Turbans and tiaras: inside India’s luxury rolling palace

HOW do you look in a bindi and turban, with a garland of flowers round your neck? I didn’t know either, until I found myself in some gardens outside Jaipur, the third stop on our week-long but epic journey through Rajasthan on India’s most luxurious train. The answer, for me, was really quite good (see picture) – the turban felt firm and regal, the flowers festive and the bindi flattering.

Just 48 hours into this rail voyage from Delhi to Mumbai, a sense of wonderment had become the norm. So, rather than feeling overwhelming or embarrassing, it felt perfectly lovely and right to walk along a red carpet under ribbon-bearing canopies, looked on by brightly cloaked camels, to the sound of jaunty traditional music. Just for us.

And how natural to be met by sequin-clad locals who took our heads and wrapped them in bright red cloth, and painted henna on our hands (henna, I might add, that lasted 10 days – those returning to work in less time, be warned). Best of all, it felt deliciously right when the elephant polo started and we were hoisted on board, handed extra-long sticks and told to swing (which we did hopelessly).

The Maharajahs’ Express delivers delight at every stage. Every guest is royalty. Red carpets, garlands, bindis, cold towels, sitar music, brightly dressed animals and brilliant dancers are the norm outside the train – air conditioning, finely furnished rooms and Raj-style opulence, including the kind of service you never see in Europe, are the norm inside.

But this is Rajasthan, and it’s not all about red carpets and cold towels. It’s about city centres raging with colour and poverty, and cows as unperturbed in the middle of roundabouts zooming with tuk tuks and blue buses as they are in the fields of Yorkshire. It’s about breathtaking forts and palaces, loaded with gold, tile, marble, fabulous stonework and rich Hindu tradition – the Maharajahs’ 16th century stomping grounds. The train’s organisers know this. So every day you’ll dive into the chaos, always transferred from the train in an air conditioned bus with a man whose job is to give you mini bottles of water, always accompanied by a guide who is as sweet and charming as he is knowledgeable and patient. And every day, just when the chaos starts to become too hot and too much, you’re whisked off to a setting of your dreams – a flame-lit desert camp, a fort at nightfall – for drinks and dinner.

The train is not just your moving hotel for the week, but a tight-knit community of guests and staff. When the landscape and experience is constantly changing, such continuity is comforting.

Of course, India’s most-hyped train ever isn’t just about continuity. It’s about luxury. Cabins range from comfortable but compact, with two twin beds, to suites with baths and arm chairs. All have top-line ensuite bathrooms and showers (even the Orient Express can’t boast this) and pillow menus, along with the aforementioned valet, who will bring biscuits, coffee and fruit to your room alongside your wake-up call if you desire. Otherwise, he will be standing somewhere near your door, literally at your service whenever you want him.

Having come off a sleepless night flight and straight to the train for the first leg of the journey to Agra – and waking the following morning at 5AM for a game drive – my cabin was used largely for naps. (The outing to Ranthambore tiger reserve was beautiful but unfruitful for our group – however another vehicle saw a tiger cross right in front of them. We contented ourselves with lots of monkeys and peacocks.)

The rest of the time on board was spent sipping Indian bubbly in the plush leather lounge, aptly called the Rajah Bar for its evocation of colonial luxury. It was here that we met for pre and post-dinner drinks as the train rattled through the night, merrily joining the other guests – from a designer-clad Russian couple to a Colombian artist – in the humour of shared experience. After all, we had all seen each other in turbans, riding elephants – and sweating profusely.

The food on board is plentiful (but only during meal times – unlike on cruise ships, there aren’t constant opportunities for gorging), and served with gold cutlery and crystal glasses. Both dining rooms are stunning (they serve the same food): one is red, the other green, both with ornate dark chairs, luxurious upholstery, glistening tables and sumptuous tilework. Dinner offers a mixture of Western and Indian food and while some of it was tasty – the Indian food at times delicious – it wasn’t as good as I was hoping, given the setting (and the cutlery). Perhaps the commitment to safety came with a price – certainly, nobody had any stomach problems throughout the trip.

We ate outside the train almost as much as on it – indeed, our meals off board were always an occasion for well (and hygienically-made) local food and thrilling settings.

The itinerary was well balanced and took in all the splendours of the state. Day one was Agra: after we toured the Taj Mahal we were ushered to a sunset high tea overlooking it. Sipping champagne and nibbling pakoras and kiwi millefeuille as the sun went down over that famous monument was a good start.

Day two, after our early stop-off at Rathambore, we continued to Jaipur where we had our first taste of proper palatial splendour: the rose-hued Amber Fort. (It was after our tour here that we played elephant polo at the Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.)

Bikaner was next, where the evening was spent – via camel cart – in a desert camp complete with fire torches, a bar, cushions, “table service” from a gourmet grill, and dancing. There were even loos.

The next morning we woke up in Jodhpur – the perennially sunny city of blue roofs and home to the resplendent Mehrangarh Fort. After buying expensive but beautiful bed covers at a textiles shop in the city centre – Richard Gere is a fan – we were whisked in a tuk tuk through the chaos to the fort where we immersed ourselves in a warren of magnificent rooms for an hour or two. Then, naturally, it was time for an opulent buffet dinner on a veranda outside the fort, with views of the city and a private firework display.

Our penultimate day saw us in Udaipur. With its famous Lake Palace and City Palace, the largest palace complex in Rajasthan (where we had a four-course lunch), it came and went in giddy intensity. And finally it was Vadodara, where highlights of the whole trip included high tea at Laxmi Vilas Palace and a walk through the mosque at Champaner. Laxmi sported fountains, marbles and tiger’s heads inside, and monkeys in the extensive gardens, while Champaner’s mosque was a haunting warren of ancient stone and beautiful stonework.

When we alighted in Mumbai, we were on a high. The Maharajah Express combines a once-in-a-lifetime mixture of hedonism and culture, adventure and comfort. It turns India into your own royal playground – and there’s nowhere better to play a prince than here.

Maharajas’ Express

Need to Know
The Maharajas’ Express operates three pan-Indian itineraries: From Delhi to Mumbai, from Mumbai to Delhi, and a round-trip Delhi-Delhi trip. The train accommodates up to 84 passengers in four categories of suite. It is the first train in the world to offer double beds, WiFi access and baths onboard.

Zoe Strimpel travelled with Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk), which offers a 10-night Royal India trip that combines six nights’ full board on the Maharajas’ Express, travelling from Delhi to Mumbai, with two nights’ B&B at the Oberoi New Delhi and two nights at the Oberoi Mumbai. From £5,895 per person including flights, private transfers, accommodation and all sightseeing.