Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of THE Park Hotels
It is said that when the British left India, nobody told Calcutta. Flying in from Mumbai, over the bright orange, blue and yellow painted houses that hug the perimeter of the airport, flanked by the marshes of the Bengal delta, I wasn’t certain what to expect. This was not my first visit to India but was my first to the eastern side of the country, having never passed through Calcutta/Kolkata airport, a hub that has served as a strategic stopover on the route from Europe to Indochina and Australia. Many pioneering flights have passed through this airport, including that of Amelia Earhart in 1937.
Thankfully the airport is a little more modern than in those days, though, being escorted out by THE Park Hotel employees to our waiting cars we were surprised to be met with the sight of a 50’s white Ambassador, flagged as a government of India official vehicle. These cars define Calcutta or Kolkata as it is now known – the taxis are in bright yellow livery, the government cars in white and private vehicles in black and deep mauve – as they show they enduring link between England and India. This and the tramway are two of the legacies’ of British occupation. A third is the Kolkata ‘lung’, the Maiden, a large area of green parkland owned by the Indian Army, periphery areas of which are given over to private clubs, football, cricket, and goats. It has meant that Kolkata doesn’t suffer the smog seen recently in Delhi, though it does have an air pollution problem, as do all the major cities in India.
We were driven with expediency to the hotel – everything in India is a little expedient, and one of our guides commented ‘we have great laws, they just aren’t enforced very well’. It is also joked that those from Kolkata annoy the rest of the country because their time scale is a little slower than normal, though if this were your first visit to the country you would still think life is lived at breakneck speed. You immediately have to get used to the rules of the road. If there are two lanes you will see four cars abreast. If a car wants to change lane it honks its horn and moves, expecting whatever is in its path to move out of the way. The only time the roads are quiet is first thing in the morning. I woke at 5 am the first morning I was there to ravens chatting on my windowsill and a quiet street, save for an armoured Indian army vehicle, below.
This was the greatest revelation of this trip – Kolkata’s residents are not great morning people, preferring to party until the small hours. THE Park Hotel is ideal if you are such a party animal. It is a bolt hole away from the compressive nature of the street outside, whilst at the same time being a go-to party destination. The bars and nightclubs allow you to dance until you drop, but if you need a break, a little exploring will lead you to an inner garden, known as The Well, or to the calm of the seated area near the pool. These little pockets of peace, along with the extensive collection of modern art, give you the feeling of partying in a private residence – instead of all hiding in the kitchen, when you need a break and a natter, you can find a lounger or a rattan swing chair and chill.
The first night we were there was the main 50-year party celebration at the hotel and we gathered for drinks in front of an ice sculpture laden with Moet and Chandon. There were burlesque dancers draped in feathers and a live band, various food courts, each showing the elements which make up the hotel. Guests were provided with a map, the cover photograph of which showed the front of the hotel, something you wouldn’t have perceived having been driven to the entrance, which is at the end of a tunnel.
THE Park Hotel Kolkata has both Italian and Chinese restaurants as well as a wide range of Indian dishes, and an endless array of desserts. All tastes were catered for – from Sushi to Biryani, to eclairs and gateau. There was also Flurry’s chocolate in the Champagne bar if your sweet tooth wasn’t sated, Flurry’s, a famous local chocolatier and tea room, also owned by THE Park Hotels group.
After a day of flying, none of our party was really into partying and at midnight we all departed to our rooms, thankful for the big beds and triple glazing.
We had an early start the next day, in order to visit the Kali Temple at Kalighat, the oldest shrine in the city to the goddess Kali, before the crowds descended. The building is 200 years old and has an underground water source, which in recent years has had work carried out on it in order to clean the water in the neighbouring Kundupukur, a large tank whose water is supposed to help those who are childless.
The façade of the building is decorated with peacock tiles that reminded me of my Great Aunt’s hallway in Brackenbury Village, Hammersmith – solid Victorian tiles that have stood the test of time. The place is very holy and we were accompanied by a lady who made a devotion to the goddess and who prayed. For westerners, the idea that goats are sacrificed here might be too much, but it is worth a visit to understand the fundamental nature of the gods, and the aim for nirvana, in Hindu life.
Getting back to the hotel we headed straight to breakfast, where both European and English options were available. I find breakfast fundamental to the day so it was very welcome that I could order porridge.
We were then ushered back into air-conditioned cars in order to take a tram ride along the Maiden. Kolkata is the only city to have an operational tram network and the modern trams are air-conditioned with glass ceilings. This environmentally efficient form of transport even has its own museum. The tram we were on was at least 80 years old and had the original interior. It stopped for a while, at the central bus station, allowing us to watch a street barber and others go about their daily business.
On our return, we had a brief moment to explore the street outside the hotel and investigated the Oxford Bookstore (www.oxfordbookstore.com) which is literally next door to the hotel. Here I bought Khushwant Singh’s Notes on the great Indian circus, a small book written by a Sikh. An insightful book to have, on a trip such as this.
Returning to the hotel we sat down to a Bengali banquet, laid out and served in the traditional manner. With scrolls telling us the order of the food my colleagues tucked in. I was limited as I’m vegan but managed to stop the over-eager servers long enough so that I could munch on elements of the meal without sitting there being an observer. In the hallways leading to the banquet, there was traditional Rangoli decorating the walkway, which was beautiful to see, being such a unique Indian art form.
Another quick change and another car trip, this time as guests of the great, great, great, grandson of the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Indian ‘King’ of the region before the lands were absorbed into the coffers of the East India Company. We thus visited the gardens of the Victoria Monument, a beautiful peaceful area around the museum, which allowed us a little peace in the Kolkata afternoon. The monument is the twin of the Taj Mahal, being constructed of the same stone and was designed as a memorial to Queen Victoria, another empress, at a time when Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the capital of India. It has a unique rotating Angel of Victory on top of the central dome that is 16ft high. This is definitely a place to return to, being overlooked by Kolkata’s St Paul’s cathedral.
We were then whisked to the former riverside residence of the Nawab, which reminded me of the Temple on Temple Island in Henley, with its huge Greek columns and vaulted ceilings. This building is now used by the head of the railway system in Bengal but sitting taking tea next to the river, it was still a little bit of Empire.
A quick shower back at the hotel and we were whisked to the private residence of Priya Paul, president and creative director of THE Park Hotels. This was a unique, experience, where the pool had been covered over to be used as a dance floor and food was cooked in front of your eyes in the extensive garden. This was Priya’s childhood home and it has stood the test of time, a beautiful oasis protected by high walls and palm trees. There was even a Bentley on the drive though I don’t think driving such a beautiful car in the city would be easy.
We were treated to rooftop music and a wide range of food with an eclectic range of guests to mingle with. It was here I learned that Priya’s husband, Sethu Vaidyanathan, is also vegan and her son is vegetarian. It seems that food habits across India are changing.
Returning to THE Park Hotel at midnight, I had planned to use the hotel pool the next morning…but I overslept. A pity because it was a decent size, perfect for any business person who wants to keep up with their training whilst travelling, particularly as the poolside gym was well stocked with machines and free weights and even a Concept 2 ergo rowing machine.
We met as a group at 9 in order to walk up to Flurry’s, the tea and confectionary chain also owned by THE Park Hotels group. This was a step back in time, the interior reminiscent of Belgian Belle Epoque, with a dazzling array of European style chocolates and pastries being presented behind the glass cases. It would make a great set for a 1930’s film. We all had different tastes and the pancakes one of my fellow travellers had were huge!
Having some time to ourselves, three of us walked from Flurry’s to Mother Theresa’s tomb. An insightful walk, not for the squeamish, as a chicken was slaughtered as we walked by, such a walk is where you learn of the true dichotomy that is India – beautiful and cruel, passionate and chaotic. This is where the sanctuary of the boutique hotel is its greatest strength. You are in the centre of Kolkata but you can, if you feel the need, escape and retreat from the chaos, to recuperate and start the party all over again.
Being in India to celebrate THE Park Hotels 50 year anniversary turned out to be quite a party – not just because of the events going on at the iconic boutique hotels themselves but because of the opportunity to see more of this vibrant, colourful country. I’ll be continuing my story and writing about our stay in Hyderabad in a later post, so watch this space.
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Rates at THE Park Hotel Kolkata start from £100 per night. Based on two sharing a Deluxe Double Room on a B&B basis, excluding tax.
Rates at THE Park Hotel Hyderabad start from £63. Based on two sharing a Luxury Room on a room-only basis, excluding tax.
For further information or to book please visit www.theparkhotels.com
For further information or to book the Plaza Premium Lounge at Heathrow Terminals please visit www.plaza-network.com
For further information about India or to book please visit: www.incredibleindia.org