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Melissa Kite on a retreat to India

A tour where everyone - elephants included - is steadfastly determined to please

30 March 2014

9:00 AM

30 March 2014

9:00 AM

As I sink into my four-poster bed at the Oberoi Rajvilas hotel in Jaipur, I find an array of little notes and gifts on the pillow including a pillow menu. It informs me that I am lying on duck down but I can have buckwheat, memory foam or ‘dual zone hypo-allergenic’, if I so desire. This says everything about the attention to detail I have quickly come to expect from the Oberoi group, which offers luxury and indulgence on a truly grand scale.

On arrival in India a few days earlier, I overnighted on the 20th floor of the magnificent Oberoi, Mumbai, where my enormous silk-draped bed stood in front of a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall window overlooking the Arabian sea at Nariman Point. The entire window was filled with ocean and skyline, so that the impression was of going to sleep on a high-rise cruise liner.

I had arrived on an incredibly comfortable flight with Jet Airways, whose new premiere business class bed is as good as a first-class seat on many airlines. The stars projected on to the cabin during sleep times and the popcorn brought round when you are watching a movie were typical of the meticulous service.

If I was still a little weary after the long haul, the Oberoi, Mumbai, put paid to it. A butler appeared as if by magic every time I so much as brushed against the telephone. I enjoyed a swim in the oncoming first monsoon winds, a soothing Balinese massage and a delicious meal — the work of Michelin-starred chef Vineet Bhatia, the brains behind my favourite restaurant in Chelsea, the classy Rasoi Vineet Bhatia.

After this brief but refreshing sojourn, I am bound with my small Jetair Tours group for Rajasthan — a short domestic flight away and then an hour-long drive into the countryside of princes.

The first treat is an elephant ride to the Amber Palace, ten miles from Jaipur. Again, with a knack for hospitality that goes above and beyond the call of duty, the guide manages to install me on top of an elephant called Melissa. I feel slightly guilty that my namesake has to walk up and down a steep hill for a living, even though the elephant rider informs me the animals are all well rested. As an alternative, you can drive up by Jeep to see the palace, a blend of Hindu and Muslim architecture affording stunning views.

Then it is on to the hustle of Jaipur’s thriving bazaars and ancient monuments, including the strange collection of giant sun dials at the Jantar Mantar observatory. I only manage a few hours in the ‘pink city’, so called because it was repainted entirely in pink, the traditional colour of welcome, in 1853 for a visit by Prince Albert. After that, I gratefully retreat from the heat and dust to the oasis of calm that is the Oberoi Rajvilas, 15 minutes away.

When I arrive at my villa in the grounds, someone has spelt the word ‘Welcome’ on the doorstep in pink petals and candles. It is here I sink on to the bed in the colonial-styled room and find the note about my pillow choices. A huge sunken bath looks out over its own private courtyard garden. A walk-in glass shower makes you feel like you are showering outside among the exotic plants.

The only quibble I can come up with is the noise of the frogs on the lawn outside. I don’t say anything to the staff, however, because they are so fixated on making sure I have everything I desire that I fear the frogs might be evicted if I express displeasure.

The Oberoi Rajvilas is a complex of rooms, villas and tents in a fort-like setting, situated on 32 acres of lush gardens. Jasmine trees scent the air, kingfishers flutter between branches, peacocks — and frogs — roam the lawns. Every now and then there is an incongruous hooting or ribbeting sound: in truth, it is uniquely atmospheric.

As well as a spa where you can enjoy Ayurvedic treatments, the hotel has a 260-year-old restored Shiva temple where you can meditate or do yoga.

I could have stayed for an eternity, never mind two days, but we are on a whistle-stop tour. However sad I am to leave the Rajvilas, I am not disappointed when I get to our next destination: the Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra, 600 metres from the Taj Mahal. All the rooms in this elegant, Moorish-style hotel face the great monument to love. When I get inside mine, I gasp as I realise how perfect a private view I have of one of the wonders of the world.

The Taj Mahal is so near, so precisely framed by the open patio door of my balcony, I feel like I can reach out and touch it as I sip a glass of fizzy water from the mini-bar. Here, as elsewhere, the combination of ethereal beauty, spirituality and sheer luxury is an odd but wonderful one.

At night, as our group nibble canapés and sip champagne on a terrace overlooking the hotel’s magnificent pool area, the haunting sound of the call to prayer from the nearby town of Agra drifts through the dark sky.

The Taj Mahal is not lit — the authorities won’t allow it — but you can sense it is there, like a still, silent presence in the night.

The next evening we make our way to see it. Along with hundreds of other pilgrims we walk mesmerised, never taking our eyes off its marble walls, tinged a little pink in the sunset, for the 40 minutes it takes to make the distance from the ticket gate to the foot of the monument. We stop at the place where Princess Diana sat on that bench and queue up for our ‘Diana picture’ alongside Indian girls. Everyone tries to do the pose, but none of us gets it quite right.

Later, at the table next to us at dinner, there are two Japanese ladies who cannot stop giggling with excitement. I know how they feel. It is a privilege to be here, and just a little overwhelming. Like everywhere I have encountered on this all too brief luxurious tour of India.


Oberoi Mumbai from £282 a night; Oberoi Rajvilas and Oberoi Amarvilas from 474 a night; see Jet Airways offers flights to Mumbai from £548 return and flights from Mumbai to Jaipur from £47. See For Jetair Tours, see 

The Spectator’s ‘Real life’ columnist enjoys unreal luxury in Jaipur.

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