‘Man, I love it here’: a tour of Rajasthan’s finest hotels | Travel

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Far below me, the monsoon-quenched Aravalli Hills glow green. Farmers’ fields and trees segue into the postage-stamp rooftops. Distant horn honks and goat calls rise to meet the muggy heat, already thick at 8am. From my seat at the pinnacle of Pratapgarh Fort, a milky horizon stretches. It’s the picture of tranquillity. Or it would be, if I weren’t screaming.

Here, among the faded centuries-old frescoes and crumbling archways of the ruined Mughal garrison, my smiling yoga teacher, Pratibha, is giving me a vinyasa lesson. With a master’s in yoga under her belt she does things the proper way. She helps to stretch my body, pulling my arms and legs, rupturing the dozy morning calm with my yoga-induced yelps.

Many Indian hotels offer yoga and at most you’ll probably do it in a pavilion. But Amanbagh — one of two Rajasthani outposts of the ultra-luxe Aman Resorts group — does things differently. Why stick poolside when you can “downward dog” in the shadow of a 16th-century jungle temple or with a hundred birds in an abandoned hillfort rather than a class?

“Anything is possible here,” I’m told by the gregarious manager Hemendra as — muscles now blissfully slackened (Pratibha knows her stuff) — I tuck into a dosa breakfast. His is a common refrain at Aman Resorts. Catering to a clientele who have seen and done it all, the properties are fixers of extraordinary local experiences as much as they are places to stay.

Pool room at Amanbagh

Pool room at Amanbagh

STEVE TURVEY

The Aman “in” is nice to have anywhere but it’s particularly gratifying in a place such as India, which can feel daunting for first-time visitors. The hotel provides a cushy respite from sightseeing hubs such as Jaipur and Agra (both day trips from Amanbagh), and the hotel’s staff help guests to navigate the rich cultural landscape. Not just the Taj Mahal, but exploring sleepy villages or off-map temples. They make you feel as if you’re discovering the real Rajasthan, if an idyllic version of it.

And then there’s the ridiculous luxury. Over breakfast I take in the resort’s full panorama: former royal hunting grounds ringed by leopard-roamed peaks. Parakeets flit between eucalyptus branches; grey langurs hop across immaculate lawns. (Amanbagh employs four “monkey men” whose job is to placate the animals. “They were here first,” Hemendra says with a shrug.)

As I drain my banana lassi, gazing across the huge pool, a gleaming Marwari horse trots by with a trainer. A guest shuffles out from the spa after an ayurvedic treatment, no doubt to collapse in her cavernous suite.

I spend three days at Amanbagh, visiting Bhangarh Fort with a gentle guide, Sita Ram, who points out the native birds; and touring villages where I meet baby goats and sip lemonade with farmers next to their piles of drying corn. I join a traditional purifying fire ceremony with Pratibha where we chant into flames, burn herbs and “omm” into blissful meditation. “This is just how we’d do a fire ceremony at home,” she tells me.

The whole time there isn’t a slip-up. There isn’t a moment when my bed is left unmade, or when a smiling staff member isn’t waiting to pass me a rosewater-scented hand towel. A flautist serenades diners while I crunch poppadoms. When I retire in the evening, a warm bath awaits with floating frangipani flowers.

At first I wonder if it’s not all a bit much. Surely I don’t need my holey socks pressed and folded? But as Amanbagh works its magic, I can’t help but agree with the American I overhear: “Man, I love it here.”

If Amanbagh is for luxe cultural immersion, then its sister property, Aman-i-Khas — a three-and-a-half-hour drive south — is for exclusive outdoor adventure. The ten-room tented camp is mere metres from the gnarly boundary walls of the tiger safari paradise Ranthambore National Park.

Aman-i-Khas

As I walk along the jungle-fringed path to my “tent” (with a bathtub and air con), I ask my butler whether tigers ever leave the park, since the walls are clearly low. “Yes,” he says frankly, dropping my bags. “Does that mean they sometimes come into camp?” His face says it all. Thankfully Bengal tigers, as I learn over the next two days from the safari guide Pankaj, aren’t interested in eating you. And they do sometimes, in the depth of the night, pass harmlessly by Aman-i-Khas’s neat canvas tents. As does other wildlife — spotted deer, sambar and leopards.

As I get up at 3am to use my tent’s Japanese heated lavatory, I feel a jolt of excitement as I hear a rustle in the bushes. Is that the striped squirrels I saw frolicking earlier or a roaming Shere Khan? Either way, knowing an army of guards is patrolling, I don’t worry and drift back off to sleep.

Even if you could do without the plushness of the Aman-i-Khas suites — leather details, floaty white fabrics — the real value here comes in the quality of the guiding.

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Ranthambore safaris are highly restricted and in demand. Only 140 safari vehicles are allowed to enter the park at a time, so you have to book months in advance. But it’s clear Aman-i-Khas has a special relationship with Ranthambore: we jump a lengthy queue of vehicles entering the park. Guides provide cameras and binoculars, and arrange “exclusive moments” such as meditations at Ranthambore Fort or sunset fizz on a jungly hilltop. The only thing they can’t magic up is a tiger.

Despite the slim odds I’m given for spotting one during this lush post-monsoon season, I’m lucky enough to get a brief sighting — barely more than a swish of a tail. But what is unexpectedly flooring about my game drive is the beauty of the park itself.

We bump along rocky dales past rushing waters and spot fuzzy deer in sunlit meadows. Peacocks shimmer sapphire against the dense green brush. We pause on hilltops for cups of masala chai.

Ranthambore guides are meticulous about the environment. Pankaj pulls over mid-safari to pick up rubbish. Back at camp, I’m shown how old tents are upcycled into bags and how the kitchen grows all its veg. The hotel has banned plastic. It’s not claiming to be perfect (there is the tent air con, for example) but they’re making an effort.

Six Senses Fort Barwara

Sustainability is a focus, too, at Rajasthan’s latest glamorous hotel opening, Six Senses Fort Barwara, an hour’s drive west of Aman-i-Khas.

Overlooking Aravalli Hills, the first Indian outpost of the spa hotel brand launched in late 2021. It has poured millions of rupees into the Chauth Ka Barwara community and created jobs, started a water recycling programme and begun rewilding the landscape.

However, that’s not the only reason to visit. Six Senses Fort Barwara is a chance to kick back. Sure, you can enjoy the hilltop Chauth Mata temple or a gharial crocodile safari but, really, just being here feels like sightseeing. And that’s because the hotel is set within the walls of a restored 14th-century fort. Wandering the grounds, I pass stocky watchtowers and inner palaces, still occasionally used by the royal family that owns the fort. From grand terraces I peer down to the village below. By a pool fringed in frangipani a child-friendly pottery demonstration is going on.

The highlight is the spa, though. The setting is spectacular. After a comprehensive wellness assessment with Dr Jitendra, an alumnus of the esteemed Ananda retreat in the Himalayas, I’m booked in for a massage and led to the treatment wing: a centuries-old women’s palace with original frescoes, a tranquil courtyard and a historic temple dedicated to Krishna and Radha.

That evening, as the sky turns pink, I’m invited to visit the temple. With other hotel guests I watch as the bearded priest, or pujari, waves candles at gilded figures, chants and crashes cymbals. We are all bathed in light and sound, and cradled by the beginnings of a sweet, arid night. The resort beyond the temple’s walls melts away and together we drink in Rajasthan.

Alicia Miller was a guest of Amanbagh which has full-board doubles from £661 (aman.com); Aman-i-Khas which has full-board doubles from £882 (aman.com) and Six Senses Fort Barwara which has B&B doubles from £621 (sixsenses.com). Black Tomato offers seven night trips, three full-board at Amanbagh, two full-board at Aman-i-Khas and two B&B nights at Six Senses Fort Barwara from £9,600pp, including flights and transfers (blacktomato.com)

Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur

Three more luxury Rajasthan spa hotels

1. Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur
Situated on Udaipur’s Lake Pichola, this 18th-century summer palace has been one of India’s most recognisable hotels since it opened in the 1960s. Expect regality from the original architectural details to tasselled drapery and glittering chandeliers. The Jiva Spa specialises in treatments from champi head massages to body rub-downs employing tulsi and ginger-scented oil. The two-hour Mewar Khas treatment involves a soak in a hot tub overlooking the lake waters. You’ll quickly see why the homespun hotel brand Taj has such a reputation for luxury.
Details Room-only doubles from £417 (tajhotels.com)

The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur

The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur

2. The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur
Floaty fabrics and polished four-posters, wicker chairs and splaying accent palms — the rooms at the Oberoi Rajvilas channel traditional Rajasthani design. Set on the outskirts of Jaipur, home to must-sees such as the Amber Fort and Jal Mahal, the hotel insulates you from the city rush and gives the opportunity to reset. The spa menu hops from Himalayan singing bowl therapy to jasmine and patchouli facials (ace for oily skin). Indoor-outdoor restaurant Surya Mahal is similarly eclectic, listing Italian insalata caprese alongside Thai curries and Rajasthani thali.
Details B&B doubles from £397, (oberoihotels.com)

Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur

Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur

3. Taj Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur
Another Taj and another corker: a magnificent Indo-Saracenic palace that is one of the biggest draws of a visit to Jodhpur. As one of the world’s largest private residences, it’s still home to the local royal family, as well as a maze of lavishly decorated rooms and rambling grounds (with tennis courts, two pools, multiple restaurants and flaunting peacocks). Personalised yoga consultations are on the spa menu, as are digestive cleanses and glow-inducing skin scrubs. After you’ve had your fill of pampering, take your pick from a long list of activities: horse riding or mocktail making, or a tour of the palace museum.
Details Room-only doubles from £389, (tajhotels.com)

The Taj Mahal, Agra

The Taj Mahal, Agra

GETTY IMAGES

Indian visas – what you need to know

Since India reopened its borders last winter, British travellers have been excluded from using its speedy e-visa system, which is available to citizens of a vast majority of nations. Instead, those from the UK must make an application for a regular, paper visa at indianvisaonline.gov.in and also arrange an appointment at a visa-processing centre — these are in Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Leicester, central London, Hounslow and Manchester. However, there are few appointments available at present, with waits of up to two months reported. At the time of writing the earliest available date that we could find was November 18.

During the appointment, often after waiting for several hours, travellers submit their passport and supporting documents. If successful, they receive the visa after a minimum of three working days. Only one member of any travelling group is required to attend the appointment.

● Visa rule change ruins India holiday plans for thousands

Tourist visas are valid for up to 30 days from arrival in India. Any visas issued before October 2021 are no longer valid. Although the Indian high commission is advising would-be travellers not to buy tickets without first acquiring a visa, travel-industry experts recommend booking a package holiday — including flights, with a bonded tour operator, so that any money will be protected if a trip has to be cancelled — well in advance.

Visitors to India do not need to quarantine on arrival if they have a certificate of completed primary vaccination against Covid-19 or a negative result from a PCR test taken no more than 72 hours before departing for the country. A declaration form (at newdelhiairport.in) must also have been completed for every visitor aged five or older.
See gov.uk for more information.

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