Variety

Green and gorgeous

RASHEEDA BHAGAT | Updated on: Jul 07, 2011
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The Taj West End, Bangalore's spectacular luxury hotel, retains its old world charm in the midst of the buzzing metropolis.

More than anything else, it is the greenery….the fresh, fragrant, rain-drenched and lovingly maintained acres of green… that first seduces your senses. Coupled, of course, with Bangalore's gorgeous weather… a gentle sun playing hide and seek with dark clouds, almost for an hour before the skies opened up and sheets of water came down to add even more charm to the mind-blowing varieties of exotic flora — 125 kinds of trees and over 500 types of shrubs, ground-covering plants, among others — at The Taj West End.

But then, this unique, 124-year-old hotel's charms are abundant; bang in the heart of a mega city like Bangalore, you have 19 acres of this verdant space with an old-world charm and colonial architecture that defies description. Today any hotel which wears the “luxury segment” label rolls out for its guests the red carpet with comfortable, well-appointed rooms, king-size beds with fluffy, feathery pillows that can lull you to sleep in a flash, huge Plasma TVs, shining marble floor washrooms and similar paraphernalia. I had to even send away my butler and the inviting cup of hot chocolate he brought, as the sumptuous dinner at Blue Ginger, its classy Vietnamese restaurant, was a little too much

But you know it's a Taj hotels property when you return to your room to find your carelessly flung clothes neatly folded, the cable of your BlackBerry charger rolled up and fastened, your iPod nestling in a lovely silk case, and your lipstick, kajal and hair brush which were hastily strewn on the dressing table as you had to dash out for that appointment, placed on a laced, white serviette. I couldn't help chuckling when I returned to my room the second night, after an unbelievable “dinner under the stars”, to find that the butler had decided I was not the hot chocolate type. This time on offer was a miniature bottle of Hennessey Cognac, placed near the bed with a glass and napkin!

Under the stars

When you are invited to review a property, you are obviously a “special” guest, and so the transfer from the airport was in style — in a Jaguar. And so was the dinner under the stars on the spectacularly landscaped terrace where a special canopy was put up in case the sky opened up again. As also a personal yoga session. But it is walking that extra mile, for which the Taj is so well known, when the General Manager, Sanjay Sood, who has a huge and happening banquet to attend to, refuses to leave me alone as my dinner companion is delayed elsewhere. I give up, after assuring him for the fifth time that sometimes I honestly like to be by myself.

What is unbelievable is that The Taj West End has managed to retain its old-world charm, and that too so effortlessly, over more than a century. Bangalore's first hotel, it was built in 1887 and was offered as a 10-room facility to visitors by the Bronsons, a British couple. Many of their guests were Brits who came for the races… both the race course and a golf course are attractions nearby. This was run as a genteel Boarding House till 1912, when the Spencers took over. The facility was expanded with some more tiled roof cottages decorated with fine trellis work. In 1984, the Spencers struck a deal with The Indian Hotels Company, which has since firmly stamped on the property the distinctive Taj ethos.

The Taj ‘software'

But let me turn to Subroto Bagchi, Vice-Chairman of MindTree, who insisted on just nibbling at the fruits while I dug into the delicious bissi bele bhat and idli-vada , as we met for a tête-à-tête during my two-day stay at the West End. A keen student of the Taj hotels for sometime, he says: “Hotels like the Taj are not about hardware. Hardware comes easily; they're about software. It is the software that distinguishes the Taj hotels.”

In his “fascinating study” on how an organisation builds and evolves and how long it takes to develop its own special ethos, he has concluded: “This company (Indian Hotels) has one of the best software in the world that allows it to get and retain the kind of talent it has. It is not the property or the way the luxury is built in hotels such as this, but the experience the guest gets. This is the finest example on offer of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, as we all saw during the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.”

That extraordinary passion for what they do is amply evident in this Taj property too. With the most spectacular part of this hotel being its luxuriant, sylvan green surroundings, a nature walk with the West End's Manager-Horticulture S.V.L Prasad is high on my agenda.

An enchanting nature walk

As we set off around 4 p.m. the clouds had taken over, a cool, gentle breeze was blowing and Prasad set a brisk pace while pointing out exotic varieties of trees, palms and other flora. At one moment it was a century-old gulmohar, at another he showcased the fantastic collection of palms; you name the palm and he had it… Champagne palms, Triangular palms, Cycas palms, et al.

By now the gentle drizzle had strengthened into a downpour; he hastily organised a huge umbrella for me, but firmly turned down my request to share it. Suddenly he stopped at a dense wooded area to explain how tree canopies normally branch out to get the sun, “but here branches have come closer into a heart-shaped formation. Many marriages take place in our property in these lawns… and they are all enjoying a happy, married life.”

Maintaining the brisk pace even as his suit, shoes and the rest of him get drenched, he regales me with tales of how he has rescued Brahminy Kites that were caught in the drainers of the lily pond in the property. “I dived into the water, and rescued it,” he beams. As the downpour intensifies, Farheen Mansoor Singh, Deputy PR Manager, phones to ensure I am safely back in my room. When I tell her I'm enjoying the walk under the umbrella, she worries I might fall sick. Prasad brushes such concern aside and leads me to a lush green region where he has planted flora that butterflies love. “Several varieties of butterflies come here and we have to give them plants they love.” We then walk to a couple of water cascades that have been created to add more beauty. And, of course, the lily pond; “Just as guests need extraordinary beauty, luxury and service, birds need water and fish, and they get both in plenty in our property,” he says.

The 117 rooms and suites are spread out to offer sufficient privacy, with the USP being the guests getting an eyeful of greenery.

My suite, done in an impeccable style with earthy tones, had both a private balcony as well as a spacious verandah with a lovely sit-out. And wherever the eye could see, it was only green… palms, shrubs, flowering plants.

Keeping it natural

The challenge, says Sood, who has been with the Taj for 25 years, is to keep it as natural as possible, ensuring that “you get air-conditioned comfort if you prefer that, or sit out in the garden if that is your choice.” At the Mynt, the 24-hour coffee shop, we enjoyed our “high tea” on the lawn. Tucking into the delicacies on offer — from macaroons, blueberry clafoutis (a French dessert) and chocolate pastries to salmon brioche (a French roll), scones and corn/mushroom tartlets — one couldn't imagine doing this outdoors at 4 p.m. on a summer afternoon in Chennai without being bathed in sweat.

The easiest thing, he adds, is to convert anything into a very structured and easily-maintainable thing; but the challenge is to keep it natural, maintaining its inherent beauty. While most of his guests are from the corporate world, half Indian and half foreign, “we do get a decent share of the leisure segment and honeymooners.” A small number of locals love to just drive in, check in for the weekend and relax in the luxurious, charming environs of the West End. It isn't surprising when he says, “Many of our guests love to walk around or relax and don't want to get out at all.”

After all, in how many places in India, in the month of June, can you enjoy the luxury of curling up with a book in the non-a/c environs of a picturesque sit-out, where everytime you lift your head your eye encounters enchantingly lush greenery so soothing to both the mind and soul.

The hospitality industry is defined by repeat guests and a whopping 60 per cent of this hotel's guests are repeat customers. Interestingly, you can see some typical national traits here too. While the South East and East Asian guests are a little aloof, those from the UK want to be left alone. “They say leave us alone; if we need anything we'll come back to you, which is fair enough and our staff is trained accordingly.” The Indian guests, of course, are the most demanding.

Sood adds that a future challenge for the hospitality industry is luxury styling; “not only delivering but exceeding the guests' expectations”.

At the Spa, located in the building that will turn 125 next year, the off-white and maroon tiles grab your attention as they belong to an era that has gone by.

The deep tissue massage that Jami, their masseuse, gives me is both energising and relaxing. So much so that I need neither a cup of hot chocolate nor a shot of Cognac to slip into deep slumber, hugging the tiny, soft pillow with my name embroidered on it in maroon… my favourite colour. Talk about fine details!

Published on July 07, 2011
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