Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, Reborn

MUMBAI - The service is gracious and calm at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower. High-speed elevators whisk guests to the higher floors. Ceiling fans whirl and relaxed-looking people swirl chilled drinks at poolside in the courtyard Aquarius Lounge. Executives sip hot, spiced masala tea in the beautifully appointed business center, which occupies most of an entire floor and stays open and staffed 24/7.

During most of the hotel's 106-year history, these things would be unremarkable. Since its founding as Mumbai's (then Bombay's) premier 5-star hotel in 1903, the property has set standards of elegance. What makes it remarkable now is that all this comes less than a year since the Taj, the Oberoi Hotel, a popular nearby cafe and the landmark central railway station, packed with commuters, were attacked by politicized religious fanatics from neighboring Pakistan. The attack killed 183 people and resulted in a plunge of tourism to India. International arrivals fell off nearly 20 percent in the prime travel month of January following the attack, one of the most lethal assaults ever on tourist destinations (not to mention local civilians).

These days, the Taj is skillfully performing a delicate balancing act - balancing hospitality and security. The numerous staffers - the hotel has one of the highest staff-to-guest ratios I've ever seen - couldn't be kinder, and damage to the 1972 tower wing and 1903 palace wing has nearly all been repaired. Still, security is highly visible, and my guess is that it is meant to be, both to reassure guests, who are crowding the hotel again at the start of the Indian tourist season, and to deter anyone who might be thinking of launching an encore performance.

A necklace of hardened barriers and parked cars rings the outside of the hotel. Most entrances have been sealed off. Squadrons of security forces and police man the main entrance, which comes equipped with a walk-through screening machine; luggage is also screened. Just across the street, virtually in the shadow of the signature Gateway of India arch, the Mumbai police maintain a significant presence, parking a battlewagon labeled "Marksmen'' and a big blue bus. The Gateway will be the scene of a planned citywide commemoration of the Nov. 26, 2008, attack - "26/11,'' as it is known here - and Indians are debating how large the event should be and exactly what tone it should strike.

Inside, the hotel, the events of 11/26 - which has joined 9/11 (the USA) and 7/7 (London) in the numerology of terror - are neither played up or played down. Visible through an enormous picture window in the tower lobby is a lovely water wall; in front of the wall is a commemorative marker inscribed "In Loving Memory of,'' followed by a list of 31 names of staff and guests who lost their lives. "Now and forever, you will always inspire us,'' the inscription reads. Uniformed security men are posted at key points throughout the hotel.

All of which may sound intimidating or unwelcoming, but I haven't found this to be the case. People are enjoying this beautiful hotel again and the security presence helps assure visitors that it is alright to do so. The Taj is reborn, and it is a delight to the senses. A sumptuous breakfast buffet features the likes of sweetlime juice and assorted Indian and Western morsels. The rooftop restaurant Souk scores with desserts such as rose petal ice cream. Guests splash about in the pool and glide by with their wheelies, checking out and checking in.

As I headed off to the business center today, looking for an open PC, I passed the picture window in the lobby. A young man snapped a photo of his girlfriend, who sat demurely in front of the water wall. Overstuffed Western tourists passed by, heading out for city tours of bustling, vibrant, hyper-congested Mumbai. The rituals of travel and tourism are returning.

For more information: Web: www.Tajhotels.com/Palace. Telephone (India): (91-22) 6665 3366. E-mail: tmhresv.bom@tajhotels.com.

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