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The Atrium Lobby at The Imperial Hotel in Delhi
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The market in Delhi

Who doesn’t like top end luxury and being pampered. And it seems nobody does it better than the four and five star hotels in India.

From the moment I finished my gourmet meal on Jet Airways, a meal designed by the famous Indian corporate chef of the luxury Division of The Taj Mahal Palace and Hotels, Hemant Oberoi, (who keeps adding new restaurants in Europe and India to his resume,) to when the air steward asked if she could make my bed (yes, business class seats become beds covered with crackling,starched white linens) and being tucked in with smart wool and cotton double sided blanket, I knew this would be only the first chapter of living it up from the sky down to earth.

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The room with a view of the Taj Mahal from
The Mughal Sheraton Hotel In Agra
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Trevor, my butler at the Mughal Sheraton in Agra


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Another view from the Sheraton Hotel
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The view of the Taj Mahal from my suite at the
Mughal Sheraton in Agra

After landing in Delhi, deluxe redux started 232 in the high ceiling room of the legendary The Imperial Hotel. This grand old dame of Delhi, has recently had an outstanding face lift. It wasn’t stretched or pulled beyond recognition but certainly freshened up. The 24 Royal palm trees still line the roadway leading to the entrance of the glamorous hotel worthy of its name. Inaugurated in 1931 this independent hotel with Old Colonial, Victorian and Art Deco architectural features represents a lifestyle of the elegant past where bejeweled guests, heads of states and various great personalities opted to stay and with its reputation an entire new affluent and powerful clientele are back again.

Because of constant traffic congestion in this city, it’s wise to leave early for sight seeing which should include the New Market, Indian Museum and Victoria Memorial Park with a statue of a sour looking Queen Victoria who never visited Calcutta as it was known then.

Breakfast in the ‘1911’, a restaurant named when King George V declared Delhi the new capital of India, is the perfect venue for the fast paced city that is just a stone’s throw from this quiet oasis. And, weather permitting, a tablet on the verandah overlooking the sprawling garden with numerous trees, flowering plants and shrubs is a great day-starter. Althuogh there are large rooms for meetings and conferences the serenity of this heritage hotel seems more for rest and relaxation than business.

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Kaya Kalp Spa, Mughal Sheraton, Agra
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Kaya Kalp Spa
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A tub of rose petals at the Mughal Sheraton, Agra
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The relaxation area, Kala Kalp Spa,
Mughal Sheraton, Agra

While in India, go for Indian food but not at street stalls or casual eateries. A good start is at The Spice Route at The Imperial, known for southeastern Asian cuisine. And either before or after the meal have the Indian beer, Kingfisher, at at the Patiala Peg (again at the hotel), the most popular bar in the city. There is a most impressive collection of photos of the Maharajah of Patiala taken during World War II.

The hotel’s perfectly laid out, outdoor pool and patio, seem to make guests oblivious to the fact that just outside the grounds is the annoying constant hectic horn honking traffic. Adjacent to the pool area is the newly opened the 2,500square meter, Six Senses Spa with a full menu of treatments.

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The horse and carriage, transporatation to the
Taj Mahal
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The Taj Mahal in the morning sun

Besides the obligatory trip to Connaught Place, on the itinerary of the capital city a visit to the Chandni Chowk with the narrow winding alleyways and for only 200 rupees (approx US$5) should include a bike rickshaw capable of maneuvering through the lanes, certainly the best means of transportation. Although the shops and open stalls seem empty, it’s reasurring to know, that since many stalls are strictly wholesale, the vendors need only one or two major sales during the day for them to be profitable. There are, of course, retailers too. Bargaining is a must and expected. There is everything from leather to silk, woodwork to jewelry, ribbons, and footwear.

After this somewhat hectic, busy marketplace, the traditional tea back at The Imperial’s The Atrium Lobby, is an ideal place to unwind away from “the madding crowd”. It’s airy and the extremely day light bright triple storey area where many of the guests’ rooms look down at the sprinkling fountain and white rattan chairs.

Getting the perfect room at Agra’s Mughal Sheraton Hotel can give you a fine view of the world’s most beautiful and perfectly symmetrical building, the Taj Mahal. The 270 room hotel sitting on 35 perfectly manicured acres is a conference haven with 4 meeting spaces.

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The amazing Kala Kelp Spa at the Mughal
Sheraton in Agra.
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The colorful saris at the Taj Mahal

On arrival in a deluxe suite, the large tub is filled with stop light red rose petals. A low divan seating area at the large window has a majestic view of the Taj Mahal only 2 miles (4k) away. The well decorated suite (in the hotel’s heyday, it was one of only 12 countries to win the first Aga Khan Award in 1980) often comes with an incredible massage chair that has various speeds and pressures and after a day of sight seeing, is the perfect antidote to sore backs and aching feet. And for those who love luxury, there is butler service. These staff members will do various duties e.g. make reservations, have the chef prepare a meal to dine in your suite’s dining area, look after your laundry, book and confirm transportaion.

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Lobby of the Maurya Sheraton, New Delhi

A great way to get to the Taj Mahal is by horse and carriage and early in the morning. It’s at dawn that the light on the white marble and inlaid semi precious gem stone ediface is excruciatingly exquisite. The love story of Shah Jahan is still a bitter- sweet romantic episode. His love for his deceased wife, Beguam Mumtaz Mahal, inseparable lovers, was the reason for this tomb which is one of the world’s Seven Wonders and the world’s number one sightseeing destination. The Shah’s own finale was solitary confinement imposed by his son in the nearby Agra Fort.

The signature restaurant at the Mughal Sheraton, Peshawri, with a barbeque spectacle where diners are given an apron and encouraged to eat with ones fingers, is the height of well prepared Indian cuisine with the finest ingredients and a menu that will satisfy every taste.

But certainly the attraction- getter at The Mughal Hotel is the newly opened, largest spa in the country at 99,000 square feet, Kaya Kalp- the Royal Spa. If ever one wanted to know what it was like to be a Maharani or Maharajah, this is the place. Designed so beautifully, it was the only winner from India to be tapped by London’s snob appeal glossy magazine, Tatler Spa Guide. The theme for Kaya Kalp is the pomegranate. And inlaid in the terrazzo flooring in the exterior and interior are bursts of the ruby red fruit design also seen on the deeply carved wood walls and ceilings. Kaya Kalp also houses the royal Mughal Hamam a room laid out like the traditional Turkish steam baths. the first in India. Although huge, much of the space includes outdoor walkways over smartly designed pools featuring fountains and flowering bushes while jasmine scent permeates the air.

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The temples of Khujuraho, a must see
on a traveler’s list.
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Bathing at a small stream near Khujaraho
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At the Ganges River in Varanasi
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One of the old fine palaces on the Ganges in Varanasi

Head and foot massages,facials and body massage are great for the drying effects of long distance flights and given by extremely well trained aestethians. Treatments included Ayurvedic hot herbal Poultice Massage and Shirodhara Therapy. Facials include Kaya Kalp Facial and Absolute Pearl Gem Stone Facial which sounds like the jewel in the crown. As for body choices, Revitalising Body Treatments, Chakra Balancing Gem Stone Massage and a category called Spa Journey. Pomegranate Journey and Passage to India would need several days to get through the spa menu.

The big disappointment was the astrologer who sits in an area of the hotel’s lobby, waiting for ‘suckers’ . “Ah you have three children”. No only two. “Ah, you’ve been married three times”. No, to the same husband for decades. “Ah, you love travelling.” Yes, that’s why I’m in India. So after the 3000 rupee payment (approx. US $75), there is truth to that old adage “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

Back in Delhi, it’s well worth staying at the sister hotel, the Maurya Sheraton. Hip and often filled with celebs from the Indian film world, Maurya sits in Delhi’s Diplomatic Enclave and owes its architectural design to the Mauryan dynasty of ancient India.

Although large with 440 rooms and a very busy business atmosphere, strangely it feels like a boutique hotel. Perhaps it’s the stunning lobby with the semi circle, hand painted mural on two and three levels with a complex vault dome that took four years for artist Krishen Khanna to complete and has created an intimate area.

Quite a different take on decor is the on -site, Bukhara, a rustic restaurant with an open kitchen that has won several awards for their Oriental cuisine. it’s where President Bill Clinton sat at table, #64, and where he had visited twice on different occasions at his request. Burra Kebab (Lamb), Murgh Malar Kebabs (chicken), Prawn Tandoori, Dol Bukhara, various breads and Raita (yoghurt), were some of the dishes that appeared, cooked and overseen by renowned Indian chef, J.P Singh.

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On the ghats of Varanasi’s Ganges River
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A sacred cow and bikes on the main
street in Varanasi

There are no truly 5 star hotels, in Khujuraho but one of the top hotels in this very small town, the Taj Chandela Hotel, just doesn’t make the grade for a brand known as one of the best in the world. Again, this may be one of the hazards of traveling and wanting first class all the way Sometimes it doesn’t happen. But sitting on 11 well kept acres, this 98 air conditioned hotel has a fine pool, mini golf course and art gallery to name a few out -of- room amenites.

Khajuraho is really a four hour temple city, although often due to flight scheules, it may be necessary to say overnight. The temples are second only to Taj Mahal for tourists.Built from 950 AD -1050 AD and known for the erotic images, it is an astonishing sight. There are carvings everywhere from ceiling to floor and ditto for the exterior. The most overwhelming sight is the largest temple, Kandhariya Mahader. Still so perfectly preserved, one has to ponder that with little attention and security, how these three temples have survived.

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The lobby of Gateway Taj Ganges in Varanasi
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My birthday gift from the staff of the
Taj Bengal, Kolkata
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Part of the wonderful decor of the Taj Bengal, Kolkata
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The garden near the pool at the Taj Bengal, Kolkata

Afterwards a walk through the small village may be a culture shock but that’s part of the joy of traveling. “See the floor and the entrance,” a guide said pointing to a most humble residence, “it’s made with cow shit.” His words. “The smell keeps the mosquitoes away.” The guide also added that this was the area where the Sudras, formerly known as ‘Untouchables’, have lived for over 150 years. This part of Indian culture is upsetting to know that there is still this stigma and caste system.

However, in bustling Varanasi, the Gatway Taj Ganges Hotel is a 140 room delight with jogging track, pool, tennis courst, bird watching and yoga. Legend has it that this city is the oldest city in the world, founded by Shiva, Lord of the Universe. Its history and culture go back 2000 years but the Ganges is the principal attraction. Early morning and reaching the Ganges River’s west bank, at sunrise is the main reason to visit . The 80 Ghats (steps, each with its own significance especially Dasaswamedh) magnificent palaces, religious rituals of dozens of men washing themselves in the river, women dunking to cleanse away their sins, one man practicing water yoga, dhobi Ghats doing the forbidden by using soap and washing their clients’ laundry, Brahmins under umbrellas giving blessings, it’s all about spirituality, the essence of the real India.

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Marvellous pool at The Gateway Hotel
Taj Ganges, Varanasi
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Doorman at the Hotel Taj Bengal, Kolkata
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More fine details of the Hotel Taj Bengal’s
lobby, Kolkata
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The Himalayas near Darjeeling

Varanasi is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in India. Pilgrims come from all over and must attend to five ghats in specific order all in one day. It’s essential to rent a small row boat, (and there are dozens filled with other tourists) which takes you past the palaces and two very visible outdoor crematoriums. Burials here are extremely important. and an honor. Afterwards, even though the narrow streets which were filthy with garbage and inevitable bumping into passing sacred bovines that own the streets and have the right of way, the early morning light makes every aspect look dramatic and glorious. Kolkata,(formerly Calcutta) is one of the major business centres in the country. It’s also a city with history, a treasure trove of culture and architectural beauty. One of the globally favourite hotels is the 229 room Taj Bengal , near the center of business and government offices. The bright, board room with a wall of windows is flexible and has a capacity of accommodating 1,000 people.

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The Himalayas and Darjeeling from the
Windamere Hotel, Observatory Hill
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Part of my suite, The Princess of Siam,
Windamere Hotel
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The young beautiful face in Darjeeling
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The gate house at Windamere Hotel, Darjeeling

From the pollution of the large city, scheduling a trip to Darjeeling in the Himilayas is just a 2 hour flight. But getting to the century old heritage Windeamere Hotel perched on top of Observatory Hill, above the tea plantations and under the clouds of the Himalayas, the scenic drive takes the same amount of time but gives the traveler a view of this magnificent mountain area and the local vendors on the roadside. The Windamere Hotel is a cozy un-spruced -up multi houses hotel. “Our guests don’t want us to change a thing,” said owner Sherab Tenduf. Probably ‘shabby chic’ would describe the décor but all the comforts are there. Meals are included and the menus all have both iindian food as well as Contiental offerings. Their renowned porridge for breakfast has been rated as the best in India for those who still want that bit of at-home connection. Each meal is served by white gloved servants and during the dinner hour, a staff member discretly loads the hotel room’s fire place with wood which is lit by the time you return and a hot water bottle has been placed between the sheets so that the chill of this mountain aerie isn’t a problem. At about 4.30AM for those who want to see the magnificient sun rise on Tiger Hill, the wake up knock at the door comes with a cup of tea and biscuits. But that’s just one of the magical sights. The third highest peak in the world, the mysterious Mt. Kanchenjunga , makes one sudeenly realize that what you think are clouds are the snow capped peaks. It’s as close to heaven as it gets.

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Prayer flags at the temples of Darjeeling
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Pensive woman at the temple in Darjeeling

Due to the terrorist attack the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai has its way of making good out of bad. Opened after only a month after the attack, the hotel’s original and historic section was badly damaged and will be opened within a year. However, because it’s so cleverly closed off from the newer section of the hotel, if one didn’t know, it would be hard to beleive that there had been this tragedy. The stunning garden cum pool, hidden away in the centre of this frenetic city and the superlative staff and service make this one of the world’s top hotels and in a class of its own. However, the exquisite interior of a wonderful alternate choice during the Taj’s renovations is the Grand Hyatt Hotel. Although it’s midway between the airport and the city’s centre, it’s a refined business hotel with well thought out interior design and a wonderful public art collection. The extraordinary staff, the contemporary blond wood room décor, in-room internet connections and food in the executive lounge for those staying on certain floors, make this a great option. All the conveniences are there for those who need conference rooms or for guests who don’t want to be in the midst of the 18 million people but do want to be able to get to Mumbai. Besides being near the airport has its benefits. From the center of Mumbai, it can take over 3 hours to get throught the traffic to the gate of your flight and because of the airport frenzy, one should have enough time which means getting to the check in counter may mean another hour. So the Hyatt, being only at most, one hour away, is a great option for those who hate to sit in traffic contemplating what they should have seen, done, purchased.

As Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in her book, Heat and Dust, states, “India changes people”. It does and a lesson learned is patience.

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The very comfortable digs at the
Hyatt Hotel, Mumbai
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More luxury at the Hyatt Hotel, Mumbai
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