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Christmas and
New Year Festivities


Luxury Redefined

By Vir Sanghvi

Should one risk a vacation in the middle of pandemic? I thought long and hard about it before deciding that there was no point debating the issue.

Quite apart from the people who have been infected by the Coronavirus, millions of others are suffering damaging consequences to their mental health. Case of depression, a sense of being trapped and a general air of sadness are all too common. Every human being needs a break if he or she is to remain sane.

My big opportunity came when my wife Seema was about to celebrate her birthday. We had been home for so long that we both felt that this was the perfect occasion to take a short break. One option was to fly abroad - India now has air bubbles allowing us to fly to such cities as Dubai, Paris and London. Another was to fly to an Indian resort. Flights to most places have resumed and many are flying full.

In the event, we funked it. We would travel, we said, but we would only do it by car. So we would go to somewhere within drivable distance from Delhi.

Once we had made that decision, the choice of location was obvious.

It had to be The Oberoi Rajvials, Jaipur.

There were several reasons for this. The first is that we were a hundred percent certain about the Oberoi group’s commitment to sanitization and cleanliness. Oberoi hotels are among the safest in India.

The second was that we like Rajasthan and we love Jaipur, truly one of the world’s great destinations. And it was just over four hours away from our home in South Delhi. The road was good and the ride was extremely pleasant.

And finally, there was the significance of The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur in our lives. Twenty three years ago, we had made our first trip to Rajvilas, soon after the resort opened. Within minutes of arriving there, we realized that this was a huge breakthrough for Indian hotels. I told Seema that hotels in India would never be the same again.

I was only partly right: hotels all over the world (not just in India) were never the same again. The Oberoi Rajvilas, Jaipur has appeared on nearly every list of the world’s greatest hotels and the Vilas properties that followed – The Oberoi Udaivilas, The Oberoi Vanyavilas and Wildflower Hall, Shimla and The Oberoi Sukhvilas - have raised the bar for resort hotels everywhere.

So, to go back to The Oberoi Rajvilas was very special for us.

What we did not know was that a) the hotel had taken sanitization precautions to a new height. The driver who came to collect us from our home in Delhi drove a vehicle that had just been sanitized. He wore a face shield and a mask and kept offering generous helpings of sanitizer throughout the ride even when we thought we had been disinfected enough.

He drove us right into the resort (if we had flown or taken a train, we would have come into contact with scores of other people: this way, it was just the one sanitization-obsessed driver!) where the General Manager, also masked and shielded, greeted us. We had our temperatures checked, were urged to sanitize our hands (yes again!) and filled out a form in case there was a need for possible contact tracing afterwards. And then we were driven to our room in a freshly sanitized buggy.

Because The Oberoi Rajvilas is so spread out and most of it is in the open, you already feel safer than you would at a tower block hotel. Our little part of the complex had just three rooms. And our own room had a wonderful sit out and a garden area where we sat most of the time, enjoying the greenery and making full use of the swimming pool while admiring the dozens of peacocks who came and went from our garden at will.

Naturally, I checked about the room and discovered that it was not only completely sanitized before our arrival but that when the housekeepers came each day, they would sanitize it again. All of the staff were masked or face-shielded (or both) and at the dining room, strict social distancing was enforced so that we were never any less than three metres away from other guests. Even when we wandered around the extensive grounds, we were pleased to note that guests kept their masks on.

By now, I know The Oberoi Rajvilas reasonably well so I was not surprised by the extraordinary levels of luxury. I had got used to the little classy touches like the housekeepers who found you new fabric shoe bags and stitched your name on them. And the laundry people who, when they noticed a tiny rip in your pyjamas, fixed it so perfectly that you later wondered where the original tear had been.

The food at The Oberoi Rajvilas has always been excellent and a succession of top class chefs have passed through the resort but the food cooked by the current chef, Jaydeep Patil, marks some kind of high, even by Rajvilas standards. The chef remembered that I avoided gluten but loved chaat so when he surprised us with golgappas, he made the puris from (gluten-free) Urad dal. His meals took us from rustic Rajasthan (bajra khichri) to the dizzying heights of luxury (crisp beignets filled with a warm egg custard and topped with caviar).

All this was wonderful but - at the risk of sounding a little blasé—the sort of thing we had come to expect from The Oberoi Rajvilas.

What blew us away were the special experiences that the hotel had organized for Seema’s birthday.

On her birthday eve they organized an aarti at the Rajvilas temple. This temple has a history of its own. It has been in existence for three centuries and when the Oberoi group bought the land for Rajvilas, they realized that it included a temple.

Rather than shift the temple as many other hoteliers would have done, PRS (Biki) Oberoi, the group’s chairman, decided he would build the resort around the temple. The family of priests who have looked after the temple for generations still do pooja there every day and the idols – the family of Lord Shiva: a very powerful lingam, the goddess Parvati and their two sons Kartikeya and Ganesh – are as they were hundreds of years ago.
When we did the aarti to begin Seema’s birthday celebrations, the air of spirituality (and yes, spiritual power: I am a believer) gave us a sense of a new beginning, something all of us so badly long for in these sad times.

After the aarti, we moved to a little fairyland created by the hotel on the steps of a raised platform that led to the huge pool. Hundreds of candles and diyas had been lit and some sent shimmering reflections on to the water. A full moon lit up the night sky.

Chef Jaydeep served an extraordinary meal, course by course as we sipped our Krug Grande Cuvee. Rajasthani musicians sang traditional songs while a folk dancer twirled among the hundreds of tiny points of light.

Just when we thought it could not get any more magical, the fireworks display began. The hotel had chosen fireworks that rocketed up into the sky before unwrapping into thousands of little multi-coloured stars so we craned our necks and watched, jaws dropping, as the moon was flanked by hundreds of colours from the fireworks.

It should have been hard to top this spectacular experience but The Oberoi Rajvilas managed it. The following evening, they drove us to Naila Fort, around half an hour away. It is a fort that is at least a couple of centuries old but it is fair to say that nobody would ever have heard of it except for a matter of chance.

In 1982, when the fort was a bit of a ruin, PRS Oberoi bought it. He spent a decade restoring it to its original glory though this often proved hard to do it. He became so passionately involved in the project that he often abandoned his day job in Delhi (and elsewhere in the world; the Oberois are an international group) to spend days in Jaipur overseeing the restoration of Nayla.

This had one unforeseen consequence. He was forced to stay in what was then regarded as Jaipur’s best hotel on his visits and he hated it. The experience was so bad, he joked later, that he took his own bed sheets, his towel and even his own toilet paper.

But the discomfort led him to one conclusion: Jaipur needed a good hotel. And because he had spent a decade restoring Nayla, he had the idea of building a hotel that was inspired by the architecture and ambience of Nayla.

It took him a few years to get the vision right (old forts do not necessarily lend themselves to the design of luxury hotels) but when he opened Raj Vilas in 1997, it was the sort of hotel that nobody had ever built before. And it led not just to the other Vilas properties but to a style of hotel design that has been copied all over the world.

For Seema’s birthday we went to Naila, sat by the ramparts of the fort, against the stone walls that had been built centuries ago and watched the same view that warriors must have gazed at for decades: the sight of the golden sun setting behind the Aravalis, which are among the world’s oldest mountain ranges. This was all organized The Oberoi Rajvilas , of course, so there was a suitably celebratory picnic to go with it with oscietra and lots of bubbly.

To say that Seema had a spectacular birthday is like saying that The Oberoi Rajvilas is a hotel. Both statements are true enough but they don’t even begin to hint at how special and wonderful both The Oberoi Rajvilas and the birthday were.

We had come to Jaipur to escape the worst restrictions of the pandemic. And though there were always things to remind us that these were different times – the masks, the shields, the distancing, the sanitizers and the daily temperature check --- The Oberoi Rajvilas created an experience that was unique.

It wasn’t just luxury. It was comfort with security.

You could have the time of your life. And yet you knew that every health concern had been taken care of.

Now, that is true luxury!


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