This is a mountain getaway about as far as it gets from the madding crowd. The Lchang Nang Retreat — it means House of Trees — is in the superbly picturesque Nubra Valley four hours by road from Leh in Ladakh. Here, bordering the Old Silk Route, you can stay in one of the resort’s 17 cottages set in orchards of elm, apricot and apple trees with the Siachen River rushing past. You can even slip back in time and sway off into the distance atop a double-humped Bactrian camel like ancient traders who once passed through the Nubra Valley en route to distant civilisations.
“My family belongs to Nubra. I was always fascinated by it. I saw lots of resorts come up in Leh but felt no one was looking at sustainable, eco-resorts and thought I should do something different,” says Rigzin Wangtak Kalon, one of the resort’s three partners who has a day job in the oil sector. Another partner, Frenchman Pio Coffrant, is creative head and masterminded its design.
Lchang Nang’s one of many resorts springing up around the country that is grander and more ambitious than ever before. That’s because the intrepid Indian traveller is taking more holidays than before and is constantly scouting for new leisure experiences.
It’s not surprising, then, that India’s leisure hotel segment is bucking the hospitality industry’s downward trend. A host of luxury to upper-upscale resorts has sprung up from the Nubra valley to the Havelock Islands, where Mark Hill from Britain opened a seven-room boutique hotel, Jalakara, last winter. Other traveller hotspots include the National Capital Region and evergreen Goa.
Says Achin Khanna, managing director of hospitality consultancy HVS: “Leisure has become more of a year-round trend for domestic and international travellers, which wasn’t the case traditionally.”
The most ambitious resort resembles a palace complex and rises out of nowhere as you drive past lush fields and sleepy hamlets, exiting off the highway from Gurgaon to little-known Mewat. Don’t rub your eyes and think it’s a mirage. Rather, the domed palaces, royal pavilions, rambling courtyards and verdant gardens represent ITC Hotels’ grand vision of a luxury retreat.
Ever since the ITC Grand Bharat opened last November, this 300-acre retreat with its 100 deluxe suites, four opulent Presidential Villas and 27-hole Signature Jack Nicklaus Golf Course has become the ‘it’ resort for stressed-out city dwellers who don’t want to travel too far to get away from it all.
Says ITC Grand Bharat’s general manager Anand Rao: “There was a need for a luxury retreat, which didn’t piggyback on offerings of the city near where it’s located and rather was a destination in itself.” The ITC Grand Bharat’s less than two hours from Delhi and it’s the company’s first foray into the luxury leisure space.
International chains moving in
And it’s not just Indian hotel chains that have entered the fray. Now international hotel chains like Starwood, Marriott and Accor are moving in, unlocking existing leisure destinations and expanding the market. With an eye firmly on domestic travellers, they’re also pitching their new resorts as upmarket family spots.
In May, for instance, Starwood Hotels opened Le Meridien Mahaba-leshwar Resort and Spa in this popular hill station near Mumbai. It’s only Starwood’s second resort in India after the Westin Sohna and the first five-star resort in Mahabaleshwar. “The domestic traveller is looking for smaller breaks and is discerning,” says Starwood Hotels & Resorts area general manager Anuraag Bhatnagar. “We’re also seeing ‘staycations’ and urban resorts taking off and, because Mahabaleshwar was popular, we felt it was ready for a luxury resort like Le Meridien,” he adds.
Then, last October, Marriott opened its first Indian resort, JW Marriott Mussoorie Walnut Grove Resort & Spa. The 115-room resort surrounded by open land and forest is wowing travellers — and exceeding all occupancy expectations. Says its general manager Chandrashekhar Joshi: “We began making money (operational profits) from the first month, which means there’s untapped demand for a brand like ours.”
Elsewhere, French hospitality major Accor made its first move into the resort space with its Grand Mercure Goa Shrem Resort in North Goa last November. The resort, with its blend of Indo-Portuguese architecture and contemporary interiors — it
features high-pitched roofs and wide verandahs — aims to be North Goa’s favourite wellness and family destination. “It overlooks Goa’s greenest part with paddy fields and mountains and radiates peace,” says resort general manager Rohan Sable.
And more places are opening. By next April, the much-acclaimed Raas Jodhpur’s Nikhilendra Singh will open a resort, the Raas Kangra, near Dharamshala. And Starwood will open India’s first W resort in Goa next year.
Now, the hotel business feeds on the location mantra. So, naturally, the resorts are all about jaw-dropping locales — and dramatic architecture. And it doesn’t get more overwhelming than the ITC Grand Bharat with its architectural styles that pay homage to everything from the stepped wells of Gujarat to the Mukteswar temple of Bhubaneswar to Baroda’s Indo-Saracenic Laxmi Vilas Palace. It’s “envisaged as a tribute to the glory of India,” says Rao.
Naturally, the retreat’s living spaces are lavishly appointed. The deluxe suites — they cost over Rs 20,000 a night — come with a living room, bedroom, marble bathroom and dressing room. And four Presidential Villas come with a valet and chef.
The Raas Jodhpur’s Singh will complement the dramatic setting of his upcoming Raas Kangra in the picturesque Kangra valley with standout architecture and uninterrupted views of the Dhauladhar Range and tea gardens. “Rather than do too much drama in the rooms, we like to do interesting architecture which blends in with the environs,” says Singh. The Raas Kangra will be a striking, contemporary, 200m-long, low, crescent-shaped building extending over two hillsides. Each of its 41 suites will have two balconies and 30 rooms will have attic beds for kids.
It’s local-mixed-with-contemporary at the stunning Lchang Nang Retreat too. The 17 cottages overlooking snow-capped mountains are built in local style with mud, stone and poplar. But Coffrant has made contemporary European interiors — distressed walls, black oxide floors and stylish lighting. The idea is to disconnect with the world, so don’t expect TVs though there’ll be WiFi. Tariffs will be around Rs 10,000 a night, all-board. “People are looking for different places and Nubra’s completely untouched,” says the resort’s third partner, businessman Vikas Dhar.
The 122-room Le Meridien Mahabaleshwar is also all about preserving natural environs. It’s set in dense hillside forest, but the feel is Mediterranean with villas dotting the property. The heated plunge pool on the recreation hub’s upper deck overlooks the valley. The hotel’s Serenity Suite even has an outdoor personal spa. “It’s pouring these days, but weekends we’re packed. We’ve exceeded all expectations,” says resort general manager Norton Pereira.
Similarly, the 115-room JW Marriott Mussoorie has made the most of its scenic locale in the Garhwal, 30 minutes from town, surrounded by forest and with views of the valley and the Garhwal range. Meanwhile, the 121-room Grand Mercure Goa’s Portuguese styling offers a wall full of Portuguese mirrors. The resort offers standard rooms, executive suits and a duplex Superior suite with standard room tariffs going from Rs 7,000 to Rs 18,000.
Families, wellness and more
Indeed, with many new resorts pitching themselves as family places, they’ve got large entertainment and family centres — Marriott Mussoorie’s The Den even has a bowling alley. “Our plan was to position ourselves as high-end and welcoming kids,” says Joshi. At Grand Mercure, too, Sable says nearly 70 per cent of their guests are families with children.
The new resorts are also keeping the wellness quotient high, offering everything from spas with hammams to gyms and Yoga. “The spa’s on a lot of people’s itinerary,” says Grand Mercure’s Sable. So his resort has a Balinese-style spa and a Yoga deck.
Now, what’s a holiday without good food? The Marriott Mussoorie has five restaurants including the Trout House Grill & Bar and an Asian fine-dining restaurant Teppan. “The idea is guests should not repeat a restaurant,” says Joshi. And it’s got local women to cook regional specialties like gath ka paratha — gath is a local lentil.
Similarly, Le Meridien Mahaba-leshwar offers international-style signature dishes with a local twist. Since it’s in chikki or nougat country, it offers Le Signature Brioche, a rich gourmet nougat bread with green tea and honey-cured Atlantic salmon. The Grand Mercure Goa features a Sara-swat thali with the Goan Saraswat community’s seafood. And Lchang Nang will offer Ladakhi dishes with a modern touch like chhu tagi, a Ladakhi pasta-like meat dish.
Now, leisure travellers are a demanding lot and want innovative experiences. Le Meridien at Maha-baleshwar has tied up with the local Devrai Art Village to offer bespoke tours. Adventure-seeking guests at Lchang Nang can trek or hike to monasteries and across sand dunes. ITC Grand Bharat, meanwhile, offers programmes like Cuisine Classica, where guests learn to make the hotel’s famed fare.
Clearly, travellers are getting spoilt for choice on the resort circuit and options keep growing. Starwood, for instance, will open its first W resort in Goa by April and is developing Westin resorts in Bekal and Rishikesh. The Cidade de Goa’s Fomento group has a resort coming up in Sindhudurg while Movenpick Hotels has a 124-room sustainable resort under development in the Kangra Valley whose key attraction will be an Ayurvedic spa. And the Oberoi has the swank Sukh Vilas coming up near Chandigarh.
All this means it’s certainly time to head off for many short breaks. Pack your bags!