You don’t need a bank account at Coutts to live like a royal – just head to Rajasthan, where you can hop from one regal palace to the next
Okay, so we didn’t have a limo or a gold carriage – not the most practical of options for Rajasthan in April in 40° heat anyway. Our mode of transport was far superior: a white people-carrier, stacked with ice cold water and Kingfisher each day, Bollywood movies on the DVD, and a good-humoured driver to take us all around the desert state.
Rajasthan was once a place of princely kingdoms and rival warrior clans battling it out for supremacy. Chivalry and honour was the name of the game, with fighting to the death considered the decent thing to do. Bloody most certainly – but it wasn’t all gore. These royal dynasties went on to create some fine forts and palaces. And the tradition survives to this day – except now modern-day maharajas are turning parts of their palaces into heritage hotels to generate revenue.
So, we had our chauffeur and a plan to see how much we could live like a royal on a budget that while not exactly that of a pauper, would probably only be enough to sustain the queen’s corgis for a day.
When you think of a palace, you typically have an image of a grand imposing building, grounds that stretch for miles, dotted with prancing peacocks, and suites of such excessive luxury that they make a Dubai hotel look understated. Not so in Rajasthan. They say variety is the spice of life and its palaces are certainly a mixed bag. If you tire of opulent surrounds you can simply find a more humble abode owned by some great-great-great-great grandson of a former ruler of Rajasthan. And it means that your cash can go much further.
Pick of the palaces
If money is no object, you can, for example, stay at the Umaid Bhawan Palace, where Liz Hurley and Arun Nayar’s wedding celebrations took place. The hotel was named after Maharaja Umaid Singh, grandfather of the present Maharaja of Jodhpur, and is the main residence of the Jodhpur royal family. The palace was designed in the Art Deco style, which makes for a weird contrast with the sandstone exterior and Rajput towers. Non-guests can still have a good gawp around certain parts of the palace.
Those who’d rather save their cash for shopping (Jodhpur is justly famous for it: pashminas, embroidered throws and gorgeous silks are among the treasures) can stay at the Ranbanka Palace. It’s still a palace and has the royal connection (it was built for Umaid’s Singh’s younger brother and the royals still use parts of it) but isn’t half as flash. There are modern rooms around the pool – but the most atmospheric are in the old house and have vast beds and teak floors.
Art Deco certainly made its impression on the royals of Rajasthan – and for a real Art Deco timewarp, there is the Karni Bhawan Palace in Bikaner. It was the royal residence of Maharaja Karni Singh and it looks like time has stood still here. The walls are adorned with old portraits of moustachioed gents and all the rooms are decorated with period furnishings. It feels like you are in a living museum, where you might perhaps be the first guests seen since it was originally decorated.
Despite a good lunch there (we were the sole diners until a visiting dignitary and his entourage popped in – HRH himself, we were told) we ventured out for dinner. We’d yet to see those lolloping peacocks, so we headed to the Lallgarh Palace, built by Maharaja Ganga Singhji in 1902. It's an architectural hotchpotch, with Rajput, Muslim and European styles in evidence – and the said peacocks strolling the grounds. There is also a room adorned with hunting trophies with every kind of animal head staring at you reproachfully. Meals here are a grand affair, with drinks served around a gorgeous courtyard and dinner in the elaborate high-ceilinged restaurant.
We headed back to our room at the Karni Bhawan. Spooky is an understatement – and our night there was not helped by the unsettling experience of the rat temple we’d visited that afternoon (suriphobes look away now – you walk around shoeless in a courtyard full of the rodents).
Many of Rajasthan’s palaces are fairly modern so if you want to step back further in time, head to Castle Mandawa. The fort was built in 1755 by the Rajput ruler of Mandawa to protect what was a trading outpost for the caravan routes that stopped there from China and the Middle East. With its turreted towers and cannons in the courtyard, this place looks satisfyingly old and crumbly from the outside. Request one of the more luxurious rooms – ours had a vast day-bed, frescoed archways, and elaborate canopies. At night, there is dinner on the terrace, complete with a procession of fire dancing and drumming. Cheesy, absolutely, but great fun nonetheless.
Different again are the palaces of Udaipur. There are countless numbers for the casual visitor to explore and the City Palace complex alone houses 11 of them, some with miniature paintings, others decorated with mirrors. But to live like a maharaja, the Lake Palace Hotel is the place to be – James Bond fans may well recognise the location from Octopussy. It was built by Maharana Jai Singh II in 1746 and it is undeniably romantic – set in the middle of Lake Pichola, so you’ll need to arrive by boat. If the hotel is a budget-stretch too far, you can always take a boat trip on the lake at sunset for a close-up view anyway, or sip a gin and tonic on the embankment and gaze out over the tranquil lake – after all, a view’s a view whether you are a prince or a pauper.
We flew from the UK to Mumbai with Virgin and then on to Udaipur. Our car and driver was organised by Dominion Travel.