My trip to India may have come Taj Mahal not included, but it never felt like there was a catch. I skipped the major tourist sights and left totally satisfied.
I lived two months on the subcontinent, mostly as an expatriate. I went out to clubs, bars, and restaurants. I went shopping and went to the salon for spa treatments. I went to house parties, met and made friends with Delhites. This wasn't a trip planned by Frommer's or out of Lonely Planet. I went to India with the intention to experience a different culture and hopefully learn more about the world and myself in the process.
During my time in New Delhi, I lived with my best friend in the leafy, upscale enclave of Defence Colony. We arrived during the hottest time of the year, when the weather was hitting 110 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, making it too hot to leave the house. The extent of my activity for the first three weeks was crossing the street to the market with sweat running down my forehead. While not a remarkable shopping destination, the best thing in the Defence Colony market was Salon 52, a no-frills salon and spa equivalent to the Korean nail places in New York. The owner is a friendly man who lived for eighteen years in Chicago and loves talking about America. Life-changing head massages are offered for $6 and hour-long full body massages for $25.
As the weather started to cool down into the low one hundreds, I had the urge to buy clothes after living out of a suitcase for a month. While tourists are often guided towards the pricy shops in Khan Market, I headed first for Central Market in Lajpat Nagar - mostly because it was near my gym and I had stumbled upon it on my way home one day. If you can brave the sea of people, some of the best authentic Indian clothes shopping can be done there in any of the stands that line the winding bazaar streets.
Another day I took an auto ride to Sarojni Nagar, an export market that sells overstocked and rejected items from brands like H&M, Nike, and even Gucci (they probably don't want you to know that). Not finding exactly what I wanted (you have to have the patience of a vintage shopper), I went to the modern mall Emporio in Vasant Kunj, which houses designer brands like Tom Ford, Dior, Jimmy Choo and Louis Vuitton. It's India's only all-luxury mall and the fact that you had to pass by slums to get there was not lost on me.
Nightlife in Delhi is not the city's strong suit. For one, most clubs close at 2 a.m. and the time until then is generally not pleasant, clubs are overcrowded and ask high cover charges. For a cool scene, Blue Bar in the Taj Palace Hotel is a favorite hangout of fashion editors and designers. I attended Delhi Couture Fashion Week during my time in India, and after the shows, everyone would come to this chic (but very expensive) bar upstairs to smoke cigarettes outside on couches overlooking the pool.
In terms of accommodation, the good can be very good and the bad can be very bad. Two of the best places I visited were The Manor Hotel and the Leela Palace Kempinski, each offering a different view and experience within Delhi.
The Manor Hotel is a boutique hotel situated in an appropriately named placed called New Friends Colony. A fifteen-room oasis away from the frenetic noisiness of Delhi, it's close enough to places of interest but far enough away to enjoy quiet tranquility that is a rare commodity in the capital city. It is also home to one of the city's best restaurants, Indian Accent. I had the impression while I was there that it would be a great place for a romantic week, spent in the comfortable seclusion of the hotel, enjoying the plush king sized beds and enjoying the complimentary breakfast room service.
The Leela Palace Kempinski, opened only seven months ago in the embassy area of the city could easily replace the Taj Mahal as a wonder of the world. From its luxury car fleet (that includes a Rolls-Royce Phantom) at its guests' disposal for airport pickup and drop-off to its floor butler service, the hotel redefines hospitality in the East. While the pool and some of the marquee restaurants have yet to open (New York imports Le Cirque and Megu), the spa is world class, featuring steam rooms and saunas in separate men's and women's changing rooms, a gym with imported Italian equipment, a spa café and the private treatment rooms on the second floor. The Qube restaurant is a great spot for lunch, encased in a glass cube in the middle of a lush garden. The only danger of staying in the hotel is never wanting to leave.
On my last days in the country, I did give in and travel by train to Jaipur (not for novices), staying in The Trident Hotel in a room that overlooked the magnificent Jal Mahal. It wasn't the Taj Mahal, but standing on my balcony, glass of wine in hand, I did have a moment of wonderment. I may have even taken a picture.