Live like a king in the desert, forests and Himalayas–experience luxury in India
(All these hotels have COVID-19 safety measures in place. You can check their sites for updates.)
Home of the last Maharaja of Bikaner, Narendra Singh, this luxurious red sandstone hotel houses beautiful pieces of art, has themed rooms, well-preserved hardbound books and really good food.
With a rich past, Narendra Bhawan is probably a ‘dreamworks production’ by managing director Manvendra Singh Shekhawat, president Karan Singh Vaid and vice president Siddharth Yadav—under the banner of MRS Hospitality. Porcelain vases, marble statues, Portugese tiles, framed designer weaves and Playboy magazines in the men’s den, Narendra Bhawan spoils you with its ‘no rush’ pace and single-minded attention.
It’s not just the objets d’art but the khidmatgars aka servers dressed in Rajasthani kurtas and pajamas with their colourful jackets and turbans add value to the pleasant stay. Balveer Singh remembered me along with my preference for food, as did Bhanwar Singh who drove us around. The art gallery houses miniatures by Mahaveer Swami who comes from the lineage of traditional Bikaner artists and has exhibited across the world.
The Maharaja, born in changing India on 13 January 1946, was a man who oscillated between his royal roots, the dying European influence and India coming of age. Out of the ornate Laxmi Niwas Palace which is a little distance away, he is said to have lived a simple life in this home with his 500 plus cows and over 90 dogs, loved reading and taking care of the people in his own way.
Rooms: Designed by Jaipur-based designer Ayush Kasliwal, the hotel is an 82-key property. The home had only nine rooms. While my former stay had been in the Prince room, this time I got to experience the India room which houses a charkha and a bathtub. The room, with its spacious wardrobes and a balcony where pigeons flit in and out, has a subdued décor. There is even a desk for your laptop and the charging points for your gadgets are right next to your bed. The experience here is about handwoven things, including the jute covering on the floor. While the traditional jute blinds prevent the hot sun from coming in full force in the balcony, soft cotton curtains cover the glass doors and windows in the room. The water is RO-treated.
USP: MRS Hotels have pets and Nala and Simba, the golden Labradors along with Juju the cat make it quite a welcoming experience.
Dining: Rajasthani cuisine is delicious here at Pearls & Chiffons or the P&C. This also has a private dining area. Delicious pastries lined the Mad Hatter bakehouse—the bakery inspired by the book Alice in Wonderland which was among the Maharaja’s favourite books.
Facilities: There is a pool, gym and spa. There are special arrangements for MICE and Weddings.
Explore: Bikaner has many old havelis.More attractions include Junagarh fort, Gajner Palace, Laxmi Niwas Palace and special dinners Darbari Lake.
How to Reach: You can take the overnight trains from Delhi. There are flights from Delhi to Bikaner as well. Or you could do the 500-km plus drive.
2. Suryagarh, Jaisalmer
Located in the heart of the Thar, this luxury hotel is an initiative of MRS Hotels and is close to the famous Sam Sand Dunes. With nothing but sand and yellow stones all around, the hotel is truly a dream destination. No noise, no rush and an endless sky to gaze upon.
All guests gets a fairytale welcome with flowers, camels escorting you, mangiyars singing and dancing to ‘padharo mare desh’ and a heartwarming smile. Musical mornings and evenings in a courtyard full of sparrows, peacock, turtle, golden labradors, even pet donkeys is the mindblowing part.
With an architecture resembling the forts of Rajasthan, the 72-room hotel is a little further away from the main city which adds to the charm. Accommodation is available in different categories, from exclusive havelis to pavilion rooms. The hotel has hosted the Who’s Who including chief ministers of different states, dignitaries such as Paul Allen of Microsoft, JJ Valaya and more. It has hosted dreamy weddings for many.
Facilities: Built in traditional architecture with jaali work and a central courtyard with fountains and pillared corridors, the hotel offers all the luxury that you can find in the desert. Wide corridors, spacious rooms, a good spa, gym, indoor pool and restaurant serves alcohol and global cuisine. There are special arrangements for MICE and Weddings.
There is a board room, pre-function room, conference room, a gymnasium called akhara, an indoor pool called neel, spa called rait, and restaurants—all-day dining at Nosh, specialty restaurant The Legends of Marwar and Draksh the bar. There are many halwais in the hotel. The hotel offers a sumptuous halwai breakfast which most in India would love. I preferred the Detox Breakfast in the courtyard. The Thali dinner in the courtyard is something out of the Arabian nights.
Explore: The curated trails are amazing and need a longer stay. You go back to the days of the nomad and the sundowners in the sand are just one way of enjoying your time in the desert. I would have loved to explore the desert more and perhaps go deeper into the Desert National Park to see the lizards and the snakes. The place is a paradise for archaeology lovers. There are abandoned villages of Kuldhara, a temple dedicated to Durga and spring wells deep in the desert. But a must-do experience is the chudail trail, which takes you deep into the desert at night. The hotel arranges live folk music and snacks in the desert, near an oasis or on the dunes.
What to carry: Wear comfortable clothes when you’re there. The sand can get into your clothes there is nothing more romantic than a setting sun giving colour to the dry land
How to Reach: There are flights to Jaisalmer and the hotel can arrange transfers. Jaisalmer is also connected by rail and road. Alternatively, you could go to Jodhpur and do the four-hour drive through the exotic landscape.
Imagine waking up to the sound of birds, a rising sun and snow-clad mountains. The grand palace was built in 1910 by the king of Kashmir, Raja Pratap Singh, and then his nephew, Hari Singh, used it as his winter palace. This is where the crème de la crème have been hosted and are still hosted. Lord Mountbatten has walked the corridors here. In fact, Mahatma Gandhi and Maharaja Hari Singh discussed the future of Kashmir under a Chinar tree in June 1947.
The Maharaja had a floor to himself and that is now the royal suite with a private dining area and library. With stunning four-poster beds, traditional Kashmiri artifacts and wood flooring, this is pure luxury. A butler service is also available. In the heydays of Bollywood, when Kashmir was the most sought after film location, stars like late Shammi Kapoor made the valley famous with his ‘yahoo’. Decades later, veteran actor Amitabh Bachchan sang ‘kabhi kabhi mere dil me khayal aata hai’ sitting under a chinar tree in the palace grounds.
A leisure walk through the corridors introduces you to the flavours of Kashmir. You can see the colourful papier mache vases and handcrafted walnut wood furniture and paintings. The beautiful handwoven wall hangings and the gold ceiling in the lobby will transport you to days of the maharajahs. Handcrafted copper samovars grace many corners. The Kashmiris still eat in handcrafted copper utensils.
Rooms: The USP is the view. All the 113 rooms face the iconic Dal Lake while the Himalayas form the backdrop. You get Kronocare amenities.
Dining: You can watch the dancing sun rays through the glass windows of the bar. Dining is at The Chinar or Darbar Hall. I enjoyed traditional cuisine and dishes such as Nadru in yakhni and saag. There’s Wazwaan too. The menu includes Indian and global cuisine. The hotel has an organic garden.
Spa: The best place to unwind is the spa. There is an in-room service for massages on special request but I would suggest going to the spa. I tried the signature and deep tissue massages and they worked wonders in relieving tension knots.
Facilities: There is a gym, banquet hall and salon too. The best thing here is the service by the beautiful people of Kashmir who are warm hosts. The huge gardens are a wonderful playground for children and relaxing spots in the morning and evening.
Explore: Srinagar is a treasure trove of the old and the new. You can visit Jamia Masjid, Khanqah-e-Moula, tomb of Zain-ul-Abidin’s mother, All Saints’ Church, drink your kahwa with sheermal at Chai Jaai and ride in the shikara at Dal Lake, take day-long drives to Pahalgam and Gulmarg.
How to Reach: Srinagar has regular flights from Delhi and Mumbai. It is also accessible by road.
Located in scenic Kashmir, this hotel epitomizes a heavenly abode with handcrafted walnut wood furniture, silk tapestries, delicious nuts and copper plates.
IT WAS SEPTEMBER 2014. Pitter patter raindrops were falling on the green pine trees, the mist was settling on the mountains. Sitting in the balcony of The Khyber, I could feel the slight chill in the air. I was visiting Kashmir after 26 years and enjoying the beauty and the bliss of silence in this luxurious room. The engraved walnut table, the almonds, the cashews, the nuts, the large peaches, the exquisitely embroidered cushions and the paper mache wall, it was a warm, cosy world inside.
This luxurious place with its wooden flooring, The Khyber is houses the L’Occitane Spa, tea lounge Chaikash with a variety of teas and a multi-cuisine restaurant Cloves. Liquor is not served in Kashmir but in this hotel you can carry your own liquor and enjoy it with a hookah session at Calabash. And then there is the terrace eat-out Nouf where you can enjoy barbeque with bonfire and watch the hills. There is an indoor heated pool and a gym for exercise lovers. And for those who want to spend time lying around, they can watch a movie at the small theatre. Cinema halls have now opened after 30 years in Kashmir.
Rooms: The black stone hotel has striking wooden interiors.The lobby has a rising ceiling with chandeliers and exquisitely embroidered sofas. We stayed in the luxury premium rooms with balcony; there are some without a balcony too. There are duplex cottages—a mini-apartment with a dining hall and separate area for children.
The Presidential Suite is a mansion within the resort. It has a Jacuzzi pool adjacent to the master bedroom with the Himalayas as the backdrop.
Facilities: The Wi-fi is strong and there is a business centre. Parties can be held too in the banquet halls.
L’Occitane spa: With an extensive menu, I was spoiled for choice but began with ‘Immortelle Secret to Brightness’ facial. This is a 75-minute signature facial and helps with sun damage and age spots. It fights pigmentation marks, thanks to specific formulas enriched in New Daisy Flower and derivative of Vitamin C, with a dual action on skin discoloration – both corrective and preventive. At the same time, organic Immortelle essential oil, combined with the signature lifting face massage, delivers strong smoothing and firming benefits. As a result, skin is left incredibly smooth and radiant, complexion looks brighter and more even.
On the second day, I tried the 60-minute Signature Lemon Balm-Sandal Wrap. What I liked: the pillow enriched with lavender, tea tree and geranium fragrances. Wrapped in sheaths of sandalwood, Himalayan clay and reviving lemon balm essential oil, my skin as nourished with Shea butter. The natural Himalayan spring water replenished the minerals and lemon balm purified the skin. This was accompanied by a soothing foot and scalp massage. It ended with a shower and a palm walk–a unique dry palm pressure massage to complete the signature treatment.
Explore: Gulmarg is known for its skiing. It has a cable car, meadows and horse riding. There is a St Mary’s Church and the hotel where the famous movie Bobby (1970) was shot.
How to Reach: Srinagar is easily accessible by air and road. From there, you need to drive up to Gulmarg.There are taxis and buses on hire at the airport. The resort can also arrange transfers.
Located just 500-metres from theWestern group of the famous Khajuraho temples, The Lalit Temple View Khajuraho offers an amazing stay. With sprawling lawns, green shrubs and flowers lining the entrance, this looks like a royal and luxury villa. The buildings are designed so that they do not rise above the trees, and the light yellow gives them a cosy look. Nothing in the hotel is ostentatious or off. The sound of AUM reverberates in the lobby as the traditional Madhya Pradesh metal sculpture stands in the centre.
Rooms: The hotel has 47 rooms which are divided into different categories. We stayed in an apartment which resembled a private residence. It had two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen.
Facilities: The hotel also has a spa, gym, and a shop. The guests are also entitled to free Wi-Fi. In the evenings, the puppet show helps lift up the spirit. The hotel has a bakery, The Boulangerie, and Mahua Bar. I would recommend everyone to spend some time by the pool, listening to the flautist Ram Das who also paints on the spot. The music from the flute, a glass of wine, fresh breeze and temples in the backdrop just made the holiday perfect. There is a Krishna temple in the hotel. You can walk around to see the sculptures in different areas.
Dining: There is a herb garden and these are \used in the meals served at its 24-hour multi-cuisine restaurant, Panna. We enjoyed dal, buffet breakfasts and even the traditional Bundelkhandi Thaali. The restaurant has an outdoor seating with a huge lawn.
Explore: Khajuraho is synonymous with erotic sculptures but that just makes up 10% of the architecture of these famous temples. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the temples were made between 950 and 1050 AD by the Chandela dynasty. The area is best explored on foot so I recommend you carry a pair of good walking shoes. You can also hire bicycles in the market area. The Eastern and Southern groups have a different feel, as they are situated in areas with more open spaces and less habitation. In the western group, a Shiva temple is open for all. You require a ticket for the western group but the entry to the tribal museum near the western group which gives insights into the world of Madhya Pradesh is free. There is a small shopping area near the western group. You can also try the very popular Raja Café.
You can take a day’s trip to Panna National Park. We sighted our first tiger there and the even rarer hyena. Another place that is not to be missed is the Ken Alligator Sanctuary. You will find the stupendous Raneh Falls here. You will get to view the graphite formation that emerged out of a volcanic eruption many centuries back. You can end your drive in this area by taking back a memory from the small souvenir shop.
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