Join the white-naped tits (we’re not being rude), dusky eagle owls and ponderous elephants at Dera Amer, a tented safari camp with plenty of creature comforts. Sample Pushkar cuisine in a forest-set dining pavillion lit with mashals (flaming torches); get to know the resident pachyderms; trek to forests, villages and temples – perhaps next to your favourite elephant – and then enjoy bonfires and barbecues back at boutique base camp. Melt-in-the-mouth mutton, Dera Punch cocktails and blissfully comfy beds will keep you energised for safari adventures.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from £248.20 (INR25,000), including tax at 18 per cent.
Stays here are all inclusive, so transfers, activities, food, drinks and excursions are usually covered. (Alcohol costs extra.) Breakfast is a hearty buffet spread, plus cooked options – the perfect pre-safari fodder.
Look out for the ancient chattris (memorials) that dot the woodlands around the camp.
Between 1 May and 30 September.
At the hotel
A 60-acre sprawl of protected wilderness (see if you can spot the onsite mediaeval temple). In rooms: iPod dock; desk; board games; oil heater in the tent and bathroom; minibar; Forest Essentials bath products.
Our favourite rooms
The tents are identical – and there’s no duff option here: each of the sleeping quarters is decorated with sand-coloured matting, ruby-red fabrics and furnishings, soft rugs and polished campaign furniture (designed to be packed up and carried on a march, if necessary – definitely not, in this case). The tents have power showers and electricity; you’ll also get your own shaded porch, equipped with a pair of comfy deckchairs.
No spa onsite, but the Tree of Life Resort & Spa is just 10 minutes away by car (www.treeofliferesorts.com). Try a turmeric and salt body scrub, a wild honey and vanilla wrap, or a facial featuring yoghurt and your choice of extras, tailored to your skin type.
Keen twitchers, your luck’s in: Dera Amer equips each tent with a pair of binoculars and a handy book on birds – extra points if you spot a white-naped tit or dusky eagle owl.
Take part in Pilates, yoga and fitness sessions in the grounds (INR1,000 a person, each class).
Little Smiths are extremely welcome – they can stay for free, if they’re aged seven or under. Bear in mind you’ll have to lug prams and other kit across a valley, as it’s a 15-minute walk from where you’ll be dropped off by car on arrival.
Lots of staff onsite, an absence of other guests and acres of tranquil woodland make this a dream stay for little Smiths – and it’s super safe.
Teenagers and little Smiths aged between 6 and 12 – there’s no creche or babysitters, and it’s a 15-minute walk to your accommodation from the drop-off point, so you don’t want to lug prams and other paraphernalia.
The tents share the same setup; all four are great.
Your brood will go wild for the elephants, which you can bathe, feed and play with. There are also nature walks, birdwatching trips and a stash of board games.
Just ask staff nicely if you’d like dishes adapted according to junior tastes.
No need to pack
Board games – Dera Amer has a stash.
This hotel has a huge heart: it gives domesticated elephants from Jaipur a new home in its picturesque patch of parkland, within the protected Aravalli Range. Staff are local; food is organic and farm fresh.
Beside the elephants (yes, really): Dera Amer’s alfresco breakfasts will have you munching muesli while the elephants chomp grass.
Out of Africa, with a Rajasthani spin. The following trio is a safe bet: cotton; cashmere; cologne.
Dinner is served in a separate dining tent, or in a beautful arched pavillion set on lush lawns and lit with mashals (flame torches) and bonfires by night. Local folk dancers sometimes provide performances, accompanied by musicians. (You’ll share this space with visitors here on day trips or elephant treks.) Sample Pushkar cuisine, including a delicious Dera mutton dish, which is cooked slowly and results in melt-in-the-mouth meat. Western options can also be requested – anything goes, really.
There’s no formal bar as such, though one of the tents can be used as a lounge area. Instead, drinks and cocktails – including the excellent Dera Punch – are rustled up on request. Take your sundowners and clamber up the rocky outcrops to the small ledge, a few steps up – you’ll get Insta-worthy views.
It’s a relaxed set-up – breakfast and dinner are served whenever guests want them. Lunch isn’t on offer, but the hotel has a slew of recommendations up its khaki sleeve.
The owners are onsite around the clock – if you want a snack or drink between meals, just ask nicely.
Dera Amer sits at the foothills of the Aravalli Range, in a wilderness reserve that’s home to a memory of elephants – yes, that is the correct collective noun, along with herd – plus a few small hamlets and a pretty lake.
Fly into Jaipur International Airport, 31 kilometres from the hotel – an hour’s drive (www.jaipurairport.com).
Jaipur Junction train station is 27 kilometres away, with services connecting to India’s main cities.
Leave the chaotic driving to Jaipur’s glut of taxis, buses and coaches – you’ll only be stressed out behind the wheel.
Worth getting out of bed for
Start by befriending the local elephants: bathe them, feed them, serenade them – just generally get to know them. You can also set off on an adventurous elephant trek (walking alongside your favourite pachyderm) or camel safari in the Aravalli forests, ticking off hutments, ancient monuments and temples (keep your eyes peeled for leopards, hyena, jackals, antelopes and wolves). For the most magical trek, set off at sunset – you’ll be served cocktails to sip, fire buckets will keep you warm and the trek concludes with a sunset barbecue. Back on your own two feet, there’s plenty to see close by: walk for five minutes to discover the mediaeval temple of Gopal Ji, or the homes of the local Meena tribespeople, who have called this patch of Jaipur home for centuries. Spend some time on their farms, or visit the rural school for the local children. Hop on a Jeep for half an hour to admire Maji Ki Baori – a mediaeval stepwell – or Amer Fort. You can also ask the hotel to organise expeditions into the wilderness that surrounds the camp, guided by expert local tribespeople, or hot-air-balloon rides with Sky Waltz.
Arrange to have a car take you into Jaipur – perhaps for the Smith-approved Samode Palace’s ravishing restaurant, which serves refined Rajasthani, Asian and European dishes, courtesy of chef Raheev Sharma. Stay in Jaipur for rooftop drinks at Fairmont Jaipur’s Aasma bar (aasma means ‘sky’ in Hindi).
Laxmi strikes me as the nosey type. Her long wrinkled trunk coils down, swiping the banana straight out of my hand. Some might call her greedy, but clearly she’s just enjoying life at Dera Amer – a luxury wilderness camp, not far from the Pink City of Jaipur. And who could blame her? Laxmi is one of two resident elephants who now call this 180-acre farm home. Her previous existence saw her trailing tourists up in sweltering heat each day to nearby Amer Fort – a tough, thankless task – that all guidebooks caution against.
Here, though, the scene is happier. This rural Rajasthani estate in the Aravalli Hills was bought in 1989 as a swathe of dusty, barren land. Over the years, the owner went about regreening it for farming purposes, planting trees, flowers and crops, and later adding a collection of delicate pink-hued buildings that still form the centrepiece of Dera Amer today. They stand surrounded by lines of trees and lush green lawns where iridescent peacocks roam. I join Laxmi and her mahout for a walk through groves of acacia and flame of the forest trees, showing off their bright peach plumidge at this time of year. Birds chirp and flit about, a blue-bull antelope raises its head, and Indian hares leap into the bush as Laxmi’s giant feet pad past.
Eventually, we reach a glade where the main attraction of Dera Amer awaits: luxury tents, set in the hills, exclusively for me (and Mr Smith). Pulling back the canvas of our tent, we’re greeted by a double bed bedecked with white linens, colourful Indian cushions and hot-water bottles to guard against the early morning chill. Heritage furniture and safari-style slingbacks abound, joined by brass candle holders – shaped like elephants, of course – fresh fruit and farm-made biscuits, plus textured carpets and woven rugs. On a bedside trunk, a bell, to summon anything we need from the camp’s attentive staff. Outside, antique-wooden sunloungers, plumped with pillows, beckon us to idle away the afternoon, accompanied by chilled rosé and binoculars for spying the itinerant bird life who coo in the branches above.
However, it’s at dusk that this camp really comes to life. Waking from an afternoon nap in the fan-cooled sanctuary of the tent, we emerge to find Dera Amer transformed. Flickering lanterns hang from the trees and candles light the sandy paths. We’re led up to a hillside ridge above the camp for sundowners, joined by inquisitive jungle-babbler birds who seem all too interested in our snacks (and G&Ts). As night falls, the Aravalli Hills cut a dramatic silhouette across the fading sky and even the babblers seem to quieten down, clustering together on branches for the night like avian Mr & Mrs Smiths.
At camp, a table has been laid for dinner, encircled by oil lamps. Rajasthan in general pulls out all the stops when it comes to romantic dinners, but this meal definitely tops it. Music from a traditional ravanahatha (Indian string instrument) wafts through the night from a centuries-old cenotaph across the farm and a banquet of spicy egg curry, fire-warmed roti, fragrant dhal and okra arrives. Day or night, meals are a highlight here. The next morning, we dine on another feast, with Laxmi waiting patiently nearby, hooting as she breakfasts on sugarcane ahead of her morning bath. This after-meal activity is one way that guests are allowed to interact with the elephants, so we join mahout Nassurudin with a bucket and hose for the post-breakfast ritual. Nassurudin doesn’t speak English, but from his body language I can tell he’s saying: ‘You missed a spot’. Several, in fact, as he points to Laxmi’s elevated flanks, illustrating where I might make improvements.
Though my days as a mahout may be numbered, happily, there are other activities nearby, so Mr Smith and I hop in a jeep with Anirudh, one of three 20-something cousins who run Dera Amer with their uncle, Udaijit. Driving out, we pass sari-swathed women who tend the farm’s lawns and preening peacocks, and reach a nearby village that’s home to the Meena tribe, who’ve lived in this area for over a thousand years. We walk through fields laced with vegetables and crops and learn how to make fresh chutney, before driving on to explore Dera Amer’s 180-acre estate, plotted with pomegranate groves and giant greenhouses stocked with marigolds.
After days of darting around Jaipur’s sights, it’s nice to relax in rural Rajasthan – the perfect antidote to the state’s erstwhile bustle. After all, who could resist a countryside camp with a resident elephant? Time to pack your trunk...