Tented India, Two Ways

A new wave of luxury camps in India offers African safari-like adventures.

For Animalaholics

Most travelers driving through the undulating brown scrubland between Udaipur and Jodhpur in India's western Rajasthan have no idea that within the surrounding Aravalli Hills live wild leopards—dozens of them. When Indian-born hoteliers and wildlife photographers Anjali and Jaisal Singh—who have spent considerable time photographing leopards at Londolozi camp in South Africa—visited Rajasthan's Jawai River area in 2013, “we knew we had to build a safari camp here,” says Jaisal.

In December they opened Jawai Leopard Camp on nearly 20 acres of private land, taking with them one of Londolozi's top guides, Adam Bannister, to lead their field team. From the 12 white-canvas tents to the raised wooden deck with an infinity pool and cushioned loungers, wilderness views are of granite formations and green Anogeissus trees. Only the occasional red-turbaned Rabari herdsman or the cry of an exotic bird interrupts the peace.

Although a sizable but elusive leopard population roams India's national parks, the animals are nocturnal, and parks are closed after sunset to guests. This means it's pretty rare to encounter a leopard, unless one is sleeping up a tree (which occasionally happens). But because Jawai is on private land, there are no park rules to abide by or, conveniently, other tourists to avoid.

From the camp, guided safari excursions in custom-built, bush-green 4x4 Jeeps set out twice a day, at sunrise and sunset. The cats are unafraid of people, so sightings are good. The local nature-loving Jain population, says guide Bannister, has lived alongside the leopards for so long that the animals often snooze on the steps of a nearby temple. (Leopards sleep somewhere they're relaxed. Normally that's hidden away. But around here, the animals are so at ease, apparently, that they occasionally sleep in plain sight.) About 75 percent of all guests staying the recommended three days see at least one cat; one woman saw six. When I was at Jawai, I saw three (a mother and two 18-month-old cubs) lying on rocks on a hill, about 100 feet from the Jeep.

Other than leopard-spotting, and a bit of bird- and monkey-spotting in between, there are plenty of other things to enjoy: hikes up hills and to Jawai Bandh reservoir to see enormous flocks of flamingos; meals of just-picked salads and fire-cooked Indian curries; massages in the spa tent; expeditions to Kumbhalgarh Fort, a unesco World Heritage site that's an hour away; and afternoon naps in the air-conditioned tents.

There are increasing numbers of luxury tented camps in India, including two others also run by the Singhs: The Serai in Jaisalmer (packages, from $530; The Serai, Village Bherwa, Chandan; 91-11/4617-2700; the-serai.com) and Sher Bagh in Ranthambore (packages, from $530; Sherpur-Khiljipur, Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, Sawai Madhopur; 91-74/6225-2120; sherbagh.com). But Jawai is the only one set up specifically to spot leopards. As one might expect from the Singhs, the accommodations are extremely comfortable. Anjali designed the 1930s industrial-style, tubular brushed-steel furniture herself and chose accessories, like candleholders and lamps, from India-based designer Michael Aram's Trees of Life collection. Thoughtful touches range from sumptuous handspun Lovdi shawls and leather-topped desks to standing heaters and hot-water bottles in winter and locally made herb soaps in big, modern bathrooms with rain showers. There are also gorgeous black-and-white photographs of leopards hanging on the walls—all, of course, taken by the owners. Packages at Jawai start at $650 a person per night; Bisalpur, District Pali; 91-11/4617-2700; sujanluxury.com.

For Culture Fanatics

In 2013, the Maha Kumbh Mela—the world's largest religious festival, which sees India's sadhus, or holy men, gather in Allahabad every 12 years—rolled into the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. Beds (even uncomfortable ones) were at a premium. Hence the genius of the Ultimate Traveling Camp. It moves to where the action is; during the Kumbh Mela, the camp's tents were pitched on the banks of the Ganges, where Mark Shand—writer, conservationist and brother to Camilla Parker-Bowles—checked in for the party. “It would have been lovely had the canvas been waterproof,” he remarks. “When you're in a rainstorm with 100 million people, you want to stay dry. Still, I'd do the camps again. The food, the linen—they're brilliant.”

The camps, which have since been poshed up from the prototype Shand experienced, are struck in spectacular locations, including on the grounds of the royal summer palace in Srinagar, in the Kashmir Valley. They feature canopy-covered four-poster beds, en suite bathrooms and leather trunks. Highlights from this year's schedule of sites include Chamba in Ladakh from June 15 to September 30, and Kohima Camp in Nagaland for the tribal Hornbill Festival during the first week of December. Prices start from $660 a person for two nights at the Srinagar camp; 44-20/7808-5691; theultimatetravellingcamp.com.