Beyond Mumbai: Ahilya Fort

Courtesy Ahilya Fort

Let me put it as delicately as I can: Getting to Ahilya Fort is hell. No, sheer hell. And…worth every last dreary minute of it, first the one-hour-and-20-minute flight from Delhi to Indore, then the three-hour drive on a twisting, turning so-called highway. There is no glitzy spa, no sandstone elephants spouting tinted water as you enter. And for those of you crazed lap swimmers, forget about an infinity anything—the grand, elegantly tiled pool in the garden is better by far. But the even greater body of water is the River Narmada, on whose rocky banks the Maharani of Indore built this stately pleasure dome more than 200 years ago. Here at Maheshwar, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, Prince Shivaji Rao Holkar, a descendant of Rani Ahilyabai, son of the last Maharaja of Indore, has preserved and restored the fort’s interiors and Maratha-style architecture. Today the remodeled family pile’s 12 wonderful guest rooms (and two garden tents) capture the old-world charm of the original palace. “But the towels! They’re horrible,” decried the otherwise adorable Englishwoman and savvy traveler I met on my first night there. She’s right. Forget fluffy towels, room service, and cute little logo’d slippers. Instead there are views from antique ramparts and magical eccentric rooms, some large, some small; mine had its own little pavilion overlooking the river. There is no formal dining room. But meals—movable feasts, really—are served everywhere: poolside, on shaded patios and courtyards, and, most magically, on secret and nearby moonlit islands to which one is transported in long, low boats. Diyas (little oil lamps) drift by as you dine on Ahilya’s great classic central Indian cooking. The fort is the real thing; there’s no trickery here but rather an authenticity, and, to my way of thinking, a once-in-a-lifetime experience—albeit one for a certain type of traveler. Rooms begin at $250 a night and include everything—meals, drinks, massages, et al. For reservations, call 91-11/4155-1575 or go to ahilyafort.com.