I'm in the floating Lake Palace in Udaipur, a place I first read about, and vowed to visit, when I was 10.
A pearly white marble palace -- carved domes and arches, courtyards and splashing fountains -- it's on its very own island. Not one inch of land is visible, so the palace appears to float majestically on Lake Pichola, in the state of Rajasthan in north India.
Back when Richard Halliburton penned The Complete Book of Marvels for kids -- the reason I became a travel writer -- the Lake Palace wasn't a hotel, merely a wonder of the world. But it's been one of the world's most extraordinary hotels for decades now, the Taj Lake Palace.
My room is a poem. From my round jacuzzi tub, in a niche of glass walls and marble floors, a perfect view of another white domed marble island palace floats on the lake. It's Jag Mandir, which reportedly inspired Shah Jahan, the future Mughal emperor of India, to build the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife, after his stay here in the early 1600s.
Every detail in my room reveals thoughtful craftsmanship, from the gold-enameled soap, the mother-of-pearl tray that holds nightly turn-down chocolates, to a window seat plumped with pillows.
A poem is, in fact, on my bed: "God bless the inventor of sleep, the cloak that covers all men's thought," from the writer Cervantes.
Visiting the City Palace the next day, across the lake, I'm delighted to see its treasure trove of miniature paintings features many of the Lake Palace, built in 1746 as the summer palace of the Maharani of Udaipur -- his royal descendants still live in the City Palace -- and of Jag Mandir, too.
It's in the Details
"Miniature" refers not to the size of the exquisite, richly colored artworks of hunting scenes and battles -- where the king's head is always encircled in a gold halo -- but to the fine details in every face, tree and animal.
The fineness is due to brushes made from eyelashes of camels and hairs from squirrel tails; and colors are created with natural materials like stone or plants, like lapis lazuli for blue and malachite for green. Some artworks are away at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an exhibit, "India's Master Painters: 1100-1900," is on display until Jan. 8.
After passing women in saris of magenta, pumpkin-orange and purple on the street -- India's an explosion of color -- I pause at a nearby shop and art school, and a miniature of a peacock on a gold background becomes my very own.
In Hyderabad in south-central India, Taj Falaknuma Palace offers a total contrast: European opulence and a setting on its own hilltop 2,000 feet above the city.
It's a magnificent white palace, behind whose neo-Classical facade lie scores of crystal chandeliers, silk drapes, tapestries, Louis XIV furnishings, stained-glass panels, gilded ceilings and marble floors.
Built in the 1880s, it was a guest palace for the Nizams, the Muslim royal rulers of Hyderabad, who gained a fondness for British, Italian and French palaces on their visits abroad.
You're a princess for the day on your arrival here. A horse and carriage, bearing the royal insignia, took me from the gate to the palace, where a shower of rose petals greeted me as I ascended the staircase.
A woman in a gold sari anointed my brow with a red bindi, and I was given a refreshing coriander-mint lemonade as I entered the palace where Russia's last czar, Nicholas II, and Britain's Queen Mary and King George V had preceded me.
Most of India's roughly 5,000 Jews live in on near Mumbai (Bombay), the country's biggest city, financial capital and home of the world's biggest film industry, Bollywood -- a one-hour flight from Hyderabad.
Called the Bene Israel, this ancient community is believed to be descended from Jews shipwrecked in 175 BCE about 40 miles from Mumbai. Due to their total isolation from other Jews and living in peace surrounded by their Hindu neighbors, they didn't work on Shabbat and kept kosher, but developed their own customs -- such as the malinda ceremony, where an offering of flattened rice, coconut and five symbolic fruits is made to the prophet Elijah on festive occasions and in times of crisis.
The Bene Israel deck synagogues with flower garlands on Jewish holidays, as Hindus decorate their temples. Until the late 19th century, they didn't eat beef out of deference to Hindus.
"We Jews never failed in conserving our identity and not giving in to idol worship, though we accepted local traditions," said Nathaniel Jhirad, a 20-year-old accounting student, who eagerly shared that his family is interviewed in a YouTube video about Mumba's Bene Israel.
I met him at Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue, a striking powder-blue structure built in 1884, one of nine synagogues in Mumbai, and one of two Baghdadi synagogues here.
Baghdadi Jews are another tiny Jewish community in India, traders who emigrated from Iraq in the early 19th century to Mumbai. The wealthy and influential Sassoon family founded not only both synagogues but funded the construction of Mumbai's first public library, the Venetian Gothic-style Sassoon Library, which opened in 1847.
The city's Sassoon Docks, where a big public market is located, are also named after the family.