Have you ever dreamed of spending the night in a towering sandstone fort dating from the 16th century, or of riding through the desert on a polo pony owned by royalty? These noble pursuits are little more than an hour's plane hop away from New Delhi or Bombay in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, a region filled with the legends, dwellings, and treasures of the Rajput warrior kings. Renowned for their valor, the Rajputs ruled from the 6th century until 1947, when India gained its independence.
The rulers' palaces in the cities of Jaipur, Jodhpur, and Udaipur were turned into luxury hotels long ago. But aristocratic owners have recently restored a number of the more remote forts, retreats, and hunting lodges, converting them to inns with air conditioning, pools, and health clubs. They're not five-star facilities, but they are charming, historic--and bargain-priced. With the Indian rupee down 10% since October and the economy in a funk, you can stay at most for $35 to $60 a night.
To reach these getaway spots, fly to Jodhpur or Udaipur from Bombay ($185 round-trip) or New Delhi ($142), hire a taxi, and hit the road. Along the way, you'll pass houses with carved wooden doors in villages unchanged from medieval times. The men in colorful turbans and the women in bright, traditional skirts are friendly; the cuisine of spicy lentils and millet bread is delicious.
A good place to start is Fort Khimsar (91-1585-2345), built in 1523 to protect against Turkish attacks. Two hours north of Jodhpur (a $20 taxi ride), it is distinguished by towering walls and arched gateways of red sandstone. The fort features 50 guest rooms ($35 to $135) that have been restored to their 16th century splendor, with scalloped arches and latticed windows. Ask for the $135 room where Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb stayed 300 years back. And view the sunset over a candlelit dinner with traditional music and dancing in the ruins of the fort's tower.
Fort Chanwa (91-291-32460), a half-hour south of Jodhpur in the village of Luni, is tiny compared with Khimsar. But staying there feels more like being in someone's house. The family of owner Dalip Singh, uncle of the current Jodhpur maharaja, visits daily, offering wonderful tales about the region. The 24 rooms ($30 to $40) are filled with family portraits. During the winter, dinners are laid out in tents pitched on the banks of the nearby Luni River. At other times, guests eat in the dining hall.
Between the two forts are plenty of other sites worth seeing. Don't miss the exquisitely carved 7th century Osiyan Jain temples or the Meherangarh Fort, built high on a mountain in Jodhpur. Admission to the fort's museum is $1.30, or $2.55 with a guide. For $250, you can book a three-day package tour from Chanwa, including lodging at the fort, meals, visits to Jodhpur city and various sites, and daylong safaris by camel or on horseback.
HOLY TRINITY. Equidistant from Jodhpur and Udaipur is the Rawla Narlai retreat (91-291-32460), built in 1175 and given by Umaid Singh to his brother, Ajit, who saved his life during an elephant hunt in Africa. It's a tiny, whitewashed fort, covered with bougainvillea and situated at the foot of a mountain where there is a shrine to Shiva, a god in the Hindu holy trinity. At sundown, the village ascetic sings songs of devotion that fill the desert air. Rooms cost about $40.
For nature lovers, the Shikarbadi Hotel (91-294-583201; $30 to $122) is just 10 minutes from Udaipur airport. This former hunting lodge boasts a lake and polo stud farm. Be sure to take a ride on the royal polo ponies ($9.60 an hour).
If you're planning to visit Rajasthan, a local tour operator that deals with foreigners is Ventours India (91-22-287-4760 in Bombay and 91-11-651-0107 in Delhi). You may want to wait a bit before departing. Summer heat has already descended, and you'll find a more comfortable climate between October and March. Then, you can truly enjoy your escape into princely India.