India: The Land of ‘Namaste’

The Leela Palace, Udaipur
The Leela Palace, Udaipur

From the busy street markets in Delhi to the serene majesty of Udaipur’s lake resorts, the people of India honor their guests with pleasure, because it’s a point of pride and a mark of respect observing the ancient Sanskrit verse handed down through the millennia.

For a meeting or incentive planner, think of it as a silent partner at your side who will always have your attendees’ best interests at heart. India is a vast and layered country with spectacular culture and history. So spectacular, your groups will become lost in the intoxicating beauty and exotic sights, scents and sounds. But there is always a guiding hand there to support you, anticipating what you need before you do.

We came here to learn about the northern metropolitan hubs, Mumbai and Delhi. We were lured by the mythology of Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur in the province of Rajasthan: the Land of the Kings. And from the heartstopping Taj Mahal to a whimsical game of elephant polo, we always felt like guests in a friend’s home.

It began with a simple namaste…

Want your incentive group to be treated like royalty? The Maharajas’ Express offers a hassle free way to explore Northern India via an uber luxurious train for a memorable cultural and educational experience that will last a lifetime. Guests are often acknowledged with the verbal greeting, namaste, along with a warm smile and prayer hands. Translated, it means “the spirit in me respects the spirit in you.” It’s a warm way of saying “Welcome”—a ritual that would play out repeatedly every day. The train experience embarks either from Mumbai or New Delhi, the two gateway cities for international groups. From there, the Maharajas’ Express offers a number of 6- to 7-night heavenly itineraries to delve into the land of the Raj.

“The train never fails short of promising your group a royal experience,” says Prem Devassy, general manager of Royale Indian Rail Tours Ltd. “Groups up to 88 can buy out a variety of accommodations, including 18 junior suites, four full-size suites, one presidential suite and 20 deluxe cabins. And, all five of the passenger carriers come with butler service.”

The historic ambience of the railway cars is inspired by the golden age of rail travel, dating back to Jules Verne’s recollection of the old Bombay/Calcutta route in Around the World in 80 Days. But the technology is modern as can be.

“We are equipped with every modern amenity and comfort that money can buy or science can create,” affirms Devassy. The Maharajas’ Express is truly the last word in luxury trains. The thing that makes Devassy smile most is when groups return after a day of exploring. “I love it when our guests tell me they’re glad to be home,” he says.

Every afternoon, you’re greeted with warm hand towels and namaste. Two beautiful fine dining restaurants serve outstanding western dishes: New Zealand lamb, duck à la orange, lobster and blackened salmon. Authentic Indian menus include junglee mass (lamb), prawn tikka (prawns marinated in Indian spices) and murgh badam pasanda (stuffed chicken breast in almond sauce).

Taj Mahal
Taj Mahal

The beauty of the train is how it visits all of the important attractions in northern India. The grandaddy is the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Taj Mahal. Our group was escorted from the train to the luminous marble mausoleum with a guide for a sunrise tour. After our tour, we enjoyed a champagne Indian breakfast overlooking the Taj while live musicians performed.

Another day, our group dinner played out on the dunes in Bikaner’s “camel country” on the stop between Jodhpur and Jaipur. And the next day, we dined outside during an elephant polo match at the Taj Rambagh Palace Jaipur.

“Each day brings a new experience,” says Devassy. “Yes, your group will have to travel far to get here, but once they do, everything is taken care of: security, comfort, a worry free experience. We work very hard to treat all of our guests like Maharajas and Maharans.”

Nidhi Gopal, deputy general manager of sales, echoes that. She says, “The train gives your group an opportunity to experience the best of India and see much more in a week than you could any other way.”

A perfect incentive destination in Rajasthan just a 90-minute flight from Mumbai and one hour from Delhi, the classical city of Udaipur is a magical step back in time. Here, The Leela Palace Udaipur will break your heart with its stunning beauty and views of the Aravali Mountains. Majestically fronting Lake Pichola, the new 80-room hotel bears witness to the grand and opulent Indian palace architecture of a bygone era, with every modern amenity one would need. To get to the hotel, guests are transported in gondola-style boats with check-in at the dock. When you arrive at the hotel, you enter with rose petals flowing from above and live musicians strumming soothing melodies.

Our room reveal had to be one of the highlights of our trip. As the doors opened to a beautifully decorated and elegant “standard junior suite,” we were greeted by our butler impeccably dressed in the traditional Indian hospitality uniform, reminiscent of the days of the Maharaja. Graciously, he beckoned us to two plush chairs, and what came next was fabulous! Our feet were cleansed and massaged in a beautiful bowl with warm water sprinkled with orchid petals. After our feet were freshened up, they were then tucked into clean, soft white terrycloth slippers. Ah!…am I dreaming?

One of our favorite areas for receptions and cocktails is the richly detailed inner courtyard. This area will leave you speechless with gold leaf floral/paisley motifs and handcrafted white marble with magnificent inlay. Host a reception here while local dancers perform, followed by a group dinner on the lawn overlooking the lake. Meeting capacity is 150 pax.

Located in the middle of Lake Pichola, The Taj Lake Palace Hotel was a royal summer palace from 1746 to 1971, before Taj Hotels took over operations. It sits like a dream, an almost surreal vision of white marble and mosaic glistening in the moonlight.

“The Royal Butlers, descendants of the original palace retainers, look after all contemporary comforts and ensure that our guests are treated like royalty in any of the 83 rooms and suites,” says Rachita Maini, sales manager. From casual dining to formal fine dining, food choices are varied, and we recommend at least one meal at their signature restaurant, Neel Kamal, where some of the finest Indian favorites and local Rajasthan fare are served. The restaurant overlooks the Lily Pond Courtyard, which hosts outdoor dinners for 90 diners.

More jawdropping drama. The Oberoi Udaivilas is designed like a Mewari palace with 87 serene, spectacular rooms and suites opening out to private pools overlooking the lake. A setting fit for royalty—such as Angelina, Madonna and Julia—there are 30 acres of beautifully manicured courtyards and gardens, including a vegetable garden that serves its two restaurants, one with international cuisine and the other traditional Rajasthani and North Indian Cuisine.

Add in six meeting rooms and a boardroom, and the luxurious property is certainly another ideal choice for board meetings to conferences for 100 pax.

ITC Maurya, New Delhi
ITC Maurya, New Delhi

Meet where kings and presidents congregate in New Delhi’s “Diplomatic Enclave” at the 440-room ITC Maurya, New Delhi. The Starwood Hotels’ Luxury Collection property offers planners a pedigree experience from hosting world leaders and their entourages to groups that demand efficiency and the highest standards of technology.

One of the hotel’s most unique features, the design and architecture are both fashioned after the Mauryan dynasty that ruled India in 300BC. The lobby has a high domed ceiling with a stunning 3,000-sf mural called the Great Procession, which represents the ongoing procession of life.

For conferences and meetings, total function space caters up to 750 people inside. Or, create lavish lunches in the Nandiya Garden for up to 1,000 pax. There are also seven boardrooms for up to 15 attendees each.

Also inside ITC Maurya, Bukhara is a New Delhi landmark known for its “Northwest Frontier” cuisine. Maybe you can even sit in the same seat as President Clinton or Prime Minister Tony Blair who have both dined there!

The Leela Palace New Delhi is the newest hotel in the capital city and nothing short of magnificent. It perfectly exemplifies the elegant and graceful architecture of “Lutyen’s Delhi,” a strikingly well preserved district named after the famous British architect.

For dinner, executive chef Glenn Eastman will make sure your groups are taken on a mesmerizing culinary journey from the royal Indian dining at Jamavar to a modern multi-cultural global experience at Qube.

“We can make custom menus for any of our groups by chefs from around the world,” says Eastman. “My team is Indian, Japanese, Italian, Malaysian, Chinese and Thai and I am American. We can be very creative here.”

The 260-room Leela Palace boasts the largest rooms in the city, starting at 550 sf. Group spaces can accommodate receptions up to 300 pax, supported by eight boardrooms. The meeting space is adjacent to the garden courtyard area, which is a nice choice for functions. For more about the property, see the July/August digital edition of Prevue.

Rolls Royce
The Leela Palace New Delhi

Mumbai is India’s most electric and cosmopolitan city and the financial capital. The “Gateway to India” is home to Bollywood, the country’s main port and 15 million people!

The city’s grand dame hotel located for over 100 years on the waterfront, The Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai will take your breath away. The artwork alone is worth more than the property and the land it’s built on, says spokesperson Kirti Dhingra. The museum quality paintings and portraits are displayed on the walls throughout this magnificent hotel.

“For groups, our meeting space is so varied,” says Dhingra. “And we can accommodate seated banquets up to 600.”

Kirti, can you handle high profile groups flawlessly?

“Sure we can, just ask President Obama. They did a hotel buyout when he came to Mumbai last November.”

Overlooking the Arabian Sea near the popular Nariman Point shopping district, The Oberoi, Mumbai again overwhelmed us with superlative service. The newly renovated 73-suite/214-room Oberoi is great for groups because of its location and the dedication to pampered hospitality.

“We recruited the right people for the right service and make sure that they are properly trained at the Oberoi learning center,” says Nitesh Gandhi, hotel manager. “Groups love this property with all of our wonderful food, floor-to-ceiling windows facing the sea, and butler service to make sure our guests have everything they need for a successful stay.”

During your stay at The Oberoi, make it a point to dine at ZIYA, the new Indian specialty restaurant under the direction of two-Michelin star chef, Vineet Bhatia. For more info, see the July/August digital edition of Prevue.

Khyber is another spectacular restaurant for groups in Mumbai, decorated with charming old oil lanterns, huge urns and prints of ancient Mughal royalty. It is a definite must for a wide array of authentic Indian food. The flavors have seduced big name guests like Demi Moore and Richard Gere.

Prepare your palate for some exotic delicacies sourced from fresh and select ingredients. We ordered pudina gobi, a cauliflower dish served with fragrant mint yogurt threaded onto skewers with peppers and onions. Also try the paneer kofta and malai kofta—dumplings of mild homemade cheese and vegetables flavored with coriander and cumin cooked in cashew cream sauce. Delicious! Two party halls cater up to 200 diners.

For meetings near the airport, The Leela Mumbai is a new corporate conference hotel. The 340-room property is a convenient overnight and welcome reception spot for groups departing inland. The grand ballroom accommodates up to 200, and like all Leela properties, the Mumbai hotel was designed and built with a sustainable vision.

“For one who has grown up in the lap of nature, ‘going green’ becomes a redundant term—I don’t know any other way to be,” says Captain Nair, chairman of The Leela Group. “When we designed our first hotel in Mumbai, more than 20 years ago, my wife Leela and I collected plants and decided where to plant each sapling, and together we transformed barren land into a thriving ecosystem. Over the years, we have ensured that our hotels follow a sustainable model for conservation and preservation. I don’t think anyone can afford to ignore the impact of one’s carbon footprint.”

The oldest travel company in the world, Cox & Kings has the experience to handle any size group, from exclusive 12-member board retreats to the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur) to larger international conferences for 4,000 attendees.

“We handle our corporate and high profile government groups with the utmost highest security,” says Krishna Wattal, vp of Cox & Kings, which has served as a DMC for generations. “Our hospitality is in our blood, and the fact that our economy has been growing and is great for investments, has helped India to grow the number of companies that come to meet here.”

Contact Cox & Kings for all of your DMC requirements, including bookings for the Maharajas’ Express. The rail company just unveiled “The Royal Sojourn” itinerary, which begins and ends in Delhi, through Jaipur, Kota, Ranthambore and Agra.

“This is the first program wherein the train is stationed overnight in some of the cities on the circuit,” says Vipul Kapur, vp, DMC sales. “In case a client charters the entire train, we can offer customization with regard to the sightseeing program and special experiences in each of the cities the Maharajas’ Express is traveling to.”

For sales inquiries and itinerary specifics, contact Mr. Kapur at