We left Delhi around 10am and arrived in Agra just in time to settle into our hotel before heading out to watch sundown at the Taj Mahal. It was a very exciting first glimpse of what we'd been looking forward to for days. While our friends headed out again late the next morning, my husband and I decided to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise. I am not really much of a morning person and had to be seriously talked into getting up at such a crazy hour, but it was well worth it. We were the first people inside the gate and managed to get some fantastic photos. Better still, we could wander around and enjoy the ambiance without having to share it with a million other tourists (oh, and it was also much cooler at that hour too!).
But, lest you think that Agra is only about the Taj Mahal...do not be fooled so easily. Agra is also home to a very grand Fort - the Agra Fort, of course. And not too far out of town, a great stop-off on the way to Jaipur if you're heading that way is Fatehpur Sikri.
We stayed at the Oberoi in Agra, definitely the best hotel in town and the closest to the Taj (and all the rooms have a view of the Taj!) The hotel is exquisite, staff and the service were impeccable, pool dreamy and the food in the restaurant amazing. I cannot speak more highly of it.
Next stop: Jaipur (the Pink City)
Jaipur, being the capital of Rajasthan, is a little bit hectic, but if you are staying in a good hotel (with a pool is a must!) you will be able to balance the crazy with the calm....
Sleeping: We stayed at the Samode Haveli. The Samode group of hotels is a smaller more boutique chain, but still with great service. The Haveli (the word for a private home, generally with some sort of internal courtyard) is on the outskirts of the city, right between the old city and Amber, home to the Amber Fort. In other words, its a great position. Its a little faded around the edges, but still very chic. This place came recommended by several guidebooks, and the NY designer Muriel Brandolini via her website, so I knew it must be good. And I guess Jade Jagger thought so too as she was there lounging by the pool most days during our stay. We were lucky enough to be travelling during the off-peak season and were upgraded (twice!) to a huge suite. I was a very happy girl indeed. Aside from this, the restaurant serves fantastic local and international cuisine inside the ornately decorated restaurant, or outside in the lovely courtyard. The pool cooled us down every afternoon, and the sweet lime sodas served were sooo addictive. In fact I'm salivating now as I think about it.
The other "it" hotels in town are the Oberoi, nestled on top of a cliff on the other side of town, where it was rumoured Liz Hurley and Aussie ex-cricketer Shane Warne were bunkered down. Aside from this, and more centrally located are the three, yes three, Taj Hotels in town. All of which are still owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur and his forefather's previous residences. I can personally vouch for the Taj Rambagh Palace as we had lunch there one day during our stay. Probably more of a dinner experience, but it certainly was nice to see the grounds during daylight, with the polo field etc.
Aside from the hotel restaurant and the restaurant at the Taj Hotel, I have a few recommendations.
On our first night we ate at Mosaics Guesthouse, a guidebook recommendation. A bit of a drive out of town, a little further out past the Amber Fort, you'll find Mosaics Guesthouse, run by local French mosaic artist (hence the name). Some international cuisine is served, but needs to be booked in advance, otherwise its a set menu of whatever the chef has prepared. The night we were there we were alone on the rooftop terrace, and were served far too much food for us to finish. Mutton, Dahl, Rice, Naan, Salad plus more that I've forgotten AND dessert...it was truly amazing, very flavoursome and very very fresh. One catch is they only take cash, but then you'll need a bit on you for the auto rickshaw ride as the road are not great for cars. The night we were there we saw two elephants amble past.
Another guidebook recommendation we tried was Cafe Kooba. The food was nothing to write home about (although clearly okay to blog about), not bad, but not as good as some of the meals we'd had. The selling point is the rooftop, where we at our dinner watching the IPL cricket match that was on TV, and just enjoyed eating outside.
In terms of lunching, you can't really go past Anokhi. Also recommended by the guide book, its a great way to spend some time eating, and then shopping when you're done - it's located right next door to the Anokhi Shop (see my notes below on shopping). Anokhi has been around for a while and has a bit of a cult following. Run by an Aussie girl, using mostly organic local produce, the food is a bit more international in style so a good place to go if you're getting tired of curry.
The Amber Fort is a must see - I won't post photos and do it an injustice. Just know that it is one of the most spectacular monuments I've ever seen. Mirrored mosaic ceilings. Enough said.
The City Palace, the current residence of the Majaraja of Jaipur, is also jaw dropping and a must see. We went to the Government Central Museum, otherwise known as Albert Hall, and its worth going just to see the building alone. Housed inside is a collection of ceramics, paintings, textiles and other crafts from all over Rajasthan.
The Jal Mahal, or "Water Palace" we saw, but did not go in as it is modelled on the Lake Palace hotel we stayed at in Udaipur, but more on that in my next post.
On our last night in Jaipur we did an Elephant safari through Dera Amer, which was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Arriving just before sun down we met our elephant, painted her trunk, then promptly boarded before a walk through the Araveli hills as the sun went down. The path was torch lit and we made a brief stop for a G&T before heading back to base camp for dinner. Another fabulous meal. While we ate we watched a game of night time Elephant polo and had the chance to join in or ride a camel. An absolutely surreal experience.
Most of the sights to be seen are in Jaipur's old city which is a dark pink (hence the name the Pink City), including the "Jawa Mahal", or Wind Palace. Walking the markets etc are a fabulous way to understand the local culture....which brings me to....
I've saved the best til last. Jaipur is a shoppers paradise. Ceramics, jewellery, textiles, spices, cooking utensils, clothes, scarves, shoes, you name it, Jaipur has got it. In spades.
Apart from the fantastic markets, which are along most of the main roads in the centre of the old city (see image below), there are many, many fantastic places to shop in Jaipur. My favorites were:
Hot Pink - has two shops in town, one inside the walls of Amber Fort, and the other larger store within the Narain Niwas Palace hotel. Started by two French designers this shop stocks a range of their own designs and locally produced garments, accessories and home wares. Lots of colour, especially pink (as the name suggests), you could definitely blow some cash in this place. Check out their website for their own recommendations on all things Jaipur.
Anokhi - has been producing traditional wood-block prints for over 40 years. Anokhi has played an active role in the revival of skills involved in this local tradition. There are stores all over India, so check out their website for other locations. The store in Jaipur has a great range of clothing for adults and children, as well as cotton bedding and other homewares. Jaipur is also home to the Anokhi museum, which I might have to pay a visit to on my next trip.
Soma - also stocks a wide range of traditional block-printed cotton bedding, homeewares and clothing, lots of colours to chose from too. These guys also have several shops around India, so check out their website if you're interested.
So, what is this guidebook I've mentioned over and over? Make sure you get your hands on a copy of the "Love Jaipur, Rajasthan" book if you're heading this way, it was definitely the best range of recommendations we've found. We picked ours up in Delhi, but they are available all over (check their websites for retailers). The Love Travel Guides are written by another Australian, Fiona Caulfield. There are a few more in the series, only Indian cities for now, so if you're heading here check them out. We found ours invaluable, and our friend who moved to Delhi has found the guidebook on her new home city very useful.
Coming up next: Udaipur & Kolkata...
(first image: the sunrise at the Taj Mahal, Agra)