There are many perks to living and working in the Gulf, but there are also a number of dilemmas you’ll face on a regular basis: Which bottomless brunch serves the best smoked salmon and avocado toast; Which hotel pool to relax at on a lazy Friday after a hard week at work; and finally, our favourite, where to spend those long public holidays.
Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, National Day, the Sultan’s birthday, Martyrs’ Day… You name it, there’s a long weekend scheduled into the official calendar in its honour! For Westerners and non-Muslims in the Gulf, these public holidays are a fantastic excuse to explore the region. This new series will provide a guide to the best nearby destinations, including city breaks, retreats and full-blown holidays.
Whether you’re looking to relax, explore a new country, or just get away from the expat bubble, this guide will inspire you and help you plan your next Gulf getaway! First stop…
A festival in Rajasthan, the Indian state famous for its colours (image: Thomas Cook)
Rajasthan, a state in northern India bordering Pakistan, has long been a favourite for travellers seeking to experience India’s legendary magic and diversity. A state of true variety, it is home to bustling cities, rolling hills, golden deserts and lush jungle. The cities are loud and obnoxious, packed full of people, cows, camels, rickshaws and motorbikes, jostling for space and struggling to be heard over the nonstop sound of car horns. Yet every Rajasthani city is surrounded by tranquil countryside, dotted with quiet, friendly villages.
A man rides an elephant through the streets of Jaipur, Rajasthan (image: trekearth.com)
Many might see this dramatic contrast as typically Indian, but what sets Rajasthan apart from the rest of the country is its colour. The cities are painted in pinks and blues and are full of people dressed in every colour under the sun (sometimes all at once). They stand out amidst the beautiful natural green and golden hues of the countryside.
The city of Jaipur is famously painted pink (image: anuraagvilla.com)
It is impossible to visit Rajasthan without getting a sense of its rich history. Walls in the cities are painted with images of maharajas and their caravans of elephants, camels and servants. Even if you only visit for a countryside retreat, sipping a gin and tonic on the veranda will take you back to the colonial era and the days of the Raj.
Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur make for the perfect for city breaks – each themselves unique and suited to different types of travellers. Meanwhile, the Jaisalmer desert, Ranthambore National Park and a multitude of other secluded spots offer ideal countryside retreats. The region is easily accessible (all of the major Gulf airlines operate frequent flights to Rajasthan’s cities, some direct and others flying through Delhi or Mumbai) and is home to some of the best kept secrets in luxury hospitality.
The Pink City – Jaipur
Also known as the Pink City, Jaipur is one of the best places in the country for soaking up India’s famous culture, colour and chaos. Jaipur’s energy is infectious, its people proud and friendly, and its architecture marvellous. The City Palace, Amber Fort, and the Palace of the Winds are not to be missed and must be ticked off every tourist’s list.
City Palace, Jaipur (image: Conde Nast Traveller)
Jaipur’s Amber Fort (image: parkregisjaipur.in)
The Palace of the Winds, Jaipur (image: parkregisjaipur.in)
Floating Palace, Jaipur (image: jaipurtravel.com)
A shopper’s paradise, Jaipur is a treasure trove of art, jewels and textiles. For clothing, visit Anokhi and for jewellery, head to The Silver Shop on the roof terrace of the Hotel Pearl Palace. Also on the roof of the Pearl Palace is the Peacock Rooftop Restaurant, which offers an array of wonderful food (and a welcome break from curries and thali) and a relaxing, slightly edgy atmosphere – plus live music in the evenings.
Top pick in Jaipur for textiles and shopping – Anokhi
Peacock Rooftop Restaurant at the Pearl Palace Hotel, Jaipur
As the capital of Rajasthan, Jaipur is one of the easiest places to get to from the Gulf and is well worth a long weekend trip (perfect for Eid Al Adha in September, perhaps…)! Staying inside the city centre is best as you won’t miss any of the action and getting around in tuk-tuks is super cheap and easy. But if you’re looking for a more relaxing getaway, we recommend Savista Retreat, an eco-friendly, luxury boutique hotel about an hour’s drive from Jaipur. A perfect balance might be two days in the city followed by two days recuperating by Savista’s pool…
The Blue City – Jodhpur
Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s ‘Blue City’, might be better suited than Jaipur to the more intrepid traveller who is not afraid to get their hands dirty. Its maze of tiny streets reminds one of a Moroccan medina and, just like Morocco, there are hidden gems around every corner. These include intricately painted, brightly coloured facades of old buildings, local children shouting and waving from barely visible windows four floors up, or rooftop havelis serving ice cold beers with a view of the city.
The Blue City of Jodhpur (image: Insight Vacations)
Jodhpur crawls up a hill, at the top of which sits Mehrangarh Fort. Mehrangarh is truly one of the most magnificent of Rajasthan’s many forts and is well worth a visit – if only for the breath-taking views of the Blue City below. If you’re interested in learning more about Rajasthan’s rich cultural heritage, visiting the fort will immerse you in Jodhpur’s regal history of princes and polo.
Mahrangarh Fort sits atop a hill overlooking the city of Jodhpur (image: Tourism of India)
Staying in the heart of the old city is the best way to really get the feel of Jodhpur, as well as giving you easy access to its multitude of rooftop restaurants and the bustling bazaar. The most luxurious spot in the city is indisputably Raas Jodhpur, but if you’re looking for something more authentic, we recommend Suraj Haveli. This small but excellent guesthouse markets itself as a homestay, offering authentic Rajasthani food, beautiful rooms, cooking classes and a rooftop with unparalleled views of the fort.
Raas Jodhpur: The ultimate luxury experience in the heart of the city, with a spectacular view of Mehrangarh Fort
The City of Lakes – Udaipur
Whether you need a quiet weekend getaway or a couple of days of calm to recover from the madness that is India, Udaipur is stunning, serene and romantic. The City of Lakes is nestled in the Rajasthani hills and is one of India’s more open, cleaner cities (an arguably rare find in the subcontinent). Also known as ‘The Venice of the East’, Udaipur’s relaxed, lakeside vibe makes you feel at times as if you’re not in India at all.
Udaipur, the City of Lakes (image: Tourism Rajasthan)
The city is full of lakeside hotels, but we recommend Hotel Lakend, which sits on the shore of Udaipur’s second lake, Fateh Sagar. This hotel is close enough to the city centre for you not to miss any action, but suitably secluded for a couple of days of tranquillity. Sipping wine by the pool with a view of the lake is the perfect way to spend a romantic weekend away – or to end a manic tour of Rajasthan.
Hotel Lakend overlooks Lake Fateh Sagar, Udaipur
The Golden City – Jaisalmer
Once a medieval trading hub, the city of Jaisalmer is located in the middle of the Thaar Desert in the far west of Rajasthan. Though the idea of leaving one desert to visit another might seem unappealing to some, Jaisalmer’s charm and ancient architecture is worlds away from the metropolises of the Gulf.
Jaisalmer Fort (image: Rajasthan Direct)
The Golden City (named so as it was built from sandstone) is dwarfed by the legendary Jaisalmer Fort, inside which hotels, shops, restaurants and temples are hidden in the tiny streets among the fort’s impressive 99 bastions. Staying in the fort is part of the experience, but if you’re looking for something different – and outrageously luxurious – the Serai camp in the Thaar desert is stylish and secluded and will unleash your inner Maharani!
The Rajasthani Countryside
When they think of India, many imagine the hustle and bustle (and infamous chaos) of the cities. The vast countryside, however, is often capable of providing a much more authentic and less touristy Indian experience. In Rajasthan, the word ‘countryside’ can mean a number of things – sprawling gold deserts; tropical jungles; lush, green hills; or brown, muddy plains.
Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan is one of the best places in India for tiger safaris
Though perhaps not as easily accessible as the cities, there are a number of incredible experiences to be had in the countryside. These include tiger safaris, sunset sailing on secluded lakes, camel rides across golden sands (though, admittedly, this is nothing new if you’re coming from the Gulf) and sundowners on the veranda of an old colonial villa or a hillside fort. Visiting local villages is also an incredible way to see yet another side of India and to truly immerse yourself in the colours of Rajasthan.
Women wear traditional dress in a Rajasthani village near Ranthambore National Park
East of Jaipur is Ranthambore National Park, a favourite for spotting tigers and other wildlife. While there are a number of resorts and camps located in Ranthambore, we recommend one just on the outskirts called Ramathra Fort. Here a luxury boutique hotel and camp has been built within the old fort, which was once inhabited by the Maharajas of the area (the owner’s family!).
Sunset views from the turret of Ramathra Fort (image: baileyrobinson.com)
Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaisalmer all have airports, but for shorter journeys India’s train system is relatively reliable and inexpensive and has long been recommended as an experience in itself for tourists. Trains run between Jaipur and Jodhpur, and Jodhpur and Jaisalmer – though be prepared for delays and book in advance!
India’s train network has become both an iconic and notorious (image: The Telegraph)
You can also hire a driver to take you between cities – a particularly magical experience if travelling to Udaipur, as you’ll likely stop off at Ranakpur Jain Temple before passing through the jungle on your way up into the hills. You’ll almost certainly need to do this if you’re staying somewhere in the middle of nowhere, though many hotels will offer a transfer from the nearest station.
Ranakpur Jain Temple is the perfect stop-off en route to Udaipur
We hope we’ve inspired you to start planning your next Gulf Getaway!
Another great destination that’s just a stone’s throw away is Pune, India. Check out our friend Monica’s review of the gorgeous Atmantan Wellness Resort on her blog, Do in Dubai!
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