Somehow when you think of state-of-the-art deluxe hotels, you don’t think of Chennai. But these days Chennai is India’s most happening hotel city.
There is a smart and much-praised Hilton. The Taj has a new hotel on Mount Road called Taj Club House to add to the Coromandel, the Connemara, and the wonderful Fisherman’s Cove.
The shell that was supposed to be an Oberoi has finally opened as a Hyatt Regency and seems to be doing well. A new Westin is scheduled to open in December and given that its general manager is Shrikant Wakharkar, it should be an excellently-run property. A brand new Leela Palace, overlooking the bay, will open next month. There is talk of the imminent opening of yet another Hyatt.
This is surprising enough. But what really astounds me is that India’s single best city hotel is not in Delhi or Bombay. It is in Chennai.
For some weeks now, I’ve been dropping hints about how good the ITC Grand Chola is.
But I’ve never written properly about the hotel because, even though the press previews started a couple of months ago, it has only just opened its doors to the public. And even now, it is not complete: some restaurants have still to open and only 260 of the 500-plus rooms are ready for occupancy. When I went last week, the hotel had still to get a liquor licence and the suites were not ready.
In normal circumstances, I would say that it is unfair to judge a hotel till everything is open. But the Grand Chola is such a terrific property that it is already – even in this state – so much better than most hotels.
What makes a city hotel great? There are various ways of looking at it. History is one obvious factor. (One reason why the Bombay Taj is such a legend). Grandeur and architecture are another. (The Gurgaon Oberoi looks amazing and that adds to the experience). The food can be crucial. (The Leela Palace in Delhi works because of the restaurants.) And so on.
The Grand Chola has many of these factors going for it. For a start, there is the grandeur. It is huge: six hundred or so rooms and service apartments when it opens fully. The style is South Indian temple architecture, with echoes of the Chola period from which the hotel gets its name. When you drive into the hotel, and the driveway is arranged so that you take a round of the property, it is hard not to be impressed by the scale and ambition of the architecture. This is not a hotel that merges quietly into the environment. It is a property that announces itself.
But it is the interiors that take your breath away. The first time I went there I thought I was floating in a sea of marble. I did some checking. Apparently, the hotel has over one million square feet of marble. ITC bought a whole marble quarry in Italy and shipped tonnes of the stone to Chennai to arrive at this striking effect. There is marble everywhere you look and the architectural theme is reinforced with 462 pillars, most of them with hand-carved design work.
In purely architectural terms, there is a jaw-dropping wow factor at work. I can’t think of any contemporary hotel that is quite as grand. It has the scale and ambition of say, Jodhpur’s Umaid Bhawan with the marbled finesse of the Lake Palace. Both those buildings were constructed many years ago so it takes a certain kind of chutzpah to construct a modern palace on such a massive scale today.
And yes, it is a palace. The hotel is so huge and vast that after three trips to the property, I still find myself getting lost. But there is lots of signage and scores of well-trained staff to direct you from place to place in the 1.6 million square feet of built-up area.
The danger with vast marble palaces is that they can sometimes seem cold, impersonal and leave you feeling small and insignificant. The mark of a successful palace (Jaipur’s Rambagh, for instance) is that the vastness is matched with warmth: you enjoy the sense of discovery without being dwarfed by the grandeur. I don’t know how ITC have pulled it off, but the Grand Chola conveys the same sense of comfort. You savour the adventure without being alienated.
Two other factors that go into the making of a great hotel are food and service. In terms of service, ITC is usually on strong ground. It has cheerfully grabbed the personalised service slot vacated by the Taj a decade or so ago and every regular guest is made to feel special and welcome again and again.
All of the restaurants are not open yet. But the food is impressive. ITC has taken the unusual step of opening three different coffee shops, planned like Russian dolls, so that each sort of fits into the other. The smallest, Nutmeg, is like a deli; the Cafe Mercara is darker but larger, full of the scent of coffee and the sound of a cool juke box. The Madras Pavilion is designed to look like a specialty restaurant, with table cloths, proper service and a strong a la carte menu. When I went back last week, not only were people queuing up for tables at the coffee shops, but they were also taking photos of them with their camera-phones. (But then that is true of the whole hotel. It is so spectacular looking that people just come to gape and gawk).
I ate also at the Peshawri, which was actually better than Delhi’s Bukhara. The Italian restaurant Ottimo is visually striking. It is built around an open kitchen, has a warm and convivial vibe and the food was much better last week than it was on my previous visit.
As impressive as all this is, there are two things that make The Grand Chola the best modern city hotel in India. The first is the room. In a country where most five-star hotel rooms are 350 square feet, the smallest and cheapest room at the Grand Chola is 405 square feet. The medium-priced room, where I stayed, is a massive 615 square feet. (ITC One rooms and the suites have yet to open). To get a sense of how huge this is, consider that ITC One rooms in the special block at Delhi’s Maurya are 450 square feet and the largest hotel rooms in the premium category are usually no larger than 550 square feet (there are some exceptions like the Bombay Taj, the Gurgaon Oberoi, but these are rare).
More important than the size is how well the space is used. The bathroom/dressing area is enormous: the size of an entire room at many five star hotels. It is so well designed that you never find yourself reaching for anything. The bedroom area is so comfortable that I was happier there than at the Presidential suites at two other deluxe hotels in Chennai. And then, there’s the technology: every room has its own iPad. You can do everything you need on this: order room service, adjust the room temperature, put off the lights, surf the Net, check who is outside your room by clicking on the door camera and then open the door without having to leave your bed.
The room design is one of the Chola’s two great advantages. The other is Nakul Anand. The low-profile, publicity-shy head of ITC Hotels is an obsessive details guy. And he seems to have distilled every single lesson he has learnt in his career into the design of this hotel. Every last detail has been worked out to its exact specifications to ensure comfort. Every cushion is just the right thickness. No flush is loud enough to be heard in the next room. The writing desk is exactly the correct height. The lighting is so perfect that the gloomy darkness we associate with hotel rooms is missing. And even the ice-cubes have been measured so they fit perfectly in your glass.
Just as we will remember Ajit Kerkar for building the Taj Mansingh and changing the rules of the game or Biki Oberoi for building the Vilas properties and showing us what luxury was about or RK Krishnakumar for taking over the Pierre and demonstrating that Indians can run the world’s best hotels, we will remember Nakul Anand for teaching us how a city hotel should be built: grand on the outside and warm and comfortable on the inside.
Chennai’s hotels will never be the same again. But more significantly, neither will be India’s hotel scene. From now on modern city hotels will be classified as BC (before Chola) or AC (after Chola). That is how influential this hotel will be.
From HT Brunch, October 14
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