the interior pool area in the malabar house india

A trip to India can mean various things: spartan yoga retreats with 4 a.m. wakeup times, too much chanting and vegan meal plans, kaleidoscopically crowded train travel like something out of a Wes Anderson film, or high rolling in the form of the rooftop Champagne bars in Mumbai hotels or the grand palaces of homegrown opulent-hospitality brands like Oberoi and Taj. In the Asian subcontinent, five-star travel tends to be synonymous with gilded excess: the luxury car transfers to city hotels, the seas of marble in palace hotels, the name-brand Michelin-star restaurants Hakkasan and Le Cirque.

Lovers of small, privately managed, historic hotels may think they’re out of luck — this isn’t New England Europe, after all. But if you know where to look, the dizzying country has a handful of calm, intimate refuges that have their own kind of soul. They all have an independent spirit, winsome quirks, and outstanding food with a strong sense of place. Relais & Châteaux counts a handful of Indian hotels among its members, all dripping with the charm, cuisine, character, courtesy, and calm that are so prized by the association. They might involve a compromise or two — some weird stairs to navigate, a small bathroom with only one sink — but their lens on India’s history and culture far outweighs any small sacrifices that a stay might require.

Ahilya by the Sea, Goa

exterior garden at ahilya by the sea in india
Courtesy, Ahilya Experiences

A much-prettified version of Goa’s colonial past is on full display at Ahilya by the Sea, a micro-hotel that was built about 15 years ago in the style of the region’s old Portuguese customs houses. The tiny seaside campus comprises three Portuguese-style villas made of hand-hewn local red laterite rock, and a tower that’s intertwined with an ancient beachfront banyan tree, giving it a sort of treehouse feel. The ten guest rooms and common areas are decorated with Portuguese tiles and the owners’ collection of artwork — heavy on the Catholic iconography — and antique furnishings from Goa and beyond. Each room is named after a painting by Antonio Xavier Trindade, an artist who was considered the “Rembrandt of the East” and who was the grandfather of the present owner. It’s all peaceful and lovely, but guests tend to spend their time outdoors, reading on the verandas, lounging beside the two swimming pools, or taking meals in the various alfresco dining spots. Just outside the gates is a fishing village, which supplies some of the ingredients used in the curries and other Goan dishes.

Mihir Garh, Rajasthan

mihir gahr main pool within the fort in india
Courtesy, Mihirgarh

In the desert about one hour’s drive from Jodhpur, Mihir Garh has the feel of a fort that’s been there for centuries. But in fact, it’s a newly built property from the aristocratic owners of the palatial Rohet Gahr nearby, when they found that demand outweighed supply for stays at their lovely ancestral home. They built their “fortress of the sun” on a dune overlooking Rajasthan’s Thar Desert, where they used to take guests for royal picnics. The always-there feeling stems from the work of more than 100 artisans, who spent two years constructing the place before it opened to guests in 2009. The nine massive guest rooms — each one more than 1,700 square feet — have traditional (looking) furniture and textiles, all chosen by the owners, and great desert luxuries like plunge pools and Jacuzzis. Although it’s tempting to stay put and be mesmerized by the vast landscape, the signature experience is a “village safari” that introduces guests to today’s rural Rajasthan, with its turban-bedecked men and red-veiled women, including visits to people’s homes that are possible only thanks to the owners’ personal relationships with the community.

Malabar House, Fort Kochi, Kerala

the suite balcony at the malabar house in fort kochi india
Courtesy, Joerg Drechsel

It’s the colors that seduce you at Malabar House, a private home turned heritage hotel near the heart of the old city of Fort Kochi (sometimes spelled Cochin). Although it’s on one of the main tourist drags, its walls form a sort of sanctum against the chaos outside. Interior walls are crimson red, robin’s-egg blue, or a shade of indigo so vivid it’s practically electric. The 17 rooms combine tradition and contemporary design, highlighting Kerala’s history as a meeting place between East and West. The art collection is impressive, heavy on spiritual imagery but also depicting some more earthly delights. A small swimming pool occupies the central courtyard, beside lounge areas and a tiny stage for musicians to perform classical Carnatic or Hindustani music or classical dance. A small bar spotlights wines produced in India, and the main restaurant has exceptional food, particularly fresh fish and seafood from the nearby harbor — served with Western preparations or local spices, which is highly recommended — as well as some thoughtful international dishes and vegetarian fare. 

Niraamaya Retreats Surya Samudra, Kovalam, South Kerala

niraamaya retreats surya samudra sun deck at the beach
Courtesy, Hari Menon

Don’t let the “Ayurvedic retreat” in the marketing for this hotel scare you — there’s no restrictive diet, strict schedule, dousing with oil, or mandatory treatment protocol. (Of course, if “Ayurvedic retreat” is something that thrills you, by all means keep it, as the hotel can be that as well — and one that’s won numerous awards in that department.) Rather, the Niraamaya in Kovalam is a gorgeous five-star heritage resort on the coconut-fringed edge of the Arabian Sea. Many of the 31 rooms occupy freestanding antique teak cottages, which were brought onto the property from the surrounding area, a sort of re-creation of an earlier, simpler way of life here, and the decoration is alternately subtle and vivid. The cliff-top restaurant has all manner of Indian and international dishes on its all-day dining menus, but the thing to get is the Kerala thali, in which a variety curries, chutneys, pickles, and dal are arrayed on a banana leaf for you to mix with rice and eat with your hands. You’re in Kerala, after all.

Featured image courtesy of Olaf Krueger/Joerg Drechsel