India and Sri Lanka both offer unlimited potential for creating celebrations of a lifetime. Gather up your favourite people in the world and head east for an adventure to never forget – whether in a Maharaja’s palace rising out of the desert or a tropical private peninsula. Arrive by elephant, private plane or magic carpet and discover colour-filled days followed by heady nights. Here is a hand-picked selection of some of the most heavenly places to celebrate, indulge and feast.
1. Umaid Bhawan, Jodhpur
The grandest of the grand – but with a soul, Umaid Bhawan has the wow factor in spades. Driving through the gilded gates, being greeted by the vast sandstone façade, then showered with rose petals before being serenaded by musicians is the best welcome in India. The palace is still the home of the current Maharaja of Jodhpur, who lives in a wing. Actress Liz Hurley chose to be married here and supermodel Naomi Campbell threw an epic bash for her Russian billionaire partner with more than 200 guests including Kate Moss and Vogue editor Edward Enninful.
The vaulted durbar hall and ballroom offer superb event spaces, and no detail is overlooked in creating the most memorable of events. The ‘Blue City’ stretches out below and guests can be chauffeured around Jodhpur in the Maharaja’s own vintage Cadillac as well as taking fascinating tours with a palace butler to local craft villages and temples.
2. Ahilya by the Sea, Goa
A newcomer to the beach state of Goa, Ahilya by the Sea is a trio of beautifully designed Balinese-style villas that can be taken individually or as a whole. Owned by two well-known families, the artistic Trinidades and the royal Holkars of Ahilya Fort, who have united in marriage and together created this sliver of paradise on Dolphin Bay. The villas have nine bedrooms in total and two enticing pools that seem to merge with the sea at high tide.
The neighbouring boutique tree house cocooned around a 200-year-old Banyan tree is a romantic choice. Nothing is too much trouble for the charismatic manager, Bambi, and the organic food is heavenly. Interiors are filled with art, textiles and artefacts collected from around the world creating an atmosphere that is both cosmopolitan and relaxed with great attention to detail, from the crisp linens to the top-notch cocktails served at sunset.
3. Habaraduwa House, Galle
Head to the balmy south coast of Sri Lanka to find this sublime property, which we have hailed as ‘the best villa in the country’, 10km from the colonial haven of Galle. Nestled in an acre of luscious gardens near the beach, Habaraduwa House is the perfect choice for a special celebration house party. Re-designed in 2011 by a prominent interior decorator, each airy room is a symphony of laid-back chic with neutral palettes and striking artwork.
The en-suite bedrooms include details such as four-poster beds and long windows onto the Indian Ocean. We love the 20-metre swimming pool which is perfect for families and a short stroll to the idyllic beach. A full quiver of friendly staff, including housekeeper, butler and cook will ensure a seamless and relaxing break with impeccable and thoughtful service.
4. Tri Lanka, Koggala Lake
For true luxury and seclusion, make for this contemporary eco-Eden perched on a peninsula overlooking Sri Lanka’s finest lake. A former cinnamon plantation and offering eleven unique suites, Tri Lanka is a captivating retreat. Every detail is designed to delight, from the arching villas with private plunge pools to the glass-walled library filled with art and design books. Create a banquet for your party with the in-house chef using fresh prawns from the lake, local spices and fragrant home-grown herbs.
Eating on the sun-bathed terrace is, according to Conde Nast Traveller, ‘accompanied by distant chanting from a nearby Buddhist monastery’. Afternoons can be spent kayaking around the sapphire lake and wildlife spotting. Succumb to the serenity and make sure to experience yoga with owner Lara Drummond, whose devotees include Gerard Butler and Sienna Miller.
5. Glenburn Tea Estate, Darjeeling
Glorious Glenburn – this 19th-century tea estate is a Raj-era fantasy come to life overlooking the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain range. A little more out of the way but utterly worth the journey for a once-in-a-lifetime house party. Karen Blixen herself would have envied the pale pink bungalow, one of two available, with its jasmine-covered portico and lofty rooms filled with colonial furniture and gauze-draped four poster beds.
Delhi-based interior designer Bronwyn Latif has stamped the interiors with Mughal-inspired fabrics and delicious chintzes. The chatelaine, Husna-Tara, is charm itself and has created a haven high in the hills that few can resist returning to again and again. Christmas and New Year here is much in demand and we can think of no more atmospheric place to fly in a group of loved ones to drink mulled wine around a roaring fire and explore the surrounding plantation. Heaven in the clouds!
6. Mihir Garh, Thar Desert
Take over this terracotta-hued toy fort that sleeps up to 18. Nestled in the romantic Thar desert, just south of Jodhpur and named the world’s most extraordinary hotel by Lonely Planet, Mihir Garh (‘fortress of the sun’) is the romantic creation of Sidhart Singh of Rohet Garh. The vision took 100 local craftsmen and carpenters two years to create and boasts nine 1,700sq/ft suites, each with its own plunge pool, fireplace (made from cow dung), all decorated in Rajasthani style.
The ancient culture of the region is celebrated in the rustic design which belies the luxury found here. The skies are endless, the stars seem to sing with brilliance and the flashing colours of the saris, turbans (and smiles) of the local desert dwellers are unfailingly bewitching. Barbecues, musicians, Marwari horse riding and village safaris fill the days and nights with an unfolding magic to suit every age and taste.
If you’re eager to start planning your adventure then please do get in touch today. If you’ve visited India or Sri Lanka then please let us know in the comments below what the highlight of your trip was.
James Jayasundera is Founder and Managing Director of Ampersand Travel.