Ahilya Fort

Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India Book from

Get under the skin of rural India at this 18th-century fort, perched high above a sacred river
Staying at this bewitching property on the edge of the friendly little town of Maheshwar is a very gentrified experience. Owned by the welcoming, well-travelled and rather eccentric Prince Richard Holkar, whose ancestor Queen Ahilya built the fort more than 250 years ago, it feels more like a private home than a hotel.

Set above the riverside ghats (steps), where streams of pilgrims come to worship, it has a wonderfully romantic and relaxed atmosphere which makes it perfect for couples and families alike. Dotted around the shaded courtyards, turrets and battlements are 13 rooms and suites of varying sizes - some with balconies overlooking the river, others with views of the beautifully maintained kitchen garden. There’s even a luxurious tent pitched on the riverbank, with its own plunge pool. The food here is a definite highlight: light Western lunches served in the garden, and candlelit dinners with traditional Mughal dishes. Between meals, you can snooze by the pool, visit the weaving centre next door, or glide along the river on a sunset boat trip. It’s also a great base for exploring further afield, with the Hindu pilgrimage site of Omkareshwar and the ruins of the 15th-century city of Mandu both less than 2 hours away.

Highs

  • A great way to experience India - Maheshwar feels remote and authentic, without the crowds found in many better-known destinations
  • Wandering along the ghats at sunrise and taking a serene evening boat ride are truly magical experiences; you can even swim in the clean waters of the river
  • Delicious food, from the lime marmalade at breakfast to the biscuits served for afternoon tea. It’s all homemade, and most of the veg comes from the garden
  • The stunning swimming pool, set in the middle of lush tropical gardens and generally free of other visitors
  • The all-inclusive rates cover all meals, boat trips, some alcohol and even laundry. We enjoyed being able to relax without having to sign endless bills or worry about mounting extras

Lows

  • The plumbing is a little rickety, some rooms are small and rather dark, and the décor is eclectic - but that’s all part of the charm
  • Meals are served communally and often hosted by Prince Richard - something we enjoyed, but you can request a private table if you prefer
  • The riverside location brings mosquitoes (repellent, coils and nets are provided) and occasional noise from the ghats
  • It’s a bit of a trek to get here - a domestic flight or train to Indore, followed by a 2-hour drive (transfers can be arranged)
  • There's a surcharge for credit-card payments, and full prepayment is required prior to arrival

Best time to go

The best time to come is between October and March, when days tend to be warm and sunny (though mornings and evenings can get a little chilly from December to February). Temperatures and humidity rise from April to June, when the monsoon arrives. The rains last until September but are often lighter here than elsewhere in India, so don't rule out a visit during these months.

Our top tips

Go for a dip in the river. Thanks to its remote location away from urban areas, the Narmada is one of the few waterways in India that's clean enough to swim in.

Great for...

Family
Foodie
Great Outdoors
Honeymoon
  • = Recommended
  • = Best in region
  • = World favourite
  • Boutique Hotel
  • 13
  • All-inclusive
  • All ages welcome
  • Open all year
  • Outdoor Pool
  • Spa Treatments
  • WiFi
  • Pet Friendly
  • Disabled Access
  • Beach Nearby
  • Off-street Parking
  • Restaurants Nearby
  • Air Conditioning
  • Guest Lounge
  • Terrace
  • Garden
  • Gym
  • Bicycles Available
Room: Royal Suite - Narmada

Rooms

Scattered around the fort, the 13 rooms and suites vary in size and décor. Some have views of the river, others the verdant gardens, but all come with air-conditioning, minibars, WiFi and tea- and coffee-making facilities.

Cheapest are the Superior Rooms. Of these, we particularly liked Champa, Gulmohar and Kachnaar, which have little balconies to sit out on (all have ensuite shower rooms). Some Superior Rooms can accommodate additional beds, and 2 - Imli and Neem - are set around a lovely private courtyard with a ping-pong table, but they’re a little smaller than the others and have tiny windows. There's also a 2-Bedroom Superior Room; handy for families, it has a double and a twin bedroom, as well as a private terrace on a turret.

If you can, it’s definitely worth paying extra for one of the 2 Royal Suites. Narmada is wonderful - a beautifully light room built into the wall of the fort, with teak parquet floors and its own sitting room and balcony overlooking the river. It also has a fantastic freestanding bathtub in its bathroom, which is partially open to the bedroom. Naqar Khana is darker but just as spacious; it too has a separate sitting room and a balcony. It’s set outside the main fort walls, a minute’s walk from the entrance, so it’s very private.

For a real treat, consider splashing out for the romantic Arjun Royal Tent, which sits in its own garden on the riverbank. Inside it’s airy and comfortable, with a four-poster bed, a sitting area, air-conditioning and a bathroom with a clawfoot tub. Outside is a private plunge pool, along with loungers, cushioned benches and sweeping views over the water and adjacent temple.

Features include:

  • Air conditioning
  • Coffee tea making
  • Cots Available
  • Extra beds
  • Fan
  • Minibar/fridge
  • Mosquito net
  • Safe box
  • Terrace
  • Toiletries
  • WiFi
  • Wifi internet

Eating

The food at Ahilya, all included in the rates, is excellent - a mixture of Western dishes and traditional Mughal cuisine. Prince Richard is a dedicated gourmand, taking a close interest in what happens in the kitchen (he's even written a couple of cookbooks), and everything is homemade using plenty of veg from the kitchen garden.

Breakfast is à la carte and combines Western staples - eggs, homemade bread, marmalade - with fresh fruit and Indian dishes like poha (flattened rice). It’s normally served in one of the shaded courtyards, and you can opt to have bed tea brought to your room beforehand on request.

Lunch is served at separate tables dotted around the grounds, and consists of light dishes such as chilled spinach and sorrel soup, homemade quiche or papaya and carrot salad. Picnics can be arranged if you’re heading out on a day trip, and tea, cakes and biscuits are laid out every afternoon.

Evenings begin with cocktails on the terrace, accompanied by Indian snacks such as deliciously fresh pakoras with green chutney. Dinners are sumptuous affairs with plenty of wine, laid out in various locations around the grounds and illuminated by flickering butter lamps. Guests tend to eat together, hosted by Prince Richard whenever he’s at home, but private tables can be set up if you prefer. There are at least 4 or 5 dishes, many based on traditional recipes handed down through the Holkar family - perhaps Kashmiri duck with pomegranate sauce or a rich vegetable curry. We feasted on Bengali kid and sweet and sour aubergine, and enjoyed every mouthful. Special dietary requirements are easily accommodated, so just ask.

Features include:

  • All meals included
  • Children meals
  • Coffee tea making
  • Communal dining
  • Minibar/fridge
  • Picnics and afternoon tea
  • Room service
Eating:
Activity: Sunset boat trip on the Narmada river

Activities

  • Lounge by the beautiful pool, which is surrounded by lush gardens, or explore the fort, with its hidden courtyards, battlements and verandas linked by stone walkways
  • Glide down the Narmada river at sunset on a traditional hand-paddled wooden boat (included in the rates). Floating dinners and picnics on a nearby island can also be arranged for an additional charge
  • Wander along the ancient ghats below the fort, watching local life on the banks and pilgrims bathing themselves in the sacred waters
  • Visit Rehwa, the fort’s own weaving centre, which makes gorgeous fabrics and is dedicated to sustaining centuries of textile heritage. Afterwards, meet the children at Ahilya School, set up to educate the weavers’ families
  • Explore vibrant Maheshwar, with its indigo buildings and friendly residents, or head across the river to the pretty village of Naoda Todi and its Shaliwan Temple. Bikes are available to borrow if you want to pedal around
  • Take a day trip to stunning Mandu, an abandoned 15th-century city less than 2 hours’ drive away. It’s full of ornate yet crumbling palaces and temples, and Ahilya staff can arrange a private picnic among the ruins
  • Or head to Omkareshwar, one of the most important Hindu sites, set on an island in the river
  • Also within reach are Bakawa, famous for its hand-crafted lingams (representations of the Hindu deity Shiva), and Indore, the 18th-century seat of the Holkars. Guided excursions with lunch are available on request

Activities on site or nearby include:

  • Birdwatching
  • Boat trips
  • Cycling
  • Historical sites
  • Private guided tours
  • Shopping / markets
  • Swimming
  • Traditional cultures
  • Well being

Kids

Ahilya welcomes children of all ages, and kids will relish the magic of staying in a fort. We visited with our 1-year-old and 3-year-old and the staff were very helpful, happily arranging special food at inconvenient times.

There is a kitchen garden for children to explore, as well as chickens and some farmyard animals to meet. Boat trips and swimming in the river also provide a lot of fun.

Best for:

Children (4-12 years), Teens (over 12)

Family friendly accommodation:

Some Superior Rooms and Royal Suites have space for an extra bed or baby cot. Two of the Superior Rooms, Imli and Neem (both doubles), are set around a private courtyard with a ping-pong table, so they're ideal for families who want their own little corner of the hotel. If you can, it's worth booking the 2-Bedroom Superior Room with has a double and a twin, plus space for a baby cot in the master bedroom.

Babysitting:

Babysitting can be arranged on request.

Children's meals:

Meals and mealtimes can be tailored to suit children, and snacks are available on request.

Families Should Know:

There are numerous high drops and wobbly steps, so children need to be watched at all times.

Distances:

  • Airport: Indore (1.5-hour drive)
  • Shop: Maheshwar (5-minute walk)
  • Hospital: Maheshwar (5-minute walk) or Dhamond (30-minute drive)
Kid Friendly: Swimming in the Narmada river

Our guests' ratings...

8/
Rooms
10/
Food
10/
Service
10/
Value
10/
Overall

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Rates for Ahilya Fort