Enchantment is something that happens in fairytales and Harry Potter movies. It isn't a feeling I associate with India, which is impressive, yes. And I've been gobsmacked, bemused, amazed and occasionally overwhelmed on my private tour through Rajasthan, certainly. But not, until this moment, enchanted. I dare say I've never really been enchanted in my whole travelling life.
Still here I am in Delwara and it happens. My driver Rajendra is sedate at the wheel as we round a bend and a daffodil-yellow pleasure palace pops into view on a rocky outcrop embraced in lush countryside. RAAS Devigarh is a mighty pile of granite and marble in the brooding Rajasthan tradition, guarding the three main routes through the Aravalli Ranges into the Udaipur valley. This is why you take organised private journeys: to be wowed by something you never knew existed.
As I walk through the main Ganesh Gate, rose petals flutter down from above, scattered by a woman in a pink sari. She leads me to the bar terrace and, as check-in formalities are completed, places a cold beer at my elbow. Views overlook a swimming pool whose terrace is graced with daybeds fluttering with white canopies. Beyond, countryside stretches to a gentle curve of purple hills.
On the other side of the fort there are outlooks over Delwara village, where I pick out green minarets and the white domes of a large Jain temple. At sunset, the village's blue and pink houses glow. Tiers of courtyards are shaded with frangipani. Each courtyard has a distinctive decor, and is studded with candles and patterned petals of marigold and rose. Narrow flights of fortress steps lead to unexpected pavilions and turrets scattered with scarlet and peacock-blue cushions, where private dinners can be set up under the Hindu arches and tile work.
All the exteriors at RAAS Devigarh are original, all the interiors revamped almost entirely. Large guestrooms have a distinctively modern, minimalist appeal in white marble, with white sofas and bed linen and enormous bathrooms with windows onto the view. Swathes of local marble cover floors and bathroom walls, and the bed is a big slab of marble topped by mattresses.
There's considerable glamour hidden inside this swashbuckling fort.There are several reasons why you should struggle to escape the enchantment of RAAS Devigarh.
Walk out through the gate into the village and you'll find tidy, pastel-painted, cow-wandered streets. Shopkeepers nod and schoolchildren giggle. You might find the art co-operative and women's handicraft centre. If you hit the lake before sunset you're rewarded with gorgeous reflections of houses and hills. Birds swoop and pink-clad women walk to a village rhythm a thousand years old.
Further away, tucked into a fold of hills, Nagda has ruined temples dating back more than a millennium. "Sustain your heritage and feel glorious," commands a sign posted by the Archaeological Survey of India at their gates. Carvings are utterly captivating and, in this country setting, all you hear is twittering birds and the "hello, hello" of village children hoping to make a rupee by posing with baby goats. My Abercrombie & Kent guide Dinesh, a posh fellow in a natty waistcoat and slicked back hair, gently scolds them for not being in school.
Just down the road is Eklingji, a squeezed-in complex of 108 marble temples very popular with locals. Queues of visitors clutching marigold garlands gather before opening time, waiting for a uniformed guard to bang a gong and throw open the doors. Inside, worshippers pray to Shiva and kneel to whisper in the ear of a silver cow. It's another moment of unexpected enchantment.
Abercrombie & Kent's private journeys in India include a 12-day Royal Rajasthan itinerary taking in Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Jodhpur as well as Delwara/Udaipur. Prices from $8882 depending on arrangements and specific requirements. Phone 1300 851 800. See abercrombiekent.com.au
The writer stayed at RAAS Devigarh in Delwara. The spectacular fortress has minimalist, contemporary interiors, one of India's best spas and outstanding service. See raasdevigarh.com
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Abercrombie & Kent.