Rude Travel by Vir Sanghvi: Driving is the new flying

Hindustan Times | By
Nov 08, 2020 07:38 AM IST

The pandemic has forced us to look for holiday destinations nearer home. And they are great!

Till March of this year, when the Covid panic set in, I was on a plane at least once a week. This state of affairs had persisted since 1986. But ever since I came back from Mumbai where I had gone for the Culinary Culture launch in early March, I have not stepped onto a plane.

The ITC Grand Bharat is an all-suite property within driving distance of New Delhi
The ITC Grand Bharat is an all-suite property within driving distance of New Delhi

Frankly, I don’t miss it one bit. I hate airports anyway and the Coronavirus gives me a good reason to avoid them.  If all goes well, I am hoping not to get on a plane for the rest of this year.

But every now and then, one feels the urge to get away from home, to take a break. A couple of months ago, my wife and I decided we would find a hotel that was as sanitization crazy as we were and take a few days off. We would have to go somewhere nearby because we were only willing to drive.

The staff at ITC Grand Bharat wore masks and practiced social distancing
The staff at ITC Grand Bharat wore masks and practiced social distancing

The ITC Grand Bharat was the obvious choice because I know how obsessed the chain’s boss Nakul Anand is with keeping his hotels sanitised and Covid-free, with a new service style that minimises needless human contact while still delivering luxury. 

The Grand Bharat is in Manesar, just beyond Gurgaon, and we managed the drive from our South Extension flat in an hour. We ordered a hotel car and it came with full sanitization measures, including a partition between the driver and passengers. We wore masks anyway though the driver had a mask, shield etc.

The Grand Bharat is an all-suite, low-rise property spread out over several acres with its own world-class golf course (nice but of no use to a non-golfer like me) and offered incredible room service. So we never went to a single restaurant but ate extremely well. It is no surprise to get good North Indian food at any ITC hotel but Grand Bharat did excellent South Indian and Western food as well.

While most hotels faced a slump during the pandemic, ITC Grand Bharat was doing 65% occupancy on weekdays and 80% on weekends

The staff wore masks, maintained social distancing and stayed as far away as possible. Housekeeping cleaned the room when we went walking in the extensive grounds and room service laid out the food while we were in another room. Rarely have I felt safer since the start of the pandemic.

Though most hotels face a slump during this terrible phase, Grand Bharat is the happy exception. When I went, they were doing 65 per cent occupancy on weekdays and over 80 per cent on weekends. On recent weekends, because of great word of mouth, occupancy is 100% and it is the destination of choice for Delhi people.

The Oberoi Rajvilas was built two decades ago but it is regularly refurbished; rooms with pool views (inset) are pretty spectacular
The Oberoi Rajvilas was built two decades ago but it is regularly refurbished; rooms with pool views (inset) are pretty spectacular

By the first week of October we grew bolder. We drove for three and a half hours (sanitized car from the hotel) before we got to what must be the most influential resort hotel in India; Rajvilas. I first went shortly after Biki Oberoi opened it in 1997 as a super-luxury resort on the outskirts of Jaipur, fell in love with it and argued passionately with other hoteliers who said that to sustain the resort, Biki would have to charge room rates that nobody had ever charged in India.  

In fact, Rajvilas got higher rates than anyone had imagined and the resorts that followed (Udaivilas, Vanyavilas, Wildflower Hall, Sukhvilas, etc.) transformed Indian hoteliering and continue to feature on lists of the world’s best hotels. Today, nobody can open a luxury resort in India without incorporating at least some Rajvilas elements— so great has the hotel’s influence been.

If you go to Rajvilas now, as we did, there is nothing to indicate that it was built two decades ago. It is regularly refurbished and the Oberoi obsession with improving the guest experience ensures that no two visits are alike.

There are some lovely garden rooms, some with pools and even the entry level rooms (which is all I could afford when the hotel opened) are pretty spectacular. On this visit, we had a garden where dozens of peacocks visited all day, prancing and dancing so beautifully that I just kept staring at them.

Amanbagh, located in Rajasthan’s Alwar town has warm and efficient service, and good food!
Amanbagh, located in Rajasthan’s Alwar town has warm and efficient service, and good food!

Rajvilas may have the best food of any Oberoi resort because Jaydeep Patil, the chef, is creative and a master of many cuisines. His food, the ambience and the Oberoi flair can make anything special. Our visit was timed for my wife’s birthday, so the hotel first took us to the temple for an aarti. (There is a 300-year-old temple on the hotel grounds. The Oberoi restored it and it serves as a functioning Shiva temple.) Then we sat under the stars by the pool while hundreds of diyas gleamed in the night. It is hard to think of a more magical experience.    

Last week, we got really ambitious and drove four and a half hours to a village called Ajabgarh near the Rajasthan town of Alwar to spend a few days  at Amanbagh.

If you haven’t heard of Amanbagh, don’t worry. Nobody I spoke to had heard of it either. And even well-travelled people in Delhi knew very little about Aman hotels, which I found odd.

The basic promise at an Aman is that they would be small and exclusive to give millionaires a break from their lives of excess

Aman is one of the pioneers of a certain kind of luxury hoteliering. In 1988, Amanpuri opened in Phuket and as the global economy boomed, Aman became the resort chain of choice for the world’s millionaires. Every investment banker dreamt of vacationing at an Aman resort and new hotels opened all over the world from Bali (where I have stayed in two different properties) to Venice (where George Clooney got married) to Wyoming.

No two Amans were alike but the basic promise was that the hotels would be small, exclusive and, to give the millionaires a break from their lives of excess, starkly elegant in their design.  The company opened its first city hotel in Delhi (a complete disaster; it has now been salvaged and renamed The Lodi), which showed that it was not so good at city hotels (though I gather that the newer Tokyo hotel is fine) and eventually the  Aman chain was taken over by billionaire Vladislav Doronin who now runs it.

Amanbagh has been around for 15 years, a lovely, tranquil resort with 160 staff for just 37 suites (16 of them pool villas) without attracting any domestic attention. I thought the villas were lovely with a stunning  design by the celebrated architect Ed Tuttle and while the hotel offers  a different ambience from Rajvilas (most regular guests used to be foreigners but now, during the pandemic, you may find screaming children being pursued by harried ayahs in the public areas), it lives up to Aman’s reputation for restrained elegance and luxury. It is very well run, the service is warm and efficient  and food is  good.

Amanbagh is 20 minutes from the Sariska park, the surroundings are beautiful, it grows its own vegetables and there is no hotel quite like it anywhere in India.

So: three very nice holidays in these difficult times. And we have learned that driving is the new flying!

The views expressed by the columnist are personal

From HT Brunch, November 8, 2020

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