My first glimpse of Leela Palace Udaipur was not of the building itself, majestic as it is, but of the way the management looks after its guests. Shortly after a date for my visit was set, I received an email. Would I please list out my preferences for music, beverage and reading material. And while I was about it, would I admit to a weakness for chocolate, candies, fruit or cookies and my choice of bath amenities and pillows was…
It showed sensitivity and a willingness to go that extra mile, and if I was not overjoyed to receive the email (after all, there are slips twixt the proverbial cup and the lip, aren’t there?) I was intrigued to see if the staff would be up to delivering the high standards of the management.
After two magical days in the property, the simple answer is, yes, they are. And the best part of the experience wasn’t just the staff: it was the confluence of the location, the grandeur of the building, the spa, the food <I>and<I> the staff.
You don’t drive to the Leela Palace Udaipur – you row up to it across the lake. When you walk into the entrance courtyard, an unseen musician serenades you and unseen hands sprinkle fragrant rose petals on you. Of course, you’ve started feeling like a royal long before then.
Watchers of the hospitality industry are convinced that Leela has entered the rarified portals of the best and the brightest with this particular hotel. Right around the Lake Pichola and even on an island within it are the country’s top luxury hotels. Shiv Niwas is owned by the Maharana’s HRH group, there’s the Taj group’s Lake Palace and the Oberoi’s Udaivilas. It is in this august group that Leela finds itself.
The charm of the location is tailor-made for success – how can you resist the view of the sparkling waters of Lake Pichola or the view of the City Palace and the warren of havelis that cluster around it, all the way to Gangaur Ghat.
However, there are other factors at work too. The architecture can be described in one word: palatial. Minimalism and modernism are not buzz-words you associate with India; palaces and maharajahs are, and that’s where the Leela has got it right. They have taken gold, crystal, brocade, chandeliers, gilt furniture, gigantic pillars and overwrought mirrors, and they’ve put them together with flair and taste so that the results seem like the lifestyle of the maharajahs. Leela Palace Udaipur embodies this design ethic, where less is a waste of time and more is opulence, with good taste. It’s a look that not many would be able to pull off with as much élan, so it’s unlikely they’re going to be plagiarized any time soon!
Far from being a box-shaped structure, one that is easily served by the house-keeping department, the Leela Palace has two wings, winding corridors with single-loaded rooms to optimize the view, cozy nooks and romantic sit-outs and courtyards. I was given breakfast in a jharoka directly over the lake, that would seat two on a mattress. How the staff maneuvered in and out of that space that led from the kitchens through the guava garden to Amrut Mahal as the jharoka is called, is a mystery, but there was not a spilled drop of cappuccino nor a less than symmetrically decorated plate of cut fruit after more than half a dozen trips back and forth.
Tamir Kobrin, the General Manager from New York and the genius who has knit together all the elements of this masterpiece of a hotel, told me that when he took over the property at the pre-opening stage, he wanted to focus on three things: food, service and spa. “There’s little you can do about location, but these three factors can add a powerful punch to the experience,” he assures me. They certainly do. I felt I was in the pages of some lifestyle magazine as I was walked to the spa, past the swimming pool that overlooked the lake. The spa consists of a series of luxury tents and does a creditable job of fusing the indoors and the outdoors seamlessly.
My (Tibetan) masseuse asked me how I wanted to feel after my therapy: energized or relaxed. I chose the latter, never for a moment believing in her power to actually put her words into practice. However, towards the end of a superbly relaxing massage, I drifted off to sleep – something that has never happened before. As a spa junkie, always waiting for her next fix, I have found that it is almost impossible to control every aspect of a spa. If the masseuse is great, her shoes squeak, or the air-conditioner rumbles intermittently, or someone nearby walks across a floor with stilettos, or the oil is too strong-smelling or… There were none of these irritants at Espa, and I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the trainers from London who have left their touch in this supremely lovely spa with world-class services.
Chef Mir Zafar Ali, the Executive Chef, is a lucky man. He has a wide swathe of locations to play with, each one with a better view than the next. Sheesh Mahal, for example, is a simple terrace that opens as a restaurant during dinner time, and overlooks the floodlit City Palace. It is hard to think of a better view anywhere in the country. Enjoying the gentle breeze that wafts up from the lake, gazing upon that unparalleled view, you wouldn’t notice even if you ate porridge, but the food of Sheesh Mahal is every bit as good as the view. It serves Indian food from several parts of the country including Rajasthan, but within that ambit you can ask for your meal to be prepared according to your specifications.
You can do even better and have a meal for ten persons at a sit-down formal dining room called Maharaja Room right under Sheesh Mahal. You decide the menu, you can even specify the recipes! I left it to the chefs and was treated to an elaborate degustation that started with a baked tartlet filled with tiny cubes of paneer napped in a lime chutney: the exact tastes of paneer khurchan, roti and pickle in a western avatar. Brilliant, ingenious and delicious.
Indian food is not what the hotel focuses on, Tamir Kobrin tells me. That is because his guests have come traveling all over Rajasthan, and have eaten every permutation and combination of local food and are usually waiting to be served with the familiar tastes of home. For those who do want Indian food, the Dining Room does an elaborate thali. Very high profile weddings have been held in the hotel, Kobrin informs me, while we sip espresso in the Library Bar. Usually at least one part of the function will include an Indian meal. Salads, elegant breakfasts and arguably the best croissants in the country are served in the Dining Room, with a glass of wine from the walk in library and a civilized mezze platter in which the hummus is arranged in quenelles.
Besides in-room dining, you can also elect to have a meal for upto four in the Amrut Mahal, on the deck at the garden level close to Sheesh Mahal, in the guava garden or even on a pontoon that the hotel owns. It’s right on the lake and overlooks the hotel as well as the City Palace. If that’s not original and memorable, we don’t know what is!