One doesn’t associate ITC with international awards. So any award for an ITC property – like the Tatler award for the world’s best city spa that went to Kaya Kalp, at Agra’s Mughal Hotel – has, almost by definition, to be based solely on merit...
The car to Agra arrives at my door at nine in the morning. I dawdle and make it down half an hour later, a mistake, because the Mughal has sent a bright young manager to make sure that everything is okay and the poor man has been kept waiting along with the driver.
I’m off to Kaya Kalp, the spa at Agra’s Mughal Hotel. I know the hotel well. Along with Madras’ Chola it was among ITC’s first hotels and won the Aga Khan award for architecture soon after it opened.
It is a huge property (35 acres in all), partly conceived of by Bikki Oberoi (it was to be an Oberoi hotel till Ajit Haksar of ITC decided to start his own chain) and it is like an early prototype of the Vilas properties with which Bikki later revolutionised India’s hotel industry. The property is single storeyed (no lifts are needed) and spread out so you are never far from a garden.
That said, I haven’t been here since the Musharraf-Vajpayee summit. At that time, I thought the hotel had begun to look a little old and rundown. Then, the Oberois opened Amar Vilas to the public and the Mughal began to seem even tattier.
So why am I going back? Well, mainly because the hotel has opened a new spa called Kaya Kalp. Given that ITC has no track record in this area, I was leery of the claims made for the Mughal’s spa. Then, Kaya Kalp won the Tatler award for the world’s best city spa. As this award usually goes to incredibly expensive hotels abroad, I was startled to find that an Indian hotel had won it. I was even more astonished to discover that ITC’s first full-fledged stab at the spa market had yielded such quick results. Also, at the risk of sounding a little unkind, one doesn’t associate ITC (except the Bukhara restaurant) with international awards. Unlike other Indian chains (the Oberois in particular) it has very little understanding of how to lobby the foreign travel press and no sense of international PR. So any award for an ITC property has – almost by definition – to be based solely on merit.
So here I am, being driven to Agra, to see if the Mughal has changed and what this award-wining spa is like.
It takes just over three hours to get to the hotel. The Mughal is as I remember – but in the days when it first opened. The run-down feeling it had given me on my last visit has vanished. It gleams with efficiency (at least partly attributable to Anil Chaddha, a veteran of the Maurya and Calcutta’s Sonar who finally has his own property to run) and they seem to have added water bodies and fountains to the acres of garden.
I am a little surprised. This looks better than Amar Vilas. Lunch is Chinese and then it is off to the spa. Now, I’m stunned.
Kaya Kalp is probably the largest spa I have seen. It is almost a hotel within a hotel, built on two-and-a-half acres of land, with its own gardens, swimming pool and porch. It’s hard to believe that outside these walls is the bustle of Agra.
The spa itself is nothing short of spectacular. It occupies 99,000 square feet, and the treatment rooms with their cool marble floors and walls are a terrific blend of an East Asian aesthetic with Taj-style Mughal architecture. (Later I learn that Pradeep Sachdeva, a Delhi architect, collaborated with Bangkok’s PG4 Design on the spa.)
The spa manager Melissa Wong is overseas Chinese from Malaysia and she has fifteen spa therapists from Thailand, Tibet (local Tibetans plus Chinese Tibetans) and India.
I opt for the hotel’s signature treatment, the Kaya Kalp massage, which combines aromatherapy with a little Swedish and a little Thai massage.
My therapist is Thai and though the massage is elaborate – the traditional foot bath is turned to a full-fledged ritual – and the room stunningly beautiful, I fall asleep as I am being massaged. That’s always the sign of a good massage and I wake up, totally refreshed.
Dinner is at Peshawari. Because ITC wants Delhi’s Bukhara to be one of a kind, it does not allow other hotels to use the name. But they can certainly use the menu. The Mughal’s Peshawari is a Bukhara clone (down to the uncomfortable stools – so useful for turning tables over quickly) but prices are much lower in Agra than in Delhi.
The food is excellent – easily up to the standards of the Delhi original. The old standbys are faithfully recreated but there’s a terrific crisp chicken seekh kabab that I’ve never seen on the Bukhara menu. The khurchan is excellent, the raan is tender and the yellow dal is perfect.
I’ve often written that ITC is the only chain in India that understands butler service so it is no surprise that the service is excellent. But what I like about ITC is that all the hotels have subtly different styles depending on the preferences of the general manager. The Mughal has the usual ITC touches (the books, music and DVDs in the room are selected according to my tastes) but there are surprises. The first glass of water in the morning comes in a brass tumbler. Guests are given kurta-pyjamas to wear around the property. My room has a laptop open to the Hindustan Times website. There are two goldfish in the room (the Executive Housekeeper’s idea, Chaddha tells me later). The complimentary wine in the room has been selected keeping in mind the wine I ordered at the West View at Delhi’s Maurya. (Chaddha was manager at that hotel.)
The room (suite, to be completely honest) is more than comfortable with a nice gaddi near the large windows overlooking acres of gardens. I ask Anil if the rooms have been recently redone – I don’t remember them as being quite so nice.
Greedily I go for a treatment first thing in the morning. I’ve chosen a 90-minutes Deep Tissue massage which leeches the tension out of my body though this time I resolve to stay awake. This is difficult to do especially when my Tibetan therapist places a warm herbal poultice containing aromatic oils all over my back.
Afterwards I wander through the spa taking in the fruit trees, the exotic birds, the fountains, the water bodies, the 25-metre pool, the stone lattice work on the walls, the mother of pearl inlays and the surfeit of cool white marble. How much did all this cost, I wonder? I have never seen a spa that is as lavishly appointed – or so well-designed.
Lunch is at the coffee shop. The Mughal has a South Indian chef who has cooked a meal and it is terrific. I am most taken with the multi-grain dosa, offered on the hotel’s breakfast menu normally. The idea was to create something natural made from whole grains and unrefined flours to suit those guests who opted for whole-wheat breads and the like. It is so good that I eat three. How long before this shows up on all other ITC menus?
In the afternoon I decide on a final treatment. While I am waiting for the Thai therapist to help me select my aromatic oil, I look around at the massive treatment room (suite actually; it has three separate rooms) and the huge jacuzzi. I have chosen a safe massage but the spa is keen that I use the Mughal-style hamam, a massive marble room out of either Shah Jahan’s court or a James Bond movie. Nervously, I decline their offer as well as some of the pomegranate-based treatments that Kaya Kalp specialises in, perhaps out of some subliminal fear that Blofeld will get me while I’m in the hamam.
I have to drive back to Delhi that evening but before going, I have a drink with Anil Chaddha and his attractive and intelligent wife Anu. I try and get him to tell me how much the spa has cost. He is evasive: “We are still working out the figure.” How did he get the Best Spa award? Apparently, this was unplanned. The Tatler journo arrived with a British group, saw the spa, recognised how incredible it was and nominated it for the award. In true ITC style, the group had no clue how to lobby for it.
But I can see why it won the award. As I drive back in the hotel’s car (with its own DVD player so I can watch Boston Legal: four episodes and I am home), I reflect how lucky we are in Delhi to have such a wonderful spa so near us. Best of all, the Mughal is half the price – of say, a Vilas property. The massages are priced at Oberoi-type rates but the hotel plans to offer packages with free massages included. Given that Delhiwallahs can just drive there and no airfares need to be paid, this could be the best deal in India.
Certainly, I’m going to be a Kaya Kalp regular.