LAKSHMAN SAGAR, PALI, RAJASTHAN
New this season: Lakshman Sagar
Lakshman Sagar hotel is the big opening of the year here, the new kid on the block in Pali, an untamed land of desert, nomadic herders, farms and traditional villages between the Aravali hills and Jodhpur.
With one quick sweep, it has redefined the concept of the high-end heritage hotel in Rajasthan by being a completely rural experience. The point of this place is to be out there in the wilds, rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in - walking around the villages, getting involved with the locals' day-to-day lives, and even herding goats. The result is unexpectedly invigorating.
Staying here takes you away from the hordes of Rajasthan visitors. There are two beautifully restored buildings positioned around a lake, one the Mardana (male) and the other the Zenana (female) wing of a 19th-century hunting lodge erected for the Thakur of Raipur.
The Zenana has sexy pink interiors, a courtyard fountain, crazy psychedelic mosaic floors, and intimate alcoves full of cushions, silky fabrics, and knitting needles stuck into rolls of neon-pink wool; it's bonkers and wonderful. The Mardana is painted in a boyish cobalt blue and has daybeds and hidden nooks on the roof for naps, and telescopes for stargazing.
There are also 12 new cottage villas with vernacular-style exteriors, constructed entirely out of local materials and scattered over 32 acres around the lake, each with its own small rock-cut plunge pool and organic slanty sun deck. This place is low-key, but clever. The large rooms are a spritzed, creative take on a traditional Rajasthani village home. They are filled with electic everyday objects: steel tiffin boxes, desert shoes and jars of bangles. There are log fires for winter evenings and French windows for balmy summer nights. Huge beds of crisp, white linen hover on plinths. Stone-walled bathrooms with rainforest showers have quirky treats such as pots of Ayurvedic clay and rosewater to mix into homemade face masks. The 'non-menu' dining system means you can eat anything, anywhere, anytime - and then learn how to cook it in the lodge's open kitchen, if you want.
Brilliant escorted village and farm walks take you deep into medieval stone-walled souks and to join mustachioed men rounding up their goats or bejewelled women draped in saris of vivid colours carrying pots of water from the well (which they do on their heads with the grace of ballerinas). This chance to join in with the rhythms of daily life is so much more fun than being a passive observer. It's a new look and feel for Rajasthan, traditionally so grand in so many ways.