Filming luxury hotels is a true adventure. You get ready for the trip by learning as much as possible about the different establishments and about the country, until you finally find yourself face to face with the inhabitants, the history and all the little details that add to the charm of the journey, but which are not necessarily elements you include in the portrait of a hotel. And so, to prolong the dream in another manner, to allow you to experience even more exceptional moments, here are some impressions of our journey and of dream hotels we visited, because the passion of discovering these unique sites, lies above all, in the desire to share them.
Total immersion in incredible India
Our 21 day journey begins in Mumbai, formerly Bombay. The two hotels we’re going to film here are in the south of the city, in the Nariman Point quarter. The car that’s taking us to the Oberoi crosses a more or less sleeping city, since we landed at the airport at 4 A.M. What strikes us the most is the incredible number of inhabitants you see everywhere. It’s very rare to find a spot devoid of people. Although the country is immense, it’s hard to escape crowds with a national population of more than a billion.
The noisy and busy city of Mumbai is the economic heart of the country, a veritable boom town as well as the capital of the film industry. In short, Mumbai doesn’t just receive you; it engulfs you into an impressive tide of humanity. Driving for example, is an adventure, with rules that seem very obscure unless you’ve grown up with them! And so, you just have to let yourself be led by the traffic and the sound of honking horns which are part and parcel of traffic in India. One drives here by sound more than by sight!
Our first hotel is located on the Queen’s Necklace, a bay that is lit up in the evening and which looks like a huge string of pearls. In this chic, green and warm quarter, curious but friendly passers by seem to be intrigued by our camera, and many of them are anxious to step in front of it. Contrary to other places in the world, Europe included, the camera here is still seen as a source of enjoyment and amusement. That doesn’t mean however, that you can film everywhere! There are a number of indicated forbidden sites, and there’s always a guard outside of them to remind you. The Oberoi stands proudly amidst other buildings, and its exterior gives no hint of what is hidden inside. The lobby is a magnificent white marble space. Designed to respond to the three criteria of height, space and light, the Oberoi symbolizes to perfection the ambition of luxury Indian hotels to preserve a part of the country’s tradition and authenticity, but with a keen eye towards the future. This translates into offering guests Indian folklore, while at the same time proposing modern, fully equipped facilities, capable of receiving a more and more demanding international clientele.
A few minutes away, there’s the Taj Mahal Palace which, with the Gate of India just opposite, are among the city’s most visited monuments. More historic than its counterpart on Nariman Point, the Taj proudly exhibits its 100 year old history of celebrity and royal visitors. More exuberant than the Oberoi, the Taj proposes extraordinarily huge suites and a decorative splendor worthy of the Maharajahs.
Although different in their visions of luxury, both hotels have one point in common: in the heart of each one, we find India. The deep seated identity of these two establishments is rooted in Indian history. This in fact, is a constant that we will find in each hotel throughout our journey. Proud, ambitious and constantly developing, India has deployed its hotel industry wings to demonstrate its great potential to foreign visitors.
In the end, we won’t see very much of Mumbai, although it is truly a fascinating city, thanks to its inhabitants who, in spite of complaining about the impossible traffic and the often nonsensical architecture, are the best ambassadors of a metropolis that is difficult to fathom but easy to adopt. And that is the essence of the legendary but very real Indian hospitality.
Udaipur’s enchanted lake
After a one hour domestic flight, we come to the province of Rajasthan, a desert area and one of India’s most popular tourist regions. The forts running through the mountains and the arid beauty of this wild, noble and proud province, has a great fascination for many visitors. And among all of the region’s destinations, including Jaipur and Jodhpur, there is one that possesses its own aura: Udaipur, located on the banks of Lake Pichola. This city, steeped in history with numerous palaces, has three luxury hotels: the Taj Lake Palace, situated on the banks of the lake and located in the former lakeside palace belonging to the Maharana, the Leela Palace and the Udaivilas. All three are quite near each other, and yet, those in charge will tell you that there is no competition here. And it’s true! Each of the hotels has chosen its own raison d’être, each aiming at a different clientele. The Lake Palace has a powerful historical ambiance, the Leela Palace is a contemporary Maharajah’s palace and the Udaivilas is more spacious and dedicated to nature. Each hotel has its own view of the city of Udaipur and the City Palace, the Maharana’s residence, and they all are situated below the Monsoon Palace, where the royal family used to stay during the rainy season. Udaipur is a unique site, and anyone who has never watched the sun set over the old stones of the city, has missed one of India’s secret wonders.
We came to film two hotels : the Leela and the Udaivilas. In spite of the intense heat in this summer of 2013, each site was exceptional, and we almost regretted not having spent our entire three weeks of filming exclusively in Udaipur, the city often called the Venice of the West. Here again, we find a great attachment to folklore and tradition, and every evening, the hotels host recitals of Rajasthan songs and dances. It’s the ideal way to truly feel this intense region, which is in total contrast with the huge metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai.
Once again, as was the case everywhere we went, what struck us the most, outside of the landscapes and the luxury of the hotels, was the incredible hospitality of the inhabitants.
We of course expected to be well received in the palaces, but here, the warmth comes from human encounters with ordinary people, far beyond the framework of the hotel industry. It’s impossible to leave India unchanged or indifferent.
The Tiger reserve
Before arriving at the village of Sawai Madhopur, which is adjacent to the Ranthambore reserve, there’s a road; a famous, or infamous and dangerous road; India’s version of an express highway, with its brightly colored trucks, its anarchic manner of driving and especially the frenetic and varied human activity. With motorcycles carrying up to five people, women wearing saris seated like amazons, families in vans and a huge number of pedestrians, an Indian road is a world of its own; a universe where life goes on in spite of everything, as witnessed by the many stands preparing chai, (a very sweet black tea with spices), and a quick meal cooked in a large pot.
The seven hour trip goes faster than we anticipated, thanks largely to our driver and his endless stories about the region, and always with a tasty, amusing and private anecdote. We’ll never forget the stop we made at a cooperative where women from the village of Sawai Madhopur make traditional garments and carpets; a simple place with a warm welcome and saris for souvenirs.
The Hotel Vanyavilas is at the entrance to the Ranthambore nature reserve. In order to preserve the local environment and blend into the landscape, the Oberoi hotel group opted for tents instead of rooms, giving the hotel a very interesting and luxurious safari atmosphere.
Since nature reigns supreme here, it’s not uncommon to see a family of monkeys crossing the pathways of the hotel, or to encounter an elephant, or to observe multi-colored birds flying around just about everywhere. The main reason however, for the success of the Vanyavilas is its safaris consisting of four hour excursions into the reserve organized twice daily. And nothing is more anxiously awaited than the stars of the reserve, the famous tigers. There are about 40 of them in this 280 square kilometre region. Statistics vary depending on the guide. Some say that there’s a 40 percent chance of seeing a tiger, others say 20 percent and that in any event, you have to come back several times. As we embark on our only safari, we try not to get our hopes up too high, although at about 3:30, our patience is rewarded when we come across a magnificent male with the rather unexciting name of T4.
Seconds after the tiger appears, all the cars in the reserve rush over to get the best view. Suddenly, there are about a hundred vehicles running the risk of banging into one another, and lots of shouting, as if a teenage idol were passing by. Observing the tiger lasts barely a minute, after which we leave the national park with wonderful memories and a fascinating additional anecdote.
Face to face with one of the wonders of the world
The Oberoi Armavilas which welcomes us to Agra, is a hotel totally dedicated the famous monument that symbolizes India in the eyes of the world more than any other: the Taj Mahal, of course. All of the rooms have a view of this national treasure. In addition, there isn’t a window in the hotel that doesn’t face this celebrated edifice. Located about 700 meters from the site, the Oberoi Armavilas is the place to stay for ardent admirers of this wonder of the world.
The large spaces, the marble and the silk of the hotel celebrate the splendor of the dynasties that succeeded in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, and its rich history continues to attract tourists. We would in fact suggest that if time permits, to visit the Taj at about 6 in the morning when there are very few tourists and the light is magnificent. And if you think that 6 o’clock is too early, be informed that the Taj opens at 5:30! It’s the absolute perfect time. All the views, all the images and all the descriptions of the site cannot do justice to the emotional feeling of finding yourself face to face with the Crown Palace dedicated to the memory of Arjumand Banu Begam, better known under the name of Mumtaz Mahal, the third wife of the Moghol emperor, Shah Jahan.
Access to the monument requires either slippers or bare feet. The marble has suffered over the centuries, and the Indian government is aware of the priority of preserving this architectural jewel without having to forbid access to visitors. There’s an entrance fee, one price for Indians and a higher one for foreign tourists. We would advise visiting the Taj several times during the day since the light changes constantly.
Back at the hotel, we’re very quickly caught up in the imperatives of a film shoot including filming a presidential suite and the deep blue water of the swimming pool. To be honest, we have had more difficult tasks! Maybe it’s time to mention the delights of Indian cuisine. Those who have already tasted it won’t need any convincing, but it’s still important to note the amazing variety of Indian dishes. The manner of cooking, the meats, and the preparation of the vegetarian specialties all form a cuisine that explodes with flavors and especially the spices! Although they might appear to be heavy and strong at first, with time one learns to recognize the subtleties, and the palate gets accustomed to discovering a tradition as rich as the temples and the palaces that make this country so unforgettable.
In the heart of the Indian economic miracle
The road between Agra and Gurgaon will be our last look at Indian rural life, with a host of picturesque images like peasants crossing it with their herds and sacred cows strolling around on their own. There’s always something to see. Another, more contrasting detail of Indian life is the emergence of business schools and institutes for teacher training. India has made education a primary goal. Even the poorest parents set aside whatever they can to enable their children to attend school. Urban landscapes with billboards advertising this or that school are becoming even more numerous than the signs for Bollywood films!
In Gurgaon, 2 kilometers from New Delhi, we discover a constantly and incredibly expanding India, embodied in this dynamic growth oriented city, with new shopping centers opening every month. It’s the India of business, the urban image of a country that has embraced the modern world with all the strength of its one billion inhabitants.
Less authentic, the city, filled with skyscrapers and fast moving roads, is busy and lively, and the hotel we’re filming here, the Oberoi, had the clever idea of highlighting relaxation in spite of its location in the center of the city. This very design establishment is a bit in the background, and its interesting structure creates an instant feeling of charm. The reception area is on the 5th floor for example, and the common areas on the lower floors. Proud of its modern aspect and its staff that embodies the Indian soul, the Oberoi is a truly stunning hotel. Its all glass and chrome façade reflects the deep blue of the water, and in the evening, the torches that illuminate it create an atmosphere that is both restful and stimulating. Like India itself, where contradictions and paradoxes abound, the hotel cannot help but surprise western visitors.
And yet, the Oberoi is still a very special cocoon among luxury hotels, a haven of comfort where Indian life can be grasped with calm and serenity, an experience that our visit to Gurgaon has once again confirmed.
As the journey and the summer come to an end…
Our journey comes to a close in the diplomatic enclave of New Delhi. In the heart of this green quarter with wide avenues, far from the hyperactivity of the city center, surrounded of course, by rickshaws and taxis, but privileged by its quieter atmosphere. It’s here that we will end our “Indian summer.”
The Leela Palace is a modern palace hotel, faithful to the philosophy of the company in that it represents the dream residence of a contemporary Maharajah. The luxurious materials used, the fabrics and the numerous works of art are all the most precious available. The lobby alone is enough to transport the visitor into a world of splendor and grandeur. Among the hotel’s prestigious restaurants, one stands out in particular: the Cirque. Originally a New York concept, the Cirque proposes a gastronomic blend of French and Italian traditions, a particularly tasty combination the preparation of which guests can watch, since the main feature of the restaurant is its superb open kitchen. On a personal note, we had the honor of tasting the dishes created by the chef, including a buffalo mozzarella made in India with a magnificent creamy texture. During the meal, we noticed the former American Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, simply underlining the diplomatic ambiance of the quarter.
However, our most enriching encounter was yet to come. Since we had very little free time at our disposal, we decided to visit one of the shopping streets not far from the hotel. We were the only westerners in the midst of the large and lively crowd of shoppers. As the sky began to cloud up, a few eyes were raised to the sky, watching the impressive mass of gray clouds, but nobody seemed too concerned. And just as we were asking ourselves if it wouldn’t be a good idea to head back to the hotel, it began to rain over New Delhi, but not just rain: the monsoon! A deluge of refreshing cool water heralded the end of summer and its intense heat, which even the local inhabitants can often find stifling. The radiant, happy and slightly disturbed wet faces were like a communion with the elements. Everyone took refuge under canvasses or in the shops. We could sense the general feeling of joy and the relief.
Shortly afterwards, even before the rain had stopped, some of the pedestrians continued on their way, stopping at the first umbrella stand on the street. We did the same and continued on to the hotel, happily tasting the rain for the first time since we’d be here, soaked to the skin but with a smile, very content to have shared this moment of joy with an entire population. It was on that soggy but happy note that our Indian journey ended, with the hope of returning once again and experiencing even more unforgettable moments as well as discovering other hotels.