Kalpana Sunder unwinds at the Serai in Jaisalmer and discovers desert chic at its best.
There are only the sounds of the whispering wind, the flapping of canvas and the eerie sounds of desert life. The night sky is like black velvet with stars embossed on it, like the work of a master craftsman. When I was a kid, camping meant smelly sleeping bags and leaking tents, creepy bugs and in-the-open bathrooms. Years later I discovered this great option — luxury camping or glamping as it's referred to, with all the frills that I could do with, transporting me to the Victorian days of the Raj.
Letters cut out of a craggy golden stone indicate the turnoff to the Serai, from the NH 15. Driving through a barren expanse of stunted trees and swirling sand, I see the distant sail-like roofs billow like a mirage, rising out of nowhere. The Serai has 21 air conditioned tents set on 100 acres of scrubby terrain in the heart of the Thar Desert, a half hour drive from the desert outpost, Jaisalmer. It's part of Relais and Chateau, a collection of small unique properties across the world, which are owner driven and which usually “sell an experience”.
Jitin Sahni, the resident manager of the camp shows me the sepia pages which inspired the couple, Anjali and Jaisal Singh, of Sujan Hotels to create this camp called the “Great Encampment of the Order of the Star of India” at Kolkata in January, 1876.
The Serai is desert chic at its best and pampering is the order of the day. The whole resort is built out of honey coloured sandstone and pearly white canvas and the Zen-like spaces are furnished with local artifacts like tall black urns with reeds, camel statues and durries. The furniture is all collapsible and compact and every piece is packed and put in storage when the camp closes for the summer.
The staff is dressed in traditional attire with a multi-coloured saafa or turban and the managers are in Khaki.
My swish tent suite with high ceilings and windows with nets has a Victorian study with throw cushions in brilliant indigo, a huge bed on a stone platform and a fantasy-in-stone bathroom with two stylish basins and a rain shower. The greatest strength is in the endearing details: Brass service buttons to summon your personal butler or housekeeping, monogrammed paper with camels embossed on it, novels bound in vellum, leather pouches to hold a torch and a hair dryer, glass stoppered decanters with citronella based products. Luggage is drawn to the room by a wheeled cart, butlers give you wake up calls, there are no phones, and no wifi...only the sounds of silence where you can hear your heart beat.
The focal point of the resort is an elevated infinity pool modelled on the lines of a step well or a baoli with canopied loungers on all sides. From here I get a vantage view of the entire resort laid out like a colonial camp, in two rows of tents with the Royal Suite in between. Come evening, I walk to the Sujan Spa for plush tents which create an unforgettable experience, using products blended from Indian spices and plants. My feet is bathed in a sandstone basin of warm water and in the soft glow of candlelight, I turn soporific under skilled hands rubbing me with a ground mixture of tulsi, saffron and honey in a sesame oil base.
The food at the Serai is an eclectic mix of Western and Indian specialities. The menus vary with every meal, and offer a wide choice, ranging from cold soups and salads, to a Wild Mushroom risotto and traditional Rajasthani dishes. My panchkuta, five desert vegetation cooked in yoghurt and the ubiquitous Ker sangri taste fresh, probably because most of the vegetables are sourced from the Serai's own organic garden.
What is magical about the meals at the Serai is the flexibility about the alfresco venues where you could dine — under a canopy of a million stars with a hundred diyas and candles casting a bewitching glow or with a bonfire in the winter or at the pool side with the soothing sounds of lapping water. The resort demonstrates a respect for the local community and the environment- most of the staff is from nearby villages, trained in the in-house school of hospitality.
They conduct veterinary and health camps in nearby villages, donate to local schools and conserve electricity and ground water.
You could just spend your days sipping cocktails and reading novels in the lounge tent or playing chess with the other guests.
I drive to Jaisalmer one day and walk inside the fortress with its labyrinthine alleys with a local historian, Kanhaiya Lal.
Another evening I have my own private sun downer excursion — a cross country drive on a desert jeep with a butler and driver, through small villages or dhanis with mud houses, children waving, men with turbans sitting under trees and camels munching on the ker trees. My Rajput driver tells me that they often spot gazelles and chinkaras, even an elusive desert fox, but my ‘ahaa' moment is at the end of the drive. When a boy all of ten years, leads me on a caparisoned camel across the shimmering Mulana dunes, now rising, now falling, to a dune with a leather chair and a three tiered snack-stand, waiting for me. I sip on my drink and bite into a piece of carrot cake as
I watch the sun go down, casting mysterious shadows across the golden sands. It's a surreal end to my desert experience.
How to get there: Fly to Jodhpur via Mumbai or Delhi and drive to Bherwa (3 1/2 hours)
When to visit: The camp is open from September to March. The best weather is from October to February
Tariff: Starts at Rs. 28,750 per night for a tented suite
Visit http://www.the-serai.com for more information. Call +91 11 4606 7608 for reservations.