Illustration for TIME by Warwick Johnson
From the comfort of our hotel room, we watch the sun burst through a curtain of crimson, swirling across the drowsy dawn sky above Udaipur's massive citadel. Four centuries old, it looks exactly as a palace should: immense, impressive, imposing—the very picture of majesty. Yet we hardly suffer in its shadow. Munching grapes and dates, we snuggle on exquisitely embroidered pillows by the bay windows of the Lake Palace Hotel's Sarva Ritu Suite. We feel like king and queen—appropriate because this 250-year-old palace has always served royalty. Built entirely of marble and filling every inch of Jagniwas Island, the ethereal pearl-white inn is like a cloud floating on the lake's surface. And we have been on Cloud Nine since checking into our capacious, chandelier-bedecked suite, once the sitting room of a princess.
Converted to a hotel in 1961, the Lake Palace instantly became one of the world's most famed inns. Real kings and queens flocked to this floating palace, along with Hollywood royalty like Vivian Leigh and Sean Connery. It was Roger Moore, though, who cemented the Lake Palace's place in the collective consciousness by using the heavenly hotel and its surreal setting for the fantasy island retreat in 007's Octopussy.
Such fame and opulence don't come cheaply, or easily. Despite room rates starting at $250, the plush Lake Palace is booked a year ahead for peak season. The seven historic suites, each uniquely outfited—one with a golden swing—cost $650 a night, plus tax. Turbaned boatmen ferry hotel guests to the exclusive island, as well as to other palaces dotting Lake Picola, but many visitors have been politely turned away with the sad refrain: "No reservation!"
Still, majestic Rajasthan can make such slights seem trivial. The one-of-a-kind Lake Palace sets a lofty standard, but in India's wild western state, kingly living is commonplace. Nearly every hill is lined with a stone wall leading to the local version of Camelot. The castles are only part of the allure of this historic land, named for the Rajputs, warrior clans that ruled scores of kingdoms for centuries. With a highly evolved code of chivalry and honor, they were often likened to the Knights of the Round Table. Indeed, there is more than a bit of King Arthur-style enchantment in this storybook realm of castles, swords and camels.
| TRAVEL WATCH
Live Like a King in the Castles of Rajasthan
From the comfort of our hotel room, we watch the sun burst through a curtain of crimson, swirling across the drowsy dawn sky above Udaipur's massive citadel
The Maharaja who ruled Marwar during the first half of the 19th century was either a magnificent leader or a colossal fool
Riding through the desert on the back of a Marwari war horse is a proud Rajasthan tradition, and one you can take part in if you sign up for a trek with Shekhawati Brigade Horse Safaris
Among the possibilities on this quirky website: following in the footsteps of the U.S. President's recent trip through India
The vast Thar desert sprawls across western Rajasthan and spills deep into Pakistan
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The desert backdrop only makes the population more mesmerizing. Women sport scarves and sarongs in every color under the sun. Men don plain white robes, but top them off with turbans in luminescent shades of yellow, red, orange and maroon. And every Rajasthan male prides himself upon possessing the state's signature facial feature: a magnificent, thick, wavy mustache.
Visits to Rajasthan usually begin in Jaipur, the state's largest city and a corner of the Golden Triangle (with New Delhi and Agra) that is India's major tourist route. Nicknamed the Pink City, Jaipur is a rose-tinted wonder, from the walls of its enormous castle to the houses that climb pell-mell up the hills.
As befits a capital, Jaipur claims a surfeit of palaces, including perhaps the single most spectacular: Rambagh, a sprawling estate that is still a royal-family residence. With its enormous polo grounds, occasionally still used for quaint, if tedious, bouts of elephant polo, Rambagh was the first Raj palace to make the conversion to tourist quarters in 1957, not long after the Rajpramukh rulers were abolished in favor of elected governors.
The palace still sets the tone, treating guests to the splendors that defined the Raj of old. There are puppet shows for children on the lush lawns, and guests can trundle the grounds in old royal carriages or marvel at architectural oddities like a dance floor on springs. The Rambagh's transformation into a hotel by flamboyant Maharaja Mansingh—a jetsetting polo player—was termed scandalous at the time. Soon a few other monuments followed suit, but it wasn't until the tourist boom of the past quarter-century that such conversions became the norm.
Part of the fun of visiting Rajasthan is seeking out its remote castles. In Pokaran, rooms in the ancient fort go for $20 a night. Rohet Garh, south of Jodhpur, is a delightful lodge ($30 to $40 a night) with intimate family photos hanging alongside swords. The havelis (manors) once owned by wealthy Shekhawati Valley merchants boast marvelous murals in their mini-palaces. Enormous suites with big poster beds can be found for $25 to $50 a night. For those with a taste for the flavor of the past, but no stomach for rustic inconveniences, there is Raj Villas, a palatial retreat outside of Jaipur. Part of the posh collection of the Oberoi boutique chain, it is set inside a mock fort topped with Moghul turrets that Lara Croft would love to swing from. The property manages to fuse modern conveniences such as hot showers and five-star dining with historic ambience. Who could resist a right royal pampering in a building fit for a king?
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