Keep Karma And Carry On: The Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi
Jess-Luisa Flynn breaks the earthy realness of a two-month trek around Asia with a well-earned pit stop in one of India’s most exclusive bolt-holes.
There’s no doubt about it, Delhi can be a seriously daunting city to arrive in – even to the most seasoned of travellers. The wave of boiling-hot, polluted chaos, fuelled by its 17 million-strong population, grabs you the second you step foot out of the airport.
This is my first solo, long-term adventure to another continent and last time I was in Delhi I’d attempted, nervously, to negotiate a ride to the dreaded Para Ganj district (I didn’t realise it was dreaded until I arrived there). I didn’t understand the currency, language or proximity of the city. And so began a rather exhausting and gruelling week – one spent being constantly hustled, lied to, misinformed, poisoned and generally wishing I could escape the place.
How nice, then, to return some time later and stay somewhere that not just eases the pain of my previous visit, but actually makes it an enjoyable one. Weather reports warn of a balmy 45 degrees (celsius!). Taking no chances, I’ve booked two nights at the city’s famous Taj Palace, adamant my experience will be different this time around.
Standing proud in the upmarket diplomatic enclave in the south of Delhi, Taj Palace is a taste of true old-school colonial luxury. The British influence is very much present. Strident classical music greets you on arrival and at least eight staff in full traditional dress rush to assist you from your car. The customs-like security check is a little intense (a sniffer-dog actually jumps into my car unannounced) but this is, after all, the subcontinent. At least one feels safe from any kind of harm. It’s clear from the outset that this is not striving for the boujis glamour of today’s boutique hotels. The Taj is unashamedly old-fashioned and defiantly regal in its approach.
Not surprising then, this is where most visiting presidents stay when in Delhi. From George W Bush, the Clintons and Sarkozy, the high security and vast presidential suite is a favourite with world leaders for a reason.
The presidential suite itself was made by merging 16 of the hotel’s ‘club rooms’ together, making it a huge 7,250 square feet. Complete with one main lounge area, an adjoining security suite, a butler’s kitchen, a 14-seater meeting room, private office, couple’s gym, steam, sauna, Queen’s room, a private lounge room and – my personal favourite – the bathroom, that includes a gargantuan gold and purple tiled shower closet, which, when I enter, was blasting out ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’. If this is an attempt to impress me, it works – especially when the accompanying disco lights flash on.
There’s a mammoth infinity bath-tub which stands in the centre of the room. My escort lets slip that Mrs Sarkozy herself, Carla Bruni, was obsessed with the grand piano that stands in the main living room and insisted on playing for them whenever they entered.
The hotel is huge, a vast six acres of land, including two private gardens. It overlooks a protected forest to its rear, known as the Lungs of Delhi. Gazing out of the window, it’s hard to fathom that you’re in an outrageously overpopulated city, such is the quiet, sprawling greenery that meets your eyes. The outdoor pool was built before a rather stringent Indian law was put in place that disallows new-builds to be more than 4ft deep. This one is more than double that and allows for a very enjoyable swim, especially at night when it is lit up and the chatter from Blue Bar can be heard across the way.
The Blue Bar is part of Blue Ginger, one of four restaurants within the Taj. It offers exquisite Vietnamese cuisine and a huge range of expertly made cocktails and is immediately my favourite place to dine. The other standout eatery is the Orient Express, offering French cuisine and built to resemble the train it is named after. It conjures up the romantic ideal of an India from a century ago. On a train. In France.
The hotel’s clientele may tend to be older and more formal than other upmarket establishments, but this all adds to the elegant experience and I find myself playing along, wondering if I could perhaps pass as a diplomat or princess myself. In the club rooms, where I’m happily housed, there’s a king-size bed with a large bath-tub beside it, separated by glass and filled each time I re-enter the room, with rose-petals and bubble bath (this may vary for the male guest, but I would hope not).
The spa offers excellent facials, massages and pedicures, all of which I indulge in at the first opportunity, eager to mend my feet in particular, since Himalayan treks and cross-country motorbike rides the previous weeks have wrecked them.
Being driven the short distance to Connaught Place ensures plenty of opportunity to buy some quality gifts and the Sunder Nagar is popular with rich locals for its art and excellent tea shops. In the evening, I visit Hauz Khas where all the Delhi socialites like to mingle. It has an attractive village feel to it and is totally safe late at night, but I still find the food mediocre and miss the Vietnamese grub and pool-side cocktails at the Taj.
On my last morning, I’m greeted with an amusingly large cake box. In fact, it’s my breakfast to go. As I’m escorted to my car, I realise I’ve had a hassle-free, dare I say it, relaxing stay in Delhi. But like the boat in Apocalypse Now, one should never leave the Taj. I need to briefly stop at an ATM; the one at hotel is temporarily non-functioning. The driver forgets to stop at another. We drive all the way to the airport and now I have no cash to pay him. I offer to pop into the airport, leaving my luggage with him. Do not ever do this. Once in, they will not let me out. There begins an hour-long ordeal where I’m sure my driver has given up and left with all my luggage, never to be seen again.
After pleading with several firm, but utterly clueless guards with guns to no avail, I run what feels like a mile to my airline who finally sends someone out to retrieve my 50 ornamental elephants plus luggage from my poor, baffled chauffeur who had remarkably stayed put. The patience of Indians always astonishes me – I certainly can’t see a London cabbie doing the same thing, even with the meter on. It wouldn’t be Delhi without some drama, but it’s good that the Taj Palace is there as a brief oasis of calm.
Taj Palace , New Delhi, Sardar Patel Marg, Diplomatic Enclave, New Delhi – 110 021 India.
Call +91 112 6110202 or visit www.tajhotels.com for details. Rates at Taj Palace, New Delhi start from approximately £145 per room per night based on double occupancy. The rate includes breakfast, WiFi and taxes.