Opulence at one of the world's finest
An oasis in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, The Oberoi Amarvilas is a cultural destination in its own right.
The opulent hotel in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, about two hours by train or six hours by road from Delhi, is rated as one of the top 10 in the world.
Elegant arches, domes and flowing symmetry of Mughal and Moorish architectural styles echo the nearby Taj and the Red Fort which are the city of Agra's tourist attractions.
The hotel's red sandstone exterior is fiery in sunlight and almost glows by night.
Just 600m from the Taj, the hotel complex spreads over nearly four hectares, containing pavilions, elaborate gardens, fountains and reflection pools in the Islamic tradition.
Staff welcome travel-weary visitors with cold towels and drinks, and a tour of the hotel which is a showcase for local artisans. Or an Indian fairytale come to life.
The forecourt is an imposing pavilion featuring fountains, filigree stone bridges and tall pillars topped with torches.
Frescoes on limewashed, creamy sandstone walls are used extensively throughout the complex, painted with ground semi-precious stone pigments including lapis lazuli and gold leaf, in ornate Mughal style.
In the vast lobby, a crystal chandelier hangs from an Islamic style dome coloured in cobalt-blue pigment and gold.
Jaali screens, marble inlay, handwoven tapestries and rugs are used extensively throughout. The air is infused with exotic perfumes from bowls of water scented with rose petals and sandalwood, placed throughout the hotel.
Elegant, French-influenced tea lounge settees and armchairs are covered in cotton and silk brocade fabrics in vibrant oranges, reds and blues.
Regulations prohibited building higher than the domes of the Taj, so all 112 rooms are laid out in a setback layout on three levels, with their own balconies, all facing the Taj.
Terraced gardens and pavilions overlook the swimming pool which has a cool, peaceful recess in which to escape the fierce heat.
Staff dressed in turbans and traditional Indian dress are on hand to cater for every whim, from retrieving a dropped towel to fetching sunblock or a cold beer.
Each guest has a butler attending to room service needs. Just press the butler buzzer, and hey presto, he's there.
The spa offers Ayurvedic therapies, massage and beauty treatments along with conventional gym facilities. Even the spa has a view of the Taj.
One evening we dine in the Kohinoor Suite, where recent guests have included Bill Gates, and Julia Roberts and her family.
"Very nice lady, very down to earth," a waiter whispers.
We are very unglamorous - sweat-stained and grimy from walking around monuments in the afternoon heat.
I look longingly at the white marble and granite bathroom containing a large, claw bathtub, which also has a view of you-know-what.
The hotel is truly an exotic retreat, a stark contrast to the less salubrious suburbs of Agra outside the walls.
But general manager Nigel Badminton, a Briton who formerly worked in New York, encourages visitors to step outside the oasis to see harsher realities. The hotel helped provide electricity, running water and sanitation to a nearby village.
It also donates to several charities, including a school for the blind and an animal sanctuary, called Wildlife SOS, for rescued bears and elephants.
The Agra Bear Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre is believed to be the largest of its kind in the world.
The bears are rescued dancing bears that were once cruelly dragged around the streets of India, with their muzzles pierced and their teeth broken, to entertain tourists and villagers. Others are cubs that have been rescued from poachers.
"It is heartwarming to witness first hand the sterling work tirelessly carried out there," Badminton says.
The contrast between New York and Agra surprised him in other ways he hadn't imagined.
Grand hotels worldwide are run much the same way, he says.
"I'm just the inn keeper."
But while "New York is fast and brash, there is a gentleness, patience and emphasis on beautiful manners here that deeply impresses me".
"These kids are very well brought up," Badminton says of his young staff.
The writer stayed at Oberoi Amarvilas as a guest of Cox and Kings.