India's Oberoi Vilas are the stuff of fairy tales

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AGRA, India -- When I walked into the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel here, my eyes settled on a perfectly framed image of the Taj Mahal. But it wasn't a picture on the wall, it was the real thing, viewed through the lobby window.

The Oberoi Amarvilas is designed so that all its public areas and 106 guest rooms and suites have views of the temple.

Many rooms have terraces that overlook the monument -- a private spot where guests can sip their tea and contemplate the universe.

Taken by the ambience of the hotel and the spectacle outside my window, I entered into what seemed a fantasy world.

A view of the Taj Mahal can be seen through a window at the far end of the lobby at the Oberoi Amarvilas hotel in Agra, India. All public and guest rooms have views of the temple. A sense of the fantastic pervades the Amarvilas and each of the four Vilas properties owned by Oberoi. I stayed at three of the four during a fam trip sponsored by Big Five Tours, two in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan and one in Agra in the adjacent state of Uttar Pradesh.

Rajasthan ("Land of Kings") is rich in historical monuments and living culture and attracts more tourists than any other part of India, according to Big Five's director of Asia, Ashish Sanghrajka. Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, was the capital under Mughal rule.

At each of the Vilas, I had the sense of having hop-scotched along a timeline, landing with my feet in two different eras. At each hotel, ghosts of the rajas, in all their splendor, shared my room with the familiar trappings of 21st-century technology.

Though designed to resemble the ancient palace fortresses of Rajasthan, the hotels lack nothing of modern conveniences. Rooms in which Indian arts and crafts are part of the decor also boast plush, four-poster, king-size beds; private bars; DVD and CD players; satellite TVs; and Internet access.

India is known as a destination where the ancient and modern stand side by side, and the feeling that I was straddling two different worlds struck me during my first night at the Oberoi Udaivilas in Udaipur, when a turbaned staff member, dressed in the garb of an ancient raja, all golden threads and tassels, arrived to help me get on the Internet.

"I apologize that the connection is slow here," he said. "But other providers are coming into the market and that will give us better alternatives," he said.

Besides the ancient and the modern, my timeline revealed a great deal in between.

The bathroom at the Udaivilas features an ornate Victorian-style, free-standing bathtub.

The separate shower is glass-enclosed, and broad windows look out onto a private courtyard with a patio and private pool area, and the banks of Lake Pichola.

Two sets of dimmers control combinations of lights, some modeled on old-fashioned gas lanterns and some modern spotlights in the ceiling.

The service at each property was remarkable. More than once I heard the old Indian maxim, "The guest is king," which alludes to a tradition of hospitality that is deeply ingrained in the culture.

When one of the agents on the trip needed to change rooms at the Rajvilas in Jaipur, the staff conducted the transfer of his property using a detailed room diagram so that every article ended up in exactly the same place in the new room as in the previous one.

"My things had been strewn around the room in no particular order," the agent said. "But they were all replaced precisely where I left them.

"Even my newspaper, which I had left on the unmade bed, was placed in exactly the same place, but on top of the made bed in the new room."

Prices for deluxe rooms range from $350 to $475 per night for a double room. Prices for suites range from $800 to $2,000 per night.

For more information or reservations, call (800) 5-OBEROI or visit www.oberoihotels.com. For information on Big Five Tours, visit www.bigfive.com.

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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