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Serai Desert Tented Camp

Sujan the Serai Desert Camp is a Relais & Chateau luxury tented camp set on a 100 acre private estate in the Thar desert, only about 70 km from the Pakistan border. (We will be continually confused about whether the place is called Serai or Sujan, as staff seems to use the words interchangeably)  A permanent tented camp, with golden limestone floors in public and private tents, Serai is one of the most luxurious we’ve stayed at. At the entrance, there is an enormous multi-tent housing reception, bar, library, and dining room. The library/lounge/bar forms half the main tent, and is filled with various seating areas of comfortable leather club chairs, safari-style camp chairs, and wicker recliners arranged around Persian carplets. A large stone deck a few steps down is cut with a maze of shallow water-filled channels, which are bottom-lit at night, forming a glowing symbol. Beyond lies the elevated pool built on a golden sandstone plinth, with waterfall cascading off the back, and paths from there lead to 21 large tent rooms. Mature desert landscape fills the areas between paths and tents—austere, but beautiful. Only the photos do it justice. Each tent has an entry terrace with seating, a front sitting area with camp lounge chairs, and a writing desk. The 20 by 20 ft. bedroom features king bed, and two wooden clothing storage racks. Behind is the bathroom with enormous rain shower and double sinks.

There are no room phones! By design. Three buttons labeled Service, Houskeeping and Security provide communication with staff. We’re encouraged to use the first two as frequently as necessary, and it’s hoped we will not have to use the third. Pressing either of the first two brings someone normally in a very few minutes. The staff seems enormous. And especially as at this time it seems there are only a couple other tents occupied, aside from our small group.

This experience so reminds us of the best of Africa. Staff are variously dressed in desert khaki, long native white robes and red turbans, or crisp white shirts and khaki trousers, and service is terrific. Sometimes things have to be repeated or clarified, as there are varying levels of English proficiency. And the quiet, too, reminds us of the dark continent. Out in the middle of the Thar Desert, there is much birdsong, some insect and animal scurrying sounds, the backdrop of falling water from the pool cascade, and little else. Until the next morning when the Indian army somewhere out in the sands begins a few exercises; deep howitzer booms shake the ground, and Air Force jets shriek overhead.

The Sujan spa, spread over four tents within a walled garden offers the usual services and treatments, and Rich and Troy are both well satisfied with their massage. The small un-clerked boutique offers unique crafts and textiles sourced directly from their makers. As must be expected, prices are not the lowest that can be achieved at the source, but if a last-minute gift is needed, adequate.

Afternoons at the pool are very relaxing....gurgling water and birdsong alone in the desert air. The water is fairly sort of temperature, as contrasted to the body temperature pool in Jodhpur, which suits others. I theorize that cold nights here and evaporation in the desert heat are responsible.

I’m quite fascinated by the landscape of Serai that weaves in and around the complex. Comparing construction photos in the bar from roughly 20 years ago, and the surrounding desert outside the camp, versus the vegetation in the complex, they seem worlds apart. I asked G.M. Chatterjee what the landscaping project during construction consisted of. He answered in one word: water. All of the local desert plants were withered or dormant In seed form in the desert, and when given regular water, become the lush if austere vegetation that makes the camp seem so unique.

Like many deserts, the Thar is a harsh and unforgiving place. Nonetheless, it supports an interesting variety of hardy, drought-resistant plant species. These plants have adapted to the desert conditions of low water, sandy, low nutrient soil, and long hours of intense sunlight. They combine typical low water adaptive elements of small or thick leaves and spiky thorns to minimize water loss and have deep root systems to tap into low groundwater levels. Some grasses and small herbaceous plants have short seasonal cycles—they germinate in the first rains in summer and die out by year end.

This is really not unlike our own Mediterranean climate, where plants have had to evolve strategies to accommodate a long stretch of dry summer. I see definite similarities between the flora of the Thar and the chaparral of the Sonoma hills.

Just a few of the trees include the thorny-branched Khejri, which is everywhere; desert teak—Rohira, with its bright yellow flowers; the gum arabic, Kumatiyo, flaunting long brown seed pods; the spreading Neem, famous for providing twigs that people all over India use as toothbrushes; and the feathery leafed Tamarind, whose fruit provides such a widely used sweet/sour component in Indian cuisine.

In shrubs, the standouts are the fleshy leafed and poisonous milkweed, whose flowers are sacred and offered in prayers to shiva, the almost leafless Kair, whose fruits and flowers are pickled for use in cooking, the ubiquitous Bui, or desert cotton, whose fluffy bolls are used for bedding, and Thhor, a striking leafless spurge whose dense foliage provides protected habitat for rodents and a host of smaller animals. Kheemp, a dense broom-brush is a nice contrasting plant and is a traditional medicine for sheep.

Smaller plants include Tulsi or holy basil, Kaneer—lovely desert rose, actually a form of oleander, and Sinniya, or senna, with small yellow flowers, and whose leaves are universal laxatives.

This enchanting desertscape is especially magical at sunset or moonrise, the latter of which we enjoy on the way to the bar for cocktails around the crackling fire.

In the afternoon there is a “game drive”/camel safari/sundowners excursion to the Moola Dunes. An Indian-made jeep by Maruti, done in the Serai livery departs at 4 pm for the dunes, driven by driver/guide Ram, complete with dress khakis, turban and luxuriously curled Rajput mustache. As the jeep twists through the exotic desert flora there is game and bird viewing to be had—tawny and estival eagles, a hawk, various songbirds, the migrating demoiselle cranes, a “beep-beep” roadrunner, and the elusive desert Fox. The route passes through a tiny village, and there is a stop to visit one family whose house had many rooms composed of straw, sand and cow dung—Rajasthani adobe.

At the edge of the undulating red dunes, a small rug, tea table, and camp chairs have been set up. Two saddled and liveried camels are brought forward, and the two riders polo-helmet up, and mount--(actually a quite alarming experience), for a leisurely amble among the dunes for 20 minutes. As shadows elongate, and sundown over the dunes approaches, champagne—Indian Chandon—and finger sandwiches and tea cakes are served. The dash back in gathering dusk and rising full moon of November 23rd—the auspicious Kartik Purnima—is harrying as maximum speed over the corkscrew dirt track is applied by Ram.

As that moon rises, we take Jodphur gin and tonics on the terrace overlooking a flaring firepit, under a canopy of bright stars. Small onion breads, shrimp skewers and delicious fried chicken winglets are passed on silver platters.

Chef Giriraj presides over the Sujan kitchens and bakery. He cooked for years in various locations, many with Taj Group, and has been here for three years. The menu is about two thirds international, and one third Indian.

Dinner each night is served on a different terrace – the entry courtyard, the pool terrace with its low water maze, with candle lanterns and toasty iron firepits next to each table. The first night we sample artichoke and hearts of palm salad, cold cucumber and coriander soup and roast lamb rack. The wine list is extensive, and we are pleased with Sula Sauvignon Blanc, Fratelli chardonnay and find the Grover Chene Réserve 2015 blend to be exceptional.

Over several meals we also try penne Bolognese, rogan josht, aloo gobi, capriciosa pizza, pumpkin and ginger soup, and perhaps the best club sandwich anywhere....because the main ingredient is moist chicken salad, as opposed to dry slices of chicken breast...a slice of avocado in place of the Indian-traditional fried egg puts it over the top.

The next morning Chef Giriraj takes us on a tour of the organic kitchen gardens where they grow peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, radishes, cauliflower, chard, broccoli, potatoes, and many herbs, as well as marigolds for decoration. There is an adjacent herd of 40 or so cows that proved milk for the hotel, made into yoghurt daily, and organic fertilizer for the garden. A flock of chickens roams in the shade of acacia trees, from which come breakfast eggs. The kitchen is as ultra-locally self-sufficient as it can be. Here are the embodiment of Alice Waters and Thomas Keller ethos wrapped up in the Thar desert.

The kitchen itself is spread over multiple small buildings. The charcoal tandoor and mango-wood fired oven are open air behind the dishwashing unit. A small daily garden separates those from the main kitchen, with four burner western range, combi and convection ovens, and two large, high btu burners for Indian dishes. The adjacent bakery smells wonderful— sweet, yeasty and spicy. Three bakers make rolls, croissants, whole-wheat and white loaves, spice bread, muffins, breadsticks, seeded crackers and more. The Indian breads—naan, roti, kulcha and the like are of course cooked in the tandoor.

As we dine our last night under the one-day waning moon on the pool terrace, an amazing musical troupe called the Manganiars entertains. They are the traditional bards of the western desert, their home village only a half hour from Serai, with a history that goes back 13 centuries. They believe they are descended from the Rajputs, and their songs are passed down between generations as a form of oral history. They play that odd Indian accordian-like harmonium, a 17-string kamaicha, the dholak hand drum, and most astonishingly a set of teak blocks known as a khartaal, which they wave around as they play. The dizzying, intricate and syncopated rhythms they can accomplish are simply astounding.

The hypnotic rhythms, the scent of the desert flora at night, the crackling of the log fires, and the last dregs from our wineglasses lure our eyelids earthward and feet tentwards as the final night of our Indian adventure draws to a close…..

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