advertisement

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 Palace (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 Palace was recently reopened after a year of renovations following the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai -- it continues to host 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. Derain and Ajwani are also responsible for the superbly located, beautifully renovated Fort Tiracol, a seven-room "hotel" that locates you at the northernmost tip of Goa with only a small, undiscovered village and spectacular views for company. But if you'd prefer the atmosphere of a homey, intimate, and delightfully designed guesthouse set in a village not too far from a gorgeous beach, then head south and kick back at Simon Haywood's Vivenda dos Palhaços ("House of Clowns") in Majorda -- a place of simple-yet-sumptuous enchantment where you set the rhythm.
  • Fabulous Beachfront Villas in Goa: As Goa catches a wake-up call and rediscovers that the neo-hippies are arriving in an altogether more sophisticated avatar, the recent trend has been towards creating wonderful self-sufficient hideaways where you call the shots and there's no chance of fellow guests disturbing the peace or gate crashing your party -- which, of course, you're welcome to throw. There are a few special villas to choose from but amongst our favorites are the ultra-luxurious Aashyana Lakhanpal; the back-to-basics toes-in-the-sand Elsewhere and The Hobbit, a fashionably quirky rustic chic "house" built into the rocks and furnished with most modern conveniences.
  • 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): 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 pick is Olavipe, a stately home on an island in the backwaters, where Anthony and Rema provide the warmest welcome this side of Fort Kochi, ensuring that you leave replenished and heartsick to leave.
  • Green Lagoon (Backwaters, Kerala): Not only do you get a reconstructed Keralite villa all to yourself, but an entire island, complete with a superb pool, full-time butler, and a sense of being in the midst of an entirely different reality. This is the ultimate escape for the well-heeled individualist.
  • Dune Eco-Village (near Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu): This is the coolest, most individualistic lodging option in Tamil Nadu: An ever-evolving seaside "village" with totally unique cottages, from eco-designed traditional thatched single-room units on stilts right on the beach, to luxury walled L-shaped villas with private plunge pools set amidst sprawling grounds. Under the expert hands-on guidance of director Sunil Varghese, service and cuisine are now superb and Dune has developed into a destination in its own right, yet a hop from the gorgeous seaside town of Pondi, our favorite shopping destination in the south.
  • Mahua Kothi, Banjaar Tola, and Pashan Garh (Bandhavgarh, Kanha, and Panna, Madhya Pradesh): Ultra-luxurious safari lodges from India's Taj hotel group and South Africa's &Beyond, each one is not only eye-catchingly pretty and filled with whimsically stylish details, but the sumptuous guest villas or tents 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, Rajvil?s 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 to "live in the princely style of Rajasthan."
  • Aman-i-Khás (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.
  • Mihir Garh (Rohet, near Jodhpur, Rajasthan): Gallop up to this brand-new property on a Marwari stallion to see the silhouette of your dreams appear out of the horizon against the setting sun. Recently established by the same clan responsible for Rohet Garh (a reputable heritage property), this stunning, intimate nine-suite desert sand castle will capture your heart and fuel your imagination, filling your stay with wonderful memories. With a plunge pool or Jacuzzi in every suite, and sweeping views of the surrounding desert and farmland, it's sure to leave a lasting impression.
  • 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. Surrounded by the rocky granite outcrops deep in the Aravalli Hills, with a pretty medieval village to explore, a gorgeous pool to cool off in, and a stiff climb to reach 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 three.
  • 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 excellent service, a spa-on-water and spectacular rooftop dinners overlooking the City Palace. All with picture-perfect 360-degree views.
  • Shahpura Bagh (Shahpura, Bhilwara, halfway between Jaipur and Udaipur, Rajasthan): Located in a lush 18-hectare (45-acre) wooded estate with a sense of peace and homeliness not found in any chain hotel, yet also without the sometimes cloying claustrophobia of a heritage property, Shahpura Bagh is a destination location, even with the kids. A family run affair and with excellent food, service, and perhaps the best pool in Rajasthan, this is at least a 2-day visit and the beginning of a lifelong affair.
  • 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 49 chic suites 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.
  • Hotel Eagle's Nest (Dharamkot, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh): High above the bustling cosmopolitan town of McLeod Ganj, this guesthouse offers one of the most charming stays in all of India. Set in a marvelously restored old mission station surrounded by a forest, each of the spacious guestrooms is imaginatively turned out, and the best afford jaw-dropping views of the Dhauladar mountain range. You'll be happy to just loll about all day taking in the fresh, clean air and staring across at splendid vistas. But your hosts -- self-proclaimed refugees from London's fast-paced music industry -- will be on hand to pamper you, whether it's with their excellent advice for exploring the region or putting together a special meal in the homey kitchen. And when you absolutely must purge your sins, the Dalai Lama's temple is a therapeutic half-hour downhill walk away.
  • 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.
  • Shakti Homestays (Ladakh): In the time-forgotten villages of Ladakh's mesmeric moonscape, you will discover a way of life that's little changed over the centuries. Thanks to an innovative upgrade on the average homestay experience, you can now enjoy the comfort of luxurious linens and fire-fueled heating throughout the night as you bed down in a converted space above a traditional family home. By day you'll explore the region with a knowledgeable guide and driver who will take you to spectacular Buddhist temples, journeying through lunar landscapes and snow-tipped mountains that will leave you awestruck. At night you'll dine with the families whose homes you'll share, getting to understand a distinctive culture that's a far cry from the increasingly touristy experience of the crowds who flock to Leh, the Ladakhi capital, the moment summer makes access to this remote Himalayan region possible.
  • 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.
  • 360° Leti (Uttarakhand): If you want to feel top of the world, look no further than this stylish four-cottage paradise perched on a mountain, with panoramic views, fantastic walks and excellent whiskey to come back to.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.