A taste of Taj: Mary Gostelow visits India’s two newest hotels

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Until a year ago Amritsar, spiritual home of the global Sikh community, had no luxury hotels. There were places that had beds and, particularly in the warmer months, you could sleep outside under the covered cloisters of one of the courtyards of the giant area that is Sri Harmandir Sahib (also known as the Darbar Sahib or Golden Temple). This absolutely gorgeous temple encompasses a man-made sarovar pool finished by Guru Ram Das in 1577. The whole thing is so religiously charged that anyone going there feels as if the battery has been completely recharged. Arriving at the complex you have to take off shoes and socks and, later, before entering the inner Golden Temple (no photos allowed), you must have your hair covered.

In fact as soon as you get into town you are aware of being in another world, akin to a trance. The streets are so clean that you feel you could eat directly off the ground. There are no official police; they are not needed. The essence of the Sikh religion is to look after others, regardless of race or religion, and holy men wander around with big staves that fortunately seem to be purely for decorative purposes. Others carry big curved knives, showing they have attained Sikh sanctity. This means neither sex can remove any bodily hair, they must carry wood combs, eschew alcohol and meat, wear an iron bracelet and long underwear, and men carry swords. At least 65,000 people visit the Golden Temple every day, including Sikhs from as far afield as Toronto and Sydney, and non-Sikhs, who must cover their heads. Remarkably, every one can sleep here and eat, any time, 24/7.

I have been around large and copious catering kitchens before, but nothing to rival this production. All run entirely by volunteers, there are areas for preparing carrots, others for peeling garlic. Vats the size of bathtubs cook rice, vegetables. People are wheeling around giant racks stacked high with metal plates with four compartments, like a TV dinner – you help yourself to a plate and a spoon, and sit cross-legged anywhere in long lines. Servers walk along with buckets, ladling something out: you get – in lightning time – dal, vegetables, a runny porridge and a dessert (perhaps cut fruit), a tin mug of water, a bowl of rice and as many chapatis as you want. And imagine the subsequent dishwashing: volunteers, standing at 30-foot troughs, deal with 65,000 sets of utensils, plus cook pots, every day.

One year ago, however, Amritsar did acquire a luxury hotel: the very agreeable Taj Swarna, run by GM Sumeet Taneja. He has got his food as well organised as the Golden Temples, and a lot more varied: you can choose Chinese, which is really popular with Indians, or a sanitised version of Indian street food, the choice of tourists flocking from UK, France and Germany, drawn by the mystique of the Golden Temple. You can also choose one of the Taj international comfort foods, say fish and chips, as on menus at Taj London. One tip when staying here: plan at least two full days to do it justice to other sites as well as the Golden Temple, and ask the really lovely guest services staff, who are not surprisingly praised so often on TripAdvisor, to book freelancer Sahil Singh as your guide.

Next I flew south to Goa. The area’s landmark Fort Aguada was built by the Portuguese in 1612 to guard against the Dutch and other marauders, and today it still dominates the beautiful beach south of Candolim, near the Mandovi River in North Goa. Look down at it, today, from the amazing 17 hectares of steeply sloping gardens that form a unique feature of one of Goa’s most serene luxury hotels, Taj Fort Aguada Resort & Spa. Its two main blocks of bedrooms were built, down by the pool, in 1974. Three floors, without lifts, and still none. The local antiquities people have ‘do not change anything’ at the top of their agenda, though it is said they will now allow one external lift.

That was not always so. In 1983 the Commonwealth Heads of Government were coming to meet in Goa, and this Taj-owned hotel then added 17 beautiful little bungalows nestled into the gorgeous gardens. I stayed in number 512, a two-room villa (not really an Indian term – unlike the word bungalow, ‘belonging to Bengal’, which originated here in the 17th century). Villa 512 is where Mrs Thatcher overnighted, and it must have made her feel very much at home. I have stayed in exquisite intimate hotel-houses before and, honestly, this is one of the most agreeable and serene that I remember. David Edwards recently restored all the villa interiors and I especially like his blue colour palette.

Wood-look ceramic-plank floors are inset with Portuguese-style blue-and-white tiles. Most walls are gentian blue, with white outlining, and all artworks, throw cushions, bed throws and even the fabric blinds at the total-21 windows around the suite fit into the colour scheme. The result is a genuine stage set, if that is not a contradiction in terms. An entire stay here is really enjoyable, and villa guests will be even more delighted when a dedicated (villas-only) lounge with full dining, and a pool, opens in a couple of months’ time. I did venture down the hill, a good 10 minutes’ hike back to the main gateway and through to the gym, spa and tennis: I also headed down for a walk to the Fort’s ramparts, and for breakfast on the all-day restaurant’s outer terrace, sensibly completely netted over to keep greedy crows out.

Dinner had been poolside, at Morisco grill where you choose your just-in catch, in my case giant king prawns, cooked to order. The soft sound of gently breaking waves made this a memorable evening, especially as I was with the GM, Ravi Nischal, a charming would-be doctor, who, like so many of the best hoteliers, fell into hospitality ‘by accident’. Stay here, by the way, and you have the advantage of signing privileges at Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa, five minutes by shuttle (this, explained that property’s GM Ranju Singh, is indeed village-like, with lots of space between colourful units that reminded me a bit of Le Guanahani on St Barths). My advice, honestly, is stay at either of these properties, and simply do not go off-campus. Goa, in general, has two major challenges, for which read opportunities. One is to do something about the airport and its passenger experience. The other is to get rid, somehow, of the cartel that runs the white ‘taxis’ – no meters, take your chance on quality of vehicle and even more on the driver’s skills.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com

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