India is a cradle of world civilization and home to some of the oldest and most exotic palaces, ruins and mausoleums the world has to offer.
But it is also a land of more than 1 billion people, 100 distinct spoken languages, dramatic class disparities and traffic laws that are followed like unsolicited advice. Getting a luxurious experience in India should be left to the professionals, and that's exactly what I did.
Ground rules for first-time visitors?
"Do not try to see everything on your first visit," said Greaves tours representative Anita Captain. "Do include some downtime to take it all in and slow down a bit, even though it is tempting to see as much as possible in a short time. India is one of the few countries where the standard of service makes one feel like royalty."
Greaves Travel tour operators and Oberoi Hotels work hand in hand to create tailor-made tour packages to ensure that travelers come away with the richest experience possible.
My trip began on a business-class flight aboard Etihad Airways with a brief layover in Abu Dhabi, where I took advantage of Etihad's pristine lounge with a shower and a complimentary head massage before heading to Delhi. Delhi
While touring India's Parliament and the site of Mahatma Gandhi's last residence and his assassination, the tour guide interspersed history with helpful insights on language and religion (she was a Sikh, while the other tour guides' religions included Hinduism, Jainism and Zoroastrianism).
If not for her, I would have missed the family of six carpooling on a single motorcycle or the rare sighting of some of India's Hijiras, a culture of outcasts that takes in and raises the country's rejected transgender and intersexual denizens.
The Oberoi Delhi, which often plays host to visiting world dignitaries (most recently former French President Nicolas Sarkozy), is currently in a very promising state of renovation, sporting, most notably, an indoor, darkly lit infinity lap pool. After touring many of the city's streets and monuments, I returned to feast at the hotel's restaurant Threesixty Degrees, consistently rated by critics as one of India's finest. Agra
The next morning, I traveled by road to the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra, where I was greeted with a flute of champagne and a few minutes to take in my first breathtaking view of the Taj Mahal from the hotel's veranda.
All rooms face the Taj Mahal, and, because Oberoi purchased much of the acreage surrounding the hotel, it is the only property that offers such views. Amarvilas has the look and feel of an old-world palace yet is just over 10 years old.
That evening I was treated to the first of several "Oberoi Experiences," an exclusive multi-course poolside dinner, complete with dancers and live music.
Silki Nanda, a spokeswoman for the Oberoi Group, said the "Oberoi Experiences" encompass romance, wellness, adventure, family and "our very special culinary experiences." Jaipur
After riding elephant-back up a steep incline to the Amber Fort in Agra, I returned to the OberoiRajvilas and relaxed poolside while watching the property's parrots and peacocks color the trees.
The centerpiece of the 32-acre Oberoi Rajvilas is a 260-year-old Hindu Temple Garden, where a resident has been leading prayer services for decades. I witnessed a prayer ceremony before heading to an Indian cooking demonstration that no foodie should miss: After a quick tutorial on Indian spices, curries and kabobs, I learned the art of throwing naan dough just hard enough to make it stick to the tandoor oven's sides without losing a finger. Udaipur
We flew to Udaipur on Greaves' private plane: Domestic flying in India is a haphazard experience, so travelers who can afford it are strongly encouraged to fly private.
Udaipur, a a city of palaces and canals surrounded by seven lakes, is India's answer to Venice. After visiting the City Palace, we returned to the Oberoi Udaivilas for an afternoon of swimming and relaxation before being treated to a private sunset boat tour of the cityscape and its two wondrous island palaces, both originally built as pleasure palaces for the royal family, Jagmandir Island Palace and Jag Niwas Island, more commonly known as the Lake Palace hotel.
Back at the hotel we were treated to another exclusive dinner, this time on the property's dock with a romantic and unimpeded view of the lit-up palaces in the distance. Mumbai
Mumbai is India's largest city and a cacophony of madness. It was helpful having had most of the trip to acclimate to India's frenetic pace before arriving there.
While the Oberoi properties in Agra and Udaipur transported me back in time, the Oberoi Mumbai, towering 21 stories high, brought me right back to the present. Eating can also be haphazard in India, but guests have a refuge in the hotel's two excellent restaurants (one Italian, the other Indian) and presumably one of the only lounges in the world where one will find Indians singing jazzified versions of "Dust in the Wind" and "Hotel California."
Amid all of the driving, flying and sightseeing, I noticed an oft-overlooked aspect of India that I've found nowhere else: an incomparable level of service. Everyone, from groundskeepers to general managers, greeted me with a "Good day, sir" or, more commonly, "Namaste." Want to watch a movie that's not on the in-room menu? The concierge will send someone into town to fetch it on your behalf. Want a private tea with one of India's royal families? Greaves has done it.
As Captain said, "People often think, 'It's India, I should be able to do whatever I want,' and most of the time we can make that happen."