Tucked away in Rajasthan’s Aravalli Hills, Rawla Narlai hotel has turned a 17th-century royal hunting lodge into a serene escape from India’s bustling tourist trail. Occupying two wings: one historic, the other contemporary, each of the 32 rooms has been individually decorated. The vintage rooms showcase each space’s ornate frescoes and archways, and the modern wing is awash with marble and fine filigrees in local designs; all are furnished with the owners’ collection of antiques. A pool, sensational spa and manicured gardens are ample reason to stay put, but the best of Rajasthan is easily explored from here, including world-heritage temples and forts, lazing leopards, hiking trails and tiny villages.
Noon, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, noon.
Double rooms from £152.68 (INR15,500), including tax at 18 per cent.
Rates include a lavish buffet breakfast of local favourites, eggs to order, bacon, potatoes, fruits, cereals and juices.
The hotel’s stepwell, an open-air below-ground reservoir, is the setting for spectacular candlelit feasts. The romantic dinners commence with courtyard cocktails and stories from the local historian, before an ox-cart ride to the dinner setting. The meal itself involves seemingly unending courses of local specialties, served as local musicians play folk songs. There's a mandatory Christmas Eve gala dinner on 24 December 2017 (INR8,000 a person), and a mandatory New Year’s Eve gala dinner on 31 December 2017 (INR10,000 a person).
At the hotel
Gardens, courtyard, on-site parking and free WiFi throughout. In rooms: coffee-maker, free bottled water, minibar, safe, individually controlled air-conditioning, and Kama Ayurveda bath products.
Our favourite rooms
Each room is uniquely decorated. Though rooms in the heritage wing can be darker than the bright spaces in the new-wing, they have added character, with antiques and contemporary furniture designed by the owners. The wing’s Brahmin blue Grand Heritage room has beautiful pillars and arches, along with a semi-private terrace.
Hidden away behind hedges and towering palms, the tranquil, unheated stone pool is surrounded by day-beds. The spa tent sits by the side.
Narlai Spa specialises in deeply relaxing massages with Forest Essentials cold-pressed oils, including deep-tissue, aromatherapy, reflexology and acupressure; treatments are offered by the pool, too.
Bring sketchpads: the frangipani-fragranced gardens are bright with bougainvillea, making an ideal spot to seek inspiration (and a mug of home-made chai).
A lift makes rooms wheelchair-accessible; however, the hotel has many stairs to climb.
All ages are welcome. There is no charge for a baby cot, or for children under six who do not require an additional bed. Breakfast is free for children under six. Stairs are tricky to navigate with prams, but the gardens make an excellent play spaces.
The hotel is green wherever possible; they recycle, compost and source local ingredients for the restaurant. Additionally, the hotel has contributed to village-restoration projects to assist the local community.
Take a table on the candlelit courtyard for dinner under the stars, set the sounds of the village.
Boldly patterned silks and slacks will match the flora of the surrounding terraces. Bring a pashmina for nippier nights.
Jharoka Café serves traditional Rajasthani fare, including mutton, chicken and fish. The Maharani – or Hunter – platters are a feast of kebabs, lentils, naans, rice and other local dishes, ideal for fortifying you the night before a big day of hiking.
Settle into overstuffed sofas at J Bar for mixed drinks, including stiff martinis and margaritas. Out in the courtyard, local musicians play live music each night.
Jharoka serves breakfast from 6.30am to 10.30am, lunch from noon to 2.45pm, and dinner from 7am to 10.45pm. The bar serves from 11am until 11pm.
The full restaurant menu and a selection of snacks are available for delivery from 7am to 10.30pm.
Rawla Narlai sits in the hills of Rajasthan, halfway between Udaipur and Jodhpur.
The hotel is a three-hour drive from both Udaipur and Jodhpur airports, and one-way transfers can be arranged for an extra charge. Both airports offer numerous domestic connections, including to Mumbai and Delhi.
Though the nearest station to the hotel is a 40-kilometre drive from the hotel, Indian Railways (www.indianrailways.gov.in) connects major cities to Jodhpur and Udaipur, each a three-hour drive north or south of the hotel. Transfers are available for an extra charge.
Driving is not advisable in India, due to poorly-maintained roads and death-defying local drivers, but those who choose to pilot themselves can avail themselves of free valet parking.
Worth getting out of bed for
The frescoed hotel walls, tropical gardens and poolside spa treatments can keep guests content for days on end, including nights spent at spectacular candlelit feasts in the stepwell. The hotel sits in the shadow of a towering granite peak named Elephant Hill, so there’s ample opportunity for excellent hikes and village walks through the rugged surroundings. The hotel can arrange for sunrise or sunset walks to the summit of the hill, or walks to local villages and cave temples. The surrounding land is also home to leopards, and the hotel can arrange for jeep tours to spot the camouflaged cats. Rajasthan is home to several revered temples, all within driving distance of Rawla Narlai. Ranakpur, a 15th-century Jain temple near Sadri, has exceptional marble domes and carvings, as well as a number of monkey residents. Head to Kumbhalgarh in the evening to see it lit for a few minutes, just after sunset. One of the World-Heritage Site hill forts of the region, the fort has the second-largest wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China.
From the top of Elephant Hill, Rawla Narlai is just a tiny speck – surrounded by vast plains, reservoirs and the Aravali mountain range. But by the time that Mr Smith and I have trekked back down, the hotel is the dominant feature again, with its elaborate arches and crenulated bastions standing out in the rural hamlet.
The 17th-century hunting lodge has drawn tourists to Narlai for centuries. Rajasthani royals would travel to this outpost – between Jodhpur and Udaipur – for some of the best hunting in the state. Now guests come to be treated like a Maharajah at the heritage hotel, while dabbling in some of the traditional activities: perhaps a leopard safari or trek on Marwari horses.
Coming from nearby Rohet Garh, where I’d become used to the royal treatment alarmingly quickly, I was keen to see my state room – and wasn’t disappointed. The hotel has a modern wing, but for the full experience it’s all about bagging a bedroom in the old quarters.
Mr Smith and I were lead through a network of courtyards to a grand room, which began with an accidental antechamber where one of the old corridors had been hemmed off. The bedroom itself had periwinkle blue walls, antique carved furniture and lofty proportions which aided our time travel. As, alas, did a pokey bathroom – but then the historic touches and authenticity more than compensated for the lack of any flashy en suite.
Wooden shutters lead out onto a balcony, where we could see Elephant Hill – the granite rock which towers over Narlai. The childish need to reach the highest point for the best lookout proved too much. Despite a note in our room offering to accompany us on an ‘invigorating walk’ up the 700 steps carved into the granite, we decided to strap on our trainers and go it alone.
A false start led us up steps to a temple carved into the rocks – a welcome detour – but having descended and found another route up, we were back on track. The stairs wound round the rock. Sometimes robust, sometimes slippery-smooth and steep, but eminently doable, particularly at a steady plod. Gentle vertigo started to set in as I reached the top, but not enough to stop me staggering over to the white elephant sculpture at the summit, where the views stretched for miles.
By the time we make it back down, other groups were setting-off to watch the sunset from the summit. Instead, a Kingfisher from the mini bar beckoned, meaning that Mr Smith and I spent our sundowner at ground level, watching others make their steady ascent from our balcony – tiny dots moving round the peak as the sun dipped out of sight.
As night fell, we made our way to the main courtyard, where candles flickered and the melodic hum of a puja rose above the chatter of pre-dinner drinks. We were ushered into the outdoor restaurant, where buttery curries were followed by taste-of-home desserts – chocolate brownies and banana splits. With tired legs and full bellies, we happily stumbled back to the room and collapsed into a deeply comfortable bed, sleeping through until mid-morning thanks to the shutters blocking out the bright morning sun.
After a buffet breakfast, we decided to hit the pool – which is by far one of the standout features at Rawla Narlai. Hot pink bursts of bougainvillea drape over the garden walls round the pool, creating a tropical sanctuary. Day beds and loungers are lined up, with waiters keenly ferrying chilled drinks and kathi rolls from the kitchen.
In anticipation of another trek up Elephant Hill later that day, I decided to have a massage in one of the Mughal-style tents next to the pool. There’s a choice of acupressure and deep tissue massages, as well as different aroma massages: eucalyptus and black pepper to ‘fight fatigue’, or jasmine and mogra to ‘tone, relax and nourish the skin and muscle tissues.’
Though the material tent provided shade from the searing midday sun, it was warm enough leave me drifting in and out of consciousness as the masseuse’s hands teased out knots and strains. By the end of the 45 minutes, I’d given in to the overwhelming wave of lethargy. Then – and here comes the only clincher – as soon as the masseuse’s hands had stopped working, I was jerked awake by a pen and pad of paper being shoved under my nose to sign-off the massage bill for reception.
The only gentle criticism of staying at Rawla Narlai is that an old-school bureaucracy still lingers in this heritage hotel. The European traveller might find that the charged efficiency takes the edge off total relaxation, though it could be viewed from a different perspective. Perhaps the scrupulously attentive service was what suited Rajasthani royals – in which case it’s the final authentic touch in this gloriously old-school experience.