For many, Rajasthan is the very essence of India, with crenelated forts and impregnable palaces that rise like giant fairy-tale sets above dusty sun-scorched plains and shimmering lakes. India's second-largest state -- similar in size to France -- is largely covered by the ever-encroaching Thar Desert, but despite its aridity, Rajasthan was once remarkably prosperous: Traders from as far afield as Persia and China had to cross its dry plains to reach the southern ports of Gujarat, something the warrior princes of Rajasthan were quick to capitalize on. Today the principal attraction of Rajasthan -- the postindependence name for Rajputana, literally "land of princes" -- is the large variety of forts and palaces its aristocrats built throughout the centuries, in usually breathtaking sites, that makes it one of the most popular destinations in India. But Rajasthan offers so much more than Rajput warrior history, desert castles and culture -- from tracking down tigers in the Ranthambhore jungle (arguably the most reliable place to spot wild tigers in Asia) to gaping at the world's most intricately carved marble temples on historic Mount Abu. Peopled by proud turbaned men and delicately boned women in saris of dazzling colors, the "land of princes" is rich with possibilities. It's also high on contrasts: You could bed down amid some of the most sumptuous luxury on earth and then spend the day roaming ancient villages, exploring medieval marketplaces.

You could plan to spend your entire trip to India in Rajasthan, which is within easy striking distance of Delhi (and the Taj Mahal) by train, plane, or road. Certainly you'll need at least a week to take in the major destinations, of which the lake city of Udaipur is the top highlight. If you are inclined to seek peace and tranquillity away from the larger more obvious attractions, then we recommend you amble from here along the ancient and undulating Aravalli Hills, which predate even the Himalayas, discovering its quaint, manageable villages and truly special hotels. Also vying for your time is the "blue city" of Jodhpur, which has the state's most impressive and best-preserved fort as well as the largest palace in India; the desert fort of Jaisalmer -- the only fort in the world still inhabited by villagers; the tiny but increasingly commercial town of Pushkar, built around a sacred lake and host to the biggest camel mela (fair) in Asia; the painted havelis (historic homes or mansions) of the Shekhawati region, referred to as India's open-air gallery; the tiny Keoladeo "Ghana" National Park, which boasts the largest concentration and variety of bird life in Asia; the untainted, almost medieval atmosphere of little towns like Bundi; and the bumper-to-bumper shops and bazaars in Jaipur (the state and retail capital of Rajasthan). Shopping, in fact, is another of the state's chief attractions: Because of the liberal patronage of the wealthy Rajput princes, skilled artisans from all over the East settled here to adorn the aristocrats and their palaces. Today these same skills are on sale to the world's designers and travelers, and no one -- from die-hard bargain-hunters to chichi fashionistas -- leaves Rajasthan empty-handed. The question is how to choose from an unbelievable array of textiles, jewelry, paintings, rugs, pottery, diaries -- even kitchen utensils -- and then how to fit them into your bulging suitcase.

But perhaps the best reason to visit Rajasthan is to experience its unusual hotels: The state has at least 100 heritage properties -- castles, palaces, forts, and ornate havelis -- many of which are still home to India's oldest monarchies. This must be the only place in the world where, armed with a credit card, you can find yourself sleeping in a king's bed, having earlier dined with the aristocrat whose forebears built and quite often died for the castle walls that surround it. Known for their valor and honor, and later for their decadence, the Rajputs are superb hosts, and it is almost possible to believe that you, too, are of aristocratic blood, as a turbaned aide awaits your every wish while you marvel at the starry night from the bastion of your castle. Long live the king (and queen), for you are it.