I’m not sure what I’m happiest about on reaching Suryagarh: getting out of the car after a four-hour drive from the airport, being greeted by GM Nakul Handa and Vice President Karan Singh with a glass of scotch whisky, or meeting Alex, Singh’s, cheerful Golden Retriever. It’s an unconventional welcome; without any grand gestures or ostentation, with just a light touch of conviviality and warmth Suryagarh made me feel at home.
Located just a few kilometres outside Jaisalmer, Suryagarh is a relatively new property built in the opulent Mahal-style, typical of luxury heritage hotels dotting Rajasthan. A three-arched entryway at the entrance opens into large courtyard with a reflecting pool in the centre and the Central Courtyard serves as an al fresco dining area. Suryagarh has been artfully designed to create a variety of intimate, public, entertainment and relaxing spaces. A cooling man-made lake is surrounded by lawns, which are bordered by a wealth of flowering plants and trees. The modern ayurvedic spa leads to another tiny walled lawn with a duck pond in the corner and inside the hotel, you turn a corner and suddenly find an enclosed terrace or a lovely, quiet lounge. Understandably, it’s a popular venue for weddings.
Little things matter at Suryagarh and if God and Luxury are in the details then by god, at Suryagarh they pay attention to the details. Every night I’m surprised to find a small bowl of mithai on my night stand – gajar halwa one night, dudhi halwa the next. Singh explains, “When everyone has sheets with high thread counts, personal butlers and other trappings you need to stand out, you need to be different.” So, instead of the usual Continental or Indian breakfast, Suryagarh offer a variety of chaats and Indian foods. Their speciality is a typical Rajasthani Halwai Breakfast that includes Ghotava Ladoo, a local speciality made from crushed, re-formed, Boondi Ladoo.
Pic: Yummy ladoos
The nearby Jaisalmer, which is on the edge of the desert, offers many opportunities for open-air experiences and adventures. Suryagarh has taken advantage of the topography to curate unique experiences. On the first night we travel out to the scrub desert for a pre-dinner cocktail under the stars. In the middle of scrubland, miles away from the any inhabitation, miles away from a tarred road, a tiny bar, and a coal-fired grill have been set up. Thick dhurries and cushions arranged on the ground. A cold wind blows through, around us it’s pitch dark, braziers from the grill offer some warmth. A lamp provides enough light to make out our glasses of champagne and scotch that are perilously perched on a tiny table. We stand and nibble on some very simple mutton and paneer kebabs. On our way back to the main road we spot a chital (spotted deer) bounding ahead of us and a little further up a desert fox slinks across the road.
Pic: Manganiyar singers fill the air with music
Dinner has been organised at a villager’s choki. A makeshift kitchen is set up on one platform and floor seating with low tables on another. Next to the campfire sits a troupe of Manganiyar singers from the hotel. Listening to them sing Nimbuda Nimbuda and Dum Maro Dum for the first time in my life I am entranced by the music, rather than the food. I’m not the only one, for suddenly our host, an elderly gentleman, disappears into the house, returns dressed in a ghagra and ghungat, and begins dancing to the music.
Pic: Dining near the sand dunes
The next night pre-dinner cocktails are organised at the Kanoi sand dunes. Camp is set up at base of a 15-metre high dune which is studded with myriad lamps. At the top of the ridge, almost at the edge of darkness, sit the Manganiyar troupe singing their free-spirited Sufi music. In one corner the chefs are busy grilling chicken, mutton and paneer kebabs on a charcoal grill, next to them is a make-shift bar from which we are served drinks. We ignore the canopied seating preferring to stand on the cold sand under the stars listening to the music and discussing the natural beauty of Jaisalmer.
Lunch, earlier that day was at Jaziya Talao, a nearby oasis frequented by villagers and pastoralists. Mid-way through lunch a herd of goats and sheep arrived and took over one edge of the pond. We are offered one lamb to play with, but the kid is hungry and rushes to her mother at the first chance. The sheep-herders were intrigued by the Manganiyar singer and sidled over: I got the distinct impression that they were trying to see if he would take requests.
Pic: Peacocks perched on the fort walls
My final destination meal required me to be up before dawn. We were going to have a Cognac and Cigar breakfast deep in the desert, in the ruins of a fort, at a spot where flocks of peacocks made their way every morning for their feed. Barely had the sun arisen out of the sky that we saw the first peacock emerge in the distance; it was joined by another, and then another, and soon we could count them by the dozen. Executive Chef Sachit Jha has in the meantime set up a kitchen downstairs and laid the table with an assortment of cookies, muffins, cheeses and multi-grain bread. It’s a simple meal but perfect for the occasion.
In one weekend I got but a taste of the enchanting experiences that Suryagarh and Jaisalmer have to offer. Would I spend a whole day travelling from Mumbai to visit Suryagarh again to find out what else the desert city has to offer? In a heartbeat.