Story and photos by Barbara Penny Angelakis
Senior Travel Features Editor, www.LuxuryWeb.com
HYDERABAD,India -- As we drove up the winding road high above the city, the imposing white-arched main gate of the Taj Falaknuma Palacecame into view. Waiting just beyond the gate were two horse-drawn carriages with coachmen in full regalia, and like royalty before us, our final approach to the palace was in fairytale splendor.
We were greeted in the open courtyard by staff in colorful silk saris, their trains flowing on the breeze. To our left was a manicured lawn where peacocks frolic in the early mornings, spreading their iridescent feathers for the breakfast guests to enjoy over tea and crumpets. And to our right was an imposing double stairway leading to the palace. Climbing the stairs, we were welcomed by rose petals floating down on us.
Inside, we found exquisitely decorated public rooms adorned with Venetian chandeliers, inlaid furniture, handcrafted tapestries, rich French brocades, priceless objects d’art and a world-class collection of jades, all for visitors to enjoy as if they were the personal guests of the Nizams who once lived there.
(More about the royal owners later.)
Touring the palace we saw a striking replica of the library at Windsor Castle (complete with a collection of rare books and manuscripts), a hookah (water pipe) room covered with embossed leather panels and a magnificent banquet room seating 101 guests at the top of a sweeping grand cantilevered staircase.
And of course no ultra deluxe property would be complete without a fitness center including a health club, swimming pool, beauty salon and full service spa.
As you might imagine, the guest rooms and suites are large and beautifully furnished. I stayed in one of the Palace Rooms that enters from a garden path facing out over the Musi River. Luxurious monogrammed towels and robes were plentiful, and every time I left the room it was refreshed and my clothes and papers neatly organized. Instead of the usual chocolate left on the pillow at turn-down service, the evening sweet was a tray of hand-made truffles or a pyramid of freshly baked cookies.
The suites – comprising a living room, dining room, bedroom and baths -- were all individually designed with grand furniture, luxurious fabrics and fine artwork. There are Royal Suites, Grand Royal Suites and Historical Suites, but the ultimate is the Grand Presidential Suite, a duplex unit of tasteful opulence befitting a most royal guest.
All the meals I had at the hotel were excellent without concern as to the safety of consuming fruits and vegetables, or even water from the tap. In addition to breakfast at the Jade Verandah overlooking the peacock lawn, there is the glorious Jade Room where afternoon tea is served amid display cabinets full of precious gems and rare jades. Two award-winning restaurants are at the end of the courtyard gardens: Adaa, featuring traditional Hyderabadi and Deccan fare, and Celeste, an international dining venue where gourmet offerings are served.
History of the palace
Hyderabad, in south-central India, was the wealthiest of India's old-time princely states. Until his death in 1911, it was ruled by a Nizam named Mahbub Ali Khan, said to be one of the richest – if not THE richest – men on the planet. It was believed that his wealth exceeded all of the other 565 maharajas and rajas of the princely states put together. He was the owner not only of the fabulous Koh-i-Noor diamond that currently rests in the English crown, but also of the massive, 183-carat Jacob diamond (which he used it as a paperweight on his desk).
Falaknuma was built in the late 1800s as the magnum opus of the Nizam's brother-in-law and prime minister of the state, Sir Vikar-ul-Umra. It was designed in the shape of a scorpion, Sir Vikar’s zodiac sign, with its claws creating the imposing Italian marble double-staircase entrance. The body contained the harem (woman’s quarters), and the tail was a domed structure made to resemble the scorpion’s stinger.
Falaknuma literally means “mirror of the skies” -- and to be sure it was the most ornate and opulent home in all of Hyderabad. But pride goeth before a fall because Sir Vikar almost went bankrupt in his effort to build his extravagant home.
As the story goes, Sir Vikar gave a grand ball to show off his home and once the Nizam saw the building he coveted it for his own. As a loyal subject, Sir Vikar had no choice but to gulp and proffer it as a gift. The Nizam accepted the gift, but in courtly fashion reimbursed Sir Vikar for its cost.
The Nizam and later owners of the palace hosted many of the world's most powerful business titans and royalty of the likes of England's King Edward VIII, Nicholas II (the last Russian tsar) and Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (whose assassination triggered World War I).
The palace lay unused since the 1950s and was in a state of disrepair when the Royal Family of Hyderabad leased it to the Taj Group of Hotels, Resorts and Palaces. Her Highness Princess Esra Jah personally supervised the 10-year restoration, and on Nov. 1, 2010, it opened with 60 rooms and suites.
This magnificent palace-turned-hotel again welcomes all that claim royalty…if only in their hearts. For me, who like most little girls dreamed of becoming a princess, it was easy to pretend I finally made it.
Getting there: Among international airlines serving India and Hyderabad is Jet Airways, www.jetairways.com.
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