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Portrait, Lady in Purdah, Rajasthan

Writing Challenge Day5/28 – So what exactly is a micro-destination?

I saw a video clip a few weeks ago by NDTV that made me smile. It was all about micro destinations and how they are the future of travel.  Now I understand that marketing constantly needs new spins but what made me really smile about this was that they were featuring what I call destination hotels, and one in particular that I have been using as a ‘micro destination’ for the past 21 years.

As most of you may know, I started specialising in India as a destination way back in 1998. Back in those days, there were only a handful of travel companies and only a relatively small selection of decent hotels.  Imagine travel to India with barely an Oberoi Hotel, Taj Palace or Leela in sight? What was considered five-star luxury then was a far cry from what it is now. When it came to selling holidays, we had a policy that if you hadn’t seen it, you couldn’t sell it and so it was that I was dispatched 2 – 3 times a year to do a recci. Those trips were exhausting, 19 nights, 19 destinations, countless hotels and sightseeing squidged in as and when it could be done.

Four or five years later, I left that company and went to join Ampersand. Our clients were spending a lot of money, staying in the best suites in the best hotels, Oberois had come up by then and palaces were being reimagined and restored. We really didn’t want clients rushing through and not having time to breath, never mind pause and reflect and have some free time to enjoy the hotels that they were paying a small fortune to stay in.  We did away with the 1 night/2 nights/1 night/2 night exhausting programs and gave our clients time to relax and enjoy and actually benefit from all this money that they’d spent. We also decided that we would do fam trips like our clients travelled, we would slow things down, get to know the destination and find out what else there was to do. The place that NDTV claimed as a micro destination in 2020 made it firmly onto our list in 2002 as one of the places that we would have as a three if not four-night destination.

Then came the advent of the boutique hotel, wonderful, charming family run properties which really focused on the people and the destination, the overall ambiance and experience. These were hosted by local families, many of whom had owned these places for generations, one discovered so much more about the culture and the food and the people and also got to experience rural India. I’m totally with Gandhi on this, the heart of India lies in it’s villages and by using these properties as  ‘in between’ destinations, in between Agra and Jaipur, Jaipur and Jodhpur, Jodhpur and Udaipur for example, people truly got to see this country I was head over heels in love with.

We then took this one stage further. Let’s face it, India is overwhelming, it is a fact that cannot be denied. Travellers would spend a ton of money on a two-week holiday and be, quite simply, exhausted by the end of it. So, we came up with a small collection of what we fondly, though not terribly professionally referred to as an ‘endibit,’ which, when talking to clients became ‘destination hotels.’ This was a small selection of  utterly charming, boutique hotels, in remote locations and where there was plenty to do if people still wanted to explore, but where relaxing with a good book, day dreaming, chatting, lazing and simply sauntering could also be the order of the day.  We recommended an absolute minimum three night stay at these, wherever we could get away with it, ideally four and clients just loved it. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it was invariably a tough sell but we persevered, practised and then got good and what made us so adamant was that without fail, these longer stays became the highlight of our client’s holiday.

Particularly with the Covid crisis, more and more people are now jumping up and down and talking about slow travel and I couldn’t agree more.  Finally, it’s become the thing to slow down travel for clients which I am delighted about, and also to get them to more off-beat destinations. Nowadays there are a lot of these types of properties around many of which I highly recommend, but for the purpose of this article, I’m going to stick with the original four which we have used right from the moment they opened and which are still some of the best today.

Starting with the one which prompted this article in the first place, the NDTV micro-destination and all-time favourite of mine since my first visit there in 2000:

Rohetgarh, Nr Jodhpur:

This was probably the first property that we determined as a ‘destination’ hotel in the north of India.  Right from the word go (Umaid Bhawan was a mess and Raas didn’t exist) we decided that after a frantic 2 nights in Delhi, 1 night in Agra and 2 nights in Jaipur, Rohet was the perfect place to slow things down. Companies who only give one night in Jodhpur literally give me palpitations. Rohet is a 45 min drive from Jodhpur and a 5-6 hour drive from Jaipur. Clients would arrive be warmly welcomed and invited to afternoon tea on the lawn with the family. Drinks and dinner followed and the next day they would head into Jodhpur a 45 min drive away. This could be a half day or a full day trip and then back to Rohet to be greeted like long lost friends with more tea or a chilled beer and a wonderful relaxing evening, chatting to your hosts or other guests. The following day could mean one of several things; a lie in perhaps, how refreshing on an overwhelming trip, a morning by the pool, maybe a jeep safari out into the local Bishnoi villages, or to explore the surroundings on one of their exquisite Marwari horses. On my first visit there, I was given Siddharth’s stallion to ride, Alishan, I didn’t dare tell him for around 6 years. That was my first ride on a Marwari and I’ve been hooked ever since. This is what I mean about a place where you can do as much or as little as you please. Rohet for me is ants in my pants time, I can’t sit still, there’s so much I want to do.

What else do I love about Rohetgarh? I have stayed here several times now and one of the things that impresses me the most is that Siddharth and Bhavna are constantly striving to improve the property, there’s always a new discovery on every visit, whether its afternoon tea in the garden, a new roof terrace, new cosy corner or bar, décor, revamped rooms and yet the price has always remained incredibly reasonable. They now have 3 more properties but more about those another day.

Rohetgarh is 45 mins from Jodhpur. Check it out at: http://www.houseofrohet.com/rohet-garh.html

The second was my first love and one of our top three Destination Hotels:

Tranquil Resort:

The year was somewhere around 2000, I’d got so fed up, even back then of the same old same old circuit being sold in Kerala, Cochin, Munnar, Periyar, Backwaters and decided to venture north, to see what I could find. One destination was, a very undiscovered, Wayanad and the wonderful Tranquil Resort run by Victor and Jini Dey, Norma was still around in those days too. This was a plantation house with just a few guest rooms in the heart of a coffee estate. They were newly opened, not on the circuit, and no other guests were staying. This was, as I was to discover, to my advantage. We explored the coffee estate, went on walks, were invited to a planters house over the valley for dinner, got caught up in hours of delightful conversation and I truly never wanted to leave.

The only problem with Tranquil was that turned me into a bully. I would insist that each and every client of mine who was traveling to Kerala would end with 4 nights at Tranquil. Ahh, the combination of the unknown coupled with unplanned days (you’ll figure it out when you get there) made people sceptical, but I can be persuasive and invariably won. It always came back as the highlight of a stay and no matter how ever many days I’d talked them into, 2, 3 or 4, they always said it was never enough.

Once the Deys had perfected their hospitality, they then went onto being the first resort after Babu Varghese and Tour India to set up truly luxurious tree houses.  Victor and Jini have now moved onto pastures new, but Tranquil lives on, more than ably managed by their offspring. Nisha and her husband Ajay, together with the obligatory dogs, no house is a home without dogs after all, took over Tranquil a few years ago and have brought their own mark, inclusive of ingrained wonderful hospitality to carry on the legacy.

For me, Tranquil has become my refuge. At the end of a hectic trip, I bob in to say hi to old friends. I can honestly say that on all subsequent visits I have never left the house. I have been happy to enjoy lazy breakfasts, lazy mornings, long leisurely lunches and lazy afternoons and convivial evening meals. The company is always exceptional, not just with your hosts but with their friends who invariably pop by and other guests too.

Tranquil Resort is located in the Wayanad District of Kerala. For more information: https://www.tranquilresort.com/

Then comes:

Glenburn Tea Estate, Darjeeling.  

I remember all those years ago when Glenburn first opened people saying, ‘But who on earth is going to stay in the middle of a tea estate in the middle of nowhere?’ Well let me tell you, plenty of people! Glenburn Tea Estate, loving restored back to life by Husna-Tara and Bronwyn Latif, has the perceived romance of the old colonial days, the luxury of modern comforts, the worst road in the world to get there making anything less than a 3 night stay preposterous. Throw in magnificent views over the verdant tea plantations and the Kanchenjunga mountain and a whole host of activities to keep the most active of people happy, with plenty of shaded verandas and private nooks for book worms and day dreamers too and you have a winning combination.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am all about experiences and what I thrive on is destinations that are created by people who share this passion and Husna-Tara is no exception. The perception  when Glenburn opened was of a tea estate in the middle of nowhere but the reality became oh so much more. Guests at Glenburn can choose from a whole host of treks in the area, down to or along the Rangeet and Rung Dung Rivers , as well as around the local villages all of which are a wonderful experience. Treks are all accompanied by a guide with a picnic hamper providing home grown tea (it’s what made Darjeeling famous!) and freshly made cakes too.

Then there’s the whole tea plantation to explore, where you can gain an insight into how the tea bush is grown and looked after, learn how to pluck the “two leaves and a bud” – that is later manufactured into the tea leaf that ends up in your teacup. You can learn how to tea taste like  a pro too. I mean one could head into Darjeeling but……….

Then, after full a day, guests gather in the living room for drinks followed by enjoying a truly delicious dinner all together. The hospitality here and attention to detail are second to none, it is elegant and sophisticated and no matter how many nights one stays, it is never quite enough!

My take is that this is one of those places where I have every intention of being active, I love a trek as much as the next person who loves the outdoors, the birds and butterflies here all add to the experience, but then I settle down in a comfy chair with the intention of jotting down a few inspirational lines and lose myself in view gazing and day dreaming until I’m called for lunch or dinner. Sigh, it’s a tough job but someone has to do it.

The nearest airport for Glenburn is Bagdogra. For more information: https://www.glenburnteaestate.com/

Last but my no means least is:

Ahilya Fort in Maheshwar.

Okay, the fact that this is in Madhya Pradesh will always give it the edge, it’s no secret that it’s my favourite state and so often overlooked. What made Ahilya an easy inclusion in our top ‘end of trip destination hotels’ was partly it’s accessibility. Regular daily flights from Mumbai and Delhi followed by a mere two hour drive and one was then ensconced in a whole new, unique and truly memorable world.

How does one describe Ahilya in a nutshell? Hmm, let’s see, myth and legend combined with an extraordinary setting, an abundance of culture, quirky interiors, delicious food and excellent hosting, I think that just about sums it up.

The accommodation itself is part of a 250 year old fort which sits the edge of a small cliff, overlooking the Narmada River and I’ve never been there and had an uninspired sunrise or sunset yet. Richard Holkar, whose father was the Maharaja of Indore, is the driving force behind Ahilya and is passionate about the region’s crafts and traditions, the one to particularly mention is the Maheshwar weaving and it’s saris, I’ve had ladies spend a small fortune here, unable to resist a purchase or 5.

For those who don’t want to venture far, the fort surrounding the hotel with its weaving and schools is an easy saunter, evening boat rides are organised on the river, and the stroll down to the river through the temple complex witnessing the life being played out on it’s ghats transports one into another world entirely.

For those like me with itchy feet, the fabulous deserted city of Mandu  is truly, truly extraordinary (Why oh why does MP get overshadowed by Rajasthan?) and makes for a wonderful half day excursion as does the famed temple town of Omkareshwar. For those who don’t want to venture anywhere at all, there is also a lovely pool surrounded by lush gardens.

What do I love about Ahilya? It’s quirkiness for sure, no two rooms are alike and the fact that meals can be taken in different areas of the fort, so no two dining experiences need be the same is quite fun. But, and anyone who knows me knows that I insist that there is a magic in the air in Madhya Pradesh, the colours, the people and the vibe all combine to bewitch, beguile and captivate. A stay here gives one the opportunity to get far from the tourist trail, to be mesmerised by this rarely discovered yet magical corner of this little discovered state whilst staying in comfort and understated elegance. I challenge anyone not to fall in love here.

The closest airport to Ahilya Fort is Indore. For more information check out: https://ahilyafort.com/

So there you have it. The first four ‘micro destinations’ which charmed and captivated me as far back as 2000 and which still are some of the best in the country today. Oh, and NDTV, if you’d like any more recommendations, just drop me a line!

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