LOADED WITH FOLKLORES, customised experiences and refreshing new designs, boutique hotels across the hinterlands of Rajasthan are redefining luxury hospitality in India. While ornate palace hotels have always been a magnet for the well-heeled, these nondescript havelis and hunting lodges sing a desert tune never heard before.
Away from the hustle and bustle of big cities, Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner and its two sister hotels, the Laxmi Niwas Palace in Bikaner and the Suryagarh in Jaisalmer, promise all the comforts of a five-star hotel but with a twist. Modelled around the life of the last reigning maharaja of Bikaner (Narendra Singh), Narendra Bhawan is one royal residence that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The art-deco styled hotel welcomes guests in a pretty verandah-cum-library, scattered with Penguin classics, and no protocols whatsoever. An electric red piano, named Edith, sits at one end of the lounge done up with tribal artwork, some modern Indian furniture and beautiful Portuguese tiles. “Before we took charge of this place, it was all set to become a hospital,” says Siddharth Yadav, vice president, MRS Hospitality. “It is a four-storey haveli with no unending vistas or water bodies, so we decided to make it all cheery and vibrant by bringing in the touch of its last royal occupant, who was fond of animals, literature, good music and great food.”
Narendra Bhawan isn’t your usual hotel in Rajasthan. While you may choose to go on a ‘merchant trail’ and indulge yourself in a traditional vegetarian meal at one of the grand, old havelis, there are some splendid choices like the ‘Le Diner Dans Le Noir’ (the blindfolded dinner) or the ‘Literary Lunch’, a seven-course affair inspired by one of the books mentioned on the menu. So, as you read an excerpt by Sylvia Plath, Herman Melville, Henry Molise, Virginia Woolf, Émile Zola or James Joyce, the server brings in a dish inspired by the writing.
The hotel’s winding passages resound with light jazz music throughout the day and drift into electronica by night. The cigar dens are stocked with copies of Playboy from the 1970s, and if you feel like enjoying a sundowner, the pastures aren’t far away. “Today, the luxury traveller doesn’t want to spend an obnoxious amount of money on lodging, they don’t care for the size of the television in their room or the toiletries. They have better stuff at home. They want to invest in experiences and we offer that at our hotels,” says Yadav. “Our royal exploration tour throws light on how Bikaner was developed. Staying true to the maharaja’s love for pets—[he] is known to have more than a hundred pedigreed dogs, horses and cattle on this property—we have made this a dog-friendly hotel.”
Yadav has curated some exceptional experiences for the Suryagarh hotel in Jaisalmer. The guests here can enjoy a breakfast amid peacocks or dine in the heart of the dunes, soaking in the folk music. If you want to get more adventurous, try out the mock classes in talwar baazi (sword fighting) or the ghost trail around Suryagarh.
If you are not gung-ho about boutique hotels in the middle of Rajasthan, head to the W hotel in Goa, which is generations ahead of its contemporaries in India. Set against a 500-year-old Portuguese fort, the hotel keeps its guests grooving all the time, thanks to a bunch of international DJs who spin beside the Rockpool all day.
Then there is Andaz by Hyatt, which is just a decade old in business. It is one modern luxury hotel that imbibes a city’s values to the core. The Andaz Delhi, for instance, celebrates the national capital with a custom-made book placed in each room: 401 Reasons To Fall In Love With Delhi by Fiona Caulfield. Right from the design of the rooms to the cultural experiences offered by the hotel, everything is inspired by quintessential Delhi. “Andaz is a disruptor in the hotel space,” says Madhav Seghal, general manager, Andaz Delhi. “It is understated luxury and the future of what hotels are moving towards. We are dedicated to local cultures, and in Delhi, this means indulging our guest with 401 ways to explore the city. From a photo walk through majnu ka tila to a guided stroll through the Lodhi Gardens or calligraphy lessons in the heart of the city, there is something for everyone.”
* Maria Cristina, Spain: The grandest hotel in San Sebastián, Maria Cristina exudes old-world charm with all the trappings of an ultra modern luxury hotel. Complementing the location, which happens to be the food capital of Spain, the hotel boasts of a chic cooking school offering classes in Basque cuisine, Ibérico ham slicing and more. The hotel lobby, too, is dedicated to discerning foodies, with a delicatessen selling the best food and wine from the region
* Badrutt’s Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland: This historic hotel in the centre of Switzerland’s lavish ski destination has been a celebrity haunt forever. Filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock spent his month-long honeymoon at the Palace in 1926. From offering helicopter rides over the town to getting an elephant into the resort as a birthday surprise for guests, the hotel really knows how to spoil the rich and famous
* Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur: Crowned as the world’s best luxury hotel recently, this magnificent resort run by the Taj group is still home to the royal family of Jodhpur. Designed by British architect Henry Vaughan Lanchester, the palace hotel features art deco style gold-leaf furniture and traditional Indian marble floors, artefact and family portraits
* Meno a Kwena, Botswana: This exotic African hideaway is where Prince Harry romanced Meghan Markle on her 36th birthday last year. Located on a large, private cliff overlooking a bend in the Boteti River, the luxury camp offers traditional thatched cabins with carved beds, outdoor showers, serene boat rides and incredible wildlife scenes
* Caresse, Turkey: Just a few years old, this luxury resort is famous for its stunning views of the historical bays of Halicarnassus, now Bodrum. On offer are 67 guest rooms, nine suites and a king villa, overlooking the stunning Aegean sea. The highlight of the hotel is, of course, its world-class spa spread over 17,000sqft