Dhenkanal Palace, Orissa
This fortified lemon-coloured palace, hugging the slopes of Panihola Hills, was built in the 1830s by Maharaja Bhagirath Mahindra Bahadur of Orissa’s fourth-largest princely State, Dhenkanal. His descendant, Brigadier Raja Kamakhya Prasad Singh Deo currently lives there with his family. An hour and a half’s drive from Bhubhaneshwar, Dhenkanal Palace has a fort-like entrance, with a sloping stone ramp (where elephants once ambled in) that leads to an impressive gate. The royal homestay boasts 15 rooms, with each corner of the palace reflecting the 17 artisanal skills that thrive in the villages within a 25 km periphery.
You have handwoven linen and curtains, dishes made of Kansa, candle stands in Dokra (metalwork), Patachitra paintings in the bathrooms, and stonework (this is the land of the Konark Sun Temple, lest we forget). Surrounded by silence, from your private balconies overlooking the Panihola Hills you can gaze at a full moon or a starry night. An Art Deco room, in black and pink marble and granite, has furniture from the 1940s and a quaint bathtub. “We had pulley fans before the ACs came in,” says Yuvrani Meenal Kumari Singhdeo, who shares that there is no fridge or TV in the rooms, and guests are welcome to join the royal family in the living room.
Breakfast is in the garden, while meals are in a European-style dining room adorned with antique plates and crockery from Germany, Netherlands, France, and some from recent travels. Gorge on Oriya delicacies like Dahi Baingan and Mustard Potatoes, Continental specialities, and try their Chhena Podo, a local baked cheese dessert (an in-house dairy ensures a fresh supply of milk and ghee, while the farm provides seasonal greens). Take off for an excursion to local villages to see artisans at work, or trek through the forest and observe barking deer, jungle fowl, and if you are lucky, wild elephants. Or hire a car and hit Puri beach, three hours away. If you visit in February or March, you can join the royal family for a special arti at Alekh Mahima Dharma in Joranda, a 40 km drive away, where adherents keep their hair tied in a bun, and wear clothes made of bark. In Orissa, the magic never stops.
Built in the 1830s, Dhenkanal Palace is one of the few examples of a fort that is also a royal palace
The dining room adorned with plates from across the world
A living room where guests are personally greeted by the royal family
Le Dupleix, Puducherry
There’s something wonderfully quaint and evocative about the French Quarter in Puducherry, also known by its colonial moniker, White Town. You can take a leisurely stroll in the narrow, tree-filled lanes, and pass by churches, and shops selling embroidery, and yet remain a stone’s throw from the very walkable Promenade area by the beach. “This is the most interesting part of Puducherry,” says my guide, “Look at the grey and white buildings—they are unique to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.” Indeed, these buildings stand out, yet are part of a community woven into the fabric of the city, much like Le Dupleix: a white-walled heritage hotel that occupies a block on Caserne Street.
The last house of the French Governor of Puducherry, it was literally rebuilt— with furniture and woodwork from the nearby original mansion that was razed to the ground—by hotel owner Dilip Kapur, founder of leather fashion accessories brand Hidesign, with the help of INTACH, German architect Niels Schoenfelder, a French sculptor, and French textile expert Jean-François Lesage. “Mr Kapur wanted Le Dupleix to be a beacon of the glorious time of the French,” says my guide. The gaping, arched doorway leads to a convivial, open-air Courtyard Restaurant, past an ancient, leafy mango tree. The ground floor is a bit spartan, and suddenly, you have transparent stairs, a wooden swing on the first floor, and Tamil-style teak pillars on the top floor, that give the entire building a very modern feel.
Each room has a different ambience; most feature wood on the ceiling, stained glass partitions, and wooden flooring. Some of the bathrooms have blue tiles and are separated by a curtain. The rooms also have antique four-poster beds, chairs, and writing tables. To cap off the day à la française, head to the Courtyard Restaurant and sample Pondichéry Beach Salad, Creole Shrimp, and the sumptuous Lobster Le Dupleix, and finish up with a Tarte Tatin. Sip a nightcap at the Governor’s Lounge Bar, dominated by a giant embroidery by Jean-Francois Lesage, and call it a day!
Le Dupleix, named after the last French Governor of Puducherry, sits on a quiet road in White Town
Antique furniture in the rooms was rescued from the governor's original home
A swing on the first floor, where you can relax
Shri Joraver Vilas, Santrampur
Nestled in the lap of the Aravallis in Gujarat, and perched over the Lakshmi Vasanti Mataji Lake, lies the former princely State of Santrampur, with the 100-year-old, jewel-like Art Deco palace, Shri Joraver Vilas. This is literally a gem off the beaten track. “It was built as a summer palace by Maharana Joraver Sinhji, but is more like a villa,” says HH Maharani Mandakini Kumari of Santrampur, who resides on the upper floors of the villa with her husband HH Maharana Paranjayaditya Parmar of Santrampur and their son.
The villa is run as a boutique hotel, offering five rooms for guests. With a near 180-degree view of the lake, you could literally jump from one of the jharokhas into the water. “Around 25 per cent of the property sits by the lake,” says Maharani Mandakini. If you are lucky, you may catch a fleeting glimpse of the resident crocodile sunbathing on the shore. The rooms have silver furniture, with the Maharaja Suite is known to have a four-poster bed so grand, that “none of the guests wanted to sleep on it as it was too high!” she says.
The villa was renovated in 1942 by Maharana Pravin Sinhji (the son of Maharana Joraver Sinhji), who hired an interior designer from Bombay and had Art Deco furniture installed in every room. But perhaps the most striking room would have to be the Kabchi Room (or hall of mirrors), which is accessed via a small stone bridge from the Lal Chowk or courtyard covered in French terracotta tiles. An amalgamation of traditional Gujarati food and Rajput cuisine, with a Parsi touch (the owners of the Parsi distillery nearby were close friends of the royal family), you can look forward to dishes like Meethi Murgi and a dish made from white makai (corn), the local staple.
If you are a bird lover, you can make a trip to the Kadana Dam, built on the Mahisagar River (a tributary of the Narmada River), with its stunning rock formations and forests. You can also go explore the two other properties the family own—the grand old palace, the 135,000 sq ft, 70- room Raj Mahal, and the Hawa Mahal, a smaller palace. Or visit the 14th-century ruins of Shiva and Vishnu temples nearby. Fly into Baroda (140 km away) or Ahmedabad (180 km away), and a car will be sent to drive you down to the villa for a truly tranquil stay.
The main drawing room at Shri Joraver Vilas built entirely over water
Window seating at the Lake Suit
The Kabchi Room is the oldest room in the palace
Alila Fort Bishangarh, Jaipur
Rising like a phoenix from the plains, the Alila Fort Bishangarh, just off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, is a fortress built in 1793 that never saw war. Sitting on top of a granite hill in the lower reaches of the Aravallis, the turreted fort was built by the Shekhawati Rajputs of Shahpura, whose descendants own it to this day. This five-star, 22-acre property (managed by the Hyatt Group since 2018) has 59 impeccablyfurnished suites with all the mod cons, including secluded areas for romantic al fresco dining, and rural experiences in the surrounding areas. Leave your car in a special parking area at the foot of the fort, and sit back as you are transported up an undulating, steep ramp in the hotel car to reach a majestic arched doorway.
Glance upwards, and the dizzying height of the fortress hits your senses. Inside, granite stairs lead to an elevated reception area with ancient iron keys and vessels. The Grand Suites and Royal Suites in muted shades, are expansive, with marble bathtubs and round beds made to fit inside the turret, making you feel like a queen upon waking. Dine on the terrace at Nazaara restaurant with local singers, and try the Zameeni Murgh cooked in a sandpit (and don’t miss the rich Malai Ghewar for dessert!). As you explore the fort, you discover that there is a deep water reservoir built into the heart of it, with floors stacked up around it. The adjacent garden that encloses the fort’s ramparts offers Instagram-worthy shots of the edifice.
A flautist performs each morning next to the library that houses a map of the fort. Adjoining this is the Kachhawa Lounge, where you can partake of the four Cs—chai, coffee, cake, and champagne! Go down to the first floor to the spa (which used to be the ancient armoury), and treat yourself to a couple’s, luxurious Roots of Jaipur body scrub and Ayurvedic massage. During an excursion into the local village—to try your hand at pottery-making and a visit an intricately-painted Shekhawati haveli—enjoy an organic lunch of Choliye ka Shorba, a Five Grain Risotto, and Khajoor Ki Kheer at the resort’s own kitchen garden... a special secluded spots where you can enjoy a barbecue or a dinner under the stars.
Dine al fresco at the Nazaara Restaurant, with a stunning view of the plains
The Regal Suite with an oversized bathtub
The welcome area at the base of the fort
Cloud’s End Villa, Dharamsala
Up in the cool environs of Dharamsala, overlooking the snowy Dhauladhar Hills that rise up from Kangra Valley, sits Cloud’s End. Here is a Raj-era, colonial style, wooden bungalow that is the residence of Raja Aditya Katoch of Kangra-Lambagraon. “Cloud’s End was built by an Englishman in 1910, although work on it started around 1906,” says Tikaraj Aishwarya Katoch of Kangra-Lambagraon, the Raja’s son. Today, the property sits on nine verdant acres surrounded by plum and peach trees (the Raja is known to offer his homemade peach schnapps to lucky guests), with 18 wood-ceiling rooms spread out over independent cottages. Cloud’s End is more the Raja’s residence than a hotel. He often meets guests in his formal sitting room. “We don’t have a reception,” says Tikaraj Aishwarya. “We only have home staff, no hotel professionals.” No wonder you feel the warmth of personalised, attentive service.
Madanji, the 60-something resident chef at Cloud’s End, who was trained by a French chef named Louis in the palace of Jodhpur State, came to Dharamsala with Rani Chandresh Kumari of Jodhpur, when she married the Raja. Madanji has been a fixture of this place ever since, whipping up Continental fare (he can go a whole year without repeating a dish) like Chicken in White Sauce, Mashed Potatoes (to die for), and Mac and Cheese (probably the best you’ve had!). He can also whip up a meal of whatever you’re craving.
Visit the Dalai Lama Temple nearby, the personal monastery of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, or check out Tibetan art and artefacts patronised by the Norbulingka Institute (built for the Dalai Lama, a place for scholars and artists). You can’t miss the Kangra Art Museum with its stupendous collection of original Kangra miniature paintings (this form of art was patronised by the Katoch dynasty), which also houses a contemporary section—you can purchase Kangra art right there. Spend a day at the renovated Kangra Fort (once the seat of the Katoch dynasty, the ancestors of Tikaraj who find mention in the Mahabharata) and the museum it houses. Or explore the legendary Barjeshwari Mata Temple in Kangra, devoted to Goddess Durga, and the oldest pilgrimage destination in northern India, Jwala Ji Mandir, 32 km from Kangra.
The wooden ceilings of the room make it extra cosy
The colonial-style bungalow
The living room at the cottage
Belgadia Palace, Mayurbhanj
Built in 1804 by Maharani Sumitra Devi of Mayurbhanj, Orissa, as a guesthouse for royal dignitaries, and remodelled a century later, this double-storey country manor—a paean of love by Maharaja Sriram Chandra Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj for his second wife Maharani Sucharu Devi—is a rare example of GrecoVictorian architecture. The palace is a four-hour drive from Bhubaneswar. “The pastel interiors (they look straight out of a Wes Anderson film) were remodelled for Maharani Sucharu Devi, but the royal couple only enjoyed four years here, as the Maharaja was killed in a hunting accident,” says Princess Akshita M Bhanj Deo of Mayurbhanj, who along with her sister Princess Mrinalika Manjari Bhanj Deo, manages the property.
Despite the palace’s Ionic- and Doric-style columns, there are feminine touches. “When we chipped away the walls to restore them, we found floral Victorian embellishments on the ceiling,” says Akshita. Today there are four suites you can choose from—the most ornate being the Bengal Renaissance room, which was Maharani Sucharu Devi’s quarters (the Maharaja had his own suite). “Royalty didn’t sleep in the same bedroom,” says Akshita of the palace’s upper floor. Each room had its own cocktail bar; today, you will still find a study table in each room, a dressing room, Burmese teakwood vintage almirahs from Shillong that were designed by the Maharaja, framed bits of original Austrian wallpaper from the early 1900s, a framed esraj (a stringed musical instrument played by the maharani, that made a swan-like, haunting sound), and a gilded claw-footed bathtub.
“We have added a swimming pool, a steam room, and a boutique store (artisans come to Belgadia to create custom-made Sabai and Dokra artefacts that can be shipped out to you),” says Akshita, whose family supports the local tribals via the Mayurbhanj Foundation. Plan an engagement proposal in the Projector Room (formerly the Theatre room) after watching a vintage movie, get a massage from a tribal masseuse using local oils, take in a yoga class led by certified-expert Princess Mrinalika in the outdoor patio, go for a picnic in the nearby forest reserve, take a dip in the Sitakund Waterfalls (25 minutes away), or sip a tea with the princesses in the Tearoom. After all, this is no ordinary trip to the glorious Renaissance.
The Wes Anderson-like pastel interiors are filled with trinkets bought by Maharani Sucharu Devi
This Greco-Victorian architecture palace was renovated in the early 1900s by the Maharaja for his new bride
Each bedroom has its own dressing area as well as Burmese teakwood furniture
If you want to slip back into a more insouciant era, that of the Bengal Renaissance and the opulent lives of Maharajas, then a stay at Raajkutir (part of the Ambuja Neotia Hospitality Group) should top your list. The property is built around an elaborate (albeit fictional) story about Raja Kaliprasanna Singha who fought with the British to preserve his dominion over his land, Swabhumi. His son Nrishinghoprotap took over and ruled from Raajkutir with his beloved Ranima. From the unobtrusive photok (gate) that opens onto the street, stroll by the chariot that once transported the Raja straight to the Outhouse—now the Samayaa Salon and Spa, with an adjoining pool and gym—where he would take in a morning massage before returning to his palace.
Pass the two marble lions guarding the Lion’s Court into a palm-tree lined, stone-floored collonaded courtyard. The majestic, two-storied Raajkutir, with its arched, green-slatted windows, and filigree balconies has 33 rooms. Out of these, 27 rooms are special ‘character’ rooms that each pay homage to a member of the Raja’s family. Or, you can stay in an Atithi (guest) Room, just as you would in a real palace. The chambers have vintage furniture, fans from Italy, and luxuriant, thick mattresses that offer heavenly repose.
Follow the tinkling of glasses and gleaming chandeliers to the Swig Bar, where the second Ranima would dress up like the English governess Victoria Hawk (hired to teach the Raja’s third son Chandrapratap), with its wroughtiron staircase, wall of antique glass decanters, framed family portraits, and an admirable selection of single malts and cocktails. Or indulge yourself with a sweet treat at Loafer’s Café—famous for its Victorian High Tea—serving macarons, tortes, mille-feuille, scones, savouries, and their signature Loafer’s Grand Truffle and Choco Mocha cakes. The East India Room is where you can savour Colonial fare influenced by the British, Dutch, and Portuguese, skilfully prepared by Chef Sumanta Chakrabarti. On the terrace, take in a Baul dance performance to lilting music, as peacocks strut about.
The grand courtyard is reminiscent of a Bengali zamindari home in Kolkata
The East India Room serves British, Dutch, and Portuguese-accented dishes
The ornate ballroom
Rohet Garh, Rajasthan
What do Madonna, English writer Bruce Chatwin, and Oscar-winner Adrien Brody have in common? They have all stayed at heritage hotel Rohet Garh, 42 km from Jodhpur. Built in 1622 by Thakur Dalpat Singh I, when he was granted this jagir by the Maharaja of Jodhpur-Marwar, Rohet Garh became the Thakur’s seat of power. The Garh or fort was the seat of the Champawat Rathores and had its own judiciary, police, and even jail! In the late 1980s, thanks to the vision of the late Thakur Manvendra Singh of Rohet and Thakurani Jayendra Kumari, this 300-year-old property gradually transformed itself into one of the first heritage hotels of Rajasthan. Today, his son Thakur Sidharth Singh of Rohet, his wife Thakurani Rashmi Singh, and son Avijit Singh have carved out rooms inside the property and renovated existing ones to create a luxurious stay with lavish bathrooms and bedrooms with Rajasthani touches.
“We have 30 rooms, and each room or suite has its own personality,” says Sidharth, who lives with his family inside the zenana portion of the Garh (there are a few rooms overlooking a charming courtyard harbouring a family temple, where you may wish to stay). Or choose a room with a view of the tranquil lake (there is an island with a tiny temple right in the middle); go for Rooms 38 and 39 (where Madonna stayed with her family a few years ago); or Room 15, where Bruce Chatwin wrote his bestseller The Songlines, and William Dalrymple wrote City of Djinns. Sip a cocktail at the 300-year-old Darikhana, strewn with black and white photos of 8-goal polo champ Thakur Dalpat Singh II of Rohet (with the original wooden ceiling and silver furniture), or dine by the square pool in a hall decorated with a stunning peacock mural.
Enjoy a romantic dinner at Lakeview Terrace, with a private performance of Kalbelia dancers and Langas’ soulful music. You can take in a day safari for two with an exclusive Royal Picnic, or visit Bishnoi villages. Or try their Shikar Dinner at their sister property, Mihirgarh, where a special candlelit dinner for two is set up to recreate an erstwhile shikar camp in the middle of the Thar desert. If you are fond of riding, Sidharth, who owns a fine stable of Marwari horses, can saddle you up with Shandar, Sharang, or Vedant—the progeny of the legendary Alishaan, the greatest Marwari horse in modern times.
The Lakeview Terrace offers a romantic dinner for two
The swimming pool with a tiny pavilion at each corner
The famous Langas of Rajasthan perform every night
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