The Leela, Udaipur: Palace on the Lake

10_Night_wThere are times when you must have a box of tissues by your bedside. But in most hotels, it lies in the bathroom or at most on some corner table. Even if I move its location to my position of choice during the night, I invariably find it back in the bathroom once the housekeeping has combed my room the next morning. And so it becomes a daily ritual – a dance of ego between the invisible housekeeper and me.

At the Leela Palace Udaipur, however, the marble-finished large square box of tissues lay next to my bedside the morning after – although straightened and lined up along the side. If that wasn’t delightful enough, even the heavy wood-and-copper dustbin I had moved closer to the coffee tray stayed where I had left it, suitably emptied. It was as if – for the first time – my needs were being acknowledged as ‘right’. I wasn’t breaking any five-star décor diktat. It was okay to want a different position for the furniture accessories. The invisible housekeeper was suddenly a friend.

But what else can you expect when the founder-chairman of this chain of hotels – Captain CP Krishnan Nair – has instilled one main motto into his team of hospitality stalwarts: ‘Guest is God’?

Damn it. I am in love.

It is not just the waterfront approach to the hotel on a boat lined with silk cushions that puts you in a state of personalised luxurious bliss. It is also the presence of the general manager himself standing at the quay to welcome you. It is also the direct stroll to your room – bypassing the check-in counter – where a pre-typed form awaits a mere signature. It is also the soft couch beside which a masseur kneels to caress and massage your tired feet in a bowl of warm, scented water while you sip on an exotic fruity concoction. Within the first ten minutes of your arrival, you know you have arrived.

Situation on the side of Lake Pichola nestled between the hills of the Aravalis, bordering the old city of Udaipur, the Leela Palace twinkles with potential. Its majestic lakeside façade is precisely the reason why arriving guests are brought in by boat and not by road, says lobby manager Abhishek Sharma. The hotel has two distinct location advantages, he continues. Not only does each one of its seventy-two rooms and eight suites manage to have a view of the lake, but most rooms also get satisfying glorious views of the City Palace – where the Udaipur maharana continue to live – and other heritage properties that lie on the peripheries or in the middle of the lake itself.

DiningThe décor of the hotel is suitably opulent in keeping with its moniker. Chandeliers share space with embroidered tapestry and plush carpets. Rajasthani motifs abound – whether in the fabric designs, wall prints, traditional artifacts, even in the tikri work on wall panels. Shining, elegant crockery evokes the imagery of Victorian tea parties, while fresh flower bouquets lined across lobby corridors offer a burst of love and colour.

The rooms are well-appointed with the most modern technological comforts available at the touch of a silent button. Though this is a key factor in all Leela hotels, what makes their Udaipur property special is the seamless combination of Indian royal interiors with contemporary, advanced technological conveniences. So you can put on a DVD of your favourite film, turn the 42-inch LCD television 180 degrees to face you while you lie on your massive king-sized bed atop richly embroidered cushions, and turn down the lighting to your choice of dimness (or brightness) to one of the thoughtfully pre-set modes.

One of the best-loved features of this hotel is undoubtedly ESPA, India’s only tented luxury spa. This is made without a roof or walls! The idea is to give the guest a feel of traditional Rajasthani living spaces – the tents are representative of the desert way of life. For couples who want a truly royal experience, the spa offers private swimming pools and relaxation areas set within their own walled gardens with stunning views of the lake. All kinds of treatments are on offer, and the therapists have pleasant dispositions, and more importantly, well-trained hands. The spa also retails its own products from the award-winning British brand ESPA.

No luxury experience can be complete without fine dining. The hotel’s all-day Dining Room offers multi-cuisine fare, experimental in its variety and delectable in its mix of unusual flavours. Try the citrus-cured smoked salmon with basil infused apple, garishoga and wakame mesclun. Vegetarians should definitely not miss the goat cheese and walnut envelope with red-wine poached pears and apricot saffron chutney – it comes with a burst of flavours that left me almost speechless for a few moments.

Come winter and the hotel also launches Sheesh Mahal, an open-air dining experience that promises to be an out-of-the-world experience. Set on the absolute periphery of the hotel, overlooking the lake, the restaurant evokes the old days of royal living – when fresh catch and locally available produce was cooked by khansamas with cutlery made of gold and silver to endow one with both physical nutrition and noble judgement. Using age-old recipes from the palaces of maharajas, the restaurant offers a variety of Indian fare, all for you to enjoy under a sky of stars.

Well before the hotel’s general manager Graham Grant had ever visited Udaipur, he had gone on a three-month backpacking trip across Europe, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, before returning home to the Australian Gold Coast where he managed a luxury hotel. During this unusual journey, his Indian experience had been short and had left him lusting for more, so much so that he brought his wife back years later. Even then, they were unable to make it to Udaipur, though it was one place that was constantly on their minds. When he did find his calling with the Leela group of hotels, it was serendipity that had him move to the Leela Palace Udaipur. “As an expat, I am enthralled by the romance and majesty of this lovely location,” he says, while explaining his vision in bringing together the best of Western comforts and conveniences with the most decadent of Indian luxury. He was fired up by the idea of opulence without intimidation. “The idea is to customise luxury, so that the guests get what they want without even asking for it. To do that, the staff has to be liberated and empowered enough to take on-the-spot decision that allow them to give that kind of exclusive service whenever the situation arises,” he explains.

Later, as I watch the sun go down over the Aravallis, sitting in a high wooden boat sipping an icy cold drink, the lake water and hilly horizon unite for a brief moment in a vision of silver. My gaze shifts to the Leela Palace on my right, blushing in the dusk. One by one, its lights shine on, like a shy beckon. It’s going to be a magical night.

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