India: land of spices, saris, Bollywood blockbusters, bangles ... and wildlife! From the sunsoaked grasslands of Ranthambore in the north, to the plateaued cliffs of central Bandhavgarh, to the deciduous jungles of Nagarhole in the southwest, India’s National Parks are some of the natural world’s most paradisiacal sights—once you’ve glimpsed the majestic stripes and jasper eye of its king, the Bengal Tiger, part of you will never leave the jungle. So, we’ve picked out India’s top luxury safari lodges: places that organize safaris so unforgettable you won’t need to bring a camera and so comfortable that only the morning chirpings of the hoopoes and cuckoos will give away that you’re in the heart of the jungle.
By Alex Swanson
Photo by Oberoi Vanyavilas
Oberoi Vanyavilas, a feature on Travel + Leisure’s best hotel list, places guests in luxury temperature-controlled, triple-roofed tents just a ten-minute drive from the park. After spending the day hiding out by the ruins, waiting for the perfect tiger pic, unwind at the Ayurvedic spa—be sure to indulge with the “Safari Sanctuary”. The property has the park’s only temperature-regulated pool and an exquisite dining room to keep guests busy when they’re not strapped into a jeep. Bonus points for the variety of kid-focused programs including wildlife lectures, traditional art and crafts, nature walks, and spice tours.
Aman-i-Khas, one of the Aman group’s two ecoluxe retreats in India, features ten tents on Ranthambore’s border in a romantic brushwood forest. The boutique outpost features ten air-conditioned tents with luscious, light interiors of sandalwood and local stone, arranged in geometric Mughal fashion around a central fireplace. A camp inspired by India’s royal past, the scene here is intentionally reminiscent of Akbar’s military encampments, observable in his epic journal, the Akbarnama. Outside the safari (which Aman-i-Khas will organize for you), a spa tent specializing in poornvandana therapy, and a dining tent that can match its cuisine to whatever dish you’re yearning for, make sure a guest’s stay is as comfortable as possible.
Photo by Aman
Photo by Sher Bagh
Sujan’s eco-tourism property, Sher Bagh, offers India’s most august safari experience. The owners have been deeply involved in Ranthambore’s conservation for over forty years and their property reflects it. There are 12 tents, inspired by chic 20’s safari encampments and they're choc-a-block with paintings and fabrics depicting local wildlife. The resort’s eco-commitment and top-notch cuisine were noted by Relais & Chateaux, and it became one of the first Indian properties in the collection’s profile. Expert Indian chefs, an open-to-nature pool and the Sujan Spa make for a stay at Sher Bagh blissfully peaceful and utterly authentic.
ORANGE COUNTY KABINI
Orange County Kabini, south India’s luxury boutique hotel chain, set its Nagarhole property on the picturesque banks of the Kabini river. Lounging on indigenously-styled wooden verandas, guests are privy to a drop-dead gorgeous sight: a panoramic view of the park from across the sun-gilded lake. Safaris begin with a lakeside breeze and trip across the Kabini river—an ideal wake up for the 5:30am roll call. There's a reading lounge (complete with expert baristas who make tiger portraits in your cappuccino foam), a lakeside infinity pool, an ayurvedic spa, and a ton of activities (take the local village tour) and in the evenings, dine at haute-cuisine Honeycomb, the Kuruba Grill, or if you prefer more privacy, how about a candlelight cruise for two on the twilight river?
Photo by Orange County
Photo by Serai Bandipur
Built into the surrounding forests, Serai Resorts’ Bandipur property offers guests true immersion into wildlife. Malabar giant squirrels (native to the region), birds and deer can all be seen from guests’ rooms and private verandahs--though larger mammals are, of course, kept out. Guests reside in modern cabins with floor-to-ceiling windows and a dominating white, minimalist aesthetic. Outside, the hotel’s Sanctuary restaurant and Moyar’s Edge Wilderness Bar both look out to Bandipur’s beautiful misty hills, as does its pool.
Mahua Kothi is the result of an impressive partnership between Taj hotel group and Africa’s AndBeyond safari company with a goal to form a “tiger circuit” of ecoluxe lodges. Mahua Kothi is 12-kutiya (an indigenous mud-walled cottage) property set in a forest of Sal trees (India’s primary ingredient in incense) just outside the park. Rooms are in the vernacular style of central India, with mud-clay wallpapers, crafted wooden furniture and handwoven fabrics. The lodge features a variety of dining locations: on the main roof, under a nearby tree, indoors, or even atop your 4x4 safari jeep’s bonnet—and the specially-trained Taj naturalists ensure your safari will be as informative as possible, with the highest possible chance of seeing the elusive Bengal tiger.
Photo by Mahua Kothi
Samode Safari Lodge
Photo by Samode
Samode Safari Lodge
Another of Relais & Chateaux’s Indian properties, Samode Safari Lodge has been featured in Conde Nast’s top 25 new hotels and CNN’s top ten safari destinations. It encompasses 12 spacious villas that, despite an austere exterior, are awash with lively interiors--think indigenous woodcarvings next to printed fabric armchairs, handpainted murals of tigers and lacquered furniture. They have both en-suite baths and open air bath courts and private, daybed-equipped wooden verandas. Samode has a library, spa, pool and gym, yet its main highlight is, of course, its safari offerings with its own open-top safari jeeps and expert guides.
Taj Banjaar Tola
The Taj Banjaar Tola consists of two nine-tent camps spread across a 90-acre private concession overlooking the core zone of Kanha National Park. True to Taj Safari’s style, tents are oh-so-luxe. Wickerwork screens separate the rooms and local wooden and bronze sculptures bring the far-flung abodes to life. Each has a glass door and a floating veranda overlooking the tranquil river that gently ripples through the grounds. Jeep safaris go out twice daily, and, since this property is owned and operated by the Taj group, you know every aspect is top-notch, from the organic ingredients and anywhere-you-want locations (breakfast on the lowtide river bank? No problem) of its regional cuisine, to the company-trained guides that ensure your chances of tiger spotting are as sky-high as possible.
Photo by Taj Banjaar Tola
Photo by Taj Baghvan
The Taj Baghvan property has a distinctly 50’s vibe. Its 12 bungalows are spacious, air-conditioned and decorated with the local austerity and natural palettes that characterize all Taj Safari properties. However, their knockout feature is a rooftop jungle platform complete with bed should guests want to sleep al fresco--don’t worry, four-poster cascading mosquito nets are provided. Pench park is a five-minute drive, and Baghvan’s naturalists are trained to Taj standards giving guests the highest possible chance of tiger sightings. Additionally, the hotel features a pool, shaded decks, a library and an interactive kitchen.