Each time I land in Bangalore, I am startled by how much the city has changed. Last week, Bangalore’s transformation from sleepy backwater to fancy high-tech city of the future was driven home to me when I landed at the fancy new airport.
Those of us who were used to the small, over-crowded HAL Airport will find it hard getting used to the sleekness of the new airport, probably the most modern in India (on par with the new Hyderabad airport). But if there’s one thing wrong with this fancy airport, it is distance. It takes over an hour (or more, depending on traffic) to get from the airport to your hotel. But this time, the ITC Royal Gardenia, Bangalore’s newest hotel, where I was staying, sprang a surprise.
The airport rep bustled me into a car but we only drove for five minutes. Then, the car turned into a building within the airport complex where a helicopter was parked. I’ve done helicopter transfers before, most notably in Hong Kong, at the Peninsula Hotel for the benefit of Discovery Travel and Living’s Asian Diary series. But rarely has the helicopter been so luxuriously appointed with sofa-type seats facing each other in a passenger area which was screened off from the cockpit. A hotel person served refreshments and the journey from the airport to the Gardenia took a grand total of nine minutes and I got a bird’s eye view of Bangalore in the bargain.
Thirty-four years ago when I first came to Bangalore, it was a very different city. An old Ambassador car took me to the Ashoka (then the only five star hotel in town) and I was struck by how quiet the city seemed compared to Bombay which I had just left. A little over a year later I was back in Bangalore on work – to interview Zeenat Aman for an India Today cover story on Raj Kapoor’s Satyam Shivam Sundaram. Zeenat was shooting for Shalimar, a Hindi-English movie that would become one of the most notorious duds of the Seventies and the unit had taken over much of the Ashoka.
The biggest star in the picture was Rex Harrison, a crusty old English has-been who was accompanied by a companion called Mercia Tinker (she would later, become the last in a series of wives).
Rex and Mercia did not think much of Bangalore, or India for that matter, and made sure everybody knew it. They thought even less of the Ashoka where employees were on strike and which was being run by a skeleton staff of ITDC managers flown in from all over the country. Each day the employees would gather outside the hotel and shout slogans against the management. As the noise of the slogans penetrated the walls of the hotel, Rex and Mercia would begin to get very cross.
I remember sitting in the coffee shop next to Mercia just as the cries of “Management hai hai!” began. She looked as though she would explode, summoned the manager and demanded: “Tell them to stop this nonsense at once.” I became a frequent visitor to Bangalore in the Nineties as the city began to change on the back of industrial progress and became journalistically important. By the early Nineties, the software industry had come to define Bangalore and new hotels at various price points had opened.
The Taj dominated the city with a revamped West End, a Residency and a Gateway. There was the Oberoi next to the Taj Residency and there was the charming Windsor Manor, a faux-colonial property run by ITC. The Taj planned new hotels, and work started on a Leela property near the airport.
As the city began to be transformed, I stayed at the Windsor Manor a couple of times (once to judge a chef’s competition and once when the Miss World contest was held in Bangalore) but the West End became my favourite. By then it was clear that the Windsor was the better hotel and the Oberoi was the best-run but it was hard not to love the West End. Set among 20 acres of gardens in the centre of town, it was less a hotel than a collection of old buildings, none of them more than two stories high.
Critics said that it had the air of a colonial circuit house but that was exactly why I loved it. I always stayed in the same rooms (1507 and 1508), which were part of a small self-contained cottage surrounded by trees and gardens.
Then, in the early years of the 21st century, the Taj renovated the West End, destroyed the old charm of such rooms as 1507 and 1508 and service levels became abysmal. I defected at last to the Windsor Manor because for all its faux-colonial bravado it was at least very well managed and the food was terrific.
I’ve been back to the West End since, most recently to feature it in the episode on Asia’s heritage hotels for the Asian Diary series. The Taj recognised it had gone wrong, redid the renovations and after Mohan Kumar, a Taj veteran, took over as general manager, service standards returned to scratch. Slowly but surely, the hotel regained its lost glory. But it was too late for me. By then the Windsor had become home and under its current general manager, Anil Chadha, the hotel is run with clockwork precision. But even as I flitted between the Windsor and the West End (the Leela never quite worked for me I am afraid), I was conscious that I was probably deluding myself. I was looking for a vanishing Bangalore of gardens and old buildings.
A few months ago when ITC opened the Royal Gardenia, I wondered how it would top the Windsor. I went and had an excellent dinner with Anand Rao, its general manager (famous for turning around Bombay’s Maratha after a disastrous opening) and realised that ITC was not trying to compete with the Windsor. Rather, it had built a hotel that channelled the spirit of 21st century Bangalore and refined it with lots of greenery, natural light and architectural elegance. I resolved to come back and try the Gardenia on my next visit to Bangalore.
Perhaps it was time to leave behind the imaginary Bangalore of the West End and the Windsor and to try the real Bangalore. The helicopter was the first surprise. I knew that Bangalore had changed dramatically but this seemed a little over-the-top.
I discovered quickly that there was a lot of Gardenia that was over-the-top including the Peacock Suite, India’s largest suite (over 5,040 square feet) with its own swimming pool. I’m not the world’s most environmentally sensitive guy so I tired quickly of hearing about the hotel’s green credentials, its energy-efficient construction etc. etc.
When I was welcomed by the staff with the hotel’s motto “welcome to responsible luxury,” I retorted, “Thanks a lot but I have a lot more fun when I am being irresponsible.” But within a day, I fell in with the hotel’s vibe.
The Gardenia manages the difficult feat of being a hotel that epitomises today’s busy Bangalore while simultaneously providing an ambience that is cool and relaxed. I liked the rooms: we can’t all live in the Peacock Suite but the entry-level rooms were thoughtfully designed and luxurious without being fussy.
The Kaya Kalp spa is large and maintains the standard of Agra’s award-winning original. And service is – as you would expect at a hotel run by Anand Rao - efficient and friendly. The real surprise for me was the food. Edo, the Gardenia’s Japanese restaurant, is about a month or so away from opening but they gave me a preview of the menu. On the day I went, a group of Japanese executives from Toyota (I think) were eating in one of the private dining rooms and they oohed and aahed about how authentic the food was. I had to agree; I could have been eating in Tokyo.
Kebabs and Kurries is a hybrid ITC concept that combines Bukhara and Dum Pukht but the outpost at Gardenia has finally found its own identity. The food had a character all of its own, was light (not so much animal fat) and even when ITC specialities were attempted (the kakori kabab for instance), the results were exemplary.
I’m not a fan of West View, a restaurant concept that strikes me as being dated and silly (see your food when it is raw! Watch women cook meat! Etc. etc.) And the Gardenia’s West View is designed to look like a Club Class lounge at a European airport. But Madhu Krishnan, the hotel’s executive chef, cooked me the single best French/Modern European meal I have ever eaten in an ITC hotel. Gardenia is already a success so I am spared the task of having to predict how it will do.
The hotel is already making money (almost unheard of in the hotel business) and won the award for Best Luxury Hotel of the Year at the 6th Hotel Investment Conference in April.
Will I shift my loyalties to the ITC Royal Gardenia now? I reckon I should. It is easily the smartest hotel in town. But each time I go to Bangalore I still remember the city as it used to be with its empty roads, its rickety old Ambassadors, its clean air and its gardens.
I do not grudge it the progress it has made or resent its transformation to the global capital of outsourcing and software. But sometimes I long for the city that once was. And that longing will keep me going back to the West End and the Windsor. The Gardenia is a glittering symbol of today. But a part of me still wants to live in yesterday.