On Day Three I took the Taj Express (www.indianrailways.gov.in) to Agra. I’m glad I did, but I wouldn’t be sad if I never did again. In just under three hours the express cured me of my curiosity about the Indian rail system. I had somehow imagined the train would be romantic. It’s not. It’s tired, or rather exhausted, and the opposite of romantic, with obsolete upholstery that stinks of curry.
Moorish meets Moghul at the Oberoi Amarvilas (800/562-3764; www.oberoihotels.com; doubles from $600), the only hotel you need concern yourself with in Agra. Every room has a view of the Greatest Monument to Love, a.k.a. the Taj Mahal. So what if the Amarvilas is a little flashy, a little pastiche-y, a little grandiose (well, maybe not a little)?You need two nights to get your money’s worth out of all the terraced gardens, jazzy fountains, and domed lounging pavilions, which are not just eye candy but also good for the soul, I find.
Most people go straight to Gwalior from Agra—a mistake, for it means bypassing Dholpur and the Raj Niwas Palace (91-11/2643-6572; www.dholpurpalace.com; doubles from $202), a hotel you do not want to miss, not if you like animal trophies and towering interiors lavished to the ceiling with custom-made majolica tiles from Europe. India is a place where people who don’t usually hire drivers, hire drivers—partly because they’re relatively inexpensive, and partly because they’re often the only efficient way of getting around. I had one for the 90-minute trip from Agra to Dholpur, plus all the transfers between Dholpur, Gwalior, Orchha, and Khajuraho—I spent one night in each—and on to Mahua Kothi and Jabalpur.
The Raj Niwas was completed in 1876 under the patronage of the great- grandfather of the current owner, Maharaja Dushyant Singh VI, whose mother, Vasundhara Raje, happens to be the chief minister of Rajasthan. The minister uses the house part-time, so get ready for passing her in the hall on the way to breakfast.
Raje’s ancestors once ruled Gwalior (her father is the Maharajah Jivaji Rao Scindia), 90 minutes from Dholpur. In 1875 the Scindias built the Usha Kiran Palace, now a hotel (91-751/244-4000; www.tajhotels.com; doubles from $195), to receive the overflow (including Queen Mary’s retinue) from their adjoining Jai Vilas Palace, where the prince still lives and a museum invites you to ponder the meaning of a crystal staircase. The maharajah’s palace is a trifle compared with Gwalior’s 15th-century fortress, planted on a ridge 300 feet above the city and the real reason for stopping over. The Man Mandir, within the citadel, is the finest, best-preserved example of an early Hindi palace in India.
Three hours from Gwalior, the Betwa River slips like a noose around the medieval island palaces of Orchha. Amazingly, one of them—the Jehangir Mahal, a monument to Indo-Islamic architecture—has a hotel, the Sheesh Mahal, within its walls (91-7680/252-624; doubles from $90), and when the tourists go home at the end of the day you have the Jehangir to yourself, to wander through at will in the moonlight. The Maharaja and Maharani suites are vaults of comfort. The hotel is government-owned, spick-and-span, and a nice break from self-consciously "fancy" places like the Usha Kiran.
Four hours stand between Orchha and the famously erotic carvings of Khajuraho’s Hindu temples, constructed between the 10th and 11th centuries. That the Chandela (91-7686/2723-5564; www.tajhotels.com; doubles from $110) has no idea how successfully its lobby channels the hotels of Miami’s first Golden Period makes it that much more fun. This Taj property is the best Khajuraho has to offer in preparation for the Mother of All Transfers: bumbling along, sometimes, on rocky roads at 18 miles per hour, seven hours go by before the woven-palm gates of Mahua Kothi swing open.
It would be nice to report that returning to Delhi after a stay at the lodge is quick and simple, but it entails not only a four-hour drive to Jabalpur but overnighting there (don’t get your hopes up) at the Samdariya Hotel (91-761/231-6800; www.thesamdariyahotel.com; doubles from $30) before flying out the next morning. If you have a late flight home from Delhi, the nicest gift you can give yourself is a day room at the Imperial. You will have earned it.