Stanley Moss discovers that ecotourism need not be the ego-driven affair that it has become in some circles. Keeping it pure, he visits Chhatra Sagar, Sarai at Toria and Samode Safari Village in India
photographed by Paula Sweet
from issue 35 of Lucire
Stanley Moss is travel editor of Lucire.
You don’t have to settle for over-branded ego-ecotourism in India. A recent circuit of three earth-friendly destinations greatly distant from each other in terrain, location and offering showed what the subcontinent can deliver, and it is splendid.
A tolerable six-hour drive from Jaipur, Chhatra Sagar operates as a very small boutique destination of nine luxury tents set on a Victorian-era dam overlooking a pastoral flood plain and a game preserve. The property has captured the spirit of the the Raj both visually and in style of life. The décor, carpets and detail painting are 100 per cent indigenous and hand-crafted, the exceptional cuisine locally sourced. The service component is total. And think beyond the vast silence, the ability to watch antelopes leisurely grazing nearby, a very civilized tea on your private terrace, bird-watching by day and bat-watching by night from a deck chair on the parapet. This place will transport you. Since our last visit, the retreat has downsized, and a comfortable new lounge area has appeared. Fewer guests, a more rarified experience, more time and space for you. You can still take nature walks, visit a local village, or craft customized excursions. But this is the place to dial down the speed, turn off the boom box, and sit around a fire pit at dusk, sipping your very correct gin and tonic. There used to be a bar up on the hillside at the north end of the dam, but apparently the territory has been reclaimed this year by the leopard. Hot tip: book the tents on the other hill, which preside over the dam from the south side, 360 otherworldly degrees of the jutting Aravali Hills, oldest mountain range on planet Earth.
The next destination requires another complex logistical leap. First you must return to Delhi, and then fly to Khajuraho, home of India’s finest complex of temples filled with erotic carvings. The sculptural garlanding leaves nothing to the imagination, and dates back about 1,200 years. The city is driven by tourism to the temples, and everything can be visited in a single day. Limited restaurant choices, and an excellent reception at the local Radisson property.
Less than half an hour away by car you reach Sarai at Toria, a cluster of 100 per cent sustainable Hobbit-like houses and an open air lodge set on a promontory overlooking a lush and placid river delta. To reach the property, you first navigate a footbridge which spans a gorge. Your spacious bungalow with its curved walls and solar everything feels like a luxurious sleepaway camp, all rich organic colour and natural materials, modern, and in beautiful repair. There’s an unmistakable camp feel around the dinner table each night, a mélange of languages and personalities illuminated by candlelight. You could travel the world at that table. Included in your visit is a sail in a rowboat along the pastoral river, a tranquil lapping ride across mirror-surfaced bays, with bird-watching and the most surprising natural vegetation. Some see crocodiles taking the sun along the riverbanks. This is a perfect base for explorations in the area, where there are castles and fortifications, the usual complement of temples, and trekking possibilities. Two bonuses: superb cuisine, all sourced locally; and your excellent hosts, intuitive innkeepers who are both well-informed and utterly gracious.
From Khajuraho, if you don’t charter your own plane or helicopter, it takes another six-hour auto ride to arrive at Samode Safari Lodge, but however you go it is worth it. First you travel through a landscape of endless farmlands, punctuated by smaller cities and villages. Then, slowly, the highway rises into a low mountain range of dramatic vistas which provoke visions of princely hunting parties and invader armies. You see a lot of monkeys on the roadsides. On the far side of the mountains you descend to a savannah plain. Two hours later, down the requisite dirt road, you are within striking distance of the lodge. Afternoon arrival was delayed by a tree fallen across the road less than a kilometre from our destination. Our resourceful driver expertly navigated around it, going off-road as if it was the most normal thing to do, though it did take some heavy lifting and clearing of an alternate route. Well done, sir!
Safari Lodge offers the optimum of comfort imaginable, only a half-hour from the Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, upholding the standards of a Relais & Châteaux property. Your rustic villa occupies half a duplex, with separate sitting room, a bathroom suite as large as some Manhattan apartments, indoor and outdoor baths and showers, a spacious walk-in dressing area, and a broad sleeping porch facing the jungle. There are only six lodgings. The multi-level main Lodge has wraparound decks and lofty walkways spanning the tree tops. A pool and adjacent spa fulfil the pampering and lounging requirement, and a top-notch kitchen sends out world cuisine with amazing regularity to dining venues decided at the last minute, based on weather conditions or simply in the interest of variety. Even the little gift shop off the main staircase has gloss, with gem-like offerings, togs and well-curated souvenirs.
But you have come for the tigers, and if you can spare three days for safaris you are bound to witness first-hand the indescribable spiritual encounter with those ethereal and near-mythological beasts. Your Jeep careens around the preserve’s trails, in a kind of road derby where local guides compete for front-row seats at the ponds where the tigers come to drink. The tigers barely notice the humans—they have learned the grounds are theirs and that nobody will get in their way. All you need have is a little patience, to sit quietly in your vehicle, and you will be surprised. You might hear a gutteral roar in the distance, or the rutting call of a deer, you might catch sight of a mongoose scurrying across the road. Eventually the beasts will come. How many of us have seen a tiger in the wild? Here is your chance. •
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