A hotel chain that stretches across the subcontinent, The Park hotels offer five-star style and the chance to explore
To a soundtrack of constantly honking horns, I’m whizzing through Old Delhi on the back of a rickshaw, through packed narrow streets and a seemingly endless array of stalls.
The fear-tinged but exhilarating ride forms part of a tour on which stop-offs include Khari Baoli market, where baskets are piled high with dried spices in various warm hues.
The colours echo the facades of both the Red Fort and Jama Masjid, a mosque built by 5,000 workers and whose courtyard can hold 25,000 devotees, which we also visit on the tour (you must dress modestly, but can hire robes if required). The building was created by Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal, as well as the nearby Red Fort.
Another stop-off on the tour describes itself as “neither soaring fortress nor ancient temple, yet it is an unmissable landmark nonetheless”. It is Karim’s restaurant, a venerable institution rated one of the best in Asia by Time magazine, and I can see why. Its interior may be low-key (eg plastic tables), but the ancestry of boss Haji Zahuruddin apparently dates back centuries to the chefs who created decadent feasts in the courts of Mughal emperors.
Our own feast encompasses delicious kebabs, curries and fresh naan, followed by a dessert of rich, creamy kheer (Indian rice pudding made with basmati rice, milk, nuts and saffron).
We return to our accommodation, The Park Hotel New Delhi, part of a boutique five-star chain spanning several locations across the country. Owned by Apeejay Surrendra Group, whose wide-ranging business interests include Typhoo Tea, it is headed by hotelier Priya Paul.
The hotel is situated in the business and entertainment hub of Connaught Place, and from my room overlooking the busy streets of this city of more than 11 million people I watch the stalls below with hawkers selling wares from books to multicoloured fabrics.
After a visit to the Aura spa for an invigorating massage, we join in with the elaborate celebrations for the hotel chain’s 50th anniversary, having the previous night sampled the impressive work of executive chef Abhishek Basu, who is focused on sustainable, organic produce.
After starting with two probiotic drinks, including kombucha (fermented tea), presented in test tube-style glasses, we work our way through a range of dishes described as “India on a plate”. They include curry from Kerala and an earthy dish of organic black peas from the hills of Uttarakhand.
It’s time to leave diverting, busy Delhi behind and take an internal flight southeast to Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal, which on first impressions seems calmer and less built-up. Here we check into another The Park Hotel, opened in 1966, the same year that The Beatles toured India.
After dropping off our luggage we head out to the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity, where Mother Teresa lived, prayed and worked. There is a small museum dedicated to her life, and we also see her modest living quarters, making for a very humbling experience.
Back at the recently revamped hotel, we are all the more appreciative to dine in Zen, one of the restaurants that is part of the extensive remit of affable chef Sharad Dewan. It is Conran-designed and there’s an open kitchen where we watch the elaborate work of Chinese, Japanese and Thai chefs and sample ultra-fresh salmon carpaccio, spicy mushroom and truffle dim sum and lobster in champagne sauce with garlic noodles. The meal culminates in an artfully presented dessert platter with black sesame ice-cream.
We also get a glimpse of the hotel’s striking outdoor pool and some of its nightclubs, but it’s time for an early night after a busy day, and the next morning we head out for breakfast to Flurys, which is located further along Park Street. Founded in 1927 by a Swiss expatriate couple, it strikes me as a kind of Indian version of Yorkshire institution Bettys. Bought by the Apeejay Surrendra Group in 1965, it underwent a revamp in 2004 and its cabinets – stocked with immaculately presented confectionery and baked goods – are a Kolkata institution. After some dithering I order the French toast, one of Flurys’ signature dishes, which arrives with a small plate of fresh fruit.
Fortified, we have one final destination to visit and make our way by boat along the Hooghly River (the main channel of what was called the Ganges or Ganga), past passengers disembarking from packed ferries and two-man fishing boats quietly making their way through the water. Slowly, the quiet grandeur of a turmeric-yellow building comes into view. It is The Denmark Tavern in the town of Serampore, which was established in 1786 when the area was under Danish control, and is being relaunched this month as a six-bedroom hotel managed by The Park Hotels, with an outpost of Flurys, after extensive renovation.
Ideal for those looking for a quiet break and to explore the Serampore region and beyond, I like the idea of hiring the whole place out for a blissfully peaceful stay. Indeed, it manages to pull off the impressive feat of being gloriously tranquil with relaxing views of the river, yet just a few minutes from the hive of town activity, with vibrant colours in everything from the building facades in lime greens and blues, to tuk-tuks in NYC cab yellow.
The décor of the property is the most classic and understated of The Park properties we visit during the trip, and we enjoy lunch of more delicious curry dishes in the central atrium, my final treat before heading home from an unforgettable experience of India that has only whetted my appetite for more.
Rates at The Park New Delhi start from £100 per night.
Rates at The Park Kolkata start from £80 per night.
Rates at The Denmark Tavern start at £115 per night.
For more information visit www.theparkhotels.com