In existence since A.D 1362, Lake Pichola is something of a fixture for all of Udaipur’s opulence—its hotels and addresses. I wanted delight and bliss, yes, but I wanted to avoid the touristy three-kilometre wide lake, its palaces and predictability. So, seven kilometres away, I reached the outskirts of an obscure village called Badi Hawala, and tucked away on a thin road I found The Royal Retreat Resort and Spa. Mountains of the Aravalli Range surrounded the property. They are tall, ancient, older even than the Himalayas.
The double doors at Royal Retreat’s entrance seemed as tall as two-storeyed buildings and had rows of iron spikes neatly arranged on them. Incidentally, in the age of kings, gates would have iron spikes to prevent battle elephants from charging right in. These spikes would be arranged in a nine-by-eight grid at the height of an average elephant’s head. Reminiscent of those bygone defense systems and palace darwazas, the antique gate of Royal Retreat only set a tone for all that lay behind it. My stay at the resort eventually led me to discover a different ‘luxury’. I even had to reorganise my thoughts about art.
All of 10 acres large, the resort has, in recent years, become a popular bespoke wedding destination, but back in 1995, when antique dealer and art lover Hemant Periwal bought this land to build a modest farmhouse, it was nothing more than untamed jungle. Periwal, a consummate host, began to throw parties here for his foreign clients. Business grew, and so did the number of clients. The farmhouse soon became a 20-room guest house, and then, in 2015, it turned into The Royal Retreat Resort and Spa. The resort is now spread over 11 blocks with 100 rooms and two presidential suites, three swimming pools and four dining areas. It showcases traditional art on a grand, and sometimes overwhelming, scale.
A mixture of old and new-that-is-made-to-look-old art can be found in every nook and cranny of the property. The space has grown organically, so it does not sport a homogeneous design, but what holds it together is the art—paintings, sculptures, installations and architecture. Doors from old palaces and windows from dilapidated havelis morph to become bar counters or decorative pieces. At the open-air restobar, The Lounge, stone and marble sculptures are seen jostling with wooden horses.
The resort has four dining areas, and though you can treat your palette to cuisines ranging from continental and oriental to Gujarati and Sindhi, it is the resort’s Rajasthani cuisine that proves memorable. In particular, I was taken by the laal maas and kheemabaati made by the Rajasthani chefs. For a more romantic and private dining experience there is, of course, the Chariot with a stunning backdrop of the Aravalli mountains, and on most days a background score of peacock calls. The Chariot is surprisingly a real temple chariot that Periwal had found discarded in South India. He then restored the decrepit wooden chariot and turned it into an intimate dining area. I decided to skip the meal at the Chariot and instead opted to spend time in the lawns. I sipped on my hot masala chai and tried to spot a leopard or two in the Aravalli Mountains. (A vain, but interesting pursuit, in the end.)
Guests stay in little cottages that are locally referred to as ‘bungalows’. Each one—named after birds of the land—is unique in style with carved doors, and brass handles that are shaped like elephants, horses and mermaids. The trellised balconies overflowing with flowering creepers remind you of Romeo and Juliet, while the intricately carved columns and windows whisper Bajirao Mastani.
The Royal Suites are extravagant with their silver furniture and beds, private outdoor plunge pool, Jacuzzi and barbeque pit.I found myself in a Retreat Room with hand-painted doors, a living room with its own balcony, and a bedroom that was bigger than a one-room apartment in Mumbai. It was, however, the Pichwai paintings in the room that had me besotted. The resort has a stunning collection of Pichwai art. Furthering a 400-year-old tradition from Nathdwara near Udaipur, the paintings are made on starched cloth with natural dyes, and in an earlier age, they would adorn the walls behind Hindu idols in temples. Lord Krishna is indisputably the primary subject of these intricate and colourful paintings.
The resort has a unique feature. You can buy anything that catches your fancy—paintings, sculptures, furniture, even their balconies, doors and windows. Royal Retreat doesn’t quite pluck the permanent structures and FedEx them. They instead make replicas in their workshop. Now part of the resort folklore is the tale of a Gujarati businessman, who fell in love with the entire bungalow he was living in. He is said to have bought everything in it—the silver furniture, wooden columns, doors and windows. I would’ve much preferred to courier myself the Sheesh Mahal. A little bar attached to the restaurant, Durbar, Sheesh Mahal is over-the-top, colourful, whimsical and really, much fun.
A break comes in the form of outdoor activities. Even a picnic by the lake is made hedonistic. A horse or camel will take you to the spot, while the resort staff will follow with food and a picnic table. There are other options too. You could, for instance, watch the sun go down the horizon on Lake Pichola from Jagat Sagar, a luxury boat. In truth, though, what I enjoyed most was a ride in a 1936 vintage Austin Morris to the Fateh Sagar Lake. Here I drank delicious kullad coffee, sitting on the lake bund, watching the world go by. If luxury means not having to lift a finger, the folks at Royal Retreat ensure you don’t.
The Royal Retreat Resort and Spa is located in Badi Hawala village, about 7 km/30 min northeast of Udaipur’s city centre. A Standard Deluxe Room costs Rs4,999, while a Royal Suite costs Rs 35,332 (www.royalretreatudaipur.in; 0294-6656000).
More of The Royal Retreat & Spa
This was earlier published in the National Geographic Traveller