Summer is when Indian travellers head for Europe and South-east Asia where the affluent sign up for spa treatments and confirm reservations at Michelin-starred restaurants, while the middle-class opt for sightseeing and shopping. The US-bound are, in all probability, likely to be checking out university campuses for India’s next generation of inheritors.
But summer is also when, with foreigners staying away, the discounts at India’s opulent resorts deserve consideration, especially when all you want is to recharge your batteries and hide from the world.
When the Oberoi group launched its Vilas properties, it seemed impossible to top the experience they offered. The resorts — Rajvilas in Jaipur, Udaivilas in Udaipur, Amarvilas in Agra, and Wildflower Hall in Shimla — used stunning architecture and sophisticated opulence (all the hotels were covered by Architectural Digest magazine) to create personalised experiences: Bill Clinton stayed in a suite with its own swimming pool, Pervez Musharraf’s presidential chamber had a massage room overlooking the Taj Mahal, and so on.
The food was generally fabulous, but more than anything, it was the privacy the resorts offered its high-powered guests that won the day. And now the uber-trendy Oberoi in Gurgaon seems to have pushed the ticket further with a sleeker avatar that makes no concessions to local architecture or design, but is no less gasp-worthy for it.
ITC’s Welcomgroup had already made a case for luxury with its en-suite La-Z-Boy recliners, but it was the Taj group that clawed back into the forefront with its inheritance of palace hotels, which over time had become mere tourist traps. It rescued Jaipur’s Rambagh and Udaipur’s Lake Palace with renovations that turned them into exclusive destination hotels. Renovations were also underway at the heritage Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, and at the Taj Palace in New Delhi.
I once stayed in their presidential suite that went on and on and had a huge bathroom the size of — well, almost — my entire apartment. In Hyderabad, after a decade of renovation, the Taj Falaknuma opened its doors to the well-heeled, though I doubt it would be my choice for a hideaway.
Expectations from the Aman group rode high when it chucked its signature small resorts to build its first city hotel in New Delhi. Blame it on the timing, for its en-suite pools and architecture won it a thumbs-down. But where the Aman experiment was a flop in the capital, the Leela’s entry was successful.
When it had started in Mumbai, it had been considered crass, facing similar criticism for its forays into Goa and Bangalore, before bucking the trend in Udaipur, and, now, in New Delhi. The Leela Palace in Delhi is still loud — guests consider it the equivalent of haute couture — but its pricey restaurants and suites have become an essential luxury, no different from a Louis Vuitton bag: you simply have to have one.
Incidentally, “the most expensive suite in the world” was under completion at the Raj Palace in Jaipur when I checked a few years ago. Even then, it offered a ₹6.5 lakh suite, while the four-floor Shahi Mahal offering a bath butler, Lady Primrose fittings and Hermes or Bvlgari bath amenities for ₹35 lakh seemed a mirage.
The recession proved it a chimera, especially since the heritage property, looked different from its dozens of cousins in the state. At any rate, its Shahi Mahal, with its gold and silver foil walls, is finally due for completion this October, and the asking price on its website has been rationalised to ₹20 lakh. Is it worth that value? The only way you’ll find out is by checking in, even though a week’s hideaway could set you back by a cool ₹1.5 crore.
— The author is a Delhi-based writer and curator