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India: Best Hotel Bets

Unique Places to Stay

Not surprisingly, most of these are in Rajasthan, which has almost 80 heritage properties -- castles, palaces, forts, and ornate havelis (traditional mansions), now hotels offering varying degrees of comfort.

  • Taj Mahal Hotel (Mumbai): George Bernard Shaw famously claimed that after staying here, he no longer had any need to visit the real Taj Mahal in Agra. Built just over a century ago by an Indian industrialist after he was treated abominably by the colonial snobs at the city's then leading hotel (since demolished), the Taj Mahal today hosts the world's rich and famous, and remains the most celebrated address in Mumbai.

  • Boutique Getaways in Goa: Parisian fashion stylist Claudia Derain and her husband, Hari Ajwani, came to Goa on vacation and -- like so many -- never left. Together with Goan architect Dean D'Cruz, they've created an Arabian Nights fantasy in Nilaya Hermitage, with only 12 "cosmic-themed" guest suites and gorgeously informal public spaces overlooking paddy fields and coconut-palm groves. It lies 6km (3 3/4 miles) from the nearest beach, however; if proximity to the golden sands of bustling Goa is key, Pousada Toumada, another Dean D'Cruz creation, is the next contender for Goa's best boutique getaway. But if you prefer basic to boutique, Elsewhere, sandwiched between the river and the sea, comprises a simple beach house, a couple of double-roomed cottages, and "Otter Creek" tents -- a quiet retreat, and utterly charming.

  • Adrift aboard Discovery (Kerala): The best way to experience Kerala's backwaters is floating along on a traditional kettuvallam (houseboat), but the stylish Malabar Group has upped the ante with Discovery, a funky modern interpretation of the Keralan houseboat concept. Accommodations comprise a comfortable and stylish bedroom with well-plumbed en-suite bathroom, separate lounge (can double as a second bedroom), and a rooftop deck (furnished with dining table and loungers) where you can while away the day, looked after by a dedicated staff of three, including a private chef. The packages can include a night at the aptly named Privacy, our favorite backwaters villa.

  • Gracious Keralan Homestays (Olavipe, Backwaters/Tranquil, Wyanad): Experience life on a working plantation, then dine on exquisite home-cooked meals at the family dining table, personally hosted by urbane, charming owners -- that's what the best homestays are all about. It's like finding yourself at a private house party, where you are the guest of honor. Our top picks are Olavipe, a stately home on an island in the backwaters, where Anthony and Rema provide the warmest welcome this side of Fort Kochi, and Tranquil, located at the edge of Wyanad National Park, where Victor and Ranjini ensure that you leave replenished, and heartsick to go.

  • Surya Samudra Beach Garden (near Kovalam, Kerala): A small collection of traditional cottages on a terraced hillside overlooking the sea, with direct access to two picture-perfect beaches, Surya Samudra is quite simply the most Paradisiacal destination on the Malabar coast. Gazing over the Arabian Sea from your private deck (ask for a cottage near the beach), you will no doubt wish you'd spent your entire vacation here.

  • Mahua Kothi (Bandhavgarh, Madhya Pradesh): The first in a highly anticipated series of ultra-luxurious safari lodges from India's Taj hotel group and South Africa's CC Africa, Mahua Kothi is not only eye-catchingly pretty and filled with whimsically stylish details, but the sumptuous guest villas are an idyllic retreat after a day of tiger-spotting with the best-trained naturalists in the country.

  • Amarvilas (Agra, Uttar Pradesh): If you've always dreamed of seeing the Taj Mahal, this is the place to celebrate that achievement. Built within the green belt that surrounds the monument, you can literally see the Taj from your bed, but you'll probably spend just as much time gazing at your immediate surroundings. With its huge reflecting pools, colonnaded courts, terraced lawns, inlaid murals, and pillowed pavilions, this palatial hotel is worth every cent.

  • Rajvilas (near Jaipur, Rajasthan): The first of the Oberoi's flagship Vilas properties, built like a traditional fortified Rajasthani palace, Rajvilas may not have the history of an authentic heritage hotel, but it offers a level of comfort, luxury, and service other properties cannot match, enabling even the most world-weary guest (Bill Clinton loved it) to "live in the princely style of Rajasthan."

  • Aman-i-Khȥs (Ranthambhore, Rajasthan): Located a stone's throw from India's most famous tiger sanctuary, the superb accommodations -- huge temperature-controlled Mughal-style royal tents stylishly divided by cool white drapes -- and impeccable service are distinctly Aman. At night, lanterns light your way to the giant flaming uruli (large metal vessel) around which guests gather to enjoy the night sky and the ethereal calm, broken only by the occasional call from the wilds.

  • Deogarh Mahal & Fort Seengh Sagar (Rural Rajasthan): An ornate 17th-century fort-palace with domed turrets and balconies, personally managed by the charming Thakur of Deogarh, Deogarh Mahal is one of the most authentic and best-value heritage hotels in Rajasthan, best visited on a road trip between Jaipur and Udaipur. Book the aptly named "Royal" suite, and it's not hard to feel that all you survey from your private balcony is yours. The more recently opened Seengh Sagar is an exclusive island fort that's been transformed into a sexy little villa run by the same princely family.

  • Rawla Narlai (Rural Rajasthan): Rawla Narlai, the 17th-century hunting retreat of the Maharajah of Jodphur, is another rural gem that will have you feeling like a royal guest -- and it's the ideal stopover if you're traveling between Udaipur and Jodhpur. But, with activities and experiences galore (including a stiff climb to the summit of a miraculous rock), it's more than a mere stopover -- you'll stay for 1 night and wish you'd planned for 3.

  • Lake Palace Hotel (Udaipur, Rajasthan): Built on an island by the Maharana in 1740 as a cool summer retreat (swimming distance from his palace), this is perhaps the most romantic -- certainly the most photographed -- hotel in India. Whizzing across the waters to your private palace, you'll feel you've finally arrived -- and if you've booked one of the heritage suites, you have. Floating like a beautiful white ship on the waters of Lake Pichola, the hotel offers good service, comfortable lodging, and picture-perfect 360-degree views.

  • Kankarwa (Udaipur, Rajasthan): A short stroll from the City Palace, this ancient haveli right on the shores of Lake Pichola is the best budget heritage option in Rajasthan. Run by a family who has resided here for 200 years, double rooms cost just Rs 1,650 to Rs 2,500 ($40-$61/ţ20-ţ31). Book room no. 207 -- a cool, whitewashed space with a separate alcove room with a mattress where you can laze in the afternoons and gaze upon the blue waters of the lake reflected below your window.

  • Devi Garh (near Udaipur, Rajasthan): If you're a modern-design enthusiast, this hotel will blow you away. The formidable exterior of this 18th-century Rajput palace-fort, towering over the tiny village at its base, remains unchanged. But step inside and you'll find a totally reinvented minimalist interior, with 14 floors transformed into 23 chic suites (with 18 more opening soon) that have clearly utilized the talents of the best young Indian designers -- all of whom laid to rest the perception that design here reached its apotheosis with the Mughals. It's an unparalleled modern Indian masterpiece, and a destination in its own right.

  • Umaid Bhawan Palace (Jodhpur, Rajasthan): Splurge on one of the sumptuous Deco heritage suites in this glorious, monumental palace (still partially inhabited by Jodhpur's royal family), with the city and its populace somewhere far below. It stands on the summit of a hill, with the staggering Mehrangarh Fort across the way. Guests here are treated like royalty, with access to a private cinema, fabulous lounges, a squadron of butlers, and two pools -- one an indoor Deco masterpiece and another at the edge of the beautiful, lush gardens where Liz Hurley married her Indian beau.

  • Amanbagh (Ajabgarh, Rajasthan): Fringed by date palms and mango and jamun trees, Aman's shimmering pink-sandstone resort is the oasis you have always wanted to stumble upon while traversing the Thar Desert. Begin your day sipping ruby-red pomegranate juice on your private porch, then hike to ancient Somsagar Lake or explore the haunted ruins at Bhangarh. Or go nowhere but your private villa pool on the edge of the palm-lined canal and listen to the joyful twittering of birds.

  • Killa Bhawan (Jaisalmer, Rajasthan): Built entirely from yellow sandstone, Sonar Qila (Golden Fort) rises like a giant sandcastle from its desert surrounds -- this is the world's only living medieval fort, inhabited by families who have been here for more than 8 centuries. Within the ramparts, Killa Bhawan is a charming seven-room guesthouse with rather basic facilities (only two rooms are en-suite) but lovely furnishings and stunning views, best enjoyed from the rooftop, which is comfortably furnished with mattresses and bolsters.

  • Gangeshwari Suite at The Glasshouse on the Ganges (Garhwal, Uttarakhand): It's the location -- just steps away from the raging Ganges River -- more than anything that gives this room its special appeal. The simply laid-out sleeping area has a four-poster canopy bed and antique furniture, while the bathroom features a tub carved into the rock, with greenery spilling down the walls. You can relax on your private balcony and watch India's holiest river gushing by, or dive in for a refreshing dip knowing that you're far away from the pollution that enters the river much farther downstream.

  • Glenburn Tea Estate (Darjeeling): Centered around the 100-year-old Burra Bungalow, which offers just four magnificent rooms, this tea plantation is by far the best place to stay in the "Land of the Celestial Thunderbolt," with great decor, delectable cuisine, and superb views of the Kanchenjunga. You can spend a night at Glenburn Lodge by the river without giving up your room at the Bungalow -- the two rooms here are charming, especially at night when bathed in the orange glow of hurricane lamps (no electricity) with only the burbling of the river for music. Picnics (anywhere on the estate) will be served by liveried bearers on portable tables complete with a tablecloth, delicate crockery, and a vase of fresh flowers -- all that's missing is a chandelier.

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