‘India is not for the reluctant traveller,’ my friend warns, inquiring who will accompany me to her son’s wedding in Goa.
India is nowhere near the top of my partner’s must-see list, so I set about curating a quick five-day post-wedding tour of Rajasthan that will include staying in the best destination hotels I can find. Itinerary complete, all that full-on luxury seems over the top: being showered with rose petals on arrival once goes a long way.
Not a historic palace but built just five years ago, the Tree of Life Resort & Spa is the lifelong dream of a seasoned Indian travel guru who wanted to open an intimate, 21st-century ode to modern luxury, created by local craftsmen using ancient techniques. That the resort reinvests in the surrounding community, employing locally and supporting a nearby school for girls, is intriguing, too.
Arriving in the dark after an eight-hour drive from Udaipur, we watch anxiously to see if it really is just 25 minutes from town: it’s more like 20. The dirt road we’d read about online lasts for all of 90 seconds and, rather than a bother, is a terrific counterpoint to what is about to unfold. Any anxiety that had reared its head in the last part of the journey vanishes as the resort reveals itself, glittering softly against a mountainous silhouette. The car engine is silenced and the cool night air, replete with gurgling frogs, casts its spell.
Majestic and serene, the reception pavilion is a beautifully lit series of rooms radiating from a perfectly scaled, domed rotunda with quiet fountain and pool below. The Taj Lake Palace at Udaipur, our previous stay, had been spectacular in its way, but this place is magic. Naman, the evening manager, is on the steps with his team and after a warm, unscripted greeting we are given engraved, polished brass welcome bracelets and led up a winding stone walkway, past sculptures of Hindu gods to our quarters, perched hilltop under a full moon.
And what quarters they are! With just 14 villas, the Tree of Life is all about privacy. We have booked a Luxury Garden & Spa Villa, and upon entry we realise that we will have to rethink our whole Jaipur itinerary. The interior layout, garden plan and window vistas are all worked out to respect seclusion. Buildings are angled and staggered topographically so that other guests can’t see in, yet you somehow have expansive views of Rajasthan desert. Already, we don’t want to leave.
Three grand spaces unfold: living room, then bedroom, then bath with dressing room, all constructed of stone with thick interior and exterior walls, soaring ceilings – at 6 foot 3 this makes a difference – deep-set windowsills and tall, elegant, recessed doorways. Marble floors in the living and bathing areas are broken by soft sandstone underfoot in the bedroom. Teak French doors lead to the garden from all rooms: the only metal used is as finishing touches, often whimsical birds and flowers. Desert-coloured fabrics punctuated with decorative accent pieces in fuschia and gold-leaf delight. This may not sound terribly romantic, but I sleep through the night for the first time in six months.
Design cues are taken from the Mughal architecture of the nearby Amber Fort, which we visit the next morning, including elephant corbels and marble inlay. Request a villa with domed ceilings in bedroom and bathroom: the mirror inlay against cadmium yellow above our bed is entrancing as it shifts with the early light. In lieu of a bath inside, there is a sunken stone tub outside, which the staff will fill with 30 minutes’ notice – perhaps not super-convenient but it sets the stage for a synergy with nature that the resort (and India) is all about. And speaking of connectivity, WiFi is strong throughout the property. I needn’t have wrapped up any work prior to arrival, but am glad I did.
A big plus for us – in addition to guests from Sweden and New York, many in residence are similar to those we have just left in Goa: attractive, well-heeled Indian families and couples enjoying their country. The Tree of Life has many ideas for unusual activities, from culinary tours to elephant rides, but as we only have one day in Jaipur, we opt to bookend sightseeing and shopping on MI Road and Johri Bazaar with a dawn private yoga session and a couples massage in the evening. Both are first-rate. We also have a sumptuous, multi-course breakfast served on the stone patio off our bedroom, but take both dinners in the restaurant down the hill.
Hospitality is like jazz music: you can perfect the spirit right out of it and in an age when everyone’s neighbour wants to be a global brand, genuinely personal service is coveted. There are things that could be improved at Tree of Life (we would like to choose between masseuse and masseur), but we just love what owner Himmat Anand has created. The sensory memories we take away – padding barefoot across the dewy grass to our private outdoor waterfall shower in our walled garden, late-night tea on a carved stone bench under the full moon, the sounds of the countryside co-mingling with Holi Day festivities drifting faintly in from Jaipur – are things that can’t be provided by a well-meaning butler lurking in a carpeted hallway outside your door, or by technology-driven methods that ensure everyone at the hotel knows your name and room number.
As we lounge on a soft mattress poolside at dusk and watch the sun set over the Aravali mountains, exchanging yet another ‘can't-believe-our-good-fortune’ glance, I’m reminded of the words of our yoga instructor: ‘You’ll want to stay in this place for some time.’