Ten years ago, budget-minded backpackers traipsing through India in search of pampering might have treated themselves to a meal or cup of tea in a "fancy" hotel.
That couldn't happen in today's India, where fancy hotels really are fancy. It's hard to imagine anyone entering the immaculate Four Seasons lobby in Mumbai wearing muddy Tevas and a bulky backpack.
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That's because the country, once a cheap travel destination and long associated with poverty and strife, is now becoming famous for its luxury hotels.
Many among them belong to the Oberoi Group. Founded in 1934, the firm owns or manages 32 hotels and luxury cruisers across five countries under the Oberoi Hotels & Resorts and Trident Hilton brands.
"You have to give credit to Oberoi for being the first to see the potential of building a true luxury property in India," says Albert Herrera, vice president of hotels and resorts for Virtuoso Ltd., a long-established luxury travel network.
Before Oberoi, there were fancy-looking hotels throughout India, often housed in beautiful, even palatial structures, but very few outside of New Delhi actually met international standards of service and luxury. Towels were coarse. Musty smells were common.
Then, 10 years ago, Oberoi Group opened Rajvilas in Jaipur. Set among 32 acres of gardens and reflecting pools, the property's 54 rooms (some of them air-conditioned luxury tents) have four-poster beds and sunken, white Italian marble bathtubs looking into their own walled ornamental gardens.
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At $300 a night, the hotel was pricier than anyone could imagine in India, but tourists came and ponied up the rupees in exchange for a standard of luxury they'd become accustomed to.
Two more "Vilas" properties followed: the Amarvilas in Agra, built in a style inspired by Moorish and Mughal architecture, less than a mile from the Taj Mahal and offering breathtaking views of the monument; and Udaivilas in Udaipur, where from the moment guests arrive by boat on Lake Pichola, they are made to feel like Rajput royalty.
No doubt encouraged by their success, in 2005, Amanresorts, the ultra-luxury worldwide chain known for its Hotel Bora Bora and Amangani resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo., opened Amanbagh in Alwar, a much less traveled part of Rajasthan.
Set on the site of a maharajah's former hunting lodge and pleasure garden, the walled resort's grounds are lush with eucalyptus, fruit and palm trees. The 40 rooms are some of the most spacious in the country--the smallest is 900 square feet and has a 550-square-foot terrace. The resort is near the Sariska Nature and Game Sanctuary, which is home to panthers and tigers.
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While the country still has plenty of low-budget accommodations today, the rate for a basic room at many of these properties starts at $700.
These are just a sampling of the spots on our list of the top luxury hotels in India. All were chosen first and foremost for their overall standard of service and style, then for their unique distinguishing features or amenities, like standout views or tent accommodations. Most are in Rajasthan, home to scores of heritage palaces, with some in Mumbai, New Delhi and Bangalore, India's new high-tech hub. Now that the luxury market is firmly planted in India, some hoteliers have been inspired to deviate from the Oberoi formula.
Devi Garh Fort Palace, for example, is a luxury hotel in Rajasthan with a sexy, minimalist modern design that completely defies its 18th-century palace exterior. The hotel, with its cutting-edge use of semi-precious stones as a design element, is the talk of the interior-design world and has been used for fashion photo shoots.
The newest entrant to the luxury-hotel market in India is the Four Seasons in Mumbai, located in Worli, the city's financial center. The hotel, which opens in January in a 33-story glass tower overlooking the Arabian Sea, is aimed at the increasing number of business travelers frequenting the city. All rooms have high-speed Internet, of course. The hotel also boasts a fleet of BMW Series 7s metallic-gray sedans as part of their "limousine" service.
No doubt it's roomy enough for an REI backpack.