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In light of the terror in Mumbai, the compelling question of just how safe India is requires a rethink. Don’t abandon India as a destination, even though the answer is complicated. Terrorists will select high-profile targets, especially those they call “soft”, with weak security. But that should not deter a trip. Security has been beefed up and the bad guys have been arrested. Let these simple cautions apply:
- Don’t spend your time in big city destinations, especially tourist haunts
- Make sure your connections are definite, safe, secure, in the care of experienced guides or handlers
- Whenever possible, avoid high-traffic public transport
- Steer clear of the urban glitz and glam spots
- When you first walk to your hotel room, count the doors to the fire exit, in the unlikely event you need to find your way there in the dark.
Having established these parameters, India still has much of the remarkable and incredible to offer, especially luxury experiences far from the teeming crowds. You can still find the soul of India, at a safe remove from the chaotic hubs of transformation. But progress intrudes, an aggressive national highway building program will soon render many of the outposts more easily reached. So, as always, go now while you can, when the values are good and the demand is low. Think of India as an opportunity.
The four destinations reported here were visited in October-November 2008, just prior to the Mumbai attacks. Three are in rural Rajasthan, one in the northeast state of Uttrakhan in the low Himalayas. Each offers exceptional and rewarding experiences for the intrepid traveler willing to go far afield from the mainstream.
Chhatra Sagar, an eco-friendly tent camp in Rajasthan, India, summons to mind the motto of Hoshi Ryokan, a Japanese inn located outside Osaka, Japan, first opened in 718 and today run by the 46th generation of founding family: "Take care of fire. Learn from water. Cooperate with nature." In many ways Chhatra Sagar is a living illustration of that quality of enlightenment. The camp lies a 2½ hour drive from the city of Jaipur. It's a lifetime project of the Rathore family, direct descendents of the Maharajah of Jodhpur, owners of this land for 17 generations. Originally in 1890, great-grandfather Thakur Chhatra Singh decided to dam a seasonal stream flowing through his estate and changed the face of the valley, turning arid scrub into lush farmland. Over the years irresponsible farming, well-drilling and animal grazing damaged the water table. In 2001 the family decided to give the land back to nature, and established this eco-resort of 11 camp-style tents overlooking 365 protected acres on the east side of the dam, which fills with water from October to March. Following their conservation effort, over 200 varieties of wildlife have returned, egret, heron, kingfishers, antelope, wild boar, small jungle cats, all easily observed from the ramparts of the dam or on nature walks into the habitat. The sustainability quotient is optimal- the camp serves all locally-sourced food, has intense community involvement, and is furnished by indigenous craft. The property employs 30 local families from the nearby village of Kheda Deogarh, sponsors teachers, provides medicine, classroom furniture and brings specialized educators who address subjects ranging from family planning to recycling to soil conservation. The Rathore family deeply love the land, and view water-harvesting as an ancestral responsibility. Stewards and guardians of a unique place, their personal involvement and constant presence reinforce the commitment. They bring to the equation a natural grace and elegance, making the experience an altogether authentic one. They have created utterly comfortable lodging, and the ‘one price-everything included’ policy makes for an even-more attractive offering. By far the most romantic beds are found in “the tents on the hill”, with their 360 degree view, to the east the Aravali Hills, to other directions the rolling contours of rural Rajasthan. Come for the silence, the bird-watching, the isolation, the bats who fly over the dinner tables at dusk, the fresh pomegranate juice on the terrace, the tangible humanity of this singular place.
District Pali 306 303
Tel +91 2939 230 118
Romance and fantasy are the keywords which describe Devi Garh, a converted maharajah’s citadel 28 kilometers northeast of Udaipur, overlooking the village of Delwara in the Aravali Hills. This ambitious regeneration of a heritage structure fuses traditional architecture with splendid modern details, design, materials and conveniences in a setting so far from the here-and-now as to place one in a separate mindspace altogether. You can’t quite decide where you fit in time, with the unspoiled vistas, classical balconies and turrets, acres of white marble, and bathrooms of outstanding opulence, counterpoised with works of contemporary art and touches of tasteful modernism. You never wake up from the dream. The high service component only adds to the experience, with a staff:guest ratio that insures extreme attention if you want it. Accommodation goes from just-plain-cushy to over-the-top posh, and it’s virtually impossible to pry oneself away from the poolside, leafing through your bestseller, sipping lime water, punctuated by refreshing dips in water held to a perfect bathing temperature, and the lazy napping this kind of escapism encourages. All this before your visit to the Serena Spa, where the signature Marma treatment will leave you near-anesthetized in a zone of total relaxation. I’m not convinced there’s all that much to do in the area, though a walk with a guide through the settlement below can be a good introduction to a typical Rajasthani village, albeit one accustomed to a luxury resort in operation up on the hill for a decade, meaning higher prices than other hamlets. There is an amazing temple dating to 1100 AD well worth a visit, an offering, a prayer. A local astrologer will tell your future for about US$20, and there is a very fine naïve stone carver whose reliefs make excellent mementoes. Then a hike back up to the gates, a return to the sweet unreality, followed by a masterfully-executed traditional meal, perhaps in a mirrored private dining room high in the palace, accompanied by the strains of traditional flute. No wonder this spot was once called Raza Inayat, which translates Place of Gods and Goddesses. The resort is perfectly sized for meetings and events, delivering a singular getaway from the realities of the world, and ample time and space to rest and renew. Unforgettable.
Delwara, NH 8, Near Eklingji
Nathdwara, District Rajsamand 313 202
Tel +91 11 2335 4554
Amanbagh, situated in a secluded oasis of lush vegetation east of Jaipur, paints a brilliant picture of rural splendour and cultural heritage, while delivering high comfort, luxury and pampering. This remote getaway of only 38 rooms, designed by Edward Tuttle, features elegant walled pool pavilions rich in sandstone and pink and green marble, two restaurants and a spa. The guest can be assured of security and privacy, at the same time experiencing authenticity and sincerity in the service proposition. Aman hires great managers, and emphasizes humanistic principles in their staff training. This secret first-class escape, open just 4 years, built its reputation on repeat business (typical stay 3-11 days), where travellers kick back at poolside and then go forth in search of history and anthropology, all comfortably accessible nearby. Hearty Indiana Jones types endure the bumpy road up the precipitous side of a mountain top plateau to visit Neelkanth Temple, dating to 700AD, home of carvings both artistic and provocative. The way down affords a view of Mansarovar Lake, where a tranquil and leisurely floating lunch can be taken in the shadow of an abandoned fort, to the gentle lapping of the oarsmen’s strokes on the placid water. Another worthy half-day expedition, the deserted city of Bhangarh, allows wandering through ruins where 50,000 people once resided. Today it’s populated mostly by monkeys, who dart among the temple and palace on the hillside above. Ask for the guide Sita Ram, who can name every animal, plant, and ayurvedic remedy one encounters. His expert knowledge and great gentility add to the expedition. Amanbagh is a perfect place to celebrate pivotal life events like weddings, honeymoons, anniversaries, birthdays, reunions. But one could dream up other compelling reasons to spend a week there. Rajasthan’s legendary marble quarries, known for signature white, green and red hues, lie within reach. There are miles of marble brokers on the main roads about 30 miles west, vast yards full of cut slabs and enormous blocks- a shopper’s dream if one, for example, sought that exotic commodity. Budget allowing, copter in directly to the hotel’s private helipad. This alleviates a ½ hour flight from New Delhi to Jaipur, followed by a 1½ hour drive to the property. The last 45 minutes of the drive out are memorably bone-shaking due to washed out sections of road from last year’s monsoons. But definitely go. This outstanding destination has so much to offer in the details, more cultural experiences than a single stay allows, a wonderful menu to suit any taste, yoga at sunrise, the remarkable classic Rajasthani jewelry available in the boutique, and a wise little owl, avatar of Laxmi- goddess of wealth, who sits in a tree next to the entryway watching over every guest who arrives.
Alwar 301 027
Tel +91 1465 223 333
Escape and renewal figure mightily at Ananda in the Himalayas, a destination spa situated on a lofty hill overlooking the river Ganges, near Rishikesh. First you have to get there, and that alone takes some commitment. You can ride the train up from Delhi to Haridwar, around 5 hours of grueling track, with 1st class often sold out, so reserve early and lower your expectations. (If your only choice is to ride in 2nd class, keep your hands on your bags and don’t let them out of your sight. Foreigners are targeted on the trains as easy victims and valises can disappear in a second.) Alternately you could take a private car, an exhausting 6½ hour trek from Delhi, through miles of Muslim villages, then navigate a twisty mountainous pass through a state reserve, home to wild elephants which you don’t see. You will meet a lot of monkeys, who congregate on the roadsides waiting for handouts. Flights into the airport at Derha Dun are frequently cancelled, so short of private aircraft into that airport the best option is to charter your own helicopter from Delhi, which will follow the lazy path of the Ganges north, finally settling on a helipad just down the hill from the property, which is set within the confines of a maharajah’s estate above a forested gorge. The view of sacred river through the haze from that altitude evokes visions of ancient culture and wisdom, and complete separation from the accelerated world of big cities and throngs of humanity. This could be the ultimate destination spa in the world, if seasoned travel pundits and major publications are be to believed. Think of Ananda as a place to reflect , an uncrowded oasis and never rushed, where you quickly forget there are 73 rooms and 3 villas (which each have private pools and come with butlers) nestled among the conifers. People typically stay one week or longer. Guests often extend, in fact 70% of the property’s business are 10+ days. You will meet an unusually high number of single travelers, 35-50 years old, 60% from abroad, many of them women traveling alone. People seem to be doing a lot of networking. You may be at the time of your life when you are asking, “Is that all there is?” This could well be the place to find some answers.
Your stay commences with a consultation at the spa under the watchful scrutiny of an ayurvedic doctor, who will no doubt tell you to reduce intake of all the foods you like, and eat more of everything you’d rather not, advise you which spices and herbs are good for you, what body type you are. It’s a nice experience, though, talking about oneself for nearly an hour, and at the completion the doctor meets with Executive Chef Anup Gupta, and briefs him on your dietary profile. Thus surfaces the next dilemma, since the kitchen believes that while the cooking of foods is a ritual and a worship, you need not torture yourself unduly. Chef Gupta offers a prayer before a meal, “let this food do good for me,” and he will indulge your preferences. He visits your table, discusses the lunch or dinner, and then asks, “May I have your permission to cook for you?” His ulterior motive is to give his guests a lifestyle, which they take home with them after they go. This is a kitchen unafraid to dispense large portions , enlightened enough to list calorie and carb counts on the menu. A chef and waiter are assigned to each guest. You can attend twice-weekly sessions in Chef’s show kitchen, where he freely dispenses the secrets of his trade. Of course, it will be difficult to duplicate the flavor of his Eucalyptus wood fire grill. This kitchen does excellent work, with both Western and traditional Indian fare.
The other cornerstone of the Ananda experience will be your visit to the spa. The extensive and modern facility spreads out over 3 levels adjoining the pool area, and offers every imaginable iteration of ayurvedic treatments, from full body massages and clinical hydrotherapy to heated oil dripped over the forehead and things so exotic you will need a good hour to read through the menu of offerings, an embarrassment of choice. Be bold, daring, adventurous and you will be rewarded. The spa is committed to ethical values, and strives to be as green and sustainable as it can, using mostly locally sourced herbs and oils and minerals, including a range of outstanding products. There’s a palpable humanism present, and a high pampering quotient made possible by a staff of 75 devoted spa professionals.
Daily yoga ought to figure in any visit, and it’s available at a variety of levels from gentle beginner stuff to private hard-core instruction. Weather permitting, you can get oriented with a 7am class outdoors in a lovely amphitheatre, or you may be fortunate enough to catch a session in one of the lofty rooms of the palace up the hill. To fill out your itinerary, you might audit Vedanta lectures. Recently Shri Ronan, senior disciple of Swami Parthsarthy, acted as guru-in-residence, and conducted a series on topics relevant to finding fulfillment in the lives we lead. As if that is not enough, you could study Ayurveda, do some serious meditation, avail yourself of the 6-hole golf course, set a fitness regimen, or delve into past life regression. Or take some unforgettable side trips to a temple at the snow line of the Himalayas, trekking through local reserves in the company of expert guides, seek the blessings of local swamis, or journey down into Rishikesh to wander among the pilgrims, and end your day with a sunset ceremony on the banks of the Ganges.
While management positions the property as a place for de-stress, detox, purification, anti-aging, or weight management, there is a deeper level of experience to be found. Ananda in the Himalayas has a splendid isolation, miles away from the commodified world of commercial spas. You have made a major journey to an ancient spiritual capital, the birthplace of yoga, where guests regard the time taken as a necessity, a place for recharging the batteries, for reconsidering the meaning of life, and for finding the strength to go forward. Highly recommended.
Ananda in the Himalayas
The Palace Estate
Narendra Nagar, Thhri Garhwal
Uttrakhand 249 175
Tel +91 1378 227 500
The greatest dilemma with travel in India comes in two areas: The first concerns transit, the simple fact of getting from one place to the next. Connections are often problematic, or filled with cultural obstacles that aren’t easily understood. These might be as mundane as getting stuck in your vehicle on a country road somewhere in the thick of an endless line of cars, all waiting for a traffic accident to clear at a remote railway crossing; going through the arcane protocols of multiple baggage checks at a secondary airport; negotiating for a taxi back to your hotel; choosing the right inter-city flight; or the simple process of finding the right train platform, then coach, then seat at the Delhi station. The second comes in selecting the right guides, destinations and lodging which fit your individual preferences.
The key in India is to work with an expert firm who create exclusive itineraries and personalized travel experiences. This is an indispensible part of the process. Delhi-based Travelscope India pays personal attention to each traveler, and brings a wealth of insider knowledge gleaned from years of working in this fascinating market. The firm has created customized itineraries for things as exotic as elephant trips from city-to-city to archaeological tours, and their expertise reaches into all corners of the subcontinent. Mohan and his staff of travel specialists can handle any requests with the optimum of efficiency, aplomb, insider knowledge and a real human touch. This dimension of involvement can make the difference between a trip that is simply memorable or one that is memorably outstanding.
118, DLF Qutab Plaza, DLF City, Phase-1
Gurgaon 122 002 NCR of Delhi
+91 124 438 1801www.travelscopeindia.blogspot.com