Our twin-bedded room with bath was comfy, but dinner was a disappointment: a small half-Western, half-Indian buffet of mediocre curries, spaghetti and French fries.
The next two days we spent with Pankaj Joshi, a self-taught naturalist in a bush hat, bouncing along dusty trails. Park rules confined us to a jeep, but we got good looks at spotted and golden deer, blue bulls, peacocks, monkeys, painted storks, wild boar, mongoose, marsh crocodile and a crested serpent eagle. Of the park's 38 tigers, alas, we saw none. More fortunate guests told us they saw five at a go.
Our early November trip coincided with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. From crowded cities to isolated villages, households were preparing for a visit from Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. We passed women decorating the walls and doorsteps of their mud and thatch houses with rangoli, elaborate rice powder designs.
As we arrived at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, a man was sprinkling pink rose petals and yellow marigolds in alternating strips along the courtyard.
The sprawling palace was once the principal home of Sawai Man Singh II. The maharajah, his three wives, their children and 400 retainers occupied the 100-room palace, built in the 1800s in a 47-acre garden and expanded after 1922. His two older wives were kept in seclusion, and the youngest, Gayatri Devi, atypical for a woman of her time, was his hostess.
Devi, once considered one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world, shot tigers, rode horses, drove cars, wore slacks and summered with film stars on the Riviera. Now in her 80s, she lives quietly on the palace grounds.
THE "Pink City of Jaipur," so named because of its rose-painted buildings, was mobbed with holiday shoppers buying sweet cakes, candles, new clothes and toys. On Diwali Eve, we shouldered our way through the crowds to sample paan (leaves stuffed with betel nut) and buy bangle bracelets.
Our hectic two-day stay in Jaipur included visits to a block-printing factory in nearby Sanganer; elephant rides at the Amber Fort, a palace built atop a bluff; tours of the City Palace museum; and an 18th century outdoor observatory of giant marble instruments.
During the next three evenings, we ate in the cavernous Suvarna Mahal (Gold Palace), the silk brocade-lined banquet hall where the royal couple once entertained Lord and Lady Mountbatten, Jacqueline Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth II.
Of all the palace hotels we stayed in, our favorite was Deogarh Mahal, a honey-colored fantasy of balconies, domed turrets, parapets and terraces midway between Jaipur and Udaipur. In just one night, we got acquainted with the Chundawat family, descendants of feudal barons, who have lovingly restored the 17th century palace.
Over drinks on the terrace, the current rawat, or clan ruler, Nahar Singh II, a retired history professor, told us his father never recovered from the loss of royal privileges after India's independence in 1947. After his mother's death in 1966, the family closed the place.
Ten years ago, Singh, his wife and their two sons decided to convert the palace into a hotel. The sons quit their jobs, sold land and pooled resources to raise money.
"Amazingly, nothing had been pilfered," Nahar Singh told us.
The bedrooms have mirrored ceilings, stained-glass windows, hand-painted dados of hunting scenes and alcoves piled high with silk bolsters.
I was looking forward to the Lake Palace Hotel, built on an island in the middle of Udaipur's Lake Pichola. For years I had admired it in the PBS series "Jewel in the Crown" and the James Bond flick "Octopussy."
Unfortunately, it did not live up to my fantasy. On departure I handed in a comment card complaining about our newly refurbished rooms: no hot water, a malfunctioning hair dryer, no rugs on cold marble floors. The manager called to apologize as we were leaving.
Flying back to the U.S., I mulled over a return trip to sample palace hotels in places we had missed — Jodhpur, Pushkar and Jaisalmer. Who can resist living like a maharajah at bargain prices?