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Leela Leads India's Luxury Hotel Boom

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In 1986 a Mumbai-based businessman named Capt. C. P. Krishnan Nair decided to start a hotel company. He named it Leela, after his wife. Nair, then 64 and at the age when most men think of retirement, had been a very successful exporter of Madras fabric during the 1950 and 1960s. It had made him a wealthy man. But now, he wanted a new challenge, and the hotel business was it.

Today, Leela Hotels, Palaces & Resorts is one of the fastest-growing luxury hotel chains in India. With seven properties already opened, Leela will open another hotel in August in Chennai and three more in the coming years, one of which will be located at Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal.

I recently visited two Leela properties, the newly-opened Leela in New Delhi and the Leela in Udaipur, which is located on the banks of the lovely Lake Pichola.

The Leela Palace New Delhi was built on three acres in New Delhi's exclusive diplomatic enclave. It has 260 rooms and suites and has been certified as a LEED gold hotel for its eco-friendly design. The 11-story hotel is powered by a 24-hour gas-fired generator which uses water and steam byproducts in the air conditioning system. But don't be fooled -- this hotel is luxury personified, with impeccable service, large comfortable rooms and proximity to most major sites, despite the usually horrendous traffic in New Delhi.

On this trip we visited the usual tourist attractions, including the legendary Red Fort, which was built by the 17th-century Mughal ruler Shah Jahan. At one time, the fort, which was a complete city unto itself to ward off possible invaders, housed 3,000 people. It's so named because of its red sandstone walls which rise up out of Delhi's old section like a huge battleship.

Adjoining the Red Fort is the old shopping area known as Chandni Chowk. There, you can take a rickshaw ride down narrow streets choked with vendors and stores and booths of every kind. We were crowded in by foot traffic and people buying and selling anything you can imagine, from household goods to beautiful hand-woven textiles to engine parts and flat-screen televisions. We also went to Delhi Haat, a crafts bazaar where we practiced our somewhat feeble bargaining skills and walked away with woven placemats and several cashmere shawls, all for prices we thought were good but brought amusement to the faces of our guides.

The Leela Palace in Udaipur, less than two hours by air from New Delhi, is just as luxurious as the one in the capital but the location is much more exotic. Set on the western bank of Lake Pichola, the Leela Udaipur can be reached by boat, which is how we got there. At the entrance, a jetty with a canopy, we were greeted by the friendly staff holding cold drinks and the keys to our rooms. Udaipur is located in Rajastan, the largest state in India, and the area is famous for endless cycles of drought and monsoon flooding. Twice in the last decade, the lake has dried up completely, with children playing cricket on its dry bed and cows chewing on what grass was left. We arrived when it was full.

Udaipur is not really a town, with a population of half a million, but it has that feel especially in the old part, with small, narrow streets winding up and down hills and markets jamming every block. We shared the streets with an occasional cow. Unlike New Delhi, where western clothes are more prevalent, the people in Udaipur sported more traditional garb, and we were dazzled by the colors of some of the saris that the women wore as well as their silver jewelry.

The main tourist attraction in Udaipur is the City Palace, which sits high on a hill on the eastern side of the lake. It's a museum and a testament to a bygone day when the local maharajah (meaning "great king") ruled the territory. Even today, his descendents live part-time in a wing of the palace that's off-limits to visitors, who clog the passageways and rooms that are open to the public.

At the end of the day, it was always refreshing to return to the luxury of the Leela, put our feet up and gaze out at the lake as the sun faded in the west and the lights of the city off in the distance came on. One day at dusk, I heard a slap-slap-slap off in the distance. I looked out from a back staircase and saw a woman beating her laundry against a rock on the shore. Some things in India never change.

GETTING THERE
I left from Los Angeles, connected in Houston with Qatar Airways and then flew to Doha, the capital of Qatar, and from there on to New Delhi. Qatar Airways, the national carrier, was launched in 1994 and currently serves a worldwide network of 106 destinations, including Houston, New York, Washington, D.C. and Montreal.