A night at the re-opened Taj Mahal Palace: total luxury after 2008 terrorist attack

betty ming liu Food 19 Comments

My three-week trip to India included a 36-hour stopover in Mumbai. Formerly known as Bombay, it’s the world’s most populated city in the world’s second largest country. In 2008, it made headlines because its most super-luxury hotel was attacked by terrorists. So you know I had to stay at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower.

For a century, the Taj was just a gorgeous, century-old grand dame sitting on the harbor along the Arabian Sea. Its website still brags that is has hosted countless presidents, rock stars and kings. Then two years ago, terrorists stormed the splendid lobby, killing more than 150 people dead and injuring hundreds of others. By the time the carnage ended, the Taj’s distinctive Moorish-Florentine complex was a smoking, bloody wreck, blown apart by exploding grenades and gunfire.

On Aug. 31, I checked in to check out what has happened since. Along for the ride were my daughter and her two friends: three American, travel-weary teens who had just spent nearly a month of roughing it in south India.They were tired and cranky, making them tough critics. The following night, we were bracing for a 16-hour flight that would take us back to New York. As it turned out, the Taj was a perfect place to regroup before heading home.

We landed in Mumbai’s airport on a rare, rainy day. Because of the weather, the drive into the city took nearly 90 minutes — double the norm.

Mumbai taxis are yellow and black

Just ahead was the glitzy Taj entrance. But getting through the front door was a major security process. All approaching vehicles must line up and pop open both their hoods and trunks for inspection. If the vehicle is permitted access, three  cylindrically-shaped barriers that guard road entry sink to the ground to permit passage.  Then, they rise up again to deal with the next car.

Getting into the hotel takes a while

This car makes the cut. The pillars, rimmed in red lights, start going down

The security barriers have sunk into the ground. Once this car passes, they'll rise again

Security at the re-done Taj is very impressive.

We were greeted at the entrance by uniformed bell boys and doormen who were all over our luggage. Lush plantings and fine stone woodwork let us know that we were entering a different India. But first, there was more security…

All visitors walk through a metal detector. Bags and packages are checked by an x-ray machine.  From here, a spin through the revolving front doors landed us in a glamorous lobby that smelled like power and felt like being inside of a jewel. Sparkling crystal chandeliers, orange decor that glowed like a rich blend of spices.

The Taj website has more about the decor's antique crystal chandeliers & hand-woven rugs

There was also more security. Men in dark suits with wires in their ears were strategically stationed near elevators. This was a weekday afternoon so the Taj, which has 11 banquet rooms, was bustling with events. The crowd was mostly Indian;  their Western dress-for-success styling marked them as monied folk. A few TV camera crews were hanging around too.

Pretty, isn't it? Orange is a hard color to work with but this lobby glowed

I was very happy to wander the marble hallways, looking at everything

Everywhere, we saw lovely Indian paintings, sculptures and ceramics. Hundreds of works were damaged in the 2008 bombing. But the Taj brought in specialists to restore its treasures. The celebrated collection harkens back to the hotel’s past life as an art world player during the 1950s and 1960s.

At the receptionist desk, our reservation was handled by a sexy young woman in a belly button-baring sari. She spoke impeccable English and personally escorted us up to our rooms on the 11th floor of the Tower.

This older section of the 560-room hotel wasn’t really damaged two years ago. So our bathroom, with its fresh orchids, had older fixtures. Still comfy, though. Meanwhile, the actual furnishings felt luxurious and new.

The free fruit basket was also a nice touch. Sadly, Internet service didn’t work, even though we paid an extra $10 for it. (At the end of our stay, the charge was deducted from our bill.)

Reservations for a night at the Taj range from the low $300-range for a queen bed to more than $1,000 for a suite. Lucky me — before leaving New York, I booked in advance through Expedia.com. The travel website gave me two rooms, each with a queen bed, at $250 per. What a (relatively great) deal!

This was plenty luxurious for us

As it turns out, the Taj is one of 66 high-end hotels that the Mumbai-based Tata Group owns throughout India. Tata also has 16 more hotels overseas, including three in the U.S.: the Taj Boston, the Taj Compton Place in San Francisco and The Pierre in New York City.

By the time I left India, I understood the muscle behind the “Tata” name. This family-run empire casts a Big Brother-ish industrial shadow across India. Its holdings include everything from steel mills and auto plants to financial service and tea companies. Even the free bottles of water in our room were Tata products.

Taj Mahal Food:

The Taj really knows how to do great food. But at a price. Its 11 restaurants are themed and decorated to the hilt. We were ready to eat in the middle of the afternoon, which left us one choice: all-day dining Shamania cafe. It’s $40-per-head, all-you-can-eat buffet was a sumptuous spread served by a hovering, friendly waitstaff in crisp uniforms. The white starched linens, sterling silver platters and fancy h’or doeuvres were initially a bit intimidating. But gluttony got the better of us.

Delicious

The homesick children — all vegetarians — indulged in Western goodies that they hadn’t seen in weeks. Focaccia, baguettes, pastas, cheese plates, olives. My pescaterian daughter, who eats seafood, filled up on lox and shrimp. I was all over the stir-fried chicken, smoked ham, fresh salad greens.

Delectable

After a few helpings of the savory stuff, they dove into dessert. Multiple times. Cookies, cakes, ice cream, mousses, tarts and more. The nice waiters kept up with us, constantly whisking away our used plates.

Later that night, we dined at Souk, the Taj’s Middle Eastern restaurant. Oh man, it was some of the best food and service ever! Wish I had my camera because the presentation was exquisite without being snotty. I ordered a whole stewed chicken and after three weeks of traveling with vegetarians, ate nearly all of it. When we told the waiter that we’d just returned from south India, he gave the kids an extra rounds of virgin fruit drinks and kept re-filling my glass with complimentary wine. Our 13-year-old boy critic declared his chocolate dessert one of the 10 best he’d ever had.

Taj Mahal Recreation:

If I was an adult, I definitely would’ve explored Mumbai night life. Like New York, this is another city that never sleeps. But the kids and I were happy to wander the Taj, which has a spa, workout room and yoga room.

One look at the spa’s Manhattan prices and we were outta there. Instead, the girls and I sat in the (free!) steam room which was artfully tiled in white. Later, the kids used the workout room treadmills while I puttered in the yoga room.

The next morning, we woke to a gloriously sunny day. Or, at least I did. The teens slept until nearly noon. But at 8 a.m. I was in the pool. Twelve hours later, we would be jammed into economy seats on a flight bound for the U.S. Here was my last chance to stretch. A few months back, I had learned to swim. Now I was in doing laps in a most decadent setting. My private pool, with water-spewing lion statues. Mmmmm.

Swimming here on a quiet a.m. This pool was all mine

Beyond Taj's thick stone walls, I could hear birds & traffic. Special

When the kids finally woke up, they worked out a bit. Then, we left the Taj  for our first and last afternoon in Mumbai. During our 36 hours, here are the sights that we covered:

  • Gateway of India: This monument to British rule is an archway at the harbor, right across the street from the hotel. The kids had overdosed on sightseeing and wouldn’t even walk over to see it. But I went. Ended up meeting a young mom who was selling flowers. She somehow convinced me to buy her baby a $10 canister of baby formula at a snack shack nearby. So many poor people…
  • Mani Bhavan Gandhi Museum: From 1917 to 1934, Mahtama Gandhi stayed in this house during his fight for India’s independence. There’s a quirky display of dioramas. Each one contains tiny figures of Gandhi going through important moments in his life. The kids liked it.
  • The Prince of Wales Museum: I ditched the kids and spent an hour zipping through this wonderful collection of Indian art, jewelry and history. Wish I had a day to spend there. The audio tour was a hoot — narrated by an excellent storyteller, a giggly, rather fey Indian man who made me smile.
  • Samrat Restaurant: A really nice dining spot for local vegetarian food. Filled with young folks having fun.
  • Lincoln Park: I’m not even sure I’ve got the name of this street right. But we hit this shopping strip on our way back to the airport. Incredible shopping deals. Everything from a Levi’s store to street stalls selling $8 shoes, $10 backpacks and the most fantastic costume jewelry.
  • The slums: Again, on our way back to the airport, our driver took us past the ghetto that was featured in “Slumdog Millionaire.” The kids, who were thinking about going home, stared out the SUV window. Very unsettling.

Hang a red tassel for privacy; green is a request to have your room tided up. Linen bag holds the morning paper, in English

So that was our trip.

As for the total tab for a 36-hour stopover in Mumbai:

  • $259 – four shuttle tickets from Chennai to Mumbai
  • $500 – two queen rooms @ $250 each
  • $169 – four buffet lunches at Shamania
  • $165 – dinner at Souk
  • $38 – lunch at Samrat

An Indian friend in New York sprung for our driver (such a thoughtful gift!). And we probably spent another $350 on shopping.

The estimated total damage: $1,400

Expensive? Well, it was worth it.

And someday, I want to go back.   :-)

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Comments 19

  1. Post
    Author
    betty

    At lasssst….I’m finally letting go of this post. I didn’t feel like I could move on until I wrapped up India. And I don’t know why it took me days and days to figure this post out! But anyway, it’s done. And my jet lag is gone too. So, I’m back. :-)

  2. Jimmy

    Betty, Great post!! You had a great once in a lifetime experience that you will always treasure. I’m so glad that you could share it with your friends. Jimmy

  3. Shirley Bubbles

    Hi! Betty, wonderful posting! By the way, did u get $$ back from AT&T ?
    Re: Expedia.com ~ Yep! I used it for my Prague’s airfare & hotel packages twice, Vancouver’s hotel and Boston’s hotel booking in the past. They had a good steal when you catch the price at the right timing. ^^

  4. Post
    Author
    betty

    thanks, jimmy! the great thng about blogging is that it does indeed make it easier to keep in touch with friends – and make new ones.

    and yes, shirley, at&t refunded everything on my messed-up iPad account. I was actually very impressed. also, glad to get your feedback on expedia.com. it’s hotel rates were the best of any site I checked. since you’re so good at this travel stuff it’s really helpful to know how useful expedia has been for you.

    as for following up on current events and history, ivan, it gave me chills to be at the taj. a truly memorable experience.

  5. Shirley Bubbles

    Additional information re: Expedia.com~ How much time did you spend on expedia.com before booking your trip?

    FYI~ Even the same hotel+airline (you cannot control the airline name choice that much if you want good steal because it changes every day or every few hours) package, the price quote is like the “stock market” up & down within one hour or by day. I usually browse my desire package with a few hotel choices I like for a few days or a few week if time allows.

    I still remember two friends and I went to Prague in 2005, we stayed in one room for 7 nights of a hotel including breakfast buffet, we only paid for US$800/per person for our hotel & airfare. When I mentioned to a new friend recently, she doubts it. Actually that hotel was NOT fancy but it was clean & neat, very close to the bus stop we could get around within Prague.

    1. Post
      Author
      betty

      actually shirley, i did go back to expedia.com a few times over the course of a week or two. in this case, nothing changed. but i have had the “stock market” experience in renting cars on priceline.com. the prices can vary a lot depending on when i looked and the type of car. thanks for the reminder about how important is it to shop around!

  6. Laura Madden

    I’m not big on these crazy security measures, being a New Yorker. However, it’s a wonder they weren’t in place before 2008 — India seems to have the idea down pat at many of its airports and even malls in other regions. So sad that it’s necessary. Here’s hoping the Commonwealth Games will get similar attention to detail, if not a touch of luxury.

    Welcome back, Betty!

    1. Post
      Author
      betty

      glad to be back. thanks, laura! the security was pretty intense. but as a visitor for only one night, i found the experience very james bond. the kids thought it was all “very cool.” are we sick or what?

  7. Post
    Author
    betty

    more and more, i’m glad that i went to india. the country is becoming such a major story on the global stage. especially right this minute, with the obamas visiting there. i feel close to the story because i stayed at the taj and visited the gandhi museum too — just like the obamas! here’s a link to a new york times story about their trip. of course, they must’ve stayed in the presidential suite and we were in the cheapest rooms in the house. :)
    http://nyti.ms/bVXHbO

  8. Isha

    Betty, what a great piece! I’m sure the Taj hotel must have been a much-needed luxury experience at the end of a long trip. I’m actually going to Mumbai over winter break again this year, but I’ll be staying in our apartment, lol.

    1. Post
      Author
      betty

      have a great trip, isha! i did think of you while i was there; wondered what it was like for you to feel personally connected to mumbai.

      and apologies to my email subscribers. i have no idea why my feedburner service sent you this post for the second time! sorry about that.

  9. Post
    Author
    betty

    thanks, judy. as for the obamas’ recent visit to the taj — they ended up taking over the ENTIRE hotel. all 500+rooms. big entourage. now that’s major security.

  10. Dennis Daniel

    Dear Betty,
    Loved reading all about your experiences-As an Indian living in NY for over 35 yrs whose job it was to promote India and Air-India-i do appreciate all your comments and experiences
    .You could have made my job easier-If only I had met you earlier. I go back to India every year and would like to be in touch and subscribe to your blog. Last year I got to go to Shanghai and Bejing too-Loved that trip too -Dennis

  11. Amanda H

    Wow Betty! So envious of this great trip and glorious swim! And so happy you were able to enjoy such a decadent swim, congratulations!

    1. Post
      Author
      betty

      thanks, for checking out this post, amanda. yeah, that was the most incredible swimming pool. btw, i recently joined a gym with a pool. it’s not the same! but i’m just so happy to be in the water on a weekly basis. i don’t feel like a mermaid yet — the new york sports club is NOT a dreamy environment. still, it will do for now. :)

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