Oberoi UdaiVilas (Udaipur, India)

Udaipur is probably my favorite city in India, and definitely my favorite city in the Indian state of Rajasthan. It’s such a romantic and beautiful city, deservedly called “the Paris of the East”.

Lack Pichola is the heart of Udaipur, and the city sits on the lake, surrounding it on all sides. My favorite hotel, and my usual haunt, in Udaipur is the famed Taj Lake Palace, but instead of jumping right into writing about that magical place (I could write books!), I’m going to skip instead to covering the UdaiVilas, which lie on the opposite side of the lake from the Udaipur City Palace, and a short boat ride from the Taj Lake Palace (which is a free standing island hotel in the middle of Lake Pichola).

To get to the UdaiVilas, you can either take a boat ferry from a terminal down the street from the City Palace complex, or drive around the lake by car or tuk-tuk to the official ground entrance. I found that the boat ferry was more useful, since most of the time the traffic through the city roads was so bad, it was just quicker to jet across the lake in the ferry. Plus, since the UdaiVilas are on the opposite side of the city from most of the tourist attractions, it’s quite a distance by car to travel to get to see the things you generally want to see. The boat ride at least is novel and fun and allows you to get a unique view of the city while waiting to arrive back at the hotel.

That being said, I do also need to mention that since I am so enamored with the Taj Lake Palace, my review of the UdaiVilas may be biased (just a little). I checked into the hotel for an extended stay of 6 nights on vacation awhile back. I expected, for $600/night, the same price at the Taj Lake Palace, that my check in would be swift, and that the room I had booked would be beautiful and available. Now, for certain, I checked in very late at night after a long and arduous taxi journey, so my time of arrival was not normal. When I arrived for check in, I had to wait a good while for my room to be ready. In addition, the room was no the room I had been lead to believe I was booking when I had called to enquire about booking from America. I had wanted a room with a pool, and I was told that the “Premier Pool View Room with Private Courtyard” would have it’s own pool. It did, sort of. But it was a shared pool with many other rooms and did not exactly lead to the hotel room balcony, as I had envisioned it, and as it had been photographed in the many UdaiVila adverts. So, after waiting a good while to check in (and being very tired), and then being shown a room I didn’t like….it was not a good welcome.

Happily enough, they were able to accommodate  me in the room I did want, for an extra upgrade fee. Understandable. The problems did not end, though, when I found out the next day that the wifi was not working. I wouldn’t mind if the wifi wasn’t working in a $20/night guesthouse. I wouldn’t mind if the wifi wasn’t working even in a $200/night hotel. But I was paying $600/night for no wifi??! It wasn’t acceptable. And then there was no chocolate in the mini-bar! I’m sorry but if you’re going to sell yourself as a luxury hotel, a true 5 star hotel, you must have mini-bar chocolate for PMSing women such as myself. I aired my complaints to the manager, and they sent a private butler to the room with chocolates but still were unable to reliably fix the wifi, thus hindering my ability to do a lot of necessary work.

Due to these issues, they gave me some hotel restaurant credit, and I decided to try the food at the hotel. I had a light Western lunch at Chandi (an open air cafe) and it was quite good. However, dinner at Udaimahal (more formal dinner restaurant) was disappointing, as the malai kofta dish I ordered literally tasted like Campbell’s Tomato Soup had been poured over some potato dumplings. YUCK. No spices at all. I am a connoisseur of malai kofta, as it is my favorite Indian dish, and I have actually never had a worse version of it than at Udaimahal. Again, disappointment. I decided to give the spa a try. Nope. Their facials didn’t involve extractions and for over $100, I’m sorry but I expect a steam and an extraction (their words were “therapeutic facials only” whatever that may mean). I didn’t try any of the massages or pedicures or manicures, although they were available. Their steam room lights didn’t work and there was a lot of mold growing in the changing area. Not impressed.

The last straw came when I had sent wet laundry away for cleaning (one of my friends had thrown me in my private pool with my clothes on and I had sent them to be washed and dried) and the clothes were STILL not washed and dried 2 days later! In addition, I had a private tarot card reader come to my hotel to do a reading and they wouldn’t let him past the lobby to come to my room so I had to walk the 1/2 mile of hallways to the lobby to get him and walk him back to my room. I understand security, and I understand that the culture is different in India and a man alone with a woman in a hotel is frowned upon, but you would think that since I am a guest and a Westerner they would walk him back to my room FOR ME, but they flatly refused. I was not a fan. And then I had someone coming to stay with me one night and they wouldn’t let this person in either without me physically coming to walk them in.

It was really a hassle and after 3 days, I decided to defect to the Lake Palace hotel for the last 3 days of my stay in Udaipur. I felt that, at $600/night, that I could have had a lot better treatment, and since the Lake Palace hotel and the UdaiVilas cost roughly the same thing, I would rather stay at the Lake Palace and built up Taj Inner Circle points and stay with a staff who knew me very well vs. a hotel that obviously was going to treat me like I was staying at my local Super 8 motel.

I’ve stayed at other Oberoi properties in Agra and Cairo and been very happy with their services. I’m not sure what went wrong with the UdaiVilas, but I can safely say I won’t be staying there again, although the property was lovely and I did enjoy the wild peacocks roaming around the grounds every so often in the early mornings. I will also, lastly, add this: if you’re interested in staying in historic properties, choose the Taj chain. They make an effort to lease out or buy up true historical properties (old palaces, old hotels) and restore them to their former glory vs. the Oberoi chain who tends to build replicas of these older properties. For instance, the UdaiVilas is a recently built property (I believe it was built in 2003) vs. the Lake Palace which is the historical summer residence for the ruler of Udiapur. At least for me, the experience of staying in a true former palace is much more interesting and magical than the experience of staying in a replica, despite it being a newer and supposedly better property.

Lastly, I want to note that after secretly commandeering a golf cart and having an undercover speed jetty boat sent to pick me up from the UdaiVila dock to take me to the Lake Palace, I was greeted by name and lead immediately to my room at the Lake Palace, which had been outfitted according to all of my preferences. They even had an ENTIRE CHOCOLATE CAKE waiting for me with my name spelled out in white chocolate ganache!! At the end of the day, the Taj Lake Palace will always be my “go to” spot in Udaipur, but I am glad I tried the UdaiVilas, because at least now I know never to return again.

UdaiVilas: Rooms start at $400/night for garden view and go up to $8000/night for the Kohinoor Luxury Suite (I stayed in and photographed the premier room with semi-private pool).

Taj Lake Palace: Rooms start at $600/night for luxury rooms and go up to $6000/night for the Grand Presidential Suite (I will review this hotel separately in a later post).

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The Taj Mahal (Agra, India)

I travel to India A LOT. Let’s just get that out of the way before anything else is said. I have invested in several businesses in India and I have a lot of friends there, in addition to simply loving the country.

That being said, I’ve seen the Taj a lot. More than 3 times, less than 10 probably. But every time I see it, I can’t help but have my breath taken away. Of all the famous historical monuments one can see in this world, between the pyramids and the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal is one of the most majestic and beautiful. The first time I saw it as part of a tour group with GAdventures, who run most of the young adult and “adventure” style tour groups in India. The second, third, and so on times I’ve seen the Taj, it’s been as a solo traveler, or as a traveler unassociated with any tour company. I just booked myself the transport from Delhi (or Jaipur, or Udaipur, or whatever other city I was coming from), usually a taxi, which tend to be very cheap and very nice in India. I also booked myself my own hotel (the Oberoi AmarVilas are the best, as each room has a balcony which overlooks the Taj), and just showed up and visited the Taj.

Most people, women especially, seem to think of India as wild and wacky place that requires them to join a tour to travel the country safely. While I admit that I thought the same at first, India is actually not that hard to travel solo so long as you have someone with you who can translate and help you arrange stuff like taxis and tuk-tuks. It’s definitely not at all unsafe, at least, that has not been my experience; I have always felt safe in India and welcomed. People also think India = food poisoning, but again, this has not held true for me either, and trust me, I eat the local food like a dying child eats biscuits. I eat street food, non-street food, homemade food, food from hotels, food from restaurants, dhabas, etc. NO SHAME! And no food poisoning.

This particular visit to the Taj, I stayed at the AmarVilas and one of my favorite things (besides waking up to the amazing view of the Taj from my hotel window) is that they are so close to the Taj. Most hotels in Agra are close to the Taj, or relatively so. The approach to the Taj is down one long road on either side of the Taj (west or east) and most of the hotels branch off of this road. The AmarVilas are one of the closest hotels to the Taj and they will send a golf cart to pick you up and drive you the 200 meters to the monument as well as get you an accelerated entry ticket and a nice little bottle of water. Having a white gloved golf cart attendant drive you there and then wait for you is really nice, considering how easy it is to get lost in the crowds who inevitably swarm the entrance to the Taj. An accelerated entry ticket is also a must, as it’s just a few rupees more and will allow you to cut the line (like we all secretly want to do when the queues get big!).

After a certain point, on the approach to the Taj and before entering, it’s foot traffic only and there are several stands selling cheap souvenirs, soda, memory sticks, t-shirts and all manner of Taj Mahal related crap. Marble is mined in the area so lots of the souvenirs are made of white marble. Here is where you will also find, or be found by, touts who will either try to give you “guided tours” of the Taj or who want to accompany you with their camera to take your photo in various different cheesy poses around the Taj grounds. Considering that these photographers literally charge nothing (but will ask for a tip) and only make you pay 100rp. per printed photo (8″x11″), it’s actually not a bad deal to get one to come along with you if you are visiting alone or decide to drop your camera and break it right before entering the Taj (me anddddd me, lol). If you want to find one, just ask the first tout who approaches you for a camera man and it’s guaranteed he’ll be able to help you find one. And, like I said, they won’t charge you anything BUT you should tip them (NO ONE should work for free).

To get in, you must go through a very lax security station, but remember they won’t let you bring in any cigarettes or lighters, even unopened packets of cigarettes, so if you’re a smoker, just leave that behind at your hotel. Unless you’re going very early in the morning or late in the evening (the Taj opens at sunrise and closes at sunset), you’re going to hit massive crowds (except also maybe during the summer when it’s so hot everyone who’s reasonable is inside in the air conditioning during daylight hours). So just be prepared to have tons of people in every picture you take of the Taj unless you get there early or late. Also, during the winter, the smog and fog tends to be VERY heavy and the early mornings and late evenings are the worst for the smog/fog. So either way really, you’re gonna just have people in your pictures. Get over it.

The entrance to the Taj is dramatic as you walk through the Great Gate, which is made of red stone. You’ll see a garden which leads you to the Taj Mahal proper. Remember that the Taj Mahal is a muslim burial ground, so be respectful and before you enter the actual building, take off your shoes and store them in their little cubby area or just pile your slippers (flip flops) on top of everyone else’s. Sometimes, they will allow you to put white elastic coverings over the bottoms of your shoes instead of removing them, but either way, don’t just go barging in without properly attending to your shoe situation. And once inside, be reverent and quiet and don’t take pictures inside of the Taj because, again, it is disrespectful to the dead.

Lastly, don’t hog up the good photo op locations (aka the “Princess Diana bench” and the pools in front of the Taj) and if you’re going on an Indian holiday, be prepared for EXTRA LARGE crowds. Oh, and if you do want an actual tour guide, arrange for one at your hotel, don’t pick up one at the gate. If you must do that though, ask to see their credentials because any tour guide who’s real will be licensed.

Oh and if you do hire a dude to take your photos, if he disappears, just wait for him outside of the gate and if need be, just start asking people for the location where they develop the photos. Generally there is only one or two photo developing locations and since your photos will actually be printed for you on photo paper, chances are your photo dude will be there, printing you off your photos. He will also give you (for free) a CD with all the digital images on it. So TIP HIM. And TIP whatever guide you use as well, if you use one. You can never tip people enough, really, and since INR is so much cheaper than USD, there is no reason to be stingy. If someone has helped you, be generous. Really. And don’t complain if you see stray dogs or water buffalo or cows hanging around eating the garbage or just chilling. They were here long before you and the people who live in India care for them and like them so who are you to show up and act grossed out about their existence? Accept that India is different from the USA and be grateful the world isn’t full of sterilized McDonalds and ugly suburban strip malls. 🙂

Oberoi AmarVilas (recommended hotel): $700/night to $4000/night for 1900 sq ft luxury suite.

GAdventures (recommended tour company): $1200, inclusive of board and transport, 15 days.

Gold Zanzibar (North Coast, Kendwa)

These photos are from my stay at the Gold Zanzibar Beach House and Spa on Zanzibar’s north coast. It was a lovely property, absolutely stunning architecture, which was complemented by the natural beauty of Zanzibar’s northern shore.

The Gold Zanzibar is a new property in the area, and it benefits greatly from having brand new rooms and new technology (for instance, streaming wifi from the tv, which is invaluable in a place with a severe lack of local infrastructure). The location is beautiful, although like most of the other hotels in the area, finding the entrance can be rather difficult, as you have to look carefully for and follow the signs off the main road from Stone Town. These signs take you down a winding dirt road before you come to the “official” entrance to the resort. Marked by a massively secured gate, flanked by two large signs stating the hotel’s name, the entrance leads you to a stunning open air lobby and beautifully manicured grounds. Once you step foot on the property, everything you could possibly need or want is taken care of for you; from plug adapters to food, drink and entertainment. Not that you need much entertaining in such a beautiful location–none the less, whatever you need, you get, no questions asked.

The spa is equally as beautiful as the rest of the hotel, if not a bit new and unused at the time of my visit. They offered the standard fare–massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and the like. They sadly did not do extractions during their facials (standard for most African hotel spas) but did have lovely private and shared couples treatment huts with open sides that allowed you to catch the local sea breezes and feel like you were out of doors while getting your treatments. The gym was next door and looked lovely, although I did not visit it myself (duh, why work out when you could sit on the beach and eat? lol).

The two resorts which flank the Gold Zanzibar share the same stretch of white sand beach, and while the popular “Kendwa Rocks” hotel next door can sometimes be noisy and loud and full of drunk gap year kids, it is a fun place to wander over to and hang with the crowds. They have loud parties on the weekends and plenty of diving, snorkeling and sailing touts willing to hook you up with whatever gear you need for a waterborne adventure. Which isn’t to say the Gold wouldn’t hook you up too, it’s just that the Kendwa Rocks touts will charge you less for the same thing. They also have a few nice massage huts on the beach which are cheaper than the beach massages offered by the Gold. If you get out on the beach, you can walk up and down and pass through several resorts and take your pick of the activities offered by the touts at each location. Because the Gold Zanzibar beach is actually private, there are no touts there, which is nice because they don’t bother you, but also more expensive if you choose to arrange your activities through the hotel. Just a heads up.

The food is typical resort style stuff–set course meals and the occasional buffet. Lunch isn’t included in the half board (which I paid for), so you can either eat at the Gold’s restaurant or walk the beach or drive into Stone Town (1 hr drive) for a meal.  Since the hotel is owned by Italians, most of the food is Italian or continental fare.

I stayed in the beach suite, which opened right onto the combed white sand of the Kendwa beach. It had an absolutely lovely clean, white interior in a Zanzibar/Indian ocean style, with a huge ocean facing king bead with the traditional mosquito nets, along with a sliding door patio. The bathtub was huge and awesome, and the toilet had a bidet as well as a jet. There was plenty of storage for clothing, along with a safe, espresso maker, and hot water boiler.

All in all, the Gold Resort was very nice. I ended up in Kendwa, Zanzibar at the end of a 2 week long East African safari (with Acacia Tours), which began in Nairobi. After 2 weeks of essentially living in tents and bathing in concrete shower blocks lacking in hot water, the comfort of a few nights in a full service resort on a white sand beach was welcome. While I usually do NOT enjoy “full service” resorts, sometimes they are just what one needs. Plus, the resort that the tour had booked me (2 resorts down the beach from the Gold Zanzibar) was rather low end, so I ended up “upgrading” on my own nickel to the Gold because I figured that if I was going to be sorta “trapped” at a resort, it may as well be a good one. The north shore of Zanzibar is really just a row of full service resorts which line the white sand beaches in the area. If you are staying on the north shore, unless you rent a car, it is almost impossible to get to Stone Town for any meals or exploration. You are pretty much stuck with either watersports or beach activities. You can pick from low to high end hotels, Italian or French or British, but the Gold is one of the best in Kendwa, and while certainly not one of the best of the north shore, definitely a solid offering in the mid level luxury range.

Gold Zanzibar: Rooms from $200/night up to $800/night for a luxury villa retreat.

Acacia Tours: $2373, inclusive of meals, board, transport and park entry fees, 13 days.