A luxurious new lodge offers a fresh perspective on Nepal’s Chitwan National Park and its population of Indian rhinos.
In the middle of a languid length of backstroke, I heard muffled screams. “Haathi!”—elephant!—“It’s coming this way!” Sputtering out of the pool, I raced down some stone steps and snatched a pair of binoculars from a stranger. There, just across the river running alongside the resort, stood a large male elephant, looking slightly annoyed at all the attention.
I had just arrived at Meghauli Serai, the new Taj property near Chitwan National Park in Nepal—the most luxurious safari lodge in the country, by some distance. This tiny, landlocked Himalayan state, which was devastated by an earthquake last year, is still very much on the mend. Though the southern lowlands, where Chitwan is located, were largely unaffected by the disaster, Meghauli Serai represents a crucial vote of confidence in Nepal’s visitor appeal.
Earlier that afternoon, I had landed on two small wings and my most fervent prayers at Bharatpur Airport, an hour’s drive from the lodge. Winding through anodyne village scenes, I caught only a vague hint of the surrounding nature reserve’s rural delights—sprawling fields, a few cowherds, and the occasional smoky mountain silhouetted on the horizon.
It was only when I walked through Meghauli Serai’s cavernous lobby that Chitwan’s true grandeur was revealed. In one broad sweep, my gaze leaped over the gently lapping pool outside, hit the rapid waters of the Rapti River, rested on the golden grassland beyond, grazed the shoulders of the giant sal and semul trees, and finally rested on the distant ridge of the Churia hills.
The lodge is built on a wide expanse of the Rapti River floodplain, where 16 earthtoned villas are partly hidden by wild grasses that, in the evenings, are gilded by the setting sun. My villa had a plunge pool that provided a cooling refuge in the blazing afternoon heat, and, inside, a mural by a local artist depicting Chitwan’s bucolic village life. Beyond the villas, the property is filled with inventive nooks and crannies designed for spying on the surrounding wildlife, like a wooden platform in the middle of the river from which guests can spot crocodiles resting on sandbanks or watch Anjali, the hotel’s domesticated elephant, splashing around in the water.
Though Nepal isn’t typically associated with safaris, Chitwan, a well-conserved tract of the Terai lowlands in the south of the country, is one of the best places to spot the Indian rhino—and, if you’re lucky, leopards and Bengal tigers. Meghauli Serai has excursions that let guests appreciate the park from every angle, from 4 x 4 and elephant safaris to boat rides and forest walks.
My field trips were skillfully guided by the lodge’s team of naturalists—made up mostly of locals like Maan Kumar, a farmer’s son from a nearby village. As we walked through the grasslands, Kumar pocketed fiddlehead ferns and showed me the berries he snacked on as a child. His team helped me spot a dozen rhinos, as well as crested serpent eagles, majestic hornbills, deer, boars, and Terai gray langurs.
In Chitwan’s tall grasses, elephant-back safaris are one of the best ways to ensure a wildlife sighting. But among conservationists, the practice is controversial. The debate hit home when, one evening, I found myself riding on an animal whose friends were freely returning home to the lush forest in front of her eyes.
At dinner that night, as I bit into a delectable taas—a local dish of marinated mutton—Dipu Sasi, the head naturalist, swiftly reached for his flashlight and shone it on a rhino grazing 50 yards away. In the distance, another pair of eyes gleamed from the river: a crocodile. A dozen more peeped out from the grass: a herd of deer. Around us, the night was alive. The real luxury of Meghauli Serai isn’t found in its roll-top bathtubs or the infinity pool, but in the immersion it offers into Chitwan’s natural abundance. By the end of my stay, I felt I should leave, or risk overwhelming my senses. And if these are the impressions visitors to Nepal take away with them, then properties like this will have played a key role in helping the country heal.
tajhotels.com; doubles from $400, all-inclusive.