The Taj Mahal Palace in Mumbai is one of the world’s great grand hotels. Built in 1903, it was constructed in a flamboyant Indo-Saracenic style, with cupolas and a huge central dome. It is an instantly recognizable institution, an inescapable part of the social and business life of the city. Which is why, on November 26, 2008, it was subject to a terrorist attack that left 31 people dead and much of the building in flames.
Like many people looking at their televisions and seeing black smoke gushing from the windows, I thought of all the happy times I had spent there lounging by the wonderful swimming pool or enjoying a cocktail in the famous Harbour Bar, a Mumbai rendezvous since 1933. On August 15, 2010, the Palace Wing reopened after a $40 million restoration, and I vowed to return as soon as practically possible.
On my recent trip to India, the Taj was my first port of call. I had been expecting increased security, of course, but I was still unprepared for the reinforced steel pillars to ward off car bombs, the guards with mirrors peering beneath arriving vehicles, and the airport-style metal detectors and baggage scanners. Once inside, however, I found a familiar scene of animation. A shiny new lobby has been constructed at the base of the 1970s Taj Mahal Tower, and from there, guests staying in the old Palace Wing are escorted to a dedicated reception.
There, the atmosphere was one of tranquil continuity, and it was hard to believe that less than four years earlier the same place had been the scene of utter mayhem. In my view, the sea-facing Taj Club Rooms on the fifth and sixth floors of the Palace Wing are the most desirable accommodations, unless you opt for a full suite. (The Ravi Shankar Suite, where the maestro taught George Harrison to play the sitar, has been completely redone!) Executive Suites lack the iconic view of the Gateway to India. Although the Club Rooms are not particularly spacious — the 1903 layout did not anticipate modern baths — they are extremely comfortable.
Apparently, plans for the hotel include a new spa and fitness center with a view out to the gardens. These will be a considerable improvement, as the current facilities are windowless and slightly claustrophobic.
One evening, I strolled down to the terrace overlooking the swimming pool and sat watching the kites spiraling on the thermals. It was a perfect spring evening with not a zephyr of wind or a cloud in the sky. As so often in India, the hour before sunset had brought a mood of almost preternatural calm.
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