Monday, December 04, 2006


Two exceptional Aman resorts in India

Not everyone can travel these days. Trips cost more than ever, meaning mass tourism is on the way out. In its place droves of newly-affluent Asians and East Europeans wander around, but other conditions have acted to transform the marketplace. The pain of air travel is the obvious first contender. It’s harder to fly, the planes are full or late, staff is surly, and everyone dreads the hassle of airport security. Air travel hasn’t gotten any cheaper or easier, even booking online is arduous. Plus, the volatile price of gas cut into a lot of people’s Summer vacation plans last year. The lower end is being squeezed, while mass travel declines. Luxury is therefore the growth category to watch.

The class of tourists still in search of adventure wants the exact opposite of prepackaged environments and institutional behavior, and they are ready and able to pay for it. What they seek are holidays which reinforce their own socially-responsible values, higher denomination top-end experiences combining culture, comfort and sustainable concepts. You might call the new category Sustainable Tourism. It’s a quiet revolution in the industry, one in which thought-leaders try to remain low-profile as they deliver personalized, unpackaged travel with a conscience. At the same time they need to stay mindful of the impact of development, the necessity to preserve legacy and heritage, while leaving a minimal footprint, or they will alienate both their potential clients and their host communities. Most importantly, they must afford eco-tourists an opportunity for guilt-free total immersion in the real culture of less-traveled places.

A clear industry leader, crafting their brand with these new standards and values, is Aman Resorts, who set an admirable example. This operator believes that the service proposition is not incompatible with the eco-offering. They have established small, discreet luxury resorts in many of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and fascinating places. Two very different resorts in India show how successful and versatile this concept can be, when elegantly applied.

Amanbagh, in rural Rajasthan near Alwar, 2 hours east of Jaipur, reached by Land Rover over secondary roads, is a palatial compound of 40 new suites, with 16 private pools, nestled into an ancient and towering eucalyptus grove, invisible from the road. It’s the only resort in the area, an oasis which recedes perfectly into the landscape- pink stone buildings rendered in the classical style and defined by long colonnades, fountains and courtyards. It’s a tranquil place, with no meeting facilities, a property committed to the service proposition: staff to guest ratio is 6:1. At the moment of your arrival a sari-clad member of staff ties a poli band around your left wrist, a traditional sign of welcome. This memento remains with you for months after the experience- the custom is that you not remove it; the poli stays there until it falls off your wrist. It’s an authentic cultural ritual of personal greeting, followed by the western custom of a glass of champagne offered from a silver tray. Then begins a leisurely walk to your suite. You will find the accommodation elegant, quiet, private and spacious, and the bathroom rendered in local green marble can only be deemed spectacular. In the distance a flute echoes, and your mind drifts back to the mounds of pomegranates on brass trays in the patio alcoves, and the classical sand painting in the entryway, which you will discover changes magically every day.

The kitchen at Amanbagh is the province of chef Matt Small, an expat Aussie who has faithfully recreated regional home recipes in a modern kitchen, complete with its own tandoor oven. In addition to his superior menus for lunch and dinner, Chef Small brings a high breakfast consciousness to the equation, with an exceptional rendering of French toast accompanied by lemon curd and cinnamon, a real delicacy, perfectly prepared. The coffee is strong and arrives hot, and the signature fruit salad of banana, kiwi, watermelon, pineapple, guava, strawberries, grapes and two kinds of pears, garlanded with pomegranate is remarkable, a perfect way to start your day. This master chef oversees a large organic garden, more the size of a football field, producing nearly everything he needs for his recipes.

Amanbagh is so far off the usual tourist path that much of the rural life surrounding it hasn’t changed, perhaps for centuries. Camel-drawn carts are a common sight and you quickly grow accustomed to them. Along the roadsides processions of brightly clad women from the Panjara caste carry great bundles of firewood balanced on their heads. Endless fields of mustard flowers stretch off into the distance. In the vicinity a number of well-preserved fortifications can be visited. There’s even a throne cut from natural rock in a canyon, where the hotel will set you up with a catered picnic. By far the most amazing site is the abandoned city of Bhangarh, with its city wall, main street, temple complex and hillside palace largely intact. Nobody appears to visit the place, and among its ruins you discover examples of stone carving and architecture which bespeak a culture of great skill and sophistication. Nobody knows why the city -which once numbered over 50,000 residents- was vacated, but an alluring local legend describes a curse placed on the city by a queen who practiced black magic. The surrounding flood plain is dotted with ornate cenotaphs. If the guide named Sita Ram is available, by all means take advantage of his encyclopedic knowledge of local history, flora and fauna, not to mention his gracious manner.

How truly sustainable is Amanbagh? The resort generates its own power, has its own water purification plant, grows its own vegetables, and gets 40% of its labor from local villages. It trains its own people, and has involvement in community education and support of local schools. Aman apparently allows its General Managers to put their own personal imprint on their properties, and GM Sally Baughan does a magnificent job for her guests and her community. The level of staff contentment can be discerned by the sight of an impromptu noon game of cricket on the front lawn. From the sidelines a brown-eyed camel kid lazes in the shade, watching the play. Faint in the distance women on their way to the fields can be heard singing traditional songs.

Aman-i-Khas, set on the edge of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, is a compound of nine beautifully furnished tents, nestled among sawgrass, on the shore of a small lake. Here you have the possibility of an unforgettable, authentic, honest camp experience, albeit a very comfortable one. The tents may be canvas, but they boast every luxury appointment.

First you have to get there, and it too is a remote location. To expedite matters, Aman-i-Khas assigns you a butler in Delhi, who escorts you south on a train. You have your own compartment and lunch hamper, and about 5½ hours to collect your thoughts. Another reality pervades there, for the resort is situated out at the farthest point from town, beyond the reach of any other properties, set among the fields which surround the tiger reserve, the area’s premier destination. The obligatory safari visit requires your silence and patience, but incredible beauty and wildlife sightings are the tradeoff. Few things compare to viewing tigers in the wild, the smell of carrion, or the shriek-howl rutting call of the spotted deer. General Manager Jonathan Blitz brings a lot of great style to the experience. He’s an expat South African, comfortable with the safari life, and ever ready to help with the details that make your visit a memorable one. He runs a tight ship, and projects a near-mythological presence appropriate to the setting.

The nearby fortification called Ranthambhore occupies two mountain-tops connected by a stone bridge, with ancient walls over 3 miles in perimeter. It’s home to a complex of abandoned palaces and a famous temple to Ganesha, where it would be considered good form to make an offering. (You buy a marigold garland, hand it and a modest donation to a priest in the temple, he says a prayer, applies an orange flower paste susmna above the bridge of your nose, and afterward you hurl the garland to the monkeys waiting outside, who fight bitterly for them. The winner tears them apart and eats the marigolds with a vengeance. Keep your distance.) The views from the ramparts look out over miles of valleys which were once the exclusive hunting domain of the Maharajah of Jaipur. A mile below, crocodiles bask on the shores of a lake. There are monkeys loitering everywhere, screeching parrots flit by, and temple pilgrims march in procession.

You can also visit Sawai-Madapur, a nearby city with a bustling main street and colorful bazaar, with blocks of open front shops to look in. This small, rural city is known for fragrances and oils, so it is possible to find essences of the highest quality at a small price. A vial of pure lotus oil cost the equivalent of US$2.50. But bear in mind you are a long way from the mainstream, and be prepared for an alternate worldview: things are done differently here.

The camp experience involves sunbathing, eating, reading on your own patio, or availing oneself of the comforts of the spa tent. There’s the opportunity to lay about at the glamorous step pool and hope that the crocodile doesn’t eat you (just joking). The camp has a fine menu of hearty fare and local tastes, all available from room service, which ought to be called tent service. The roughest aspect of the trip may be the bumpy roads your jeep navigates as you visit local villages, or search out the tigers.

Aman-i-Khas has all the credentials of sustainability, its own power and water plants, organic garden, local workforce, community involvement, as well as disappearing during the monsoons seasons when GM Blitz breaks down the camp and puts everything into storage until the favorable weather returns- the invisible footprint for half the year. There’s the abovementioned crocodile –really- dozing on the shore of the lake at the camp. When asked if he came with the property, Blitz answered simply, “He just showed up after the rainy season last year and hung around ever since.”

You may well encounter one of the defining moments of a lifetime during your visit to the camp. On temperate nights a group of local musicians are engaged to sing and play traditional songs accompanying their voices with classical instruments in the open air, seated near the crackling fire pit, while the Rajahsthan sky shimmers above with uncountable stars. No poetry can express the incredible power of a moment like that, and Aman has the gift for providing such stirring experiences. See these places now, for the world is changing, and progress will eventually intrude. Until it does, Aman Resorts can be counted on to do the right thing, as both these magical destinations in India attest.