A delight for all senses
An explosion of colour, a cacophony of blaring horns, an assault of smells and the most extraordinary food on earth – a trip to India proves a delight for all of the senses . At the time when my contemporaries were bumming around the world on gap years, I was pursuing other dreams in my quest for magazine editing fame (ahem), and whilst I may have swapped Delhi belly and dubious travelling companions for a regular salary and a place to call my own in London town, I always felt a little like I had missed out… So I come to my Indian adventuring a little later in life, which is no bad thing when it means I can swap dirty hostels for five star accommodation. Give me 200-thread count bed linen over bed bugs any day. Not to mention a glass of bubbles in the Plaza Premium Lounge at Heathrow to settle pre-flight jitters.
First port of call is Kolkata, India’s second biggest city. The former capital of British India, it is almost impossible to think of the city without picturing its poverty-striken masses, but locally it is regarded as India’s cultural capital – home to intellectuals and creatives. I am tired and jet-lagged, and my transfer from the airport leaves me reeling. The city is a mind-boggling contrast of colonial architecture set against slum towns and sleek modern shopping malls, there are people everywhere and the early evening air is punctuated by the sound of car horns blaring.
My base here is THE Park Kolkata, which just happens to be celebrating its half-century while I am in town. But while such a long history might suggest colonial old world charm, like all of their properties, THE Park group’s flagship hotel is strikingly modern and anything but ordinary – as the glittering disco balls in the lobby and iridescent tiled reception desk attest. It is no surprise to learn that over its 50 years, the hotel has always been at the epicentre of Kolkata’s nightlife (surprisingly sprawling for a boutique hotel, it boasts a cocktail bar, nightclub, pub and licensed late night café, plus three restaurants serving contemporary Indian, oriental and world cuisine, a poolside juice bar and a whole host of lavish function rooms).
The half centenary celebrations are in full swing on my first night, and everyone is invited. The music plays, the drinks are flowing and delicious food keeps coming. The hospitality is staggeringly generous, but as the clock approaches midnight the revellers show no signs of winding up. Exhausted from my earlier flight, I slip away, relieved to discover that my bed is blissfully comfortable and my beautiful room gloriously soundproofed.
Time to explore
The next morning, on the recommendation of a local partygoer from the night before, I pay a fascinating early visit to the colourful Kalighat Hindu temple, where the crowds are already gathering to pay their respects to the goddess Kali. This is followed by a leisurely breakfast at Flurys tearoom. Like the hotel, it is situated on buzzing Park Street, the city’s main thoroughfare and shopping street. Inside it is wonderfully kitsch, decked out with original Deco detailing, and it serves a delectable menu of contemporary confectionery in the style of a grand European café. It is easy to see why it has become a Kolkata institution.
A meandering tram ride serves as the perfect way to take in the city’s attractions. Kolkata’s network (and the trams serving it) appear not to have changed since colonial days, and there is possibly no better way to become immersed in the local sights and smells: the colourful city buses and yellow taxis snarling up the roads; locals herding goats across busy carriageways; immaculately dressed school children heading to school, tiffin tins in hand; weaving bicycles laden down with improbable loads varying from hundreds of coconuts to enough bricks to build a small wall; delicious smelling, brightly coloured street food stalls; friendly football matches on the green open spaces of the Maidan and courting couples outside the Taj Mahal-esque white marble Victoria Memorial. And everything accompanied by a soundtrack of ever-honking horns. It is bonkers but strangely beautiful.
In contrast to colonial Kolkata, Hyderabad’s old town is home to some of India’s most impressive Islamic architecture (in varying states of disrepair). It is still very much up and coming as a tourist destination, but with the Qutb Shahi Monuments and the Golconda Fort tipped for inclusion in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, that is set to change. I’m keen to get in before the crowds.
Fewer tourists do not mean quieter roads, though, and after a nail-biting ride from the airport I am relieved to check into the calm of THE Park Hyderabad, which sits in a coveted spot on the shores of the Hussain Sagar lake. I enjoy a sundowner on the glorious terrace – taking in the view of the lake, and the colossal stone Buddha statue at its centre – before heading for dinner, which comes in the form of a delicious, authentic Hyderabadi feast at Aish, THE Park’s fine dining Indian restaurant.
The Old City
Early next morning I am back on the terrace for a group yoga session as the sun rises over the lake, followed by a leisurely dip in the infinity pool and a healthy breakfast. It is a serene start to what promises to be a packed day of sightseeing in the Old City, starting with a tour of the magnificent, sprawling Golconda Fort. This fortified hilltop citadel was built by the Qutb Shahs in the 16th century. The climb to the summit is hard work in the heat of the day, but worth it for the views over the crumbling outer ramparts, to the domed tombs of the Qutb Shahi, and beyond that the distant shanty towns and the smoggy haze of the city centre. And close up the 21 granite tombs are even more impressive, sitting serenely in their landscaped gardens.
Sustenance is called for, and the award-winning Simply South proves a good choice for lunch. It is packed with locals – always a good sign – and the southern Indian food more than lives up to its promise. Set up for more sights, I make my way to Chowmahalla Palace, the opulent home of the 18th and 19th century Nizams. The garden courtyards are gloriously peaceful after the manic buzz of Hyderabad’s streets, and the 19 enormous Belgian crystal chandeliers in the magnificent hall are a (perhaps somewhat unexpected) sight to behold.
There’s just time for a spot of shopping in the Laad Bazaar. Famous for bangles (in their thousands) it is also a brilliant spot for people watching, though with the ever present crowds it is far from relaxing, so I am only too happy to head back to the hotel, where I have a wonderfully restorative massage booked at the peaceful spa. Just what the doctor ordered before a long flight back to the UK.
For inspiration planning your trip, see incredibleindia.org