Just Back from New Delhi and Jaipur:
Exploring the chic new Aman New Delhi hotel
I landed in New Delhi at 7.40am.
It’s late November. Morning light has not yet worked its way through the cool gray fog and wood-fire smoke that envelops the airport. Trees and traffic and darting people are mere wisps in tones of pale grey. But still, India looks like India—mysterious, timeless, and to me very welcoming and thrilling. I love India.
My driver from the Aman New Delhi hotel is waiting amid the airport multitudes (with a wooden Aman sign, how chic). I am instantly enveloped in his quiet efficiency as he opens the passenger door and his assistant swings my luggage into the trunk of the hotel’s classic thirties-style pale taupe Ambassador.
We move slowly through the throng, and into the leafy avenues. Women in muted winter saris muffled with grey and brown shawls pass by purposefully.
I’ve been in transit at this point for about 25 hours, from my front door in San Francisco, with a quick stop in Munich, and then onward to India. I slept all the way. (See my ‘Jet Leg Survival’ plan in earlier June posts.)
On the map: I am in Northern India, west of the Gangetic Plain, and on the western banks of the sacred Yamuna River.
‘Ma’am, did you have a pleasant flight?” said the handsome assistant, seated in the front passenger seat, left side, British style, offering me a bottle of water. Yes, thank you, to both.
Delhi city streets pass in a ghostly blur of upright bicycles, holy cows, chugging Tata trucks, ragged children, rusty buses with turbaned passengers hanging out the windows, camels, handsome gardens and fountains, darting monkeys, a glimpse or two of temples and monuments.
Inside the taupe leather-seated Ambassador, all is calm. Finally, the assistant phones the hotel to report we expect to arrive in three minutes.
We turn from Lodhi Road into the monumental stone territory of the Aman New Delhi. The hotel opened earlier this year, and I have seen only one or two photos, so I don’t quite know what to expect, how it will feel.
My first impression of the hotel is that an austere and highly refined architectural sensibility is at work here. Pared down and uncompromising, the walls of honed ivory-colored stone are somehow reminiscent of the pale, perfect, pure exterior walls of the Taj Mahal. And yet this new Aman is from another aesthetic, style sensibility, and century entirely. It’s Meier-modern, and feels logical, harmonious, solid but ethereal, intelligent, understated. It’s perfectly serene on this 41 deg F late autumn morning, as it will be on the scorching 112 deg F days that suffocate Delhi in July's monsoon season.
The hotel architect and designer is Australian Kerry Hill, based in Singapore and Western Australia. He is a master of his craft. It feels India modern, but chic and 21st-century. Delhi without a trace of nostalgia.
At the front entrance a group of handsome men in taupe tunics take the luggage, General Manager Henry Gray welcomes me, and I am swept inside the hotel, past a large carved black stone water basin filled in which float brilliant orange marigolds.
My floor butler silently guides me to my suite, along an enfilade of silent hallways. In the suite, a graceful bedroom has an entirely efficient series of adjacent wardrobes, luggage stands and dressing tables. Everything in the right place. The scent of fresh tuberoses wafts into the air. I sign a document. That’s my check-in. How polished, how thoughtful. Bliss.
I am here. I am in India.
The butler returns with a glass of fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice. This, for me, is the ultimate Indian luxury. There are many others.
On the floor beside the bed are the most comfortable boiled wool booties in taupe. They look Bhutanese.
And over beyond the desk and through a tall shuttered door, is my terrace. There’s a restful view of gardens and trees and Hamuyan’s Tomb in the foggy distance. Wait, there’s a plunge pool, heated. A cantilevered chaise-longue.
Breakfast arrives. English Breakfast tea, of course, and wheat toast. House-made orange marmalade. Bitter/sweet. I read the Times of India Crunch. Linger.
But I have things to do. The hotel has arranged a trip to review the great architecture of Lutyens’s imperial Delhi, then onward to the marigold-wreathed flower market, and to Chandni Chowk, that raucous, mediaeval, shrieking and over-stimulating market with saris and jewels and fabrics, and dhoti-clad characters in twirls of turbans, and rickety bicycles and boot-legged electricity. What century is this? ‘Madam, fine silks’, ‘Madam, we can make you a jacket’, ‘Silver bracelets, Madam’, ‘Come, Madam, fine hand-woven cotton”. I smile. Next time.
“When I first arrived in New Delhi in 1984, I used to slip out and explore. I would take a rickshaw into the innards of the Old City and pass through the narrowing funnel of gullies and lanes, alleys and cul-de-sacs, feeling the houses close in around me. In particular, what remained of the 18th-century palace of the last Mughal, Bahadur Shah II, the Red Fort of the Great Mughals, kept drawing me back. I would often slip in there with a book and spend whole afternoons in the shade of a cool pavilion. Delhi’s relationship with its past continues to intrigue me.” —From 'The Last Mughal’ by William Dalrymple (2006).
Old Delhi. Chandni Chowk. It’s a visual upload this morning, not commerce. Back to the hotel spa for my massage. If I were to dream of my ideal spa, this would be it. Muted light, softest sounds of bells and Indian chanting. A masseuse from Mizoram. Dark rooms, dark woods, out of time and out of mind.
It’s two hours of Thai massage. I’m never leaving.
Privacy is perhaps the most precious travel luxury. I never see another guest on this stay. Aman-style, this feels like a private residence (if only). There are no signs, staff greet me by name, it is all very discreet.
There’s time for a frisky and fresh organic salad and more pomegranate juice before friends send their driver to gather me up and take me out to their Farmhouse (actually a luscious new house an hour from the city center in a tree-lined estate, once surrounded by countryside.) Afternoon fades into evening, and I return to the hotel with friends long after midnight.
Architect, Kerry Hill on the design of Aman New Delhi:
“We approach all of our work with a constant design philosophy. Spending time in another culture makes one aware of both the similarities and the differences.”
“We reference past building traditions through suggestion and association rather than replication, and through the reinterpretation of indigenous building forms as opposed to mimicry.”
“We prefer to build upon what is there and to contemporize our understanding of what it can be. I think of our design for Aman New Delhi as being current, but filtered through a sieve of traditional values.”
Over the time of my stay, I discovered, on request, that the hotel is set on 6 acres, has two wings, nine floors, thirty-nine rooms and twenty-eight suites, and that there’s a panoply of restaurants, a hair salon, a lap pool, plunge pools, jaali screens to modulate light and intense outdoor heat.
The décor by Hill is at first hit reminiscent of Christian Liaigre, with the strong silhouette of dark woods, a counterpoint of moody muddy green hand-woven wool carpets, no pattern, wooden window and door shutters, and hits of brass. But the sensibility is more modern Anglo-Indian, with dark exotic wood wall cabinets, bronze bowls filled with pomegranates, stone bowls with fresh tuberose blossoms, muted tones throughout, everything cohesively modern Indian. All furniture was locally crafted.
It’s Aman’s first city property, as it happens. They have taken the hotel-as-private-retreat concept that they’ve done so well in remote and dreamy places like Bali and Sri Lanka and Bhutan, and brought it to this urban setting. Even with the cavalcade of Indian life rushing outside, the hotel feels hushed, cathedral-like, and ultra-luxe.
I’ve stayed in many wonderful and captivating and highly individual hotels over time. Aman New Delhi was a rare visit: deeply private, modern but with a sense of tradition and formality, and with intelligent service.
I had mentioned to my butler that I liked the Indian flute music playing in my suite when I arrived. He burned a disk and left it ready for my departure. This dreamy weave of flute notes is now on my iPod.
Today it’s onward to Jaipur and then Ajabgarh and the Aravalli hills.
I left the hotel in the same taupe Ambassador, feeling like a maharani with my handsome driver and cheerful assistant.
They had asked me if there was anything I would like for the drive. I said, slightly whimsically, ‘English breakfast tea’.
Halfway to the airport, the assistant turned and asked quietly, “When would you like your tea, Madam?”
“Well, this looks lovely here,” I improvised, and we passed an equestrian school, with perfectly postured young women exercising their thoroughbred horses. The driver pulled into a side street near the equestrian ring. Wordlessly, as if he did this every day (he did not) he took out a wicker hamper from the trunk, and set forth a teacup and saucer, milk, sugar, a Thermos of tea, and a teapot. He poured the hot tea into the pot, and poured me a perfectly fresh brew. I sat there in the shade, time out of time, watching the riders, sipping, writing Indian couplets in my head. Singing, perhaps.
Somersaults in my brain.
Tea completed, he packed up the hamper and we continued on, unhurriedly, sedately, to the airport. I can’t recall a more pleasant ride to any airport.
Aman New Delhi is a dramatic property. And it’s the thoughtful, low-key and cheerful staff that takes it to another level.
I can’t wait to return.
Aman New Delhi
phone from US 800-477-9180.
Rates from $550
Hotel images courtesy of Amanresorts, used with permission.
Next week My Passage to India Part 3:
Amanbagh in Ajabgarh