A sip of freshly brewed masala tea while looking across the rooftop vista of downtown New Delhi and you truly know you’ve arrived in India. But enjoying a haute cuisine dining experience in Kolkata a few days later might not have been so obviously typical of what one expects from the country. And herein lies the dichotomy of India: poverty lives in tandem with privilege; chaos alongside the cathartic; and basic (in the original sense of the word) acts as a backdrop for bling. From unique travel experiences to the thrill of the rickshaw ride, India’s cultural appeal has never been so exciting – or diverse.
This is a country that’s evolving fast, right down to the recently-elected President. Five star hotels, fine dining and stylish resorts are pushing forward a more luxurious style aesthetic and at the forefront of this is the Park Hotels group, which has blended a boutique feel with a luxury hotel experience. Expert contemporary design, slick décor and over 1500 pieces of artwork as well as some of the finest fare available – including the group’s show-stopping ‘Anything But Ordinary Experiences’ – more on that to follow…
But first let’s get back to New Delhi, where old world charm sits happily alongside a more modern pace of life. It’s a vast metropolis with historical influences from English occupation to Muslim rule evident everywhere. Our exploration begins with a short trip on the shiny new Metro Rail system that takes us to the market area. It’s fast, modern, very cramped and reminds me of being in the epicentre of Notting Hill Carnival, complete with no control of which direction I’m moving in and some wandering hands. For this early morning trip to Khari Baoli, Asia’s largest wholesale spice market, we’re joined by The Park New Delhi’s Head Chef Abhishek Basu, who expertly instructs us on the ingredients providing a vivid array of colours and the exotic, aromatic scents that fill the air. Bags of fresh turmeric and dried rose petals are just a few of the packages we pick up as we stroll the streets.
By rickshaw, we take a fun-filled, if rather bumpy ride with a few eyes-closed moments (they drive perilously close and much faster than you think) to the revered India Gate. In contrast to the market scene, the arch – built in remembrance of those who died in WWI – is comparatively peaceful, surrounded by a wide, flat space fringed with palms, perfectly manicured lawn and empty pavilion that previously housed a statue of King George. Another New Delhi must-see on Connaught Place is the stunning Jantar Mantar: the 18th century observatory featuring 13 astronomical instruments with sweeping architectural designs built into the russet red bricks that can be seen all over the city.
A hop back across the road to The Park and we’re ready to shake off the dusty day. The hotel is themed around elements of nature, from the Miami-esque pool area and Aqua restaurant for grills and cocktails, to Fire for award-winning Asian cuisine and Mist with a Med-Asian fusion feel. With some insider knowledge of what it takes to prepare the fare on offer thanks to our market trip, there’s no underestimating the starring role of the food of offer. Even the shade of the crockery is selected to highlight the colours of the cuisine as we tuck into tikkas, parathas, paneers, marinated mushrooms and an endless array of mouth-watering sauces.
The hotel’s 220 rooms and suites meanwhile are lavish and equipped with everything you need for an indulgent stay including welcome vials of essential oil blends – Peace and Dream – to help you recover from your journey there or a hard day’s sightseeing. Of course, there’s wifi, flatscreen TVs and all the mod cons you might need – India’s certainly up to speed when it comes to tech.
Two hours flight further is Kolkata: a city around a tenth of the size of New Delhi and much less cosmopolitan. Here, the economic divide is infinitely more evident, and moving between five star luxury and the extreme poverty in the streets outside is hard to reconcile. However, it’s a city that is rich in sights and in spirit. We head to the Howrah Bridge: a vast structure that spans Hooghly River, which flows from the Ganges, and allows a view across the banks that is nothing short of spectacular.
We walk down to the fruit market, packed with exotic looking produce, and to Mullik Ghat Flower Market to gaze at the garlands and ceremonial arrangements in bright shades of yellow, red and green that look even more vivid against the muddy ground. Walking by the riverbank however is something of an assault on the senses as the murky water – where men are busy washing – combines with the heat to whip up an almost overpowering smell.
A wander along the winding streets takes us to little hidden temples that are pockets of tranquillity and cleanliness, as well as the Potter Quarter where sculptures and paintings catch our attention. After stopping for tea at the famous Flury’s – which has been creating glorious haute patisserie treats since 1927 – we visit Mother Teresa’s Motherhouse, a place of prayer and reflection for the many visitors and pilgrims that come every year. The small chapel houses her tomb, while the museum displays a beaten dinner bowl and worn sandals, and upstairs is the simple room where the Nobel Peace Prize winner worked and slept for over 40 years. It’s a sombre experience that reflects the deeply soulful side of Kolkata.
And finally we arrive at the main event: the Park Hotels’ first ‘Anything But The Ordinary’ experience, entitled ‘Under The Table Dinner’. Created in collaboration with renowned Amersterdam-based food designer Marije Vogelzang, it’s immersive in every sense of the word. Amongst some 200 guests, we find ourselves underneath an oversized, draped table, feasting on magical food as if we were children “away from adults and their boring rules,” as Marije puts it. Surrounded by orchids and jasmine, we tuck into delicate plates of saffron candyfloss, lavash bread with crushed amaranth and peppery muhammara dip. Then there’s lamb risotto, caramelised walnuts and cheese stuffed Kashmiri mushrooms. The menu is as endless as it is artistically presented. Cute, cartoonish notes arrives with each course offering insights such as ‘Dig in’ and ‘A balanced diet is chocolates in both hands’, further boosting the fun factor.
The Park Kolkata itself is a fitting venue for such a creative concept. From the lobby upwards it channels a nightclub-cum-art gallery vibe with disco ball lampshades, tinted glass walls, reflective counters and kitsch 70’s chairs that are crying out for a James Bond villain to swivel round in. There are a staggering array of dining and clubbing experiences too, from Zen, where diners can see their Japanese, Thai and Chinese food being prepared in the open kitchen to the high-octane Tantra nightclub where guests party with the stylish Koltata residents and where we worked off some of the many calories we’d just consumed.
With a final dash to pick up more spices, sari fabric and chai tea – make them your take-home essentials – our Indian adventure was over. And it was indeed, anything but ordinary.
Rooms at The Park New Delhi and Kolkata start from £125. For more information and to book, see the hotels’ website.