Think of Gujarat and what comes to mind? The first thing every inbound agent will say is that you can’t drink, not strictly true but yes, it can be off-putting to those who enjoy a drink or two with dinner. But once that hurdle has been overcome, what are the words that spring to mind when it comes to discovering this region?
Textiles is one, tribes is another, step wells and then lions, the last bastion of the Asiatic Lion to be precise. Even someone like me who has specialised in India since 1998 struggles with why one would go there. And yet this by no means means that there is nothing to do in Gujarat, far from it. It is just that, perhaps because of the booze thing, it gets overshadowed by other more well-known destinations, you know the ones, the same old ones that everyone knows, your Rajasthan, Kerala & Goa.
I myself am also guilty, I visited once in 2010, a trip that I really enjoyed, but without really knowing what there was to do there, I am not sure I did it justice. I was revisiting the region in March and had to cut short my trip because of the pandemic, but I know that in the few short days that I had, IT BLEW ME AWAY. Finally traveling with people who knew and were passionate about the region made me realise that this is a destination that needs to be fully explored, that needs to be got out there in terms of messaging and which needs to be put firmly on the map. It’s culture is unique, its wildlife is unique, its architecture is unique, I could go on and on. Where Rajasthan had 22 princely states, Gujarat had 220, do you know how many palaces and eccentric royal collections that means there are? The other thing is the vibe, it’s understated, unpretentious, think Rajasthan 30 years ago, that wonderful laidback charm.
Most of the hotels also are either charmingly ramshackle palaces or based around the traditional architecture, however, on my recent trip I visited three places that are making their mark and are not quite what you would expect.
Blackbuck Lodge, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar.
This lodge is as unique for Gujarat as the Velavadar National Park and the two marry superbly. The Blackbuck National Park at Velavadar is not only one of India’s smallest National parks at a mere 34.8kms, it is one of India’s last few remaining protected savannah’s or grasslands, giving it what feels like a little piece of Africa in India and it’s a great conservation project. What is fabulous about this park is that it is off the beaten path, there’s no multitude of hotels and jammed safari bookings oh, and that thing I said about no landmark hotels in Gujarat, well, this one might just have bucked that trend. I remember thinking 20 years ago that if only India could bring luxury, world class, African wildlife style lodges to India, it’s wildlife tourism would take off. Don’t shout at me for wanting Africa in India, at that time I was working alongside a luxury African specialist safari company, I saw the types of accommodation they were offering, I had just been on my first safari trip in India and saw what was being offered there. The two were poles apart. The gap has now closed and there are some fantastic lodges out there but, whether because of the surrounding atmosphere of the African Savannah or just because of its style in it’s own right, but Blackbuck Lodge is probably the closest to a luxury, African safari lodge that I have come across in India.
For a keen wildlifer, a lodge needs to say safari, it’s people need to be passionate about wildlife and conservation, if it can also be stylish with excellent service, facilities and food, then all the better. From the minute you walk into Blackbuck Lodge, you know that you have the passion, wildlife, conservation and expertise elements on hand. Moving through the lodge and one comes across the tented lounge area replete with comfortable sofas, and tables scattered with coffee table books overlooking a waterbody where nilgai and blackbuck venture in their numbers to drink. The restaurant offers both indoor and outdoor dining, fabulous food and attention to detailing in the signature crockery and signature dishes that the chef conjures up. The rooms are spacious, comfortable and incredibly well designed, each with a verandah overlooking the savannah at the back and where one can idle away time between safaris, ignoring a good book as the blackbuck and nilgai delicately pick their way past, and the birds go about their day.
Customised, private jeeps take one into the Blackbuck National Park to explore the grasslands whose offering of wildlife is extraordinary. We watched a pair of sub adult hyenas playing with a bone, saw countless Blackbuck spread across the beautiful landscape, just lending themselves to wonderful photography. We had a 10 minute Jungle Cat sighting and saw a Desert Fox, a little too far away to capture but just basking in the sun. This was all topped off with a 25 minute lone wolf sighting, yes, Blackbuck National Park, Velavadar is becoming as famous for its burgeoning wolf population as it is for it’s blackbucks.
The Concept: An African style safari experience par excellence.
Wildlife: Hyena, Wolf, Blackbuck, Jungle Cat, Indian Fox, Nilgai.
Additional Activities: Village Tour, Cycling, Trip to Bhavnagar, Visit to Alang.
Woods at Sasan, Gir National Park.
If I’d been expecting a classic wildlife lodge, then I was slightly disappointed, a wildlifer wants an archetypical wildlife lodge, it all adds to the experience. However, the owner here has a different vision. Yes, its about the wildlife, but more than that its about the nature, the land, the culture and the people. Once one understands this, it all starts to make sense. The entire property was built with eco sensitivity in mind, and so whilst it doesn’t look like a wildlife lodge, it is modern, bold and works with the land. Their philosophy is focused around three pillars, mindful rest, natural immersions, and holistic health.
Mindful rest is for those people who actually want to relax and enjoy the facilities in the hotel, no fixed agenda, no dashing off to see everything there is to see (me in other words), well thought out spaces, the mango orchard, the open air library and more, designed to allow rest, relaxation and rejuvenation. Oh, and don’t think you’ll miss out on the culture then don’t worry, local artisans were consulted in the décor, fabrics and furnishings, local Gujarati cuisine is available at Swadesh.
Natural immersions take into account the local people, wildlife and, no prizes for guessing, nature. Bird walks and cycle rides and lunches by the river and of course the safaris in search of the last remaining social cats in India and the only population of Asiatic Lions left in the world.
Holistic health? Well take in Som, the onsite spa and the variety of treatments it offers, a Satvik meal which can be specially arranged, morning yoga, a visit to the ayurvedic garden and you’ve got a healthy stay handed to you on a silver thali.
Concept: Lifestyle and wellbeing retreat.
Wildlife: Lions, leopard, jungle cat, crocodiles, Chowsingha – the world’s only four horned antelope, Jackal, striped Hyena and Indian Fox.
Birds: Over 300 species including: crested serpent eagle, endangered Bonelli’s eagle, changeable hawk-eagle, brown fish owl, Indian eagle-owl, rock bush-quail, Indian peafowl, brown-capped pygmy woodpecker, black-headed oriole, crested treeswift and Indian pitta.
Additional Activities: Many, a few of which are, Nature walks, cycle rides, lunches by the river, pottery classes, full range of spa treatments & look out for hosted retreats throughout the year.
Rann Riders, Little Rann of Kutch
And now for something completely different. Whilst this resort has taken the more ethnic approach to it’s architecture that one expects from hotels in Gujarat there is a good choice of comfortable rooms, laid back atmosphere and plenty of space to while away the time; a new pool has been added since I was last there and a spa is under construction, but it is the experiences that truly set Rann Riders apart. However, what really excited me was the quality and diversity of experiences on offer. Yes, there’s the chance to head into the LRK, witness this extraordinary biosphere, hopefully see some of the Asian Wild Ass for which the region is famous but these guys know the little Rann like the backs of their hands which means that other animal sightings such as desert fox are also possible.
Then there’s the horses, they have a wonderful stable of Marwari and Kathiawari horses, early morning and evening horse safaris in the surrounding villages are the perfect way to spend the day in this still very rural and rustic region. Most of the locals still live in traditional style housing, wear traditional clothes, and because Gujarat isn’t overrun with tourists on the circuit, the locals haven’t become jaded, huge smiles and warm welcomes abound. The pleasure of riding a Marwari coupled with the cultural experience this offers is truly wonderful. Oh, and given what comes next, trust me when I say that these horses are truly bomb proof.
There’s also a state of the art Manavjeet Sing Sandu, shooting range. Away from the distractions of urban humdrum. Here one can focus on the sport of trap shooting at ease and at peace.The tranquil surroundings and the unmatched location of the Rann Riders Eco Boutique Resort has a calming effect, a quintessential requirement for any shot gun shooter.
Wildlife: Asiatic Wild Ass, Nilgai (blue bull), Indian Wolf, Indian and White-footed Desert Foxes, Golden Jackal, Striped Hyena, Jungle Cat.
Birds: Over 350 species including Macqueens bustard, Short eared owl, pallid scops owl, Merlin, Saker falcon, peregrine falcon, eastern imperial eagle, grater spotted eagle , greater hoopoe lark, flamingoes , cranes
Additional Activities:Cooking lessons, hands on workshop for embroidery, weaving and beadwork , desert breakfast and moonlit dinner , yoga in the Rann
I travelled to Gujarat courtesy of Soar Excursions.
My book, Escape to India, is available on Amazon.com/.co.in/co.uk