Rude Food by Vir Sanghvi: The last resort
After I wrote about the rush to go to the Maldives, many people in the travel business asked me if I thought that any Indian destination had the potential to suddenly take off as the Maldives has with Indian tourists.
The short answer is no. I have no doubt that there are destinations in India that are far more beautiful than the Maldives but we have yet to develop them. The Maldives consists of hotels on hundreds of coral islands spread out over the ocean. It should be a logistical nightmare but the country has developed such an impressive tourism infrastructure that with seaplanes and small domestic airports, it has become one of the world’s greatest destinations.
Contrast that with India, where Goa, our most popular beach destination, has one of the world’s worst international airports, and where infrastructure and governance are depressingly poor. Even Thailand, which has many of the same problems as us (including political and police corruption), had created a better tourism infrastructure twenty years ago than we have today.
I could go and on about the failures of the government when it comes to tourism but it is also true that till the beginning of this century, our private hotel sector was reluctant to make huge investments in resorts.
There was a simple reason for this. City hotels give hotel companies quicker and more assured returns on their investments than resorts do. The Oberois ran some of India’s finest hotels but rarely ventured into resorts till Biki Oberoi took the plunge with his Vilas properties at the end of the last century. ITC, a well-funded chain, mostly stayed away from resorts. And even the Leela built its Goa hotel out of spite because — as its founder Captain CP Krishnan Nair once told me — he was treated badly at the Taj’s Fort Aguada.
The Aguada resort is often held up as an example of private sector initiative — if there had been no Aguada, Goa would not have become a great destination — but the Taj struggled to build it in the early seventies. The Tatas refused to put money into it and the resort was financed by private investors. Despite its fame, it took more than twelve years to turn a profit.
All that has changed now, mostly because of the growth in domestic tourism in this century. There are now lovely little hotels and havelis all over Rajasthan (though they were initially supported by British travel operators) and small classy resorts have opened up all over India.
But are there lots of new large-ish resorts run by large hotel companies to international standards that are easily accessible to Indian travellers?
Well no, not really. Since Goa went downhill relatively, few large resorts have opened in the rest of India.
In the Indian context, we have to include jungle lodges, palace hotels and various other categories to fill out the list of resorts. Part of the problem is that even as resorts have opened here, more and more Indians have begun travelling abroad and holidaying in other parts of Asia (Thailand, Bali, Malaysia, etc.) that are competitively priced.
And frankly, because it is so easy to go abroad, many of us (myself included) have not checked out local options as much as we should have. In the 1990s, I went to two Taj properties I loved — in Coonoor and the Kerala backwaters — but given what airfares, connectivity and room rates are like in India, it has often been easier and cheaper to just go abroad.
But in response to readers asking me, after the Maldives piece a fortnight ago, to suggest easily bookable, international quality holiday hotels, here are some I have been to recently. They are not the best resorts in India or trendy boutique properties. And they are all run by chains. But they do offer some guarantees of quality.
The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur: The first Vilas, it remains one of my favourites. Amarvilas has the Taj, Wildflower Hall has the hills and Udaivilas has the lake. But I like Rajvilas because it is spread out, far away from the bustle of the city (though Jaipur constantly expands towards it) and offers elegance, privacy, acres of greenery and superlative food from the outstanding chef Jaydeep Patil.
I often think that if Biki Oberoi had opened it in 1997 in Goa rather than Rajasthan he could have changed Goa’s tourism trajectory.
The Oberoi Vanyavilas, Ranthambore: You go to Vanyavilas if you want to see tigers at the Ranthambore park which it borders. (And these days it is almost guaranteed that you will see more than one.) The hotel takes the idea of a safari camp and turns it on its head with luxury tents and such levels of deluxe service that you wonder if your stay is about wildlife or the good life!
Neither Vanyavilas nor Rajvilas is cheap but with the dearth of foreign tourists, you will get cheaper than usual summer rates.
Taj Lake Palace, Udaipur: Possibly the most romantic hotel in the world, the Lake Palace was built by the Maharanas of Udaipur and re-imagined by the Taj as a luxury hotel. It fights off stiff competition from the spectacular Udaivilas because of its beauty and heritage and because of the GM K Mohanchandran’s skills.
Go in the summer when rates are lower and the only other guests are Gujaratis (like myself) eager to get a drink while escaping our home state’s Prohibition.
Fisherman’s Cove, Chennai: Even when everyone in the Taj loved the Aguada (at the peak of its glory), I preferred Fisherman’s Cove. It has three huge advantages: it is an hour from Chennai airport, it is next to the beautiful temples of Mahabalipuram and it has lovely cottages right on the beach. Still my favourite beach hotel in India — as it has been since the 1980s.
Taj Green Cove, Kovalam: The real strength of the Taj group lies in Rajasthan where it has historical properties and in the South where, unlike the West and the North, it is still the dominant hotel chain. This is a lovely hotel built into the cliffs overlooking the sea outside Thiruvananthapuram which is superbly managed by Lalith Viswakumar.
ITC Grand Bharat, Manesar: The idea is so obvious that I am amazed nobody thought of it before. Given that most people who go to resorts rarely leave the hotel, why not build a spectacular all-suite hotel just outside Gurgaon? Locate it next to a golf course, offer ITC’s signature personalised service and food and throw in some stunning architecture.
It is no surprise, in retrospect, that during the lockdown this was India’s most profitable hotel, packed out every day with guests paying high rates. If you live in Delhi and can afford it (remember you can just drive so you save on airfare), there is really no reason not to go.
The Leela Palace, Udaipur : The most reasonably priced of Udaipur’s three grand hotels, the Leela Palace has a great lake view and the largest and best entry level rooms. Transformed by a good General Manager, Rajesh Namby (who has since moved on), it offers unbeatable value for luxury.
Amanbagh, Ajabgarh : This stunning resort, a four-hour drive from Delhi, has some of the most beautiful villas in India. Designed by Ed Tuttle, they offer elegance and tranquility. It is right next to the Sariska Sanctuary and offers a taste of the global Aman chain luxury experience at a fraction of the cost of say, the Aman in Venice.
ITC Mughal : The best resort value in India. The Mughal is larger than most resorts and has huge grounds. It offers unbeatable room rates for an experience of this quality (including an award winning spa). If you want to take the kids and pamper yourself without breaking the bank, this is the hotel to go to.
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
From HT Brunch, March 28, 2021
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