Luxury Hotels

I first stayed in a luxury hotel at the age of 27 and a fine thing it was. The soft beds & fluffy pillows, the scraping & aahing of so many, the big cheque at the end – I knew I was somebody. But unfortunately most of that wonder has now been taken away from me. I still love 5 star hotels. But not for their ability to reinforce my self-esteem but for their capability to deliver extreme physical comfort.

In this, the unkind God we live under has been having a bit of a laugh at my expense. Comfort now is less of huge, plump, soft mattresses and more of the anemically firm; less of the fluffy pillow and more of a tiny cotton one. Of course, a bathtub with running hot & cold water and a case full of assorted unguents can never wither. Nor will a Room Service that can deliver a truly crispy masala dosa at any time of the day or night.

The luxury hotels of the Taj group deliver the most physical comfort in India and that I like. While they can scrape and bow like the best of them, they leave you alone if you are of such a mind. I am & so we get along fine.

 

 

Mayang Sari Beach Resort, Bintan

Nirwana Gardens is a resort complex in Bintan that has 3 resort options. The eponymous Nirwana Gardens is the regular place with all the facilities that you expect from an all-inclusive resort hotel. The Beach Club is the place for the serious water-sport enthusiast, with other facilities a bit thin. Mayang Sari is a bit of both. And since we were in a ‘middle-of-the-road’ mood, we plonked for Mayang Sari.

It was a good choice.

Mayang Sari Resort Beach

Mayang Sari

Mayang Sari Beach Resort

Mayang Sari

View of Dubai from a helicopter

Anshul & Rashi took their 5 year old up in a helicopter over Dubai. It costs US$ 800 for a 30 minute (max. 5 adults) and they say it is well worth it. Here is some of what they saw. Check it out the next time you are in Dubai.

A Dubai Panorama

The Burj Al Arab & Jumeirah beach Hotel

The Burj Dubai on its way to becoming the world’s tallest building

Cranes over Hotel Atlantis

Click on for a few more photos.

Continue reading

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata and 10 other Indian cities

HolidayIQ has just revamped its weekend getaway section. Now one can find weekend getaway destinations as well as weekend getaway resorts/hotels by distance from each of the top 17 Indian cities.

Click here to see the new pages:

Weekend getaways from Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata

Weekend getaways from all 17 cities

Planning a holiday abroad? Book your hotel online.

Over the last few weeks I have had a number of people asking me various doubts on planning an independent international holiday & particularly about booking hotels abroad. So, till such time as HolidayIQ launches a comprehensive international section (don’t worry, that is coming soon & I promise, it will be a great planning tool), here is a quick primer on how to book hotels & resorts abroad.

I am an online guy, so my first preference is always to book hotels online. With both Travelocity and Expedia launching India sites, the widest international hotel inventory is available to be booked from India and paid in Rupees. So, it sure beats your neighbourhood travel agent hollow. And since both sites have an Indian call centre, one can also talk to a real person in India to double check your bookings, which is often a real comfort.

I stress-tested booking a family room (4 people, 2 adults and 2 kids) at Orlando – in or around Disneyworld – on both the sites. Both Expedia & Travelocity did a good job and threw up a number of options (although Travelocity gave funny error messages & repeatedly failed in my Firefox browser which was a disappointment). However, Expedia’s search methodology was a shade more user-friendly since it allows you to find hotels by naming the Attraction you want to go to and throws up hotels around the attraction. Of course, both Travelocity & Expedia also allow you to narrow the list of hotels in the search results by distance or ease of access to the attraction.

Both excelled in prices. Hotel room prices around Disneyworld started in Expedia at Rs 1386 per night and in Travelocity at Rs 1583 per night. Continue reading

A couple of new tourism websites

Here are 2 new tourism websites that I recently came across. Each interesting in a different way.

Smallwander

As its name somewhat elliptically suggests, this is a site about travelling to small towns. Currently it covers only four states in the US. In many ways, this site reminds me of HolidayIQ, since over 70% of Indian destinations carried on HolidayIQ can be classified as small towns. This aspect makes is refreshingly different from the run-of-the-mill travel info sites, most of which give you more information than you need about New York City while not giving you any about say, Damascus, Virginia. I would have liked to see a user-feedback section on this site to complete the experience, but I guess it is early days for the site.

Fabsearch

Fabsearch aggregates information about hotels, resorts and restaurants mentioned in top travel and lifestyle magazines, probably making it the first aggregator of such content in the world. A search of places to eat in ‘Bombay’ throws up options selected from articles in Elle Decor, Tatler, Daily Candy & Our Friends. Some of the other publications they seem to track are Harpers Bazaar, Elle, FT, New York Social Diary, Town & Country, Vanity Fair, Vogue, W and Wallpaper. Interesting enough as a concept to see whether it gets traction.

Aman, DLF & Zecha

aman.jpg

The big news is that an Indian real estate company, DLF has purchased Aman Resorts, the very high end resort operator for USD 250 million. The interesting part of the news is that this represents just a tiny portion (well under 1%) of the current market cap of the recently listed DLF. Ok, so that is headline. Now, for the analysis & context.

Adrian Zecha the founder & CEO of Aman has done this before. In the early 90s, Aman was sold to LA based Colony Capital and Zecha left the company. What followed demonstrated the power of the man behind the brand. Aman’s regular, very rich clientele decided that Aman without Zecha wasnt quite the thing they wanted and started to drift away. Soon, the money bosses had had enough. They sold the company to a HK group and Zecha was back running the business. So, will there be a replay this time?

DLF is a listed company and listed companies do not make great custodians of luxury brands. Continue reading

Utsav – a fantasy island holiday

Last night I was watching the old period movie Utsav. Where have all the Indian women who look like Rehka gone? Anyway, that is besides the point.

It is my thesis that premium holidays are going to move much closer to ‘experiences’ than to ‘places’. While Aman Resorts was the pioneer of the place-based experience holiday (Adrian Zecha, the founder of Aman says that all Aman does is to put a picture frame around an extraordinary natural setting), the next step will involve a creation of a composite, enveloping experience. And in this, I am pretty certain that Period experiences will be a big thing in the future. A new breed of vacations specialists will emerge, combining the detailed recreation of movie sets with powerful mechanical & digital capabilities of the amusement park industry and the sophisticated guest management of top end resorts. Targeted at the premium segment of the leisure market, these vacations will induce people to ‘voluntarily suspend disbelief’ for a much longer time than the 2 hours of a movie, maybe even up to a week.

Utsav, Girish Karnad’s mid-80s period movie is the perfect inspiration for one such vacation. All guests will have to shed their modern togs in favour of ancient clothes, electricity will be completely banned and the mood will reflect the life & times of Vasantsena & CharuDutt. It is my hope that I get to conceive this project. And if given a chance, I would love to set this project in one of the uninhabited islands of the Andamans.

In the meantime, I still cannot figure out where the true Indian woman went.

Go Goa : the Beaches of Goa

It is now official – Goa is the biggest vacations spot for Indian domestic tourists. Over the last 3 years HolidayIQ has been tracking its members & users who are amongst the most ardent holiday-goers in India and the data is clear & unambiguous. Goa gets more domestic holiday-goers than any other single location.

HolidayIQ lists 18 Goan destinations for tourists, from the ever-popular Calangute beach to the lesser known Varca beach to the secret Chapora & Palolem beaches. HolidayIQ also has a free downloadable Guide to Goa’s Beaches which you can get here.

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Click here to get this guide>>

11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India

I was doing one of my usual google searches for HolidayIQ and stumbled upon something that is very gratifying. The sentence was – “One of the best travel sites we’ve seen anywhere on the web”. Apparently, IndiaStreet, the online magazine for new projects & investments in India, did a detailed exercise to identify what they called “11 disrupting web 2.0 companies that will Change India” and lo & behold, HolidayIQ is one of them. When one is immersed in work and in creating something new, there is very little time to look up and see how far one has reached. This, for me, is a sure marker of our progress. Obviously, happy about it.

Here is the link>>

6500 Indian resorts, hotels, home-stays & guesthouses

HolidayIQ has now listed 6500 resorts, hotels, home-stays & guest-houses across India. About 40% of these properties have got reviews from actual guests who stayed there, which is amazing for our country. This is simply because of the consistent hard work so many travel-crazy folk have lovingly put into this over the last 3 years. I still remember early 2004, when this project started as India Resorts Survey – a travel-lovers initiative set up by a small group of holiday junkies. It has really grown up now and it cannot be easily replicated.

The count of accommodation options at the major tourism states are: Goa Hotels – 384, Kerala Hotels – 642, Rajasthan Hotels – 561, Himachal Hotels - 381

For the bigger cities, the count is : Delhi – 198, Mumbai – 176, Bangalore – 171

Out of this list, 1157 India hotels are in a mountain or a hill setting, 554 are Beach hotels in India, 161 are wildlife hotels and 92 give the traveller an inland waterfront experience.

Byron Bay

Seems this is the best-known “undiscovered” place in Australia – so I decided on a dekko. In any case I had wanted to try out Virgin Blue, so booked with them for the one hour flight north from Sydney to Ballina/Byron Bay.

Byron Bay used to be a hang out for hippies, so it still retains the charms of an ageing hippy. Long hair & wispy beards complement a distinct undertone of vaguely “eastern” influences. But since the 80s, yuppies and international back-packers have discovered Byron Bay. So, yoga classes and spiritual sessions mix easily with hordes of surfers and whale-watchers.

Almost everyone I met in Byron Bay was relaxed & friendly. It could be that I went in the Winter there and without too many tourists, locals had a chance to stand & converse. Or it could be that I had 3 days of no work all, making me a relaxed person to talk to. Either way, they were friendly.

The sea in Byron Bay has this extraordinarily blue colur of water. Jutting into the water is the cliff face of the Cape Byron Headland Reserve. Hiking up & down the trails of the Reserve, along the seaface, with the water on one side and dense tropical coastal forest on the other is something I would earnestly recommend.

Byron Bay is the eastern-most point of Australia and a great place to watch for whales, while they migrate to & back from The Great Barrier Reef.

I spent a blissful 3 days in Byron Bay, wandering up and down. Couldnt get to meet Olivia Newton John though; she owns a resort there and was in town while I was there. Munching battered fish & chips in The Fish Heads was great too. Sure beats getting my head chewed by the rush hour traffic in Bangalore.

Click here & here to get a couple of interesting perspectives on Byron Bay. Or click here for all my posts on beach vacations.

Also, here is a Byron Bay video I found in Youtube

Best Hotels by Travel + Leisure : Where is Aman?

Another ‘Best Of’ list. Travel + leisure magazine has announced the best of tourism for 2007. Included are the Best Hotels, Best Cities, Best Islands, Best Airlines, Best Cruises, Best Car-rentals, Best Tour Operators and so on.

The big Indian story of course is that the Oberoi Udaivilas comes in as the Best Hotel in the world. The really interesting news for the cognoscenti is the absence of any Aman Resort in the World’s top 100 list for 2007. Intrigued, I checked out the 2006 list – Amanpuri had come in at a low 72nd rank last year. Is this a reflection on the properties of Aman or on the readers of T+L?

World’s best restaurants

The Restaurant magazine has listed Bukhara at Delhi’s Maurya Sheraton among the world’s top 50 restaurants and the best restaurant in Asia. I have done my rounds of Bukhara & yes, it is a pretty good restaurant; but the best in Asia? Proves once again that nifty ‘selling’ is a key component of such awards.

I consider myself a foodie – for me nothing in a restaurant is as important as its food. Not the ambience, not the location, nothing else. Which is why I believe that the best food in the world is still authentic street food. So, maybe Bukhara does stew its Dal for 18 hours & maybe Bill Clinton could’nt have enough of it. But for an authentic “royal” experience of food in Northern India, I would much rather trawl the streets of Delhi or Lucknow.

Incidentally, India is one among the 15 countries to figure in the top 50 list. France tops with 12 restaurants in the top 50.

Orissa – the next big thing?

Two separate items in this morning’s Economic Times caught my eye. One was a news item announcing a massive road infrastructure project in Orissa to carry iron ore to the new Posco steel project. Anyone who has spent some time in Orissa (I did my time of about 6 months, 20 years ago) understands the criminal neglect of this state that is hopefully now getting slowly rectified. Another was an advertisement by the Orissa government inviting developers for luxury hotels on Shamuka beach in Puri. Seems Orissa is waking up.

It is my firm conviction that Orissa is one of India’s jewels in tourism and needs lots of attention. Is there any Indian (or for that matter anybody interested in India) who can ignore the land of Ashoka, the Konark temples or Lord Jagannath? But more to the point, Orissa’s virgin beaches & multi-hued landscape can be developed into buzzing centres of water sports and other holiday activities – important to all those Indians below 35 years of age, for whom activities on a holiday are important (going by activities offered, all other Indian destinations except Goa, seem to think that tourists are geriatric, has-beens who need only peace & quiet – sorry, this is a pet peeve of mine).

So, is Orissa finally going to happen? Wait and watch..

Niche, influential, defiant

These 3 words were written recently to describe both Adrian Zecha, the founder of the Aman Resorts chain and Steve Jobs of Apple. If I have benchmarks, they are it. Their businesses revolve around building lifestyle services created out of a wonderful personal aesthetic.

Obviously, neither of them run the biggest businesses in their chosen fields. Apple is so much smaller than Microsoft – but, given the Mac, the ipod & the iphone, can there be any comparison? Similarly, all the rooms of all the resorts owned by the resolutely niche Aman Resorts can probably be fitted ito a large chain hotel in one place. But again, no product in world hospitality can be easily compared to an Aman.

Sorry to gush – but that is the way I would want to make products – as things of beauty.

Gates vs Jobs : check out this cool animation video

Weekend breaks

As the monsoon sets in and summer holidays become a memory, urban India goes into the short-break mode. Soon HolidayIQ will be flooded with users trying to find weekend getaways from various cities. When we put togethe the Weekend Getaway option on HolidayIQ, we did not anticipate the huge following this feature would get.

The Weekend Getaway feature on HolidayIQ lets users find holiday options around 18 cities of India. The best part is these can be searched by distance from the city, upto a distance of 350 kilometres. I have great fun playing with this feature even when I am not planning a holiday. Dreaming.

Here is the list of 18 Indian cities from which weekend breaks can be found on HolidayIQ:

Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Cochin, Coimbatore, Delhi, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kolkata, Lucknow, Mangalore, Mumbai, Mysore, Nagpur, Pune, Thiruvananthapuram, Vizag

Times of India & HolidayIQ

India’s largest media group, Bennett Coleman & Company Limited (BCCL), the owners of Times of India has just announced their investment in HolidayIQ. It is indeed satisfying to see one’s creation grow up – an emotion somewhere between that of a movie director and a parent. It has been an interesting journey. To jump into areas one had limited knowledge of (travel industry & media business), try out a new concept – the first asian travel media organisation – and see it validated by the biggest media company in India has been a roller-coaster ride. Now, the stage is set for initiatives across multiple media channels – mobile, books, magazines, TV shows etc. Looking forward to lots of action.

Teppanyaki in India

Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き) is a type of Japanese cuisine that uses an iron griddle to cook food. The word “teppanyaki” is derived from teppan (鉄板), which means iron plate, and yaki (焼き), which means grilled”, says Wikipedia

Teppanyaki is that point where a lot of my “lifestyle obsessions” come together. This is where my love of east asian cusines mixes with my fascination with the spareness of japanese presentation, melts into the warmth of having a social meal around a fire and rounds off with the theatrical convivality of its chef/presenter. I love the alchemy.

Last night I had a great Teppanyaki meal at the Zen restaurant in Leela Palace hotel in Bangalore. Continue reading