With a name that means 'peaceful garden', Amanbagh boutique hotel is a whisper-quiet retreat on the outskirts of Jaipur, Rajasthan's flamboyant capital. Rose-tinted walls, domed cupolas and shaded courtyards echo the majesty of the Mughal era, offering a present-day palace stay that'll make you feel like royalty.
Noon, but flexible subject to availability and a charge of 50 per cent of the room tariff. Check-in, noon.
Double rooms from £469.90 ($649), including tax at 29.8 per cent.
Breakfast is an extra US$25 a person, but Smith members get it for free.
Roll up your yoga mat for an early morning sun salutation or meditation session at the ruins of Bhangarh. According to local folklore, this eery ancient city was abandoned after being cursed by the court magician.
The hotel is closed from sweltering 1 June to 31 July.
At the hotel
Day spa, gym, boutique, free WiFi throughout, well-stocked library of books, CDs and board games. In rooms: CD/DVD player, minibar, Kama toiletries. TVs and iPod docks are available on request.
Our favourite rooms
The Aman brief of understated, handsome furnishings is offset with refined Indian flourishes, including marble floors, carved wood panels, silver lanterns and intricate archways. All of the suites have king-size beds, private terraces, vaulted ceilings and enormous bathtubs (they take almost half-an-hour to fill) carved from a single slab of Udaipur green marble. We love Terrace Haveli Suite 38 for its regal balcony and generous terrace overlooking the pool and gardens, and Pool Pavilion 20 for its private marble pool, lush gardens and river views.
At the heart of the hotel is a 33-metre sea-green marble pool and a separate wading pool. The water temperature is kept cool in summer and warm in winter for blissful swims year round. Take a dip, then flop onto one of the eucalypt-shaded sunloungers.
Unwind with Amanbagh's signature full-body massage – the Maharani for Mrs Smith and the Maharaja for Mr Smith – in the calm couple's treatment room. Healing therapies and traditional henna body art are also on offer.
With walking tours, camel treks and village jaunts galore, a pair of decent shoes are a must, but your runners ain't going to cut it come cocktail hour, so pack something suitably slinky, too. Be sure to leave plenty of room for your Jaipur loot, including silver jewellery, lavish fabrics and vivid blue pottery.
All ages are welcome. Baby cots and beds for younger children are available for free with breakfast included, while extra beds for those aged 12 and above cost US$175 a night, plus tax.
Amanbagh welcomes kids of all ages. Baby cots and beds for under-12s can be added to any room for free, with breakfast included; extra beds for over-12s cost US$175 a night, plus tax.
All ages are welcome, but older kids and teens will glean the most from the cultural experiences.
The generous rooms can easily accommodate a baby cot (free of charge) and an extra bed for older children (US$175 a night, plus tax). Families with small Smiths might want to avoid the staircases and low-slung balconies of the Terrace Haveli Suites.
There are plenty of activities to keep idle hands busy, including treasure hunts on the front lawn, camel rides and polo matches, guided nature walks, bike rides, garland making and cooking classes, child-friendly yoga sessions, horse-riding jaunts and music lessons on the tabla, a traditional Indian drum.
There's a wonderful wading pool in the grounds that is ideal for tiny tots. Teens will prefer to splash in the main pool and kick back on the sunloungers.
The restaurant has high chairs and a children's menu, and the chefs will happily accommodate any special requests, including preparing packed lunches and heating up milk or baby food.
Given 24 hours notice, free babysitting can be arranged.
No need to pack
Baby cots, high chairs and inflatables for the pool.
For all-out romance, bypass the restaurant tables and ask to have a private candlelit dinner served in the gardens, on the Roof Terrace, or in the ruins of an old chhatri (elevated domed pavilion).
Anything goes, but cool and floaty cotton and linens are your best bet for beating the heat. A pashmina or cashmere throw for the cooler months (December–March) won't go astray.
The effortlessly elegant restaurant is located on the ground floor of the main building, and features double-height ceilings and Mughal-inspired arched windows. Seating overflows onto a breezy terrace that looks across the lawns and pool. The innovative multi-culti menu offers a fresh take on Indian and Western dishes, with much of the produce sourced from the hotel's organic kitchen garden.
With its graceful emerald-green marble bar and mesmerising Rajasthani musicians, the Salon Bar opposite the restaurant is a stylish spot for pre- and post-prandial sips.
11pm; beyond that, a 24-hour menu caters to any midnight cravings.
Available around the clock, so you can dial up breakfast, mains, desserts and everything in between.
The closest airport for major international flights is Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport (www.newdelhiairport.in), a four-and-a-half-hour drive away. Jaipur Sanganer International Airport services domestic routes with Air India (www.airindia.in) and Jet Airways (www.jetairways.com), as well as international flights from Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore on Air India (www.airindia.in). From there it's a 90-minute drive to Amanbagh.
The nearest jumping-off point for trains from Delhi, Agra and Jaipur is Dausa station, 35 kilometres from the hotel.
The roads out this way are patchy at best, so self-driving isn't recommended; book transfers through the hotel from Delhi or Jaipur instead.
Feeling flush? Have the hotel charter a chopper or private flight for you.
Worth getting out of bed for
Immerse yourself in local culture, history and legend with a tour of Ajabgarh. The 1635-built hilltop fort and temple are connected by an underground passage (so the ladies could enter unseen, you see).
Hop on one of the hotel bicycles for rambles around the village, or get down and dirty with the Sunset Cow Dust Tour, an open-top jeep ride that brings you up close and personal with kids playing in the streets and farmers herding their cows, goats and buffalos. Chances are you may be offered a piping-hot cup of chai (sweetly spiced tea).
The spooky spectacle of Bhangarh makes for a fascinating excursion. Built in the 1600s, the township was supposedly abandoned overnight after being cursed by the court magician. Although only a third of the site has been uncovered, you can still get a feel for how the town must have looked. The market bazaars are still partially standing, there are beautifully carved temples, bathing pools, gardens, a palace and even the chhatri that belonged to the magician. Today, it's considered the most haunted city in India and locals refuse to visit after sunset.
To channel your inner Attenborough, jump in a jeep and head to Sariska National Park, once the personal hunting ground of the Maharaja of Alwar and now a tiger reserve. There are only five of the majestic creatures left in the765sq km park, but the Amanbagh naturalists are experts at finding them so you may get lucky. The grounds are also home to leopards, panthers, antelopes, sambar deer, wild boars, langur and macaque monkeys and hundreds of birds.
The villages surrounding Amanbagh aren't exactly known for their gourmet restaurants or alluring after-dark scene, so most of your eating and drinking will take place within the plush confines of the hotel. If you have your heart set on venturing out, buzzy Jaipur is a 90-minute drive away. Dip into our Jaipur destination guide for hot tips.
There’s the beaten track. There’s off the beaten track. And then there’s Amanbagh, the Indian Elysium that’s miles from anywhere… but a million light years from care.
Taking its name from the Sanskrit for 'peace’ and the Hindi word for 'garden', this breathtaking hotel in the wilds of Rajasthan stands in ancient lands. Legend has it the surrounding Aravalli hills are the oldest on the planet – 600 million years young. From the moment we arrive, on a dusty pot-holed road passing crenulated Rajput forts, monkey tribes and lonely goat-herders, the feeling that envelops us is that here we’re being cradled by higher powers.
Amanbagh lies within a walled compound once used by the Maharajah of Alwar as a camp for hunting parties in search of the tigers, leopards, crocodiles and deer that still roam the region. Mature palm, fruit and eucalyptus trees frame the oasis, drawing water from the adjacent lake. The hotel is a re-imagined Mughal palace designed by Paris-based American Ed Tuttle using locally carved pink marble and sandstone for its cupolas and filled with high scalloped arches, each arc riven by five grooves symbolising the hands coming together in prayer and thanks.
Our Haveli Suite is one of 24 divided into Courtyard, Garden and Terrace categories. We land the latter, opening two huge wooden doors to access a sun-soaked space dominated by a king-size bed, day-bed, a scattering of armchairs and writing desk. The bathroom is so large we have to shout to be heard, and the bath tub is monumental – carved from a single slab of mottled green Udaipur marble. A terraced courtyard overlooks lush grounds and a 33-metre lap pool of the gods.
Tempting as it is to lie back and luxuriate, there’s an itinerary laid out for ‘Sahib and Sahiba Smith’ starting with a ‘Sunset Cow Dust’ tour, a rather incongruous name for an experience so spellbinding. We set out on camels, loping through a verdant valley of jungles, lakes, sunken cities and century-old pavilions. Splendid sights catch the eye at every turn: the flashing blue of a kingfisher’s wing, a smile from a temple-keeper amid a gentle din of bells and chanting, the shimmer and sway of endless patchwork fields filled with tobacco, banana and Indian gooseberry plants.
Nothing heaves at the heartstrings, though, like the people, most simple farmers tending cows, crops and wells. They rise from their fires and ploughs to wave as we pass by. And when we transfer to a jeep the children scamper from their chores to chase us, clambering onto the back for a free ride, shrieking with joy at so exotic a pleasure. Bathed in the glow of Godhuli, a Hindi word for the refracted light that catches the dust kicked up by the cows returning home at sunset, clarity climbs into our hearts.
For the locals Amanbagh is a blessing, a kindly benefactor predicted many moons before by the resident sadhu (holy man) whose vision told of a hotel or hospital. Truth is, this hotel has become both. Most of the 200 staff – from the ladies who sweep to the guys who slingshot monkeys eyeing the guests’ fruit bowls – hail from these villages. Their gift to the guests is to share tales of their ancestors, stretching back to the dawn of Hindu civilization when five exiled Pandava brothers built five forts to stand sentry over what today is the 765-square kilometre Sariska National Park.
We’re often grateful for this homespun wisdom from Amanbagh ‘family members’ – in a tour of the hotel’s organic garden, during a yoga and cooking classes, on a bizarre but very moving twilight visit to a temple for an Aarti ceremony and nightly as we dine on traditional Rajasthani dishes, evocatively soundtracked by a band of musicians harmonising on Meena songs of yore.
It’s particularly reassuring on our trip to Bhangarh, a medieval site 15 kilometres from Amanbagh. According to legend, this thriving town of bazaars, palaces, temples and gardens was deserted overnight in the 1600s after being cursed by an evil court magician with fiendish designs on Bhangarh’s beautiful and virtuous Queen. Neighbouring villagers have avoided it ever since and warn against visits after dark. We arrive around dusk, step over the threshold and our camera instantly goes bung. ‘Rambo’, our guide, looks to a peak where the magician’s eerie home still stands. Under darkening skies he ushers us on. Outside the walls, the camera comes good.
But not even black magic can break the happy spell Amanbagh holds over its guests. Bathed in the buttery light of its pavilions, watched over by panthers in the hills and lit from within by its blend of old charm and fresh inspiration, it’s more a shrine than a hotel. We leave blissful. We may not return, but we’ll never forget.