One of the best developments in the past decade has been the increase in luxury boutique-type options offering international standards of service and comfort and flavored with Indian accents -- like beautiful craftsmanship and ancient traditions (we're talking Ayurvedic masseurs on tap) -- which means that the subcontinent is now a very desirable destination for the visitor wanting relaxation and pampering. To find the most unusual independent hotels, guesthouses, and homestays, an excellent resource for those who don't want the classic resort or chain hotel experience is Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay: India (www.sawdays.co.uk), at press time about to go into its third edition. Though the properties listed pay to be in the book, they are all, almost without exception, special in some way; the best are included in this guide (plus many more that cannot afford or choose not to pay for publicity).
Capitalizing on the desire for totally individual boutique-style lodgings, CGH Earth (www.cghearth.com; our favorite chain in South India), has been purchasing, building and/or skillfully renovating heritage properties throughout the south, and staffing it with locals usually with one of their highly trained managers at the helm. Their properties are so unique, and their standards generally so high, that -- should your entire South India itinerary comprise only their properties -- you will return home delighted.
Of course we all knew India had "arrived" when the ultraluxe Amanresorts entered the fray with Amanbagh, arguably the finest resort-style property in India, but the pace was first set by the Vil's properties, owned by India's very own, very fabulous Oberoi chain. Besides the Vil?s properties (the best of which is Amarvil's in Agra, though many rate Udaivil's in Udaipur as their top choice), Oberoi runs some of the very best city hotels, as well as several spa resorts in key tourist destinations and a luxury backwater cruiser in Kerala. As with the three Aman properties in India (including their exceptional new hotel in Delhi -- probably our favorite city hotel in the country), Oberoi hotels and resorts attract top dollar, but you can generally count on superb service and attention to detail. Best of all, you can often get great discounts on room rates by reserving in advance over the Internet (www.oberoihotels.com). Note that Oberoi also operates a tier of smaller, less opulent hotels under the Trident banner; aimed principally at business or family travelers; trained to Oberoi standards, service in these hotels is excellent and they usually offer very good value.
India's other famous hotel chain is the Taj (www.tajhotels.com), with an enormous inventory of properties, particularly in South India, where Oberoi is largely absent. Quality varies somewhat (and service does not match that of the Oberoi group), but comfort is generally guaranteed, particularly in big cities and resort destinations -- the best properties are the Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai (less so the adjoining Tower wing), Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, Lake Palace Hotel in Udaipur, and Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur. They also offer comparatively excellent service and facilities at their hotels in smaller cities such as Aurangabad and Chandigarh. At press time, the Taj group is rolling out an extensive rebranding campaign, and has introduced several new identities (often used for existing properties); these include The Gateway (usually middling, unexceptional hotels) and Vivanta by Taj (very exclusive business hotels). Taj also operates a budget chain, Ginger.
Safari experiences have changed dramatically since the Taj group launched Taj Safaris, teaming up with acclaimed South African conservation group &Beyond (formerly CC Africa). Their first luxury safari lodge, Mahua Kothi, at the Bandavgarh tiger reserve in Madhya Pradesh, is a sublime, sexy property with some of the country's best guides. They already have three more lodges in Madhya Pradesh -- at Kanha, Panna and Pench -- and are planning more in the next few years. Meanwhile, Amanresorts' tented lodge at Ranthambhore, Aman-i-Khás, remains superlative.
Don't think that India's high-end hotel sector is anywhere near saturated. The Four Seasons opened its first hotel in Mumbai in 2008, and it is among our favorite city hotels in the country (with an interesting location, brilliant concierge desk, and good community development programs). And two fairly low-key local chains have emerged: Ista Hotels (now in Amritsar, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad) and O Hotels (currently in Pune and Goa) both offer pretty good homegrown luxury, and are likely to expand their portfolios in the next few years. One Indian chain that is aiming to compete with Oberoi and Taj is The Leela, which has teamed up with Kempinski and, having sorted out its service standards, is scheduled to open many large, luxurious, environmentally conscious hotels in the next few years.
All over Kerala (and a few other places), people are converting rooms of their homes into guest rooms for tourists to rent, at incredibly reasonable prices. Guests share the public spaces with the family, which lives in the home, and often dine with them. Many of these homestays are gorgeous heritage homes and their owners extremely hospitable. It's a good way to interact with an Indian family and get a taste of local culture and cuisine (www.homestaykerala.com, for instance, has an extensive list of such properties). But don't expect room service and the kinds of amenities you get at a full-service hotel. If you are looking for a dash of luxury with your homestay experience, look into the tours through Ladakh offered by Shakti.
Staying in a medieval palace or fort is a unique and wonderful option among India's accommodations (particularly in Rajasthan), especially when your host is the aristocrat whose forebears built the palace or fort in which you're overnighting; the best are discussed in detail in relevant sections throughout this guide. Many were built centuries ago, so it's not surprising that heritage hotels are seldom the most luxurious option, with the possibilities of many stairs, dodgy plumbing, low ceilings, strange room layouts, and other eccentricities. Acting principally as marketing agencies for privately owned palaces, forts, and havelis (Indian mansions), as well as a number of small resorts around the country (primarily North India), it's worth checking out www.heritagehotels.com as well as the portfolio of properties that are bookable through WelcomHeritage (www.welcomheritagehotels.com).
Most heritage properties are individually owned, but a group that enjoys an excellent reputation for selecting and renovating these is Neemrana; check out www.neemranahotels.com to view their select collection of really lovely boutique heritage hotels, often located in off-the-beaten-track destinations; rates generally represent excellent value for these atmospheric gems, and some of their most recent renovations (such as the awesome Le Colonial in Fort Kochi) are absolute masterpieces. As mentioned earlier, CGH are similarly investing in heritage properties, such as the gorgeous Maison Perumal in Pondicherry and Visalam in Tamil Nadu's Chettiar district.
Tip: Be aware that any hovel will attach "palace" to its name in the hopes of attracting more customers. This is often amusing if you're walking past, but can be disastrous if you're checking in.
The biggest problem in big cities and popular tourist areas is that the good hotels are often priced way out of reach, while moderate options are thin on the ground. Midrange hotels are substandard by Western standards, though considerably cheaper. Wherever possible, we've provided budget options that are scrupulously clean and moderately comfortable. A chain of budget hotels we recommend is Ginger (tel. 800/22-0022 or 022/66014-634; www.gingerhotels.com). Launched by Indian Hotels (owners of the Taj group) and catering specially to the middling business market, these 101-room "Smart Basics" hotels offer accommodations priced at under Rs 1,500 for a double. They won't have any of the opulence of the Taj hotels; in fact, rooms are small and rather plain in design, albeit comfortable and with all the amenities, including an ATM in the hotel. At press time, Ginger had just opened its 20th hotel, with several more imminent openings planned. Another budget chain worth looking into is Lemon Tree. This relative newcomer offers comfortable hotel accommodations and facilities at a price that its competitors are finding impossible to beat. It's by no means luxurious, with that slightly stark pared-down atmosphere typical of any budget hotel, but everything is gleaming new and service is pretty slick.
Most of the top-of-the-range city hotels are operated by major international chains specifically those discussed earlier in this section.
The Rating System -- India's hotel rating system refers to size and facilities on offer, not the potential quality of your stay. Often the best hotels have no rating because they are heritage properties and -- despite their overwhelming loveliness -- don't conform to the norms laid down by India's tourism department.
Warning: As a general rule of thumb, government-run properties are best avoided throughout the country.
Bargaining -- In India, even hotel rates are up for a bit of hard-core bargaining. If you're thin-skinned, bargain online (many hotels offer Internet-only discounts); alternatively, show up and stay tough -- when you hear the rate quoted, brazenly pretend to walk out; there's no shame in India in turning back and accepting the rate. You'll also be surprised to find that luxury hotels in cities can often be had at midrange prices, simply because room occupancy is low. Always ask about daily specials, and call and check prices: In this guide we generally provide the published (official) "rack" rate for accommodations, but most business and large luxury hotels have now gone over to the "rate of the day" or "best available rate" system which means that you should always investigate actual prices of places that have taken your fancy -- even if they appear beyond your reach, the actual rate may be substantially lower.
In remote areas, small towns, and villages, and many places in Goa and the Himalayan foothills, you can find good (basic but clean) budget accommodations at unbelievable prices. The same cannot generally be said of the major cities, where a cheap, dingy hotel may expose you to bedbugs and despair; stick to the budget recommendations in this guide.
Note: Prices in a number of the hotel listings are stated in U.S. dollars or, increasingly, in euros -- this is, in fact, the way hotels targeting foreign markets quote their rates.
Tip: All over India, floors are marked and understood differently from many in the U.S. First floor is the floor above the ground level, second floor is the floor above that, and so on. The ground floor or lobby level is just that.
Of Hotels & Taxes
Almost every hotel in India will quote a rate to which an additional luxury tax is added; this varies from state to state. This tax applies to all luxury hotels, or the moment the room price goes above a certain level (which depends on the state, and sometimes the city). Restaurant and hotel bills get a different tax, and alcohol and other luxuries get a different set of taxes all together. Some states such as Tamil Nadu add an astronomical 73.5% tax to imported liquor; as a rule, locally produced alcohol is taxed less than foreign imports. Always check whether the tax has been included in the rate you've been quoted and, if it hasn't, exactly how much it is.
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.