As the safari lodge is to Africa so the palace hotel is to India—an essential element of any first-timer’s visit to the country. The choices range from Moghul forts to white lakeside jewels, from jungle citadels to supermod palace resorts. Here, our honed-down short list and arguable toss: Which hotel is the perfect embodiment of India’s palace experience in 2008? Rajasthan’s Amanbagh or Devi Garh?
SOPHY: It’s a matter of principle. My palace, Devi Garh, dates from the eighteenth century—a fairy-tale concoction of ramparts, balconies, and domes. Yet it was only converted into a hotel in 2000. Before that it was a delicious ruin. They deliberately haven’t prettified the buttery yellow walls; they’ve let the monkeys do what they do, the weather take its toll, the sun, the monsoon, the passing of time. As for yours? Amanbagh is a walled-in compound constructed in 2005. By Ed Tuttle, the same architect who designed the Park Hyatt Paris.
RICHARD: For me, authenticity isn’t the issue.
SR: In India? In royal Rajasthan, where there are more palaces than cars?
RDS: In India, Los Angeles, wherever. For me, inauthentic isn’t necessarily any less valid.
SR: It is when it’s Disneyfied.
RDS: You’re misunderstanding my point. Disneyfied is something Amanbagh is not. I know what you’re getting at—that faux-Rajasthani opulence you get at hotels like Udaivilas, the Oberoi hotel in Udaipur.
SR: Exactly. It feels somehow fake.
RDS: I agree, but Amanbagh has history. The site was once used by the Maharaja of Alwar for his mobile hunting camps.
SR: But there aren’t any tigers left!
RDS: Not here, but you still get a sense of the wild.
SR: Wild is looking out from a vast suite in a turret and seeing centuries spread out before you. Devi Garh transports you. I imagine a courtyard filled with Marwari horses, with elephants and turbaned warriors, with dancing girls in exotic silks and slippers. At Amanbagh I see hedge funders sipping lime sodas, tapping away at BlackBerrys.
RDS: What I’m trying to say is that I’m not into something just because it’s old and crumbling. You’re English, I’m American. You guys have a soft spot for the old and decrepit. Others of us prefer not having to pull walls apart to plug in our iPods.
SR: Which isn’t true of Devi Garh.
RDS: No, but it helps illustrate my point. For me the perfect palace hotel needs to have a certain aesthetic that holds it together. Amanbagh has that. It doesn’t have to be an actual former home of a Rajput prince. Let me put it this way: Of the two weeks I spent in India, Amanbagh was a place where I felt real peace and tranquillity. I could have stayed a week.
SR: Really? But you’re ADD.
RDS: Okay, three nights. That would have been ideal. I’m not a country person, and Amanbagh is deep into the country. A four-hour drive from Delhi, a ninety-minute drive from Jaipur.
SR: Now it’s beginning to sound appealing—out there in the thick of rural India.
RDS: Yes, but at Amanbagh India’s frenetic aspect is somehow simplified. The landscape feels emptier, greener than it is around Devi Garh, and a whole lot cleaner.
SR: They say India’s holy cows are dying from the trash strangling their guts.
RDS: At Amanbagh I suspect they have a secret rubbish militia sweeping the area clean whenever they hear someone approach.
SR: Probably. That’s what Aman does best: staff-to-guest ratios.
RDS: You say that (at Amanbagh it’s five to one), but I didn’t feel in any way besieged. There was one sari-clad woman in charge of me. She was superb, absolutely superb.
SR: Understated service is definitely Devi Garh’s style. It’s not superpolished like a Taj or Four Seasons, but it’s got spirit, charm, individuality. It’s that kind of character I liked from the moment I arrived.
RDS: You mean that two minutes outside Devi Garh you feel the rattling craze…
SR: …of workers chipping away at marble beside the road as you make the forty-five-minute journey from Udaipur. The teeming villages. The busy little shrines like colored nipples on the tips of the Aravalli hills. But that’s why I like it. Devi Garh belongs to India.
RDS: So does Amanbagh. I saw a goatherd. And a well…
SR: But could you smell it, breathe it?
RDS: In India I don’t always want to. India is so awesome, so overwhelming, that sometimes it’s nice to be in a place that’s self-contained, where the eye is not forced to travel to a hundred different images every time it looks out a window. That’s what I found so peaceful about Amanbagh: a scorched India with all that light and color and activity reduced to a creamy blue-green palette. It’s a manmade oasis.
SR: I prefer being close to the life that animates a country.
RDS: In the city I agree, but Amanbagh is such a sophisticated property in such unsophisticated terrain. Almost unusual for India, you’re in a place that hasn’t been trashed. That’s its purity, its modernity, its contemporary appeal. I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to get away from it all, to go somewhere pared down and simple. But I want to do it in a thoroughly luxurious way. I’m thinking of my Pavilion Suite with its private pool.
SR: You can have that at Devi Garh. There may not be sixteen pool suites, but there’s my favorite: the Devi Garh Suite.
RDS: So, what if it’s booked? I’m not prepared to make the fourteen-hour flight from New York to end up with some kooky little room just because they’ve tried to make a hotel squeeze into a centuries-old palace.
SR: Yes, but I could return to Devi Garh thirty-nine times, take a different room on each occasion, and have thirty-nine different experiences. Or almost thirty-nine. The eight garden suites look remotely similar. At Amanbagh there are thirty-eight rooms and only four room types, correct?
RDS: Touché! Except I never go back to the same place twice. Unless it’s the Sunset Tower in West Hollywood.
SR: And what about the poetry? Devi Garh is modern—those dramatic floor-to-ceiling windows, the white-on-white interiors—but it also oozes soul. The bleached frescoes, chipped domes, shattered glasswork. The monkeys scampering along the rooftops. The bright green parakeets flitting through the arches into my room.
RDS: At Amanbagh they have monkeys. And sure, I was charmed. They sat around my plunge pool, pressed their noses against my glass doors. That juxtaposition of something so primal with something modern is what makes it unique.
SR: At Devi Garh you can sleep in converted stables once inhabited by the maharaja’s elephants.
RDS: At Amanbagh the principal pool is absolutely ravishing. It’s made from an extraordinary green Udaipur marble.
SR: Devi Garh’s pool, because it’s high up, seems to skim the sky—glittering, sharply contemporary, flanked by bright white shamianas blowing in the wind. And Devi Garh is cheaper, by about $130 a night for the least-expensive double.
RDS: Yes, but Amanbagh’s more sumptuous. I adored my room, in pale pink, a touch of black, silver, some dark brown wooden latticework—none of the gilding of a crass restoration. It’s calm, almost masculine, a modern international style with a nod to fifties minimalism.
SR: At Devi Garh you notice the details. The white marble tables, baths, floors, bookshelves, alcoves, vases. A headboard set with mother-of-pearl and teardrops of amber in the shape of a lotus. Color used dramatically, with a silk swatch in fuchsia, saffron, or scarlet thrown over a bed…
RDS: Was your husband with you?
SR: No, my mother.
RDS: Devi Garh for the girls, Amanbagh for the boys.
SR: Who were the other guests at your palace?
RDS: All sorts, including two married gay architects and a French academic.
SR: At mine they were mostly English. Throwbacks to the Raj trying “something new” in India. And honeymooners. Lots of honeymooners. Which would account for all the rose petals they scatter about the beds and baths.
RDS: Okay. So I had an incredible lunch at Devi Garh. I liked it, adored it, and yes, it is different from the straight restoration jobs you see done in other parts of Rajasthan.
SR: That’s the essence of Devi Garh. It’s nothing like the usual heritage hotels converted by disenfranchised maharajas. It is, in part, very modern. The food is contemporary Indian, the lunches are Mediterranean, and the spa treatments are slick enough to be straight out of London. And that glistening white dining room! I can think of no better space in India.
RDS: In a way our two palaces aren’t so very different.
SR: Perhaps. Did you know that Devi Garh’s Indian owners are former partners in Aman’s Rajasthan projects?
RDS: Now it’s making sense. The modern Indian palace. That’s what this is all about: two visionaries trying out two different approaches to create something fresh and unlikely in a part of the country that’s deeply traditional.
SR: So it’s settled then. For spring 2009, three nights at Amanbagh and four at Devi Garh.