Now that the summer holidays are nearly upon us and everyone is making vacation plans, what are you planning to do? And where do you think you will go? Once upon a time, the choice was easy. The rich went to Europe or to some fancy destination. And the rest of us headed off to the hills or to cooler parts of India. Now, the situation is more complex because a vast middle ground has opened up. It is no longer a choice between deluxe hotels for the rich and relatively modest places for the rest of us. Even those of us who can't afford to stay in such upmarket resorts as Wildflower Hall (near Simla) want a taste of luxury - at prices that are within our reach.
The old idea that we must go to cool places in the summer is now dying. For a start, Europe, that traditional summer destination of the rich, is no longer very cool in June or July. Over the last few summers, temperatures all over Europe have soared. And, unlike Asia or America, there is no airconditioning in most of Europe so the nights are sweatier than they would be in Asia. For another, people have tired of our hill stations as they have become over-developed eyesores with all the natural beauty sucked out of them. Even the old argument in favour of hill holidays - that you save money on airfare because you drive there - has lost some of its power as airfares have actually come down over the last few years.
Moreover, the concept of the vacation has changed. Young professional couples now have enough money to want to go on luxury holidays that their parents could never have afforded. Many people like the idea of theme holidays - spa breaks, gourmet getaways etc - that were almost unknown in India a decade ago. And (perhaps sadly) today's kids often prefer to stay in a nice hotel with a big swimming pool rather than go romping around the hills.
I'm always astonished when people tell me that they are off to Dubai for a week or are taking a break in Singapore. Surely, these places are even hotter than India? But the truth is: it doesn't matter. People's expectations have changed.
That opens up a whole list of possibilities. Most resorts are geared towards seasonal traffic: October to March. If you go and stay in the summer, you can get exactly the same experience at nearly half the price because of off-season packages.
Obviously there are some kinds of holidays you cannot do in the summer. I don't recommend going to Ranthambhore or a game sanctuary. Rajasthan can be too hot (though there is a killer deal at the excellent Trident in Udaipur). But there are many destinations that are climate neutral and this summer, you can enjoy them at bargain rates.
I don't want to focus too much on foreign destinations (though both Thailand and Bali represent great value in the summer) but I will mention the Maldives. During the season, this is one of the world's most glamorous and expensive destinations. But in the summer, rates crash and the best hotels suddenly become affordable. I've been there in the summer and my experience is that if you're content to sleep off the hot afternoons, the weather is no deterrent for most Indians.
The Taj Coral is a wonderful hotel, near the airport (watch out for properties that require you to pay extra for a seaplane transfer after you land) even though it is somewhat overshadowed by its sister, the Exotica. The Coral is offering three nights at $1,475 (around R20,000 a night), which is not cheap but is half the high season rate. And it is a really luxurious property. You can save on airfare by taking advantage of Indian Airlines' new fares (you change at Bangalore for the Maldives) while praying that the pilots don't go on strike again.
When it comes to Indian destinations, nearly every resort has a special offer. But given that we're looking at affordable luxury, I'll stick to the three big chains because the holidays come with some guarantee of quality.
ITC has had the interesting idea of doing theme holidays. If you want to gorge on the Indian food that ITC is famous for, you can take a culinary break at any ITC hotel. The two-night packages range from R21,000 to R28,000 and include two major meals at any restaurant for up to two adults and two children plus wine as well as a discount on meals not included in the package.
I can't see anyone wanting to come to Delhi on holiday but to be able to stay at the Maurya for R14,000 a day and get free meals at Bukhara and Dum Pukht sounds like a good deal to me. There's a golf package at the Classic Golf Resort in Gurgaon and best of all, the Kayakalp spa break. The top Kayakalp spas are in Agra and Bangalore. Two nights in Agra cost R 27,000 and include free treatments and discounts on spa services and food. The spa break at Bangalore's Gardenia is more expensive (R34,000) but then it is a glamorous new hotel.
Nobody wants to go on a full-fledged holiday for just two or three days but the breaks are extendable. You can take two or three packages and work out the cost.
My own favourite for affordable luxury of ITC's properties is the Mughal in Agra. The hotel is old but pretty and is being renovated so that the rooms are much improved. It has India's best spa in the huge Kayakalp and the food is never less than excellent thanks largely to chef Ghadiok (they invented the multi-grain dosa there). If you're going with kids, then they will love the large grounds and you can give them a dose of the history that Agra is famous for. The Shatabdi makes access easy but you can also drive.
These are all luxury hotels but most chains also run lesser properties which, while belonging in the five star category, do not offer the gloss of their top establishments. ITC has the Fortune chain. The Oberois have Trident hotels which tend to vary in quality from basic (Agra) to spectacular (Gurgaon). All Tridents offer great deals and to be able to stay in the Trident Udaipur at under R5,000 a night is astonishing value.
In the case of the Taj, there is the Vivanta category of hotels, which includes many of the old properties which had Taj branding but have now been put into the new range (the Aguada complex in Goa, for instance, which is a lot better than the so-called luxury property, the Taj Exotica).
When I lived in Bombay, my favourite destination was the Holiday Village in Goa which offered great packages during the monsoons (when Goa is especially charming) with no hidden extras. (Everything, from transfers to meals, was included). Goa in season can be a nightmare - to spend new year at the Aguada complex is to be imprisoned in one location with all the people you have spent all year avoiding in Delhi and Bombay. But off season it's lovely.
The Holiday Village is no longer as cheap as it was. But you'll get a cottage for two nights with one meal (technically a meal credit) for R19,000. It's worth going for Urbano Rego's food alone though the Aguada complex (of which the Village is a part) has the advantage of having been built before the new regulations about distance from the sea came into force. This means that the hotel is actually on the beach and the sea is a constant presence.
A lesser known Taj hotel (so unknown that hardly anyone I've spoken to at the Taj ever seems to have gone there!) is the Conoor property, a sprawling old house on the way to Ooty that is full of charm and surrounded by natural beauty. In the new re-branding, it is called a Gateway but at R18,000 for two people for two nights including all meals, it is a steal especially if you have a car and want to explore the Nilgiris. (If you want to stay a week, it works out to R63,000 inclusive of all meals which is not a bad deal by any standards).
These are only suggestions. It's worth going on the websites of the hotel chains to try and find better deals.