Sunday, August 10, 2008

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