Where style begins with a temple on a pond
Unless you are wearing full ceremonial dress uniform with sword, or perhaps something by Balenciaga, you can't help but feel upstaged when you step down from a minibus and into the presence of an elephant. Particularly when the elephant is wearing a huge red and gold cloth embroidered with mirrors and lavishly painted around the trunk and eyes, and saddled with a mahout who looks like Omar Sharif. The message, however, is clear: Rajvilas is a hotel that does things in style.
Set on the outskirts of Jaipur, City of Victory, in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan, Rajvilas is one of the latest offerings from Oberoi, the Indian hotel group that has brought style, grace and serenity to the subcontinent's hotel scene.
Overshadowed by the fortresses that crown the Aravalli Range, Rajvilas sprawls across a vast acreage of orchards and lawns that was once the property of a local aristocrat. It is centred around a 250-year-old temple, which has been preserved on a small island in a lotus pond.
Guest accommodation consists of villas which are clustered around shady courtyards with fountains and frescoes of birds and flowers. The mostly-white rooms are furnished with teak four-poster beds, cotton dhurries, big wicker baskets and a window seat in a wall alcove a soothing blend of traditional Rajasthani and colonial influences. Bathrooms have sunken marble tubs that look out onto courtyard gardens.
Then there are the tents. I discovered these by accident while blundering around at the rear of my villa one morning. At the end of my own small complex of villas, an arch led into a garden distilled from the desert. Feathery neem trees and running water gave way to succulents and gravel beds and adobe walls decorated with geometric designs. The word tents might conjure up memories of restless nights and cold showers, but apart from their tawny colour, there's nothing even remotely Baden Powell-like about these pleasure palaces.
Inside each, beneath a ceiling of embroidered cotton that balloons extravagantly downwards, is a stylish enclave that echoes the furnishings and decor of the villas, yet transplanted to canvas, they acquire a romance that their solid-walled relations cannot match.
In fact, romance is what Rajvilas is all about. This is an architecture that owes more to fantasy than to fact The Far Pavilions translated to bricks. The painted arabesques that decorate the arches come from Persian art, the scalloped arches, watery music and domed pavilions by the swimming pool are Mughal.
The turquoise and blue glazed tiles are a local touch, the lotus ponds are Buddhist, while the poolside pavilion that was once the haveli, the traditional Rajasthani mansion that occupied the grounds, has been reconstructed as a health spa, operated by the Banyan Tree group.
A workforce of more than 800 spent three years building Rajvilas, and 12 local kilns supplied the bricks and blue glazed tiles used in its construction. A new generation of craftsmen was instructed in arcane processes such as araish, a blend of ground stone, egg white and tamarind which evokes the creamy texture of polished marble on the lime-plaster walls.
The choreography is near perfect. The paths are lined with flame-of-the-forest trees which erupt just before the rains arrive. Let's build a fort, ran the design brief from Oberoi chief P.R.S. Biki Oberoi, and you get the impression that the designers had an absolute ball creating the experience that is Rajvilas.
Even the staff list is imperial in scale. Along with the gardeners, brass polishers and elephant attendants, there is a man who is employed solely to drive a jangling horse cart around the grounds in the afternoons, providing a taxi service for guests too pooped to walk back to their villas after their massage.
Another ambles around the grounds from dawn until dusk waving a large pennant with a curious bird symbol inscribed on it. I was very taken by his performance, and mightily intrigued. I imagined some complicated semaphore system. Perhaps he was signalling that the gin and tonic of the largish gent in the poolside cabana required freshening.
But then someone asked if I'd seen the bird scarer, and reality dawned. It's the pigeons. Left to their own devices, they make a mess of the faux-Mughal embellishments. But the pigeons are winning. Sometimes, even the flag fails to disperse them. A noisy flutter of wings and they settle back to despoil the masonry. The bird man needs more elevation, I decided, more menace. Perhaps they could mount him on top of that elephant.
Seen around the pool: Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, Giorgio Armani.
Rajvilas, contact Small Luxury Hotels Of The World, phone 1800 251 958 or 9411 5512. From $US395 ($512) per double room.