25 April 2017

Taj Hotels launch in Amritsar with Taj Swarna

Taj Hotels are a benchmark in themselves when you talk about hospitality and luxury. With umpteen number of hotels spread across the world and in India, they have recently launched a property in Amritsar, called Taj Swarna. With about 20 minutes away from the Golden Temple, 20-25 minutes away from the airport and half an hour away from the railway station, the location of the hotel deserves a lot of praise. 

Vistara Airlines and Taj Swarna started off around the same time in Amritsar. Vistara started its daily flights to and fro Delhi and Mumbai, and the to and fro journey of mine was courtesy Vistara. A 1 hour 10 minute long flight from Delhi, and they also give you snacks in it (I always loved Vistara, and mostly for its food :D).

Day 1:

The hotel opens into a huge huge lobby with a ceiling about 3 floors high. On your left you see the reception and right next to it is a path that leads you to two of their restaurants. On the right of the entrance is the lift lobby and diagonally in front of you is their 24 hour restaurant. The moment you step inside the hotel, you see an outdoor area in front of you that’s very very inviting- so full of greenery. 

Taj Swarna has a beautiful ritual of welcoming guests- with a tilak and maala, and with welcome drinks, one of which is of course chhaachh!! These rituals at Taj Hotels are to honour the local traditional rituals of the place the hotel is situated in. They incorporate and absorb these rituals into their distinct hospitality, which forms a part of something they take pride in calling 'Tajness'. 

Soon after we were welcomed and given the key to the room, I was most excited about the part coming now- the room! With a Club category room that had a lovely view of the city, the room had a very very comfortable bed, such fine interiors adorned in hues of yellow and grey, a study table, a television, and a very impressive-looking bathroom. The room and the bathroom were well-equipped with all the amenities, but the bathroom had something special too. For the ladies, they had a complete kit with nail filer, nail paint remover, lip balm, face wash, and the likes. What a thoughtful gesture! The benefits of a club room are many. You get 2 hours in the evening called ‘cocktail hours’, where you can enjoy cocktails, drinks straight up, and snacks in the club lounge. For breakfast too, you don’t need to go to the restaurant if you don’t feel like. The club lounge has the breakfast laid there for club room category guests. A very very good deal if you ask me!

There’s nothing a comfortable plush room doesn’t do to your heart on a holiday. With a pillow menu to please you and give you a calming sleep, and another ritual of Taj for your ‘Sleep’, my 5 hour of sleep on the first night was surprisingly more than just peaceful and relaxing. I don’t know if it was the mattress or the pillow, or the Sleep ritual. Coming to which, this ritual consisted of the housekeeping providing you with an under-eye gel, a hand and face cream flavoured with lavender, and a lavender spray for your pillow to give you a good night’s sleep. Pampered in every sense!

The room service was prompt in all my requests over the two nights and three days of my stay. The staff of the hotel in general was too warm. Always with a smile on their faces, going out of their way to accommodate your requests, they were very welcoming and made every effort so you feel at home.

Had all my meals at the hotel, except for the in-between snacks for which Taj Swarna took us on a culinary walk on day 1 (more about the culinary walk in another post).

The first day saw us indulging in the hi-tea served at Grand Trunk, Taj Swarna’s multi-cuisine restaurant. A superlative rendition of Amritsar, captivated beautifully in that hi-tea experience. Two artists playing instruments and the folk music of Punjab live to create a very relaxing and enjoyable environment, fried goodness like Pyaaz, Aloo and Bread Pakoras being done in front of you by the chef who was adorning the typical Amritsari outfit of a kurta pyjama with turban. So so many sweets to give you a taste of North India, assorted cookies and biscuits laid in front of you to come and choose from. Endless cups of Masala Chai served in such cute cups, tea cakes and matthis to go with the tea- it was a hi-tea like no other! The pakoras, so crisp and served piping hot, were a real treat. It would be an achievement for someone to not overeat.

After the hi-tea we headed to the market to get acquainted with Phulkari (a type of cloth with a distinctive pattern, synonymous with Amritsar), bangles, juttis (a type of sandals), a chooda market called Chooda Bazaar (chooda is what North Indian brides wear after marriage as an auspicious part of their attire and new role as a married woman). All these things are very famous in Amritsar, and you will see a gazillion shops selling them. We headed to the Golden Temple area on the evening of day 1 for our walk through the markets, and saw the transformation Amritsar had undergone last year. It now looks no less than a foreign country with a tourist spot that glitters and beams in the superb lighting, top-notch architecture, and a beauty you only gape at in admiration and awe. It is a sight to be witnessed, and the true magic of the place comes alive when it’s lit up in the evening!

Enjoyed some kulfi from the local vendor, took a rickshaw ride and lost track of our way, window-shopped for phulkaris and juttis. I had come to Amritsar only recently and indulged in the shopping bit then, so this time I refrained from going all out and shopping for those beautiful phulkari dupattas with matching juttis! If you don’t have one though, you should definitely go for it. I’m sure you won’t stop at just one of these. The colours and patterns are to die for!

After a culinary walk, we headed back to the hotel for drinks at The Peg, the hotel’s bar. Some good music, a choice of cocktails by the bartender or drinks straight up, and delicious appetizers like Chicken Tikka, Tandoori Prawns, some Chinese dishes too, and you’re in for a gala evening! Loved the vibe at the bar.

We were too full with the food we stuffed our faces with at the culinary walk, so many of us refrained from eating at The Peg, but drinks were followed by a buffet dinner at the hotel’s multicuisine restaurant called Grand Trunk. The food at Grand Trunk during my entire stay was nothing short of brilliant. I could not list a single flaw in the food, the choice of dishes on the buffet, the temperature at which the food was kept, the variety, the service of the staff. Just nothing at all. Every single dish was so high on taste, so high on flavour, so high on richness, yet it didn’t make you feel ‘heavy’. Over the course of two days and about 4 meals at Grand Trunk, I tried dishes that I would have otherwise never even looked at, and all this only because the food was so inviting!

My dinner was a lavish affair ad several helpings of Palak Malai Makai, Mutton Curry, Paneer Lababdar, butter and garlic naans and rice. Took a generous helping of Tawa Chicken from the live counter and it was simply mind-blowing! After being stuffed to the brim with my earlier food expeditions in the evening, I still overloaded myself with the dinner and didn’t regret it one bit! If the main course was great, dessert was waiting for me to come and have a look at the spread. Kudos to the kitchen staff for creating a plethora of desserts for every meal at Grand Trunk. For people living in Amritsar, I don’t think they should look beyond Taj Swarna when they want to come satiate their cravings with great food. The Chocolate Mud Cake was the highlight of the desserts for me, and I still tried 4 other desserts that I absolutely adored! While I was choosing what desserts to take, a lady came to me with so much excitement, and told me that I can just not leave without trying the Sevaiyan- they are that good. Imagine when random guests are telling each other to try particular dishes, how incredible must the food be then!!

Day 2:

After a lovely night’s sleep, it was time to head out to the Golden Temple after having breakfast at the hotel. I had no place in my stomach to have breakfast, so I skipped it completely, and hopped on the bus taking us to Golden Temple at precisely 8 30 AM. Walked from the point after which vehicles weren’t allowed inside, and the same market that I saw in its full splendour the night before, was now shining bright with the Sun beaming on all the lovely architectural work.

I’ve been to Golden Temple twice before, but never have I experienced it this way before. No words to describe the experience. The calm and patience with which we explored every nook and corner of Golden Temple is exactly how every person should experience it. Did a parikrama of the Golden Temple (completing one round around it), had jal or the holy water that the volunteers (called sevaks) were giving to people in steel bowls, paid a visit to the kitchen that serves thousands of people each day. Golden Temple is that one place where no soul can leave hungry. The kitchen works 24 hours, people volunteer to make food and clean the dishes, serve people and devote themselves to Guru Nanak ji through their services. It's called ‘seva’, and anybody can come and do their bit and work selflessly here. The devotion you see in Sikhism is rarely seen in any other religion. You cannot enter the Golden Temple without a cloth covering your head, and there shouldn’t be any skin showing. Hence, it is advisable to wear a suit or fully covered clothes with a scarf to cover the head. There is a shoe and a bag counter outside where you can deposit your stuff for no fee at all, and answering the question of many- photography is allowed inside the Golden Temple but not inside the main darbar where you go to seek lord’s blessings.

Our guide took us to every corner of Golden Temple and told us the significance of everything that Sikhism stands for, how the Golden Temple came into being. Not many would know, but Golden Temple was originally called Harmandir Sahab, and was fondly then called Golden Temple because of the gold that was plated on it.

After this we headed to Jallianwala Bagh and the newly constructed Partition Museum. Jallianwala Bagh is where the massacre happened and a lot of people lost their lives during the British rule. The well in which people jumped is still there, and so are the gunshots on the walls of this place. It is a major tourist spot that has now been improved a lot and has fountains and the likes to make it more attractive, but the sadness that a visit to this place causes can never be nullified with the new installations.

I was very exhausted because of the scorching heat by the time we left Jallianwala Bagh and headed to the Partition Museum, so I decided to sit outside while the others went ahead. It is basically a place that tells you everything about the partition of India and Pakistan. Everything there is to know. So if you have time on hand and would like to explore Amritsar, you should plan a visit here together with the Golden Temple because it’s situated only 10 minutes of walking distance away.

Heading back to the hotel was a relief for me! Also because it was time for lunch and not having eaten any breakfast was making me ravenous. Lunch was to be had at the hotel’s Chinese restaurant called The Chinese Room. What a delectable fare of veg and non veg dishes! We started with Chicken with Black Pepper, Veg Salt and Pepper and Pan-fried Chicken Dimsums, and were served a very refreshing mocktail with Indian spices. After a lovely Lemon Chicken Soup, main course was served- Tofu in a flavourful spicy gravy, Chicken with asparagus, and a delicious version of Fried Rice. The noodles looked bland to me, because I’m a spicy food person, but one bite and I saw how wrong I was! A very hearty meal with multiple helpings, followed by dessert which was Date Pancake, Darsaan and Vanilla Icecream. How does it get any better?

After lunch some of us headed to Wagah Border but I decided to stay back, relax and enjoy the property. Seeing a great opportunity to do something different and not sticking to the itenary, I asked for a session to be arranged with The Peg’s head bartender Anuj, for demonstrating some of his molecular gastronomy cocktails. Saw Anuj make 2 delicious Jack Daniels based cocktails with his self-made syrups and bitters, and applying the concept of molecular gastronomy. A little bit of theatrics never hurt anyone, right? And the taste of the cocktails did amazingly well! Anuj was kind enough to show us all of his homemade syrups, and surprisingly all of these were made using only Indian spices. When at Taj Swarna, you must ask him to make you something using his special syrups.

The evening of Day 2 was the grand media launch of Taj Swarna (for which we were invited). A lot of people from Amritsar, friends and relatives of the employees, regular guests of the hotel’s, important people of the city, were all invited for the evening. Lighting of the lamp by Taj Hotels, Palaces and Resorts' Managing Director and CEO, Mr. Rakesh Sarna, was present at the occasion to carry all the auspicious ceremonies. Guests were being welcomed with dhols in the driveway, the entire outdoor area of Taj Swarna had live food counters and tables laid out, all restaurants of the hotel were open for the guests to come and experience the hospitality and see the best of the best the hotel had to offer.

The evening led into a several performances being held in the ballroom, where everyone was seated and made to experience true talent and skill. But before that the hotel’s General Manager, Mr. Sumeet Taneja gave a very heart-warming speech on what it means for him to be at this hotel, how the people of the city welcomed him, how the experience of seeing the hotel build from scratch was for him. He gave us an overview of the past, and said he looked forward to a bright bright future ahead. The first performance we saw the skill of using sword that was demonstrated magically by children that were so high on energy and even higher on talent. A fashion show by the designer duo Shantanu and Nikhil describing the game of chess through their clothes was what we saw next. But something happened after that which I will never be able to forget as an experience. Taj has me all praises for them for this initiative and gesture, and this is what differentiates a class hotel from all others. The staff of Taj Swarna walked the ramp, joined by their General Manager in the end. It was an absolute delight to witness this! The energy in the room, the hooting and applause for the staff, the sweet smiles on their faces and the happiness of representing their hotel- it is indescribable! Kudos to the event agency and to Taj Swarna for executing something like this!

A gala evening in the true sense! The moment the doors of the ballroom opened after the event ended, we were ushered into a room where there were servers lined up one after the other with piping hot snacks on one side and champagne, prosecco, cocktails and dinks on the other side. A bar set up on one side of the room, and people were now free to roam around and try food at the different restaurants. La Patisserie, the hotel’s pastry shop had created a Chocolate Room. Truffles of about 30 kinds were kept in the patisserie for people to come and try. Macaroons of so many flavours, candies for kids. It was a wonderland for people of every age group. And let’s not even get into the brilliance of those truffles. Orange flavoured, dark chocolate, mint, caramelized onions (yes!), wafer sticks, praline, hazelnut- you name the flavour and there was a truffle for it.

I then headed to The Peg and enjoyed a few drinks with everyone there. The mood of the place had become peppy now, and we could see some activity happening outdoors. Headed out and saw there was an evening of amazing live music that was going to happen with Manasi Scott. Grabbed our drinks and took seats outside, only to be in awe of how amazingly Manasi Scott could bind the audience together. Few minutes into this and people were singing along with her. A few more minutes and the entire area in front of the stage was filled with people dancing like there’s no tomorrow! What a fun fun experience!

Live counters placed for dimsums and baos, for the entire Chinese fare, lip-smacking Duck Rolls, and a ridiculously amazing live counter for grilled lobsters!! And like I hadn’t had enough of this, I headed to Grand Trunk for my share of Indian fare!! Loaded up on Kadhai Paneer, Dal Makhni, Murgh Tikka Masala and some crisp Kulchas and rice. No surprises here- the food was finger-licking good. Desserts on the day of the launch were double that what I saw at the previous day’s buffet dinner. How do I describe heaven? I just can’t. That dessert station was heaven for me, and this was one of those times when I cursed my appetite for not being big enough.

Went back to my room after a delightful gala evening, and was welcomed with a Phulkari dupatta and a kit of all the products they sent the previous night for a good sleep. Only this kit was a present! Such a sweet gesture 😊

Day 3:

Day 3 was to be spent at leisure with no itenerary, and we were to enjoy breakfast whatever time we felt like. I was really looking forward to breakfast, having missed it the previous day, and reached as late as I could. An array of bakery products that were simply drool-worthy in their taste, softness and fluffiness! Tried waffles with maple syrup and whipped cream, Amritsari kulcha with chhole which just made me cry with joy, some idli with gunpowder and chutneys, and my all-time favourite breakfast option- Eggs Benedict. The only food item in my entire stay that was disastrous! Communicated this to my server while leaving and he was very apologetic about it. And in any case, one miss in comparison to a thousand hits don’t even matter. The breakfast was very lavish- sausages, bacon, eggs any way you want, juices, shakes, yoghurt, fresh fruits, cereals, Chinese breakfast, Continental breakfast, fresh kulchas, bhature, poori, an endless list.

The hotel has a beautiful pool, a yoga room with an outdoor area, Jiva Spa which is Taj Hotel’s spa across all their properties, a salon, three huge meeting rooms equipped with all the essentials, and a very cool gym. They have all the amenities and facilities that a hotel should have, and along with it have great service in all their departments.

They also had a departing ritual where they offer you curd and jaggery so you have a safe journey back. I mean, really!! You can just cry at this gesture- so so so thoughtful of them to do something like this!

I am back from Taj Swarna with very fond memories and hospitality like no other! Amritsar has me head over heels in love with it and I will be back soon, to both Amritsar and Taj Swarna. The price you pay for your stay here completely gets you a bang for your buck. When visiting Amritsar, you must only stay at Taj Swarna. The food will floor you, the service will impress you, the leisure and comfort will pamper you and Tajness will make you feel treasured.

Go to these links to see live videos from my trip to Amritsar with Taj Swarna:

Disclaimer: The review was done on an invitation from the hotel. All views expressed are unbiased in nature but readers are advised to exercise their own discretion. 

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