Rajasthan may have the first-mover advantage on regal rooms, but it’s getting stiff competition from hotels elsewhere in the country. Often planted in unlikely corners on the map, these stately heritage homes hum with the promise of adventure and romance, transporting guests to an era long gone. Pick your own time machine from our list of stays.
For most domestic tourists, Chhattisgarh is still the outback of middle India. And that can be a wonderful thing, especially if you’re headed to Kanker Palace. One of the first heritage hotels in the region, it has been tikka-garlanding guests since 1997. As far as palaces go, Kanker is both modest and new—built as it was in the early 20th century as a colonial bungalow. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in substance. There are manicured lawns, high-ceilinged rooms with hunting trophies and four-poster beds, and plenty of fussing over by the resident royals. Make time for daytrips to the neighbouring district of Bastar, and for Chhuikhadan Palace, three hours away, to see among the most beautifully painted rooms in the Gondwana region.
0-9425226506; kankerpalace.com; Rs 13,800 for rooms at the palace, inclusive of all meals, Rs 3,900 for cottages, inclusive of breakfast.
Bengal may have arrived fashionably late to the heritage hotel party, but it’s no coy newcomer. Among its recently restored manors, the 200-year-old Palladian neelkothi or indigo plantation mansion at Balakhana is among the finest. With rambling gardens, vast verandahs, and a snooker room with antlers on the walls, the handsome Maheshganj stands tall in the frail winter light. Add to that a mountain of hot luchis (puris) and the season’s first jaggery (nolen gur) made with the nectar of the estate’s date palms, and you have all the ingredients of a royal Bengal holiday. Built by a Frenchman in the 18th century, the house was first bought by an Englishman, who in turn sold it to local landed gentry, ancestors of the current owners, the Palchoudhuris. The family has fascinating heirloom stories—including one that features a fixed-wing Tiger Moth and Subhas Chandra Bose—often retold around an imposing fireplace or on early morning cruises on the River Jalangi.
0-9831328486; balakhana.com; Rs 3,500 on weekdays and Rs 4,500 on weekends, inclusive of breakfast; all rooms are non-AC.
There’s something deliciously counterintuitive about a winter holiday in the hills (even when there’s no snow in sight). If you’re looking to snuggle in front of a crackling fire with endless cups of filter coffee, look no further than the 125-year-old Thaneerhulla Heritage Bungalow at Pollibetta in Coorg, a prominent pushpin on the Plantation Trails run by Tata Coffee. Despite the fresh coat of paint and the elegant, if modern, improvements, the bungalow’s tiled roof and rafters, apartment-sized rooms and dark wood floorboards, still allude to another time. The key draws though are its beautiful grounds framed by blue-green hills and the trails beyond, meandering through coffee plantations and thickets of fruit trees. “Doing nothing” is a bona fide occupation here. If you’d like a spot of exercise, make a trip to the Buddhist settlement at Bylakuppe, or to Talacauvery and Nagarahole National Park.
080-23560761 or 0-9900212119; www.plantationtrails.net/thaneerhulla-bungalow-coorg; Rs 5,000 for a cottage room on weekdays and Rs 6,035 on weekends, inclusive of breakfast; Rs 11,400 for a bungalow room, inclusive of breakfast.
In Gangtok, there’s rarely more than two degrees of separation between you and the royals (everyone knows someone who knows someone in the royal family). But if you’d rather not take a chance, check into Nor-Khill or “the house of jewels”, built as a royal guesthouse in 1932 by the last Chogyal (king) of Sikkim to host dignitaries and friends. In the colder months, when the city rolls down its shutters early, this is a charming oaky womb to return to. Spend the evenings by the fire in the company of folk art or etchings by Darjeeling’s Goray Douglas. Or run a bath in a cast-iron tub (only in 12 rooms) for a warm soak in the suds. Either way, you won’t be in a rush to get home.
03592-200170; www.elginhotels.com/DOCS/gangtok.php; Rs 9,450, inclusive of breakfast and lunch/dinner.
In high season, Alipura probably feeds more guests than it hosts for the night. A pit stop between Khajuraho and Orchha, the hotel is where many tourists stretch their limbs and have a quick bite before moving on. But those who linger are rewarded richly. Once a private outpost of the rulers of Chattarpur, Alipura was reinvented as a hotel a few years ago, by its present scion, Manvendra Singh. Check in to sleep in a structure that is over 300 years old, but don’t expect star-rated luxury, or seamless Wi-Fi. If your idea of a holiday is exploring a warren of rooms leading to unexpected stairwells, or vantage points to view the Dhanushdari temple with its carved erotic panels… Orchha can wait.
080-85238223, Rs 3,650, inclusive of breakfast.
The Tripura Castle is not in Tripura—and more a summer palace than a turreted castle—but it’s a 1920s property with plenty of character. (Under the quiet elegance, all polished wood and brass, lies a bomb shelter and a tunnel, for instance.) The property is enveloped by nine acres of forest and the main house is off limits since the king, PBK Manikya Deb Burman, lives and entertains here but the charming annexe is open to guests through the year. Days disappear through the windows into the trees and mountains beyond, and at sundown, when darkness descends ever so quickly, the Castle’s in-house bar lights up the evenings. Tripura Castle is in Cleve Colony about 10 minutes away from Police Bazaar and walking distance from downtown Laitumkhrah, so it’s also close to the city centre too.
0364-2501111; tripuracastle.com; Rs 4,500, inclusive of breakfast.
You’ve either been to Ladakh, or are planning to—and chances are its sweeping, Instagram-friendly landscapes will dwarf everything else about it. Few visitors actually explore the local food, or look at heritage structures beyond the monasteries. The only way to make amends next summer is to book into a traditional stay like Nimmu House (45 minutes from Leh). Constructed in the early 20th century by the king’s cousin, it’s among the few surviving examples of a wood-and-stone noble house with three storeys, including a cattle pen at the bottom. It may seem spartan at first but allow the private Buddhist temples, rare Tibetan paintings and carved wooden windows to reveal themselves at leisure in the bright mountain light. Once acquainted with the house, look outward towards the beautiful snowcapped mountains and the fertile fields of the Nimmu village where the Zanskar meets the Indus, or wander the grounds overrun by apricot, apple and walnut trees. Restored in phases, by this spring, the property is expected to have nine rooms to rent in the main house (it has five now) and four charming tents.
08447757517; ladakh.nimmu-house.com; Rs 10,950, inclusive of breakfast and dinner. Prices vary by season.
The seafaring Chettiars and their beautiful mansions are famous. But much like their crumbling counterparts in Shekhawati, the few homes in the Chettinad region that have been restored draw a small, select pool of spectators. And just as well. For palatial properties such as the 108-year-old Chidambara Vilas—with mercantile, not royal foundations—deserve discernment. You’ll find Italian marble, Belgian glass, Burma teak, walls decorated with indigenous vegetable and mineral dyes and traditional handmade cement-and-glass Athangudi tiles underfoot. Like a museum—with room service.
09585556431; chidambaravilas.com; Rs 7,500, inclusive of breakfast.
Sure, most people travel to Pondicherry for its French quarter. But just this once, head north and make your way to the Tamil quarter’s Maison Perumal, a 130-year-old house that served as the old registrar’s office until a few years ago. The traditional Tamil home has a quiet elegance about it—red oxide floors, sun-warmed courtyards, solid wood pillars and indoor swings. The Maison’s only exuberance? A kaleidoscope of colours reflected through the stained glass windows in the thinnai or verandah girdling the house.
0413-2227519/22; www.cghearth.com/maison-perumal; Rs 8,360, inclusive breakfast, Rs 10,450 during the new year week.
Odisha has plenty to show and tell. But the Dhenkanal Palace, about 60km from Cuttack, claims to be the state’s only fort-palace. A rambling estate with minor royalty as hosts, Dhenkanal Palace offers what many others have offered before it—intimate cultural immersion in a semi-rural idyll. What sets it apart is its location in a relatively undervalued part of Odisha. The nearby village of Sadeibereni is a great place to learn about dhokra handicrafts and a little farther (about two hours away) lies the Satkosia Tiger Reserve. Back at the palace though, the lattice of sunshine and shadows on verandahs and darbar halls, terraces and stairwells, beckons for a siesta.
0-9437292448; facebook.com/Dhenkanal-Palace; Rs 6,000, inclusive of all meals.