"Maa’m it’s a surprise. We’ll escort you” was the reply the concierge gave me and I did a double take. This was the third time I was getting it at a different hotel, when all I did was ask where to head for dinner. What is it with hotels and their staff in Udaipur? Everyone seemed on an overdrive to make sure the city lives up to its reputation of being a romantic haven, full of surprises.
I had planned my trip to Udaipur, the seat of the erstwhile kingdom of Mewar in Rajasthan, much before I heard that it had been voted by tourists on the Travel and Leisure poll 2009 as the best city in the world to travel. Though one is not surprised to see firangs flock to Goa, Rajasthan or Kerala, the sea of white faces that greets you in Udaipur is a bit startling. Soon, however, one realises they are there because a coffee table book or a BBC documentary on royalty has caught their fancy. If you have loads of moolah, Udaipur allows you to live the life of royalty.Coming back to my tryst with ‘surprise dinners’, the first time I heard this was at Devigarh, a fort palace now restored into a boutique resort, 40 km away from Udaipur. Every inch of the fort had a historically significant story behind it. So after listening to the tales of the janana courtyard where the queen lived or the darbar hall where the king addressed his ministers, I did feel a certain ‘royal’ spring in my step. But the overdose of serenity got on to my nerves as I started making anxious queries about grub. Finally, the dinner was arranged at ‘Sheesh Mahal’, originally the ‘queen’s dressing room’, with history still evident in the faded frescos and worn out ceramics.
My second encounter with surprises happened at the historical Lake Palace Hotel, situated in the middle of Lake Pichola in the heart of Udaipur city. Now leased to the Taj Group as a luxury hotel, the palace was originally built in 1746 by Maharana Jagat Singh II, sixty-second successor to the Mewar throne. “Dinner here is not just a meal, it’s a complete surprise experience,” said the pretty girl in an even prettier sari. The experience included an exciting boat ride to the nearby Jag Mandir, which is, in fact, a palace built by Maharana Karan Singh in 1620, now used as ultra luxurious banquet hall for celebrity weddings. It is said that the sunset, as viewed from Jag Mandir, the inspiration behind Taj Mahal, is one of the most spectacular sights in the world.
The third ‘surprise’, which happened next evening, made me believe god saves the best for the last. A visit to Oberoi Udaivilas, awarded the Best Hotel in the world, saw me opting for an elephant ride in the evening. Utterly glorious as the huge beast Lakshmi looked, the ride became exceedingly uncomfortable as the mahout struggled to make her sing for her supper. So around 100 metres of turbulence and 10 shouts from the mahout later, my three year old requested we leave the animal in peace. As the evening progressed, I made the usual query and the polite concierge responded, “the dinner happens to be…” “A surprise? I’m sure,” I said, finishing his sentence for him. A jeep ride through the acres of landscape, we came to a ‘jetty’ or harbour for small boats.
A bit alarmed at being asked to ride a boat in complete darkness barring the dim torchlight, we went ahead and the boat took us, through a round of Lake Pichola, to the most magnificent site I’m ever likely to come across in this lifetime.
There, in the middle of the lake, was a floating wooden ‘pontoon’, all lit with a row of candles, which, as I was told, is ideal for people wanting to organise romantic dinners or small cocktail parties. I could live there for a lifetime but had to cut short the evening, as it got a bit too cold for my little one. I made up my mind to recommend the experience to every Indian who prefers to head abroad in search of a ‘romantic and tranquil ambience’.
The hat trick of surprises somehow had to be followed up with a bit of a shocker. It was time to settle the bills while checking out. That’s when I noticed an entry that made my
stomach churn. Rs 3,000 for the elephant ride — a little more than what I had paid for my plane ticket to Udaipur. Did I say a while back that Udaipur was not just for loaded foreign tourists but us Indians too?
Well, I stand corrected.