In 30 seconds….
A list of nine absolutely delightful hotels across some of the busiest cities in the world. Distinct and different in every aspect imaginable, what remains common is their enviable location, a unique design language, stunning art, world-class gastronomy and an over-riding obsession for detail in common. In a world otherwise filled with chaos, these luxury hotels are an oasis of perfection – and hence urban sanctuaries.
The Imperial – New Delhi, India
The Oberoi – Mumbai, India
The Leela palace – Chennai, India
Taj Westend – Bengaluru, India
Hoshinoya – Tokyo, Japan
Rosewood – Beijing, China
Mandarin Oriental – HongKong, China
Claridge’s – London, UK
The Sherry Netherland – New York, USA
Urban Sanctuaries from around the world
“There’s something about arriving in new cities, wandering empty streets with no destination. I will never lose the love for the arriving, but I’m born to leave.”~ Charlotte Eriksson, Empty Roads & Broken bottles
Remember the days when we kept travel waiting? Now, travel & freedom of movement keeps us waiting. As the lock down continues, I get more and more nostalgic about the time when free movement was up for grabs whenever we were ready. I spent the weekend looking through hundreds of photos reliving the joy of moving freely from one city to another, filling my days with new experiences, unusual smells and extraordinary meals…
And then there were those hotels! Great hotels are special. They are not just places sleep, shower & keep our things – they are perfectly curated experiences that bring the sensibilities of a city to life whilst keeping out the noise.
Even before I could afford to live in one of such hotels, I’d spend many an afternoon drinking a perfectly brewed cuppa at one of Mumbai’s most luxurious hotels. Sitting for hours in its lobby lounge, I’d gaze at the city’s two most beautiful & expansive views — the Arabian Sea outside and a perfectly appointed atrium inside. It was the much-needed break from the chaos and commotion of Mumbai. It was where time stood still — a place where I could breathe and think. It was my sanctuary. It was The Oberoi.
This started a life-long passion to find hotels that are true sanctuaries: blending classic design, stylish interiors and an understated elegance. In fact, as a matter of principle, I refuse to stay in cookie-cutter hotels and instead choose quiet, luxurious hotels in the heart of whichever busy and chaotic city I happen to be visiting.
Thankfully, a few visionary hoteliers understand the value of creating properties which go beyond the scope of even the highest level of comfort & functionality. These masters of alternative travel constantly weave-in the cultural sensibility which is authentic and indigenous to their city into the fundamental design element of their hotels — be it the bathtub or the bar. They’ve replaced coffee-shops with specialized gourmet experiences and meaningless variety with hand-picked curation. Above all, they’ve added large dozes of quiet, contemplative spaces to address a business traveller’s greatest need — a space to think, to recuperate, to nourish and to return to.
So, without further ado, here’s my pick of hotels par excellence in some of the world’s busiest cities. As a frequent visitor to these cities, I have continued to choose these hotels over others, whether I am traveling for business or leisure, either-ways always on my own tab.
The Imperial, New Delhi
Designed by F.B. Blomfield (circa 1931) to be the finest monument in Lutyen’s grand vision of the Capital and decorated by Lady Willingdon, The Imperial is undoubtedly Delhi’s finest hotel. Driving past its grand colonial gates, through a driveway lined with soaring king palms, guests are immediately transported to capital’s colonial-era history. Built with a unique combination of colonial, Victorian and informal art deco styles, the hotel has undergone extensive and stylish renovations to re-contextualise its amenities for modern comfort and discerning guests. Combined with spacious gardens, an indulgent spa and superb restaurants, The Imperial is a living memory of Raj-style elegance and luxury.
At an easy distance from Rashtrapati Bhavan and the crowded lanes of 17th century Shahjahanabad aka Old Delhi, The Imperial is located on Janpath, in the heart of the capital.
235 rooms and suites appointed in colonial style, adorned with antique art and complete with pillow menus, quilted bedspreads, high-ceilings and world class amenities, the rooms have everything you expect from a luxurious five-star hotel.
Four restaurants including two of Delhi’s best rated gourmet experiences – San Gimignano and The Spice Route, there is plenty to choose from at the property.
With its high ceilings, Italian marble floors, antique Burma teak and rosewood furniture and an enviable and perhaps one of the most important private collection of original lithograph & engravings — the feted Imperial is often referred to as a museum hotel.
The Sanctuary’esque Spot
Gardens outside 1911 where guests can enjoy early evening drinks perched on Raj-style quilted leather chairs
+91 11 4150 1234
The Oberoi, Mumbai
A case study in precision and under-stated elegance, The Oberoi in Mumbai unfolds its beauty slowly. A lift ride from its small and inconspicuous ground floor entrance to its vast atrium lobby with huge windows overlooking magnificent views of the Arabian Sea creates an unforgettable wow-effect. Bathed in light during the day, the view gives way to the sparking queen’s necklace at night. Service here is unparalleled and has its own standard aka The Oberoi Standard. Infact, the General Manager of the hotel – Anupam Dasgupta – once described it as “The fact that we are able to surpass guests’ expectations is an outcome of relentless pursuit of excellence. No effort is too big; no detail too small”. No wonder therefore that the hotel group is considered one of the best in the world and The Oberoi Mumbai is the shiniest gem in its crown.
In the heart of Nariman Point, Mumbai’s business district, It’s also a short walk away from the museums, shopping and the heritage buildings of chic Kalaghoda neighbourhood and Fort area.
73 suites and 287 guest rooms are a minimalist affair with luxurious details — finest linen, super-comfortable mattresses, well-planned desks & lighting, mother-of-pearl cabinetry, commissioned art and fluffiest towels in the business.
Several excellent dining options are available including two speciality restaurants-Indian Ziya and Italian Vetro.
A stark contrast to Mumbai’s obsession with using every inch of every corner, The Oberoi’s sparse and minimalist decor creates a sense of immediate calm. Combined with commissioned art and stunning design details, this is an urban haven for design-lovers.
The Sanctuary’esque spot
The pool side cafe is a quiet haven overlooking the sea.
+91 226632 5757
The Leela Palace, Chennai
Built on six hectares at the confluence of the Adyar River and Bay of Bengal, The Leela Palace in Chennai is built as a modern-day tribute to the architectural-opulence of the famed Chettinad architecture. Traditional Chettinad homes were large ornate mansions with high-ceilings, columned passages that framed an inner courtyard with a miniature pool meant to collect rain water — it was their method to deal with a long and arid summer. These ancient architectural elements echo as guests walk through the statuesque pillars, marble lobby and a pool which leads into a lobby where a modern twist of oversized windows overlooking the panoramic views and contemporary art take centre-stage. A 21st century revival of age-old architecture and artisanal design The Leela Palace is unapologetically over the top, fabulous and a complete respite from the chaos outside.
15 kilometers from the airport and in close proximity for business districts, The Leela Palace is perhaps the only sea-facing luxury hotel in Chennai
Living up its Palace-theme, all 326 rooms and suites of the hotel are large (and sometimes oversized) with modern-day in-room technologies and artisanal crafts from the region.
The hotel boasts a variety of restaurants in addition to an all-day dining room and the beautiful Library Blu bar. Most noteworthy amongst them is China Xo which is as much a treat for the eyes as it is to the palette.
Whether it is intended or not, the art at The Leela Palace is its greatest gift to its guests.The walls of almost all public areas are adorned with either rare & vintage South Indian art – Tanjores, hand-carved Shiva Heads, or contemporary art installations inspired by Chennai’s rich history & artisanal craft created by celebrated contemporary artists.
The Santuary’esque spot
Facing the panoramic views of the sea and looking at the ‘Tanjore wall’ in the lobby
+91 44 3366 1234
Taj West End, Bengaluru
Originally a British run guest house – Bronsons West End (circa 1887) – Taj West End continues to retain a manor house charm complete with Art Deco features, gothic arches and red-tiled roofs. With its 20-acre garden in the middle of Bengaluru where 150-year old raintrees, gulmohars, and banyans flourish, turkeys wander amidst ancient cycad trees off the lobby and over 30 species of birds fly over the swimming pool, this property is literally an urban santuary, if there is one.
Facing the Race-Course, adjacent to the Gold Club and Turf Club, Taj West End is in the heart of Bengaluru.
All 117 rooms are fitted out in an easy old-world, colonial inspired decor style. But the real beauty are the lavish and lush-green gardens, terraces which surround every single room on the property – be it a standard room or a villa suite.
Dining options include the Blue Bar, pool side cafes, two speciality restaurants – Vietnamese and Indian as well as an all day dining area.
Graced with old-fashioned dormers, trelliswork, and carved fascias, on one hand West End has all the elements of a grand colonial house – tennis courts, outdoor poor and a fantastic spa. On the other it is a business hotel with full business facilities. A Shiva temple on site is worshipped by staff.
The Sanctuary’esq spot
Sit under the massive jacaranda tree in the central courtyard and be served an oh–so-proper high tea.
+91 80666 05660
Surrounded by skyscrapers is a 17-storey tower, encased in a black metal grid repeating a traditional Japanese kimono motif. The entry way to this curious building is through a double-height genkan entrance with a seasonal flower display, indigo walls towards a lobby which does away with typical concierge desks or commercial activity. Instead there is an art installation and a quiet place where guests remove their shoes and walk barefoot on tatatmi mat floors (even in the lifts and in their own rooms). An incredibly intimate and quiet hotel, Hoshinoya is Tokyo’s first luxury five-star traditional ryokan inn and perhaps the most peaceful place in the urban world.
At a walking distance to Tokyo station and Imperial Palace and in the heart of Tokyo’s business district Otemachi.
With just six rooms per floor, smallest being 441 sq Ft, Hoshinoya’s 84 rooms over 17 floors are large and fitted out in serene, comfortable and traditionally inspired decor : bamboo closets, tatami floors, jewel-coloured walls, deep square black baths and comfortable futon mattresses.
Open only to resident guests, the French restaurant spans the entire basement floor with ‘hidden’ dining spaces and only 10 tables. There is also a lounge on every floor for casual dining and a strong in-room dining menu.
Japanese are obsessed with details and at Hoshinoya the cultural immersion is almost religious.
The Sanctuary’esque spot
The real show stopper at this urban escape is the area’s first natural hot-spring, or onsen bath. Women and men bathe in separate rooftop spaces, each open to the skies, yet enclosed by towering walls. It’s an experience so restorative that would render a spa unnecessary.
Throughout Chinese history, gardens served as exclusive retreats from the chaos of the city. Paying living tribute to this tradition, Rosewood in Beijing built a three-metre stone wall and stepped landscape, serving as a buffer to its city’s frenetic streetscape. Brimming with Chinese arts & artefacts, opulent interiors and great food, Rosewood is my pick for an Urban Sactuary in the heart of Beijing’s Central Business District.
Located in the Central Business District – Chaoyang overlooking the iconic CCTV Tower
283 rooms, amongst the largest in the city are fitted out in apartment-style accommodation with great attention to interesting art-filled & luxurious details as well as individual mementos and accessories which appear miraculously upon check-in.
Rosewood features six excellent restaurants, lounges, a private club and a cigar lounge.
From the structural form and landscaping, to the choice of materials and curated artwork, Rosewood Beijing’s design elements is a landscape of surprising discoveries, sensory engagement and authentic experiences.
The Sanctuary’esque spot
The inner courtyard and lush garden of seasonal foliage, just beyond the imposing “Sons of the Dragon” statues which echo the traditional architectural principles of balance and symmetry.
+ 86 10 6597 8888
Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong
Mandarin Oriental has serious charisma. A hotel that’s been at the heart of Hong Kong since 1963 has been home to 20th century’s Who’s Who –The Beatles, Beyonce, Andy Warhol, Clintons to name a few. With its faultless service, unparalleled location, effervescent atmosphere swirling between walls of gleaming black & champagne marbles & glittering chandeliers – The Mandarin is undoubtedly the golden mirror to Hong Kong’s glamour.
At the heart of Central, it’s a stone throw away from some of the most iconic buildings.Trams, Star Ferry and the Central MTR is a few minutes walk.
499 rooms in the group’s classic shades of misty grey & gold combined with glossy lacquered wood and stunning artworks of historic HongKong make for an exceptionally quiet & luxurious abode. All have marble bathrooms, silk robes and Bottega Veneta amenities.
The food is outrageously good. With three Michelin star restaurants, its also home to Man Wah which serves some of the best Cantonese food on the planet with classics such as peking duck & dimsum. For a dose of that famous Hong Kong skyline, head to the M Bar after dark to sip Manhattans while you ogle the Star Ferry criss-crossing the neon-washed harbour. Or head to my fav Captain’s bar for late night jazz and a nightcap that’s set in the 20s.
The Sanctuary’esque spot
The Mandarin Spa is the place to go for some grown-up urban pampering and glamorous reinvention; try the Imperial Jade ritual with its sesame scrub, chi-enhancing massage and jade-roller facial.
Personally for me Claridges in London is one of my favourite hotels in the world. Just like The Oberoi’s in Mumbai, Claridges is a destination on its own and even if one never steeped out even for a single moment – juts being in this hotel is a journey in itself.
In its first edition of 1878, Baedeker’s London listed Claridge’s as “The first hotel in London”. Sometimes referred to as “an annexe to Buckingham Palace,” Claridge’s combines the best of traditional English and Art Deco features with beyond-excellent service, making it the finest hotel in London. Period. The Ritz, The Savoy and London’s other grand hotels may compete with it in opulence, but none can hold a scented candle to Claridge’s when it comes to richness of history and magnificence of clientele. That’s not to say that non-royal guests like myself are treated any differently — the staff at the breakfast room remembers my very specific blend of tea, leave alone my name, even though I visit London only twice a year. As far I am concerned, it is this attention to detail which makes a great hotel an urban sanctuary.
Off New bond Street, at the corner of Brooks Street and Davies Street in Mayfair – a short walk away from major shopping districts and several great museums.
Designed originally for guests who wished to stay for longer periods, the hotel has a strong trajectory of spacious & super comfortable rooms. All 203 rooms are unique and sold in 14 categories.
Fumoir – a 1930s jewel-box bar with original Lalique glass panels is a long favourite of A-List clientele in superlative party spirit — apparently drinking over 36,000 bottles of Champagne every year. The Foyer is a divine place for a long, civilised breakfast or ‘best high-tea’ in London. Fera, Simon Rogan’s Michelin-starred restaurant is a great draw too.
Since its 1920s Art Deco makeover, not to mention its impeccable pedigree, Claridges’ been home to top artists and designers of the world. Need I say more?
The Sanctuary’esque spot
The Map Room on the ground floor is a plush spot filled with some of the best coffee table books I’ve ever seen. Accessible only to room guests.
020 7629 8860
The Sherry Netherland, New York
Once the tallest residential hotel in the world (1927), The Sherry Netherland is one of Jazz Age’s grandest hotels. Built in neo-Romanesque and Renaissance style, the lobby at the hotel is ‘beyond fabulous’ — the oh so New York term for a dazzler. Complete with frescoed ceilings, crystal chandeliers and uniformed doormen who are quick to assist, it’s a sight straight from a Henry James novel. Turned into a Cooperative building in 1954, all the 50 rooms of this boutique hotel are privately owned and decorated to their personal style, staying here can be the nearest thing to feeling like a New Yorker.
On the corner of Fifth and 59th, directly across from the main entrance to Central Park, in the heart of one of world’s greatest shopping avenue, five blocks from Carnegie hall and a short walk from my favourite Frick collection.
Since the rooms are privately owned, the decor style can change quite dramatically. Its best for a first time visitor to spend some time locating the room they like. Inner rooms may not have the view but are significantly quieter and many rooms have decorative fireplaces, antiques, and glorious marble baths.
Room guests have private access to Harry Cipriani’s – the ultimate A-lister hang out. Order a Bellini (but of course) and watch the most beautiful people in New York dine by your side.
Elaborate Gothic-inspired minaret, whimsical griffins with hanging lanterns which guard the exterior, the street in pure gold relief. And once inside, those frescoes!
The Sanctuary’esque spot
In a city obsessed with the new, the next and the future, there is something enormously comforting to a timeless classic beauty my ‘home’
+1 212 355 2800