About six months ago, I got into a taxi and set off down the Delhi-Jaipur highway. After three hours of somnolent sailing, we turned off with a thud and a bump into village India. Our Indica trundled dustily past semi-rural scenes of slack-jawed men, purposeful women and hopelessly cheerful children. All this presumably brought back memories of home to the taxi driver Gopal, who burst into sudden, unintelligible loquacity, forcing me into reluctant, polite wakefulness. Fiercely in favour of the tarakki of the big city, he told me garbled tales of stagnating villages, feuding families, unabashed thuggery, and then sighed comfortably.
I settled back into my seat once Gopal had subsided and tried to decide whether all this commentary was surreal or appropriate given that we were heading to a luxury resort. No run-of-the-mill luxury resort—this was Amanbagh. I was travelling thence with a head bowed under by the Aman Resorts hype—the resorts were not fabulous, I was given to understand, simply because they were incredibly luxurious, or that their cheapest rooms cost over 500 dollars a night. There were more important, more subtle, reasons why so many rich and often famous persons chose to escape to Aman Resorts, repeatedly. I had no idea what these might be and tried to mask my anticipation of delicious hedonistic treats under journalistic curiosity.
The first hint appeared in the shape of a tall, slim gentleman with flowing hair, who loped out to meet us. Strikingly attired in narrow pants and a shuffly handicraftsy coat, he smiled sweetly and murmured, “Namaste, sahiba, namaste, welcome to Amanbagh...” or some such thing. I remember warily offering my hand to be shaken and he looked like he’d have been happy to have stopped at the namaste. Francois Richli also didn’t look like any general manager of a luxury hotel I’d met before.
Not many minutes were allowed to lapse before I was whisked off to my living quarters. These turned out to be magnificent: the pool pavilion is entered through informal lawns in a massive compound, a plot of land which Delhi builders could make a cool crore or two out of. On the door hung my ‘doorbell’—a string of stuffed cloth chiriyas familiar to all haunters of Gurjari emporia, with a bell at the end. Hmm. Hint number two.
The suite consisted of two rooms joined by a corridor. Through huge glass doors ahead, I saw a pool surrounded by further green lawns, in turn framed by low hills. I turned right, into the bedroom, a massivity of pink marble, expensive black and-dusky-pink silk upholstery. Turning back into the corridor, I opened huge teak doors into the octagonal bathroom, to use the last word daringly. The room offered all the usual facilities—washbasin, pot, shower, etc—each to be discovered only on opening further sets of immense wooden doors. Performing one’s toilette here, I realised with awe, involved a full-length constitutional between and in and out of various doors.
I hastened back to the bedroom but couldn’t believe my ears—Kishori Amonkar singing sampoorna malkauns. I rifled through the small pile of CDs and was startled to find: collections of late-evening and morning ragas, a Miles Davis, a Thelonious Monk and, just before I had hysterics, some trance or lounge or something. No MS suprabhatham, thank god—so they don’t know everything about me. Still, here lay hint three.
Earlier, I had been introduced to the brightly smiling Sally Baughen who invited me for a “little surprise in the evening”. So, an elderly English couple by the name of Jones or perhaps Smith, a French family with two children, Francois, Sally and I piled into jeeps and rumbled out of the gates into the blackness of rural Rajasthan. Ten minutes later we arrived at a very pretty, very surreal, sight: broken steps lit up with candles which led to the ruins of a hill-top haveli, also lit with candles. Smiling men awaited us with glasses of wine. In candlelight and vino, veritas tumbled forth. The Jones (or Smiths) were bored by luxury hotels but loved Aman; Francois was solemn about high-end tourism’s potential to do good for the masses; Sally enjoyed her Aman job but, yes, it could be difficult to sustain a love life; I was having a great time... The food was served on low tables at which we sat on cushions: dal, gobhi-alu, meat curry, raita, chapati, rice. I hadn’t eaten this well at home in months.
Such are the luxuries of Aman. The resort that somehow manages to serve you outstanding home food. The madly busy general manager who finds the time to linger at old forts with you, and talks intelligently and passionately about them. The wide smiles. The lack of curiosity or obsequiousness. The leaves that fall into your private pool and are allowed to lie. The monkeys and the uncut grass in the back lawn.
Getting there: Amanbagh is situated in the south of Rajasthan’s Alwar district, and accessible by road from Delhi or Jaipur. From Delhi, take NH-8; after approx. 3hrs, turn left towards Pratapgarh. From Pratapgarh, turn right to Ajabgarh and then Amanbagh.
The resort: Hidden away in the Aravallis, the resort is set within a walled compound used by the maharaja of Alwar for his mobile hunting camps. It’s spectacular: an oasis of green framed by hills and open fields. Accommodation is of four kinds: courtyard haveli room; garden haveli room; terrace haveli room; pool pavilion. Every kind of discreet luxury is on offer, including a spa (treatments possible in your own room); simple but exceedingly good food (usually homey Indian but excellent pastas); a vast pool at the centre of the public areas; and a library. Contact: email@example.com, www.amanresorts.com
What to see & do: Ajabgarh, a village you drive past on the approach to Amanbagh, is serene and mysterious with deserted buildings and a fine temple. Bhangarh, 10km away, is an abandoned medieval township with beautiful lawns and ruins of bazaars, living quarters and temples. Also possible: cycling, trekking, and boating on Ajabgarh lake. Sariska National Park is 35min away.