Some are lucky enough to be born in royal families, but the rest can just dream of it.
Ever visited a palace and wondered what your life would have been if you were a king? Or maybe you imagined yourself to be Queen Daenerys and living in a massive castle with dragons? Ok, if you’re a practical daydreamer, I will talk about the present day scenario – what about being a part the royal family of Wales and being either Prince William or his beautiful Princess bride – Kate Middleton?
Yes, there is a reason why these thoughts are called “daydreams” because they are so far fetched that turning them into reality is nearly impossible.
What if I told you that there is a way you can experience “the Royal life” of a bygone era and pretend you’re a Maharaja (or a Maharani) for just a few days?
It is possible because I just did it and so can you. Yes, it is a tad expensive, but not THAT expensive that you will burn a hole in your pocket. Why? Because there is a new luxury hotel that was once a grand residence for a Maharaja is offering an introductory price for a year and curating special “royal” experiences.
In case you’ve been crushing on my Instagram pictures where I’m posing like a Maharani, I will do you a favor and NOT let this place remain a secret. Yes, I got to live the Maharaja life (or Maharani in my case), got pampered and spoilt beyond imagination during my time in this Red city of Rajasthan. I will share exactly how you can experience the royal like in Bikaner like I did.
How to live like a Maharaja and Experience the Royal life in Bikaner:
01 | Get Pampered at Narendra Bhawan – the last Maharaja’s residence
The easiest way to experience the royal life is by staying in a royal residence. I picked Narendra Bhawan, and I highly recommend you do so too. What was once the grand residence of the last reigning Maharaja of Bikaner is now a boutique hotel. This beautifully preserved Haveli actually tells the story of His Highness Narendra Singh Ji (1948).
As a guest, I received a memorable welcome with drums as soon as I got out of the car. While entering, I noticed a few beautifully decorated tables, perfect for a cozy soiree outside the main door. As soon as I stepped inside, my eyes literally popped out as I noticed the opulence of the décor inside. My first instinct was to run around like an excited little girl and click thousands of photos. In all due respect, I was in a palace and was being treated like a royalty, so I tried my best to behave like a “lady”. Later I got to know that Ayush Kasliwal (yes, the same guy who designed Delhi’s beautiful T3) and Karan Singh (the President of the hotel group) are the hands and brains behind the décor.
During my stay here, I was amazed to see that there is so much to see inside the hotel itself. There are corners where His Highness Narendra Singh Ji’s memories are displayed as photographs, travel souvenirs and a few daily use items in a setting that’s influenced by south Mumbai’s timeless architecture and Bombay art deco. Btw, Bombay Art Deco style emerged in the 1930s and 1940s before the official end of British raj in India.
I have so much to talk about the hotel that I think I will write a separate post with pictures of the interiors, courtyard, lobby, food, rooftop pool, baby grand piano and my furry friends here – Eton, Simba and Nala.
Wondering what my room looked like from the inside? Well, I wanna show you a 360 degree video because a single picture won’t suffice.
Don’t even get me started on the food here because even the fanciest of my words won’t do justice. I really enjoyed eating the royal Rajasthani cuisine – crescent thali, maas curry and kebabs. On my first day here, I tried the typical Rajasthani breakfast of onion kachori, thali peeth, sabudana cheela with chaach. Yes, their local Rajasthani food is heavenly but I was very happy to know that their international food was equally good. I love their pumpkin soup, cauliflower soup, grilled chicken salad with sundried tomatoes, sandwiches and pizzas. My favorite of course is their Mad Hatter bakery where I fell in love with their chocolate and apricot dessert which was very flavorful, yet light.
Being a professional travel writer, I have stayed in many five star hotels but the hospitality that I experienced in Narendra Bhawan is like no other. The staff in their comfortable looking imperial attire always said “Jai Jai, Ma’am” when they saw me. From simple things like never failing to give me a glass of iced lemonade as soon as I entered the lobby to something as fancy as pearl encrusted holders for water bottles – they definitely won me over.
Honestly, Narendra Bhawan is not the only royal resident in Bikaner. There is also the famous Laxmi Niwas Palace that is owned by the same group as Narendra Bhawan, and it’s bigger and obviously more expensive. Laxmi Niwas has a bit of subdued décor while Narendra Bhawan has more of a glamorous touch. You can also check out Lalgarh fort and Gajner Palace but none of them match the kind of lavishness that you can find inside Narendra Bhawan.
02 | Go for a jeep safari at Gajner Sanctuary and enjoy a Lakeside Meal at Gajner Palace
Around 30 kilometers outside Bikaner is a lakeside palace with a wildlife sanctuary next to it. This place is called Gajner Palace and right next to it is Gajner Wildlife Sanctuary.
Back in the early days, the royals often visited this place when they’d go hunting and then later enjoy a meal of their fresh kill. No, I don’t endorse game hunting and you should know that it’s illegal in India. However, I do recommend you visit this place and go for a safari in the sanctuary and then later enjoy a lakeside meal.
The best time to arrive here is early in the morning like we did; otherwise, it can get really hot. We arrived here at 7 am and then went on a jeep safari. As soon as we entered the sanctuary, we spotted a deer. It had twisted horns and later I got to know that it was actually a blackbuck. Yes, that’s the same animal that Salman Khan apparently shot in Rajasthan for “game hunting”. (Yes, I hate Salman Khan after this episode).
This is a small sanctuary and on 4 occasions we spotted a deer (or maybe it was a blackbuck or chinkara). At one point, we even saw an antelope. It is worth noting that everything around was beige and so were all these animals. I’m sure we missed many of them because they blended perfectly with the background. I did not manage to capture them on a picture because they move very fast. However, I do have a video from very far away where an antelope is running and looks as small as a dot.
A little deeper in the sanctuary we even saw a few structures that were used many years back by the royals as “shooting pods”. These were covered from all the sides and had holes from where they could look out and shoot.
After spending around an hour inside the wildlife sanctuary, we went back to Gajner Palace for breakfast. The location is really gorgeous but the food is average. I can imagine how pretty the ambiance would be around the lake after the sunset.
03 | Watch the Sunset with a few Drinks in the Hinterland
What would you do to cool off after spending a day exploring Bikaner’s famous landmarks? No need to think, I’ll suggest the best option. Head out to the outskirts of Bikaner to find an oasis in the middle of the barren land and watch the beauty around you with a cocktail as the sun goes down.
Having no idea about the location, my friend Deepti and I dressed up for the occasion and sat in the car with Faisal, ready to be surprised. By the way, Faisal is Narendra Bhawan’s Area General Manager and is an amazing company.
We drove for around 30 minutes and reached the outskirts of Bikaner. The barren land around me reminded me of Portugal’s Idanha-a-Nova where I went for Boom festival. Suddenly our car turned into a little lane and we reached our destination. We were in an oasis!
As we got out of the car, we heard the music of a flute. There was a lake on our left side and green grass all around it. There was a bar, a live grill and a sitting area that was completely white. This was our spot for the evening.
Perhaps it was because of the music of the flute or the beauty of the lake but it was one of the most memorable sunsets. We sat next to the lake and forgot about work as we sipped our cocktails, as the sky grew orange and then eventually dark.
Keeping in mind the legacy and lifestyle of His Highness Narendra Singh Ji, the staff at Narendra Bhawan has designed this epic sundowner experience for their guests. This is how he would occasionally enjoy his gratifying drinks after a long day of attending to his paperwork and guests.
04 | Go for a Sunset Swim and a Royal dinner at Laxmi Niwas Palace
You can’t just visit Bikaner and not visit one of the grandest palaces of this city. Just like Narendra Bhawan, even Laxmi Niwas Palace was once the grand residence of one of the Maharajas of Bikaner – Maharajah Ganga Singh. This palace is massive with a humungous sized garden area.
Apart from the garden, my favorite part of this palace turned hotel is the swimming pool. If you’re a guest of Narendra Bhawan, you can visit Laxmi Niwas Palace and enjoy a swim without paying extra because the same group owns them. This is how you can cool off from Bikaner’s heat, like a Maharaja.
Carry something special to wear after your swim so that you can enjoy the signature “Royal Dinner” in the lawn area of Laxmi Niwas Palace. Something worth noting is that you need to book this meal in advance and have to pay extra. (obviously)
We did a royal dinner in Laxmi Niwas Palace the day after we went for our sunset drinks in the desert. We didn’t expect to be very impressed after an experience like that but a royal dinner in Laxmi Niwas Palace was something else entirely.
With a backdrop of the grand palace, we walked on a path that was lit by rows of candles to reach our table. This table was decorated with a generous amount of rose petals and marigold flowers. There were candles on the table and literally everywhere around.
Just like the movie “Midnight in Paris”, I stepped into a forgotten era as I saw on my chair. I sipped my favorite cocktail with Bombay Sapphire gin and nibbled on tender Galauti Kebabs as I enjoyed being a queen for those hours.
Next day, as I narrated my experience to my husband, his reaction was “how will you ever get back to normal life?”
What to eat at Laxmi Niwas palace? Well, I ate here twice and I really enjoyed the food. For starters, vegetarians can order corn kebabs and hara bhara kebabs. I also had a mini roti here in starters with corn but I don’t remember the name. Non vegetarians will really enjoy mutton khasta kebabs, galauti kebabs, stuffed chicken tangari kebabs. For main course, vegetarians and non-vegetarians will both enjoy the typical Rajasthani crescent thali that has a variety of curries, veggies, rotis, papad, raita and optional meats. You can also order mutton biriyani, special Rajasthani laal maas and daal.
You can click here to find deals for booking a room at Laxmi Niwas Palace, Bikaner.
05 | Go on a Merchant’s trail on a Horse Carriage
If you have traveled extensively in India, then I’m sure you know that almost every famous city in Rajasthan has the architecture of a different color. Most of the people know that Jaipur is “the pink city”, Jodhpur is “the blue city”, Udaipur is “the white city” and Jaisalmer is “the Golden city”.
Did you know that Rajasthan has a “Red city” and that city is Bikaner? It is because most of the palaces, Havelis and temples were built using red sandstone many years back. Oh, and by the way, a Haveli is a kind of old school Indian mansion with an open courtyard in the middle.
Many decades back, Bikaner was a trade hub and a preferred caravan route between Central and Western Asia. The noble families and merchants of Bikaner profited immensely because of the location of the city and the trade route. They built many Havelis in Bikaner’s old city. These Havelis are still there in the old town and some of them are very well maintained.
An exploration of this area is one of my favorite “royal” experiences that was designed by Narendra Bhawan because it really did feel like things had not changed here for decades, except for a few cars that were visible occasionally.
We arrived in Bikaner’s old city by car and sat on a horse carriage that was waiting for us. There was a sudden change in the architecture because everywhere around us we could only see red Havelis with blue or green doors. Almost all of these Havelis display a mix of Victorian and Mughal architecture.
There were many narrow lanes and at times a little traffic jam. We would have been completely lost if our exploration was not chaperoned. We even got to enter one of the Havelis that was maintained by Narendra Bhawan and looked like a dollhouse from inside.
This area of Bikaner was so beautiful that we woke up the next day at 4 am just to go back and click some pictures.
06 | Discover Bikaner’s Places on a Royal Trail
I have mentioned the famous Laxmi Niwas Palace and Gajner Palace, but there is so much more to see in Bikaner. If you’re visiting Bikaner, I recommend you take out a day from your schedule to go on a Royal trail and see palaces and museums.
You can visit the famous Junagarh fort, which was built by Raja Rai Singh. The fort does look majestic from the outside but trust me it is the insides that will take your breath away. There are several sections that have a different theme and were built in different times.
They say that Junagarh Fort is one of the best-maintained ones in Rajasthan. As I explored the interiors, I understood why. When we entered, everything around was beige, but soon we reached a white section with a few blue rooms and later even saw a golden room and a silver door.
Apart from Junagarh fort, you can also check out Lalgarh palace and Sadul Singh museum. I was so mesmerized by Junagarh fort that it is my favorite out of them all.
7) Experience one of a kind Museum Dinner at Narendra Bhawan
This is perhaps the most royal of them all. Imagine, sitting at the same table where the King sat decades back. Yes, it is called the “Museum Dinner” for a reason. Instead of just admiring the items from a bygone era, you’re a part of the whole setting yourself.
This table is actually in the main dining area but is in a separate enclosed space to ensure privacy. The enclosure is in the form of thick curtains on one side and wall on the other. Under the low hanging lamps, there is a long dining table that can seat six to eight people. The chairs around this table have a “golden” look with a soft cushioned seat. There are a few highly ornate mirrors on the walls with small lamps in front of them. The carpet is thick and dark and looks Egyptian (I’m guessing but I can be wrong). The ceiling is light with a lot of off-white and a few traces of gold. This little room actually looks like it is a part of a museum!
In fact, on my first day at Narendra Bhawan, I had reached this part of the restaurant just by accident while exploring. I was delighted when Faisal told me that we would be eating here the next day.
Final Thoughts – experience the Royal Life in Bikaner
Now that I have talked so much about Narendra Bhawan in this post, you must be thinking that it is a very expensive hotel. You couldn’t have been more wrong. They have an introductory offer going on for the first year and you can book a room for two for as low as INR 6000 ($100). I found even better deals on Bookings.com. This is a steal if you compare it to the other hotels because the services are better than any five-star hotels’. (Yes, Rajasthani hospitality beats everything else). In fact, this is the perfect gift you should buy for your life partner, or even your parents if you want to pamper them.
PS: This is just a glimpse of what I did in Bikaner. To see more pictures, check out my hashtag #SonalinBikaner on Instagram.
Have you visited Bikaner already and have a few stories to share? Let me know in the comments.
Disclaimer: I was invited to Bikaner on a press trip. As usual, the views expressed in this article are mine.