A 4-Day Trip to The Real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
By Robindro Saikhom and Steve O’Donnell of Serene Journeys, a travel consultancy based in Delhi offering tailor-made trips within India and catering mainly to LGBT travelers.
After an early start for our slightly delayed flight from Delhi and following several triple espressos to wake me up, we’re finally on our way to Udaipur. We’re met at the airport by our driver who will take us to Ravla Khempur for our stay at the real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. We’re filled with excitement and a little trepidation as we think about what may lie ahead of us and who might be our fellow guests at the original “hotel for the elderly and beautiful.”
Ravla Khempur is located in the heart of Mewar and is home to the real Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The nearest airport is Udaipur and the hotel is 21 kilometers from Udaipur airport. The title ‘Ravla’ in Rajasthan refers to the “home of a village chieftain.”
The car journey to the hotel takes us through narrow streets crowded with cyclists, cows, buffalo and people crammed into open trucks. The journey was made more charming as we drove through the monsoon rains creating a sort of wonderland inhabited by the happy faces of local people walking, cycling or enjoying the shelter of their homes that bordered the narrow streets and tiny alleyways. It seemed particularly appropriate that our driver was playing an old Bollywood song on the radio, a fitting soundtrack for this special journey.
When we arrived at our destination, the now globally famous sign awaited us proclaiming, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly & Beautiful.” Half-expecting Sonny to appear at any moment, we were instead greeted by the manager, Nitin, who welcomed us to the hotel. A very convivial host, Nitin showed us to our room and informed us that, in the film, it had been inhabited by Sunaina, and we laughed and joked together as we told him that this room would suit us perfectly. Nitin offered to show us around the property and we were very interested to hear the stories attached to each of the rooms and which character from the movie was associated with which room, visiting the domains of Evelyn, Mrs. Donnelly, Douglas, Norman and ending our tour in Sonny’s office.
The hotel has 12 ensuite rooms exuding historical ambience and is graced with breathtaking surroundings. The lofty terraces, open courtyards, sprawling gardens, domes, arches and canopied balconies transport you back in time.
This evening we met two English guests, Richard and John, who are staying at the hotel. We had dinner together and enjoyed beautifully prepared, simple and authentic Indian food consisting of dal (lentils), chapatti (thin Indian bread), kaddu (pumpkin) and chicken curry followed by halwa (a kind of milk pudding). Having bid goodnight to our new friends we headed off to our room wondering whether Nitin might follow Sonny’s example of taking a roll call in the morning! A thoroughly enjoyable start to our stay in the hotel where nothing is exactly as it seems.
As the new day starts, we hear the peacocks and the priest performing his ritual at the temple as the early morning sunlight streams through the colored glass windows. For a moment we wonder whether there may be a roll-call but, almost disappointed and maybe slightly relieved, we arose to greet the day without our names being called. Richard and John joined us for a breakfast of bananas, papaya, masala chai, toast and pancakes: an adequate and simple start to our day. Nitin came to let us know that the government school next door was having a small function for Independence Day and wondered if we would like to visit there. We enthusiastically followed his suggestion and walked to the school, taking pictures of the colorful houses along the way. All the village people had turned out for the function at the school; they were happy to welcome us to the celebration. The kids were smiling and wanted us to take pictures with them. The celebration was joyous and colorful with lots of traditional dance and shows performed by the students.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the temple where the village elders were performing their regular rituals. We were fascinated by the many different colors of turbans and asked Nitin to take us inside so we could take some photos of the elders. The elders were very welcoming and were happy to pose for the click-click-click of our camera. They seemed happy with the results and we thanked them before heading back to the hotel.
After a traditional lunch of dal, stir-fried okra, rice and chapatti, we took a wander round the hotel, which is housed in a building dating back to 1628 A.D. We headed down to the stable where Babru, the full-time stable caretaker, introduced us to Gambler the famous black stallion with four white socks and a white bless (panchkalyan) on his forehead. Later in the afternoon, we explored more of the village when the local people were heading back from their daily work, some bringing back their cows and buffaloes. It was a joy to capture their contended smiles as they made their way home from the day’s labors.
We have a new guest tonight, Bernice from France, who just came by to see the property and decided to spend a night. We were five of us for dinner, enjoying hot chapatis, dal tadka, tinda vegetable, rice and tawa chicken. Another lovely evening as we continue to chat about the movie and the fictional stories that have made this hotel an international icon.
A musical start to the day as we were awakened with the peacock singing his morning song and the priest playing ritual music with bells and drum. Today we didn't wait for the name calls! When we arrived at breakfast, Bernice was already preparing to head off and continue her travels. After breakfast the four remaining guests joined Nitin on a trip to Badgaon lake which is 10 kilometers from the hotel. On arrival, we were very excited to see the beautiful lake appear as though from nowhere. Nitin arranged a canoe for us and we canoed over to the other side of the lake. We spent a very serene afternoon bird-watching and relaxing as the little waves lapped against the shore. Although John and Richard were supposed to fly out this afternoon, they have decided to stay on for another night, testament to the magic of this place and the attraction it holds for guests. We spent another beautiful evening watching the sunset from the hotel and sharing stories of our lives.
As the morning sun came through the window and kissed our faces, we felt very happy to have decided to visit this beautiful, rustic place described by Guy Chamber as a "monastic palace.” After breakfast it was with slightly heavy hearts that we waved goodbye to everyone. The staff were extremely friendly and helpful and we are already looking forward to returning to the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in October and checking out new additions to the property, which will include a swimming pool overlooking the stable, modernization of some of the rooms and a stable-themed restaurant and kitchen.
Our 16 days tour “Bewitched at The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is all set for departure for singles, couples or a small group of friends. Detailed itinerary and cost on request.
Steve O’Donnell is Director (UK & Ireland) with Serene Journeys and a freelance travel writer and photographer.