Luxury Escapes In The Chitwan National Park
By the time you arrive at Meghauli Serai, your expectations are high. This better be good, you think, because, boy, has it been a schlep. If one is going to make the journey— Delhi-Kathmandu at the crack of dawn, a disorienting transfer from Tribhuvan international to domestic, a several-hour wait for the 30-minute 20-seater flight to Bharatpur, which turned even this seasoned flyer queasy and claustrophobic and, finally, a bumpy hour-long ride to the hotel gates—one expects it to end in something special. And it does. The first moment of arrival-relief will probably differ for each traveller. For some, it will be the Downton Abbey welcome by a very warm staff with cold towels. For others, the handicraft-dense lounge-lobby area, or the sight of the large infinity pool.
Those things weren’t lost on me, but I didn’t quite get there till I had closed the door to my private villa, walked through the bedroom, stepped off the deck, past the private plunge pool, and stood among the tall swamp grass, looking out over the Rapti river to Chitwan National Park on the other side. That view is worth the schlep. We are in Nepal’s Terai plains. Being the sort of traveller who becomes passionate about middle-school geography each time I find myself in a distinctive landscape, I am able to report that the Terai is characterised by riverine grasslands and sal forest. What that means for non-nerds is that it is a sensory knockout. Its flat expanse feels freeing and inviting and fills you with the urge to roam. And the light. There’s something pre-21st century about the light here, warm, hazy and hay-coloured. So when I stand at the edge of the river, contemplating the dense sal and the tall grass and the water hyacinth, I feel lightheaded, vaguely drugged.
Among the best things to say about Meghauli Serai is that, for the most part, it gets out of the way and lets you take in your surroundings. General Manager Ritesh Bhatt tells me that all Taj Safaris properties (of which this is the latest, and first outside India) aim to do just that. And though this one was already a bit more built up than Taj Safaris would have liked by the time they took it over, they’ve done a pretty good job disguising that. There is a touch of pantomime to the way the villas mimic village huts, but the earthy colours and the vegetation and the light most of all have the effect of making the whole spread fairly unobtrusive. The place doesn’t scream luxury resort, which is nice, though I wouldn’t push it as evidence of Taj’s efforts toward sustainability either (it’s run almost entirely on generators and the four air-conditioners in my villa would have stayed on day and night had I not kept turning them off).
The pool area and glass-fenced deck overlooking the river are the most hotelly bit, and the high-rise block of 13 rooms is a bit of a sore thumb, though press photos show the views from those rooms, which are pretty’ spectacular. The villa, one of 16, is where the hotel shines. Plush, with pleasantly understated decor with local accents, its main room is dominated by a large, supremely comfortable four-poster with a dreamy canopy of mosquito net. The bed faces the sliding doors to the deck, so waking up with the curtains open to the view, if you’re not in a rush to catch an early morning safari, is its own must-do. You could really just spend all your time moving like a cat from spot to idyllic spot: bed, deck, pool, daybed, floor, the charpai in the little courtyard off the bathroom and the sunny steps leading down to it.
But there really isn’t that kind of time—I only barely manage to try’ out all of the three bathing options (indoor shower, outdoor shower, bathtub) — there’s wildlife to be seen. The main event at Meghauli is a trip into Chitwan National Park, which is home to the Indian rhinoceros, sloth bear, several kinds of deer, the leopard and the tiger, among others. The hotel can arrange jeep, elephant and walking safaris. That last is a special feature, as there are apparently only a handful of wildlife preserves in the world that allow people in on foot. Chitwan is far less overrun than most national parks in India. Vegetation is thick and sightings are frequent.
We spot a peacock dancing for some unimpressed peahen, a group of spotted deer at a salt lick, a monitor lizard (which is basically a dinosaur) creeping slowly between tree branches, and many, many rhinos. Rhinos wallowing in the river, barely discernible in the distant swamp, running through the scrub and, in one heart-stopping moment, striding straight down the path toward the jeep. I’d never really thought much about the rhino until I found myself staring down one the size of a small elephant. What an amazing, weird, otherworldly animal. They don’t seem like flesh-and-blood beings at all; more like whimsically designed armoured vehicles. I wish I could have seen his skin up close, though, for the jeep’s sake, I’m glad I didn’t.
The safari lasts all morning, and is pleasantly gruelling. I’d heard much about Taj Safaris’ all-knowing naturalists, and had expected somewhat meatier commentary than I got. Our naturalist was very jovial, obviously knowledgeable and had a flair for theatre. I guess our group just gave the impression of being not-very-hardcore. Bhatt, genuine and generous with his time, was candid about the range of visitors to Taj Safaris properties—he has headed two others—saying naturalists could tailor the safari to all sorts. There were those who would come halfway across the world just to see a particular bird only found here, and make several trips into the park during their stay.
And there were those who would come because a safari was the latest thing to do with the kids and talk about later with the colleagues, and that was fine too. What he wants is for every guest to leave with a story—and he’s constantly dreaming up different ways to make sure they do. An unexpected highlight was an evening boat ride, following the Rapti down to where it meets the Narayani. On a sandbank at the confluence, hotel staff had set up a low table and a little bar. A crisp white wine went down beautifully with the sun. This is what Meghauli is about: being out in capital-n Nature, pampered to bits. The sunset picnic is also where I ate my favourite thing the entire trip: achari aloo and a local sweet puri, unbelievably delicious.
The rest of the food at Meghauli was pleasant local Nepali fare, which I was glad for while I ate it, but don’t remember much about. What I do remember is an idyllic breakfast on the final morning, accompanied by a pot of coffee that was startlingly good for being instant. (Bhatt assures me this will not long be the case; he is planning to outfit the place with local teas and fine coffees and boutique bath products so far only sold in Silicon Valley.) I spent a long, peaceful hour with fruit and muesli, alone on the deck, looking out over the river and the grass rippling in the breeze, shoring up calm for the long journey back.