Five of the best boutique hotels in India, from ultimate glamping to rustic tree houses
Tourists who don’t want the hotel chain experience are going farther afield in their search for something different. Here are five bespoke places to stay in India that are well off the beaten track
In the past few years, more travellers – both domestic and overseas – have opted to stay in boutique properties rather than large chain hotels.
“While big chains resonate with most travellers, offering a certain standard of service and luxury, they often lack the character that niche boutique properties bring,” says Vish Gopalakrishnan, chief executive officer at Footprint Holidays, a company specialising in customised luxury travel.
Small outfits are promoting homestays and boutique properties with a limited number of rooms, often managed by the owners themselves, and recommended through word of mouth.
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“Boutique and bespoke is currently the choice of the affluent traveller, or of those who have travelled extensively and have a sense of what to expect,” says Shoba Mohan, a partner at Rare India, a marketing agency that promotes such properties. “Others find their way through references or when they read about it on social media or in magazines.”
Deepa Krishnan, who runs walking tours in various cities across the country with her company Magic Tours of India, prefers niche properties. “With a chain hotel, no matter where I go, I feel like I'm staying in the same place,” she says.
Here is our selection of five of the best boutique stays in India.
The Ultimate Travelling Camp
Until recently, glamping in India was limited to a few luxury camps inside forests. The Ultimate Travelling Camp (TUTC) offers an exclusive experience in some of the country’s toughest terrains. TUTC is nomadic, setting up its tents in various parts of India for a few weeks (to a few months) at a time, to best enjoy a season or event.
Each camp comes with a four-poster bed, a fully laid out bathroom (think gleaming copper washbasins and hot showers in the cold desert) and a personal valet. The company takes its cues from the wildlife safari camps of South Africa and blends this with the hospitality and lifestyle of erstwhile Indian royals from the 19th and early 20th centuries, who were known for their love of the fine life – even when they pitched camp in the middle of dense jungles.
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“Our ‘glamps’ are sprinkled in the hidden recesses of India, where accommodation options and service standards are, at best, spare,” says Rajnish Sabharwal, chief operating officer at TUTC. These include Ladakh (a high-altitude destination in the north Indian state of Kashmir, in the Himalayas), Nagaland (in the northeast of India), Hampi (a Unesco World Heritage Site town set in 4,100 hectares of 14th century ruins) and Dudhwa (a central Indian forest which is also a protected tiger reserve).
Mary Budden Estate
This 19th century colonial-era property is named after its last resident, Mary Budden, who inherited philanthropic genes from her missionary father and spent her life providing education for underprivileged children and primary health care for local women in the late 19th and early 20th century. She was based in the mountains of the Kumaon region in the Himalayan north Indian state of Uttarakhand.
Mary Budden’s former home, which doubled as a hostel for disadvantaged girls, is now a boutique stay perched on a cliff 2,400 metres above sea level. The property is in the middle of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary and surrounded by Himalayan peaks, including the snow-clad Nanda Devi (the second highest mountain in India, at a height of 7,816 metres) and the five peaks of the Panchachuli range.
The estate has two cottages, with a choice of seven rooms between them, filled with solid wooden furniture (some of it antique and tastefully mismatched) and colourful local traditional textiles. Binsar is a place to unwind. Activities here include birdwatching, exploratory walks in the forest and peak spotting, given that the Himalayas are engaged in a constant game of hide and seek with the clouds.
Niraamaya Surya Samudra
This clifftop property in the south Indian state of Kerala has cottages built in the traditional style, with sloping terracotta roofs, carved wooden pillars, ornate doors and open air shower areas.
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Niraamaya has 31 cottages with views of coconut palm clusters and the muted roar of Arabian Sea below. It is known for its Ayurveda Spa and bespoke wellness packages. “The trend we see is that guests are willingly paying a premium for wellness, and they are trading partying for yoga,” says Manu Rishi Guptha, chief operating officer at Niraamaya Retreats.
With tree houses 10 to 15 metres up in the midst of lush forests of the Western Ghats, barely three hours southeast of Mumbai, The Machan is a retreat from the crowds and chaos of India’s financial capital.
The setting of the tree houses at The Machan is rustic, with the rooms created around tree trunks, the interiors are comfortable, with Wi-fi, open-air showers and a private deck.
The owners are dedicated to conservation and sustainability, given the lodge’s location in a biodiversity hotspot, all the energy used in the property is from renewable sources such as solar and wind.
Every machan (Hindi for a high platform for watching animals in a forest) comes with a theme, such as ‘heritage’, ‘sunset’ or ‘canopy’, where the roof opens to reveal the clear night skies in the mountains. The machans are set so each is surrounded by 4,000 square metres of land.
“The trend seems to be that a stay at a hotel today has to be more than just the room provided, and include experiences that the guest can take back with them,” says Varun Hooja, owner and partner at The Machan.
Glenburn Tea Estate
Also set in the Himalayas, but in the east of India, Glenburn Tea Estate has spectacular views of the world’s third-highest mountain, the 8,586-metre Kanchenjunga. Surrounded by 1,600 acres of rolling tea plantations, high up on a hillock above the Rangeet river, Glenburn has only eight suites between two heritage bungalows; the Burra Bungalow (dating back to the original tea planters in the estate) and the Water Lily Bungalow.
The history of tea in Glenburn dates back to 1859, when a Scottish company controlled the estate. It was later sold to the Prakash family, who still owns and runs the plantation, while the third and fourth generation of the Chaiwalas – tea people, as the family has come to be known – have opened up the estate to visitors.
The unmissable activity at Glenburn is “The Tea Experience”, a tour of the estate and the factory, to see how tea leaves make it from the plant into your morning cup. More active options include birdwatching (there are more than 140 identified bird species in and around the estate) and hiking (the staff can suggest one of seven different routes according to your fitness level). But an equally perfect experience here is to curl up with a book and a cuppa on the veranda of your room or the common open terraces on the grounds. You’ll have undisturbed views of the tea gardens right below and the Himalayan peaks in the distance.