Audrey Young

Audrey Young is the New Zealand Herald’s political editor.

India: Finding romance in Rajasthan

The hall of public audience in the Samode Palace in Jaipur where the ruler of the day received visitors. Photo / Audrey Young
The hall of public audience in the Samode Palace in Jaipur where the ruler of the day received visitors. Photo / Audrey Young

The medieval Samode Palace is a magical introduction to rural Rajasthan in India. Converted to a hotel, it has been exalted by the best.

The former editor of The Times of London, Sir Simon Jenkins, ranked it the fifth best hotel in the world in 1999, and the Samode has been dining out on it ever since.

Last year in The Economist Jenkins went a step further and ranked it seventh in his personal seven wonders of the world.

He called it the world's most romantic hotel and said his writing about it 10 years ago had apparently ruined it.

Well he hasn't ruined it - it's still a very special hotel - but it does make you wonder what a wow of a weekend he had there 10 years ago to have placed it as he did alongside more conventional wonders like Venice and the Taj Mahal.

But, then again, if ruining it means that it is no longer his secret - yes he has.

Many a tourist makes the well-worn trip up the lumpy streets of the rural village - perhaps the cleanest village in all of India - where part of The Far Pavilions was filmed, to the foot of the 16th century palace.

Spain-based traveller Marsha Lloyd, in a blog of her journey through India with husband Eladio, rated their night in Samode Palace as "our best night throughout our whole trip" - helped, no doubt, by an upgrade to a royal suite when she fibbed that the day they checked in was their 25th wedding anniversary.

The palace was converted to a hotel in 1987 by the descendants of the former rulers and is spread over five storeys on the slopes of the valley. It was protected by the Sheogarh Fort which still sits at the top of the hill.

The palace has kept the giant spikes on the outside of its giant gates - to deter charging invaders on elephants.

My group was welcomed, as is the custom, with a floral lei, a drink (pomegranate, banana, pineapple, papaya and lime juice) and a bindi mark on the forehead.

There is no lift, so being allocated a suite on the top floor from reception can mean a long trek up through dark narrow stairways and an even longer one down the stairs to get to the ground floor pool (there are two).

Some would argue that that is part of the palace's authenticity. But a hotel that offers Grey's Anatomy on satellite TV and broadband internet in one of its charming historic courtyards, should be catering for the disabled with elevators, if not the lazy.

The hotel exteriors are a little faded and stained in parts, but the exquisitely decorated interiors where the former rulers held their meetings or received dignitaries never fade and are still used.

You can take a book and curl up on a day bed in one of the grand formal reception areas of old, or explore the magnificent Durbar Hall where Rajput rulers once held public audiences to discuss political matters of the day.

If you talk to one of the turbaned attendants nicely, he might unfurl his 10m head-gear on the floor of the Durbar Hall and furl it up again.

The monkeys who stole Jenkins' toothpaste when he was there 10 years ago are still swinging round the rooftops, or at least their descendants are. Guests are advised not to leave the door to their balconies open at night. (What do you do with a monkey high on toothpaste loose in your room?)

Like many travel experiences, the verdict is related to expectation. If you expect the seventh wonder of the world in Samode you might be disappointed. But if you're just looking for a hotel you will be enchanted. The hotel is 240 km from Delhi and it has a sister hotel, the beautiful Samode Haveli in Jaipur city, an hour's drive from Samode village.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:
Cathay Pacific has same-day connections from Auckland, via Hong Kong, to Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore. For fares and bookings see
cathaypacific.co.nz

Touring in India:
Adventure World organises individualised tours with your own driver, including the six-day Golden Triangle tour covering Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Phone 0800 238 368 or go to adventureworld.co.nz

Further information:
See incredibleindia.org

Audrey Young visited India as guest of Cathay Pacific and Adventure World.

- NZ Herald

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