Majestic Rajasthan: Reliving History in Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer

Incredible fortresses, luxurious living, sumptuous feasts, extravagant celebrations, haunting melodies and haunted tours make for an experience of a lifetime.

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There are some places on earth where history comes alive. Where the past and present co-exist. Where wild sands are tamed and nurtured. A land of royal palaces, imposing fortresses, mesmerizing desert sands, brave warriors, brilliant colors, vibrant festivals, haunting melodies and sumptuous feasts. The ‘land of the kings’ – Rajasthan.

No state in India is as vibrant, exotic or majestic as Rajasthan. There are some truly incredible places to explore, but vast distances and limited connectivity mean that one trip is seldom enough to see them all.

This past Diwali, the sun, moon and stars aligned for our family to explore Jaipur, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer together. Timing was perfect, occasion was perfect, itinerary was set, and off we went with toddlers, in laws, nephew and Samsonite showroom display in tow. Despite the long journeys and assorted age groups (<15 months to >60yrs), we had a fabulous time and even managed to come back charmed and rejuvenated!

Here are some recommendations for how to do it:

#1: Live life king size; sometimes, the property is the experience.

Rajasthan has some of the most beautiful heritage properties in the world, so going luxe was almost a foregone conclusion. What surprised us, was how much the properties contributed to the overall experience. These weren’t simply places reserved for crashing after exploring outdoors, these were spaces that compelled you to reserve time for themselves as well.

Our first property, Trident, Jaipur, a nice but slightly older property, with the kind of service that turns a good property to great. From having a kids club and convenient garden/play area to entertaining the kids to catering to our every food whim, this property surpassed all expectations. There was the time when one of the waiters surprised us with the infamous Rawat’s pyaaz kachori when he learnt that we wouldn’t have the time to do so. Or the time when, on request, the chef prepared a fabulous and elaborate Rajasthani thali, complete with freshly made desserts.

Our property in Jaisalmer, Suryagarh, was simply out of this world. From the start, the property surprised us. An impressive feat, the ‘hotel’ is actually a massive yellow stone fortress that arises like an oasis in the desert. From the minute we saw the grand entrance, to long after we entered our lovely chamber, we were floored by the sheer size, scale and beauty.

We celebrated Diwali in style, awoke to a beautiful vista before us, complete with a peacock on the terrace. We had breakfast in a lovely courtyard surrounded by peacocks, rabbits, turtle and various charming, but unobtrusive, pets of the property. There was even a magician in traditional Rajasthani garb, a little ‘farm’ where the property grew some of their own vegetables and herbs, as well as ample space for kids to run around and be free.

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Breakfast with peacocks

The benefit of a great property is also the level of access and depth of local knowledge. We enjoyed sunset dune-bashing with Lama tours (one of few companies to have staff trained in Dubai and SUVs instead of open jeeps) at one of the non-touristy sand dunes, hotel-arranged sunset camel safari to the quieter side of touristy Sam sand dunes, ATV rides, visit to the Jaisalmer fort, the bustling market and ancient Jain temples, a haunted tour, luxurious spa treatments and amazing local cuisine prepared by in-house chefs. The boys even visited Jaisalmer War Museum and Laungewala War Memorial, where they paid homage to heroes as well as discovered military vehicles. The whole family was thoroughly fed, spoilt, pampered, entertained and very grateful.

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…As we had already been to Jodhpur before, the husband and I opted to take the kids to Reggie’s Camel Camp Osian. Those seeking an exclusive luxurious experience, might want to opt for the incredible Umaid Bhawan Palace. The kids were super-excited about staying in tents as well as dancing around the bonfire at night, while listening to live traditional Rajasthani music. Since the baby was having a little too much fun driving us crazy by going in and out of the tent, we opted to head for Mihirgarh first thing in the morning. An interesting experience, but probably best done with companions older than 5.

An hour outside of Jodhpur, the little fortress of Mihirgarh, has been on my wishlist as it is one of few Relais et Châteaux (properties that combine luxury and gastronomy) properties in India. Owned by relatives of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, the small but beautiful all-suite property made up with room size and service what it lacked in scale. Our room was more than 1100 sq ft with a living area, large bathroom with Forest Essentials toiletries, balcony with a table for two, terrace with a jacuzzi and some lounge chairs to sit back and take in the beautiful surroundings.

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A Bishnoi woman churns butter as her brood looks on with amusement

We took a jeep safari and spotted the rare black buck by off-roading en route to the Bishnoi village (a tribe that lives in harmony with nature, uses no electricity or modern equipment and uses cow dung liberally) and experienced a glorious sunset from the sunset terrace. Food is definitely a highlight, with the menu serving as a formality: whatever the belly desires is dished up by their talented chef. For our last meal, he prepared traditional Rajasthani specialties – dal (lentils), baati (baked hard and dense round breads), churma (deep-fried baati crushed and mixed with sugar or jaggery), green tomato and papad (lentil wafers)-methi sabzis…absolutely delicious.

Tip: In Mihirgarh, ask for the upper level rooms. The lower level ones are a bit too close to the trees/flowers, so there could be some unwanted visitors in your plunge pool. For those interested in glamping, they also have another property with luxury tents nearby.

Where family time is concerned, it is as important to spend time together as have time apart. Staying in luxurious properties is a great way to strike this balance: sharing unique experiences strengthens the bond, while large rooms and superlative service ensure sufficient space, rest and relaxation. Maybe we would have seen the same Rajasthan from other properties, but probably not. We would certainly not have enjoyed the trip as thoroughly or felt as rejuvenated or loved each other as much by the end of it.

#2: Break it Up

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Pause for Poha at Pokaran

Travelling with two toddlers to a remote place is challenging under the best of circumstances. To go from Mumbai to Jaisalmer, requires a 2.5hr flight to Jodhpur followed by a 4-6hr drive (depending on chauffeur, traffic and halts) to Jaisalmer. A whole DAY of travelling. Then, the husband came up with a brilliant idea: why not fly to Jaipur, spend a couple of days there, take the overnight train to Jaisalmer and on the way back, break our journey with overnight stay at Osian (desert camp) and Mihirgarh (a wish list property outside Jodhpur) before flying back to Mumbai?

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Journey to Jodhpur

My first thought was of course of the ‘less-than-hygienic’ train toilets, but the more I thought about it, the more appealing it became. So, armed with hand sanitizer, soap and a large toilet roll (along with our assorted bags), we took the plunge.

The plan worked wonderfully – we had a blast in Jaipur, slept through most of the train ride, enjoyed the sights whilst awake, stretched our legs at Pokaran station and stayed at unique properties.

Tip: Those who enjoy luxury rail travel, should consider the über luxurious ‘Palace On Wheels’. Also, I recommend the following – when going from Jaisalmer to Mumbai, stay overnight at Manvar tents (better located than Osian) before heading to Mihirgarh (highly recommend a 2-night stay) or skip it all and stay overnight in Jodhpur.

#3: ‘See’ less to do more

Travel with kids can best be described as a “balancing act”. We wanted to make the most of our time in Jaipur, while continuing to have happy kids. So, we planned our itinerary around them, but while ensuring our top priorities were met.

We decided against hardcore sightseeing and opted for a brief overview instead. We managed to:

Sample local specialties: we picked up some local grub from LMB in Jaipur market on our way from airport to our hotel (Trident Jaipur) – a 15 min detour that was enough to get a feel of the bustling market beautifully and brightly lit up for Diwali.

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Decorating ‘Chanchal’ the elephant at Elefantastic

Discover a unique experience: The highlight of our trip, was the day spent with an elephant. Elefantastic (a superb option for families and animal-lovers), is of the best kept elephant farms I have seen. It was very green, clean (no visible piles of poop) and organized (on schedule). All families had an elephant to themselves. We fed ‘our’ elephant (who preferred the kids’ stuffed parathas instead of hay), decorated her using harmless natural colors, bathed her and went for a ride in the nearby village until the little one protested. The kids not only enjoyed interacting with the elephant, but also loved chasing chickens and splashing in muddy puddles (a Peppa pig-inspired fantasy).

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Royal feast at 1135 AD

Have a lovely meal and catch the sound and light show: we wanted to see the 8pm sound and light show at Amber fort, so we planned this on the same day as Elefantastic. The kids were tuckered enough to be lulled by Amitabh Bachchan’s lovely baritone, so the husband and I managed to enjoy a fantastic Rajasthani thali at the commendable 1135 AD restaurant in the fort. Frequented by numerous dignitaries  celebrities over the years, the restaurant is decorated in deep red and gold, with sparkling chandeliers, flickering candlelight, live music, and rich food that reflects its royal heritage. For a moment, we were transported to another time.

Tip: Keep the hotel car/taxi when visiting Amber fort. We let ours go and ended up on unfamiliar, unpaved, roads in a bone-jarring never-to-be-repeated auto rickshaw ride as no other mode of transport was available. Those who understand Hindi might want to watch that version of sound and light show as it is recorded in Amitabh Bachchan’s voice.
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View of and from the Nahargarh fort; the site of a scene from the movie  ‘Rang de Basanti’

Enjoy stunning city views: The boys monkeyed around the hotel garden with the monkeys, and burnt off a suitable amount of energy, before we headed to Nahargarh fort to watch the sunset over the city. It was recommended to us as the place where locals go for the view, especially during Diwali. Though the fort itself was not very well-maintained, the views were lovely. What was truly wonderful, was the bird’s eye view of Diwali lights and fireworks across the city from the restaurant within.

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City lights from the Nahargarh fort restaurant

By the time we boarded the train to Jaisalmer, the boys were blissfully knocked out! All in all, we had a great 2.5 days in Jaipur. I would have loved to go for tea or dinner to Rambagh Palace, take the kids to Chokhi Dhani and shop a bit, but there’s always next time!

 

#4: The best travel stories live beyond comfort zones
(Warning: not for the faint hearted.)

In our quest for finding unique experiences, we opted for the ‘Chudail (Banshee) Trail’, a Suryagarh signature experience that took us on a haunted trail. The husband, mother-in-law and I were the bravehearts that went on this tour in the pitch dark of night with our car headlights and guide’s torchlight as the only light sources for miles around.

Our first stop, was a mysterious lake in the middle of the desert that – for unknown reasons – has maintained the same water level since centuries. Surrounded by tons of holes dug to unearth the water source, the lake has seen the death of many. I was fine with the spirits, but the thought of slithering snakes and creepy crawlies was unnerving. We hopped back in our vehicle and whizzed off to a cemetery that was far less fascinating.

Our third and final stop was the highlight of the tour – a visit to the cursed and haunted village of Kuldhara. Apparently it, along with 84 other villages, was abandoned overnight a few hundred years ago. No one knows where the inhabitants went, but they cursed the village so that anyone who inhabits it dies.

As experiences go, this was the creepiest and most unusual, making it a great story to share.

#5: The most memorable experiences might be the most surprising ones

If anyone had told me that the highlight of my trip was watching a transvestite dance, I wouldn’t have believed them. But, the Diwali celebration at Suryagarh was – like the property itself – outstanding.

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Stage set for Diwali puja

What started as a simple, tastefully, handled prayer in a beautiful setting by the owner, morphed into a binge-fest of mithai (sweet meats) freshly prepared by an in-house halwai (sweets chef), which moved onto a celebration with sparklers and fireworks, and flowed into live Sufi music performance followed by an unforgettable dance performance by Queen Harish and her troop, finally ending in a dining extravaganza.

The earthy and soulful music echoing off the massive fortress surrounded by nothing but inky blackness, has to be one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever experienced. Only Wordsworth’s words can describe it: “…The music in my heart I bore, long after it was heard no more.”

I was thankful just to be there, in that space, at that time and in that moment.

When celebration of an occasion becomes a celebration of life, life is beautiful.

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Reflections of Rajasthan

Whether it is the bespoke luxury of boutique fortresses such as  Suryagarh and Mihirgarh, or the convenient luxury of a Trident hotel, or the unmatched royal luxury of an authentic Taj palace, Rajasthan’s heritage properties beautifully recreate the magic of a bygone era while delivering unique and unusual experiences.

The palaces and fortresses are almost as much a part of the experience as the land itself…allowing one to get into character by setting the scene. Rajasthan, while wonderful in itself, viewed from the lap and through the lens of luxury, is an experience of a lifetime.

…After all, what better way to discover the ‘land of Kings’, than to live like one?

 

Paris For All Senses

Explore Paris through its sights, sounds, scents and textures. Tips and reviews of unique experiences, tours, activities and vegetarian-friendly eateries.

Let me just get this out of the way: I love Paris! No matter how many times I visit Paris, the city continues to enthral me with its fabulous architecture, culture, glamour, luxury and gastronomy. Through different seasons, stages of life and experiences, Paris can be vibrant, stark, resilient, vulnerable, romantic, risqué, rich, or any number of dimensions, but she is always remarkable. With each trip, I saw a different Paris. With each trip, a different dream came true. While I love the touristy and glitzy sides of Paris, the “hidden” Paris – which I began to discover on my most recent trip – is my favourite.

…This trip was special as it was a spontaneously planned rare getaway from the kids. The husband and l were determined to make the most of it while building in some R&R time. For the sake of fairness, each of us picked activities we wanted to experience, which is how we ended up discovering Paris under the lens, through the nose and by the mouth.

Along the way, we learnt a few things:

Lesson #1: Zooming “in” is as important as zooming “out”.

For his pick, the husband chose a 3hr Randy Harris photo tour of the city. While I initially had some reservations, we got lucky with a beautiful day. We saw the same sights in a new light. We noticed the play of light on the Louvre…how art installations in the Jardin des Tuileries transform the space from pretty to pretty surreal. We also discovered Montmartre – the Paris seen in movies…complete with cobblestoned streets, quaint cafes/restaurants and random musicians in lively squares.

Although we wished our guide (an American ex-pat living in Paris) were a professional instead of amateur photographer, the tour was a great way to: enjoy the rich fall colours, view iconic sights from unique perspectives, learn to use our new camera and capture some flattering snapshots.

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A moment at the incredible, iconic and unbelievable Louvre

Most importantly, the tour made us realize that while we remember to “zoom in” on ourselves (or the subject) when we take pictures, we often forget to “zoom out” and notice the surrounding sights, sounds, scents and textures. Adjusting our zoom, is the key to taking the “perfect picture”…looking at which, lets us not only remember the place/event, but also relive the moment.

Lesson #2: The simplest experiences may be the most magical.

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Although it is simply a tower to a lot of Parisians, it is the icon of Paris for the rest of the world. While the view from the top is fabulous, what is truly incredible is watching it light up. Post our photo tour, we hauled ourselves across town for a mandatory photo session with this icon from Champ de Mars as well as Place de Trocadéro.

After successfully photographing ourselves with the Eiffel Tower from every possible angle, we waited…Nutella crepe in hand of course…at Place de Trocadéro for it to light up. Even though I’d seen it before, the sight of thousands of lights suddenly twinkling in the evening sky was just as sensational and magical as the first time I saw it.

Lesson #3: Solo travel need not be solitary travel; strangers that share food become friends.

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Say Cheese!

As the husband was busy with a conference, I signed myself up for a dream experience – a food tour of Paris. Organized group tours can be a great way to meet like-minded people.  I joined a group of six ladies – that I had never seen or met before – for the “Taste of Saint-Germain” tour from “Paris by Mouth“. I chose this option as: 1) It was a top-rated food tour on TripAdvisor and 2) it included a couple of my wish-list toppers: Poilâne and Pierre Hermé.

Our guide – Sara – was fantastic and was coincidentally a part-owner of two of the bars we visited on our first day in Paris. The tour was everything I’d expected and more. A fabulous gastronomical adventure that involved tasting pastries and picking up miche (type of bread) from Poilâne, devouring macaroons and croissants from Pierre Hermé, selecting fresh cheeses from the local market and collecting chocolates from Patrick Roger.

Wine bottles in Paris

We then walked over to a wonderful little wine shop, where a wooden table was set up in an intimate stone-walled room for us, to eat the cheese paired with miche and delicious wines. We capped off the meal with our amazing chocolates and a stop-over at a little place specialising in fresh choux pastries.

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Picture perfect display at Pierre Herme

The highlight of my Paris trip, the visions, scents and tastes that I came across during this tour were enough to drive me into food-induced coma. I could have – and did – learn about most of these establishments on my own. However, I would never have uncovered the fascinating stories, noticed the little details (bread chandelier, anyone??!), tasted some crazy flavours (lime and basil chocolate? Ispahan croissant?), discovered the different wines and cheeses or had an absolutely wonderful time with complete strangers. Sometimes, just connecting with like-minded people transforms the solo travel experience.

Lesson #4: Integrate meals into the itinerary to achieve repeated gastronomical ecstasy.

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Unwind with some fabulous wine and cocktails at Le Mary Celeste

Travel itineraries often tend to include activities and logistics, with little emphasis on meals (usually the terribly bland, tasteless and touristy kind). So, we end up picking random restaurants. Spontaneity may be fun, but for vegetarians like us, it can be rather problematic and expensive. Having had one too many unsavoury experiences and because good food is central to my mental/emotional well-being, I spend considerable time researching restaurants before our trips. Reservations are made ahead of time for wish-list toppers and options built-in for some spontaneity.

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Fabulous raspberry tart and hazelnut coffee at beautiful Ladurée

As a result, besides the food tour and chocolate extravaganza, the husband and I managed to cram a good number of culinary delights in this trip: yummy sandwiches from Cosi (reputed to be one of the city’s best, with lines out the door), sublime macaroons from Pierre Hermé, city’s best hot chocolate at Angelina, fragrant and flavourful Kusmi Tea, delicious coffee, croissants and raspberry tart at exquisite Ladurée (not to be missed), amazing savoury crepes at Breizh café, lovely drinks at Candelaria (on the list of world’s best bars; hidden behind a tiny taqueria) and Le Mary Celeste, fabulous baguettes from Le Grenier á Pain (winner of Best Baguette 2015) with truffle pecorino cheese from the fromagerie nearby, people watching with coffee and pastries at Les Deux Magots (a Parisian institution), incredibly “cheesy” romantic fondue dinner at Pain, Vin, Fromage, tasty street side Maoz falafel and gourmet food shopping at Le Grand Épicerie.

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Pierre Hermé Ispahan macaroon, coffee and people watching at café Les Deux Magots

Yet, we were not on some gourmet tour (aside from the 3hr one that I took) – we’d simply included meals into our itinerary. For example, since we wanted to explore the Marais, we had pre-dinner drinks at Candelaria, followed by dinner at Briezh Café and post-dinner drinks at Le Mary Celeste.

As the husband will testify, the strategy is not foolproof. Nevertheless, for this trip, it was absolutely perfect. The kind of perfect that, when I close my eyes, not only makes me smile, but my mouth water.

Lesson #5: Chocolate is the solution. Always.

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I strongly believe that everyone should have some “me time”. I chose to spend mine surrounded by a girl’s second best friend: chocolate. So, I treated myself to Le Salon du Chocolat, which is an annual event in France that coincided with our visit there.

From intricate chocolate sculptures and tastings of the finest and wackiest bars, to exquisite wine pairings, unusual accompaniments, live demonstrations and delicious pastries, this event was every chocoholic’s dream come true. As a lover of fine/artisanal dark chocolate, I felt like all my chocolate fantasies suddenly came alive under one roof and at the same time – Cluizel, Le Roux, Chaudun, Chapon…you name it.

It was crowded, mind-boggling and insane. I didn’t know where to look, what to smell, what to taste…what to do. For once, I simply enjoyed being totally lost.


The real lesson…

Sometimes, to truly discover a place, we have to lose ourselves in its sights, scents, sounds, tastes and textures. Find your happiness – be it music, dance, art, photography, food or any other interest – and let it pave your path to uncovering your Paris or for that matter, any destination you choose. Maybe, we need to connect with ourselves and be open to connecting with other people to truly connect with a place.