A Royal Vacay in Narendra Bhawan – Bikaner, Rajasthan, India
Walking around Narendra Bhawan is like taking a quick refresher course in the history of design. There’s a delightful confluence of elements from around the world – a hat tip to its former inhabitant’s eclectic tastes. Banarasi weaves framed and mounted on the walls play up a contrast with Art Deco’s chevron patterns, Ming vases share space with European porcelain figurines, the intricate designs of usta art, a Bikaneri specialty, fight with the delicate beauty of Portuguese tiles for your attention. Almost every corner of the hotel, once the residence of the last king of Bikaner, Narendra Singh, transports you to a different time.
Geared mostly towards a young, urban crowd, this 82-room property officially opened its doors to visitors in October 2016. Narendra Bhawan offers traditional hospitality with a cool, hip vibe. Rooms are furnished with modern conveniences, the terrace houses an infinity swimming pool, Edith, the red piano, tempts you to unleash your inner Beethoven, and a well-equipped gym calls out to fitness enthusiasts. If your idea of a perfect holiday is curling up with a book and endless cups of chai (that you don’t have to brew yourself), you will be spoilt for choice here. Sit cross-legged on the asana chairs in the lounge area or sink into the comfort of large cushions placed in designed seating areas in the corridors with sunlight streaming in through the jaali work. And don’t fret if you’ve forgotten your Kindle at home, you’ll find well-stocked bookshelves here. While deciding what to read, get acquainted with the maharaja’s family, and his dogs, through the picture frames on the shelves.
Narendra Singh’s love for animals is legendary – he once owned 500 cows and 90 dogs! In the evening, head to the terrace, done up in a pleasing combination of white and beige, with pops of blue. It’s the perfect place at which to mull over existentialism, or to think of an alternate ending for How I Met Your Mother with your toes dipped in the pool, as you take in views of the city. For those who want to explore what Bikaner has to offer (besides excellent bhujia), the hotel offers thoughtfully-curated experiences. For first-timers, the Royal Exploration is a great way to learn about the city’s 500-year history. Architecture buffs will love the Merchant Exploration trail through the winding lanes where traders lived in their grand havelis, the oldest dating back to the 17th century.
The elaborate facades of these havelis, with British, Mughal and Rajput influences, make for a visual treat. The trail ends with a Marwari lunch at one of these palaces. There are other fun outdoor options too. Grab a pair of binoculars and head to Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary, 35km away, for a chance to spot blackbuck, spotted deer, cranes and peacocks. It’s enjoyable as long as you keep your expectations real. What is very memorable though is Sundowner at the Pastures – a truly spectacular set-up designed to please all the senses.
Marvel at a fiery orange sun sinking into the sand dunes, as you swirl the wine around in your glass and nibble on ker sangri tikkis while listening to the soothing notes of the flute – it’s a pretty good way to wind up the day.
GREAT FROM: New Delhi, Jaipur, Jodhpur
GREAT FOR: A lazy, relaxed, fun vacation
WHERE TO STAY
Narendra Bhawan: Currently only two categories of rooms – the Residence and Prince – are available at the hotel. By March 2017, three more room categories in different themes and sizes are expected to be functional. The hotel is located in the midst of a residential area, so don’t expect stunning views from your balcony.
WHERE TO EAT
Meals are served at Pearls and Chiffon. Chefs Sachit Jha, Ram and Bhanwar Singh whip up dishes to suit every palate and the menu has excellent Marwari cuisine options. The bajra poori with methi ki sabzi is a great choice for breakfast and the pyaaz kachori hits the spot. The tangy tikkis made with ker sangri – a berry-bean combination unique to Rajasthan – will make your tastebuds tingle. Satiate your sweet tooth with a slice of the apricot-brandy cake or dig into the ever-popular and equally sinful chocolate lava cake with ice cream ). If you want something a little more exclusive and a lot more royal, dine in the private dining area, which can accommodate up to 10 people. Don’t bother carrying theplas or other snacks if you’re prone to late night cravings. The kitchen is open and in-room dining from a separate midnight menu is available 24 hours (from 11.30pm).
The local markets are just 10 minutes away from the hotel. You can shop for mojdis at Mahendra Jooti Corner. Pick up bhujia from Chotu Motu Joshi, one of the oldest shops in the area. Help the dying usta art by picking up souvenirs like jewellery boxes, perfume bottles, photo frames, table lamps and paintings from Azmal Hussain Usta’s shop.
CLEAN LOO GUIDE
There aren’t many clean public loos in Bikaner so it’s best to use the hotel facilities before stepping out. The drive to and from Jaipur Airport is at least five hours long, and the dhabas en route have very basic toilets. It’s best to use the loo before embarking on the long drive. Carry hand sanitiser.
For any medical emergencies, head to MN Hospital and Research Centre.
Bikaner is relatively safe, but it’s best not to wander around by yourself. Take the usual precautions.
The hotel has board games and organises movie screenings to keep kids busy and entertained, but it’s best to carry along games they enjoy. They will enjoy splashing about in the pool, too.
GOOD TO KNOW
* The property is pet friendly, but keep in mind the presence of at least one golden retriever on the premises.
* A spa, which will offer flower-based therapies, is slated to open by July 2017.
* If forts fascinate you, pencil in a visit to Junagarh Fort, which enjoys the distinction of never having been invaded.