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Rajasthan, India: Offbeat places to stay

By Amar Grover 6 February 2020

Rajasthan’s ancient forts and medieval palaces have long anchored tourism in one of India’s most exotic and visited regions. Yet many visitors are increasingly veering away from the state’s sprawling (and often noisy and congested) cities towards the tranquil countryside for a more rural and rounded experience. The so-called ‘desert state’ is greener and more fertile than one might expect, and many of its curiously under-the-radar country properties offer a distinctly personal and immersive atmosphere for moderately bold travellers.

These are just some properties and destinations worth aiming for:

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Tijara Fort Palace (near Alwar)

Occupying the summit of a landscaped hill around 120 kilometres south-west of Delhi, Tijara Fort Palace completes what a 19th-century maharajah couldn’t after his mysterious death in 1845. For a century and a half, the site lay forlorn and abandoned until Neemrana Hotels grabbed the proverbial. Incorporating architectural salvage from across the state, three mahals, or ‘palaces’, were either completed or practically re-built using mostly traditional techniques and designs. No two rooms are the same and most face pretty garden courtyards.

Part of the landscaping included creating seven terraced gardens along with a collonaded terrace. Expect a fine swimming pool and views across seemingly infinite farmland. Plus, just after the monsoon, you’ll come across a large seasonal lake fit for a maharajah—and a twenty-first-century traveller.

Tijara’s facilities and ambience almost discourage outside exploration, but you could head off into the countryside—perhaps stroll across the bund, or simple dam, that helps secure the seasonal lake. Nearby Alwar boasts a huge hilltop fort and a picturesque palace complex (now government offices).

If heading to and from state-capital Jaipur, allow time to pause at the ‘ghost-town’ of Bhangarh. Reputedly one of India’s most haunted sites, the 17th-century remains—abandoned, according to local lore, following a curse—of what was a substantial settlement stand at the foot of rugged hills. Doubles at Tijara Fort Palace start from IN₹7,616 and includes breakfast.

Fort Bishangarh (near Jaipur)

About an hour’s drive north of Jaipur, Fort Bishangarh looms theatrically above the flat plains. It’s an extraordinary sight, the result of millions spent on converting what was originally a modest garrison-fortress into a fifty-nine suite extravaganza with an arresting tapering profile probably beyond the means of medieval architects.

Several dramatic floors and wings were sympathetically added to the surviving structure; from the outside, you can still discern its original upper crenelations. Avoiding the almost clichéd ornate-palace look, its interior is sleekly modern but embellished with traditional elements like jharokha windows (resembling small projecting balconies) and brass embossed panels. Even the external plaster was refined so the original structure’s weathered look was replicated on the new walls. Here and there in its corridors, granite boulders once exposed to sun and sky now jut through walls and floors.

If you can pull yourself away from the swimming pool (which stands below the fort in a kind of garden annexe) or spa, the property arranges village walks—where you can see local craftsmen at work—and longer, more demanding forays into nearby hills where you’re only likely to meet local shepherds.

Doubles at Fort Bishangarh start from IN₹30,680 and includes breakfast.

Go under the radar:

Bhainsrorgarh Fort

Tucked away in southern Rajasthan near Kota, few other spots command such a gorgeous location. Perched on a cliff overlooking the remarkably pristine Chambal River, Bhainsrorgarh is the ultimate unadorned retreat, exuding homely, old-world charm.

Of the two pale-yellow mansions, only one remains habitable—its rooms and suites have had relatively modest upgrades, so the experience feels just a little more like staying with the resident noble family as house-guests rather than the formal atmosphere of a hotel.

The very best rooms directly overlook the Chambal, but all offer peace and quiet. Dining on the scenic terrace in one of its dinky pavilions, you might spot crocodiles lurking in the river below. For a more up-close and personal perspective, take a rowing boat and explore its riverbanks together with those of a pretty tributary. A satisfyingly wild jumble of walls and battlements—all part of the property's medieval fortifications—overlook the rivers’ picturesque confluence.

Both Kota (which its huge palace-museum) and Bundi (a charming town with another atmospheric palace plus a huge brooding hilltop fort) are within day-tripping distance. If you’re coming from and heading on to Udaipur, allow time to pause at Chittaurgarh, one of Rajasthan’s largest and most famous forts.

Doubles at Bhainsrorgarh Fort start from IN₹14,900 and includes breakfast.

Rawla Narlai

Serenaded by a cluster of bald granite knolls, Rawla Narlai stands in Narlai village amidst striking lake-dotted scenery on the edge of the Aravalli Hills. Built in the 17th century, this former hunting lodge had considerably decayed by the mid-1900s until its owners, part of Jodhpur’s royal family, embarked on the heritage hotel route to facilitate its extensive restoration.

Beautifully restored and expanded, it’s now a popular halt on the busy tourist route between Udaipur and Jodhpur. Rooms range from original ‘classic heritage’ configurations with stained glass and faded courtly wall-paintings to full-blown suites in a new wing. A good swimming pool complements its pretty gardens and guests are strongly encouraged to explore the neat village, walk up to hilltop temples, go horse riding, and even leopard-spotting.

Two unmissable sights near here are the extraordinary Jain temple at Ranakpur—a beautiful confection of white marble and virtuoso decorative sculpture – and the magnificent fort (Rajasthan’s highest) of Kumbalgarh whose massive, crenellated walls stretch for around fifteen kilometres.

Doubles at Rawla Narlai start from IN₹10,030 and includes breakfast.

Inspiring stays and retreats:

Chanoud Garh

About two hours’ drive south of Jodhpur, rural Chanoud stands well away from major roads. The village and surrounding hamlets still move to the timeless rhythms of rural India, yet in its midst stands an imposing mansion with airy wings enclosing a cool shady courtyard.

The semi-fortified complex might have crumbled away completely were it not for the resolve of its owning family. As their assets—and then heirlooms—drained away, by the early 2000s, they realised drastic action was needed. Turning the property into a ten-room boutique hotel saved their ancestral home and gave much-needed employment to local people. The place is a gem, full of peaceful yet simply stylish nooks and crannies, and excels in delicious home-style cuisine.

Chanoud’s informal and personalised excursions lend a fascinating window on rural Rajasthan and its folklore. Punctuated with abrupt hills, the countryside is home to semi-nomadic Rabari shepherds as well as prosperous though unassuming farmers, all of whom you can meet. Guests often visit a couple of low-key temples with wonderfully strange back-stories and enjoy sundowners alongside shallow lakes alive with migratory cranes.

Doubles at Chanoud Garh start from IN₹23,600 and includes full board and soft drinks, plus a guided village walk if staying two nights or more.

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Amar Grover

Contributor

Amar Grover is a London-based travel writer and photographer contributing to a variety of mainly UK newspapers and magazines. He is a regular visitor to India, a favourite destination in which he has travelled and written about more than any other country.

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