10 best: Indian boutique hotels
Alastair Sawday picks the best of India's new breed of small luxury hotels.
Chhatra Sagar, Nimaj Pali, Rajasthan
A chance to star in your own Indian epic. The savannah unfolds from across the banks of a 100-year-old family-built reservoir, home to more than 250 species of migratory birds. Antelope graze on the bank. All this makes for an amazing view from the nearby hill on top of which two of the white Shikar tents perch -- worth the sharp climb if only for the reward of a "summit sundowner" courtesy of Stetson-wearing owner, Harsh.
Smartly contained within a rigging of white canvas and furnished in elegant Rajput style, bedrooms teeter on the edge of tent reality, while marble and slate 'bathrooms' transport you to another dimension completely. Toast and tea are delivered to your tent before breakfast. A honeymoon can easily be imagined here as you are warmed by camp fires and dine in style by candlelight on the most delicious food in the region. Head to bed by torchlight to discover hot water bottles tucked between the sheets.
Details: Full-board Rs12,000 (€173). Includes jeep and birdwatching tour. Tel: 0091 941 412 3118; www.chhatrasagar.com.
Casa Britona, Bardez, Goa
This 300-year-old customs house has a languidly beautiful location on the backwaters of the Mandovi, not far from cultural Panaji or the churches of old Goa. Birds love this river sanctuary and twitching has never been more stylish, reclining on the terrace with a cocktail -- or freshly squeezed watermelon juice -- beneath the coconut palms.
Two riverside studios make for more privacy, but the restored main house is the impressive heart of the matter, containing eight rooms over two floors (choose rooms one or three for a shared veranda), each decorated with colonial furniture and artefacts from owner Sheila's travels across South-East Asia, trompe d'oeil murals, gently whirring fans and deep Rajasthani four-posters. Culinary affairs are discussed at breakfast with James and his endlessly helpful staff, and fresh ingredients then sought for Goan sensations of tiger-prawn curry or crab masala.
Details: Rs5,000-Rs7,000 (€72-€100). Tel: 0091 832 241 6737; www.casaboutiquehotels.com.
Kalmatia Sangam Village Trek, Almora, Uttarakhand
If, while staying at Kalmatia Sangam, the lure of Nanda Devi and the Kumaon range becomes irresistible, have a word with Dieter; he has used his intimate knowledge of the area to put together a gentle six-day trek. Starting from the old hill station of Almora, walks to suit all ages take you through some of the most beautiful landscapes in India. First Chittai Bell Temple and the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary
to adjust to the altitude, then ancient trails along terraced fields, past waterfalls, followed by forests. Along the way you are treated to 1,200-year-old temples and picnics beneath snow-capped peaks. But what makes this trek really special is where you stay. Dieter has carefully tweaked designated village houses en route so you can experience authentic Kumaon village life. Creaky stone houses come with hot bucket baths and family dinners.
Details: Full-board for six days, three-day trek and three-day stay at Kalmatia Sangam is Rs34,500pp (€497; minimum two people). Tel: 0091 596 225 1176; www.kalmatia-sangam.com.
Wild Brook Retreat, Jwalapur, Pauri Garhwal, Uttarakhand
On the boundary of Rajaji National Park, an exhilarating drive from Rishikesh, is Wild Brook. Four spartan cottages and four spacious tents are set on river rock plinths, scattered amid old agricultural terraces. The feel is rustic and blissfully remote.
From the hammam hot water for the basic (but clean) bathrooms to the limited solar electricity, the 'back-to-nature' slant is deliberate. Manoj, your jocular, encyclopedic host, is a passionate conservationist, and Wild Brook is the culmination of his life as scientist and activist. Meals are organic, fresh, wholesome -- breakfasts on your veranda, picnics for your game drive, fireside dinners under the stars. Forget your phone (there's no signal) and marvel at the calls of hornbill, parakeet and peacock instead. Skip the hot shower and bathe in the brook. Wander downstream and meet the sadhu living in a small temple on a forested ridge. If trips into the jungle to spot elephant, leopard, tiger and birds sound too energetic, try some instructed yoga or read in absolute peace.
Details: Full-board $220 (€149). Singles $145 (€98). Price includes one safari. Tel: 0091 141 260 4570; www.wildbrookretreat.com.
Kurumba Village Resort, Kurumbadi, Tamil Nadu
An entrance between 'the fourth and fifth hairpin bends' gives a clue as to the spectacular setting. Surrounded by rainforests, among gardens and spice trees, these views, scents and sounds will have you reeling. Watch the clouds swirl around the treetops from your dining table, wake to birdsong, and send monkeys flying as you explore the maze of paths (often steep). You have a ringside view of the forest from your floor-to-ceiling windows.
Cool and spacious with bamboo furnishings and splashes of orange and lemon, suites have a contemporary chic, while pyramidal roofs and tribal ornaments add local colour. Even bathrooms -- part open to the skies -- have jaw-dropping windows. While away your time with binoculars on your veranda or by floating in the infinity pool, but don't miss the guided treks and tea estate tours. Food is delicious and abundant. Gentle staff, sensational setting.
Details: Full-board Rs6,500 (€94). Tel: 0091 423 223 7222; www.kurumbavillageresort.com.
Delhi Bed & Breakfast, Delhi
One night at this guest house gets you closer to the real India than a month at Delhi's finest hotel. Pervez and Lubna gather you into their family (two young children and grandma) with a passion. Pervez is raconteur, entertainer and information guide wrapped in a bundle of joviality. Lubna is a dream cook who will take you to market and share her kitchen secrets.
The three-storey house, in a smart suburb of south Delhi, is comfortable and colourful, overflowing with patterned rugs, bright cushions, carved sofas and Bollywood DVDs. Spotlessly clean bedrooms contain vast new plasma screens, but you're more likely to linger with a book on a plant-filled terrace or in one of the two lounges. Pervez will happily point you in the direction of the city's sights, some of which -- Humayun's tomb, the Red Fort and Lodhi Gardens -- are only 20 minutes away.
Details: Rs2,300 (€33); www.delhibedandbreakfast.com.
Trinity at Fort Cochin, Kochi, Ernakulam, Kerala
The one-time Indian HQ of the Dutch East India Company has become a voguish little bolthole exuding privacy and peace -- ideal for families or groups of friends. It's a young offshoot of Malabar House -- an intimate and seductive place to stay. The three suites sing with Anglo-Indian good taste: raised double beds, a unique collection of contemporary Indian art, luxurious linen, controlled blinds and outside bathrooms with sunken showers. Two suites have an extra bed on the mezzanine, the smallest has an outdoor deck and the air conditioning is peaceful. For views, seek out the balcony that overlooks the parade ground. Breakfast when you please, on fresh breads and pastries, fruit and eggs and banana and coconut pancakes, smilingly served.
For Indian designer clothing there's an on-site boutique. For dinner -- and massage -- there's Malabar House. For sport there are bikes and a tiny pool. Then retire to the dining/sitting room, chic and inviting with deep orange chairs, books, DVDs, internet and large, lush bowls of fruit.
Details: €170-€250. Tel: 0091 484 221 6666; or visit the website www.malabarhouse.com.
Devra Udaipur, Kalarohi, Udaipur, Rajasthan
Wraparound verandas and a sweeping roof terrace give exquisite views of the countryside, yet ancient Udaipur is beguilingly close. Across Lake Pichola the City Palace glints; on a nearby hill stands the Monsoon Palace.
Inspired by her family home, Jyoti has designed a modern building and tucked in a garden strewn with statuary, capturing the intimacy of a private house and adding a swish of class. Lounges are scattered with big wicker armchairs, low tables and earthy-toned cushions. Bedrooms are stylish contemporary spaces of four-posters, bright fabrics, cream floors and bed linen as white as the bathrooms' tiles. Delicious meals are created by Jyoti from produce from their much-loved garden or their organic farm.
Details: Rs2,800 (€40). Peak season October-March. Tel: 0091 294 243 1049; www.devraudaipur.com.
Himalayan Village Sonapani, Mukteshwar, Nainital, Uttarakhand
Follow the path to this glorious 20-acre smallholding, its terraces thick with fruit trees and unbroken views. Named after a healing spring close by, Sonapani is 2,000 metres up in the Himalayas, surrounded by wild rhododendrons, oaks and pines. A scattering of cottages is connected by pathways and divided by vegetable plots, orchards of apple, apricot and plum, and brimming flower gardens and herbs.
The well-insulated cottages are constructed of compressed blocks of earth, with mud-plaster interiors and tin roofs, and are very snug inside. Comfort comes from new mattresses on pine beds, bright bed linen and hot 'en suite' showers. Be a hermit by day, a socialite by night -- there are campfires, communal eating and a lovely friendly feel (but you must provide your own alcohol). The buffet meals are varied and wholesome, and they bake divine cakes.
Details: Full-board Rs2,800-Rs3,200 (€40-€46). Tel: 0091 800 630 0100 or visit the website at www.himalayanvillage.com.
Thanedar Retreat, Shimla, Himachal Pradesh
The views are among the most exhilarating you could encounter -- steep valley sides ribboned with ancient terraces; farmhouses with slate roofs and carved balconies; pine forests climbing the mountain. Host Prakash longed to return to the Sutlej Valley (a three-hour haul from Shimla) and now he is here, surrounded by apple and cherry orchards (his "labour of love"), living among family, staff and guests in a large spic and span house and two snug log cabins. Flat pancakes, palak paneer, home preserves and seasonal fruits are served in an octagonal dining room with vast views. As the sun sets through the spruces, evenings are spent snuggling up around the camp fire, swapping tales and listening to Prakash's delightful stories. Retire to a simple spotless bedroom with dhurries on the floor, flip flops for the shower and lashings of lovely hot water.
Details: Rs2,600 (€37) for two per day, with meals. Tel: 0091 112 686 1397; www.banjaracamps.com.
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