Taj Mahal Palace
Mahakavi Bhushan Road, Apollo Bandar, Mumbai, India; 1-866-969-1825; 91-22-6665-3366; tajhotels.com. 560 rooms from $460. Taj Mahal Palace has a Silver Earthcheck rating.
The Ravi Shankar Suite in the Taj Mahal Mumbai’s Palace Wing is the newest specialty suite to delight guests returning to this icon of luxury and hospitality in India. Blue VelvetThis renewal comes two years after the Taj Mahal Palace reopened its century-old heritage rooms, favoured by royalty, rock stars and tycoons, that were damaged in a terrorist bombing.
Taj spent $37-million (U.S.) to restore the hotel, but it hasn’t forgotten the staff who died in the attack. Families of the 15 employees who lost their lives will be paid the deceased’s salaries for years to come, as well as medical benefits and education costs for the employees’ children.
The Taj Mahal was built in 1903 in the Indo-Saracenic style, a British architectural movement drawing elements of native Indo-Islamic architecture into the neo-classical style of the Victorian age. And for the recent rebuilding, Taj owners insisted on a soulful restoration. As a result, the heritage wing is more darling than daunting, more hypnotic than haunted. While most Indian corporations are impervious to the greater value of collecting art, this landmark has played a vital role in curating and archiving Indian art for decades. Five specialists spent 10 months removing soot embedded in nearly 300 pieces of art.
At first sight of the Primrose Suite, I’m struck by the sheer sprawl of the living room, which opens to a domed dining room with seating for six. Waiting in the marble bathroom is a gold plate lined with fresh tuberose petals filled with specialty skin-care products, a tempting teaser to the Jiva Spa on the ground floor. But my favourite room is the Rajput Suite, where barefoot John and Yoko stayed for five days without leaving once. Brad and Angelina also enjoyed lying in the delicious Ploh feather bedding. Spread over 1,800 square feet of old Rajasthani opulence, balconies dot the suite and the study offers a telling contrast between the sexiest working “desk” I’ve ever seen and a lyrical swing where the Beatle and his bride were photographed in each other’s arms. When Barack and Michelle Obama visited two years ago, they slept in the 5,000-square-foot, 15-room Tata Suite, which comes with 13 dedicated staff and a fully equipped private spa overlooking the Gateway of India monument.
Staffers at this hotel are united in a way that goes far deeper than traditional team-building exercises. Taj maintains a positive recruiting policy and it shows in the staff’s friendliness. Younger staff members were the most keen to deliver “above and beyond” service. During my stay, I was taken on an unofficial tour of the palace wing. My guide was trained to never turn his back on a guest when engaged. I tried several times to see if he would break protocol, but he never lost eye contact. The formal white-glove service here is impeccable and always on point.
What’s shiny and new in the more exclusive signature suites since the remodel? Ergonomic desk chairs for stressed-out chief executive officers, Sony home theatre systems to plump that Bollywood sound, 24-hour butler service and airport transfers by India’s finest fleet of Jaguars and Bentleys. In the Palace Lounge (the exclusive hub for higher category bookings), complimentary cocktails, hors d’oeuvre, plus after-dinner chocolates and cognacs are offered. Most in-demand insider amenity? The “lucky couch” in a discreet corner of the legendary Sea Lounge where, for the past 65 years, professional matchmakers get down to business. Mumbai’s finest young eligibles meet potential mates for the first time on this sofa, in front of mummy, aunties and anyone else in on the plot.
While Golden Dragon and Souk restaurants offer predictable Asian and Middle Eastern menus, Masala Kraft is unexpected perfection under the direction of chef Hemant Oberoi. Basic ingredients are given new life here as Oberoi banishes masks of ghee, cream and gravy in favour of purest olive oils married to historic techniques to capture the authenticity of classic Indian dishes. Balti curry hounds start with a hand-washing ritual in brass containers, and for obsessive types nervous about running short on hot Indian breads to sop up sauces, the piping hot phulka from the bread trolley is perfection. Inspired by the tiffin service of Mumbai dabbawallahs (basically fast men carrying hot, stacking metal snack towers), chef’s signature “lunch boxes” are a must-try.
If you’re the kind of five-star aficionado with a grand hotel bucket list, the restored palace wing of the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai now, more than ever, stands alongside the George V in Paris and the Savoy in London as one of the world’s great hotels.
Special to The Globe and Mail