India’s Shangri-la

Shimla enchants travelers with its laid-back appeal, stunning vistas and natural resources

By: By David Swanson

The Details

Wildflower Hall
Peak season for Wildflower Hall is May-June, the Christmas holidays and around the Hindu celebration of Divali (Oct. 17 in 2009). Doubles range $425 to $445, based on the view; no children under 12 are allowed.

Rooms at the Oberoi Cecil start at $259; children are allowed.

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Scroll down for an update on Mumbai following the November terrorist attacks

A Speedy Recovery

After terrorist attacks rock the city, travel to India is bouncing back
By David Swanson

With more than 170 people killed, the scale of the terrorist attacks shattering Mumbai, India, over three days starting Nov. 26 would have generated headlines on its own. But the fact that the city’s two most esteemed hotels were the scene of a drawn-out battle shook the country’s travel industry. The Taj and Oberoi hotels that were heavily damaged were a prime berth for high-end tour operators catering to both leisure and business travelers.

About 35 percent of the guests scheduled to travel to India in December with tour operator Cox & Kings cancelled or postponed their trips. But Nathaniel Waring, president of the American office of the company, said India travel is bouncing back. "From mid-January onward we have received very few cancellations," Waring said.

Abercrombie & Kent re-routed itineraries involving Mumbai immediately after the attacks; as of December 22 the company’s India itineraries—other than usual hotel options—operated as normal. A&K spokesperson Pamela Lassers also noted that Mumbai is not one of India’s major tourism destinations. "Mumbai is more of a business city," Lassers explained. "The majority of our clients go to Northern India and don’t even visit Mumbai."

Hugging the waterfront next to the colonial Gateway of India, the 105-year-old landmark Taj Mahal Palace represents one of Mumbai’s most iconic structures. A long lineage of kings and presidents have stayed in the hotel’s suites; in one, the Beatles learned to play the sitar from Ravi Shankar. It is also the first hotel in what is now the county’s largest hotelier, Taj, part of the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate. In 1973, Taj added a contemporary hotel wing next door.

During the November attacks, fires raged through the historic wing of the hotel for hours. These rooms and other facilities within the building are unavailable for now, although renovation of the structure and its quarters has commenced. Meanwhile, the tower wing of the hotel reopened on Dec. 21, with 268 guestrooms and suites, along with four of the hotel’s restaurants plus the pool area located behind the original structure.

The Oberoi, Mumbai does not have the historic bearing of the Taj but caters to no less distinguished a clientele, and shares its waterfront location with the company’s 550-room Trident Nariman Point (formerly the Oberoi Sheraton, then the Trident Hilton), a mid-priced business hotel. The attackers used both hotels during the November onslaught, but fire was not the issue here (as it was at the Taj). On Dec. 21, the Trident reopened while renovations at the Oberoi, which bore the brunt of the assault, have begun — a re-opening date has not been announced.

Both Taj and Oberoi have established intensified security measures at their locations throughout India.

Abercrombie & Kent and Cox & Kings continue to use Oberoi and Taj facilities in India. Until the Oberoi, Mumbai and the historic wing of the Taj Mahal Palace reopen, high-end tour operators are utilizing alternate Mumbai hotels such as the new Four Seasons, Leela, Taj Lands End, Hyatt and the tower wing of the Taj Mahal Palace.

Both tour operators said they have not had to alter their ground operation in India. Waring explained that Cox & Kings maintains offices throughout the country and has a "24/7" monitoring system for all clients. And Lassers said that A&K’s ground personnel is empowered to make decisions on a moment-to-moment basis as required, which allowed the company to arrange the rescue of one set of clients out a bedroom window at the Taj during the attack.

"We’re responsible for the client from the moment they get off the plane," said Lassers. "We call it the A&K cocoon."

A visit to India is intoxicating, caffeinated and overwhelming. It’s the kind of experience that seasoned travelers relish. But at the end of two weeks spent tramping through the spoils of the Mughals, the markets of Agra and the lineage of the Mahabharata, who wouldn’t feel positively spent?

So, what struck me first after a few hours in the hill town of Shimla was not what I saw, but what I didn’t: no outstretched palms, no obvious poverty.

Shimla offers travelers amazing views of the Western Himalayas. // (c) David Swanson
Shimla offers travelers amazing views of the Western Himalayas.

Perched 7,200 feet above sea level, Shimla is the "Queen of the Hill Stations," an escape conceived in the 1820s by the lords who ruled over British India from Delhi. As the capital’s steamy heat set each summer, the British Raj would make the trek to the western Himalayas where a refreshing alpine ambience awaited.

Shimla’s status was secured with the 1903 completion of a 60-mile, narrow-gauge rail from Kalka (connecting from Delhi). The "toy train" still operates and now claims UNESCO World Heritage status. Railway buffs love the 5½-hour journey from Kalka, ascending unhurriedly through 102 tunnels to the town. But others appreciate the short daily flight from Delhi to Shimla’s small airport, a route served by Kingfisher Airlines.

Shimla clings to the crest of an eight-mile-long series of ridges, creating an almost fairy-tale like setting. Although the town has grown to 200,000 permanent residents (a number that doubles each summer), Shimla retains a genteel, low-pressure spirit. It is an upscale base for trekking, whitewater rafting and other outdoor pursuits. Eighty miles northwest is McLeod Ganj, center of operations for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan government in exile — and an important center for Buddhism and Tibetan culture. Shopping for Tibetan crafts is also good along the pedestrian-only Mall, a long bazaar at the center of town. You can fill an afternoon exploring Shimla’s Colonial British history with a visit to the Viceregal Lodge and Botanical Gardens.

It’s easy to see how Shimla has become a preferred honeymoon destination for Indian couples, and one of their top targets is Oberoi Hotels’ Wildflower Hall. Located 45 minutes outside Shimla, at an elevation of 8,350 feet, Wildflower Hall was Lord Kitchener’s residence when he was commander in chief in India from 1902 to 1909. The old bungalow burned down and, in 2001, Oberoi constructed a lavish, six-story hotel in its place, in the architectural style of the area — tall, with steeply pitched roofs, as if to mimic the Himalayan skyline punctuating the horizon 50 miles distant.

The interior feels authentic to the Kitchener period, with Burma teak paneling and gleaming parquet floors throughout, accented by oriental rugs. Being a modern facility, the hotel is equipped with contemporary features and meeting facilities, but the emphasis is on leisure, and an activities desk coordinates river rafting (mid-September through June), mountain biking, horseback rides and guided walks around the property.

A spa is located on the lower level of the hotel, but most treatments are handled in a pair of tidy cottages wrapped in pine trees and — sometimes — clouds. There is a chandelier-lighted indoor pool fit for a pasha and a small but well-equipped gym.

Of the 83 rooms, all are essentially identical inside, with either a mountain or garden view. Be sure to request rooms 306 or 309 for your clients — these are the same price as their garden- and mountain-facing counterparts, but are 50 percent larger, with elevated ceilings and exposed wood beams. There are also four suites including the sumptuous Kitchener Suite.

The Oberoi name has an important connection to Shimla. In the 1920s, M.S. Oberoi worked as a clerk in the town’s Cecil Hotel. He then acquired the nearby Clarkes Hotel in 1934, effectively launching the Oberoi chain. The company also owns the 125-year-old Oberoi Cecil, which was renovated in 1997 and remains the most elegant option in Shimla proper, drawing a mostly Indian and British crowd. Although Wildflower Hall is the option promoted to the U.S. market, the Oberoi Cecil has the advantage of being located within walking distance of the cheery Mall. (For clients who really want to experience the area, book them for a couple nights at each.)

"We don’t have any must-dos or must-sees in Shimla," said Wildflower Hall general manager David Matthews. "But we’re finding a lot of guests are using this as a final stop on an Indian holiday. It’s a place to relax after hectic travel."

If there is a must-see in Shimla, it’s the Himalayas. I loved watching the sun creep above a horizon of 20,000-foot-high teeth each morning. And Wildflower Hall allowed me to decompress from India’s sensory overload before embarking on the long flight home. What a treat.

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