I spend a lot of time in five-star hotels. A ridiculous amount really. It is one of the most difficult aspects of expat life for me to accept. In the US, we would not have often stayed at such hotels. We stayed at the St. Regis in LA once, and that was highly unusual and a very big deal. Coffee mornings and other events are hosted at such hotels throughout Mumbai. These hotels are havens for expats living in the city who want to escape the grime of Mumbai. They offer continental cuisine and English-speaking staffs who cater to every whim. My favorite example of this is at the Trident, BKC: A fishbowl complete with a clownfish named Nemo who keeps children company while they wait for their food. Needless to say, these hotels have set my expectations at the highest level of service and quality.
When we booked the trip through Kinner Camps, we knew we would not be staying in five-star hotels. Kinner Camps is an adventure outfit, so we expected an adventure, including in the accommodations. The remote areas of Himachal Pradesh where we stayed are not served by five-star hotels (Chandigarh and Shimla are exceptions). We relished the idea of moving outside our comfort zone and experiencing an India that few expats get to see.
The little boutique hotel in Kalpa, The Grand Shangri-La Hotel, would never be confused for the opulent Shangri-La hotel in Worli. The Grand Shangri-La has four floors of guest rooms with a total of 16 rooms.
What it lacks in scale, the hotel makes up for in atmosphere. It is a wonderful hotel run by a Tibetan family who immigrated to Dharamshala with the Dalai Lama and eventually settled in Kalpa. On arrival, we were offered a welcome drink of homemade apple juice, fresh from the family’s orchard. When Brian indicated that he just could not eat any more Indian food, the staff prepared a special Tibetan-Chinese dinner for us. The owner sat with us at breakfast and discussed Buddha iconography with us. The hotel and its staff were charming and wonderful. The only thing holding it back from a five-star status is the lack of a swimming pool and spa, but in every other way, the hotel exceeded my expectations. We stayed in an amazing suite with a king bed that faced the window overlooking Kinnaur Kailash. Spectacular.
The interior featured beautiful pine inlays that covered the room floor to ceiling. Brian remarked how insulated it was against the cold. The top floor of the hotel had a library that I did not have a chance to explore much because of time constraints. I would go back to the hotel just to read the books on Tibetan Buddhism, history, and cuisine.
After such a wonderful experience in Kalpa, we were excited to see our hotel in Shimla. The Shimla Havens was the opposite of wonderful. As we pulled up, it looked great. The hotel is nestled into the pine forests that dominate the landscape of this region. Like many hotels in the region, the Havens is perched on the side of a mountain. The lobby looked promising with its comfortable chairs and interiors. As we entered, however, the level of service and experience dropped precipitously.
Check-in was not great. We arrived at 5 pm, and we were told that our room was not ready. Five minutes was the estimated time. In typical IST style, five minutes stretched to fifteen. The clerk also seemed really confused by Brian’s PAN card. Hint to reception people: when a foreigner hands you a PAN card, it means he is living in India. We are not visiting on an “Eat, Pray, Love” holiday. We don’t find the idiosyncrasies of hotel bureaucracy here charming; we know better. We are not returning to the US with stories of the strange hotel where we stayed in Shimla that we think our friends will find amusing in an “Oh, that is just India” kind of way. We are potential repeat customers who will tell our friends in Mumbai about your hotel.
In India, all foreigners must register with a passport and complete a C-form. I hate the C-form. It asks me silly questions like “How long do you intend to stay in India?” Hell, I don’t know. At least five years. I really don’t know what date to put down. My visa expiry date, I guess. While I was completing this rather tedious, yet necessary, form, Brian inquired about dinner. “It is a buffet, sir. ” was the reply.
“Just Indian food or continental?”
During our stay at the Kinner Camps and at our lunches throughout the trip, we had eaten quite a bit of Indian food. We like Indian food, but not all Indian food is created equal. Dal can get rather dull after you have been eating it for 10 days straight. Americans like variety. We switch with equal measure from Italian to Mexican to Chinese to Polish to Irish, and yes, even Indian. We are a nation of immigrants and enjoy food from all those cultures. Often, even in the same week; sometimes in the same day. At this point in the trip, Brian was ready for some non-Indian fare and was disappointed in the lack of variety. It was my birthday, and I think he was hoping for something a little grander and up to our usual expectations.
I had seen an Oberoi hotel (actually two) when we passed through Shimla on our way to Sangla. We decided to see if we could get a dinner reservation there instead. I called the Oberoi Cecil and asked a few questions about that night’s menu: did they offer multicuisine (of course); did they have pizza (yes); could we get a reservation (yes, 7:30). The last part took a little negotiation on timing because we were not staying at the hotel, and hotel guests receive preference for dinner reservations. In the end, we were given a table at a reasonable hour. Off to the room we went to freshen up before dinner.
The hotel was built down the mountain, rather than up, so we went to our rooms by going downstairs. Our room was on the bottom floor. The hall was dank and dark. It felt institutionalized. I later learned that Shimla Havens caters to guests on corporate team-building retreats. That purpose might account for that feel. We entered the room and found a spacious two-room suite, complete with a true living room and a separate bedroom. The rooms were separated by a partition. On either side of the partition, a flat screen TV was placed. Two TVs in a single room? Not too shabby. So far, the hotel was looking up. We walked into the bathroom to find two soaking shower heads. Wow! I had not seen a setup like that since I left the US! And, then I looked more closely.
The presence of a soaking shower head, let alone two, was a bit of a surprise. Water is a luxury item in India. In our flat, each bathroom has a geyser (often pronounced geezer), which is a small, overhead hot water tank located outside the bathroom. Each geyser is activated with an electrical switch. It takes about 20 minutes to heat the water, and the water in our home tank lasts about 20 minutes. Max. Some hotels in India use geysers; others use traditional boilers like an US hotel. We did not see the geyser switch, so we assumed it was a boiler setup. The unfinished tap did not speak well to the quality of the hotel. It is the kind of thing we see often in India: someone plans a grand home, but runs out of money 3/4 of the way through construction, leaving a solid structure with a half-finished interior. We joked later that when they said the room was not ready they meant that they were still building it. The lack of attention to detail is what separates this hotel from a true five-star hotel. A five-star hotel would never have shown a guest this unfinished room.
We were getting ready for dinner when we realized that the working shower did not have hot water. It took three phone calls until someone finally said they were fixing it. The first solution was to bring us a bucket of hot water. We had taken bucket baths when camping. The idea that we would do that in a hotel room with no less than two perfectly good soaking shower heads was absurd. Fortunately, not long after the hot water bucket arrived, hot water began to pour from the tap. We got ready and headed to dinner at the Oberoi.
The experience at the Oberoi does not even compare to Shimla Havens. From the moment we got out of car and were greeted by the doorman, we knew we were in for a different level of experience. It felt like coming home. (Like I said, I spend way too much time in hotels.) We arrived at 7:28 because it did not take as long as we thought to get to the hotel. The restaurant was not open yet, but promptly at 7:30 on the dot, presto! The doors swung open, and in we went. The hotel is over 100 years old, and while much of the interior has undergone renovation, the hand-split wood floors are original. And, they are magnificent.
We were seated immediately. As we were seated, Brian casually mentioned that it was my birthday to a member of the wait staff. Each of us received a menu. For those who don’t know, it is common in India for only one person at a table to be given a menu. Even if four people are seated at the table, you will receive one food menu and one drink menu. That we both received both was a welcome change. When I glanced at the menu, I noticed pasta, salads, and Indian food, but no pizza. I had specifically asked about pizza when I made the reservation. I asked the waiter if pizza was available. “Of course, ma’am, whatever toppings you like; we just don’t list it on the menu. It is a thin crust; is that OK?” Instantly, my faith in the hospitality industry in Himachal Pradesh was restored! Brian had pizza; I ordered parma ham risotto and a bottle of Chianti; both were fantastic. After dinner, the staff surprised me with my own slice of mango birthday cake.
Everyone was very sweet and accommodating. They even tried to package my hardly drank bottle of Chianti. As we were headed home the next day, I knew we would not be able to take it with us. It is not permissible to transport alcohol on domestic flights in India. I thanked them for being so wonderful and said, “No, you all drink it. Have a good night.” After dinner, we walked around the hotel a little and decided that when we return to Shimla that we will stay at the Oberoi Cecil.