Unusual luxury journeys into India’s hinterland

© Priyanka Roshan The 2021 holiday dream-list: Unusual luxury journeys into India’s hinterland Assam river

a dining room table: The 2021 holiday dream-list: Unusual luxury journeys into India’s hinterland

© Priyanka Roshan
The 2021 holiday dream-list: Unusual luxury journeys into India’s hinterland

Assam river cruises: Assam Bengal Navigation, India’s long-distance river cruises, is designed to champion the local. For every cabin or room booked, the cruise company contributes 5 percent to environmental, education and local community development efforts in Assam and Bengal. A private cruise aboard Assam Bengal Navigation’s M.V. Rudra Singha is an ode to luxury: premium accommodation in an air-conditioned wooden houseboat that navigates the mighty Brahmaputra River. There is a private butler onboard and a guide or naturalist on hand. Expect to enjoy sundowners with an alluring sunset as the backdrop and halts on deserted sandbanks. If ABN Charaidew, a 12-cabin boat, navigates the Brahmaputra, ABN Sukapha cruises up the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganga River.  This journey can be booked through RAREIndia. rareindia.com; assambengalnavigation.com

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Stargazing with Ecosphere, Spiti: Traditional homestays across Spiti have been spiffed out by Ecosphere, a social organisation that helps create sustainable employment for the local communities. If the love of stargazing ever took you to a Nordic country, here is an Indian destination that can match up to any pristine star-gazing experience. Often enough, Ecosphere stays have huge wooden windows with a front-seat view to the theatre in the star-spangled night sky and the Milky Way. Stay awake late into the night armed with a warm cup of Spitian butter tea. spitiecosphere.com

Maheshwar and Bhedaghat, Madhya Pradesh: So, you have done the Ganga journey, but have you experienced the beauty of the soulful Narmada that flows past the ancient town of Maheshwar? It is said that of the five holy rivers in India, Narmada is the holiest.

Stay at the Ahilya Fort Hotel, an 18th-century palace set in the 4,000-year-old town, once the private home of the royal family of Holkars. A Narmada sojourn organised by the fort-hotel takes you down the river in wooden boats that float amidst a flank of flickering candles on the water. The Ahilya Fort looms over the landscape like a colossus. Close to Maheshwar are the sublime ruins of the abandoned 13th-century city of Mandu.

One of your stops on Madhya Pradesh’s Narmada journey should be at the marble rocks in Bhedaghat, a few kilometres from Jabalpur. The river has, over centuries, tunnelled its way through the hard rocks. The white marble rocks, entwined with black and green volcanic ones, stand 100 feet tall, occupying what looks like a parallel universe. Geologists have discovered dinosaur eggs on the ghats that are now in possession of the ancient temples around. For an other-worldly experience, set on the river journey on a full moon night when Narmada shimmers like a lustrous piece of mercury. ahilyafort.com

Kabini with Shaaz Jung: Shaaz Jung—wildlife photographer, big cat-tracker and descendent of the erstwhile Pataudi family of Bhopal—has been photographing the wild inhabitants of Kabini for years. Home to elusive species such as the leopard, tiger and panther, Kabini was once the hunting ground of the Maharaja of Mysore. Jung runs The Bison Resort in its deciduous forests and often takes people on fun and insightful tours of the jungle. He has spent the last three years photographing and filming the sole black panther who inhabits the Nagarhole forests close by, for National Geographic and his stories are riveting. thebisonresort.com

Cruise through the ancient Muziris port town: The next time you find yourself in Kochi, take a journey to the lost city of Muziris. It is being restored, bit by a little bit, by the Muziris Heritage Foundation (MHF). In the first century BC, Muziris was an important trading post and traded black pepper and textiles with other countries. The city appears prominently on the Tabula Peutingeriana, a fifth-century map of the world as seen from Rome. Excavations in 2004 near the village of Pattanam threw up Roman amphorae, a wharf-like structure, a dug-out canoe that is approximately 2,000 years old, and foundations, tools and gold ornaments. A river cruise to experience the golden age of spice trade winds its way to Kottappuram Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1523, which played a significant role in the wars between the Zamorins of Kozhikode and the rulers of Kochi, and to ancient markets, old churches and temples. muzirisheritage.org

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Khonoma, India’s first green village: In 2019, the 700-year-old village in Nagaland welcomed 4,000 guests, considered quite an achievement for a secluded region on the Indo-Myanmar border. Most were drawn to Khonoma’s rich biodiversity and conservation success. Thepfulhouvi Angami, the former principal chief conservator of forests in Nagaland and Niketu Iralu, a community leader of the local tribe, spearheaded a campaign for the creation of a protected sanctuary and a ban on hunting and logging. It wasn’t easy convincing the villagers whose ancestors have been hunting on these lands for generations. International aid of US$5,000 from the Gerald Durrell Memorial Fund helped them to recruit the hunters to serve as forest wardens and pay them a good salary. The sanctuary is now a haven for several vulnerable species such as the clouded leopard and the Asiatic black bear. The local communities use traditional agriculture methods to grow organic vegetables at the foot of the mountains, under the shade of ancient trees. northeasttourism.gov.in

Cherry blossoms in Shillong: You do not have to wait for flights to open to Japan. Every year, till about March, Shillong is swathed in powder-pink. Usually, the east and west Khasi hills are home to ancient cherry blossom trees. Every November, the city hosts an annual cherry blossom festival, packed with cultural and music events and walks to discover the extensive network of Shillong’s cherry blossom trees. 2020 put a spanner in the works but plan early for the 2021 festival. megforest.gov.in

Rhino orphanage in Kaziranga: The Center for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation in Assam offers a saving hand to the orphaned rhinos. Annually, dozens of rhinos perish in the raging monsoon floods that cause the Brahmaputra waters to swell and submerges nearly 80 percent of the Kaziranga National Park. The Centre hand-raised its first female calf during the 2002 flood and reintroduced her to the wild in 2006. Since then, they have rehabilitated 14 such hand-raised rhinos and welcome volunteers and travellers keen to experience their good work. wti.org.in

Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, Tamil Nadu: The murky waters in and around India may not seem ideal for a marine park, but there are stretches of pristine beauty that hosts some of the country’s best-preserved marine sanctuaries. Among them is Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park that floats between Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka. Its 21 islands and coral reefs have earned it the moniker of an underwater rainforest. You can take a glass-bottomed boat from Rameswaram on a tour to spot pearl oysters, sea horse and blue whales. tamilnadutourism.org

Coffee in Araku Valley: Deep within the lofty Anantagiri Hills lies the picturesque Araku Valley, home to ancient coffee plantations. The tribal communities were once caught in a vice-like grip between the Naxals and the Indian state. This was until Naandi Foundation, a not-for-profit venture, set up coffee and organic farming livelihood projects. Today, they produce one of the world’s finest coffee. The Naandi-helmed foundation produces around 75 tonnes of Araku coffee every year which is sold in European cities and is said to be among the top five gourmet coffee brands in Paris. The speciality coffee is due to the region’s unique climatic conditions, bio-dynamic agriculture and the involvement of the world’s top coffee experts in every stage of production. Araku welcomes travellers to stay with them and experience the magic of the coffee estates run by a co-operative of tribals. Rockefeller Foundation selected Naandi Foundation as one of the ‘Top 10 Visionaries’ in the world for the Food Vision 2050. naandi.org

And tea at the world’s highest tea estate, Kolukkumalai: Close to Munnar is the Kolukkumalai Tea Estate which cultivates and processes tea at an altitude of over 7,130 metres using old-school equipment that was set up in the 1930s. The tea leaves are handpicked, weighed, graded and dried indoors to ensure that they don’t crumble. The plantation eagle-spreads across 1000 acres and produces 12 tons of tea per month on an average. This is the region where, from August to October, blooms the purple Neelakurinji flowers. Kolukkumalai.com

Meghalaya’s living root bridges: Deep within the rainforests of Meghalaya, a tangle of massive vines and roots stretch across tumultuous rivers to form latticework bridges that are used by people to cross from one bank to another. Called ‘engineering marvels’ by the National Geographic magazine and recognised as the world’s ‘tangible’ heritage by UNESCO, these living crossings are not made, they are grown. The roots of the native rubber tree can grow up to 100 feet long and a bridge can support the weight of over 60 people at the same time.

People from the Khasi tribe, who inhabit the lush rainforests, have developed intricate techniques that allow them to manipulate the secondary roots of the rubber tree to grow horizontally, through the tunnels of hollowed betel nut trunks across fast-flowing rivers. Most of Meghalaya, and particularly Cherrapunjee, receives very heavy rainfall and wooden bridges tend to rust and collapse under monsoon fury. These bioengineering wonders can survive for 500 years and are at the centre of travel experience in this north-eastern state. meghalayatourism.in

Johri Bazaar, Jaipur: Deep within Jaipur is the Johri Bazaar, home to Rajasthan’s famed jewellers, whose families have run jewellery businesses here for centuries. Many of them even designed and hand-crafted jewellery for the state’s various royal families. Even today there are workshops, studios and stores dedicated to the art of jewellery making. Browse through the shops and buy yourself a piece of the state’s jewellery heritage. Stay at The Johri at Lal Havelian intimate luxury hotel set in a 19th-century limestone building with a terracotta-coloured façade. It has reopened after eight months and is run by the ninth-generation jeweller and entrepreneur Siddharth Kasliwal and hospitality entrepreneur Abhishek Honawar. Each of the five suites is modelled after different gemstones — the manak (ruby) room is a shade of dusty pink, the neelam (sapphire) has blue colour walls and the rooftop moti (pearl) room boasts a private veranda that opens to views of the old city and the 18th-century Nahargarh Fort in the distance. thejohrijaipur.com

Meena Bagh Ratnari, Shimla: Sustainability isn’t just another word at Meena Bagh. I have tracked photographer Sanjay Austa construct Meena Bagh, brick by brick, over months, as he experimented with sustainable construction methods. Meena Bagh, sequestered deep within the Himalayas, is a luxury eco-stay. It stands in the middle of an apple orchard and has its own forest farm, from which Austa and his team harvests some of the fresh fruits and vegetables they serve. The architecture mimics a chalet crafted from reclaimed wood, local stone and mud. There is a fireplace, beautiful furniture and the other residents of the home: a dog, a cat, a few sheep, some ducks and anyone who chooses to make the luxury farm stay their home. meenabaghhomes.com

Glamping with The Ultimate Travelling Camp: India’s only nomadic luxury camp sets up base in Ladakh’s picturesque alpine terrain, Dudhwa’s lush forest, Chamba’s snow-swathed mountains and Hampi’s melancholic ruins every year. The Ultimate Travelling Camp offers pristine suite tents made of triple-layered camps set on raised wooden decks, which also serves as a patio. Inside the tents is king-size four-poster beds, complete with soft sheets and wispy curtains, and even a bejewelled chandelier. They offer personalised experiences of the destinations they are in. tutc.com

Private camping and hotels with RARE India: The advocates of small, private, concept hotels and journeys, showcase a vibrant network of boutique hotels and experiences that straddle virgin destinations and sustainable travel. Among their offerings are some amazing private luxury camps.

Camp Kooncha, an experiential and bespoke camping experience in the wilderness on the fringes of Jaipur and the Sariska sanctuary, is the future of travel. They peg it as ‘Your Own Safari Camp’, which you pitch in magnificent settings—a re-wilded private estate, nestled between rolling wooded hills in Sariska National Tiger Park.

So, this is what you get to do when you bookFor one, you name your tents. None of the tents has names and you can call them what you like—name them Forest Den or Tiger View or even Outdoor Outlanders if you please! Then, depending on the size of your group, choose from a minimum of two tents to a maximum of 10 in any sort of arrangement you want—in a circle, a horseshoe, a pentagon…you get the drift. The tents mimic the royal shikar (hunting) camps of Jodhpur of yore and are completely kitted out for luxury. There is no permanent structure around, just a series of shape-shifting luxury tents that can be pitched as you please.

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Then there is Manvar Luxury Camp, a small campsite on a high dune, private and pristine miles and miles of undulating Thar Desert. Built from local stone with thatched roofs in the style of a village settlement, it offers tented luxury for intrepid glampers. Each camp is fitted out with jute rugs, teak furniture and patios. Experiences include camel treks and jeep safaris through the desert to spot gazelles and a visit to the homes of the ancient communities of Bishnois, Rajputs and Meghwals.

Part of RARE India’s network is Chanoud Garh, a family-operated small 300-year-old fort-palace hotel at the edge of the Thar Desert, which accepts only private bookings. This means, your family or tight-knit circle of friends will be the only guests when you are staying at the property. Chanoud Garh is as luxuriously private as it gets: 10 rooms that spell imperial splendour. The group is personally hosted by the 13th-generation descendent of the royal family. rareindia.com