Home » The Taste With Vir: The rise of Udaipur as India’s top luxury destination

The Taste With Vir: The rise of Udaipur as India’s top luxury destination

One measure of how long I have been around is that I can still remember Udaipur when it had very few tourists and no good hotels. Admittedly, I was a very small boy at the time and the only reason I was in Udaipur was because I went with my parents on a journey to the Jain temple of Kesariyaji, which is near Udaipur. So, strictly speaking, we were not tourists either, more like pilgrims.

From a tranquil escape in the 1960s to the epitome of luxury and destination weddings today, Udaipur has undergone a remarkable transformation. (Unsplash)

We had driven from Ahmedabad and decided to base ourselves in Udaipur because it was the nearest town to Kesariyaji. At that stage, Udaipur was not a famous tourist destination and though we did all the things that would later become part of the Udaipur experience — including driving to Chittor — we had a sense of discovery and adventure. This was way back in the 1960s when the Lake Palace, despite its beauty, was a badly-run dump. In the early 1970s, Maharana Bhagwat Singh who recognised that his hotel was not very good, gave it to the Taj to manage. (Also read: The Taste With Vir: Tourism and the India-Maldives diplomatic row over anti-Modi posts )

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It was the Taj that doubled the built up area of the palace, added many rooms and created the legend of the Lake Palace. By the end of the 1970s, it was the only Indian hotel that featured regularly in travel articles in western publications and American travel agents urged their well-heeled guests to stay there because it was a once-in-lifetime experience. I went to school in Rajasthan and even after that, I became a frequent visitor to the state so I was able to see how Udaipur was developing.

It was not always the best destination. In 1976 I went to stay at the Lake Palace and found that the Pichola lake had dried up in the summer so we had to take a jeep across the dry lake bed to the hotel. But, in the early 1980s, the James Bond movie Octopussy, was shot in Udaipur (with the Lake Palace playing a starring role) and after that, Udaipur became a popular global destination. Tourists went to Agra to see the Taj but they took the Shatabdi or some other train there in the morning, clicked a photo of the monument and then took the night train right back to Delhi.

Udaipur, on the other hand, became the sort of place you spent time in and when, early in this century, two new hotels opened, it became India’s top luxury destination. The first of the new hotels was Udaivilas, which was judged the best hotel in the world shortly after it opened. The Vilas hotels were the Oberoi group’s answer to the palace hotels that the Taj managed. Because they were not historical structures, they compensated in other ways: Huge grounds, large rooms, better food, excellent service etc. Udaivilas soon became my favourite Vilas. (Though my favourite Vilas keeps changing and is usually the one I have stayed at most recently!)

And I shifted loyalties from the Lake Palace and its beautiful historical suites to the other side of the lake. But there was soon a third hotel around Lake Pichola: The Leela Palace. This was a less ambitious property but it offered the best entry level rooms. Together, the three hotels made Udaipur the centre of luxury holidaying in India.

But as prosperity in India has increased, travel to Udaipur has continued to grow. Over the last few years, it has become the centre for destination weddings. Sums of money that are frankly obscene are spent by families who take over all three lake hotels to host weddings that are unparalleled in their extravagance.

Not everyone can afford those multi-crore sums so many lesser hotels have opened in Udaipur as shaadi palaces to allow rich people (as distinct from the billionaires who hog the lake venues) to host massive weddings. In the process, Udaipur has probably become India’s number one wedding destination. Because I grew up in Rajasthan, it pleases me to see the state doing so well. But there is still a small part of me that longs for the Udaipur of my childhood when it wasn’t so crowded and a trip to the city was, well, slightly less predictable.

Over the New Year, my wife and I finally managed to go on a different kind of Udaipur holiday. If you know Rajasthan then you will know that it is located within the Aravalli mountain range, one of the oldest in the world. (The Himalayas are much younger.) Because the Aravallis have been around for millions of years, they have been eroded down so they are not really mountains any longer but are just hills. (I should know: They made us climb them when I was in school.)

While tourism in Rajasthan has generally been about palaces, forts, lakes and deserts, not enough has been made of the Aravallis . But this time we found a hotel surrounded by so many hills that we sometimes felt (especially because it was the winter) that we were at a hill station.

The hotel is called Ekaaya and is managed by ITC as part of its new super-luxury Mementos by ITC range. It is 45 minutes from the airport and though the tourist-friendly part of Udaipur is only around half an hour away, you would never guess that it exists. (No, we didn’t go into town at all.)

The owners of the property own several hundred acres of land in the area, packed with trees, lakes and hills and the hotel complex has 117 suites and villas in just over 100 acres, which makes for a stunning acre-to-guest ratio. The villas are large and luxurious. Many have temperature-controlled swimming pools and a fleet of golf carts takes guests around the vast, spread-out complex.

We spent five days there and left the hotel only once, to go to the ancient Shrinathji temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and made famous in recent years by the Ambanis who are its best-known devotees. But there were other temples we could have gone to and, of course, there was the whole of Udaipur to explore, should we have tired of the natural beauty that surrounded our hotel. (Fat chance!)

Is there room for this kind of super-luxury property away from the tourist centre of Lake Pichola? The general manager of the Memento told me that though the hotel had only been open for a few months, they were already making more money than he had expected. And though he did not talk too much about it, I guess that for a hotel of this size, the wedding market is there for the taking, should ITC decide to go that route.

Speaking for myself, I fear I have become over-tired of the Rajasthan of the palaces and forts. I long for the Rajasthan of my school days: Acres and acres of land, hills, and trees. I liked Suryagarh in Jaisalmer for that reason. And now I think I am a little in love with Ekaaya and the Rajasthan it represents. And, of course, I didn’t mind the luxury either!

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