I have travelled extensively and stayed at more than 1000+ different hotels over last 15 years. So every time I arrive at a hotel, I am expecting some things like a reception area, some kind of dining area (or a proper restaurant), a certain type of formal welcome etc. However there are some stays over the years have remained etched in the memory for being totally unlike a hotel (I am deliberately excluding homestays as they are meant to be a home and not a hotel).
The Neemrana Experience
Neemrana Hotels through the 1990s and 2000s specialised in restoring Forts, Palaces, heritage villas and bungalows. They are the first hotel chain that openly positioned themselves as “Non-Hotels”. My first experience was when I arrived at their newly opened stay in Matheran “Verandah in The Forest” in January 2003. There was no formal reception. One enthusiastic young man greeted us and showed us around (I was visiting the hotel and not staying). Thereafter I visited Glasshouse on the Ganges (Rishikesh), Neemrana Fort Palace (100 kms from Delhi) and their two other stay options in Fort Cochin, to only confirm what I already knew, that the whole Neemrana family had embraced, a philosophy of genuinely warm and down to earth hospitality and made a big virtue out of it. After my Neemrana experience I always wonder if everyone needs to have a reception, need to have managers in black suits with a plastic smile. To a smaller degree some other chains have made the service experience more genuine and less type casted. However nobody till today have take this as far as Neemrana has. Neemrana hotels across India even today remain the only true “non hotel”.
The SWASWARA Experience
Swaswara (180 kms from Goa), was my first wellness getaway ever. I had a few CGH stays earlier so was fully prepared for their down to earth and authentic style of experience. At Swaswara I was greeted by their manager Anjali Tolani, who took a small briefing on Swaswara and its philosophy. Everything after that was like spending time with a one large family. Everyone was genuinely affectionate, we enjoyed long conversations and made many friends. There was open Kitchen we got things cooked based on what we liked. We participated in the daily routines with much gusto. When we departed, it was with a sadness of parting with your family members after a short vacation. The interactions went much beyond our 5 days stay and even today are in touch with Anjali (She has moved on from CGH) and Swaswara remains one of our warmest and most affectionate experiences.
The Meghamalai Plantation Bungalow
We arrived at a plantation bungalow in Meghamalai, a completely isolated tea plantation area on edge of the Periyar forest. There were no tea stalls, no hoardings and nobody selling anything. Bungalow stood in middle of a 5,000 hectare estate. The bungalow had a cook and a caretaker. The caretaker ensured that he was there for us from morning 8 to 10 at night and drove us around in his Jeep to tea estate, waterfalls, lake, viewpoints etc. He was our friend, philosopher and guide. The cook served us multi course meals (we often lost count) to a most awesome gastronomy experience. The Colonial recipes were mixed with local flavors to create a truly memorable cuisine experience. Everything requested was met with a smile and a “Yes Sir”. It didn’t feel like a hotel, we felt like we were the only guests on a 5000 hectare tea plantations, in fact we felt like the owners of the plantation owners for the 3 days we stayed.
The Private Palace – Chittoor Kottaram
CGH introduced Chittoor Kottaram, a private palace in middle of backwaters in outskirts of Cochin. I was fortunate first few that was given an opportunity to review it. We were picked from a point and a short boat ride later we arrived at Chittoor Kottaram. It was a private palace given to one guest at a time and we were the only guest to a Palace that perhaps was once a private getaway of the Local Maharaja !! We were treated to a private boat ride to get a feel of the neighbourhood, local markets and experience sunset. We returned to a private prayer at the personal Guruvayoor temple of the Maharaja. Evening was made memorable with a private dance performance from a Mohini Attam (A dance form of Kerala) artist. Meals was prepared by a local lady, who prepared the most extensive and authentic homely feast ever. The night passed like a breeze and the next day we moved on with our trip. It never felt like a hotel while we were there but I surely felt like a Maharaja !!!
The Banjara Experience
Sangla Valley – Spiti Valley were like a mystery till we decided to uncover it with a trip in 2009. Banjara Retreats were a name there which we had heard. We arrived to Banjara Retreat Thanedar (near Shimla) and the trip thereafter unfolded into something that we will never forget and Banjara Retreat stays (Thanedar, Sangla and Kaza) was central to the whole experience. Banjara retreats had superb locations, super homely meals (used locally sourced ingredients / spices / pickles in meals), had a set of very warm and genuinely nice people and there was nothing formal about being at a Banjara Retreat. The whole idea of active holidays, soft adventure and being with nature complimented superbly with the Banjara style hospitality. The plus side was that we met some of the most sophisticated travellers from across India and enjoyed long unpretentious conversations. The owner Rajesh Ojha remains in touch even today and if there was a Himalayan retreat I wanted to go back to again and again then Banjara Sangla it is !!!