In some prehistoric era (the late 1980s, actually) when I was editor of Sunday magazine, we did a cover story called something like "Out for the Weekend". The premise of the piece was the then-novel idea that as more and more middle-class Indians owned cars, many families were choosing to simply drive somewhere for the weekend.
It was not an original idea. In the Bombay of the early Seventies, many people drove off to Matheran, Lonavala, Mahabaleshwar and other hill stations in the Western Ghats for a break.
In the Bombay of the early Seventies, many people drove off to Matheran (above).
It is true that those who did go tended to be upper-middle-class or rich, that they took drivers (hill roads can be treacherous) and that the only accommodation available at these hill stations consisted of clubs and relatively modest hotels. But few people I knew went off for a mere weekend. Hill-station breaks usually took a full week or so.
When people wanted a weekend break, they went nearby. Hard as this may be to believe now, I’m told that in the 1950s and early 1960s, people drove to Juhu because it seemed so far away from south Bombay.
And I remember going to Manori in the 1980s because the journey (involving a ferry ride) seemed romantic and the best hotel there (Manoribel) seemed a world away from the hustle and bustle of Bombay.
Got weekend plans? I remember going to Manori (above) in the 1980s because a ferry ride seemed romantic.
By the time I moved to Delhi in the 1990s, the culture of driving to Kasauli or Mussoorie was well established. Many people even drove to Jaipur. I never got very enthusiastic about those journeys because I just found them too exhausting.
When the Oberois opened the wonderful Wildflower Hall near Simla, I took a plane to Chandigarh and drove there. The hotel was amazing but the drive took too much out of me. I much preferred Raj Vilas, also run by the Oberois, to which you could actually take a flight.
When I did drive to Jaipur, I found the journey so tiring that I went back to flying. The only place I did drive to was Agra (where the Oberois had Amar Vilas) because there were no flights.
But through it all, I kept wondering, why does nobody build a resort that is near enough Delhi to not make the getting there so painful? It turned out I was not the only one to have that idea.
When AB Vajpayee planned his famous summit meeting with Pervez Musharraf, he put his hotelier son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, in charge of scouting for locations.
Bhattacharya was unable to find anywhere (Musharraf ended up at Amar Vilas and the summit moved from Delhi to Agra). Bhattacharya complained to Habib Rehman, then head of ITC Hotels, about the lack of suitable luxury resorts within driving distance of Delhi and Rehman told him that ITC was working on something.
What ITC had in mind was a new hotel that was originally called Camp Bharat, but which has now become the chain’s grandest gesture and is called ITC Grand Bharat. The hotel is in Mewat, a short distance from Manesar.
As Delhi has expanded, it no longer seems so far out (if you live in Gurgaon you can even drop in for dinner) but its location is secluded enough (through villages and fields) to give you the sense that you are a long way from Delhi (which, of course, you are not.)
Continental drift: The Grand Bharat’s specialty restaurant, the India Room, attempts to recreate the classics of European cooking with a twist.
Now that the Gurgaon highway has improved (and the first toll has gone), it should take just over an hour from central Delhi and about an-hour-and-a-half from parts of South Delhi where the traffic is bad. That makes it perfect for a weekend, a corporate retreat and, of course (though ITC shies away from saying this), for a Heads of Government Meeting.
Some of you may know the location. It is where ITC has run the Classic Golf Resort for many years and owns hundreds of acres of land. In fact, when I first heard that they were building a hotel there, I imagined it would be a golf-clubby kind of place.
To my surprise, Yogi Deveshwar, the company’s chairman, and Nakul Anand, its executive director in charge of hotels, decided to treat the golf course as a mere add-on. You can play golf if you like. But what Deveshwar and Anand have built is a luxury resort in the Vilas league. And this has no ordinary entry-level rooms; every single guest gets to stay in a suite.
Your palace awaits: The ITC’s Yogi Deveshwar (above left) and Nakul Anand (below) have built the Grand Bharat as a luxury resort. No entry-level rooms; every guest gets a suite. I’ve been twice to see the hotel and was invited to stay once when the resort had just about opened (what they call a "soft-opening" in the trade.) Each time I went I was curious because, hard as this is to believe, ITC is the only one of India’s three major hotel companies to have never run a major resort. What, I wondered, would an ITC resort be like?
Well, some things were not surprising. The main building was grand (like Chennai’s Grand Chola) and a lot of effort has gone into the food (not necessarily true in the case of most other Indian resorts). And ITC’s characteristic personalised service is as you would expect.
But there are many surprising elements. The rooms break with conventional hotel design in that each unit comprises four separate rooms: there is a very comfortable bedroom, a cosy living room, a large dressing room and a huge bathroom. There is also a sit-out where I had breakfast most mornings and some rooms are connected to spacious terraces. There is a huge pool but every room is also linked to a semi-private swimming pool should you not want to make the trek to the main pool.
The other surprise is the quality of service. With ITC veteran Anand Rao (the Maurya, Gardenia, Maratha, Windsor etc) in charge, you expect an unusual level of efficiency because that is Rao’s forte. But what you don’t expect is the youthful vigour, enthusiasm and sophistication of the staff.
I asked Nakul Anand how he had managed to find such a young team. It turned out that the Grand Bharat is using students from ITC Management School (which Rao also runs) for many key functions. Their style of treating guests is completely different from anything ITC has done before and the guest-interface is fresher and graceful without being obsequious.
Levels of enthusiasm and skills are astonishingly high. One young chef came up to me and insisted I try the sashimi his section had prepared (it was great!) and when I asked for an off-menu biryani, they got a 21-year-old student to make it. It turned out he was the grandson of the great Imtiaz Qureshi. But his biryani was his own: more robust and homestyle than the courtly version his grandfather made famous.
ITC hopes to fill Grand Bharat up with people who drive down from Delhi. It is expensive, as you would expect of an all-suite property, but once you factor in the absence of airfare, it actually works out cheaper than say, going to Udaipur.
So far at least, that has worked. Despite a low-key opening with very little publicity, occupancies and average room rates have been high. And my guess is that they will have no difficulty getting people from out of town to come and stay either. It is near enough to Gurgaon for anybody who has work there to find it convenient.
And why would you stay in an ugly tower block hotel when you could wake up to the sound of birds calling and look out of your window and see the hills and the trees?
And most of all I think people will come for the food. Anybody who goes to an ITC hotel and doesn’t get Bukhara-Dum Pukht food goes away disappointed. So Grand Bharat does all the favourites but in the coffee shop.
The specialty restaurant, the India Room, is a pet project of my friend Gautam Anand and is an ambitious attempt to recreate the classics of European cooking with a twist. So you’ll get a classic roast lamb – but made with carefully sourced wild mutton. The cheese soufflé will have a tang of paprika in the sauce. The spaghetti carbonara will become a tortellini with the sauce inside each dumpling. And so on.
There is a new bistro still to come, authentic Hunan food from expat chef Lie Wen, a new Serai cuisine that ITC is still developing, focusing on the food of the caravanserais that took traders and their goods from India to Iran, which uses such unusual ingredients as preserved lemons.
And so the revolution continues: first family trips to the hills; then weekend breaks to places within driving distance. And now, sheer luxury in a rustic setting that is only an hour’s drive away!
From HT Brunch, February 8
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch