In the Footsteps of the Raj

New Delhi’s Imperial hotel conjures a time long past

By: Michele Kayal

With a driveway lined by 24 towering palms and turbaned sentries at the door, The Imperial hotel in New Delhi will instantly transport clients back to the glamour of India’s Raj.

Built in 1931 by the British as a “legacy” hotel one that would memorialize their influence in India as well as provide a suitably luxurious place for them to stay while in its capital The Imperial remains an outpost for Anglophiles. After five years of renovation (including a 17,000-square-foot spa scheduled to open later this year), the hotel is beginning to reclaim its place among the legendary colonial properties of Asia, like Raffles in Singapore and The Strand in Rangoon.

“The hotel believes in superlatives,” said former public relations director Aruna Dhir. “The oldest, the best, the most unique.”

The Imperial was the only hotel included in architect and city designer Sir Edwin Lutyens’ master plan for New Delhi, and it became the unchallenged meeting place of the international community. The World Bank located its first India offices at the hotel, which also housed 13 embassies. Luminaries of Indian independence, including Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, met or stayed here, as did British figures from King George V to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India.

Management quarrels led the property into decline in the 1970s, but today the international crowd is back. During a recent visit, The New York Times columnist and India booster Thomas Friedman was filming in the lobby and on the grounds. Other film crews sidled up to the plentiful breakfast buffet, and well-heeled tourists from around the world took tea during the too-hot afternoons.

Part of the hotel’s appeal is its elegant, eclectic architecture a mixture of Colonial, Victorian and Art Deco and its effortless conjuring of a time and a political system that was coming to an end, British rule in India. The hotel’s 232 guestrooms and suites offer a similar sensibility. The Heritage wing boasts quaint touches (pull-flush toilet, anyone?), but rooms can be a bit underwhelming. Put clients in the Art Deco wing. Renovated in 2002, the hallway carpets are already a bit dingy, but the rooms let you step back into the 1930s, with hardwood floors and art deco headboards and fixtures. The large bathrooms are equipped with deep tubs perfect for soaking after hard, dirty days of exploring the city’s Red Fort, Great Mosque and other grand monuments. The 44 suites are even grander, with rainfall shower heads, Bang and Olufsen stereo and video equipment and elegant appointments.

Completing the sense that it is someplace special is The Imperial’s renowned art collection. Nicknamed the “Museum Hotel,” The Imperial’s hallways are lined with 3,000 lithographs, sculptures and photographs depicting scenes of great battles, coronation ceremonies or Maharajahs draped in diamonds, their handlebar moustaches curling royally toward their eyes. Roll-top desks, chests with beveled mirrors and other eclectic antiques are strewn elegantly about. The collection is so large that it has its own full-time manager, who offers free tours on request.


The Imperial

The magnificent public spaces full of art, marble, fresh flowers and a groovy international crowd. The restaurants also boast al fresco dining rare in New Delhi in the hotel’s manicured gardens when weather permits.

Service can be spotty and sometimes a request has to be made several times. Rooms that overlook the atrium can be noisy and a bit grim during the day.

Plugging In:
All rooms and public spaces feature high-speed wireless Internet. The hotel also has a 24-hour business center with Internet access and other standard services. All rooms offer two-line phones with voice mail.

Be Aware:
Getting online in the business center can be slow and expensive (about $5 for 30 minutes). Less expensive Internet cafes abound in New Delhi. Taxis or hotel cars that pull up to the entrance will be expensive, but walking a few yards to the main road will allow you to hail a more affordable rickshaw.

Business travelers make up 65 percent of the hotel’s patrons, with high-end leisure clients balancing out the remainder. Eighty-five percent of all clients are international.

Standard double rooms begin at $375 a night. Suites go up to $3,900 a night.

Commission: 10 percent