Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fabulous New Exhibit at San Francisco's Superb Neo-Classical Museum

'Cartier and America' exhibit opens at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Through April 18, 2010

On December 16, I attended the opening night gala event for 'Cartier and America'. This new exhibit, which celebrates a swathe of twentieth-century design trends, also demonstrates the extravagance and opulence of custom-crafted Cartier design. It's an elegant, vivid, surprising and thoroughly entertaining show. It is exclusive to the Legion of Honor.

'Cartier and America' was magnificently selected, rounded up, and planned by the museum's decorative arts curator Martin Chapman—who also wrote insightful accompanying notes, and produced the excellent book that accompanies this razzle-dazzling entertainment.

The exhibit covers jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, Gloria Swanson and Elizabeth Taylor, along with Marion Davies and Grace Kelly, naturally—but it's the clocks and rich accouterments for clients like Marjorie Meriwether Post that are the surprise hit of this wide-ranging show.
Cartier's 1970s-era Crocodile gold necklace is set with 1,023 brilliant-cut fancy intense yellow diamonds weighing 60.02 carats intotal, two navette-shaped emerald cabochons, 1,060 emeralds weighing 66.86 carats in total, and two ruby cabochons /By Nick Welsh for the Cartier Collection © Cartier

The major glam necklaces and animalistic bracelets and bigger-the-better engagement rings are divine—and they are fetchingly displayed in all their shimmering glory. No gilded leopard, coral owl, articulated crocodile, cabochon cuff link, or social essential for the El Morocco set, has been neglected.

Elizabeth Taylor (in her heyday) is shown wearing the luscious diamond earrings and pendants Richard Burton showered upon her.

Elizabeth Taylor, in 1958, wears a Cartier necklace /© Photofest

Grace Kelly's finest sapphires, diamonds and pearls are on display, along with beautiful photographs of her wearing them. Many pieces are from Cartier's own archives—others are from private collections and have never been on display until this show.

The subtext—well, one of them—is that newly wealthy tycoons and their wives and female companions spent a lot of time at Cartier, dithering over diamonds, sizing up the sapphires, eyeing the emeralds and ruminating over the rubies.

Gloria Swanson's pair of articulated crystal bracelets with diamond insets are beautiful lit in a case that allows a viewer to see all effulgent angles. Much-married grandes dames were attracted to men who were knowledgeable about tiara settings and clocks with invisible machinations.

It's the clocks that are perhaps the most bewitching. Elaborate set-pieces, with crystal clocks set on the backs of jade elephants, along with pendant clocks and fantasy clocks with precious stones and enamelwork ornamenting their framework, are entrancing, sheer delight. I can't wait to see them again.
1947 Cartier Bib necklace crafted from platinum, 18-carat and 20-carat gold, a heart-shaped faceted amethyst, twenty-seven emerald-cut amethysts, an oval faceted amethyst, turquoise cabochons and baguette-cut diamonds /By Nick Welsh for the Cartier Collection © Cartier

Another thrill here is to see the Duchess of Windsor's parures, and to read the notes about her endless 'fittings'. Gazing at her brooches and pins and bracelets, it's easy to imagine lives (and they are all spelled out and illustrated here in the vitrines) spent in this idle but important (to their social scene) pursuit.

Martin Chapman does not hold back from illustrating the twentieth-century panoply of 'rich people's pastime' jewelry, travel cases, watches, gems, minaudieres, cigarette cases, card-holders, dressing table adornments and tiaras (la maharajah's treasure chest of those), as well as crowns, diamond pendants, and thrills for every poitrine.

The courtyard of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco

And if you miss this show, you must plan to be in San Francisco this summer when a thrilling collection of the creme de la creme of paintings from the Musee d'Orsay decamps from Paris and lands in California for six months. The Musee d'Orsay will be under renovation for some time, so the brilliant director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, John Buchanan, negotiated this coup for the city. A second show—equally fabulous—will follow next year. Imagine all your favorite paintings—Impressionists, Post-Impressionists, French classical artists at the Legion of Honor.

I can't wait. See you at the gala opening night.

California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Lincoln Park
34th Avenue and Clement Street
San Francisco, CA 94121

Tuesday, December 22, 2009



Lost in Luxury in Rajasthan
Destination: Amanbagh near the town of Ajabgarh, in the region of Alwar, Rajasthan

On the first steps of my India journey, described in the previous two features, I arrived in New Delhi and spent a quiet and meditative sojourn at the Aman New Delhi.

A few days later, I am comfortably seated in the back seat of the hotel’s taupe Ambassador, the iconic Indian-made vehicle, maneuvering through camels and cows on the road back to the airport.

On the 35-minute Delhi to Jaipur flight (I’m the only Westerner aboard) we head southeast across the drought-dry hills of northern India.

At four in the afternoon, departing Jaipur, I’m buckled up in the back seat of a four-wheel drive, heading two hours north into the Aravalli Hills to the village of Ajabgarh, and Amanbagh.

This is one of my favorite road trips. Quickly we negotiate away from Jaipur, through dusty market towns and rough-and-tumble farming villages, over new toll bridges, going deeper and deeper into remote valleys and along tractor-tracks and through allees of shady trees. After an hour, we pass young girls in colorful skirts herding goats along the side of the road, around dusty gypsy encampments, over dry riverbeds, and beyond vivid green fields of flowering mustard.

Finally, from a gravel trail, we turn into the Amanbagh driveway. Over a river, and around green carpets of lawn, I see the Mughal rooflines and labyrinthine architecture of its impeccably groomed compound. Design, down to the Anglo-Indian chairs and intricate lanterns, is by the great Paris based architect Ed Tuttle (a former San Franciscan).

Amanbagh resort (the name means peaceful garden) is sited on the verdant grounds of the former tiger hunting retreat of an 18th-century maharajah. With feathery palm trees, gnarled eucalyptus trees, vivid bougainvillea, mango trees, and stands of flowering neem trees, the landscape makes a natural and graceful setting for the architecture.

Within a walled enclosure and, in monsoon season, surrounded by a lake, Amanbagh’s tranquil green setting is in dramatic contrast to the pale taupe terrain of the surrounding hills.

As my driver pulls to a halt, co-managers Robyn Bickford (who spent three decades in the New Zealand diplomatic corps) and her husband Manav Garewal, greet me. Namaste!

A young woman in a red sari gracefully choreographs the lovely ceremony of welcome. Marigolds draped around my neck, I walk in a kind of trance through fretwork archways and up and further up limestone stairways, to my terrace suite. Across the treetops I can see sunlight streaking across the hills.

I’ve stayed at Amanbagh several times, but every time it leaves me breathless. I linger over every detail. The light seems more intense. The air is fragrant with frangipani.

In the silence, I can hear palm trees rustling and parrots chattering. In the evening, a village musician plays haunting melodies on the flute and the harmonium. It’s easy to go into a fugue state.

I vow to lie in the sun, read, write, meditate, do nothing, but find myself planning a visit to the nearby Barakhambi temple for evening prayers, exploring towns in the valley beyond, tracking a 17th-century abandoned city, and inspecting the resort’s organic kitchen garden with the resort’s chef, Guy, originally from Christchurch, New Zealand. He grows heirloom lettuces and fenugreek, as well as red roses and marigolds that scent guest rooms.

I read in the library, take a light lunch. Even dishes like dhal and rice are journeys into the flavors of Rajasthan. (Indians are mystified by vegetarian Westerners. ‘Are you a vegetarian at home?’ they query, in the nicest manner. ‘Yes.’)

I gaze at the pool. I think about swimming.

Slow down, the air seems to whisper.

Days at Amanbagh take on a certain calm rhythm.

Temple bells ring out in the cool morning darkness. I could take a yoga class, but as the sun casts a pale glow across garden, I set out on a trek up-valley.

“The Aravalli Hills are the oldest in creation, more than 6 million years old,” said Balbur, my cheerful trekking guide. We are exploring the maharajah’s hunting grounds. Friendly dogs follow us as we take pathways through wheat fields, and meet local farmers and their families, including a five-year-old rapscallion ('What is your country?' he pipes) dressed in his blue school uniform. Balbur and I stop, perch on a rocky outcrop, and survey the countryside. From his backpack he serves a flourish of chai and the most delicious cardamon-scented cookies, fresh from the hotel’s kitchen. Sweet. I’m slowing down.

It’s apparent that in the few years since my first visit, when Amanbagh opened, the region has become more prosperous. This farmer now has a tractor (an ox used to pull the plow) and mud houses have solar panels on thatched roofs. There are wells, and signs written on walls states officially that the children have been inoculated against smallpox. Scrubby fields, victims of persistent drought, are now bright green. It’s all good.

In the evening, just as darkness falls, I am driven to the remote Barakhambi temple for evening devotions. I kneel alone on the marble floor as orange-turbaned priests sing prayers, cymbals and gongs clang loudly, and a pantheon of giant brightly colored statues of Shiva and Parvati and Ganesh (remover of obstacles) gaze down, smiling. A French couple arrives, but they depart back to the hotel hastily when they discover temple rats skittering across the floor. The rats (who traditionally accompany god Ganesh) are a centuries-old part of this authentic Indian devotional scene. They’re holy rats. They brushed across my feet as I followed the priests around the central Shiva shrine, in a ritual symbolizing circumambulating the universe. I was not alarmed. I love India.

Hotel designer Ed Tuttle styled Amanbagh’s dome-topped pavilions, elegant terraces, outdoor stairways, and languid pools after the fanciful and evocative architecture of the Moghul era.

Amanbagh’s cupolas, pergolas and shaded verandahs pay homage to Rajasthan’s golden age. Tuttle’s poetic interpretation of a grand haveli, or nobleman’s palace, use of local sandstone and honed marble for the walls and floors, with hand-carved period details. The entry hall, elaborate stair-rails and lavish interiors incorporate floors of softly hued pink marble, and inner courtyards of pale smooth sandstone.

"In the evenings, the courtyards are swept and sprinkled with water and colorful carpets are spread on a raised platform. The illumination of candles and lamps begins. Poets start the recitation of sonnets, and dancers entertain the guests. The sounds emanating from the bow on the strings of the satangi are like arrows piercing the heart. The music makes guests listless with ecstacy."— Excerpted from ‘White Moghuls’ by William Dalrymple.

Amanbagh is a very secluded retreat. This region of noble Alwar is the real thing, so I drive four miles in an open Jeep into the hills and climb the stairs of a deserted crenellated fort, explore deserted remnants of Rajasthan’s mythical history, and walk silently through the town of Ajabgarh. The hotel sends me off for these excursions with picnic baskets full of potato samosas, as well as lovely Indian delicacies scented with jasmine, pretty pastries, and copious bottles of water.

Along the main road, women in saffron and crimson saris, slender and elegant as Gaultier models, return from gathering dry branches for their home fires. As a stranger comes into view, they draw their saris closer to conceal their faces. Traditionally, women should not be seen by anyone but family. Stacks of fresh green grass (to feed their cows) and wild outcrops of dry twigs are perched atop their heads, posture perfect. To see these lovely hard-working women, so graceful as they go about their daily labor, is worth the trip to India.

I later return to the peace of Amanbagh, my eyes full of the beautiful present, my brain alive with images of sprightly children and timeless villages, and days of promise ahead for India.

As I leave the following morning, the hotel’s sitar player M.D. Tajkhan and Raghuveer Singh, a tabla master, are seated on the roof terrace performing repetitive, hypnotic ragas, celebrating and praising the day, thanking all the gods of creation. I am grateful for this day and many others.

"Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed. Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well." — Mahatma Gandhi

Hotel images courtesy of Amanbagh. Used with permission of Aman Resorts. For further information: www.amanresorts.com

Thursday, December 17, 2009


Just Back from New Delhi and Jaipur:

Exploring the chic new Aman New Delhi hotel

I landed in New Delhi at 7.40am.

It’s late November. Morning light has not yet worked its way through the cool gray fog and wood-fire smoke that envelops the airport. Trees and traffic and darting people are mere wisps in tones of pale grey. But still, India looks like India—mysterious, timeless, and to me very welcoming and thrilling. I love India.

My driver from the Aman New Delhi hotel is waiting amid the airport multitudes (with a wooden Aman sign, how chic). I am instantly enveloped in his quiet efficiency as he opens the passenger door and his assistant swings my luggage into the trunk of the hotel’s classic thirties-style pale taupe Ambassador.

We move slowly through the throng, and into the leafy avenues. Women in muted winter saris muffled with grey and brown shawls pass by purposefully.

I’ve been in transit at this point for about 25 hours, from my front door in San Francisco, with a quick stop in Munich, and then onward to India. I slept all the way. (See my ‘Jet Leg Survival’ plan in earlier June posts.)

On the map: I am in Northern India, west of the Gangetic Plain, and on the western banks of the sacred Yamuna River.

‘Ma’am, did you have a pleasant flight?” said the handsome assistant, seated in the front passenger seat, left side, British style, offering me a bottle of water. Yes, thank you, to both.

Delhi city streets pass in a ghostly blur of upright bicycles, holy cows, chugging Tata trucks, ragged children, rusty buses with turbaned passengers hanging out the windows, camels, handsome gardens and fountains, darting monkeys, a glimpse or two of temples and monuments.

Inside the taupe leather-seated Ambassador, all is calm. Finally, the assistant phones the hotel to report we expect to arrive in three minutes.

We turn from Lodhi Road into the monumental stone territory of the Aman New Delhi. The hotel opened earlier this year, and I have seen only one or two photos, so I don’t quite know what to expect, how it will feel.

My first impression of the hotel is that an austere and highly refined architectural sensibility is at work here. Pared down and uncompromising, the walls of honed ivory-colored stone are somehow reminiscent of the pale, perfect, pure exterior walls of the Taj Mahal. And yet this new Aman is from another aesthetic, style sensibility, and century entirely. It’s Meier-modern, and feels logical, harmonious, solid but ethereal, intelligent, understated. It’s perfectly serene on this 41 deg F late autumn morning, as it will be on the scorching 112 deg F days that suffocate Delhi in July's monsoon season.

The hotel architect and designer is Australian Kerry Hill, based in Singapore and Western Australia. He is a master of his craft. It feels India modern, but chic and 21st-century. Delhi without a trace of nostalgia.

At the front entrance a group of handsome men in taupe tunics take the luggage, General Manager Henry Gray welcomes me, and I am swept inside the hotel, past a large carved black stone water basin filled in which float brilliant orange marigolds.

My floor butler silently guides me to my suite, along an enfilade of silent hallways. In the suite, a graceful bedroom has an entirely efficient series of adjacent wardrobes, luggage stands and dressing tables. Everything in the right place. The scent of fresh tuberoses wafts into the air. I sign a document. That’s my check-in. How polished, how thoughtful. Bliss.

I am here. I am in India.

The butler returns with a glass of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. This, for me, is the ultimate Indian luxury. There are many others.

On the floor beside the bed are the most comfortable boiled wool booties in taupe. They look Bhutanese.

And over beyond the desk and through a tall shuttered door, is my terrace. There’s a restful view of gardens and trees and Hamuyan’s Tomb in the foggy distance. Wait, there’s a plunge pool, heated. A cantilevered chaise-longue.

Breakfast arrives. English Breakfast tea, of course, and wheat toast. House-made orange marmalade. Bitter/sweet. I read the Times of India Crunch. Linger.

But I have things to do. The hotel has arranged a trip to review the great architecture of Lutyens’s imperial Delhi, then onward to the marigold-wreathed flower market, and to Chandni Chowk, that raucous, mediaeval, shrieking and over-stimulating market with saris and jewels and fabrics, and dhoti-clad characters in twirls of turbans, and rickety bicycles and boot-legged electricity. What century is this? ‘Madam, fine silks’, ‘Madam, we can make you a jacket’, ‘Silver bracelets, Madam’, ‘Come, Madam, fine hand-woven cotton”. I smile. Next time.

“When I first arrived in New Delhi in 1984, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul-de-sacs, feeling the houses close in around me. In particular, what remained of the 18th-century palace of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah II, the Red Fort of the Great Mughals, kept drawing me back. I would often slip in there with a book and spend whole afternoons in the shade of a cool pavilion. Delhi’s relationship with its past continues to intrigue me.” —From 'The Last Mughal’ by William Dalrymple (2006).

Old Delhi. Chandni Chowk. It’s a visual upload this morning, not commerce. Back to the hotel spa for my massage. If I were to dream of my ideal spa, this would be it. Muted light, softest sounds of bells and Indian chanting. A masseuse from Mizoram. Dark rooms, dark woods, out of time and out of mind.

It’s two hours of Thai massage. I’m never leaving.

Privacy is perhaps the most precious travel luxury. I never see another guest on this stay. Aman-style, this feels like a private residence (if only). There are no signs, staff greet me by name, it is all very discreet.

There’s time for a frisky and fresh organic salad and more pomegranate juice before friends send their driver to gather me up and take me out to their Farmhouse (actually a luscious new house an hour from the city center in a tree-lined estate, once surrounded by countryside.) Afternoon fades into evening, and I return to the hotel with friends long after midnight.

Architect, Kerry Hill on the design of Aman New Delhi:

“We approach all of our work with a constant design philosophy. Spending time in another culture makes one aware of both the similarities and the differences.”

“We reference past building traditions through suggestion and association rather than replication, and through the reinterpretation of indigenous building forms as opposed to mimicry.”

“We prefer to build upon what is there and to contemporize our understanding of what it can be. I think of our design for Aman New Delhi as being current, but filtered through a sieve of traditional values.”

Over the time of my stay, I discovered, on request, that the hotel is set on 6 acres, has two wings, nine floors, thirty-nine rooms and twenty-eight suites, and that there’s a panoply of restaurants, a hair salon, a lap pool, plunge pools, jaali screens to modulate light and intense outdoor heat.

The décor by Hill is at first hit reminiscent of Christian Liaigre, with the strong silhouette of dark woods, a counterpoint of moody muddy green hand-woven wool carpets, no pattern, wooden window and door shutters, and hits of brass. But the sensibility is more modern Anglo-Indian, with dark exotic wood wall cabinets, bronze bowls filled with pomegranates, stone bowls with fresh tuberose blossoms, muted tones throughout, everything cohesively modern Indian. All furniture was locally crafted.

It’s Aman’s first city property, as it happens. They have taken the hotel-as-private-retreat concept that they’ve done so well in remote and dreamy places like Bali and Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and brought it to this urban setting. Even with the cavalcade of Indian life rushing outside, the hotel feels hushed, cathedral-like, and ultra-luxe.

I’ve stayed in many wonderful and captivating and highly individual hotels over time. Aman New Delhi was a rare visit: deeply private, modern but with a sense of tradition and formality, and with intelligent service.

I had mentioned to my butler that I liked the Indian flute music playing in my suite when I arrived. He burned a disk and left it ready for my departure. This dreamy weave of flute notes is now on my iPod.

Today it’s onward to Jaipur and then Ajabgarh and the Aravalli hills.

I left the hotel in the same taupe Ambassador, feeling like a maharani with my handsome driver and cheerful assistant.

They had asked me if there was anything I would like for the drive. I said, slightly whimsically, ‘English breakfast tea’.

Halfway to the airport, the assistant turned and asked quietly, “When would you like your tea, Madam?”

“Well, this looks lovely here,” I improvised, and we passed an equestrian school, with perfectly postured young women exercising their thoroughbred horses. The driver pulled into a side street near the equestrian ring. Wordlessly, as if he did this every day (he did not) he took out a wicker hamper from the trunk, and set forth a teacup and saucer, milk, sugar, a Thermos of tea, and a teapot. He poured the hot tea into the pot, and poured me a perfectly fresh brew. I sat there in the shade, time out of time, watching the riders, sipping, writing Indian couplets in my head. Singing, perhaps.

Somersaults in my brain.

Tea completed, he packed up the hamper and we continued on, unhurriedly, sedately, to the airport. I can’t recall a more pleasant ride to any airport.

Aman New Delhi is a dramatic property. And it’s the thoughtful, low-key and cheerful staff that takes it to another level.

I can’t wait to return.

Aman New Delhi
Lodhi Road
New Delhi
phone from US 800-477-9180.
Rates from $550

Hotel images courtesy of Amanresorts, used with permission.

Next week My Passage to India Part 3:
Amanbagh in Ajabgarh

Monday, December 7, 2009


Just Back from Glorious Delhi and Jaipur:
Shocks for the Senses, Glittering Jewels and Glamorous Palaces Are All the Raj

Follow me on this series of features to discover a rich heritage of gems, palace hotels, temples, bazaars, silks, gilt-edged books, and modern chic style. And I’ll be introducing The Pencil Project.

“Pink is the navy blue of India”
—Diane Vreeland, Vogue editor-in-chief, after a visit to Jaipur in the sixties

I have just returned from a vivid and fragrant and over-whelming visit to my favorite region of India, Rajasthan, in the northeast. I flew in to Delhi, stayed at the chic, ultra-private new Aman New Delhi hotel, then headed south into historic and romantic Rajasthan and the city of Jaipur. Then on to remote Ajabgarh to head back centuries into village life.

I stayed at the Taj Rambagh Palace hotel (formerly the residence of Gayatri Devi, Maharani of Jaipur), and later at Amanbagh resort, one of the most tranquil and elegant hotels in India. I’ll tell everything about them next week.

I love India. I love the intensity of every waking experience, and the clamor and cavalcade of each moment.

Jeweled elephants, maharajas, monkeys on the roof, camels, clanging temple bells, palaces, holy men, sari’d beauties, gypsies in spangled skirts, wandering sacred cows, silks, and spills of sapphires are just the beginning.

As I step into the excitement and drama of each day, I’m captured by the bright refracted light, the hullabaloo, the jangle of sitars and tabla drumming, and the life and vibrancy that swirl around the streets and bazaars. The air itself seems charged and sensual, thick with history. I’m in another universe, planet India.

I promised my friend Ayoosh in Jaipur that I would not write about ‘heat and dust’. She watched me writing notes in my Moleskine note book one afternoon and said dryly, ‘Oh, Diane, heat and dust?” That’s what everyone writes about India and it’s such a cliché, missing the beauty and glory. And I promised her, no, I was looking further. Heat and dust are the least of it.

I’ve been traveling to India since I was a college student. And still, the variegated vigor, the clamor, the incessant bustle of mediaeval street scenes and clatter and color take me by surprise.

Imagine visiting a jewelry shop—to be shown a maharajah’s treasure trove of diamond-encrusted bracelets, emerald necklaces with stones the size of walnuts, and earrings of dazzling rose-colored spinals that could have been worn by queens and empresses. Or Hot Pink, the atmospheric shop founded by my friends Munnu Kasliwal and Marie-Helene de Taillac (both jewelers), with dozens of cashmere wraps and a kaleidoscope of quilts and sequined dresses and embroidered pillows.

I wander into Tripolia Bazaar, with swirls of silken saris and groups of women shopping for their finery. Girls in Galliano-esque saris flicker past, gold nose rings and bracelets shimmering in the sun.

Black kites and crows fly in the pale sky just out the window. On the street below, men in cotton dhotis (think Ghandi) ride past on rusty upright bicycles (very raj-y), and four-year-old gypsy girls with wild hair and ragged clothes do cartwheels in the mid-day traffic, leaping through the throng to tap at the car window, shrieking ‘madam, madam’, and tapping, hauntingly, at the car window with their little fingers. I can’t think about it or I would start crying.

Imagine driving helter-skelter thought teaming traffic, perched in a rickety cycle rickshaw. And later the same day, I am driving sedately at barely 20 miles an hour in the cocooned comfort of a black 1937 Daimler, formerly the favored ride of the maharani. That’s Jaipur.

Vintage collection at the Rambagh Palace hotel, Maharaja entrance.

One moment, I am sipping a rose-flavored lassi (a cool yoghurt drink served in a terra cotta cup) and the next I’m in another century in a fabric bazaar, with saffron and ruby and indigo and shocking pink sequined silks flung onto the floor as groups of women select textiles for saris and wedding dress.

Peacocks shriek and cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and turmeric scent every waking moment. Horns honk incessantly in the aggressive battle of motorcycles, iconic Ambassador taxis, people, cows, stray dogs, camel carts, bicycles, motor rickshaws, pedal rickshaws, and even the occasional pony carts. Women in pink and blue saris float along dusty sidewalks. A cow or two (or three) wander into the melee. Palaces gleam serenely in perfectly groomed gardens. Rythmic drumming throbs in the air. In the darkness, a spangled and gold-turbaned bridegroom appears on a white horse, followed by an oompah band in Victorian uniforms jangled with gold braid. Here, nothing is mundane.

I once spent months exploring all corners of India—from Delhi and the Thar Desert to the beaches of Goa, north to Calcutta (as it was then named) and far south to Pondicherry (formerly a French colony) and Madras, and up to the Himalaya, and into the center to visit the Ajanta and Ellora caves (third-century Buddhist temples).

Rajasthanis love adornment. Jaipur, with centuries of tradition, making jewels for royalty (Indian and European) is now the world’s center of precious stone cutting and jewelry crafting. It is also the place to find exquisite shocking pink, turquoise and amethyst-colored sari silks with gold-thread borders, as well as traditional tribal silver jewelry, armfuls of sparkling bracelets for the princely sum of $1 each, dresses by India’s top fashion designers, and Gem Palace Indo-Russian-style diamond chandelier earrings.

To luxuriate in the treasures of Jaipur, visitors may spend mornings at the City Palace (home of the current maharaja and his family) or the Amber Fort (which makes Versailles seem like a country cottage). Then it’s on to lunch on the marble terrace at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, and finding armfuls of books on Indian jewels and costumes. A driver confidently enters the fray in the hunt to find sandals and silks in the cacophony of Johari Bazaar. Late afternoon hours are whiled away at the Gem Palace with perhaps a cup of spiced tea for energy.

Jaipur is a world-class destination for precious gems, antique silver, cashmere wraps, handblocked textiles, and modern takes on traditional finery

Gem Palace
This historic jewelry establishment was founded in the eighteenth century to custom design for the rarified whims and ceremonial demands of maharajas and their maharanis. The brothers and cousins of the Kasliwal family now continue this illustrious tradition of connoisseurship. The Gem Palace’s ravishing emerald and ruby necklaces and diamond rings have been avidly collected by crowned heads of Europe, Middle-Eastern Sheiks, the Kennedys and the Agnellis, as well as devoted fans like Pierce Brosnan, Goldie Hawn, and Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

In discreet, antiques-filled rooms are pretty tourmaline rings for $300 and Burmese ruby or sapphire necklaces for stratospheric prices. There are also rose-cut diamond rings, strings of tourmalines, chic aqua rings. You won’t leave empty-handed.
Mirza Ismail Road, 011-91-141-237-4175. www.gempalacejaipur.com

Hot Pink
The brilliant Jaipur jeweler Munnu Kasliwal and French jewelry designer Marie-Helene de Taillac opened Hot Pink boutique recently to sell an exclusive array of modern India-produced fashions and interior accessories. It’s set in an airy garden pavilion. Their approach: chic dresses with Indian flair. Fans include Ashley and Allegra Hicks. Hot Pink has been such in instant success that Kasliwal and de Taillac recently opened a second boutique at Amber Palace. Photo above, Marie-Helene de Taillac photographed at Amber Fort for her current exhibit in Paris, at Le Bon Marche. If you're in Paris, you'll see this poster (below) at the store and on bus shelters. Amazing.
In the garden, Narain Niwas Palace Hotel, Kanota Bagh, Narain Singh Road, 011-91-141-5108-932

Johari Bazaar
Traditional indigo, tangerine, chrome yellow, and vivid acid green saris, so modern, and $10 embroidered sandals, strings of turquoise and aquamarines, and gold-embroidered skirts are on display, in a glorious jumble of sari shops, jewelers, candies, and sugarcoated pastries.. Afterwards, take an auto-rickshaw to the Palace of the Winds, one of the most romantic buildings in the world.

The Book Shop
After lunch or dinner at the Rambagh Palace Hotel, it is a favorite treat to wander into the Gem Palace boutique to buy aquamarine or emerald necklaces. Next door is N.K. Jain’s impressive bookshop with an in-depth library of reference books on Indian culture. The key: for approximately $15, any book can be handbound in brown, green or red leather and its title hand stamped in gold on the spine and cover. Mr. Jain ships.
Rambagh Palace Hotel, 011-91-141-238- 5030. Call ahead for hours which may be somewhat eccentric.

Royal palaces, over-the-top antiques, a Maharajah Suite, and a chic new hotel in a verdant valley are among top choices.

One of the most alluring new hotels and gardens anywhere, the new Amanbagh resort by Amanresorts was created in collaboration with the brilliant designer, Ed Tuttle, a former San Franciscan. Set in a remote, verdant valley in the Aravalli Hills, Amanbagh is a tour de force of romantic Mughal-style architecture crafted in Indian limestone. Superbly run by an international staff, the hotel offers secluded suites with private pools, a spa, and a world-class restaurant, presenting dishes crafted from vegetables and fruit grown in the hotel’s own organic garden. Excursions to nearby Mughal forts, historic villages, and remote archaeological sites are highlights of a visit to this magical place. From $550.
Ajabgarh, Alwar, Rajasthan, 011-91-1465-223-333. www.amanresorts.com

Rambagh Palace Hotel
Sleeping in a maharani’s bedroom? Reclining in a maharaja’s sitting room? It’s possible at this historic luxury hotel, which was the former residence of the fabled Maharajah and Maharani of Jaipur. Jackie Kennedy, Queen Elizabeth, lords and ladies of the British Raj all visited in the days when the Maharani was one of the world’s great beauties, and the Maharaja was a champion polo player. Following a recent renovation, the palace shines elegantly. And should the maharani’s suite not be available, a suite overlooking the garden, where peacocks preen and strut in the early morning, revived royal glamour in style. From $350.
Bhawani Singh Road, 011-91-141-221-1919, rambagh.jaipur@tajhotels.com, www.tajhotels.com

I love dining on the terrace at the Rambagh Palace and watching a performance of Indian folkloric dances. Beautifully presented. And it’s a healthy treat, in the late afternoon, to line up at one of the Lassiwallah stands on M.I. Road to get a lassi, fragrant with roses and honey. I choose to eat only vegetarian cuisine. It feels right in India, spiritually and for peace of mind. Indian vegetarian cuisine is surprisingly varied, beautifully prepared, and light.

Indian cuisine in Jaipur can be exceptional, with complex spices and subtle flavors. Rather than succumb to mediocre European dishes, it’s best to request vegetarian specialties. I love the Rajasthani specialty sugary candies spiked with pistachios, and dozens of festive deserts, many of them topped with a flourish of gold or silver leaf.

Rambagh Palace Hotel
There could be fewer places more serene or beautiful for lunch or dinner than this hotel’s terrace, with its expansive view over the hotel’s lawns, fountains, and colorful floral borders. In the evening, the Jaipur chic set stops for drinks at the hotel’s famous Polo Bar, and to watch Rajasthani dancers and musicians performing. On the menu: Indian vegetarian dishes. If you’re lucky, you can have your fortune told by a gentleman who sets up his table at the entrance to the fabled terrace.

Laxmi Mishtan Bhandar
(LMB) restaurant is in the throng of Johari Bazaar. A uniformed and turbaned doorman will greet. It’s an essential stop for its vegetarian-only dishes, and for the witty retro Indo-modern seventies-style décor. To order: samosas, Biryani rice, and a Rajasthani Thali, a selection of spicy vegetables, roti, and fragrant rice. capers, chutneys and pickles. Assam tea or a fresh lime and soda are the perfect accompaniment. Afterwards, stop at the company’s rainbow-array pasty counters for to-go Paneer Ghewar, a fresh honeycomb pastry treat soaked in unctuous treacle.
Johari Bazaar, 011-91-141-2565-844.

Lassiwallah (there are several claiming to be the original) are the only-in-Jaipur take-out counters for fresh lassi, that traditional cooling yoghurt drink that becomes rather addictive for a pick-me-up on a warm afternoon. The favorite: smooth and creamy lassi flavored with honey and rosewater and served in a terra cotta goblet. (Alto salt-flavored.)
Mirza Ismail Road (no street number or phone).

Samode Palace Hotel
In remote Samode, north of Jaipur. This privately-owned hotel has poetic, exquisite early 19th-century painted interiors and a fortress-like exterior. It’s romantic but far from town (and shopping) so we suggest a Sunday jaunt for lunch. To view the mirrored Sheesh Mahal and romantic frescos of the Durbar Hall, reserve a tablel, enjoy a light lunch, then request a hotel guide to offer a tour of the historic rooms. Of special note: the turquoise and white fresco rooms, intact since 1818.
Samode, 011-91-1423-240-014.

Amer 1135 AD
I attended the opening of this stunningly dramatic and opulent restaurant, which perches in the top roofline and ramparts of the historic Amber Palace. The name of the restaurant commemorates the date when the palace first opened. The decor was inspired by the glittering mirrored romance of the Sheesh Mahal, in the palace. On the first level, guests may enjoy lunch or dinner. On the ornate upper level, open terraces offer glorious evening views. Late into the night, tabla and sitar players create a musical panorama reminiscent of the best of Ravi Shankar. Traditional Indian cuisine.
Jaleb Chowk, Amber Palace,141-2530-148/49.

Join me in Part 2 of my series, Passage to India. Next week we go all the way with Aman, visiting the ultra-luxe new Aman New Delhi and venturing out to Ajabgarh to stay at the alluring Amanbagh.

See you there!