The year of thoughtful, curated luxury experiences
Luxury breaks in short bursts brought some great food into this author’s plate
Text and visuals: Vernika Awal | Delectable Reveries
Remember even two decades ago, when going on a holiday meant months of active planning, travel agents, actual laminated maps and a whole lot of excitement? Pre-holiday preparation means none of this anymore.
Our inhabiting a now-hyperconnected world means two things: On the one hand it is that we are always busy and unable to chalk time out for a conventional holiday; and on the other, it is that luxury in its varied hues has become very accessible.
What we saw in 2018 especially, is luxury hotel chains, eclectic boutique collections and resorts in off-beat locations all coming together to provide lucrative offers to millennials who don’t mind a bit of splurging. Catering to this demographic’s otherwise busy lifestyle, hotels are increasingly focusing on staycations—the experience of a holiday in your own city and within the walls of a particular property, with an element of luxe thrown in. Experiential vacations too are curated holidays, whether as a staycation or otherwise.
In July this year, I took a weekend off and spent it in an abode of modern history. It had all the expected perks of a holiday— but what it really offered, were very specific elements that make for a perfect 2018 throwback.
This was my two days at Narendra Bhawan. The heritage-themed ultra-luxury property in Bikaner was built up as a haveli in the exact spot in which was Maharaja Narendra Singh’s home. Only the foundation of the place is from the Maharaja’s original house. Everything else about this heritage hotel is a result of imagined concepts of royalty.
But first, getting there itself was an experience I treasure. A train ride isn’t always been known for its romanticism. But luxury, or relaxed, on-purpose train journeys have been on the rise, and for me, the journey to Narendra Bhawan captured this, too. This stretch of my journey was essentially the palate cleanser – the one that really helped me hit the reset button and disconnect myself from the cacophony of work.
Once there, the sheer scale of imagined-royalty and its execution made my eyes pop. Narendra Bhawan looked every bit of the luxury staycation destination it is. Each element of the hotel is curated to showcase a certain element of royalty. The open library and collectibles’ table for instance, both denote the wisdom of a widely read and well-travelled prince. There are walls of pure, textured silk, an exuberant cigar room, carefully strewn about copies of the Playboy from 1972 and 1983, and a powder room reminiscent of the Swinging Sixties.
But really, the culinary experiences along with some of the best single malt cocktails you can savour were, for me, the highlight.
At every meal, stories accompanied each laid-out course, adding a touch of personal connect. I would be drawn to engage with the meal at an intellectual level too. I soon realized that everything about Narendra Bhawan, and especially the food, would engage with and reach me through all my senses.
Nothing exemplified this better than the blind-folded dinner, held suitably in ‘the Night Room’ – a dining chamber with dark-themed, Edwardian wallpaper. We were neither told, nor allowed to look, at any of what we ate. Instead, we put our faith in our senses of smell and taste of what we were served.
The following meal was a “literary- lunch”, beginning with a course themed around Sylvia Plath’s novel Bell Jar. Salt roasted beet, stock braised leeks, goat’s cheese, balsamic drizzle and pomegranate blood came covered in smoke, in a bowl covered with— and here comes the pun— a bell jar. This was a beautifully rendered culinary interpretation of the mood of that novel—of Plath’s disturbed state of mind and her slow deterioration.
There were other similar elaborate interpretations through this meal. I continued to consume Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, John Fante’s The Brotherhood of the Grape, Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef, Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, to Emile Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris. We then ended this with James Joyce’s Ulysses (probably the only time I’d finish Ulysses!)
If I thought nothing could top that, I soon also tried out the princely dinner at the nearby Laxmi Vilas palace. The hall where this was held was once the smoking room of the erstwhile king. As the faint shimmer of a Wong Kar Wai movie—courtesy the glint of actual gold embroidered into the walls—illuminated the entire room, I was served the European multi-course fare that the then-maharaja had served to King George V and Queen Mary on December 31, 1927. This was an extensive menu of asparagus mousse, potage dubbary, fillet de pomfret, and croquettes de canard sausages.
When you are at Narendra Bhawan, you do not feel the need or desire to step out of the property, even once. In addition to all this food, there is an expert, in-house perfumer here, and painters of international fame also show their art there. For a long weekend away from home, there is no better way to immerse culturally, in luxury than experiencing the life of royalty, in their own home.
While the staycation as an idea has been around for a long time, it started coming into its own in India only this past year. This could have been the best trend to have hit the market in 2018. Depending on how much time you have in hand and your budget, there are now choices ranging from weekend stay-overs, and brunch and spa at one of your own city’s luxury hotels, to something that is synonymous with luxurious, resplendent serendipity like Narendra Bhawan in Bikaner.
Looking back, these short stays are everything I could want from a quick break away from the bustle of a city. It let me immerse myself in a moment, a feeling, and helped me put my feet up after the exhaustion of daily hustles. Here’s hoping for a bright 2019, and looking forward to more such beautiful staycations and thoughtful, curated breaks.
Delectable Reveries by Vernika Awal is an outcome of a passion for telling stories— from soaring travel journals to exquisite food diaries. Because, everyone has a story to tell.