Tuesday, February 01, 2011

A Bend In The River

The fabulous Darbargadh Palace in Morvi opens its doors.

Outlook Traveler - Feb. 1, 2011

In the interest of full disclosure, I confess that I’m an easy enough heritage tourist. To me the mark of a good hotel has never been the variety of pillows on the bedside menu or the number of 20-something management trainees deputed to be my personal slaves. I am not in business. I have never sent an urgent fax in the pitch-black night. I like to feel comfortable, and I am not comfortable with absurd efficiency—which so often comes to resemble its opposite—or with making a dozen decisions before something so simple as turning off the light and drifting off to sleep.

A little charm and character makes up for a lot of opulence, and I don’t mind wearing a sweater in my room or running the tap for ten minutes to get hot water.
Fortunately, the Darbargadh Palace, a new heritage hotel in Morvi, Gujarat, has that charm and character in spades.

Opening to tourists this month, Darbargadh is a stunning, nineteenth-century neoclassical palace that has been lovingly restored by the Neemrana Group and Maharani Uma Dubash Morvi. The oldest of the region’s palaces, its stone walls tower over the meandering Macchu river alongside a swaying footbridge, but it feels less like a fortress than a mansion. Only seven guest rooms have been restored so far—there is an entire wing, equally large, that remains untouched—so, intimacy is the rule.

Unlike some heritage properties, there are no poor rooms here. Every room is a vast suite, with bedroom, dining area, sitting room and a colossal bathroom that would dwarf many a Manhattan studio, and the Maharani, who personally chose the d├ęcor, has beautifully recreated the neoclassical ambience with rich details like the embroidered cloth tapestries—specially woven by some of the world’s largest looms in Jaipur—which grace the stone instead of paint or wallpaper.

Each room boasts a distinguishing feature that gives it character, a marble fireplace or carved frieze, and wherever possible the designers have retained and accentuated elements of the palace’s original structure. The Kesarba Mahal I stayed in, for example—which was chosen for the terrace overlooking the Macchu—had an exposed stone archway separating the bedroom from the seating area, while the Mahindra Mahal boasts an original stone frieze depicting characters from ancient Greece.

The town of Morvi—a sleepy hamlet, known mainly for tile manufacturing, in the centre of a dry state—is, of course, not on the usual tourist’s itinerary. Morvi is only an hour from the airport (and railway station) at Rajkot, and there are a few attractions within striking distance in Dhrangadhra, Wadhwan, Maliya and Limbdi—each of which boasts palaces, stepwells and rustic bazaars. The only real ‘sights’ in Morvi are the hanging bridge and the Wagh Mandir, a 70-year-old temple of Jaipur stone that is currently being restored and expanded into a museum dedicated to the region’s royal past.

Darbargadh itself is the only true reason to stop here, most likely en route from Ahmedabad to Kutch. But Neemrana is renowned for turning hotels into destinations, and Darbargadh seems likely to uphold that tradition. Over my two-night stay, I never felt the least inclined to step outside the palace, whose high, thick walls kept out the noise of the city so that I could hear only the parakeets and songbirds as I lounged by the swimming pool in the courtyard with my Kindle. The winter sun was warm and bright, and from the terrace attached to my room I could look out over the tenant farms on the floodplain the way Maharaja Waghji Rawaji Thakore must have done in 1885.

The food at Darbargadh was excellent, and the service impeccable—as personable and informal as a trusted family retainer. Each morning, I devoured a stack of aloo parathas, a plate of sharp cheddar cheese and a basket of toast fingers with homemade jam, yet I always seemed to find room for lunch and dinner. As the hotel’s first guest, I had the luxury of ordering whatever I felt like (there was no menu), but I left it to the chef to try to impress me with his specialities, and once I convinced him that he didn’t need to make everything foreigner-bland, the eclectic feasts he prepared—think devilled eggs, penne arrabiata, mashed potatoes and mutton rogan josh—never failed to satisfy.

Only when it came time to leave did I venture out for a brief tour, stopping at the Wagh Mandir for an impromptu lesson in the techniques that the builders from Structwel—the same outfit that repaired the Taj Palace after the Mumbai attacks —were employing to fortify the cupolas damaged by the 2001 earthquake. Vipul, the hotel manager, had also arranged for me to visit the ‘new palace’ across the river, which the Maharani maintains as a part-time residence, so I spent the rest of the morning on a private viewing of the country’s finest art-deco palace outside of Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhavan.

When I left I was stuffed, rested and fully content, my only worry that I was returning to Delhi and work, instead of on down the road to Bhuj and further adventures.

The information

Location Morvi, Gujarat; three-four hours by car from Ahmedabad/one hour from Rajkot
Accommodation Seven suites (Vijayba, Kesarba, Bajiraj, Waghji, Lakhdir, Mahindra and Mayurdhwaj Mahals)
Tariff Rs 8,000 (Vijayba, Kesarba, Lakhdir, Mahindra, Mayurdhwaj); Rs 10,000 (Bajiraj, Waghji)
Contact 011-46661666, neemranahotels.com