ENSCONCED in a luxury yoga hotel in the Himalayas, or in a resort matrix like Goa, you might just be able to avoid the clanging, overwhelming reality of India as you go about your daily business. Not in the cities. No matter how luxurious your hotel, enclave, or colony (as certain leafy districts are known), the moment you leave the gates – even in a leather-seated Jaguar – you are assailed. This is why, if you’re planning a trip to India, getting the balance right between the sweltering heat and chaos, and your retreat from it all, is of paramount importance.
If you’re visiting northern India for a Rajasthani or Himalayan odyssey, or sliding down the east through West Bengal for some tiger spotting, the chances are you’ll find yourself in Delhi or Calcutta. These are cities well worth visiting, but beware: outdoor life is an onslaught no matter how much money you have. Particularly if you’re female, white and sporting red hair (take it from me).
Here are a few of the best places to lay low while living high in Delhi and Calcutta.
Taj Mahal Hotel, New Delhi
The Taj rears up at number one Mansingh Road, a “prestigious” address on one of Edwin Lutyens’ wide boulevards. The foyer here is knock-out – the rooms (or mine anyway) less so. Think enormous, sky-high lobby, marble floors and tessellated stone, clusters of businessmen and languid, sari-clad ladies sitting in plush armchairs taking tea and cake. The large pool, visible from the lobby, could use a repaint and a new floor, however – and the water was far too warm by late afternoon to provide anything like a refreshing dip.
If the hotel needs a bit of a facelift, the service is excellent. I relied on the concierge for everything from taxis to maps to print-outs of my boarding pass, promptly delivered in an envelope to my room. I didn’t eat dinner at the hotel, but I did score a tasty takeaway breakfast of paratha and lentil dumplings for my flight the next day, and I can report that the martinis at the hotel’s iconic but dingy-ish bar, Dick’s, are tasty. They’re also pretty much the only thing in India with London prices (apart from wine).
Rooms are perfectly nice but mine – a regular double – was a bit out of date. The bathroom would not have impressed those used to gleaming, spacious marble mansions and tech-luxe showers. But what the room did have in spades was light and view – the window was huge, looking out of the green expanse of the New part of Delhi.
For the purposes of a jet-lagged traveller in Delhi for a night or maybe two, the Taj Mahal is perfect: the concierge will help get you organised, the restaurants will feed you well, you can stroll to Khan for some local flavour, and you’ll sleep well in a silk-soft bed in a room with a fabulous view.
Deluxe rooms from £250 plus tax, www.tajhotels.com
The Leela Palace
Wowsers, this hotel is impressive – even for the five-star circuit. Only a year old, the Leela’s got quite a rep in Delhi – the local elite frequent its bars (such as Le Cirque) and you may well see rich youngsters slugging bellinis round the spectacular rooftop pool.
As is par for the five-star course, the hotel is located in an ambassadorial no-man’s land and the surroundings are scrubby blocks of greenish land. But once you’re in the hotel, you won’t really care what’s around it. The lobby is an opulent feast of sexy chandeliers, glass, gold, marble brocade and baubles. There are several restaurants, including an excellent Indian one called Jamavar and a Japanese located in a glass box attached to the main building.
My room featured an all-marble bathroom that might make it difficult to leave – a bottomless square bath probably bigger than the homes of people sleeping half a kilometre away, a shower with a generous marble seat in it and a golden lighting concept.
The spa is also rather wondrous – it’s on several floors and has not held back on flash-factor, opting for the Park Lane look rather than an incense-tinged ayurvedic vibe. I had time for an Ayurvedic massage before dinner and jolly nice it was too, performed (as they mostly are in luxury hotels) by a woman from India’s northeast.
You really must take time to languish by the pool. It’s got panoramic views (never mind that the views aren’t of anything much) and feels very Beverly Hills meets India. As soon as you settle on a lounger, a white-clad pool attendant will bring you a basket containing fresh iced lemonade, water, sunblock, wet towels and so on.
And finally, should you want to leave the hotel, the concierge is ready for you. I asked for a city tour and was provided with a Jaguar, driven by a man with a cap, and a guide who took us to Humayun’s tomb, India Gate, the mosque in Old Delhi and so on. The guide wasn’t great – pinched, obsequious and bored-seeming – but he got the job done and the experience was well-organised.
The Leela is just the place to spoil yourself for a night or two on your way in and out of Delhi.
Rooms from £275 per night, including breakfast. www.theleela.com
Ah, the Rose. A white-washed, art-filled boutique hotel in Hauz Khas Village, Delhi’s arty enclave, full of cafes, trendy restaurants and rooftop bars. Oh, and a stunning medieval madrassah bordering a lake and park that rivals Hampstead Heath – betters it, in fact, at sunset. Though it lacks a spa, pool and numerous restaurants, I loved the Rose and felt more at home there than at the flashier places I stayed, not least because of the free wifi. It’s elegant, interesting and, in its way, luxurious, with fresh pale paint, a bohemian lobby with low cushioned chairs, bookshelves and paintings everywhere.
My room was a vast space of comfort and minimalism, half living room, half bedroom. My friend’s room was much smaller but no less nice. White and blue stripes on the wall made it Hamptons-style cosy and he was snug as a bug.
But the best thing about the hotel is the location. Hauz Khas is simply the place to be if you’re young, arty, bohemian or international. And so, by appearances, is the Rose.
Rooms from £50. www.therosenewdelhi.com
The Oberoi Calcutta
Calcutta makes Delhi seem like Stratford Upon Avon: there are few matches for its poverty and density of population in India, let alone the world. The Oberoi is a striking contrast to the streets just outside it.
Located right in the centre of the city, near Park Street with all its restaurants and bars, the Oberoi really feels like a refuge. It’s incredibly elegant, too – full-on colonial architecture in smooth pale yellow stucco. The marble lobby leads to a large courtyard and pool framed by arches and overlooked by the rooms. The pool is a luxuriant, attractive affair – as are the palm trees, loungers and ice cold beers arranged near it.
My room, a suite, was Raj-style poise itself – lustrous brocade sofas and Burmese teak chairs and glass-topped tables, plus oil paintings of Bengali princes. The bedroom contained a four-poster bed so grand and decorous it exerted a magnetic force field. With two wrought-iron balconies overlooking the pool, I felt a queen.
The Oberoi has two restaurants: an award-winning Thai, and an Indo-European one. The former provides the best Thai food in Calcutta, and possibly in India – we had a very posh feast there and were impressed by the delicacy of the preparations, bar a rather hulking appetiser plate of fried things which was more Superbowl Sunday than five-star Bangkok.
The spa was reminiscent of a wealthy Bengali’s living room. Unlike its more aggressively luxurious sisters, it really did evoke calm, with its high ceilings, tapestries and white-painted wood. My Ayurvedic massage was about as relaxing as it gets (though do not let the therapist put oil in your hair. My scalp itched so ferociously I nearly tore it out).
If you fancy exploring the hectic streets outside – which include a market bursting with fabulous pashminas and saris – simply ask the concierge and a member of staff will guide you for free. Now that’s service.
Rooms from £240. www.oberoihotels.com
NEED TO KNOW
Booking the best experience:
Greaves are the India specialists to go for: for everything from airport transfers to tiger spotting drives to month-long sojourns, they're the folks. They arranged a tour of Calcutta for me, with an extremely knowledgeable guide. In an air-conditioned Jeep, we went to Mother Teresa's tomb and convent, a fascinating street devoted to the construction of clay gods and goddesses for the festival Puja, a Jain temple and the world's largest Banyan tree at the Botanical garden.
Zoe flew Virgin Atlantic to Delhi. Virgin flies twice daily to Delhi from London Heathrow. Economy fares start from £270 plus £340 tax. Upper Class fares start from £1,360 plus £561 tax. Expect champagne bowls, excellent Indian (or European) food, comfy flat-bed, nightwear and a fantastic selection of films. For more information call 0844 2092770 or visit www.virgin-atlantic.com