Swap your sunglasses for a sceptre, deck chair for a dynastic seat and bikini for a ball gown and you'll be ready for a royal retreat at luxury hotel Ahilya Fort. Once the private palace of the Holkar dynasty, today, this former regal stronghold plays host to tiara-coveting travellers. Choose a recliner and hold court by the hotel’s large outdoor pool, or swan through the Narmada River’s holy waters on a boat tour. Having lived like a noble by day, dine like a true heir by night, feasting on dishes designed for owner Prince Richard Holkar’s titled ancestors. Altogether, this blue-blooded stay behooves those with a taste for the finer things.
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A bottle of wine and one traditional Maheshwari Malish massage each for two
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Check-in, 1pm.
Double rooms from £227.60 (INR22,734), including tax at 18 per cent.
Rates innclude three meals a day, all drinks, some local excursions in Maheshwar, and laundry services.
Dine on a private island in the Narmada River: enjoy mocktails and snacks before settling on an intricately patterned rug and feasting on Indian delicacies. A tailoring service is also available to guests on request.
At the hotel
A library with a TV. WiFi is free, but spotty in some areas of the hotel; a computer room with wired Internet is available for black-outs. In rooms: tea- and coffee-making facilities, free bottled water and air-conditioning.
Our favourite rooms
Set in a private garden, high on a terrace overlooking the river, the Royal Arjun Tent has swathes of canvas for that ‘under the stars’ (but warm, cosy and – mostly - WiFi-blessed) feel. Its large four-poster bed, freestanding bath tub and plunge pool also wooed us. Assume a Sheherazade position on a pile of reclining cushions and watch the world go languidly by outside...
The hotel’s large, outdoor, freshwater pool is surrounded by tropical foliage and looks especially grand in its palatial 18th-century surroundings.
There's no spa, but private or couples’ Maheshwari massages are held in a peaceful treatment room; a masseur can be summoned on request, and staff know who has the nimblest fingers in town. Yoga classes are held in the hotel's gardens too.
Maheshwar is a conservative city; pack a limb-covering wardrobe to wear beyond the hotel doors. Delicate Maheshwari silk or cotton scarves fold up into slender packages, so all the more reason to bring a stash back; they’re ideal for covering your shoulders in temples, too.
All ages are welcome, but the hotel’s best suited to older children and teenagers due to its high terraces and balconies. Baby cots can be added to all rooms.
Dine by star and candlelight, as local musicians serenade you, on a private island in the Narmada River.
Long linens and colourful cover-ups.
There’s nothing so pedestrian as sitting under one roof here; guests are encouraged to dine around the grounds on chef Kalyan Singh’s daily-changing – but consistently delicious – menus. Shake off the shackles of formal dining and lunch on the beautiful Badam courtyard, take an apéritif on the Mandap terrace, before dining by the pool bathed in the glow of hundreds of candles. For a still-outdoorsy ambience, the indoor dining room (only used during monsoon season) has murals depicting wild jungle scenes, and it opens out onto the hotel’s vegetable garden. At breakfast, you'll find both Indian and western á la carte dishes; all breads, cakes and biscuits are baked on-site and Prince Richard brings his own range of home-made jams to the breakfast table (not literally, obvs). Lunch typically consists of light western fare, such as cold soups and salads. By contrast, dinner is a rich and complex feast of specialities such as Kashmiri Dogra duck in pomegranate; the traditional dishes are based on the recipes devised by the hotel’s owner – eminent food-enthusiast – Prince Richard Holkar.
There isn’t a designated bar area but cocktails are served before dinner on the terrace.
Lunch is served from 1pm–2.30pm, dinner from 8pm–10pm.
The hotel is set within an 18th-century fortress on the banks of the sacred Narmada River in the ancient city of Maheshwar.
Fly into Mumbai or New Delhi and then get a connecting Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com) or Air India (www.airindia.in) flight to Indore airport (AKA Devi Ahilya Bai Holkar); the flight is just over an hour long. From Indore, Ahilya Fort is a two-hour drive away; the hotel can arrange transfers for you (INR4,000 a vehicle).
Trains arrive at the hotel’s closest railway station, Indore Junction, from all over India, including Mumbai, Jaipur, New Delhi and Calcutta. Indore is a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from the hotel, but the hotel can arrange a one-way transfer (INR4,000 a vehicle).
For tourists unaccustomed to driving in Indian cities, it will be far easier, and a lot more relaxing, for you not to hire a car. There are many sites within walking distance of the hotel and for those further away, taxis or boats can easily be arranged.
Worth getting out of bed for
Maheshwar is temple territory; this popular pilgrimage destination is packed with places of worship dedicated to Hinduism’s many colourful deities. Sacred culture is easily stumbled on here – some bedrooms look out over the Narmada River where pilgrims perform their ablutions to Shiva. Next door, Ahileshwar Temple houses the chhatri (memorial pavilion) to Prince Richard Holkar’s most famous ancestor, Queen Ahilyabai Holkar, who built the fort; a little further away (a 20-minute walk from the hotel at most) lie the impressive Kaleshwara and Rajarajeshwara temples. Within the fort’s walls, you’ll find the Rehwa Society – one of the owner’s charities, which promotes the production of Maheshwar’s vivaciously hued textiles and supports the craftswomen and men that create them. Further afield, the hotel can arrange day trips to the island temple of Omkareshwar and Kanch Mandir (the latter famous for its glass mosaics), Indore city and ‘ghost town’ Mandu. For some cultural respite, take the hotel’s boat to an area of untouched (and unpolluted) beauty for a peaceful dip in the Narmada cascades.
Located near the gates of the Ahilya fortress, Labboo'z Café & Lodge is one of very few restaurants and cafés in Maheshwar. Stop off for a refreshing glass of lassi and their delicious poha and alloo paratha before heading out into town.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this boutique hotel in Madhya Pradesh and unpacked their Maheshwar sari and lingam, a full account of their passage into India will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Ahilya Fort…
Once a royal palace, boutique hotel Ahilya Fort has a rich heritage that goes back over 250 years into Indian, and hotel owner Prince Richard Holkar’s family history. You can feel and see this past throughout the hotel: from its views of the Akhileshwar Temple (built by the Prince’s ancestors) to chef Kalyan Singh’s banquets, which showcase recipes passed down by blue-blooded gourmands over the years. After exploring the deserted city of Mandu or the temple island of Omkareshwar, you’ll be welcomed home with a traditional Indian feast on a private island in the Narmada River. Lit by stars and candlelight, and overlooking Baneshwar Temple, it’s all rather regal.