The famously opulent palace hotels of Rajasthan — places such as the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur and the Lake Palace in Udaipur — remain an irresistible draw for most first-time visitors to India. But now, a new generation of sumptuous smaller properties and luxury camps offers experienced travelers a variety of alluring alternatives.
Elephants and camels still mingle with the cars and tuk-tuks.
Jaipur, like much of India, has changed enormously in recent years. At the time of my first visit three decades ago, the crenellated pink-stuccoed walls of the old city were surrounded by a stark desert landscape. Today, the population has increased fivefold, and a metropolis of more than 3 million people encircles the 18th-century core. Fortunately, the heart of Jaipur has lost little of its magic. Elephants and camels still mingle with the cars and tuk-tuks; the gem and textile merchants continue to ply their trades in the kaleidoscopic Johari Bazaar; and the precincts of the immense City Palace are as imposing and exotic as ever.
By Indian standards, Jaipur is not especially ancient. In 1727, at the instigation of Maharaja Jai Singh II, a new planned city was laid out on a grid, a replacement for his previous capital, Amber, seven miles away. At the same time, not far beyond the city walls, the Rajmahal Palace was constructed: a serene pavilion surrounded by a pleasure garden. During the colonial period from 1821 to 1947, this became the official home of the British Resident political officer. Then, after Indian independence, the flamboyant, polo-playing Maharaja Man Singh II adopted the Rajmahal as his personal residence. It soon became a kind of guesthouse for the global elite, presided over by his dazzling wife, Gayatri Devi, author of the best-selling memoir “A Princess Remembers.” The queen of England came to stay, as did Jackie Kennedy, along with an international cast of politicians, sportsmen and socialites.
At the end of 2014, the Rajmahal Palace assumed a new incarnation as a boutique hotel. Although it is still owned by the royal family, management of the property has been entrusted to SUJÁN, an expanding Indian hotel company best known for its upscale wildlife lodges. Its founder, Jaisal Singh, is a Jaipur family friend (and, incidentally, the great-grandson of Sardar Bahadur Sir Sobha Singh, the chief contractor for New Delhi, who realized the architectural plans of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker.)
Arriving in Jaipur, we turned off a congested urban highway and entered a hidden 10-acre enclave of neat flowerbeds and clipped lawns. At the end of a stretch of raked gravel, our car drew up beneath the portico of an imposing pink mansion. There, staff in white robes and scarlet turbans escorted us up a flight of steps into the cool of the ceremonial Durbar Hall. India’s dust and cacophony vanished, and we found ourselves in a world of voluptuous calm. Flutes of champagne arrived on a silver tray.
Although Rajmahal is nearly 300 years old, its architecture was extensively modified in accordance with European tastes. Inside, the décor is now also a mixture of Indian and colonial styles, laced with generous helpings of art deco and chinoiserie. A leading Delhi-based interior designer, Adil Ahmad, was engaged to undertake a comprehensive redecoration. Clearly, no expense was spared, and he was allowed to indulge every conceivable whim and fantasy. In addition to 46 custom-designed wallpapers, Ahmad installed a flamboyant, at times overwhelming, color scheme, with wide use of shocking pink, tropical turquoise and midnight blue. Fortunately, he also relied extensively on family furniture, paintings and photographs, so that despite the extravagance, the Rajmahal retains the atmosphere of a grand private home.
Having been allocated the second-floor Resident’s Suite, we were escorted up a gleaming white marble staircase past a colossal display of pink orchids. In contrast with the public areas (and many of the other guest accommodations), our huge circular room was more restrained in style, though lavender paisley wallpaper, mirrored doors, a Persian carpet and a huge chandelier scarcely amounted to understatement. (I doubt that the last British Resident would recognize much of his former home.) The bath contained a large round soaking tub, as well as a sizeable and effective walk-in shower.
At present, Rajmahal offers 14 air-conditioned rooms and suites, including two magnificent Royal Apartments, but up to 15 new accommodations are planned. The two-bedroom, 3,126-square-foot Maharaja’s Apartment comes with a drawing room that opens onto a private terrace, a dining room with seating for eight, and a dedicated butler. The equally impressive 2,899-square-foot Maharani’s Apartment also provides a private dining room, plus an enclosed veranda and a heated plunge pool. Scarcely less lavish are the four Royal Suites, which include The Queen Elizabeth II Suite, built for the British monarch’s state visit to India in 1961, and The Kennedy Suite, inhabited by Jackie Kennedy during a three-month stay in 1962.
Having settled in — the services of a butler to unpack our bags were offered and declined — we went for a stroll around the gardens before relaxing beside the lovely art deco swimming pool. Alas, like most outdoor pools in India, it was unheated. (In the winter high season from November to February, pools in northern India tend to be chiefly ornamental.) Currently, Rajmahal has a small spa in an adjacent building, but plans are under way for a more extensive facility.
The hotel’s principal dining venue is The Orient Occident, where excellent Indian and Western cuisine is graciously served in a grand mirrored space. I particularly enjoyed taking light meals in The Colonnade, an exquisite glass-fronted veranda overlooking the gardens. Nearby, The Polo Bar displays silver trophies and black-and-white photographs from the former maharaja’s polo-playing days, and provides an atmospheric venue for an early-evening martini.
For many years, my recommended property in Jaipur has been the Rambagh Palace, also a former royal residence. Located about a mile from the Rajmahal and slightly farther from the old walled city, it is an imposing structure of 79 rooms and suites surrounded by extensive grounds and polo fields. Although magnificent and immaculately maintained, it inevitably feels more impersonal. In contrast, the much smaller Rajmahal permits its guests to feel that they have been personally invited to stay in a sumptuous private residence — one with exceptionally gracious and obliging staff — rather than in a hotel.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Magnificent accommodations; ambience of a grand private residence; charming staff; tranquil atmosphere.
DISLIKE: The unheated pool; Wi-Fi that works only in the public areas.
GOOD TO KNOW: The spa will soon be expanded.
SUJÁN Rajmahal Palace 96 The Resident’s Suite, $980; The Kennedy Suite, $1,200. Sadar Patel Marg, Jaipur. Tel. (91) 141-414-3000.
Understandably, many American visitors in India prefer to fly whenever possible, rather than to subject themselves to the hazards of its notorious roads. Airlines such as Jet Airways offer reliable services on modern planes, and private air charters are available. Although major cities are now linked by four-lane highways, the standard of driving is still uniquely atrocious. However, it is possible to hire a modern, air-conditioned vehicle, and if the chauffeur is competent and experienced, you may travel in comfort and relative safety. Clearly, this is the only way to visit more remote areas of the country.
As is so often the case, we soon discovered the reality to be somewhat different from that advertised.
Leaving Jaipur, we drove southwest for 145 miles to the small town of Raipur. Our destination, Lakshman Sagar, opened in 2012 and is a “heritage retreat” constructed around a 19th-century hunting lodge owned by the local Thakur, or feudal lord. Situated on a ridge four miles south of Raipur, it overlooks a dramatic tract of wild and inhospitable country. We had been drawn to the property by flattering reviews in major travel magazines and a seductive website. As is so often the case, we soon discovered the reality to be somewhat different from that advertised.
The resort’s 12 stone cottages are set along the shores of a small man-made lake, its surface dotted with wildfowl and its margins stalked by egrets and herons. Each cottage has been colorfully decorated with traditional Rajasthani furniture and artifacts, and offers space, a high degree of privacy and a chilly plunge pool. The cottages are touted as places in which to relax, to read and to escape from the world. Instead, they struck me as places in which to feel bored and isolated — once the initial pleasure of watching the ducks through binoculars had worn off. Most of the cottages are also inconveniently far from the resort’s public areas, to which they are connected by rough stone pathways on which it would be remarkably easy to turn an ankle. In an attempt to be fair to the property, it must be said that the Indian food was excellent and the staff were consistently friendly and helpful. But throughout my two-night stay, I found it impossible to avoid the question “What on earth am I doing here?” The local town of Raipur is interesting — to a point — but its outskirts are filthy and depressing. One of the curses of the modern world is the ubiquity of plastic. In India, where hardly anyone bothers to pick anything up (it being beneath their caste status to do so), virtually every town and village is disfigured by drifts of plastic detritus. Lakshman Sagar may well appeal to some more adventurous travelers, but I fear it will underwhelm a majority of Hideaway Report subscribers.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Colorful and authentic Rajasthani décor in spacious cottages.
DISLIKE: Isolated lodgings; lack of a sophisticated program of activities.
GOOD TO KNOW: A large road is being constructed between the hotel and Raipur, which may well impact the atmosphere of the property.
Lakshman Sagar 88 Superior Room (Lake View), $195. Raipur, Dist. Pali. Tel. (91) 11-2649-4531.
Jodhpur, capital of the former princely state of Marwar, lies 80 miles to the northeast. Like Jaipur, Jodhpur has expanded greatly over recent years — the population is now 1.2 million — not least because of the presence of the Indian Army and Air Force, which guard the border with Pakistan from bases around the city. Some things do not change, however, and the Mehrangarh Fort, an immense 15th-century citadel atop a 400-foot rocky outcrop, still looms above the ancient bazaar. If there is a more spectacular castle anywhere in the world, I am unaware of it. Mehrangarh also contains remarkable collections of weapons and paintings, as well as exotic elephant howdahs.
For many years, my recommended hotel in Jodhpur has been the colossal Umaid Bhawan Palace, part of which is still home to the current maharaja. Like the Rambagh Palace, the property is impeccably maintained, surrounded by manicured grounds, and exceptionally well-managed by Taj Hotels. It continues to have my unequivocal endorsement. For those who prefer smaller hideaway hotels, however, there is now a superb alternative. RAAS is an 18th-century haveli (mansion) situated directly beneath the walls of Mehrangarh Fort that was converted and extended into a 39-room resort in 2009. To reach the property, our driver had to negotiate the narrow and crowded streets of the bazaar, which certainly had not been laid out with automobiles in mind. Whatever misgivings we might have begun to nurture, however, were dispelled instantly upon arrival. Once we had passed through the impressive rose sandstone gateway into the courtyard of the haveli, we found ourselves in a serene and stylish setting. From the small reception, we were led through a narrow passageway that abruptly opened into an idyllic interior garden sensationally backdropped by the fort. I can think of few hotels that have a comparably showstopping view.
From the room's small covered balcony, we never tired of gazing at the towering walls of the fort, especially when floodlit at night.
In addition to the four original buildings of the haveli, the resort has three contemporary structures. These have been constructed in an austere modern style, but incorporate the same distinctive red sandstone as well as traditional motifs such as handcrafted jhali window screens. One houses four Duplex Suites with private balconies. We had reserved a Luxury Room in the main accommodations block. At 484 square feet, this proved to be on the small side, but it was comfortable nonetheless, with a king-size bed, a writing desk and a small sitting area with a white sofa. The bath was long and narrow — the architect obviously had to contend with the unavoidable constraints of the site — but provided a soaking tub as well as a walk-in shower. The principal feature of our room, however, was the unforgettable view from its small covered balcony, and we never tired of gazing at the towering walls of the fort, especially when floodlit at night. On a future occasion, I would probably opt for a Duplex Suite or for one of the three Heritage Suites in the old haveli buildings. The latter are much more spacious and extremely atmospheric. The most desirable is the one set above the resort’s exceptionally attractive boutique, as it has a panoramic view from a large private terrace.
RAAS offers two restaurants and a spectacular rooftop bar. Darikhana serves Indian cuisine, while Baradari offers a menu of international (chiefly Thai and Mediterranean) dishes. The setting of the latter, spilling out from an old stone pavilion onto a terrace overlooking a large heated swimming pool, is particularly appealing. Having established ourselves for lunch beneath one of the white umbrellas, we often found it extremely difficult to summon the will to leave. The resort’s other amenity is a small but attractive spa. Throughout our stay, the staff members were charm personified.
From RAAS, you may venture into the bazaar to experience as much urban hubbub as you wish before retreating to the fragrant serenity of its walled gardens. Overall, this is one of the most stylish and distinctive small hotels I have discovered in recent years.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Spectacular location; delicious food; exceptionally stylish public areas; attractive spa.
DISLIKE: Smallish Garden Rooms and Luxury Rooms.
GOOD TO KNOW: The swimming pool is heated, which is a nice change in Rajasthan.
RAAS 95 Luxury Room, $340; Duplex Suite, $420; Heritage Suite, $465. Tunwar ji ka Jhalara, Makrana Mohalla, Jodhpur. Tel. (91) 291-263-6455.
Heading west, the landscape of Rajasthan’s Thar Desert becomes steadily more arid — though nowadays water from the Himalayas flowing down the Indira Gandhi Canal, as well as that drawn from underground aquifers, makes possible a surprising amount of agriculture. (The wildest regions of the Thar are off-limits, as they are bisected by the strategically sensitive border with Pakistan.) The desert city of Jaisalmer lies 175 miles northwest of Jodhpur. Once, it was a refuge and supply depot for caravans plying the trade route between western India and Arabia. But with the rise of the great ports of Bombay and Karachi in the 19th century, trade took to the sea and the caravans disappeared. Jaisalmer declined inexorably, and when I first visited 30 years ago, it was a virtual ghost town, with only half a dozen vehicles, at least three of which belonged to the Maharaja. Since then, Jaisalmer Fort has become one of Rajasthan’s most popular tourist attractions, with around half a million visitors each year. Nowadays, it seems to feature on the itinerary of every young European backpacker. Jaisalmer was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2013, but this seems to have done little to arrest its precipitous structural decline. Around 2,000 people still live inside the fort, and expansion of their properties to cater to the ever-increasing number of tourists, as well as inadequate water drainage, has led sections of the ancient masonry to collapse. I can think of few more egregious examples of tourism’s ability to destroy what it professes to love.
The Serai's design evokes the lavish encampments once erected for Rajasthan’s rulers.
Located a 40-minute drive southeast of Jaisalmer, The Serai is an opulent desert camp created by SUJÁN. Its design evokes the lavish encampments once erected for Rajasthan’s rulers, but also owes a debt to the ultra-luxurious safari camps of Southern Africa. The 21 enormous air-conditioned tents provide every possible amenity, including king-size beds, stone floors, colonial-era “campaign” furniture and extravagant baths with huge walk-in showers. Six Luxury Tented Suites come with private walled gardens and heated Jacuzzi pools. The stylish public areas are sheltered by immense billowing expanses of white canvas and are appointed with Persian carpets, huge terra-cotta pots and spectacular displays of desert flora. The food is consistently excellent, and the staff members are conspicuously well-drilled. The Serai’s principal amenity is the spa, whose four tents are set in a walled garden. There, treatments employ organic Ayurvedic products made with ingredients from the Thar.
Located far from roads and villages, The Serai is essentially a place to relax, to read and to eat well while surrounded by the tranquility of the desert. Comfortable, long-wheelbase Jeeps take guests on excursions, but the adjacent sand dunes are unremarkable, or at least would appear so to anyone familiar with the Sahara or the Namib, and in places, the landscape is marred by power lines. I did, however, spend a memorable hour watching a flock of some 250 exquisite demoiselle cranes preparing for their annual trans-Himalayan return flight to Siberia. (It is also worth noting that there are no scheduled flights to Jaisalmer, so a visit to The Serai involves an air charter or a four-hour drive from Jodhpur.)
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Glamorous tents; spacious public areas; imaginative interior design; friendly and helpful staff.
DISLIKE: Disappointing excursions to Jaisalmer and into the Thar Desert.
GOOD TO KNOW: The property is self-contained and is chiefly a place in which to relax.
The Serai 94 Luxury Tented Suite, $705. Bherwa Village, Jaisalmer. Tel. (91) 11-4617-2700.
Having retraced our steps to Jodhpur, we turned south, and, after about an hour, came to the village of Rohet. Having pulled off the paved road, our driver continued along a rough dirt track that passed through scrubby desert vegetation. Although I soon became convinced that we were lost, I was diverted by the appearance of a herd of rare blackbuck and five nilgai, the largest Asian antelope. Suddenly, rounding a corner, we were confronted by an impressive crenellated structure with mud-brick walls and observation towers, set on a sandy ridge.
Although it has a timeless appearance, Mihir Garh, “The Fort of the Sun,” is in fact just 6 years old. The brainchild of a local aristocratic couple, it comprises nine huge suites (each a minimum of 1,700 square feet) and aims to fuse traditional Rajasthani architecture and furniture with the amenities of a modern resort. Since 1989, its owners have been restoring and upgrading their 17th-century family home, Rohet Garh, transforming it into a 34-room Heritage Hotel. But as Thakur Sidharth Rohet Singh explained to me over a cocktail that evening, trying to accommodate the needs of contemporary travelers within a 400-year-old building is an onerous task. So, for his second project, he decided to start from scratch. Alas, his troubles were far from over. The architect walked out, and he and his wife were obliged to design and construct the new building themselves, with the help of around 100 local laborers and craftsmen.
Everything about the property is distinctive.
Our suite proved to be spacious, colorful and supremely comfortable, with hand-stenciled walls, an ornate fireplace, inlaid furniture, bright local fabrics and carpets, and intricate wrought iron. Double doors opened onto a small terrace with a plunge pool. The outsize bath came with twin vanities, a walk-in shower and a soaking tub adjacent to windows with a view of the desert. The public areas at Mihir Garh are similarly expansive and have a wonderful sense of place, thanks to traditional textiles, paintings and artifacts. Everything about the property is distinctive. Meals are taken outside next to the horizon pool, and there, we enjoyed refined Indian cuisine, accompanied at dinner by local musicians.
Activities at Mihir Garh include Jeep excursions to nearby villages, especially those inhabited by the Bishnoi, a group whose belief system involves a kind of extreme environmentalism that not only precludes the taking of animal life, but also the felling of trees. In addition to the blackbuck and nilgai, birdlife in the region is prolific, and I was able to renew my acquaintance with the demoiselle cranes. The property also has around 15 Marwari horses — a breed once favored by Rajasthan’s Rajput warrior caste — and it is possible to ride out into the desert for picnics, or even to spend the night in a fly camp.
Mihir Garh is comparatively remote, and the pace of life there is leisurely. It will not appeal to everyone, but if you want to unwind for a few days in an unusual and evocative setting, the property has much to recommend it. Thakur Sidharth Rohet Singh is a solicitous host, and his staff are similarly charming.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Wonderfully expansive suites; inspired interior design; charming owner and staff.
DISLIKE: Litter-strewn and unappealing Rohet village.
GOOD TO KNOW: Equestrian excursions to wilderness camps can be highlights of a stay.
Mihir Garh 94 Alishan Suite, $505, meals included. c/o Rohet House, Dist. Pali. Tel. (91) 291-243-1161.
JAWAI offers the very definition of “glamping.”
Seventy miles south of Rohet, the flat, sandy landscape of the Thar Desert is replaced by plains punctuated by enigmatic granite outcrops, some up to 1,500 feet high, overlooked by the hills of the Aravalli Range. Set in front of two such outcrops near the remote village of Jawai Bandh, JAWAI camp enjoys a setting that seems ancient, almost primeval. Another new SUJÁN property, it opened in December 2013 and comprises 10 spacious air-conditioned tents, plus dining and library tents, a small spa and a plunge pool. Strikingly decorated in white, black and red, the accommodations have an exceptionally imaginative aesthetic that successfully combines traditional and modern design elements. Comfortable and convenient baths provide twin vanities and large, walk-in rainfall showers, while an exterior deck is furnished with a writing desk and two small sofas. In short, JAWAI offers the very definition of “glamping.”
The principal reason for JAWAI’s existence is the sizeable local leopard population. Around 50 of the big cats inhabit the surrounding rocky outcrops in startlingly close proximity to the local villages. Somehow, leopards and humans manage to coexist. The reasons given for this are chiefly speculative, though the camp now has a resident wildlife scientist who may in time be able to provide definite answers. One factor may be that some of the leopard live in abandoned Hindu temples and have acquired an aura of sanctity as a result. Hence, the local inhabitants regard them with superstition or a degree of religious reverence. And although the predators do undoubtedly eat the villagers’ goats and cattle, a well-funded compensation scheme ensures that this is not a financial inconvenience. (In fact, it may be the reverse: Cows are sacred in India, and Hindus do not eat beef, so bulls have no value — unless they happen to be killed by a leopard.)
Game drives in comfortable open-topped safari-adapted Jeeps leave JAWAI shortly after dawn and late each afternoon. After one drive of around 20 minutes, we parked beneath one of the outcrops, where a female leopard had been spotted that morning. We settled down to wait, scanning the boulders with binoculars. About an hour later, the leopard duly emerged from a cave where she had been resting during the heat of the day and strolled across to an open plateau. There, she was soon joined by three large cubs. Although the family was clearly visible through binoculars, the leopard were beyond the effective range of most normal camera lenses. Most sightings at the camp are at a distance, so they are not comparable to the close encounters with leopard at African lodges such as Londolozi in South Africa or Mombo in Botswana. Still, it was certainly a memorable and worthwhile wildlife encounter. Other activities at JAWAI include walks with the local semi-nomadic Rabari herdsmen and bird-watching on a nearby lake, where, in winter, you may spot sarus cranes, the world’s tallest flying bird, which stand at a height of up to 5 feet, 11 inches. The spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site of Kumbhalgarh Fort is a 75-minute drive away. (Its 15th-century perimeter walls are 22 miles around, second in length only to the Great Wall of China.) I am told that equestrian activities are planned for JAWAI in the near future.
JAWAI is a stylish and well-run camp that is a destination in its own right. It also has the added advantage of being located about halfway between Jodhpur and Udaipur. I highly recommend a two-night stay. JAWAI is also emblematic of the new opportunities that India increasingly offers to sophisticated American travelers.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Highly imaginative design; beauty of the landscape; feeling of seclusion.
DISLIKE: Leopard sightings that are difficult to photograph.
GOOD TO KNOW: The huge fortress of Kumbhalgarh is only 75 minutes away and is a very worthwhile excursion.
JAWAI 94 Luxury Tent, $800, meals and game drives included. Jawai Bandh, Dist. Pali. Tel. (91) 11-4617-2700.