I first visited India in the mid 80’s – a six weeks deeply researched self-designed itinerary – taking in the Rajasthan circuit, Mumbai, Kerala and travelling all the way to the southern tip.
I had earlier eschewed the 60/70’s great pilgrimage, initiation by fire of the six-month Overland trip undertaken by then intrepid baby boomers who found their way to Earls Court London via Thailand, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Istanbul, the communist Eastern Bloc, travelling rough, on trucks, dodgy buses, and god knows what in between – their bible “$1 a day or was It $5” – the beginnings of the Wheeler’s Lonely Planet Travel Guides…a now unimaginable and impossible feat.
In 1969 I took the alternative route – recently matriculated, thyroid surgery under the belt, 17-years old, no driving licence and a one way ticket on was it SABENA airlines via a Singapore one night stayover, open drains and street markets selling fake “croc’ handbags, and a halt in eye opening, filthy Bombay (Mumbai) airport to land late at night in Belgium as the snow drift prevented landing in Amsterdam, to be greeted by my father’s brother’s driver who took me to their home in Brabant, south Holland – lobster mayonnaise cocktails on arrival in the wee hours, Della Robbia sculptures hanging over the door jambs and precious, ancient pre Columbian female fertile figurines lining the shelves. I recall in my wallet a generous gift of $300 from my trusting Dutch parents, and in my suitcase a home crafted tweed suit – coat, trousers, skirt that had been stitched in preparation for arrival in a European winter under the meticulous direction of one of mum’s best friends and my sewing teacher, Nancy Grant, grandmother to the exceptional Australian Paris based couturier and lifelong friend, Martin Grant.
Originally, we were to be a party of five friends on that inaugural Indian journey – two guys, one of whom at the time was one of Sydney’s most revered food critics whose business was manufacturing and importing coir matting out of Alleppy in Kerala, thus years of business and personal experience on the sub-continent, the other, an upcoming career journalist who went on to become the founding Editor of the Australian Financial Review colour magazine and three gals – my business | life partner at the time, and my still long lived ‘bestie’, soul and gastronomic mate, the significant partner in then Melbourne’s most prestigious restaurant – Malaysian born, Indian by birthright, Australian by adoption.
Well, the guys’ commitments dissolved their participation and on I forged finding a Sydney travel agent who knew zilch about India but was able to produce the required vouchers, essential meet and greets in each destination and hotel confirmations. To this day, I still wonder if it would have made a difference to have had the guys on board, (but discovered not for the first time that travelling with three is ideal) – but this was then – India was not on any “hot list”, nor thought to hold much promise as an exceptional let alone luxurious holiday, Travellers then were mostly Brits with strong historical ties to the Raj or perhaps latter day hippies looking for the peace and love expounded by the Beatles in the late 60’s after their stay in Rishikesh with the questionable Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to train in TM that led to the White Album; or Germans and French who in their DNA is a profound curiosity about anthropology, archaeology and alternative medicine.
It was then though ridiculously affordable to stay “top end”. The cleverer Maharajas – post Independence and Indira Gandhi’s abolishment of their privy purses, had turned their wealthy legacy of palaces and forts into tourism businesses. I recall swanning around the still originally furnished Maharani’s apartments with sunset views over Lake Pichola, at the fabled Lake Palace hotel in Udaipur, and swimming in the grand indoor pool with its golden swing at Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. We travelled in dusty trains, Ambassador cars, dodgy planes and little boats on the backwaters.
By the time we reached Mumbai and the Taj Mahal Palace, I was in sensory overload, grumpy, tired, frustrated, and ready to toss in the towel with India and head for Bali. Sequestered in the hotel for a few days was all that was necessary to recover the energy to explore the gentler south. This is what happened – I began to understand the cyclic nature of one’s “love affair” with India – and how indeed it can change your life. It begins in awe and wonder and enchantment at her mystery, unsurpassable beauty, ravishing colour and light; her timelessness and kaleidoscope of cultures, religions and landscapes. Then comes a fatigue from the sheer cacophony and heat of it all, before the fascination grips you again –this vast humanity and a thousand lifestyles breathing as one nation, her tapestry of languages, customs and beliefs; a whole continent in a country, as large and varied as Europe.
And so it was that barely a day passed when some vivid memory from that initial journey swelled up until the early 90’s when I was given the opportunity to lead a tour under the auspice of a company founded by the sister of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, the company I still collaborate with today. For that first tour, twenty six guests and I arrived on a foggy cold January night at shabby Delhi airport, greeted by our regal guide (to this day my closest friend and collaborator in India), and boarded a rickety bus, bound for the city. I’ll never forget the first evening after dinner, monkeys roaming the corridors of the Taj as a window had been left open – the first of many hilarious moments.
Indian wine was firewater, there was no internet nor mobile phones, no metros, no coffee shops, no highways to speak of, but we slept in royal tents, palaces and forts, rode camels and bicycles and jeeps, met Royalty and simple rural folk and were entertained nightly with dancers, musicians and puppeteers.
By the late 90’s, early 2000’s India’s economy was liberalised and with the expansion, change came rapidly, especially in the luxury level of hotels, with prices to match. I have been blessed to have stayed at all these divine properties – though there are so many other levels to enjoy India, and I have – though would counsel that where you lay your head at the end of the day must provide respite and comfort from your immersion during the day in India’s exuberant, bustling, crowded streets, bazaars, forts, majestic monuments and temples.
In 1997 the Oberoi group (who owned the Windsor Hotel Melbourne from 1980 until 2005) opened their first villa property in Jaipur, followed by Amarvilas in Agra in 2000, Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve in 2001, Udaivilas in Udaipur in 2007 and most recently Sukhvilas in Chandigarh – a feature hotel for our thrilling new luxury Himalayan tour in India in May 2023. Theirs was a radical upscaling of what luxury hotels in India could be – steeped in a timeless Indian vernacular, built with impeccable craftsmanship, state of the art modern amenities, backed by one of the best hospitality training schools, they provided exemplary first name service, a no tipping policy, and spectacular locations. They also gave the Taj group a run for their money that saw major extravagant refurbishments of their palace hotels in Jaipur and Udaipur. The Aman group, under pioneering Adrian Zecha who had already created an amazing portfolio of intimate villa compounds in Asia that embodied an understated sense of luxe with an awareness of sophisticated international taste spiced with a commitment to the deeply local, brought a further dimension to luxury Indian destinations opening Aman -i- Khas in 2003, ( a glorious, glamorous tented camp near Ranthambhore Fort, designed by Belgian, Jean-Michel Gathy, in 2005, Amanbagh proximate to Jaipur designed by the recently deceased America, Ed Tuttle and Aman New Delhi in 2009, now The Lodhi, designed by Australian, Kerry Hill.
Further signs of India’s modernisation, sophistication and cosmopolitanism came with the launch in 2006 by William Dalrymple of the Jaipur Literature Festival, now with outposts in London and Boulder, in 2007, the Rajasthan International Folk Festival – an annual music and art festival that promotes traditional folk music and arts held at the mighty Mehrangarh Fort, in 2008, The India Art Fair in Delhi that rivals Basel and Miami and in its last iteration drew together 70 international galleries, showcasing contemporary art, in 2013 the first World Sacred (Sufi) Music Festival in Jodhpur and Nagaur – just some of the star studded high profile events that bring international audiences in increasing numbers.
Throughout the country now is a growing network of highways, modern airports and urban metro systems.
Mobile phones are now ubiquitous that even a barefoot five year old child or a rural shepherd will have one, and you no longer pay for WiFi in hotels. Uber runs in all the major centres.
Arranged marriages and living in joint families are on the decline, and urbanisation is increasing.
The quality of Indian wine under the guidance of foreign consultants has improved immeasurably and locally made whiskeys such as Amrut, Rampur, Paul John and Woodburns are winning international awards
And yes, it is a wondrous land of groaning contradictions and conundrums. Poverty is still very visible, but so too is gobsmacking wealth. Rickety buses, camel driven carts, tuktuks and bridegroom ridden horses vie with Mercedes and other smart cars in congested traffic. Women comfortable in jeans will still don the most lavish sarees. Purdah has been long banished and the younger educated generation no long believe in dowry. People still consult their astrologist but you’ll rarely see a herd of hundreds of camels as we did in the earlier days. Devotion is still observed everywhere from Sikhs chanting in their gurdwaras, the call to prayer announcing dawn and dusk, diyas and perfumed flower offerings given at countless darshans in temples tiny and grand or sent as prayers on holy rivers, and ‘rangoli, rice flour designs and ‘pookolams’, elaborate flower decorations laid out for special festivals.
Still caught in that cyclical “love affair after more than thirty years, I feel India to be my second home and cannot wait to share it with you:
We’ll teach you the correct head nod, how to tie a turban, how to drink chai from a saucer and eat with your fingers, and how to join your hands in Namaskar appreciation.
Rajasthan Reimagined in March – luxurious but somewhat off the beaten track though not missing the icons
Himalayan Odyssey in May
Below my current, though by no means exhaustive hotel recommendations.
The most anticipated opening in Post Covid 2022 – Villa Palladio – 30 minute drive west of Jaipur city. For months we have been tantalised by the luscious Instagram photos announcing this newest project by long-time Jaipur resident, Swiss – Italian Barbara Miolini and her Dutch interior designer and collaborator, Marie-Anne Oudejans. Located in a restful rural location not far from the ‘Pink City’, the nine-key retreat hotel promises a luxurious symphony of the most divine shades of red accented by white and black and glow of candles, inside perfumed gardens. This formidable design duo set the Jaipur hospitality scene on fire, indeed gave it life, with the opening of Bar Palladio inside the grounds of Narain Niwas Palace, nine years ago. To this day it is still Jaipur’s most happening space that we all love for the exuberant peacock blue | green décor, the courtyard swings warmed by open braziers and the lovely food. During the day their neighbouring café is a must for lunch or high tea.
Mihir Garh – 60 minute drive south of Jodhpur
A modern nine suite fairytale fortress built on gorgeous sand dunes surrounded by fine breed Marwari horses, peacocks and wildlife, this secluded haven is the brainchild and dream of Siddharth Singh (from the noble Rohet family of Jodhpur) and his wife, a design maven, Rashmi who customised the bespoke furniture, textiles, fixtures, fittings and special wall and floor finishes with incomparable style, relying on 150 artisans still utilising traditional skills, so each suite is unique. There are private terraces, an infinity pool, courtyards overbrimming with colourful scented blooms, quiet niches and lovely artworks. This elegant couple with their refined sensibility that honours Rajasthan’s aesthetic legacy, but made modern, have extended their hospitality portfolio to the family home in Jodhpur, that provides six suites, two rooms, a pool, lavish dining room, lush gardens – an opulent intimate residence in the middle of Rajasthan’s second largest city.
Anopura – 90 minute drive east from Jaipur.
This is not a hotel – rather, it perfectly fits Art of Living’s idea of luxury – offering privacy, seclusion, impeccable and solicitous service delivered by long serving staff who live locally, exquisite farm to table food, verdant gardens and lovely chill out pavilions. Anopura is perfect for romance, restoration, rest, reading, writing, village walks, far from the madding crowd. Initial impressions are more of a Bali compound or Mediterranean villa with two lodges, two glorious swimming pools and only six rooms that have a rustic simplicity with every creature comfort thought of – all crafted from sustainable local materials.
Now owned by Aditya Baheti, Anopura was originally conceived by the gifted Belgian architect and former Consul in Marrakech, Phillipe de Villegas who was also the inspiration behind the sublime restoration of Deeppura Garh for Italian jewellery designer Maria Garzia Baldan. Inexplicably and sadly, the short lived hospitality life of this 200 year old Shekhawati haveli gloriously restored into a sublime ten-suite boutique property has come to an end and is now up for auction with Sotheby’s and yours for AUD 7 million.
Devigarh Palace – 40 minute drive north of Udaipur – Now Raas Devigarh
Opening in early 2010, this hotel broke stunning new ground on the heritage hotel circuit. Bought by art collector, philanthropist Lekha Poddar’s father G.P. Birla, one of India’s biggest industrialist families, as a dilapidated 18thC palace fortress in the village of Delwara with a backdrop of the stunning Aravali mountains, she with her son Anupam spent nearly a decade in its restoration. Gautam Bhatia, the Delhi architect respected the striking traditional, imposing structures of courtyards but imbued the project with stunning modernity for the interiors, retaining all the romance and splendour of the original complex. A brilliant young interior designer, Rajiv Saini utilised the Indian aesthetic of white marble, limestone plaster, precious stones, mughal patterns and modernised frescoes to create luxurious, contemporary suites, eschewing block print fabrics, and heavy carved furniture ubiquitous elsewhere. It has undergone several iterations of ownership and management and was taken over in 2016 by the esteemed Raas group who have subsequently transformed the minimalist white public spaces with a new aesthetic.
Evolve Back Kamalapura Palace – 20 minute drive south of Hampi
In Karnataka state is one of India’s most ravishing, most rewarding archaeological sites, the UNESCO World Heritage 14th century Vijayanagara Empire, now Hampi.
It is hard to believe that this sprawling palatial property is new, so beautifully does it evoke the architectural styles, arches, motifs of the historical site it references. Even their entry level suites are vast yet cosseted, with private decks with panoramic views over the wilderness and jacuzzies and there are pool villas, waterlily ponds, splendid public spaces and possibly the most impressive Olympic size swimming pool in all of India.
Conceived and designed by Ramapuram of Earthitects, this property bespeaks individuality, splendour, sincerity and the most salubrious abode in a beguiling destination where until recently accommodation choices were lacklustre and you forsook comfort over the need to experience this wondrous site.
Just prior to Covid I toured through all the Six Senses properties in Bhutan and was impressed and moved by their aesthetic ethos referencing local culture, history and architecture, their engagement with local communities and village-based activities, their first name basis with guests, their commitment to sustainability and harnessing local ingredients into wonderful dining. The group have now entered the Indian market with Bajwara Fort, mid way between Jaipur and Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve with 48 sumptuous suites, requisite spa and pools.
Raj Mahal Palace – in the centre of Jaipur – and its most regal and intimate address
Originally built in 1729, Rajmahal Palace was once the home of Maharaja of Sawai Man ‘Jai’ Singh and Maharani Gayatri Devi for many years. The Maharani describes the Palace in her memoir, ‘A Princess Remembers’, as a place that had “charm and character and a pleasantly informal atmosphere”. Polo trophies, family photos and photos of famous visitors such as Jackie O and Lee Radziwill and a 1950’s Ford Thunderbird remain on display; the property continues to belong to the royal family. It re- launched in the last decade under the Sujan family who continue to operate the most glamorous tented camps in Rajasthan and last year joined the RAAS brand for luxury boutique hotels, the company founded by Nikhilendra Singh.
Its exterior is the most delicious pale shell pink that carries over to the gorgeous art deco pool and the turbans worn by the staff. Interiors by restoration architect Adil Ahmad, one of the key designers at Good Earth (my favourite luxury homewares brand in India) are an Aladdin’s cave and confluence of beautiful antiques, contemporary spaces, stunning bespoke fabrics and dazzling individual wallpapers. There are only thirteen rooms and suites and two grand royal apartments. If room tariffs exceed your budget, then dining for lunch or dinner in one of the gorgeous dining rooms is a must.
Mary Budden Estate – Binsar – If you are prepared to travel the better part of day from Delhi to the northern state of Uttarakhand that borders Nepal and Tibet, then you will be rewarded with this heavenly abode set on a ridge deep within the virgin wilds of Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary where leopards roam and views reach out to majestic Himalayan peaks This truly stylish and luxurious homestay is the inspiration and vision of Delhi-based Serena Chopra, renowned photographer and writer with a special passion for Tibetan culture, Buddhism and Bhutan. Named in memory of its last known inhabitant in the 19th century, Ms. Mary Budden, it was bought in 1990 by Serena and her husband Ashwani and with it they inherited an enamel jug, some of Mary Budden’s books, an old armchair and the ruins of a girl’s hostel that held on to the memories of her life in Binsar. Situated in 5 glorious acres, the original bungalow, now fully and stylishly fully refurbished is characteristic of the style favoured by the British. The more recent lodge addition, which I prefer, respects the local architecture but is imbued with tremendous elegance and a sense of the contemporary.
There are 8 en suite rooms spread between two buildings, a library with wifi access, terraces and nooks and crannies for quiet contemplation, lovely lounge areas, wonderful bathrooms, a family temple, and organic food gardens. The entire property has been decorated with superb, understated good taste, exquisite artifacts and wood-fired stoves.
Nearby is the family owned farm that makes for a wonderful walk and local lunch, where you can stay the night. The property enshrines strong environmental principles: fully solar- powered and rain water collected. The cooking is next level.
Shreyas Retreat – an hour drive west of Bangalore airport
I have lost count of how many times I have retreated here for yoga, ayurvedic treatment and pampering rest. Befitting its purpose, accommodation is in simple, TV-free, but well-appointed cottages set in luxuriant gardens where in the grounds they grow their own organic food and medicinal plants and tend their cows, and the treatment rooms are very soothing with hanging gardens and perforated light.
Founded by London-based yogi and investment banker Pawan Malik, he was inspired to create an ashram enclave on these 25 acres – previously a flower farm – without the austerities. The staff to guest ratio is about 5:1 and no matter their roles, and all have a yoga practice and most have been there from the start. The gentle, wise, inspiring Balasunder heads the yoga team. The vegetarian food that comes from the kitchens is unbelievably delicious and nutritious, mostly served at beautiful flower graced communal tables that singles especially enjoy for the conviviality and new, if temporary friendships. Luxury is experienced in the smallest details – impeccable housekeeping, deeply caring staff, a lovely swimming pool. Allow at least five days. CGH Wellness in South India
I have had a long association with South India’s CGH group of hotels. Owned by a Syrian Christian family, now in its third generation of management and vision, they were the first in India to embrace responsible tourism, sustainability, and “walk the talk” of eco-consciousness throughout all their properties that share an ethos of monastic luxury, water recycling, organic gardens, no plastic, etc. In their wellness division they offer two Ayurvedic centres in Kerala as well as an holistic, raw food, naturopathic centre Prakriti Shakti.
I have undertaken treatment programs at both their Ayurvedic (hospital level accredited) centres – Kalari Kovilakom near Coimbatore in the north that is aesthetically and historically more beautiful – a restored 200 year old palace that belonged to the Vengunad chieftains, direct descendants of Prince Dharmavar.
I prefer Kalari Rasayana in the south for its lake views, simplicity and sense of horizon and open space as one spends most of the time in absolute silence and isolation.
Both properties adopt a more traditional, disciplined, one might I say serious “Indian” approach than Shreyas – daily consults with the Vaidyas (doctor) who prescribe various treatments suited to individual conditions along with accompanying detox processes, massages, internal and external medicines and a most specific diet of organically grown ingredients.
Vana Malsi Estate – 45 minute drive NW of Dehradun airport, an easy flight from Delhi
When it opened in 2014, Vana was a first in India – founded and privately owned by Veer Singh, son of billionaire Analjit Singh, Chairman of The Max Group.
Veer, who had learned regenerative farming in Spain, led the conceptualisation, design and creation of Vana Malsi Estate assisted by a team of international wellness experts and Spanish architects, Esteva i Esteva Arquitectura – it embraced a rare European, thoroughly contemporary, sleek aesthetic over its 85 rooms surrounded by nature. The stunning 21-acre estate is situated in one of the most spiritually rich regions in the world. Set amidst clusters of ancient trees, organic food gardens and fruit orchards, the retreat merges into its surroundings, uniquely perched on a small plateau with sal forest to the west, the hills of Mussoorie to the north and the bustling small town of Dehradun to the east and Rishikesh to the south, home to many famous ashrams.
At least seven days are recommended to explore each aspect of wellbeing: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The Vana ethos beings together ayurveda, Tibetan healing, yoga, natural healing, spa, fitness and aqua, providing many paths to reach the same goal, or at least start a journey towards greater personal wellbeing. It has recently been rebranded under Six Senses who will lend their prestige and broaden the offerings at this already iconic retreat.