There’s nothing like a dame. Or two. When Richard Hanlon, an Englishman abroad in Rajasthan, India, saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, starring Dames Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, he thought that if he built it, everyone would come. And they have.
Hanlon met the actors while they were filming. Invited to celebrate Diwali, the Indian festival of light, by the Maharana of Udaipur, the cast, including Bill Nighy, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton, Ronald Pickup, and the Great Dames, sailed across Lake Pichola in the royal barge to the 16th-century city palace in Udaipur, where Hanlon was staying. “The mounted horses were all out in full regalia, and the royal band was playing ‘Scotland the Brave,’” says Hanlon. “Everyone was in tears at the magnificence of it all, and Judi and Maggie presented a tot of rum to the bandleader.”
Hanlon, who trained in fine art at Sotheby’s and then became a real-estate agent, selling grand English houses, went on to become an interior designer. He found his field of dreams in a rural village outside Udaipur, where he built a magical Rajasthani fort. It looks as if it has been there forever, a glittering little jewel where English country house meets the Raj.
Shades of Sister Parish and Bunny Mellon live there in the chintzes and linens, the squashy sofas, the exquisite furniture from Hanlon’s Oxfordshire home, the wood fires, and the library with 2,000 books and a painted silver piano. To stay in any one of its 14 rooms is like being in a beautifully run house belonging to a kind and thoughtful friend.
Mongooses, those charmers out of Rudyard Kipling, run along the courtyard walls; pigeons coo. A shout of “Bugger off!” and Hanlon explodes through the garden furiously waving his arms at the monkeys.
A rattle of Hindi from the gatehouse summons the snake catcher to deal with a cobra. He arrives on a bicycle with a stick and a piece of string and peddles off with the snake dangling over the back wheel. “The cobras never come into the fort,” says Hanlon. “Because we put onion skins in the brickwork.”
A shout of “Bugger off!” and Hanlon explodes through the garden furiously waving his arms at the monkeys.
Neither Hanlon nor his partner, Trish McFarlane, a former diamond dealer who worked for Harry Winston, had any experience as hoteliers. That is exactly what makes Bujera unique. They run it as a grand house for grand people and define all their guests as equally grand.
John Illsley, bass guitarist of Dire Straits, was the first guest. “We were in utter chaos,” says Hanlon. “But he is the sweetest man and brought his entire family back for New Year.” John Madden, director of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, was another early adopter. Since then, Serena Bass has taught Chef Jaswant to make sublime chocolate sauce, Nina Campbell has plumped cushions, and I was firmly instructed to bring brussels sprouts out from England for Christmas lunch. The party included the entire Udaipur royal family and interior designer Michael C. Smith, who was en route to stay with Barack and Michelle Obama in Hawaii.
Dukes and earls? “We’ve had them all,” says Hanlon “The Graftons, the Mintos, the Granthams—oh no, they’re Downton Abbey, aren’t they?—the Cavendishes.… We’ve only ever had one dreadful guest. She was an Englishwoman who wanted to have her children’s food cooked in the gluten-free kitchen. You’d have thought she’d have known better, being married to an Old Etonian.”
The bliss of Bujera is that it gives the traveler in India time to stand and stare. There are places to go, palaces to see, temples to admire, but it is snoozily seductive to lie on a sunbed with a Labrador, or potter in the orchard (a David Hicks design). To eat, for the food is home-grown and seasonal, and the chef has absorbed the recipes of Nigella Lawson and Julia Child; to read; perchance to daydream.
And to shop. Bujera has one of the best-curated hotel shops in the world, an orgy of objets, quilts, linens, divine pajamas, jackets, and dresses. Beautifully made and reasonably priced. A pearl among tat. Want something copied? The tailor will visit you at the fort with bolts of cashmere and linen, and finish whatever your heart desires overnight.
Bujera Fort, one man’s Technicolor vision, is literally a dream come true, the best, certainly exotic, and there are marigolds. Dame Judi and Dame Maggie, you have an open invitation.
Victoria Mather is a veteran travel writer based in London. She has edited travel coverage for Tatler, The Daily Telegraph, the Evening Standard, and Vanity Fair