Gliding across the quiet backwaters in a private boat, you are ushered into Chittoor Kottaram, a 200-year-old restored palace of the late Raja Rama Varma, the king of Cochin. Over the next two days the small palace, an elegant three-room construction with stained-glass paintings, beautiful mosaic tiles and a wooden ceiling, opens up for your personal use. The meals are of your choice but respectful of the temple next door; the traditional cultural performance staged in the evening is private too, like the entire stay. Jose Dominic, managing director of CGH Earth, the hotel and travel company which in 2012 leased this single key property from the raja’s descendants, says, “It’s your chance to be king and queen for two days.”
For “travel collectors”, which is how Dominic refers to them, destinations alone are no longer driving holiday choices; today’s tourists want to collect unique experiences on their journeys. India, rich with the relics of a glorious past, offers world travellers the chance to experience something new by going back in time—from the quaintly luxurious life of a tea-plantation owner during British rule to the lifestyle privileges of an ancient king. “Our heritage is India’s forte,” says Aman Nath, founder and co-chairman of Neemrana Hotels, pioneers in heritage property development, who believes the heritage hotel segment is one of India’s best performing in the hospitality sector. “People travel to see the difference, and not get a repeat of what they get at home.”
Custodians of India’s majestic past—some born to it, and others that have bought into it—have sensed that the business of nostalgia is a fertile one. Today, these owners are opening up their palatial estates to visitors and re-enacting the lives of their privileged ancestors, hosting high-tea picnics on croquet lawns, stabling pure-bred Marwari horses for riders and organizing birdwatching parties in place of the banned shikar (hunt). As one estate owner put it, “The only thing you can shoot with now is your camera.”
The scale of these ventures ranges from full-fledged hotels (approximate tariff packages in India cost Rs.6,000-25,000 a night) with restaurants and room service to smaller home stays of 3-10 rooms (that cost Rs.3,500-10,000 a night), where guests may find themselves dining with the family that owns the property.
Nath believes Neemrana Hotels’ success gave estate owners the confidence to run their own show. “We have done many smaller properties in some 10 states by now, and people began to see by example that it was doable,” he says, disclosing that the group receives one-five proposals weekly from owners wanting Neemrana to lease or buy their properties. “Everyone would like to turn their ancestral liabilities into assets.”
While Rajasthan has maintained the lead on successful heritage hotels over the last two decades, states like Himachal Pradesh and Kerala are not far behind, says Karan Anand, head, relationships and supplier management, Cox & Kings Ltd. Earlier, these holidays were popular in the UK and other parts of Europe. “These properties help tourists understand the culture and traditions of a bygone era,” says Anand, adding that today’s domestic traveller is also keen on revisiting India’s past—the market has grown by 25%.
While turning back the clock, tourists look forward to myriad experiences, one of them being life in a simpler time. Rajasthan’s “village safari”, which gave outsiders the chance to interact with locals in their homes, was first introduced when tourist activities were confined to the bigger cities. Sidharth Singh, owner of Rohet Garh, a 5-acre property built in 1622 on Jodhpur’s outskirts, conducted safaris for three years before converting his family home into a hotel in 1990. “The villages of Rajasthan are still so beautiful, full of colour,” he says of the safaris’ exotic appeal, which continues to boost rural tourism over a decade later. Brothers Shatrujeet and Jai Singh, their wives and the family elders of Shahpura Bagh, a 45-acre estate in Shahpura, Bhilwara district, Rajasthan, opened 10 rooms of their 19th century home for tourists in 2006; more recently, in 2012, Maninder and Deepinder Singh, owners of the stately Bharatgarh Fort in Ropar district, Punjab, renovated three rooms of their 7-acre property that dates back to 1783. Visitors to these home stays take pleasure in walking in the forest or surrounding villages, fishing and spending time in the kitchen garden or dairy. “Guests enjoy coming to a working farm,” Shatrujeet says.
Travellers are also keen to revisit India’s magnificent past, says Harsh Vardhan Singh of Chhatra Sagar Camp, opened in 2000 between Ajmer and Jodhpur. The camp, perched on a reservoir built by his great-grandfather, Thakur Chhatra Singh of Nimaj, in the late 19th century, is inspired by the majestic, sporting party tales Harsh grew up on. “I wanted to transform the place to what it was 90 years ago,” says Harsh, who pulled the old tents out of storage to copy the designs.
Similarly, Husna-Tara Prakash, whose family owns Glenburn, a tea estate near Darjeeling, West Bengal, stripped the main house of layers of paint and plywood work done by a series of tea- planters’ wives’ to restore the Burra Bungalow to its original glory, including the Burma teak wooden floors and cast-iron window frames favoured by the Scottish owners in 1859.
Smaller touches too enrich the travel experience for visitors, including personal memorabilia dating back in time. At Shahpura Bagh, for instance, you’ll find old silver-framed family photos and other personal artefacts and furniture, including the writing table of Shatrujeet’s great-grandfather, in the guest rooms which, on occasion, serve as conversation starters between the hosts and guests. Meals, a mix of traditional recipes and British-inspired, focus on simple, home cooking and are often presided over by the women of the family. Observing old-fashioned formalities is another way to enhance the experience; evening drinks, called “sundowners”, before dinner at Chhatra Sagar are a good example.
While happy to be spending time in the past, there are certain amenities from the present these travellers can’t do without—like attached bathrooms, Wi-Fi, air conditioning and hot water. TVs are not always available in rooms, but at Bharatgarh, which has a TV in every room, Maninder says the guests rarely turn them on.
Instead, they choose to bask in the attention bestowed upon them, and Prakash believes therein lies the luxurious appeal of a holiday in the past. “It’s the attention to every little detail and the time taken to anticipate every guest’s needs,” she says, citing the instance of the antique four-poster beds in all eight rooms at Glenburn which are lined with 8-inch pocket spring mattress, crisp hand-embroidered bedsheets and in winter, electric blankets. “The bed takes you back in time but you sink into the crisp, soft and warm luxury,” she says. Others emphasize the draw of the world they have created. The 11 canvas tents at Chhatra Sagar are plush, with attached bathrooms, running hot water and electricity, but Harsh says: “1,800 acres of land and just 11 tents leave guests with a sense of having the whole space to themselves. Luxury is not in the material here, it is in the concept.”
"Fashion designer Giorgio Armani’s winter residence in La Punt, Switzerland, is called Chesa Orso Bianco or Polar Bear House. A restored 17th century house, it is known to have the grace of a Japanese ryokan. Rooms lined with polished planks of mahogany and punctuated with strategic accents of orange and red are minimally furnished with tansu chests and Armani casa furniture."