You once needed to be on the hippie trail or on a gap year to explore in depth the subcontinent’s secrets and subtleties. But a posse of new properties is about-facing all that. From the Himalayan foothills to the Bay of Bengal, going off-grid in India has never been this ravishing.
Rural Rajasthan: Alila Fort Bishangarh
Far from the hustle and bustle that is Delhi and Jaipur, yet planted between the two, this rural hideaway in Rajasthan removes guests from the hum of these glorious cities and takes them into the village life of India. This new 59-room Alila – a restored 200-plus-year-old fort that has a bar in a turret and the spa in the dungeon – is a perfect base for trips to temples and shrines to witness ceremonies such as at Moji Baba, where guests can sip water flowing from a white stone said to cure ailments, or to see the colossal erotic statues at Naugaza Digambar Jain temple.
There are also more personal tours, such as to the private house Shahpura Bagh to meet the current Prince of the Shekhawat clan, which is said to be descended from the sun, no less. A little further flung, the Sariska Tiger Reserve is a wildlife sanctuary where there are game drives to spot tiger, leopard, caracal, striped hyena, golden jackal and flocks of birds. But perhaps the loveliest trip is simply to the local village, Bishangarh, at the base of this towering granite outcrop with its winding lanes, rituals of worship at the temple, and a go-slow rhythm. The hotel can make it all happen: from exploring the Aravalli hills and havelis, seeing palaces and arranging picnics, to horse-riding and hot-air ballooning. Doubles from about £273
Kolkata’s secret retreat: The Rajbari Bawali
West Bengal has a special allure. Intense, sophisticated Kolkata, once the capital of the British Raj, boasts a spectacular heritage of colonial buildings while the surrounding countryside seems to slumber in an earlier century. Kolkata’s first boutique hotel, The Penthouse, opens later this year, a few steps from the Maidan park. But the delightful pastoral landscapes already have the groundbreaker: The Rajbari Bawali, an atmospheric palace deep in the countryside yet just over an hour from the city.
A six-year renovation has brought it back to life – with a spa and pool. Guides take visitors on foot or bicycles into idyllic landscapes of paddy fields, buffalo and village shrines. Meanwhile, there are evening courtyard performances with raucous Baul singers and captivating Nautch dancers. Rajbari is also an excellent base for the Sundarbans to the south, the great estuarine delta where the Hooghly joins the Bay of Bengal. This mangroved waterworld is home to Royal Bengal tigers, saltwater crocodiles, Gangetic dolphins, otters and fabulous bird life. Doubles from £164; therajbari.com. Doubles from £366
The beautiful south: Svatma
From the coast of Coromandel go inland, west up the dreamy delta of the Cauvery river to the city of Thanjavur, a place of pilgrimage, trade and enterprise in Tamil Nadu. This is the ancient capital of the Chola kings, whose power spread across the subcontinent with palaces, temples and other fine buildings. Svatma, once a merchant’s townhouse, is now a hotel offering outstanding vegetarian food and an array of expeditions.
My guide, K T Raja, was a sublime tutor in his city’s story and a terrific companion around the Brihadeeswarar, the temple completed by King Raja Raja in 1010AD, when an elephant hauled the 80-tonne capstone to the top of the orange-granite tower – decorated in thousands of figures and cornices – which dominates the city. I visited bronze casters, silk weavers, and attended a recital by vina musicians playing the lute-like instrument. Above all, I loved riding pillion as we wove through Thanjavur on Raja’s motorcycle. The night’s heat became a balm, and the flow of people, livestock and traffic felt like the pulse of a great vibrant animal, as though Thanjavur is eternally alive, ancient and young at once. Doubles from about £170
Castaway islands: Taj Exotica
Ever since Jacques Cousteau’s film Invisible Islands, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal have drawn divers to their coral reefs, where turtles swim next to manta rays and even the endangered dugong. But now there are two reasons to stay on land too. About 30 of the 500-odd islands are inhabited, and Havelock is the best known – for its dense virgin rainforest fringing white sandy beaches.
On a terraced hillside, formerly a banana and betel-nut plantation, is Jalakara, a private villa that also operates as a seven-room hotel. The manager, Shruti Rao, knows the best dive sites, and can organise kayaking trips in the mangroves or beach picnics on uninhabited isles. Later this year, the low-rise beachfront property Taj Exotica opens with 75 thatched rooms inspired by the huts of the Jarawas, an indigenous tribe. A few steps from a jungle temple, it faces one of Asia’s most gorgeous beaches,Radhanagar. Doubles from £155
Foothills of the Himalayas: The Oberoi Suhkvilas Resort & Spa
A “tertiary fold” sounds like something you need to figure out if you’re going to be good at origami. It’s also a geological term, used to refer to the bit of the Himalayas on which the palatial new Oberoi Sukhvilas sits, half an hour or so beyond Chandigarh city centre, and south-west of Shimla. It correctly implies a sense of connection with the greatest mountain range on earth – whose awe-inspiring primary and secondary folds you can, on a clear day, descry from your extremely comfortable tertiary one.
Sukhvilas shares a border with Siswan Forest, 8,000 undulating acres of Indian ash, rosewood and acacia that’s home to an impressive variety of birds and other wildlife: goral, nilgai, jackal, hyena, leopard. The hotel – with 60 rooms, including some tented, set among pavilions and courtyards – will arrange for a team of naturalists to lead walks tailored to the interests, schedules and fitness of guests (and, this being an Oberoi, their taste in wine as well). A day trip to Chandigarh, which can also be organised, is no less delightful. This almost otherworldly city, constructed from scratch by Le Corbusier as the new capital of Punjab following Partition, cannot fail to make an impression. Doubles from about £360
Fans of Oberoi Hotels & Resorts have the opportunity to win a £120,000 holiday to The Oberio Suhkvilas Resort & Spa, and four other Oberoi properties, by voting in this year’s Telegraph Travel Awards.
Historic hideaway: Orange County, Hampi
Suddenly the buzz is all about this under-the-radar temple town of Hampi in Karnataka, which was in its heyday one of the largest cities in the world – from the 14th to the 16th centuries, when it was the last capital of the Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar. On the banks of the Tungabhadra, set in an arid landscape strewn with boulders and dotted with oases of palm and mango trees, fabulously rich princes built hundreds of Dravidian temples and palaces characterised by their monumental scale, cloistered enclosures and lofty towers. The town was conquered during the Battle of Talikota in 1565, and abandoned, so today the buildings lie in a ruined, yet romantic, state – crumbling in local granite, burnt brick and lime mortar.
And now, perfectly placed a few kilometres away, Orange County Hampi has opened, a 28-acre resort built to showcase the ancient site, and a property that itself echoes the local architecture with its floral arched hallways, balustrades and lotus motifs. The hotel’s historians customise clever walks among the forts, bastions and prayer halls – including to Vitthala temple with its sensational sculptural work. Doubles from £260, half board
Insider’s Rajasthan: Dev Shree
There was a time when visitors admired the almost biblical beauty of Rajasthan only from a car window while driving between Jaipur, Udaipur and Jodhpur. Now they can stay in its heart, in delightful new haveli-style hotels such as the family-run eight-room Dev Shree in Deogarh, a small town set in the middle of the triangle formed by those three cities, and ringed by the Aravalli mountains.
Shatrunjai Singh opened Dev Shree with his wife, Bhavna, and they’ve created a classical Rajput-style property with expansive high-ceilinged rooms and detailed workmanship. Singh arranges workshop tours of Deogarh’s potters, jewellers and craftsmen and drives you deep into unspoilt countryside where colourfully dressed villagers herd goats, cook on dung fires, drive bullock carts and carry bundles of firewood on their heads. There’s also bird-watching, farmhouse lunches, and, for the fortunate, sightings of blue bull antelope, sambar deer and leopard.
Of all the day trips, my favourite was a meandering, 17-mile train journey into the mountains on an old British railway line. As I sat in the open door of an ancient carriage, admiring the bucolic scenery, monkeys loped alongside in hope of food. Back at Dev Shree, I dined on a veranda overlooking a serene palm-fringed lake, a temple and the crumbling tombs of Shatrunjai’s forebears. Doubles from £288, full board