How I Got the World's Best Hotels All to Myself — And How You Too Could Score Uber-VIP Travel
Weird and wonderful, a glimpse into the very rarefied life of A-listers.
An entire staff at your beck and call. Personalized menus. On-call butlers. Behind-the-scenes tours. A fleet of cars to chauffeur you wherever you want whenever you want. Having your unmentionables laundered and returned wrapped in crepe paper.
Traveling like a celebrity certainly has its perks. But if you’ve never had a hotel to yourself, the experience can also be unnerving in a few unexpected and, admittedly, delightful ways.
On a recent trip to India I had some of the subcontinent’s nicest hotels and lodges all to myself. That was due to a combination of a low-season lull and record-high temperatures (over 120 degrees some days). The two safari lodges I stayed at were getting ready to close for the monsoon season. The former-royal-palace-turned-hotel was experiencing a momentary lull due to some room upkeep. I booked at the last minute, and I was able to be flexible on dates. If you can play it by ear like I did, chances are you might have a palace or lodge all to yourself as well. Strange and wonderful — and reminiscent of A-listers' lives — here's what it's like:
One of the hotels at the top of my India must-hit list was a luxury safari camp from Aman Resorts at the doorstep of Rajasthan’s Ranthambhore National Park.
With just 10 pavilion-like explorer’s tents dotted here and there amidst grounds, the camp would never feel truly crowded, even at full occupancy. I arrived there after a flight to Jaipur and a dusty drive along back-country roads, and was greeted by half a dozen staff, the two property managers, a cold towel, and a glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. Then I found that I would be the only guest there during my stay. Let’s do this.
Luckily, I had my own personal attendant, Bijoy, looking out for me for me. He ended up by my side the entire visit. A light lunch in the dining tent? Bijoy was at my elbow making suggestions and serving course after course. Twilight camel ride to an abandoned hilltop fort to watch the sunset? Bijoy was waiting for me at the end with chilled mango juice, canapés, and binoculars to spot the local wildlife.
By the time we got back to camp that evening, a band of local musicians was standing by to serenade me, and just me, as I sipped a signature Ranthambhore martini with gin, rum and Cointreau served up and with a twist around the lantern-lit fire pit. When it was time for dinner, I’d found a table had been set under the branches of an enormous tree so I could sit and enjoy the night sounds as I feasted on tandoori kebab and carrot pudding. If only there’d been someone else there to enjoy it. Instead, I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday.
Then in the morning, all I had to do was push a button by my tent’s daybed to summon Bijoy with a tray of coffee and biscuits to fortify me before a sunrise game drive out in the national park. Five staff members gathered to wave me goodbye as I set off with my guides in the Jeep.
Oh, and did I mention the spa attendants tempting me with various treatments, or a morning yoga session while I was walking the path down to the little pond on the property, or pool attendants standing by to see if I wanted an afternoon dip and to make sure I had about a dozen towels to myself? There were no other guests, but the hotel was in full swing and there was always someone on hand just in case I wanted something. Anything. Please, sir, ask for something!
Was it a little daunting? Sure. But overwhelming? Never.
Sher Bagh, Ranthambore
My next stop happened to be right next door at a Relais & Chateaux safari lodge called Sher Bagh. I was driven there in a restored U.S. Army Jeep and greeted with a welcome glass of ice-cold champagne served in a faceted crystal flute upon a silver tray. Clearly they’d done their background research on me and my preferences.
Opened in 2000, Sher Bagh holds pride of place as India’s first luxury tented camp, and its owners, the Singh family, launched it as a way to raise awareness of wildlife conservation (namely Ranthambhore’s famous tigers and leopards), as well as a place for well-to-do folks to hang up their boots and cameras after long days out on the forest paths.
Whereas Aman-i-Khas is sleek elegance and staid luxury, the 12-tent Sher Bagh hearkens to the hunting lodges of yore, with rustic-luxe safari-style tents. Think brass light fixtures and antique fans, but also stone bathrooms with vetiver-scented products.
The club-like library and bar was a welcome respite in the hot weather, and its green leather armchairs seemed tailor-made for sinking into with a highball of aged scotch. As soon as someone spotted me entering, an attendant appeared on duty behind the bar just waiting to bring me whatever I needed. Every few minutes.
When I made my way down to the airy dining tent for dinner, the chef was ready to cater to my every whim and I had two waiters standing by, just outside my field of vision to clear my plate the moment I’d taken my last bite. Sort of like my own restaurant bodyguards.
When it came time to retire — early since I’d be taking another sunrise game drive, specially arranged for me so it would be with the head of the park’s guide association — I was escorted back to my tent by one of the camp guards in case any leopards appeared on the scene. Waiting for me was a tray of tea and a few of the sugar cookies I’d offhandedly remarked that I’d enjoyed earlier waiting for me just in case I grew peckish again before turning in.
Over the next day, as I relaxed and explored the camp’s various spots, I was given a private tour of its organic farm and dairy by the property manager, invited to take a poolside nap overlooking the park, and treated to a customized menu of local specialties (try the Rajasthani lamb, for sure) for dinner. Though I was traveling solo, I was never alone, as there was always someone standing by at a respectful distance just waiting for me to lift a finger and beckon them over.
When I returned to the tent that night, I found that my dirty laundry had been cleaned and returned. I’m not sure my underwear had ever been pressed and folded before…but now I don’t know if I can ever go back to just plain fluff and fold.
Rajmahal Palace, Jaipur
It seemed fitting that my final stop on this particular leg was fit for a king. Or a maharaja, as the case may be. I spent the next two nights at the spectacular (and spectacularly renovated) Rajmahal Palace. A former pleasure palace originally built in 1729 and still owned by the royal family of Jaipur, the hotel has just 14 regal rooms and suites. And I had the whole place to myself.
In its heyday, the palace hosted luminaries the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Jackie O, so no wonder I got the celebrity treatment there.
Though quite central, the hustle and bustle of the city faded immediately as my car pulled through the gates, past the immaculate lawns and up to the pale pink edifice. I was greeted by an enormous doorman clad all in white (except for a pink turban, of course) with one of the most impressive mustaches I’ve ever seen, and one of the warmest smiles. As I stepped out of the car, a reception staff of four including the general manager were waiting for me under the shaded porte cochère, greeting me by name and offering me a scented cold towel to refresh myself.
Then it was down to business. We ran through my itinerary: lunch in the light-filled Colonnade restaurant followed by quick siesta or snooze by the pool then a private evening city tour before dinner back at the palace. I would be occupying the Princess of Wales Suite, named in honor of one-time guest Lady Di. I practically live in hotels, but my jaw dropped all the same upon entering my suite.
The hotel’s re-deco came courtesy of interior designer Adil Ahmad. He took traditional floral, wildlife, and geometric patterns and motifs from Jaipur’s City Palace as his inspiration, creating custom wallpapers and furnishings to produce a pastiche hearkening to the grandeur of royal homes of the past.
My suite — though honestly, it was like having a private ballroom all to myself, complete with two massive crystal chandeliers, a parlor-like sitting area and a marble bathroom bigger than most Manhattan apartments — was a confection in aquamarine and strawberry-macaron pink. It felt just like home as I sank down onto the cloud-like white duvet on my king-size two-poster bed.
Along with my bags, which had already been delivered, I found a special menu waiting for me. On pink stationery. Of course. The hotel had heard that I’d had a little stomach upset, so the chef had whipped up an entire bill of fare designed to be easy on my digestion.
After my city tour, I met a friend out for drinks at his hotel. But when I returned unannounced, I found the entire restaurant wait staff ready and waiting. Just for me. Just in case I showed up. I couldn’t retire without having a full dinner now.
First, an expertly made martini in the turquoise Polo Bar, surrounded by cases containing the silver polo trophies of the former maharaja. Then, after a brief discussion with the chef, I wandered into the aptly named 51 Shades of Pink restaurant, which was inspired by a 1952 Vogue cover.
I sat down to a multi-course tasting menu of local classics that included tidbits like slow-cooked lamb shank and yellow-lentil dhal with tempered with cumin. I almost felt guilty for turning down dessert, and imagined news of my restraint spreading like wildfire to the various servers, kitchen staff and eventually the chef, who returned to ask if everything had been to my liking.
Of course it had been, that’s why there was no room for dessert. But I didn’t escape without him strong-arming me into letting him prepare to-go breakfast box with all sorts of goodies for my early-morning trip to the airport the following morning. You’ve got to pick your battles.
Was I prepared for all the unadulterated personal attention? No. Did I acclimate to it? Quicker than I ever could have imagined. Now the only question is, what other palaces can I possibly have a chance of enjoying all to myself?
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