India's Most Romantic Places
The architectural magnificence of the Taj Mahal has been glorified, exalted, and celebrated for three and a half centuries, and rightfully so. The monument’s ornate complex of minarets and pishtaqs (vaulted archways), topped by an opalescent white-marble dome and mirrored in a vast reflecting pool, is both colossal and ethereal; it’s been declared both a Wonder of the Ancient World and, more poetically, “an eternal teardrop on the cheek of time.”
What’s even more wondrous about the Taj, though, is the love story behind it. Commissioned by the grief-stricken Moghul emperor Shah Jahan after the death of his favorite wife in 1631, the splendid palatial shrine is both a towering testament to lost love and a sanctuary in which it might be recovered (both the emperor and his wife made their final resting place inside the Taj’s walls).
Is it possible to visit such a place—or even to gaze at it from a hotel-room window—and not feel deeply moved?
The truth is, although it’s easily India’s most famous, the Taj is just one of the exceptionally romantic destinations in this vibrant, colorful, culturally rich country.
India’s long history means it’s brimming with spectacular ancient temples and cities—some of which are much older (by hundreds of years) than the Taj. It’s hard not to feel humbled, for instance, in the Rajasthani desert mecca of Jaisalmer, whose beautifully preserved sandstone buildings are shadowed by a fort built in the 1100s.
Nature has its romance in India, too. Few animals have inspired more vivid stories (or more wild imaginings) than the Bengal tiger—and this creature makes its home, along with other animals like antelope and sloth bears, in the north-central jungle preserves of Kanha and Ranthambhore national parks. (Lucky guests who stay at wilderness camps there can try for tiger-encounter stories of their own.)
And for those who find romance in good old-fashioned opulence—the kind Indian maharajahs enjoyed, with sprawling palaces overlooking glittering lakes, gardens redolent with frangipani blossoms, and squadrons of personal attendants to fluff one’s cushions or freshen one’s martini—India’s royal residences–turned–hotels make it easy to get a taste of (and a taste for) old-school excess.
It could almost be said that India is immoderately romantic—a place where the sights, sounds, tastes, and even words inspire indulgent flights of fancy. Could any description, for instance, read more passionately than Shah Jahan’s account of his masterpiece, the Taj?
The sight of this mansion creates sorrowing sighs;
And the sun and the moon shed tears from their eyes.
Oberoi Amarvilas Agra
The soaring dome and minarets of the Taj Mahal are visible from every room of this extravagant Moorish-and-Moghul-inspired palace (which sits just 600 meters away from the monument). Over-the-top grandiosity pervades here: the property is a fantasia of sprawling tiled lounging terraces, fountains, reflecting pools, and gardens dripping with flowers; the 108 airy guest rooms are filled with inlaid wood, marble, and silken fabrics. But the most truly romantic feature here is also the simplest: the ubiquitous, stunning views of the world’s greatest architectural testament to love.
Banjaar Tola Madhya Pradesh
Set at the edge of Kanha National Park—a 750-square-mile preserve of dense forests and sweeping meadows, which inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his famous Jungle Book—the Taj group’s newest riverside camp (opening in early 2009) is a paradise for nature lovers. The 18 eco-conscious tented suites, designed by famed Indian architect Sanjay Prakash, are kitted out with smooth bamboo floors, expansive platform beds, and traditional batik textiles; the two serene swimming pools are perfect for cooling off after game drives into the jungle. Among the wildlife you’re likely to see: three-striped palm squirrels, common langurs, jackals, wild pigs, blackbucks, and some 200-odd species of bird. Oh, and if you’re lucky, perhaps the most exotic of all Indian creatures: the Bengal tiger.
Taj Lake Palace Udaipur
It’s hard to imagine a more fantastical retreat than this grand, turreted white marble palace, set on a private island right in the glittering waters of Lake Pichola. The entire experience here—including the arrival via canopied, gleaming-wood water taxi; the 83 palatial, opulently decorated rooms, many with Oriental-carpeted porticoes overlooking the lake; the open-air rooftop restaurant for dining by moonlight; and the phalanx of Royal Butlers who cater to every whim—is designed to make you feel like a maharajah, and it does.
TourIndia River Cruise Kerala
A kettuvallom, or thatched-bamboo cargo boat, is the traditional—and rustic—mode of transport for exploring Kerala’s winding waterways and canals (more than 40 different rivers braid their way through the state, especially the westerly district of Kochi). Chartering TourIndia’s extraordinary kettuvalum-turned-houseboat Surya, however, means an enormous step up in luxury; the beautifully souped-up boat, with swooping cabins of woven bamboo and coconut fiber, has comfy rooms with wooden bedsteads, open-air lounges, and modern bathrooms with showers and flush toilets. A captain, guide, and cook share the trip with you past charming waterfront villages, churches, and rice farms.
This ancient trading hub—once a stopping point along camel-trade routes that crossed the Thar (otherwise known as the Great Indian Desert)—is widely known as “the golden city” for its beautifully ornate sandstone architecture. The town is centered around a towering 12th-century fort, but its intricately carved Jain temples and havelis—19th-century townhouses—are just as exquisite. Walking among them inspires reverence; it’s like stepping back in time.
Aman-i-Khás Wilderness Camp Rajasthan
Although it’s technically a “wilderness camp,” set in the rugged terrain of the Aravali Hills near Ranthambhore National Park, Aman-i-Khás requires very little roughing it. Guided nature walks and jeep safaris are led each day into the park, which teems with jungle cats (including tigers and leopards), hyenas, sloth bears, and antelope; but afterward, you can relax in the mahogany daybed or the enormous soaking tub of one of 10 sumptuous, air-conditioned, Moghul-style tents. A full-body massage at the on-site spa, or drinks around the alfresco fire pit, can also refresh after a long afternoon of wildlife-spotting.
Rambagh Palace Jaipur
Once home to the Maharajah of Jaipur, this 19th-century jewel of a Moghul palace defines regal elegance. The 85 rooms and suites (where only royals laid their heads until 1957) are impeccably decorated, with marble floors and carved pillars, silk-shrouded four-poster beds, and intricate mirror-and-tile inlays; many overlook the carefully manicured gardens, which are considered some of the most beautiful in India. The palace occupies a sweeping, 47-acre estate—with lawns big enough for playing elephant polo—set right in the heart of the bustling city.
Taj Exotica Goa
A tropical enclave spreading across 56 lushly landscaped acres, this property lies along a wide swath of Benaulim Beach in the westerly coastal community of Goa. Swaying palms, Mediterranean-style architecture, beachfront spa pavilions, and golf links overlooking the sea give the resort an almost Californian aesthetic; but the aromatic Goan cuisine, the Ayurvedic massages, and the spice plantations and towering Hindu temples just outside the confines of the property remind you where you are.
Shreyas Retreat Bangalore
Twice-daily classes in hatha and ashtanga yoga, guided meditation sessions, vegetarian meals sourced from 20 acres of organic gardens, and a distinct lack of modern technological distractions allow for deep mind-body renewal at Shreyas—which sits amid verdant farmland just outside Bangalore. The pleasures here are simple and healthy: after your morning asanas, you can cool off in the swimming pool, wander through (or help in) the herb and vegetable fields, do volunteer work in nearby city schools or orphanages, or relax in the serenity of your cottage or tented chalet (there are just 12 in all).
Wildflower Hall Shimla in the Himalayas
The foothills of the Himalayas—blanketed in fragrant cedar forests, and with views of looming, snow-dusted peaks—provide the singular setting for this pristine, 8,250-foot-high retreat. The resort’s common areas and 85 guest rooms, warmly tricked out with teak floors, hand-knotted rugs, and often crackling log fires, have a colonial-era stateliness—and no wonder: they occupy the former summer home of Lord Kitchener, who was the British Army’s Commander in Chief in the early 1900s. Quite possibly the amusements here today (horseback rides through apple orchards, walks on forest trails, mountainside picnics) are the same ones he enjoyed back then.