Sunday, August 10, 2008

Multiple Energies in Mumbai

Mumbai means business, and so does the new Four Seasons Hotel, opened barely a month ago in the up and coming Worli district, in the city they used to call Bombay. When the property goes fully on-line in September, the 33-story structure dominating the skyline will feature 202 top-grade luxury suites of uncompromising comfort and quality, catering to the international business traveler, and celebrating the awakening of India’s global aspirations. What an impressive property this newcomer is.

The lodging aspect tracks with the established Four Seasons style of over-the-top comfort. Much thought has been put into these quarters, with memorable and unexpected details like loaner books and top-grade Darjeeling teas hand-selected by GM Armando Kraenzlin, placed in each room. Tea and silk, accented by warm woods, café au lait marble baths, L’Occitane amenities, glass-walled rain showers, soothing light and rich tapestries enhance the sensual package. Both business and leisure travelers stopping over will find extreme comfort in these, the largest guest accommodations in Mumbai.

Because of the hotel’s excellent situation in the geographical center of Mumbai, any room boasts astonishing views of the city. Outside the hotel windows hawks ride the thermals in the stifling mid-day heat, sometimes to the background sounds of the call to prayer from a nearby mosque. West-facing rooms overlook the Arabian Sea, where whitecaps roll in and break dramatically along the curvaceous waterfront. South-facing rooms have panoramic angles on the Mahalaxmi Race Course and the teeming business district. The most spectacular vistas will be found from the Presidential Suite, a 3,336 square foot aerie with private elevator, configured to expand up to a 3-bedroom apartment if needed.

Dazzling public spaces have just the right variety. There’s a comfortable vaulted lobby lounge with a full bar, illuminated by backlit marble, ideal for casual business conversation. Off to the left is the entrance to the molto moderna Prato Italian restaurant, which doubles as a bustling breakfast room. Its very authentic menu transports you to the Mediterranean, through a creative array of innovative and flavorful interpretations executed by Chef Matteo Arvonio. He’s backed up by the endlessly intriguing work of Chef Patissier Thierry Methee, whose gateaux and cakes never cease to delight- hot tip: available for take-out, an added bonus. Behind the bar you will find Prato’s spacious terrace: the hotel has a removable window system which installs during the oppressively humid monsoon season, thus maintaining a constant and comfortable climate-controlled temperature year-round.

The real centerpiece of pubic spaces is the adjacent San-Qi (“Three Energies”) restaurant, an outstanding fusion concept with its own separate entrance, which brings together under one roof the best of Indian, Asian and Japanese cuisines, housed in a spectacular bi-level restaurant, ringed by a variety of opulent private dining spaces. These windowed rooms and the very desirable eight-seat Chef’s Table are prime locations for theatrical culinary entertainments, especially those involving live cooking. The partnering of three top-notch chefs (think: The Three Tenors, except with food) is a brilliant stroke, allowing a confluence of wisdom and tradition which delivers a striking array of tastes. Try the signature dumplings called “momos”, or the Indian thali-style platter, or anything sushi. This restaurant steps into the marketplace as a premier dining and entertaining destination in the city, featuring power lunches built for speed and simplicity, opulent dinner options, and even a Sunday brunch ideal for families.

A business hotel needs to provide more than bedrooms and dining, and this Four Seasons has a state-of-the-art business center equipped with wood-paneled conference rooms and comfortable workstations augmented by an accessories box next to each monitor, staples, tape, pens, paperclips, the stuff you always need that you always forget to bring along. Details like these make the difference between just-plain-great and extraordinary properties. After you sleep, eat, meet and send your emails, some healthy endeavor sounds like a worthwhile alternative. Here the Four Seasons does not disappoint, with a stylish outdoor pool terrace; owing to its newness it’s a favored location for fashion shoots, so wear your shades and coolest swim togs. You can avail yourself of morning awakening and evening enlightenment yoga sessions in the Chi Studio, under the direction of Dr. Kannan, in-house ayurvedic guru. There’s also a Rossano Ferretti hair salon, and a complete day spa occupying two stories of light-filled space, where guests can savor a bevy of treatments aimed at wellness, rejuvenation and wellbeing. Check out the VIP suite at the spa- and get ready for 500 square feet of major pampering. For the truly adventurous the hotel offers a guided mountain bike tour of Worli, a total immersion into the sights, sounds and occasional smells of the neighborhood.

How do you build a property offering such a complete package? You begin with experienced management who possess career dedication to the craft of hospitality. Four Seasons has posted a team of their most talented executives to Mumbai for the launch of this, their first property to open on the subcontinent. Next, you hire and develop young staff from the local area, and impart to them a corporate style which emphasizes the highest standards. In the process you generate a real family feel, which every employee interaction successfully communicates. Finally, you pay attention to local sensitivities, backed up by meaningful community involvement.

Mumbai is primarily a business hub, not a tourist destination. Though it is known as the gateway to Goa most visitors arrive to do business. Abundant shopping, nightlife, eating, the excitement of the racetrack or perhaps a Bollywood studio tour can round out the activity package. Ask the concierge. You might even score a ride in GM Kraenzlin’s spiffy red Ambassador Avigo, and really attract some attention.

Four Seasons has spent years perfecting skills in meeting the unique demands of top-tier business travelers, and here one finds the first class standards one expects from the brand. Repeat guests understand the benefits: easier business travel, more rewarding leisure travel. Which explains what inspires such incredible cross-property loyalty whatever the location.

Four Seasons Hotel Mumbai

114 Dr. E. Moses Road, Worli

Mumbai 400 018, India

Tel +91 22 2481 8050

Fax +91 22 2481 8177

Authentic and Indian
When hotels in France are awarded stars to indicate their quality, the guest welcome -what the French call l'acceuil- figures greatly in the final evaluation. If this were the test in India, Shanti Home, a boutique hotel set in a residential quarter in West Delhi, would easily get the top rating of 5 stars. Operated by former hospitality professionals who understand what intrepid wanderers crave the most, this mid-range property is a warm outpost, both traditional and real, away from the horrors of the road. It is one where your visit begins with a sincere welcome which sets the tone for the entire stay. Here the weary traveler discovers everything good about the Bed & Breakfast model, enhanced with 24-hour room service and a cozy spa. You quickly find comforting human touches you would never get at an Oberoi property where you could easily pay five times the money every night and never feel the soul of India. But don't expect that weird, opportunistic, sucking-up behavior the big chains seem to always provide with their high-cost lodgings. Vagabonds suffering from the malady called monolithic hotel fatigue will find that Shanti Home offers true relief.

What are some of the differences?
It's smaller, only 17 rooms, so few in number they don't even bother with numbers, using names drawn from Indian culture and geography. You're only obliged to remember which of the 4 levels your room is, and punch the appropriate elevator button. This also means the staff to guest ratio of 1:1.5 insures attentive service and security. It's comfortable, modern, clean and spacious, an excellent value at US$125-175 per night.
The rooftop terrace restaurant features home cooking. Chef Adil Khan faithfully recreates his mother's traditional recipes with the utmost affection and accuracy. His range of breads are a brilliant discovery, always perfect. While the kitchen offers Western-style dishes, there's such a beautiful variety of traditional fare it could keep your palate busy for a long time. Stay with the Indian food, and graze the menu.

The decor is authentic, interesting, eclectic, varied, much of it custom-made for the hotel. Here is a hotel which values local craft, and has drawn its decor from every corner of the Indian subcontinent. It's all in the details, like an authentic elephant's headpiece or stills from Bollywood classics, unique ceramics and wood carvings or an armoire made from an antique temple door.

There's a no-tipping policy, so service people won't hang around after an interaction, palm upraised. If you are so moved to tip, tips are shared by all at Shanti Home- you simply discreetly put what you want into one of two ceramic duck banks, which can be found at reception or at the restaurant. If you want to tip, owner Rajat Verma says, "feed the duck."
There are no televisions, except for a big plasma screen in the 2nd floor theatre. This escape from the oppressive and omnipresent media makes the hotel environment all the more peaceful. A property for readers, not watchers. But there are also loaner laptops in the public spaces, and free wi-fi throughout the property so one does not feel digitally isolated.

It's located in West Delhi- and why would anyone choose a property there? For openers it's quiet. Your correspondent stayed in a perfectly acceptable chrome-and-marble business hotel in East of Kalish for about $25 a night more. It fronted the metro construction site, meaning constant traffic noise and dust. Had to ask for a room on the back side of the property. All the rooms at Shanti Home are tranquil. And West Delhi isn't Siberia, just the opposite from what the travel agents want you to believe. The hotel sits only 20 minutes from the airport, and 40 minutes by car from downtown. The Uttam Nagar metro station lies 300m from Shanti Home, and it will get you all the way to Connaught Place without any fumes or horns or potholes or beggars in about 20 minutes, no hassles about the driver parking and waiting. This is both a sustainable act, not to mention a great convenience, especially at a maximum fare of Rs.14, about US 35 cents each way. The Delhi metro is modern, clean, efficient and cheap. Unlike the chi-chi competitors, Shanti Home provides a metro map in your welcome package- and on the back of the sheet are helpful Hindi phrases, something not ordinarily seen at other hotels in Delhi.
The hotel can issue you a loaner mobile phone for your use while in town. This means you will never get lost, or be too far from an instant consultant-concierge. Simply hit the autodial and you may reach the ever-reliable Pooja at the front desk. She can negotiate anything.

Let's be perfectly clear: Shanti Home isn't a luxury property. But it has all the trappings: en suite baths, abundant hot water, big towels, great ayurvedic soaps, a nice restaurant, efficient room service, and management can arrange anything from a day at the Taj Mahal to a motorcycle tour of the South. It's certainly secure, and caters mostly to leisure travelers. The hotel doesn't advertise in flashy glam publications, building its healthy repeat business by word of mouth. If you like the aloof and antiseptic style of super-high-end hospitality, and rubbing shoulders with entitled tourists traveling with excess attitude, then go elsewhere.
But the little pleasures and human touches of this lovely property are the secret surprises: you might stumble upon a sitar lesson in progress in the second floor lounge, or spontaneously join a yoga class. Or simply relax up on the terrace poised on a soft cushion and sip one of Chef Khan's deletable mango lhassis as the breezes pick up and the sky turns ruby to orange to saffron, to the strains of a night raga. It is then that you will know you have arrived in the true India.

Shanti Home
A-1/300, Janakpuri
New Delhi 100 058
Tel +91 11 4157 3366


Saturday, August 09, 2008

At the intersection
of land and sky

July 18 and 19th the Rocket Mavericks Foundation hosted its second annual Competition in the Black Rock dry lakebed, about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Reno, Nevada, in the same general area Burning Man is held.

It's a rough-and-tumble affair, where grizzled and not-so-grizzled rocketeers truck their privately built devices out to the open spaces and fire them into the sky, sometimes as high as 100,000 feet, high enough to record the curvature of the earth on little webcams that instantly transmit photos back to earth. The whole thing has to be cleared with the FAA and the BLM beforehand, and the monument has what they call a "leave no trace" policy, meaning everything you bring in you are obliged to bring out. If the friendly ranger finds any sign of transgression he gleefully writes a big fat ticket. The Mavericks assemble an RV city, an instant camp that during the baking hot day, under an intense sun, hums with people at tables putting together strange electronics, vehicles rushing about the lakebed kicking up dust clouds, and the occasional moment when the whole camp freezes, absolute silence and the guy with the red button starts a countdown everybody can hear, "5-4-3-2-1." Then out to the north comes a crackling gutteral roar as the engine ignites and for a few brief seconds you catch the slender shape kick up a cloud of dust and head skyward, borne atop a brilliant flame.

Higher she climbs out of sight, until someone spots her floating down, parachutes unfurling. Later when the rocket cools they drive out to retrieve it wherever it fell, in whatever shape it lands. Some come back souvenirs, others live to fly another day. At dusk another atmosphere envelops the camp as worktables shut down -except for those about to do a night launch, of which there are fewer- and as the sun sets over a distant mountain range the fires are lit and the bravado kicks into high gear. For the faint of heart who don't mind a drive of 30 minutes over the dry lake, rudimentary hotel rooms can be booked at Bruno's Motel in nearby Gerlach at around US$60/night. The desert's splendid isolation and the 360 degrees of sky make this remarkable. But it's the cast of characters who contribute to the madness that makes this experience an extraordinary one. To view a souvenir booklet documenting the event go to For more information see