REVIEW: Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (Mumbai, India)
The Taj Mahal Palace is an iconic landmark in the city of Mumbai. A throwback to the days of the British Raj, the hotel is often said to have been constructed by legendary Indian businessman Jamsetji Tata when he was refused entry at the Watson's Hotel due to a "whites only" policy. Though historians state there is dubious evidence to support this claim, the fact remains that Tata constructed a beautiful hotel on the shores of the Arabian Sea that stands as a benchmark for Indian hospitality and luxury that endures to this day.
Still, the Taj Mahal Palace's history of excellence and comfort isn't without its stains. Many folks will recognize the hotel as one of several locations in the city of Mumbai that were targeted by terrorists in 2008. Four gunmen stormed the property and proceeded to detonate six explosives, set fire to the building, and subsequently begin executing guests and staff. A hostage crisis ensued that lasted for three days and ended with 31 individuals losing their lives and over 250 hostages rescued.
The news broke on November 27 - Thanksgiving Day in the United States. I was with family in Central Illinois and CNN was running wall to wall news coverage on the events. The world was presented with endless images of fire roaring through hotel windows and glass shattering at random intervals as madmen turned the legendary Taj into a war zone. I can still remember my Grandpa sitting in his recliner leaning forward to take my hand and say, "David, I wish you wouldn't travel so much. It's not safe."
India is, and I suspect always will be, one of my favorite places in the world. Despite my love for my Grandpa, it wasn't going to stop me from venturing out to explore the world. Many people have travel bucket lists, and I'm not any different. Oddly enough (or potentially familiar for some folks!), I even have a section on my bucket list devoted to hotels I want to stay at while traveling. The Taj Palace was definitely on that list but despite frequent trips to India it was never priced at a level that made it affordable on my travel budget. Luckily I was finally able to find a rate that was acceptable to me ($199/night) when I had an overnight layover in Mumbai on my way home from Goa, and the fact that I needed only one night sealed the deal. Even two nights at $199 per night was more than I was willing to do for a hotel, even the famous Taj!
Even with the higher rate, I decided I was going to simply enjoy myself and the services offered to the full extent and not worry about price this time around. I could have taken a cheaper taxi from the airport to the hotel but opted for the hotel's airport transfer service, priced at 3399 INR to and from the domestic terminal at the time. This converted to about $50 USD, whereas the international terminal fee was 4017 INR - about $60 USD. Again, more than I would ever normally consider reasonable but I was looking to enjoy the full package experience.
I was instructed to look for a man holding a sign with the Taj Palace's name when I exited the domestic terminal, and despite my flight on Jet Airways being over two hours delayed he was front and center when I walked out with my luggage. The Taj does so much business I suspect this gentleman simply stands there all day with the sign instead of waiting for a specific individual passenger, but still, they delivered as expected. When I identified myself he promptly shook my hand, welcomed me to Mumbai, and expertly moved the handle of my luggage out of my hand without me really noticing it happened and walked me out into the chaos of the car/taxi pick-up area. After a five minute walk through touts, exuberant Indian families embracing, and dodging vehicles moving through crowded lanes, I was handed over to my driver and wished well.
With white gloves and a driver's cap sitting on his head, Sanjay invited me to make myself comfortable as he guided the car into the late afternoon traffic of Mumbai and informed me the ride to the hotel should take about an hour today. While it definitely has its share of hair raising moments, I generally find Mumbai traffic to be less stressful than Delhi.
The car was extremely clean and felt almost brand new. A small tray had been placed in the backseat for me which featured fruit hard candy, two bottles of cold water, and chilled towels. The chilled towels in particular were a welcome treat as I always find myself a bit overheated and sweaty when leaving an airport. Also ... it's India. You're going to be sweaty.
In the seat back pocket in front of me were copies of the day's Times of India products as well as an information booklet on the Taj's services. I thought the inclusion of the booklet was a great idea as it allows you to peruse through the information on wifi, dining, and other services while passing the time on the long drive instead of while in the hotel room, which is normally where the information is first encountered.
My driver took us over the Bandra-Worli Sealink bridge, which seemed like a bit of a roundabout way to get from the airport to the hotel but it was a flat fee for the ride so I wasn't worried. Plus, Sanjay seemed much more qualified to determine traffic patterns in the city than my foreign ass, right?
The hotel is located in the Colaba district and is ideally situated for sightseeing at some of Mumbai's most sought after locations. The ferryboats to the Elephanta caves depart directly across the street from the hotel and Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus (also known by it's British name - Victoria Terminus) is just a short drive away. Many commercial enterprises and places of commerce, including the Bombay Stock Exchange, are also in the area.
Security at the hotel is, obviously, extremely tight. Many large hotels in India face the threat of terrorism so it's not uncommon for cars entering properties to be stopped and quickly searched while guests and their bags pass through a metal detector/x-ray machine. Despite the threat, sadly my experience shows that the staff conducting the check is often quite lackadaisical about the whole process. The Taj's staff does all of this but actually takes it seriously, and can you blame them? Barricades separate the front of the hotel from the road running along it, though there are small gaps for foot traffic to approach the hotel.
Despite the age of the building the lobby is quite modern. Unlike many luxury Asian hotels, the lobby is a bit understated. Bright lights illuminate the space and chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The ceiling isn't vaulted or open like you'll find in many newer construction hotels, but this didn't prevent people from congregating on the various chairs and couches dotting the space and chatting away. The lively buzz of commerce and conversation filled the room.
Check-in was efficient and extremely friendly. A young woman in a bright red sari greeted me and welcome me to Mumbai. After handing over my passport and a credit card, she proceeded to take care of the paperwork while explaining the hotel's various dining options and the spa location. I had added a special note to my reservation when I booked asking that I be placed in the historic portion of the hotel (as opposed to the new construction tower that's connected to the original building) and I was informed that my request was honored. This may have technically been an upgrade as I believe the basic room rate is for rooms in the modern tower.
Before sending me off to my room I was also given a tilaka, which is a South Asian tradition that involves rubbing a fragrant paste on a guest's forehead. There are tilaka marks with religious connotations in Hindusim, but this process is largely secular at hotels.
I was also given a garland of flowers to wear around my neck. The smell that fell off the petals was intoxicating, a lovely floral aroma surrounded my head as I left the front desk and made my way to a nearby stairwell to head up to my room.
After the attacks the Taj hotel group invested quite a bit of money into repairing and renovating the property, and the results are pretty stunning. Unlike the lobby the public stairwells and hallways really seemed like a throwback to colonial times. Lush, rich carpets. Polished wooden banisters with flourished metal railings . Marble floor tiles with bold, geometric patterns.
I got to my room and used my key card to enter. It was surprisingly long, though still not much bigger than your average hotel room at a more familiar Western brand like Hilton or Hyatt. The length of the room seemed to be almost entirely in the hallway. A marble floor stretched out from the door out toward a set of french doors that separated the living area from the rest of the room.
On the left was a dresser in a recessed portion of the wall. The top was covered in marble, making it an ideal location to place my luggage. I was separated from my luggage when I was dropped off at the hotel. I suspect it was x-rayed before being allowed into the hotel though they do a good job of getting it back to you, evidenced by it sitting on the dresser when I walked in. Which means they must know what room I'm going to be assigned before I even check-in. Nice.
On the right were four buttons to control the light in the room - high, medium, low, and off. This was also the location of the bathroom entrance.
The bathroom was moderately sized, bigger than your standard hotel room but not nearly as big as other luxury properties in Asia. But, as a historic hotel in a building that's over a hundred years old you cannot fault them for not having the space available to make the larger bathrooms that Asian luxury properties are known for.
Inside the bathroom, to the left was a pedestal sink and a large mirror. The wall around the sink had glass shelving that contained a variety of toiletry products and some tissues. A magnifying mirror and hair dryer were attached to the wall. A large frosted glass partition was cut into the wall, allowing natural light to stream in from the living area.
Along the wall was the soaking tub and the shower stall. I said the bathroom wasn't as big as other luxury Asian properties but it was still bigger than most as it had separate space for both the tub and shower. A second mirror hung above the tub. Water pressure in the shower stall gets a big thumbs up from yours truly. A word of warning though - if you're the type of person (like me) who enjoys a really nice, hot shower, be careful not to let yourself get tooooo relaxed and swallow any water. It's the Taj Palace but it's still India.
Next to the shower stall was the toilet. The door to the bathroom was where a cotton bathrobe was hung. The door itself slides on rollers.
Back in the hallway, the remainder of the space was taken up by a mirrored closet. Inside were two full closet areas for hanging clothes while the third door revealed an in-room safe and shelving space. This combined with the drawers in the dresser where the luggage was located moved it into second place in the contest of most storage space I've ever seen in a hotel room. The first place finisher? The villa at the Pullman Khao Lak Katiliya Resort and Spa.
On to the actual room space!
A queen sized bed was against the right wall, were a whopping eight pillows were propped up against the wooden headboard. Side tables with large lamps bookended the bed. The bed was indeed quite plush, reminding me a bit of my favorite 'Heavenly Bed" which is a trademark of Westin properties. I would have enjoyed a larger bed however it just didn't seem feasible in the space available. Now, did I *need* a larger bed? No. I'm a bit of a fatty but I'm not really at a level were a king size bed is mandatory for my girth. So don't take my wish for a bigger bed as a criticism of the room at all.
Beyond the bed was a lounge chair and a very sturdy table with a marble top. I used this chair in the evening to work on my computer while watching television. I was concerned the chair was a bit high compared to the height of the table, however, I fit perfectly. I'm also a fairly small 5'8" though.
Along the left hand side of the wall was another bureau and a desk with an office chair. Above the bureau was a wall mounted flat screen tv. The desk had a phone and lamp, as well as a row of outlets featuring most major international plug types.
The television had most major western television channels that you typically find in foreign hotels, including CNN International and the BBC. Of course, a wide variety of Indian channels dominated. I found a channel playing non-stop Bollywood music and left that on for my entire stay. I'm an absolute fiend for Bollywood music and have tons of songs on my iPhone. I've actually had to demurely apologize to my neighbors for playing Bollywood music too loud while I shower. Well, demurely fake apologize because Bollywood music should be blasted when played.
On top of the bureau was the most odd thing in the entire room - a set of towels folded into an elephant. I thought it was really cute but at the same time didn't think it really fit with the elegant atmosphere that seeps throughout the property. This seemed more like a beach resort decoration or something you'd find on a cruise ship.
The bureau was filled mostly with food and beverage amenities. A small sleeve on the side of the piece slide out and contained a location to heat water in a tea kettle. Another drawer featured a variety of wine and drink glasses. Below was a mini-fridge offering a variety of wines, liquors, and soft drinks.
In theory the room had a balcony but the doors were permanently locked. It was also covered in netting which I believe was in place to prevent birds from perching. My room was in one of the side wings of the original building and overlooked the pool in the courtyard below. I would have had to pay a significantly higher rate to guarantee myself a view from the front of the hotel out over the Arabian Sea and the Gateway of India, a large architectural structure across from the hotel that is a major landmark. Even without the view, I was happy with my room.
Another offering of the Taj is 24/7 complimentary tea and coffee service, and I don't mean from the tea kettle set into the bureau. You can call the kitchen at the hotel and someone will bring up a pot of tea or coffee to your room at any time. I was in my room for about five minutes when the phone range and someone asked me if I would like a beverage sent to the room. Within ten minutes I had a steaming pot of Indian masala chai. And in case you were wondering - it was really effing good tea.
I also ended up ordering room service at the Taj during my stay. I was quite hungry when I arrived at my room after the delayed flight from Goa, and I wasn't feeling up for wandering out into the chaos of Mumbai to try to locate somewhere I wanted to eat for the night. I ordered Taj's version of a thali, which is a common offering in Indian cuisine where you are given small portions of many dishes.
Today's thali consisted of: chicken in tomato and cream curry, basmati rice, dal (lentils), and sag paneer (spinach and cheese cubes). Rounding it out was a tray of sliced vegetables, two servings of different achaar (Indian pickles), raita (yogurt), naan (puffy Indian bread), papadum (crisp gram flour cracker-ish things), and a puffy cracker of indeterminate origin though it reminded me of Asian shrimp crackers. Dessert was a very sweet kheer (rice pudding).
The quality of the food was TOP. NOTCH. Probably the second best meal I've ever had in India out of five trips now. And I'll be honest - that surprised me. I generally avoid eating food at hotels (other than breakfasts if they are included) because I've found that I can find better food elsewhere. Taj Palace really delivered on the food front though. The chicken curry was unbelievably rich and smooth. The dal, normally lackluster in many places, packed a punch of flavor. The saag paneer avoided being overwhelmingly spinachy and instead married the cheese with the vegetable along with some pungent seasonings that danced on your tongue. The kheer was almost overpoweringly sweet but kept its toes juuuuust on the line of being saccharine. It remained decadently luscious.
Someone start a slow clap for the chefs at the Taj Palace.
So my overall thoughts on the Taj Palace .....
The rooms are very nice and and quite comfortable, though they aren't nearly as luxurious as I had imagined they would be. I was booked into a basic room, but I did expect slightly more based on the hotel's reputation and the high rate they typically charge (I paid $199 USD but years of looking at rates shows an average of $275 - $400). Still, the room was nicely appointed and the public spaces in the hotel really did deliver on the colonial charm.
Where the Taj really excelled and earned its reputation was the service and the food it provided. As I detailed above, the dinner I was given was phenomenal. Breakfast the next day (which I forgot to take photos of) was equally delicious and of a high quality. The staff I interacted with, from airport pick up to airport drop off, were amazingly service-oriented and friendly. At a large hotel the service is "friendly" but often it feels contrived. Forced. Not the case at Taj during my visit. Each employee I interacted with seemed genuinely committed to making sure I was enjoying my stay. Additionally, each employee seemed to take great pride in the legacy and legend of the hotel. Staff would offer me insight into pieces of art or areas of the hotel as I walked around looking at the architecture. Security guards remembered my name when I left and entered the hotel, wishing me a nice time exploring or welcoming be back to the hotel. The concierge would offer to have tea sent up to my room as I walked by on my way back to my room. All with a smile.
A genuine smile.
So like most things in life, my ideas of what staying at the legendary Taj Palace would be like weren't exactly on the money. The room wasn't nearly as elegant and regal as I had imagined. In the end that didn't matter though. The food and service more than made up for the lack of a bigger room or king-sized bed. Things that in the end don't make or break the hotel stay. Taj Palace delivered in the areas where it really counts.
I would recommend staying at the Taj Palace if your'e passing through Mumbai and are looking for a taste of history and sightseeing along with your hotel stay. I myself would considering staying again if the price were right, though chances are it will consistently be out of my price range unless I end up marrying someone quite rich, and so far Chris Pratt isn't returning my phone calls.
If modern luxury and spacious accommodations are your thing - you may want to consider another option. But if you're interested in a bit of history and value excellent service, give Taj Palace a shot.