India is not just a place you visit and then leave behind. It tends to have a profound effect, lingering in the conscious mind and slowly creeping under your skin. Love it, or hate it, it is impossible to be indifferent to the country.
Propelled from a sea of grey in London, into the explosion of colours that reside on India’s streets, the phrase ‘culture shock’ does not quite encapsulate it. During my entire trip, I walked around eyes wide with wonder at everything I saw, soaking in the many different shades of the city. The streets of New Delhi are like a theatrical spectacle, a stage too busy to focus your attention on any one thing. The sounds, smells and sights that confront you when you walk around the city are anything but subtle. Poverty and prosperity sit side-by-side; air-conditioned cars glide down the road, only interrupted by the tap tap of the city’s needy, knocking on their windows. Flamboyant buildings flaunt their wealth, with their grandeur and delicately adorned exteriors, towering over the derelict shacks, which sit by their side. Your ears quickly adjust to the musical backdrop of the city streets: the constant honking horns, sellers calling out, musical melodies floating out from shops and the general shuffle shuffle of daily life.
Luckily the Park Hotels in both Delhi and Kolkata were a welcome retreat from the hectic world outside. Everything you would hope for from a boutique luxury hotel greets you, including bright and spacious rooms, a giant bathtub and a mattress that you can simply melt into after a hard night on the tiles. But The Park Hotels, which are owned and run by the inspirational Priya Paul, are more than your usual luxury hotels. They all have strong design and art influences and everything from the impressive collections of artwork adorning the hotel walls, to the unique design styles that each hotel possesses was planned with a careful artistic eye. It makes your stay at the Park more of an encompassing experience and less of a ‘pit stop’ for the night. Time spent loitering in the lobbies and lingering in the hallways is time well spent at the Park Hotels.
There is also a pool, a spa, a gym and several restaurants, which serve up a range of delicious cuisines. With chefs that trained in regional Italy and the freshest Sushi express shipped from Japan, every dining experience in the Park Hotel is special. There are of course your Indian classics to enjoy, which shouldn’t be missed. If all this wasn’t sufficient, we were also lucky enough to experience the ‘Under the Table Dinner’, which was hosted at the Park Kolkata.
The dinner was genius. An idea that was based on nostalgic indulgence and seemed too ambitious a project to pull off, was executed to perfection; a unique, surprising, extraordinary experience to remember.
The dinner was the brainchild of Marije Vogelzang, a pioneer in food & eating design. It was based on the idea that dining was much more fun when you were little enough to climb under the table and create a world of your own under the starchy white tablecloths. She wanted to take the diner on a nostalgic journey back into childhood; to explore, enquire and play with the notion of dining which most of us probably left behind at the age of ten. But the novelty of this idea did not compromise the quality of the food or the service. The food was some of the best we’d had in India.
The dramatic unveiling of the tables was every bit as impactful as I imagined they hoped for. We were led into the dining room in complete darkness; atmospheric music filled the air whilst excited whispers were exchanged between guests. After a crescendo provided by the piano, the lights finally came up to reveal two tall, long banquet style tables, which were custom made for this dining experience. On the initial entrance to the dining space underneath the tablecloths, you are simultaneously wowed by the incredible world they’d created for us alongside the delicate floral aroma provided by the hanging garlands of flowers. We were presented with our own little lap tables alongside a pictorial menu, which described the dining journey.
Courses flowed out at a similar speed to the wine. We enjoyed a colourful palate of tiny starters, including stuffed olives, balled cucumber and a creamy white cheese encased in Parma ham. The seafood course was a highlight, with scallops, sea bas and crab cakes all served in large spoons or shells. A lamb biryani made with orzo pasta finished off the savory proceedings, which was absolutely delicious. The chefs cleverly blended popular Indian cuisine with various other international influences, creating dishes with fragrant spicing and delicate flavours. Dessert was a range of enormous chocolate boards served on top of the tables, which encouraged diners to exit the special wonderland underneath and mingle with the crowd whilst satisfying your sweet tooth.
A concept that only a brain as bold and imaginative as Marije’s could think up, one might have asked how this could have topped her previous whacky eating experiences. But as risky as it was, it worked seamlessly. It bought a sense of togetherness between the diners and it was of course, a great conversation starter. We were granted access to this secret world and your neighbors further down the table became instant companions.
The Park Kolkata is also home to two amazing bars and the hippest nightclub in the city. Enjoy sinful cocktails at Roxy bar whilst the DJ spins the hottest tunes, catch a live band in their pub and don’t leave until you’ve danced the night away in Tantra! Visiting on a Wednesday evening, the club was full. Partygoers were letting loose to the upbeat Bollywood-influenced dance tunes, bartenders poured champagne and even at 3am nobody seemed too perturbed by the working day looming ahead of them. It was another one of those unique experiences that you can only have in India.
The trip was a whirlwind of exciting activities and experiences. Sailing down the River Ganges on a yacht was a highlight. Watching the burning sun sink behind the peaks of the beautiful temples on the riverbanks was very special. We bathed in the golden light, breathing in Kolkata from a floating platform on their most treasured river. The waters of the Ganges are considered holy by the locals, many of which bathe and wash in it, on a daily basis.
We visited a Hindu and a Sikh temple along with Mother Theresa’s house in Kolkata, which is where her tomb lay. There is a well-preserved collection of her belongings and letters on display, which accompanies a very touching timeline of her life’s achievements.
We spent a morning wandering round the breathtaking Kolkata flower market and a fascinating look at the making of statues, which are created for the Hindu festivals. Hundreds of hours are ploughed into the creation of these lavish statues and they are sold for thousands of pounds, only to be released into the holy river Ganges just weeks after they are sold. Learning about these traditions was fascinating thanks to our knowledgeable guide from Walks of Kolkata Tours. We couldn’t leave the city without breakfast at the iconic Flurry’s. Great coffee, fresh pastries and their take on a ‘full English’ greeted us.
Luckily a refreshing swim in the stunning pool at the hotel followed by lounging and reading in the Miami-style poolside booths, gave us a new lease of energy which could only mean one thing: one last night out, Kolkata style…
The Park Hotels are present in New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Visakhapatnam, Goa, Mumbai and Kerala. Rooms start from £120.00 per night.
The Under the Table Dining Experience will be launched as a pop-up dinner in the Park Hotel Delhi. Details still to be finalized but watch this space…