniqueness, ambiance, occasion (especially life-changing events) and multi-sensory engagement. Here are some incredible dining experiences that do live up to their promise:

Dinner with a View: Locanda dell'Isola Comacina, Lake Como, Italy
Dinner with a View: Locanda dell’Isola Comacina, Lake Como

1. On a secluded island: Locanda dell’Isola Comacina is a restaurant on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Como, Italy. A truly unusual evening spent surrounded by the beautiful blue-green waters of Como and the verdant hills at its edge. The island can only be approached by boat from the nearest town and is so tiny that the restaurant practically covers all of it.

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The meal begins with 8 different types of vegetarian appetisers, followed by fresh pasta and an amazing cheese course. The staff comes with a large wheel of fabulous parmigiano reggiano, which is carved at the table. The final touch – and highlight – is the post-dinner coffee. Lights switch off as the owner regales guests with a dramatic story about the island while creating a caffeine concoction complete with blazing brandy.

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Suspended Dining: Faber Peak, Singapore

2. In a cable car: A unique experience for couples as well as families, the husband and I did it with our baby. When dining with a baby, creativity is the name of the game. Faber Peak, Singapore, lends itself beautifully to the occasion. A private cable car can be booked and each time the car completes a run, a new course is served, starting with a complimentary bubbly toast. The food is nice, but the views of the city and surrounding water are truly fantastic. As the evening wears on, the blues and greens make way for oranges and pinks, and finally twinkling lights in the inky black sky. The view kept the baby entertained and gentle sway of the car eventually lulled him to sleep so we had a peaceful and uninterrupted anniversary dinner (except for a quick, mid-air, diaper change!)

3. In a treehouse: A fabulous addition to any honeymoon itinerary, the Capella Marigot Bay Resort and Marina, St. Lucia’s intimate Treehouse is set with only one table. The steps up to the Treehouse are lit by lanterns, while flickering candles and fresh flowers adorn the beautifully set table. A dedicated butler ensures uninterrupted flow of delicious island cuisine and cocktails.

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Dining over the City of Light (Image Source: http://www.lejulesverne-paris.com

4. Atop a tower: For fine dining with one of the best views in Paris, head to restaurant Le Jules Verne located on the 2nd floor of the Eiffel Tower. Helmed by Alain Ducasse, the kitchen focuses on contemporary French cuisine (Vegetarians, beware!). Classic interiors, subtle lighting highlight the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the City of light. The views of the lit up iconic sites across the city, are enchanting and mesmerizing. Ask for a table by the window and be specific about dietary preferences as fish may be considered ‘vegetarian’.

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Fairytale Dining: Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (India)

5. Like royalty: What better way to script your own foodie fairytale than to feast atop a beautiful and authentic palace? Take a boat to a magical love nest: the Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur (India). Emerging as an ethereal vision amidst dreamy Lake Pichola, this floating palace is royaly romantic. From the elegant jetty, to the lovely lily pond and beautiful marble flooring, the hotel is a treat for the eyes. Dine at the terrace that overlooks the gorgeously lit Jag Mandir Palace and listen to the music of gently lapping waves. The menu, placed as paper scrolls on plates, is curated especially for the occasion by prior consultation with the chef. The repertoire of dishes ranges from oriental and continental to local cuisine. Fun fact: James Bond’s Octopussy was shot here.

6. At one (or all) of “World’s 50 best restaurants“: All the restaurants in San Pellegrino’s list are worthy of pilgrimages by gastronomes. One of the most incredible experiences can be had at The Tasting Room in Le Quartier Française, Franschhoek (South Africa). Molecular gastronomy blends seamlessly with simple traditional cooking to deliver an amalgamation of flavours ranging from fresh and subtle to Umame and intense, with unexpected surprises. For vegetarians, Chef Margo Janse puts together an amazing 9-course meal that is a delight for all senses. Think amuse-bouche of opposing tastes, freshly baked corn bread in a miniature tin, Butter roasted cauliflower, amasi, hazelnuts & currants and an imploding dessert. The menu is a surprise by the chef, so be sure to let them know of any dietary preferences in advance.

It’s not just about the taste, but the complete experience…especially the service. The servers introduce each course, highlighting the ingredients as well as the chef’s thoughts, emotions and memories that are encapsulated in the dish. As a result, the diner feels a connection to food that goes beyond taste.

7. By the water: Life is a beach. Live it up with sundowners that turn to candle-lit dinners under a canopy of stars that overlook sparkling waters. Feast your eyes and feed your hunger with stunning views, bottomless drinks and endless food – perfect for when you want time to stand still.

Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses Samui, Koh Samui, Thailand
Dining with the horizon: Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses Samui (Image source: http://www.sixsenses.com/resorts/samui/dining)

Dining on the Rocks, Six Senses, Koh Samui (Thailand) for 270-degree views that give the feeling of being suspended over water. Have a pre-dinner drink at the bar and watch the incredible sunset. While the vegetarian food is strictly okay, the unparalleled views more than offset the taste.

Ku de Ta, Bali (Indonesia) for dining on lounge chairs overlooking the beach, while enjoying an electric vibe. The relaxed buzz is perfect for a night out on the island, while the wonderful vistas are a scene to remember.

A Touch of Greece In India: Thalassa, Goa
Sublime Sundowners at Thalassa

Thalassa, Goa (India) for a taste of Greece in India. Located atop a clift overlooking the Arabian Sea, the restaurant sport gorgeous views all around. Fluttering white sheers, white cushion-covered chairs and crisp white tablecloths are a striking contrast to the brilliant sky and sparkling waves.  Come before sunset and stay for the traditional plate-breaking jig by the waiters.

 

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Weaving gourmet magic with vales and vineyards: La Petite Ferme (Image source: http://www.lapetiteferme.co.za)

8. Overlooking vales or vineyards: While there are some fabulous restaurants around Napa Valley and other vino-centric locales, one of the most charming ones has to be La Petite Ferme, Franschhoek (South Africa). Recognized as one of the top 15 ‘Best Value’ establishments in the world by Condé Nast Traveller,  the food is fresh, simple and tasty and served with stunning views of the boutique winery and Franschhoek valley. Straight out of a storybook, the restaurant is framed with ivy-covered white trellis and surrounded by pretty lawns with benches that compel you to sit and enjoy the panoramic views. Better yet, stay awhile at one of their 5 luxurious suites, complete with plunge pools overlooking the finest vistas around.

9. By the riverside: The Oberoi Hotels’ Wildflower Hall does a fabulous picnic by the river. Start with some whitewater rafting in the mountains and counter the adrenaline rush with food-induced coma. Fresh pastas, salads, and yummy desserts are nicely packaged and set on a bench along the river. Complete with a white tablecloth, silverware and dinnerware. Set a scene for your own storybook with the some sun, gurgling river, chirping birds and gorgeous blue skies.

Chef Rego, Vivanta by Taj - Holiday Village, Goa
Chef Rego, Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, Goa. (Image Source: http://www.vivantabytaj.com/holiday-village-goa/dining/chef-profiles.html)

10. At a Chef’s Table: Guests of Vivanta by Taj – Holiday Village, Goa (India) are in for a treat when they sign up for a private dining experience with Chef Rego. Having a chef cook live is a special experience in itself. When the chef concerned is a 30-yr veteran specialising in authentic Goan cuisine, that experience is divine. The mango curry (seasonal) is made from mangoes freshly plucked from on-site trees just before the meal. A thorough gentleman, the chef is more than happy to talk about each dish he prepares. Fairy lights around a make-shift tent, crashing waves and a gentle sea breeze complete the experience.

On my wish list: Too many, but a list-topper has to be “Dinner in the sky” 

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Dinner in the sky: Brussels (Image source: dinnerinthesky.com)

The last byte…

Dining is a necessity, fine dining a pleasure and experiential dining an adventure.

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Walls no bar: Dining at Ladera, St. Lucia

Where there’s a mood, there’s a mode. Find unique dining experiences around your location or destination. Whether it is a food festival, food tour or fine dining, there are options for all purses and personalities.

Or, cook up your own delicious experience – explore an exotic locale, taste a mind-blowing concoction or discover an unusual experience. Meals do not need to be expensive to be memorable. Sometimes, the simplest and spontaneous ones are the best. Find a gourmet food store or local market, pick up fresh bread, cheese, fruit, dessert and a bottle of wine. Walk or drive around and set your picnic at a spot that makes you happy.

Great dining experiences have the power to transform an ordinary meal into an extraordinary sensory and emotional experience.

That, I suppose is how a meal becomes memorable and a memorable meal, unforgettable.