Princely charms and regal living: Two of India’s hidden world-class boutique luxury getaways
ONE OF ITS ICONIC KIND
The delayed late evening flight from Mumbai didn’t in the least dampen my enthusiasm for my oncoming royal encounter in Central India. In fact landing in Bhopal amidst light showers was an exhilarating welcome as I was driven around the huge, salubrious Bhojtal or Raja Bhoj Lake onward to the elitist Shamla Hill, home to the princely lifestyle little known, by and large.
Into the haloed environs of the private heritage haven gleaming in all white splendor, I alighted at the historic, boutique heritage world class luxury haven –Jehan Numa Palace. The brief I had given myself was to experience the very essence of the life that the city’s nobility had nurtured and passed on as legacy for the world to experience. Indeed, the enterprising erstwhile Begums of Bhopal had created an oasis of culture, tradition, genteel charms and upper crust sheen that remains exclusive to this day.
General Obaidullah Khan, the descendant with a futuristic and progressive dynamism created this unique address of hospitality that has culminated in what Jehan Numa is today, had taken meticulous care to retain and enhance his royal property’s original character with singular panache.
LUXURY WITH A CUTTING EDGE
What impressed me instantly was the elitist feel that radiates in all elements of public and private spaces. Amidst sparkling whites of facades and soothing green foliage and floral overhangs, the upper crust accent is dominant, the approaches to rooms and suites, leisurely sit outs and graceful chaises set the mood for stop-and-absorb undertones that still your hurried pace at all times.
Gracefully appointed rooms in contemporary design styles embellished with uncluttered spaces that allow instilling the elitist ambiance in total are a leit motif, which I noticed with admiration. The grand luxury suites reflect opulence in singular identities, the tones, choice of furnishings, upholstery and furniture are a carefully calibrated mix of modern with chic. The haloed living spaces blend effortlessly with the surroundings by sun-washed days as much as by evenings and night with gentle mellow glows and relaxing luminance.
What I noticed most striking around this fascinating hospitality getaway was the careful thought given to cherishing quieter, contended moments which guests could revel in. Pretty alcoves and cornices around cheery, diamond shaped ponds with classic fountains, border small courtyards with pleasing white wrought iron benches overlooking manicured lawns and a lingering coolness. I sat myself by one of these almost every evening where I caught up with calming moments of peace, the gurgling sounds and wind only caressing my mood for more of the cherished experience.
Around the vast swimming pool surrounds where Champa blooms gaily lit up the days and night with refreshing fragrance, the quietude was welcome. I strolled around leisurely along grass whiskered paths, floral rushes and viridian overhangs that canopied every part of the well tended acres of this remarkable Palace hotel. I realized Nature was a seamless partner in alluring, luxury hospitality, giving it a clear edge over most staid, concretized and glass draped urban five star hotel facades I had seen around the globe.
A GOURMAND’S HAVEN
My inherent quest for fine gourmet was sharpened considerably here as various exciting gastronomic outlets presented me with pleasant surprises. At the expansive all-day dining, multi-cuisine ‘Shahnama’ by day my platter was colored with unique Bhopali specialties like Murgh Bhopali Rizala –chicken in coriander and curd gravy (yummy!) with a boiled egg, Fish Rai Tamatar –fish treated with ample mustard and tomatoes, that set off a simmering sensation. The deliciously spicy Bhagare Baingan –tempered aubergine from Hyderabadi kitchens was an instant hit while the unusual Gobhi Paneer Bhurjee –a smooth scramble of cauliflower and cottage cheese was mouth melting.
The grills lived up their scores…Dhungar Gosht Kebab –smoke infused, truly succulent lamb kebabs, Reshmi Murgh Tikka –silky and inviting chicken kebabs, Rajma Galauti –a fascinating vegetarian Galauti with kidney beans and Malai Broccoli –tender broccoli florets marinated in cream cheese and mild spices.
The evenings were perfect savoring dual treats from amazingly contrasting venues. At their unique tree-canopied outlet ‘Under The Mango Tree’ the dining was uplifted with a finely chilled Jacob’s Creek –Australia Shiraz Cabernet complementing superlative dishes. At this one-of-its-kind only barbecue fine dining pad, centuries old recipes find flavor of distinction among keen patrons.
The favorites of the Royal Family of Bhopal are the crest of pride here as I took time to ingest intrinsic culinary magic. Sarson wali Machhli –mustard marinated fish tikka opened out the taste buds, while the fabulous Murgh Afghani Tikka –chicken morsels marinated with cashew nut, poppy seed and saffron silenced me into awe. I’d highly recommend the Frontier Chapli Kebab –Peshawari style mixed ground patties of lamb for it’s absolute delight and Palak Chilgoze ki Tikki –dehydrated spinach galettes with a blend of fine Jehan Numa spices, stuffed with pine nuts. Hmmmm!
The splendid Bhopali Gosht Korma –a royal kitchen recipe is a kaleidoscope of flavors, while Bhopali Filfora –traditional Bhopali coarse lamb with traditional Indian spices will bowl you over with its authentic aromas. On the vegetarian side Lauki Mussalam – stuffed bottle gourd with cottage cheese and raisins cooked in korma gravy is a fascinating dish, unusual in its flavors.
My Italian tryst with some comforting homely recipes found anchor at ‘La Kuchina’ the brick-clad, rafter-held, easy-to-warm up-to Italian specialty haven which rolls up as a trattoria-bistro-pizzeria. The Warm Caramelized onion and Goat Cheese tart lit up my chilled Indian white wine, the melting flavors taking me back to my trips to Italy’s villages. So did the Black Pepper and Walnut crusted Chicken tenders with Ranch dressing.
Two dishes were especially impressive, very authentically appealing. Marinara –tiger prawns, tomatoes, garlic and olive oil and Amatriciana Lamb – diced pepperoni, thyme, fresh tomatoes and Basilico. Bellisimo! The Gnocchi Sorrentina –tomato sauce, Mozzarella di Buffala and chilli flakes was enormously appetizing. For those with a lingering, ascending passion for Italiana, go for the Pan seared Muskovy Duck Breast –with creamy polenta and rosemary mushrooms, extremely evocative flavors there.
RETREATING INTO THE GREEN
It was a short drive that brought me into the lap of wild natural beauty, tended with extra loving care. The sloping roofs and easy hand plastered facades were invitation enough to grind down your engines to a 70-beats-a-minute pulse. I literally ‘Retreated’ into grass-layered comfort, a finely tended putting green and acres of aromatic herbs that was mellifluously synced with scores of migratory birds creating a lilting, happy cacophony of sounds that were music to my senses.
I was driving back from a bewildering, mind-boggling and astoundingly inspirational visit to the well planned and designed Tribal Museum nearby, still wallowing in the magnificence of the simplicity of evocative tribal artistic expressions. I was welcomed to the Jehan Numa Retreat on the outskirts of Bhopal where wildlife drubbed shoulders with ‘inquisitive’ humans on bikes, on two feet and all things considered!
IN TUNE WITH THE BIRDS AND BEES
The eco-friendly accent and emphasis here is seriously hard core, I discovered. The earthy-toned hand plastered villas with ivy and floral overhangs, the closeted courtyards with Raisen stone flooring and porches, the left-to-the-elements wild surroundings that attracted Langurs, magpies, chatty drongos and species so distinguished, was a return to nature, full form.
The neighboring wild inhabitants at the Van Vihar National Park stayed harmonized by new visitors everyday, the opportunities of spotting a tiger, a Sambhar or wild fox quite definitely a well taken chance. I honestly felt at home.
I was recommended strolling and educating myself with the myriad homegrown originals on the estate, which graced the dishes in the buzzing kitchens. Asparagus, thyme, rosemary, basil, lemon grass, spinach, all beckoned my urban impatience with relaxed assertion. The aromas enticed me in the garden patches, I sauntered between rows to take a sniff-and-a-whiff. Across a picturesque wooden bridge through graceful overgrowth of plants and indigenous flora, I walked across the swimming pool precincts, wild flowers smiling their honesty to me.
The sudden showers didn’t deter my enthusiasm as I lounged on the sofas near the reception drawing on beer, watching noisy parrots working up their guttural screeches across the scenery. All else was quiet, peaceful, the way nature deemed it. But a clutter of hyper-charged, waltzing, wrestling sparrows in the bushes edged on a frenzy that dwarfed the drongos’ symphonic renditions. I laughed wholeheartedly. It was one of the few wholehearted things I did for a long time since I left big city Mumbai. This was Jehan Numa Retreat for me.
The enthusiastic guys at ‘Coriander Leaf’ and ‘Under a Jamun Tree’ didn’t want to leave me till I burped with a smile. Their sincere insistence of offering me fine dishes from the kitchen fires was all too much of a temptation to resist! So, I tucked into global goodies par excellence that only the team Jehan Numa Retreat could have whipped up.
‘Roasted Pumpkin and Parmesan Salad’ –oven roasted yummy pumpkin (my fav.) with honey mustard dressing and Cajun spiced walnuts was stupendously tasty. The innovative ‘Pesto Malai Broccoli’ packed in a creamy pesto marination with great aplomb. The ‘Greek Quesadillas, Guacamole and Salsa Fresca’ sailed along smoothly with tortilla stuffed spinach, cherry tomatoes and goat cheese. Wow! The red wine blend proved a fine pairing to the hilt.
It was a culinary adventure for me over 48 hours of leisure time. ‘Pepper Crusted Chicken Escalope’ was pepper flavored crisp friend chicken slivers with a snazzy peppermint dip! I relished that big time. The amazingly delicious ‘Baingan Mirch ka Salan’ –Nawabi style curry with aubergine and green chillies was a fine sensory match with some chilled beer. The peppy teaser, -‘Kurkure Bhindi’ was a smash hit on my palate. Crisp fried okra tossed with dry man go powder was like a gallop on my tongue as I slow mo-ed it to the last bite.
But the royal repast overwhelmed me at my next dinner. The ‘Bateyr Qorma’ –farm raised quails cooked in traditional Nawabi recipe was an exploration of flavors, I had never encountered before. ‘Haleem’ a wholesome Bhopali meal of mutton, wheat and spices cooked together on low heat, served with traditional embellishments created a heightened culinary sensation. Similar to that was ‘Awadhi Gosht ke Kofte’ –minced meat dumplings cooked in traditional Nawabi traditional curry, -aah! The flavors uplifted the dining sojourn full mast.
For milder yet inquisitive palates which I occasionally prefer, the ‘Prawn Toretellini’ with red pepper coulis, balsamic treacle and micro greens make merry with class. And if the wine is well rounded, go for ‘Zucchini and Tomato Moussaka’ –layered affectionately with tomato sauce and baked.
Back on my open sit out adjoining my villa, it rained again, the grass was greener in the yonder. My ‘Apple Pie with Brandy Butterscotch Sauce’ was superb, the hand churned cinnamon ice cream welling up to be eaten with equal zest. In the mellow mauve and ultramarine light over the horizon, I murmured an approving growl under my breath. Did I hear a retort from the distant jungle next door?