I'm on my very first safari, on my first trip to India, and ready for the thrill of coming face to face with a tiger. The guide, Yadvendra Singh, who goes by the name Yad, directs the driver down increasingly bumpy pathways through the dry terrain of the park, six of us in an open-air Gypsy vehicle that feels at times like a combination roller coaster-Tilt-A-Whirl, as we track tiger in the heart of India's desert state of Rajasthan.
Several hours on and we've seen an amazing mix of wildlife — great numbers of Indian varieties of deer, wild boars, crocodiles, egrets, peacocks, monkeys, parakeets, owlets, antelopes and mongoose — and Yad supplies us with the scientific naRanthambore National Parks, gesturing to us in the truck before jumping back in. "OK, we look down here," he says. One more chance.
A few miles and a quick left take us up a gently rising, tree-covered grassy space. The driver cuts the engine. We are facing some of the stone ruins that dot the park. Yad is very excited. Everyone stands. A tiger is lounging in the sun, sprawled atop part of a stone wall. I don't see it at first, but when the tail moves, I catch a glimpse of the tail and of the white fur on the tiger's belly.
A flash of white. I have seen my tiger.
Next stop, back to camp. But don't think we'll be slugging beer around a campfire before pulling back the tent flap and climbing into our sleeping bags.
We've been "roughing it" all day, and the journey to get here over sometimes paved roads choked with motor and animal traffic was rough enough.
Our tent — and indeed it is a canvas tent — has a four-poster, king-size bed, teak floors, colonial-style wood furniture, a claw-foot tub, air conditioning and a private outdoor garden and dining area. You see, we are staying at the Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore (800-562-3764, oberoihotels.com/oberoi_vanyavilas), ranked the best hotel in the world in 2010 by readers of Travel & Leisure magazine.
What makes a hotel the best in the world?
The 25 tents are the only accommodations at this hotel, and they are amazing; spacious, at 790 square feet, luxurious and very private. The interior canvas of the tent is embroidered with images of tigers and trees, and flecks of gold glitter in the light. But there are more than just the tents. At Oberoi Vanyavilas there's a spa, fine dining, a lovely pool and luxurious lounge areas throughout the facility where staff take care of the resident peacocks along with the mango and lime trees. There are activities including wildlife lectures, cooking demonstrations, trips to craft centers and rides on the two Oberoi pet elephants. All of this makes roughing it during the day a lot easier to take.
The night we returned from safari, we headed to dinner in the hotel's open-air dining room where tables and chairs cushioned with the region's bright red fabrics surrounded an open fire. At one side of the room, a cross-legged Rajasthani musician played his flute, sending the ethereal notes into the star-filled sky. Even now, it's easy to recall the magic of those moments.
The food was exceptional, thanks to chef Deep Mohan Singh Arneja. Among the memorable food items was a tandoor chicken wrap, a Thai chicken salad, lamb and fish curries, spiced okra, spectacular garlic naan and a little extra: sorbet of Earl Grey and mint.
The spa delivers traditional ayurvedic treatments as well as Western-style facials and massages.
The best hotel in the world doesn't come cheap. Rates during the time we were there at the end of March were 40,500 Indian rupees per night, or about $916. Meals are not included.
But this is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of vacation, and you won't be disappointed if you're looking for a luxurious adventure and you're willing to splurge. We'll definitely plan a repeat if the budget allows.
If you go
By air: Delhi is a good jumping-off point for any Indian excursion, especially to Jaipur and Ranthambore. You can take a domestic flight from Delhi to Jaipur, the capital of the state of Rajasthan and the closest large city to the hotel and to Ranthambore. You could hire a driver from Delhi, for roughly $80 per day, for the eight-hour drive.
By car: We had been staying in Jaipur, so we drove from there. The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore, may be the world's best hotel, but the road to get there could quite possibly be the world's worst. It took us about four hours to drive the little more than 100 miles from Jaipur to the hotel. And while much of it must have been annoying for our driver, the excursion was a nonstop visual feast for travelers: camels pulling carts along the road; women in colorful saris harvesting crops with a sickle; and traffic jams like none you've seen in the U.S., filled not only with trucks and cars but with bicycle rickshaws pulled by strong young (and some old) men, motorcycles, horse- or camel-drawn carts, herds of goats, tractors, slow-moving cows and buses with passengers up top.
A note about the driver: I have never before been the type of traveler to hire guides or drivers and generally don't take tours. But India is such a different place for most Americans; I would advise a first-time visitor to plan for tour guides and drivers. You'll be glad you did.
Tiger safari: The hotel will arrange your safari, but you must book early because only a limited number of vehicles are allowed into the park each day.