The northwest state of Rajasthan has an air of grandeur unlike anywhere else in India. Bursts of colour dazzle you at every turn, the pinks vivid and vibrant, the greens luxurious like peacock feathers. Displays of ancient handcrafts and fine artwork take pride of place, often found in the most unlikely of places. Spectacular former royal palaces, ornate marble fountains, and intricate architectural monuments display a rich heritage of such opulence, their beauty can literally take your breath away.
‘The Land of Kings’ is therefore a fitting tribute to India’s largest state by land mass, home to the glorious golden triangle of cities known as Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Jaipur. A visit to Rajasthan has been a dream trip in the making, and while most travellers tend to combine Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur into their own ‘golden triangle’ itinerary, I’m a purist at heart. I was adamant that Udaipur—land of picturesque lakes and royal palaces, would be my first introduction to the region.
Mumbai is the perfect jumping-off point to start your travels. A short flight of just over an hour will get you into Udaipur. The timing of this trip meant we’d be staying over the weekend, which wasn’t great planning on my behalf as it was peak travel period and coincided with Indian wedding season. To top things off, it was also the week of Holi—the Hindu spring awakening celebration known as the festival of colour.
There was only ever going to be one of three choices when it came to accommodation. The Leela Palace was the compromise over the Oberoi, which had been highly recommended by friends in the know, but sadly unavailable to book. Getting to the Leela is quite the experience. We booked a hotel car (£32 GBP/$40 USD each way) to meet us at the airport, which I encourage you to do given the amount of coordination that would have otherwise been required to get from airport to property. The Hotel sits on the perimeter of the Old Town, surrounded by narrow, maze-like streets that make it difficult to navigate by car.
Instead, you’ll be dropped off at the hotel’s pier at the eastern edge of Lake Pichola and taken there on a barge. Despite not being informed of any of this and arriving at the pier none the wiser, the experience itself was magical. Completely unplanned, we happened to arrive at the pier just as the sun began to descend into the horizon. The golden hour heightened the moment into something surreal. To the backdrop of a soft lavender-tinted sky, we glided across the water taking in Udaipur’s architectural wonders dotted along the banks of the lake. What a way to announce your arrival!
As expected, the Leela Palace grounds are simply stunning. On approach to the hotel’s pier, you’re greeted with the sounds of traditional Rajasthani folk music. Scented rose petals will shower you from above palace walls (I kid you not!) as you step off the pier and into the hotel lobby—a fragrant expanse of marble, gold murals, and ornate soft furnishings tucked into small alcoves. The hotel consists of two main spaces interconnected by a walkway painted with the most glorious murals. Check-in was done in our room, which was located in the old palace building overlooking the gardens and City Palace in the distance. Rooms in the heritage wing are furthest away from the lobby and public spaces, making them ideal for those seeking quiet comfort.
The interior of our Grand Heritage Lakeview room was long and narrow. A central corridor splits the main bathroom from the soaking tub area and spacious dressing room. At the far end is the bedroom and sitting area, adequately furnished yet dark due to the amount of wood panelling used through-out the room. A set of balcony doors opens to a small outdoor space that’s impractical to use due to the resident pigeons being territorial over the space. The views in every direction are far-reaching and aesthetically beautiful, but I’m not sure the extra room cost is justified for a balcony covered in bird droppings.
The Library is the hotel’s main bar, and a nice space with both indoor and outdoor seating. This is adjacent to the Dining Room where breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served. While breakfast was a standard affair, we hugely enjoyed indulging in Indian cuisine during the evening service, with a shout out to the outstanding chicken biryani dish on the menu. Despite its size, the Leela Palace only has two restaurants. Sheesh Mahal is the Leela’s open-air fine dining restaurant, which serves an in-demand menu of royal Rajasthani cuisine on the terrace overlooking Lake Pichola. The restaurant only serves dinner and due to a private function taking over most of the terrace during our stay, had a reduced number of tables. Reservations are recommended.
Otherwise, all the public spaces were well maintained. The hotel also has a well-equipped gym, and a gorgeous outdoor pool surrounded by manicured gardens, which was barely used. There’s a pretty courtyard area in front of the main restaurant where the hotel presents a showcase of regional entertainment every night. As you go from one area to the next, every corner of the hotel reveals something interesting and Insta-ready.
However, not everything was as expected. A pre-planned evening of celebration planned for our first night somehow got screwed up due to a lack of communication on behalf of the hotel team. This should have involved a celebratory meal at Sheesh Mahal, but for reasons I won’t get into, our plans needed to be deferred to the following night. On night two we were once again unlucky due to an unseasonal rainstorm closing down the restaurant for the night. Long story short, we never ate at Sheesh Mahal.
Broadly speaking, staff came across disengaged and uninterested in the guest experience. Housekeeping was uneven, not bothering with turndown service on one of two nights. We received a large batch of laundry service returned to us reeking of smoke and delivered a day late. The butler service was pointless, and more of a nuisance if anything. Apart from the chaps at the Library Bar (try the pomegranate martini) and a young man who served us dinner two nights in a row with attention and kindness, most of the staff we encountered behaved as if they didn’t want to be there. Fair enough, but not at this price-point.
As a base for exploring the city, the Leela is in an idea location. You’re far enough out from all the chaos, but a short tuktuk ride or 20-minute stroll into the heart of the city. There’s plenty to experience in the form of cultural richness, including some great artisanal shopping to be done. Top picks include Mughal-inspired miniature art and ceramics.
Go and visit Udaipur. We were sad to leave the city, as it seemed like we had only just scratched the surface. Unlike so many other tourist hotspots in India, this was a gentle and pleasant introductory experience that felt atmospheric and culturally fulfilling. I hope to be back again very soon.
One place I won’t return to again is the Leela Palace. What started off as a real wow moment, quickly descended into disappointment. I don’t understand how such a lauded luxury hotel with a solid hard product can get the simplest things so horribly wrong. On the surface, it has all the right components to offer something truly special. I think a large part of the failures we encountered was down to how the management chooses to motivate their service teams. Currently, as a hotel experience it’s utilitarian at best. This has to change. If a hotel can’t deliver on the brand promise of a luxury experience, then why bother.
Hotel – 8/10
Experience – 4/10