As such the Maharaja Express is in a league of its own. Established just one year ago by the venerable Cox & Kings travel firm, the Maharaja redefines 'exclusivity' with an upward reset of the bar. From the moment you step aboard, you find yourself whisked back in time to a realm of extraordinary indulgence.
The adventure begins in Mumbai's CST station, a glorious monument to the British Raj. Oceans of commuters crowd beneath sprawling domes and leering gargoyles with barely a passing glance at the wild rumpus of Indo-Gothic architecture. India's rail network is vast and efficient, but low on frills. CST Station has a stripped-down functionality, catering to more than three million passengers each day. But at the far end of the terminus, is the entrance to a different world.
A small army of staff rolls out a lengthy red carpet – up the steps from the VIP parking and along the platform. A bearer sprinkles pink rose petals. Another steps forward with a silver salver, laden with flutes of chilled Champagne. A brass band is in position and as they begin to play, the sleek crimson carriages of India's most luxurious train, the Maharaja Express, glide into place.
Then, right on cue, the passengers arrive.
Hailing from the United States, Europe, and from India itself, we are festooned in fragrant garlands, symbolic red tikka dabbed onto our foreheads, our fingers washed in rose water. And, while they admire the spotless livery of the train that will be their home for the next week, the hospitality staff lead them aboard to their cabins.
Seventy guests board the Maharaja Express that includes sixteen guest carriages, two restaurants, two bars, and dozens and dozens of staff.
The cabin assigned to me is in a carriage called ‘Katela’, located about halfway down the train. Adorned with sumptuous fabrics and with mahogany furniture, it is paneled in teak, bathed in old-world charm. Best of all – even better than its Wifi access – is the en suite bathroom. Ornamented with marble and with silver fittings, it boasts a flush-toilet and a power-shower. The larger cabins are more decadent still, with roll-top baths.
As I admire the details, my valet – named Dasrath – introduces himself. Turbaned, ever smiling, and exquisitely polite, he begs me to ask him for even the most insignificant request.
A few minutes after boarding, the Maharaja Express slips out of CST Station on a schedule all of its own. Real luxury is a train that waits for the passengers to be ready to leave!
Pushing out through Mumbai’s endless suburbs, there is a sense of mystery. I know we are heading northward to Delhi, the Indian capital, but cannot imagine the marvels about to unfold.
On the first evening I take dinner in the Rang Mahal restaurant. Beneath a hand-painted ceiling – a gold floral motif on vermillion – the dining car is beyond opulent. The plates are Limoges edged with gold, the glasses finest crystal, and the flatware monogrammed with the letter ‘M’.
With an entire carriage devoted to the kitchens – packed with chefs, equipment, and the freshest supplies, the two restaurants serve a daunting range of cuisine from both East and West. The beverage list, too, features a tremendous range of wines and Champagnes from France, the New World, and India as well – there’s even a sommelier to help you choose.
As I watched the city apartment blocks give way to countryside, I find myself thinking of the Maharajas who once ruled this land. Trains, like palaces, became a testament to power and wealth. Vying with each other, Maharajas installed salons and billiard rooms, private suites, and even air conditioning – made from electric fans and blocks of ice.
The Nizam of Hyderabad’s carriages were said to be the most opulent of all. They were adorned with ivory and 24-karat gold. As for the Maharaja of Vadodara, he had a throne installed aboard his royal train.
Coincidentally, it was along his stretch of track that the Maharaja Express takes us first. The next morning we find ourselves in the city of Vadodara, capital of the State of Gujarat.
Stepping down onto a red carpet once again, we are serenaded by musicians, and then led on a tour of the ancient Gaekwad culture. And with it, come the first of a royal flush of palaces – a banquet at the Jambughoda Estate at lunch, and another at the awe-inspiring Laxmi Vilas Palace at dusk.
During the night the train heads northward, reaching the Rajasthani city of Udaipur as I take my last bite of toast.
One of the great treasures of India, Udaipur has palaces aplenty, each one more astounding than the next. At the center of it all is the Lake Palace, floating like a magical marble island amid the serene waters of Lake Pichola. Famously, it featured in the James Bond movie Octopussy. From a vantage point high above, we are given a private reception in the 16th century City Palace, in which the Maharaja and his family still reside.
Once again we travel through the night, this time to Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s ‘Blue City’. Set on the edge of the Great Thar Desert, Jodhpur bustles with life, with wares, and with a kaleidoscope of color. Many of the buildings are dyed blue with indigo, signifying the homes of aristocracy.
During a famine in the 1930s, the Maharaja there commissioned the Umaid Bhavan, a vast Art Deco palace, to give the starving populace paid work. Stones were fitted together so tightly that there was no space for them to be pushed into position until an engineer found a brilliant solution. The giant corner stones were placed on blocks of ice. As the ice melted, the stones dropped slowly into place!
On the evening of our visit to Jodhpur, we are treated to a banquet on the battlements of the colossal Meherangarh Fort, a truly memorable experience. Then, climbing back aboard, we speed northward once more, this time to the city of Bikaner.
Gwalior Fort in Madhya Pradesh
The next afternoon we tour the exquisite Lalgarth Palace, its red sandstone structure adorned with sublime filigree work. Just before nightfall, we mount a convoy of camel carts and troupe into the Thar Desert. A banquet had been prepared under the stars, Rajasthani tribal dancers and campfires illuminating the night.
Our next stop is the crème de la crème – Jaipur. Capital of Rajasthan, it’s a raw and regal fusion of medieval and modern. A must-visit destination, the ‘Pink City’ is steeped in nostalgia and in a dazzlingly vibrant charm.
Having reached the Jai Mahal Palace, we are invited to take part in the sport of kings – a match of ‘elephant polo’.
Mahoots steer the elephants, while the riders lean down with their sticks, in a desperate attempt to knock a football into the goal. Quite unlike the speed of equestrian polo, the game played on elephant back is sedate but amazing to behold and a highlight of my trip.
After Jaipur, the Maharaja Express rumbles on to the tiger reserve at Ranthambore, one of the only sanctuaries of the noblest of cats left on the Subcontinent. And then it’s on again to the deserted Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri. Constructed by Emperor Akbar, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and remains as pristine as the day it was built four centuries ago.
The following morning, we reach the most famous landmark of all – the Taj Mahal. Lost in an eerie mist, the Taj is a structure whose chilling beauty grabs the beholder. It is the perfect culmination to an extraordinary trip.
Late that afternoon, the bubble of opulence that we all now regard as our home, chugs its way into Delhi. I clamber down onto the scarlet carpet for the last time and I thank providence. The Maharaja Express is far more than a mere luxury experience. It’s a way of life, one served up with a bespoke and real hospitality second to none.
Visit website: http://www.the-maharajas.com