The road to the Gateway Hotel Ramgarh Lodge takes you through a crumbling tunnel over a dried lake and over a pond full of crocodiles. As you wind up at Jamwa village, where the lodge is situated, the sound of traffic fades and you can clearly hear the mating calls of the partridge. Its location ensures the Lodge has a certain outdoorsy atmosphere no city hotel can match.
The small 13-room hotel, erstwhile hunting lodge of the Maharaja of Jaipur, has recently undergone a complete overhaul. Indeed, as my car wheels into the driveway of this Taj Gateway property 30km from Jaipur, I can see scaffolding around one wing of the building.
I am put up in the special ‘historical suite’, which strikes me as being something of a misnomer because it is furnished in exactly the same contemporary baroque as the rest of the six rooms now open for business. What is special about this suite is its large sun-filled balcony affording a panoramic view of the hotel lawns, the bed of the extinct lake, now paved with fields, and the surrounding Aravalli hills.
Painted a pale peach, with green shutters, and slim turquoise tiles lining its steps, the hotel front exudes an unassuming, faintly Mediterranean charm, an effect echoed in the furniture in the front verandah and around the 3ft-deep pool.
However, the pastel theme is translated somewhat less fortunately in the rooms themselves. The historical suite, for instance, had an entire wall worth of French window clouded by nearly fluorescent blue curtains; the sofas had fuchsia and mustard stripes running down their arms.
“All these furnishings are brand new,” I am told by General Manager Devendra Rathore at lunch. The food is wholesome and eating on the front lawn on a sunny December day unrivalled. The Ramgarh Lodge is among 20 properties recently grouped under the Taj’s Gateway brand and undergoing renovation. Most are four-star hotels, a rung between Taj’s luxury hotels and its budget brand Ginger. The Gateway Hotels chain aims at the growing mid-market tourist sector: executives from Delhi, young double-income families. This also explains why the hotel needed to be “modernised”.
“We had many complaints,” says Rathore, “About the old furniture, the leaking plumbing in the bathrooms. The lodge was built in 1920, after all.” Rathore also admits the maintenance of the old-style hotel was a financial stress. The slow-whirring, enormous-bladed fans, for instance, consumed far more electricity than compact modern counterparts.
But back in my room for a nap, happy as I was with my sturdy bed that would survive a 200kg man treating it as a trampoline and the bathroom with its deep tub and steel-and-enamel accessories, I wish the interiors of the lodge had retained a little more of the “rustic, earthy charm and air of history” that a pre-renovation brochure advertises.
No visit to the lodge can be considered complete without visiting the aforementioned crocodile pond — a thrill to glimpse the enormous creatures sunning themselves on rocks among the rush weeds — and the hunting tower a.k.a. the scene of the action. The practice in the days of the Maharaja was to descend to the lake (two kissing gates on the lodge’s shallow terrace lead into steps), take a boat and row across to the hunting tower.
A narrow ever-spiralling stairwell climbs to the hunting balcony that overlooks a scrub forest. Three water tanks stand between the trees. “Animals came here to drink water and, attracted by the live bait, generally a goat, tied to a rock between the tanks,” says Rathore. The king and his guests, who included Prince Philip of England, would then take aim and shoot.
Having a guest share a hunt was the ultimate mark of hospitality in the Rajputana, I am told. Coming back to the Lodge, I can see ample evidence of the king’s hospitality. Animal heads, from Coochbehar in Bengal to Junagarh in Madhya Pradesh, gaze unseeing in the lobby. There is an enormous stuffed tiger and an equally enormous stuffed lioness. I cannot help but compare the elegant muscularity of the living big cats glimpsed at Ranthambhore and Gir with their stiff glass-eyed afterlife. The effect is a little creepy. But then, this is a hunting lodge. And dead animals aside, the public areas of the Lodge — the lobby, poolroom and bar — have managed to survive the renovation with some character intact.
The Lodge scores on comfort, hospitality and appeal as a weekend idyll. Hotel staff organises safaris and day trips to the nearby ruins of Bhangarh. The shallow pool on the lawns is ideal for children. At night there is a barbecue on the lawns, and in winter, a bonfire. The doubly enhanced charm of the location is that days can be spent in Jaipur city, only 40 minutes away, and by night you can return to the lodge’s peaceful hush.
Where: Jamwa Ramgarh, Jaipur
Accommodation: 1 Historical Suite, 6 Deluxe Suites; 6 suites under renovation
Tariff: Rs 11,000 (Historical Suite), Rs 9,500 (Deluxe Suite). Tariffs include breakfast and lunch or dinner. Taxes extra
Contact: 01426-214027, www.thegatewayhotels.com