When I was young, most of my vacations were limited to the confines of the states neighbouring Delhi. An overnight train trip was the stuff of dreams. I doubted I’d ever get on a plane any time before I was a voting adult. Those who travelled abroad for summer holidays came back and regaled me with tales of the myriad sights and sounds of the overseas and I listened on enraptured, captured, mystified and misty-eyed, further growing to believe that nothing good existed in India. Even a mundane walk down any street in Europe was more ceremonious in my mind than the most picturesque of vistas to be held at any of our locales.
Today, my work has taken me around the globe and back, eating and drinking off the finest of tables that are to be sat at. Safe to say, and without trying to sound pompous, it takes a lot to impress me now. I sit at the far end of the scale, where I have a hard time not being blasé about almost everything. I am beyond the reach of mere adjectives and superlatives, which are but mere marketing trash.
And knowing all this, I took the late-night train out of Delhi headed to Bikaner. When one thinks of ‘Royal Rajasthan’, one musters up images of Jodhpur, Udaipur and Jaipur with their lovely forts and palaces. Bikaner, sure it had a palace, but it was always more of a trader township. So why was I on this blessed train passing through arid desert land in anticipation of an experience while the mercury continued to wreak havoc in the north of India?
Because Suryagarh. A few years ago, I’d had the chance to work with this magical property, one which challenged the established hierarchy of the day, the unspoken order, which ordained that only the royal Rajputs may convert their dilapidated ancestral houses into hotels. These palaces, which had clearly seen brighter days, were to serve as luxury lodgement for visitors. So one went and put up with the leaky roofs and creaky doors, the sub-standard repasts and the awful visits through smelly dusty corridors all in the name of ‘experiencing the royal lifestyle’. The only thing royal was the sum one paid for this shabby holiday. Well, Suryagarh changed all that by constructing a new property, one which didn’t have the lineage or history to back it up, but to me, it was more like one burden less to carry. And that set the property free, allowing it to flourish famously. With no fixed template to adhere to, it created its own magical brand of luxury.
Now, in Bikaner, they have recreated the charm à la Narendra Bhawan. Unlike the rustic simplicity that reigns supreme at Suryagarh, this place is a heady melée of Boudoir Kitsch with the Roaring 60s all painted over with a noir shade of murder red. It’s decadent and chic, it’s nostalgic, hedonistic and opioid on the senses. ‘Simplicity is for the masses’ is the message here and they are unapologetic about prying you with poolside bubbly brunches or meals that are termed meditations and last a good part of the matinée or/and soirée. The martinis are dry and the Gallantine juicy, the service unrushed and old-school, while the crockery is even more vintage. This place is pretty much everything that Suryagarh isn’t and yet it is hard to miss the common vein of warmth and hospitality that binds the two. Both break tradition and lay down the foundations of a fabulously new one. Karan Singh (along with Siddharth and Nakul) helms the teams at both and together they ensure that no guest returns remotely unenthralled.
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The best bit is that Narendra Bhawan puts living it up à la royale within everyone’s reach. For every kid today whose parents won’t be taking him/her to experience the plastic marvels of Disneyland, or letting them loose within the commercial confines of a Lego store, frankly, this will be more enriching and engaging and back at school, they’ll have much nicer stories to tell. Or ditch the kids and go indulge in a gastronomic jaunt, one that is laced with more food and drink than your senses would reasonably allow. But then who signs up for a trip of palatial proportions and expects moderation?
The writer is a sommelier