You’ve probably never heard of Hampi. But, this town in the wilderness of India’s Karnataka state was once the most powerful city in the world. In the 14th century, Hampi was home to the majestic Vijayanagar Empire, which at one point rivaled the Roman Empire for dominance. These days, the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And, the best place to stay is the regal Kamalapuna Palace, an expansive, majestic property by Evolve Back Resorts. And, earlier this year – ahead of the COVID-19 becoming a reality in Hong Kong, I ventured across to explore this timelss resort.
India has many old palace hotels scattered across the country. Evolve Back’s Kamalapuna Palace isn’t one of them. Instead, this is a thoroughly modern property inspired by the area’s past. Visually, the hotel takes inspiration from the ruined structures of Hampi, which means grand buildings with Mughal-like archways. Then, there are the little rituals that showcase the area’s traditions, such as the evening ceremony which sees a flautist leading a team of staff to light candles around the hotel. All of this is combined with contemporary touches like 21st century technology, and a strict adherance to sustainability.
I start my stay in Nivasa Suite and the room is a fantasy-like escape from the moment I walk in. The bedroom features marble flooring, exposed wooden ceiling beams, and cozy sitting areas, and plenty of custom-made wooden furniture. The highlights, though, are the king-sized bed featuring a deep red canopy that’s fit for a princess; a well-stocked minibar that features treats prepared daily by the hotel’s culinary team; and a spacious balcony where you can watch the sun go down from the comfort of your private jacuzzi.
For my last night, I’m moved to a Jal Mahal villa and get to lounge in royal extravagance. This grand accommodation is a mini-palace in its own right. There’s a fully-kitted-out lounge with separate dining and entertainment area, a ozy bedroom (with another fit-for-a-princess bed), and an expansive bathoom suite with double vanities and double showers, and a standalone tub that stands in its own little oasis. The best part though? The grand private pool nestled in the private garden and flanked by a little structure that mimics the architecture of Hampi and furnished with a massive day bed.
If you’re staying at Kamalapuna Palace, then you’re probably here to explore all the incredible ruins that hint at the former majesty of the Vijayanagar Empire. Luckily, the hotel makes this very easy with daily excursions. There are four types – running in the morning or later afternoon, so as to avoid the heat of the day – and can be done as a group or privately.
For my first exploration, I embark on the Virupaksha Trail, taking a stroll up the Hemakuta Hill to enjoy sweeping views of the many temples and structures below. Then, it’s a quick hop down to the incredible Virupaksha Temple, which was the place of worship for the 14th century Kinds of the Vijayanar Empire, and later, the exquisite Krishna temple with its incredibly intrivate carvings.
Nature lovers, though, will want to get straight on the Tungabhadra Trek. This evening amble takes you on a gentle hike through giant boulders, the ruins of the Achyutaraya Temple and “Courtesan Bazaar” so that you can get the lay of the land. At the end, you have the chance to jump on a coracle – a lightweight, circular boat made of woven bamboo – for an idyllic sunset cruise down the Tungabhadra River.
Then there’s the Raya Trail, which transports guests 500 years into the past to take a peek at the privileged lives of the royals of the empire. Of particular interest is a grand building next to a paddock – no one really knows what it was used for, but elephant stables is a good guess.
The icon of Hampi is an delicately carved stone chariot, and guests get to see this on the Vitthalapura Walk. Be warned – it can be a bit of a hike, and when it’s hot, it can be draining. But you’ll be well rewarded for making the effort. Visitors walk the entirety of what was once the Vitthalapura Bazzar – stoppign at various points of interest along the way – before eventually getting to the Vijaya Vitthala which features the famous chariot and unique musical pillars.
There are two restaurants at Kamalapuna Palace, each one dishing up decadent dining options. Named for the most notable dynasty of the Vijayanagar Empire, Tuluva is acasual poolside restaurant offers an international menu of casual bites and decadent regional dishes. You’ll head here for a leisurely breakfast, lingering lunches, and possibly a relaxed dinner. If there’s only one thing to try, it’s the Vijayanagar platter, a sumptuous feast full of local delights. The three-course affair begins with a starter medley of soup, prawns, and lamb; moves onto a choice of rice and breads, and five types of meat and vegetable dishes accompanied by seven types of condiments; and finishes with a dessert trio of fruit and Indian sweets. You’ll want to arrive hungry for this one.
If you’re looking for a dinner experience that feels more like an occasion, you’ll want to head to Bahmani, the specialty restaurant which takes its name from the main rival of the Vijayanagara Empire. This glamorous restaurant features grand arches, mood lighting, and tables laid with crisp tablecloths and extravagant place settings. On the menu? Decadent Hyderabadi cuisine liberally flavored with influences from Persia and other parts of India.
The culinary team here aims to give guests exactly what they want, so they’re thoroughly accommodating to guests’ requests. Shellfish allergy? No worries. Need a vegan version of a meaty curry? Too easy. Want something plain but nourishing because you’ve fallen sick? Yes, this was me, and the team handled it with aplomb.
There’s a solid drinks list, too, featuring everything from spirits and beers to mocktails and wines. The house wine comes from Krsma Estates, a winery located in the Hampi Hills – the Sauvignon Blanc isn’t half bad. The only caveat? Wine is only available by the bottle – but, you can drink what you want and get the team to keep the wine for you until you’re ready for another round.
Your stay here is going to involve a lot of walking about in the heat. So, it’s a relief to know that you can indulge in some pampering at Vaidyasala, the onsite Ayurvedic spa. The bright, airy, and regal spa offers remedies that not only refresh and relax, but also work holistically to improve your overall wellness.
Any Ayurvedic spa experience worth its salt should start with a consultation; within minutes of my arrival at Vaidyasala, I’m ensconced with the resident doctor. He quickly zeros in on my psoriasis and creates a bespoke plan of Ayurvedic remedies that he says will sort my skin out quick-smart.
The treatment rooms here are spacious and feature doorways that open onto private gardens. Having a tropical breeze wafting through the room while enjoying a treatment adds an extra element of relaxation. I’m here for a restorative full-body massage and before I know it, two therapists are working in sync to tease out any tension my muscles might be carrying. Of course, the massage is highly effective and energizing. But, because it’s prefaced by an oil treatment for my ears and hair and a session in a traditional wooden box sauna, it’s elevated to a new level of wellness.
The hotel is great, but a stay at Kamalapuna Palace is so much more than its rooms, restaurants, and spa. It’s all the little extras and stellar service that really make this place a retreat fit for a royal. There’s an expansive infinity pool fringed by umbrellaed sunloungers and lush foliage (there’s also a separate family pool if you’re here with the kids in tow); the spacious reading lounge is a great spot to sip a bit of chai while delving into one of the many books about Hampi’s history; and there’s even a little games room fitted with traditional table games.
The team at Kamalapuna Palace really deliver on service with a smile, and it quickly becomes evident that the staff here go out of their way to ensure guests have a memorable time. On arrival, I’m met with chocolate dates and a sweet drink made of coconut milk and jaggery (a kind of molasses). After a long day of exploring in the sun, there’s a candlelit rose-petal bath set up in my room for me to refresh myself in before dinner. And, when I feel under the weather on my last night, the staff are quick to find me some aspirin and whip up a soothing meal.
Best of all? After my last excursion on the Vitthalapura Walk, I’m whisked away to a quiet spot with sweeping views of the Tungabhadra River to enjoy a picnic of sparkling juice and homemade snacks. It’s a thoughtful touch – and certainly a welcome treat after a morning spent in the blazing sun – and I’m told this is organized for any guest who books a private excursion.
If you’ve ever had grand ambitions of going on an Indiana Jones-style adventure in India, then book yourself a suite at the Kamalapuna Palace as soon as pandemic-era travel restrictions allow. During my entire stay at the property, I felt like I’d been thrown into the set of “Temple of Doom,” albiet without having to eat brains and deal with a cult.
There was plenty of adventuring into old ruins and uncovering historic secrets and tales. But, here was a palace, rightfully enough, complete with grand accommodations, decadent (and very palatable) feasts, and sincere, attentive service. After all, if you’re going to adventure in the 21st century, you may as well do it in style.
Note: The author was a guest of Evolve Back Kamalapuna Palace.
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