At the end of a long, isolated dirt track, flanked by meticulously trimmed trees, we can see all six hotel staff through the dirtied windscreen, standing in a perfect crescent shape, palms together, fingers pointing to the sky.
‘Namaste. We have been expecting you. But I fear your entrance has startled the antelope. No matter, they will be there for you tomorrow.’
Not a day in India passes without a magical surprise, and here, on the banks of Lake Chhatra in the north-west of the country, we are in for one of our most unexpected.
Tranquil: Raas Chhatrasagar hotel is a modern, environmentally friendly hotel and spa in Rajasthan
Everyone will tell you that Rajasthan is a feast of all kinds. The cacophony of dusty streets, where the incessant horns of zig-zagging traffic pummel your ears day and night.
The smells of sandalwood and coal, petrol fumes and jasmine, deep-frying oil and roasting aniseed, a hypnotic mash-up of raw Indian life.
The uncomfortable sights of squalor in the shadow of majestic architecture, unchanging tableaux of caste and history.
And, today, the endless requests from cricket-mad boys skipping alongside and clad in trademark pink sports shirts: ‘Sar, Sar, Ben Stokes, Sar, you know him?’
The English players of the Indian Premier League’s all-star team, the Rajasthan Royals — now owned by a British businessman and swiftly becoming the UK’s chosen IPL favourite — are true heroes in this part of the country, adding to the raucousness of the warm greetings.
However, not everyone will tell you that, away from the so-called golden triangle of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur, tourists can also step into an almost-silent Rajasthan that lulls you into a meditative trance. A desert escape in which the only sounds are of an orchestra of birdsong and the plopping heads of ducks seeking food beneath the surface of a stilled lake that stretches towards the horizon.
At least that is what we’ve discovered, more or less by accident. A two-and-a-half hour drive west of the Pink City of Jaipur, and 90 minutes east of the Blue of Jodhpur, we’re taking a sudden detour.
Lake Chhatra, we are told, is an oasis of calm packed with wildlife, the perfect antidote to the hawkers, markets and deal-making that are at the same time claustrophobic and addictive.
Look at a map of that area of Rajasthan and it’s a vast mass of grey and brown — desert, mountain ranges and pockets of urban sprawl with a few specks of blue that are the lakes and rivers upon which so many of the communities rely.
Lake Chhatra is one of those blue blobs, broadly oval in shape and surrounded by lush vegetation and open woodland. Here, in the heart of this extraordinary retreat, sits Chhatrasagar, a modern, environmentally friendly hotel and spa with commanding views of the lake.
The surrounding 3,000 acres of wilderness are being studiously cultivated and protected, partly by the families who live close by, in tiny villages.
Here, children toil away at school while, next door, their parents wash and cook, mend and carve endless trinkets, only interrupting their daily lives to stand waving at their rickety front doors, offering cups of chai and endless smiles to those who pass by.
The basics they subside on are in stark contrast to the lavish Westernised sophistication a few hundred metres up the bumpy tree-lined, pot-holed track.
Chhatrasagar sits on the banks of a lake filled to its brim long after the monsoon rains end. In April 2019, an Indian company specialising in small boutique, eco-hotels bought the site and spent a small fortune transforming it.
Now, there’s a heated outdoor pool, designer interiors of marble and teak, a spa and yoga balcony with commanding views over the impressive landscape. And part-canopied ‘tents’ that have walls, steel arches, enclosed bathrooms and private verandas that all line the lake to face an unforgettable sunrise.
Sixteen stand in a straight line, flanking the right side of the site, with four more perched atop a nearby hill. Gnarled trees jut out of the pathway linking all tents, where dancing squirrels leap between branches.
A small stone path winds its way to a communal area on the left of the entrance where you can either sit outside, warmed by the open fire, or lounge on swinging settees.
We encounter no mosquitoes but, should you be wary, there is also a vast indoor space, warm and intimate.
‘Everyone will tell you that Rajasthan is a feast of all kinds’, writes Grant Feller. Pictured are women dancing in traditional dress
Sleeping under the stars is a real highlight, with a remote-controlled switch by the side of the bed that draws back the fabric above to reveal a breathtaking window on the celestial gods. It’s as if the environment has allowed the hotel to be built around it, rather than having suffered from something alien being thrust upon it.
Everything natural in this recycled and plastic-free environment seems to whisper, we were here first.
Amid the backdrop of the Aravalli mountain range, stretching from Delhi to Gujarat — like misshapen knuckles, changing colour according to the height of the sun — the farmland behind the tents and beside the aforementioned dirt track has been allowed to become overgrown to form a nature reserve.
Walking safaris allow you to come face to face with startled antelope and galloping wild boar, along with 250 species of birds that flock to the still waters, a much-needed migratory pit-stop.
Twenty-five years ago, my wife and I backpacked around this area, sleeping on trains and with a tattered Lonely Planet book as our only guide.
How has it changed, we wondered? Noisier, more intense, just as seductive but somehow vaster and perhaps more difficult to navigate for first-time India romantics.
Then again, perhaps it’s us who’ve changed more — I don’t recall pillows, clean sheets and three-course meals back then.
Ah, the food. One afternoon at Chhatrasagar, walking in the hotel’s organic gardens, we are suddenly joined by the head chef who implores us to choose our dinner.
We watch him pick beetroot, broccoli, carrots, snow peas, rocket, spinach and fistfuls of herbs and, two hours later, everything having been washed in purified water (rare in rural India), we devour them, alongside barbecued meat and baked naan.
Delicacy is not a word often associated with Indian cooking, but the kitchen here strives for a modern twist. Subtle, fresh yet still reassuringly fiery, they are meals not bettered on our two-week travels.
Tourism has a wicked kick to it, too, where the more you try to attract visitors, the more you ruin what’s special and enticed them in the first place.
When it’s done right, however, it enhances what has been there for centuries, because it enables you to feel a temporary part of something permanently unspoilt. And mercifully peaceful.
Grant travelled with Fleewinter (fleewinter.com) which has a nine-night B&B Golden Triangle itinerary, including two nights at Chhatrasagar, from £2,100 pp. Price includes flights, train tickets and activities. More information at raashotels.com.