TAJ FALAKNUMA Engine Bowli, Falaknuma, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh; 1-866-969-1825; 91-40-6629-8585; tajhotels.com. 60 rooms from $382. No eco-rating.
The theatrics of Falaknuma Palace begin at the gatehouse as I step into an open horse carriage complete with liveried coachmen. We trot up a hill to a staircase lined with ceremonial guards. As I ascend, a surprise shower of pink rose petals softly rains down, carpeting the exterior steps. High up above Hyderabad, the restored Falaknuma Palace is a true beauty, by far the most impressive restoration in the Taj Palaces portfolio.
Built in 1893, Falaknuma was home to the seventh Nizam, the world's richest man in his heyday, ruling over a kingdom the size of France. A stay here gives rare insight into the king who once used the Jacob Diamond as a paperweight. It's the only seven-star hotel in India and is tipped to be the grandest of all palace hotels in the country, having hosted dignitaries such as King George V and Czar Nicholas II.
Piecing together Falaknuma's past glory – restoring the eclectic blend of Italian Renaissance and Tudor architecture, yet retaining the family's mystique – proved the biggest challenge. The palace was a fantasy of 19th-century European style, all the rage in aristocratic India at the time. The suspended staircase, made from cantilevered Italian marble, is lined with goddesses. Heavenly maidens flank the arms of leather sofas and mouldings coated in 24-karat gold. But amid the swirl of rich brocade and cut crystal, what makes you gasp is the colossal 101-seat dining hall. My butler helps me verify the hall's infamous acoustics; we converse from opposite ends of the table, and it's stupefyingly clear.
Falaknuma was built in the shape of a scorpion with two stings spread out as wings to the north. Behind the lavish public rooms lie 60 refreshingly simple guest rooms and suites. Rooms are fitted with contemporary comforts (free WiFi and flat-screen TVs) and classic Taj touches (such as a private butler for every room, silk dressing gowns, vases of jasmine flowers and gold-foil-accented chocolates at turn down). Many rooms have French doors that open onto a lush courtyard overlooking the 400-year-old city from the palace's 610-metre-high perch.
On a windy night, my butler (unprompted) hands me a cup of soy hot chocolate, remembering that I'm off dairy. When in the throes of a seven-star stay, many guests let their inner child rule; they need to feel validated, respected, adored even. Here, the butler-guest connection is more cohort than gopher; my butler became my enabler, bringing me to the pleasures of the palace rather than merely fetching slippers and such.
While Falaknuma may look like a museum, guests are encouraged to enjoy it as their own, albeit under subtle surveillance by palace attendants. Sip rare teas over gossip sessions as they did back in the day in the Jade Room, a mind-blowing matrix of geometric parquet floors and Key-lime-pie-tinted walls. Downstairs, put your digital reader aside and flip through a 1910 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica while sitting in the sixth Nizam's special chair, which was apparently King George V's favourite seat, too. The library, lined with more than 5,000 rare books, is a replica of the one at Windsor Castle. For ultimate high-altitude relaxation, the lagoon swimming pool and Jiva Spa treatment suites overlook cascading gardens and offer an ambience of solitude.
Recreating the amorous relationship between monarchs and their appetite, Falaknuma offers two restaurants featuring gastronomic recipes culled from state-banquet menus. Each dish has been painstakingly replicated. Celeste serves eclectic Mediterranean cuisine, but I much preferred Adaa, with its well-executed variations on local delicacies like patthar kar gosht (lamb marinated for 48 hours) and Hyderabad's famed biryani (spiced rice cooked in a clay pot).
One of the best hotels in the world, Taj Falaknuma Palace exceeds my high expectations, setting a new standard in luxury for India. Despite the over-the-top heirloom surroundings, the highly personalized service makes one feel quite at home.
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