Luxury Hotels

Andamans, here I come – or do I?

Plenty of news

There is one thing everyone needs to know about flying around India. The schedules may look extremely comprehensive but you, the global traveller, must build in plenty of time. The gal was all set for a quick overnight back at the comfortable, friendly and efficient Taj Coromandel Chennai but even perfect service in a luxury hotel environment could not extend an already short stay that was squeezed by an appalling late incoming flight on Spice Jet. Once at the hotel, however, a superb performance set in, which included Club Manager Stanley Palmer personally wheeling in a late-hour room service dinner, above (please note the salad – it rightly gets full marks).

Pongal invitation

In the morning the usual array of daily newspapers crammed into a jute bag was hanging outside end suite 638. Breakfast arrived and then I was off, back to the airport for a flight to Port Blair, to pick up the ferry to Havelock Island, to see again, and this time stay at, Taj Exotica Resort and Spa Havelock Island, Andamans. But Chennai, this morning, was cloaked in dense, almost-choking, smog. Today, it turns out, is Bhogi, the first day of Pongal, celebrating bringing in the harvest, and Bhogi is the ideal opportunity, it unfortunately turns out, to burn all your garbage plus old rugs and mats and mattresses and old clothes. The result is this pollution, with visibility down to 45 feet.

Uber at airport

You can imagine what this does to the airport. It closed completely for hours. When we arrived flights that were listed to leave 0545 were now delayed beyond 1100 – those poor people, up so early and all to no purpose. Not surprisingly the airport could not cope. Every square inch of available seating was taken and outside the Priority Plus lounge foreign tourists were sleeping, with eye masks, on the marble floor. Inside the lounge people hovered when they sensed someone might leave, and give up a chair (just like finding carpark spaces, but that chore may lessen as travellers migrate to Uber and leave their own vehicles at home). Talking of Uber, I find it fascinating that at Indian airports Uber and other lift companies are not only allowed but have extremely strong, and official, presence.

Pramod Ranjan

After three hours of this, and knowing we had now already missed the last ferry to Havelock Island, we gave up, and after a bit of a commotion retreated landside. Plan B was hatched on the spur of the moment. Having already taken just the few items needed for an overnight from my lovely Taj Coromandel home, where I was able to keep my room, Pramod Ranjan, who owns it, swung into action and suggested another of his luxury hotels, the beach-set Vivanta Fishermans Cove, half an hour away from Chennai on the Bay of Bengal. This, therefore, suddenly became the next stop on this whirlwind tour. SEE VIDEOS OF BREAKFAST AND, BELOW, OF SUITE 638 AT TAJ COROMANDEL

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Luxury Hotels

A heritage-full luxury hotel in North Goa

Well-tended hill-set gardens

First, a bit of history. Goa’s landmark Fort Aquada was built by the Portuguese in 1612 to guard against the Dutch and other marauders, and today it still dominates the beautiful beach south of Candolim, near the Mandovi River in North Goa. Look down at it, as in the photo above, from the amazing 42 acres of steeply sloping gardens that form a unique feature of one of Goa’s most serene luxury hotels, Taj Fort Aquada Beach Resort & Spa. Its two main blocks of bedrooms were built, down by the pool, in 1974. Three floors, without elevators, and still none, says the gal. The local antiquities people have ‘do not change anything’ at the top of their agenda, though it is said they will now allow one, external, elevator.

Villa 512

That was not always so. In 1983 the Commonwealth Heads of Government were coming to meet in Goa, and this Taj-owned hotel added 17 beautiful little bungalows nestled into the gorgeous gardens. See number 512, a two-room villa (not really an Indian term – unlike the word bungalow, ‘belonging to Bengal’, which originated here in the 17th century). Villa 512 is where Mrs Thatcher stayed, and it must have made her feel very much at home. I have stayed in exquisite intimate hotel-houses before and, honestly, this is one of the most agreeable, and serene, that I remember. David Edwards recently re-did all the villa interiors and I especially like his blue colour-palette.

Interiors are blue and white

Wood-look ceramic-plank floors are inset with Portuguese-style blue-and-white tiles. Most walls are gentian blue, with white outlining, and all art works, throw cushions, bed throws, and even the fabric blinds at the total-21 windows around the suite fit into the colour scheme. The result is a genuine stage set, if that is not a contradiction in terms. An entire stay here is really enjoyable, and villa guests will be even more delighted when a dedicated (villas-only) lounge with full dining, and a pool, opens in a couple of months’ time. I did venture down the hill, a good ten minutes’ hike back to the main gateway and through to the gym, spa and tennis: I also headed down for a walk to the Fort’s ramparts, and for breakfast on the all-day restaurant’s outer terrace, sensibly completely netted over to keep greedy crows out.

Ravi Nischal

Dinner had been poolside, at Mosco grill where you choose your just-in catch, in my case giant king prawns, cooked to order. The soft sound of gently breaking waves made this a memorable evening, especially as I was with Ravi Nischal, a charming would-be doctor who, like so many of the best hoteliers, fell into hospitality ‘by accident’. Stay at this particular luxury hotel, by the way, and you have the advantage of signing privileges at Vivanta Holiday Village Resort & Spa, five minutes by shuttle (this, explained that property’s GM Ranju Singh, is indeed village-like, with lots of space between colourful units that reminded me a bit of Guanahani on St Barth’s). My advice, honestly, is stay here, and simply do not go off-campus. Goa has two major challenges, for which read opportunities. One is to do something about the airport and its passenger experience. The other is to get rid, somehow, of the cartel that runs the white ‘taxis’ – no meters, take your chance on quality of vehicle and even more on the driver’s skills. NOW SEE VIDEOS FIRST OF MY WELCOME, THEN THE INSIDE OF VILLA 512

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Luxury Hotels

The emotional Sikh centre, and the city’s luxury hotel

Sikh volunteer on duty

Until a year ago Amritsar, spiritual home of the global Sikh community, had no luxury hotels – there were places that had beds and, particularly in the warmer months, you could sleep outside, under the covered cloisters of one of the courtyards of the giant area that is Sri Harmandir Sahib, also known as the Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple. This absolutely gorgeous temple encompasses a man-made sarovar pool finished by Guru Ram Das in 1577. The whole thing is so religiously charged, says the gal, that anyone going there feels as if the battery has been completely re-charged. Arriving at the complex you have to take off shoes and socks, and later, before entering the inner Golden Temple, no photos allowed, you must have your hair covered.

Preparing carrots for 65,000 diners

In fact as soon as you get into town you are aware of being in another world, akin to a trance. The streets are so clean that you feel you could eat directly off the ground. There are no official police; they are not needed. The essence of the Sikh religion is to look after others, regardless of race or religion, and holy men wander around, with big staves that fortunately seem to be purely for decorative purposes. Others carry big curved knives, showing they have attained Sikh sanctity. This means neither sex can remove any bodily hair anywhere, they must carry wood combs, eschew alcohol and meat, wear an iron bracelet and long underwear, and men carry swords. At least 65,000 people visit the Golden Temple every day, Sikhs from as far afield as Toronto and Sydney, and non-Sikhs, who must cover their heads. Remarkably, every one can sleep here and eat, any time 24/7.

Taj fish and chips

I have been round large and copious catering kitchens before, but nothing to rival this production, all run entirely by volunteers. There are areas for preparing carrots, others for peeling garlic. Vats the size of bathtubs cook rice, vegetables. People are wheeling around giant racks stacked high with metal plates with four compartment, like a TV dinner – you help yourself to a plate, and a spoon, and sit cross-legged anywhere in long lines. Servers walk along with buckets, ladling something out: you get, in lightning time, dal, a vegetable, a runny porridge and a dessert, perhaps cut fruit – a tin mug of water, a bowl of rice and as many chapatis as you want come separately. And imagine the subsequent dishwashing; volunteers, standing at 30-foot troughs, deal with 65,000 sets of utensils, plus cook pots, every day.

Sumeet Taneja (the wall behind front desk is gold-tiled)

One year ago, however, Amritsar did acquire a luxury hotel, the very agreeable Taj Swarna, run by GM Sumeet Taneja. He has got his food as well organised as the Golden Temple’s, and a lot more varied: you can choose Chinese, which is really popular with Indians, or a sanitised version of Indian street food, the choice of tourists flocking from UK, France and Germany, drawn by the mystique of the Golden Temple. You can also choose one of the Taj international comfort foods, say fish and chips, as on menus at Taj London (my goujons were as tasty as they look here and, a bonus, I did not have to wash my plates). One tip when staying here: plan at least two full days to do justice to other sites as well as the Golden Temple, and ask the really lovely guest services staff, who are not surprisingly praised so often on TripAdvisor, to book freelancer Sahil Singh as your guide. NOW SEE A VIDEO OF MY ROOM

 

 

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