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Trip of a Lifetime: Rajasthan

Rajasthan is where India’s legends, artisans, cuisine and royal past come together to create the perfect luxury getaway. Sandra Ramani takes a friend along for the wild ride.

The diversity of India, the vastly different landscapes, cuisines and customs, are what make it at once one of the most beguiling but also one of the most frustrating places to plan a trip. When tasked with booking a weeklong trip with a friend, I had to sort through my most treasured India memories—the beaches and backwater boat rides of Kerala, the ancient temple trails of the south, the under-the-radar foodie scene of Hyderabad, the colonial mountain charm of Shimla—and focus my gaze. What area would give us the intoxicating majesty, the wild bustle, the history and nature of my favorite country in just seven short days? I knew the only answer was Rajasthan.

Rajasthan is the India of legends, where Maharajahs once ruled from ornate forts and palaces, artisans work magic with textiles and precious gems, and the bright hues of mirror-adorned saris form rainbow processions against the muted desert landscape. This is where some of India’s most iconic experiences unfold. After dozens of trips to the country, this is the place I always want to bring first-time visitors to.

We started in Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan state and one of its most visited destinations. Though booming today, thanks to the growing tech industry, Jaipur still has one of the best-preserved historic town centers, as well as a world-renowned textile and gem trade. Inspired, we channeled the maharajas of the past by bedding down at Oberoi Rajvilas, a gracious 32-acre complex modeled on a Rajasthani fort with a mix of villa-like, hand-painted tents and rose-hued mansions surrounding a 280-year old Shiva temple.

It set the tone for our explorations of the royal Pink City, from the ornate 17th century Amber Fort to the geometric curves of the 18th-century Jantar Mantar observatory to the treasure-filled City Palace. It also inspired us to spend an afternoon bargaining for our own treasures—from block-printed cotton fabrics to intricate miniature paintings, hand-woven carpets to jet-black pottery. Neither of us had checked a suitcase coming in to India, but the way home was another story.

Like the rajs of the past, we decompressed after our city stay by decamping to the countryside. Our destination? Ranthambore National Park, once the former hunting grounds of the Maharajas of Jaipur, and now one of the top places to see some of the world’s only remaining Bengal tigers roaming the jungle—if you’re lucky. For three game drives, my friend and I bounced along the jungle paths, surrounded by plenty of birdlife, wild boar, and giant deer-relatives called sambar, but the tigers remained elusive.

After one of the sighting-free drives, we returned, slightly disappointed, to our digs at the Oberoi Vanyavilas, and were met by two colorfully-painted elephants that had been adopted by the hotel. Being greeted by these hulking Technicolor pachyderms put our tiger-seeking adventures into context. Back in the day, royals depended on elephants during tiger hunts, as well as state ceremonies, battles and festivals. Indian elephants have ferried queens to their country retreats, helped carry the materials needed to build majestic palaces and served as auspicious envoys of Lord Ganesha—and now here they were, blessing us with an affectionate touch of the trunk to the head.

The staff offered to let us join the eles for their bath time. We watched as they climbed gleefully into cement water tanks then got up close and personal, spraying them with a hose and scrubbing dirt and colored chalk off of their thick skin. We may have been snubbed by the tigers, but these gentle giants were more than happy to have us. It may not have been the animal encounter we had expected, but that’s the thing about India: it’s when you let go that the most incredible things happen.

Inspired? Here is our list of can’t-miss experiences in Rajasthan.

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Play Elephant Polo in Jaipur

Climb aboard rainbow-painted pachyderms for a round of polo in the shadow of an old fortified temple.

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Wander The City Palace in Udaipur

Built over a period of 400 years starting in 1559, the City Palace in Udaipur is one of the most stunning sites in India with ornate carvings, colorful stained glass and views over Lake Pichola.

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See Jodhpur from above

Climb high above Jodhpur to Mehrangarh Fort, the perfect place to survey the Blue City's vividly painted houses.

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Ride a Camel Cart Through the Desert

A parade of camel carts ferries you through the desert to a candlelit dinner perched in the dunes outside of Bikaner.

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Go on Tiger Safari in Ranthambore

Try your luck at spotting bengal tigers in the jungles of Ranthambore, former private hunting ground of the Maharajas.

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Buy Gems in Jaipur

Everyone from Princess Diana to Mick Jagger has purchased jewels at The Gem Palace, beloved boutique of India's rulers past and present. Even if you're not in the market for emeralds, you should stop by to ogle the bling.