Mumbai and Madhya Pradesh: Heritage India in a week

    7 January 2020

    Staring down the barrel of a long, cold winter this year, my spirits plunged. I needed a week of unequivocal warmth to keep me going – preferably in a place suffused with history, culturally different, and not quite the other side of the world. India meets these criteria: eight hours’ away with increasing choice of flights – Virgin has recently restarted flights to Mumbai – 30 degrees in the winter months, and now, thanks to the introduction of e-visas, no longer a pain to prepare for. Here’s how to steal a week of winter reprieve in two easy stops.

    Ahilya Fort, Maheshwar

    From £188 per night including full board 

    There are regular flights (one hour) from Mumbai to Indore Airport, a two-hour drive from Ahilya; I took the 6.30AM Indigo service, waiting about five hours after my flight from London landed. It was painful but worth it, as I was at Ahilya by 10, having been driven through some of the most breathtakingly verdant valleys of central India. Maheshwar is a town of Sanskrit epic mythology on the holy Narmada River, of which Ahilya offers staggering views. The hotel is very much part of the town, with a temple and several ritual sites used daily by locals within its walls, plus a school just outside the hotel gates. Carved out of sandstone fortification walls and part of original Maheshwar Fort, the present-day Ahilya was built as Ahilya Wada by the Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar, ruler from 1765 to 1796, and housed her personal residences, offices, audience hall and so on within the fort. In 2000 the Wada residence was turned into the hotel by its present owner, the force of nature that is Richard Holkar, descendent of the last maharajah of Indore (his mother is American).

    It is immediately apparent that this is both heritage and civic hostelry at its best which explains the loyal following of the likes of Jack Straw, Alexander McCall Smith and the historian Jerry White, as well as the numerous heads of state and film stars who seek it out for a break below the radar. The moment I arrived I was shown  the Maheshwar weaving cooperative, re-established and rejuvenated by Holkar himself in the 1970s.

    A few steps uphill and one enters sanctum of the utmost taste and beauty.  Ahilya doesn’t feel like a hotel in the conventional sense, but a private residence of an aristocratic connoisseur  – which is, in some sense, just what it is. Rooms are large, cool and light, understated and elegant, dotted with glossy wood treasures belonging to the Holkars; the suites are magnificent in their views of river and temple. Indeed the hotel is a warren of tranquil pleasure spots, threaded through with artefacts from Queen Ahilyabae’s reign.

    There is a petanque court, a menagerie, lush kitchen gardens, a garden courtyard where yoga and massage takes place, a beautiful swimming pool framed by flowers and plants and fronted by a fort wall, and – the soul of the place – a terrace overlooking the Narmada that is studded with plant pots made from 18th century cannons and an adjacent play-garden for the hotel’s five gorgeous pugs. I spent hours on the terrace peering down at the fascinating ghats teeming with sacred, leisurely, aquatic and commercial activity.

    The rhythms of Ahilya are entirely conducive to pleasure. Everything is exquisite. Breakfast, taken on the terrace, includes a dozen preserves, from carrot and ginger to mango to mulberry hand-made by Holkar himself in Paris – he lugs them back with him in his suitcase. Lunch is a supremely delicate repast using vegetables and herbs from the gardens.   Afternoon tea on the terrace is served daily at 4 (silky masala chai; fresh ground coffee; home-made fennel, ginger and shortbread biscuits), then there’s cocktail hour of tip-top G&Ts, good sparkling Sula wine and nibbles – I grew particularly attached to the warm, fresh-popped lotus seeds.

    Boat trip from the Ahilya Fort, Maheshwar

    Boat trip from the Ahilya Fort, Maheshwar

    There are daily sunset boat trips in the wooden vessels of the Ahilya fleet to the temple in the middle the river known as ‘the centre of the universe’. ‘Ahilya Experiences’ include excursions from an after-dark river trip through a thousand candles floating in banana leaves, to dinner upriver in a temple. I was the only guest for two nights and was spoiled with dinners in mystery locations around the property; hundreds of candles led me on one night to drinks and dinner on a turret high above the fort, another night to dinner in the garden of the Royal Suite, candle-rimmed plunge pool, grass under the feet, temple looming in the darkness. It is magic. And London had never felt further.

    Mumbai: Soho House

    Rooms from £129: booking for non-members by enquiry; members can book online

    An afternoon flight from Indore saw me ensconced at Soho House Mumbai by 6pm. Its languid luxury, sea views and rooftop plunge pool eased me back into city life.  The colonial-style townhouse is packed with vintage Bombay teak, wild paisleys and dark wood expanses. If the London outposts of Soho House have somewhat lost their original air of actorly glamour, no such thing has happened here. Bollywood loves it thanks to proximity to film studios and to Bandra, the (hipper) Mumbai answer to Beverly Hills. Once I tore myself away from my room’s breezy balcony fronting onto Juhu Beach, with its swaying palms and kids playing cricket, I headed up to the legendary rooftop where it was clear a ‘scene’ was in full swing – the beautiful and the well-dressed lounged on cabanas by a pool and sipped champagne in crystal bowls as a DJ presided.

    Soho House, Mumbai

    Soho House, Mumbai

    The terrace looks over Juhu Beach on one side, with the city unfurling in the other direction so it was a dreamy place to lounge during the following day. Soho House Mumbai is very close to the airport (which can be noisy) but it’s an hour’s drive from the high Victoriana of central Mumbai – Victoria Station, the Prince of Wales Museum (now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya), and Colaba, with the Gateway to India and the classic vista of Marine Drive. True confession: having been to Mumbai before, I didn’t leave Soho House. The sheer allure of lounging with a book on the cabana and my balcony, as day turned to spectacular sunset over the Arabian sea, was too great to resist. Arriving back in London seven days after I left, my skin still warm, I felt I’d been gone a month.

    Other heritage hotels in Mumbai


    Affordable boutique hotel in Colaba, very close to the Gateway of India. Offers ‘city experiences’, extremely good massages from local blind women, and rooms of confident Bombay heritage chic. Rooms from £90.

    Taj Palace

    The ultimate heritage posh in south Mumbai by the Gateway to India, all singing all dancing luxury, with sunset yacht cruises, gorgeous spa, enormous pool and so on. Rooms from £300.

    Zoe flew with Virgin Atlantic Upper Class, which includes airport limousine, lounge access, flat beds, pyjamas and plenty of champers. Return Upper Class flights London to Mumbai from £2169.