In an opulent new resort looking onto the Taj Mahal, a backpacker gets pampered like a princess with ayurvedic massage and chicken biryani.
Amarvilas, the new Oberoi resort and spa, rises like a Rajasthani palace from a sprawl of trees overlooking one of the great wonders of the world: the Taj Mahal. And after five nerve-jangling hours in a car from Delhi to Agra, Amarvilas was every bit as alluring to me. Arriving at night only heightened its drama. I followed a smiling, turbaned bellhop into the spotlighted courtyard, where classical music accompanied the splashing of 64 fountains. In the grand, gold leaf-domed lobby, I was literally blessed by a beautiful woman in a floral silk sari, while another handed me a glass of fresh watermelon juice on a silver platter.
Carl Jung said that India is reality, the West merely an abstraction. But Amarvilas seemed too perfect to be real. Another smiling, turbaned bellhop (where was that boutique-hotel sneer?) led me into an elevator, down softly lit halls hung with framed antique silks and coins, and into a luxurious room with a brilliant viewthe view that all the guest rooms and nearly all the common rooms shareof the Taj Mahal.
Was this the right way to begin a backpacking trip in India? After leaving the resort, I planned to meet a friend in southern Kerala, where we intended to spend $20 a day hitting a few beachside Ayurvedic resorts and yoga ashrams between temples and simple vegetarian meals. But my time at Amarvilas would be a food and fitness experience of an entirely different order.
I followed the scent of incense downstairs to Esphahan, the hotel's Indian restaurant, where richly hued Mogul-inspired fabrics lined the tables and walls. A procession of waiters proffered silver finger bowls with floating rose petals and silver trays of warm pappadams and green-papaya chutney. The place was sereneeven more so because only one other couple was there. The sitar player gave me a bored, it's-not-high-season-yet smile as I navigated my way through the evening's meal, a progression of silver dishes arranged alongside a banana leaf on a silver platter: chile-stuffed fillet of bekti (a firm white fish) with fenugreek in an onion gravy; fragrant twice-marinated butterflied shrimp hot out of the tandoor; chicken with ground cashews; potatoes spiked with tart pomegranate seeds; black-lentil dal into which I swirled silken yogurt; and a delicious basmati-rice pudding thickened with coconut milk. Everything was done with a remarkably light hand. The tastes were fresher and cleaner than those of any Indian food I'd ever hadin part, no doubt, because the restaurant makes use of the excellent local herbs: coriander, fenugreek, anise, kalonji (onion seed). Anupam Gulati, one of the 23 chefs in the state-of-the-art kitchen, came out to explain the menu, which includes home-style Indian dishes (no fusion here) from several regionsas per Mr. Oberoi's requestall made with "minimal chiles" for Western palates. Gulati laughed when I asked if this was spa food, then conceded that he uses less butter and cream, since "Indian people are finally starting to get conscious about their health."
Late the next morning, I opened the curtains to see the Taj Mahal in daylight. It's a view that I became quite intimate with, from all over the hotel. My guide to this architectural wonder had told me, "You will soon have something in common with your President Clinton, who said that there are two kinds of peoplethose who have seen the Taj Mahal and those who have not."
And then there are the lucky few who have seen the Taj from the spa at Amarvilas, where luxury and serenity are writ large. Developed in conjunction with the prestigious Banyan Tree Spa in Phuket, Thailand, it offers treatments that incorporate an international range of styles (Thai, Ayurvedic) and foodstuffs (soya cream, almond and orange-yogurt scrubs, a rose-sandalwood wrap and a facial using fresh-squeezed cucumber juice). A woman named Mild (honest) washed off the red Agra dust I'd accumulated during my barefoot tour of the Taj, and then we began the "Essence of Rice," in which I was slicked, buffed and wrapped with all manner of grain before being put to sleep with a scalp massage. I awoke to the sound of the shower, where I rinsed off before the Ayurvedic massage (based on ancient Indian healing techniques), which was topped off with a head and shoulder massage. After three hours of these ministrations, Mild deposited me in a gigantic tub filled with milk and rose petals, from which I watched the sun set over the Taj.
I returned to my room and collapsed into a long nap; it was dark when I awoke to a dinner of chicken biryani flavored with sandalwood (the clay pot sealed with dough to lock in the flavors, the rice topped with caramelized onions so intense they made me sigh) and a vintage Bollywood movie on my TV. Luxury and serenity indeed. The next day followed the same template: omelet in bed ("Would you like the breakfast table set up overlooking the Taj Mahal, madam?"); 50 laps in the pool, which was so beautiful I hated to put my head underwater; a trip to Agra Fort, the sandstone fortress that once encompassed the imperial palace of the Mogul rulers; and a final, nourishing meal. Then it was back through the swirling crowds to the tiny Agra airport, where I caught the daily flight to Delhi.
A week later, Amarvilas seemed like a distant dreamone with hot water and clean floors and without mosquitoes or beggars. Traveling through a country that is chaotic and challenging, regardless of one's budget, taught me that the greatest luxury Amarvilas offers is tranquillity. In another two weeks, I thought, I just might have to make my way back to that pool, a sandalwood-scented, onion-topped chicken biryani awaiting me on the silent veranda.
Christine Muhlke is a New York-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vogue and Travel + Leisure.