Review by Clemmie Vandeleur, published 6th January 2014.
You can’t travel to Rajasthan and not marvel at its palaces, whether you’re staying in one or simply sight seeing. Either way, Rajasthan’s palaces are its essence – you might be in Jodphur, Jaisalmer, Jaipur, or Udaipur – and they capture a sort of feudal majesty like nowhere else in the world. Under Indhira Gandhi’s socialist government the Rajputs, or Maharajahs, of Rajasthan were forced to handover their great wealth and all of their properties except for one family home. As a result many of the palaces have been converted into hotels as a source of income for the newly paupered royalty of Rajasthan.
There are three types of palace that now exist in Rajasthan, distinctions that are important to the traveller and where he might choose to stay. There’s the old stately family home that’s been converted into a hotel in the last decade or so, a palace that has a rich heritage with all its traditional opulence. Then there’s the palace, like the City Palace in Udaipur, which is now a museum and a fascinating homage to Rajasthani history dating right back to the Mughals. Lastly, there’s the new breed of palace – the newly built hotel that emulates the palaces of a lost heritage but is all-modern – take for example The Trident in Udaipur.
Udaipur is easily my favourite city in Rajasthan for its lake-side position, small size, fantastic architecture, and spectacular lake views from the old city. It is peaceful yet bustling and full of heritage. A friend of mine who works for Conde Naste persuaded me to go and stay in Devi Garh, a palace a good 40 minute drive out of Udaipur into the countryside. I was rather loathe to leave my lakeside view, the gardens, the boat rides, the City Palace and more.
The taxi to the hotel was rather sick making having woven our way through the hills. That’s about as negative a point as can be made for Devi Garh by lebua.
Devi Garh falls into the first type of palace category – it is a real royal palace with a rich heritage. The palace was taken over in January 2013 by the Lebua hotel group, but has been operating as a hotel for the past decade, after a 10-year renovation (its Prince sold it in 1988). However, it breaks the mould. There is no sign of the sort of flamboyant sparkly jewel-encrusted interiors that one might expect. Instead this Five Star luxury hotel boasts uncluttered modernism and minimalist designs that showcase original murals, balustrades, turrets, portcullises, and frescoes in a way that brings it gloriously into 21st century cool.
It is modern chic, extremely luxurious and no less historic than its counterparts.
From outward appearance it’s an imposing fort - pink bougainvillea lead the way up a drive to an enormous stone palace that sits tall. Surrounded by local villages, wheat fields, grazing buffalo and its own manicured gardens at its feet. Flags fly from different domes, stepped levels and corners that you wonder how on earth you might find your way around.
But you do. The staff are of the kind you’d expect from a Five Star hotel, unbelievably personable and happy to help, if not a bit surprised by our backpacks. All the suites (Garden, Palace, Devi Garh) are scattered throughout the palace. Some at ground level in the gardens, some on ramparts with sunset views over meadows and mountains, some higher up around the Ladies Gardens, and the presidential suite straddles almost a whole side of the palace with its private pool, hot tub and breakfast area.
Each enormous suite is all in white with stone floors, ipod systems, DVD players, TVs, huge bath tubs, some with jacuzzis, power showers, his and hers sinks, and hints of Indian art.
The beauty of the hotel is that one can explore every nook and cranny; previously ceremonial areas and meeting places of the Rajputs have become snug hiding places and day areas still bedecked with original etchings and murals. The hotel is so sprawling we played hide and seek. More romantic guests might stick to private dining in one of these ancient spots – Sheesh Mahal, Hawa Gokhra, or the roof top.
The piece de resistance? Watching the sun go down behind a mountain from the terrace bar after which we waited for dinner in anticipation - very rare it is to find in India caramelised orange pork or glazed lamb. Despite the fact it was delicious, the dishes tasted remarkably similar. The Thai menu is a winner, and the food delicious – the chefs trained by professionals from Thailand. Breakfast was glorious – Eggs Benedict with a choice of smoked salmon or parma ham from the terrace.
Another reason that the hotel comes up trumps is because it has lots to do – a morning bike tour around the countryside (watch out for the bucking buffalo), a historical village walk of Delwara, camel/horse rides, yoga on the mountain top, a swim in the magnificent pool, a day in the L’Occitaine Spa (try Ayurvedic or Swedish), croquet on the lawn, table tennis, or billiards before dinner.
Devi Garh reconciles those traditionalists who seek the wondrous romance of a lost Rajasthan with the modern 21st century traveller who seeks an experience less antiquated. It is a refreshing take on Rajasthani heritage, and one that I shall return to.
Garden suites are least expensive at £355, palace suites offer the best value at £450 (they’re amazing), and the Presidential suite (Devi Garh Complex) at £1550 is much more magnificent, if marred by the fact that the private pool is slightly overlooked by our palace suite above (if you’re being a bit nosy).