Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Andre Fu + Tai Ping London launch party

I thought I'd share a few photos sent to me of the recent London launch party for the Andre Fu carpet collection for Tai Ping. The event was held in an old church in the heart of Mayfair - personally I think the carpets are just as stunning as the building. What a beautiful backdrop...wish I could have been there!

All images care of AFSO

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Kolkata - East of India

Kolkata's charming faded grandeur

I must admit, I have a bit of a soft spot for Kolkata...this was my second visit and the city has definitely charmed me. I think Kolkata has earned an unfair reputation amongst foreigners, or at least their perception of what its like is somewhat undeserved. Kolkata was once the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, their proudest achievement off their own shores. Sadly, it still seems to be recovering from the departure of the British, and the annexing of Bengal into Bangladesh, however there seemed to me to be a sense of hope and a pride.

After having spent at least a week in Rajasthan on this trip before heading to Kolkata, I had a much better sense of how different this city is compared to the other Indian cities we visited. The crumbling facades of the old city are leftovers of the British Empire, rather than crumbling Havelis, Forts and Palaces of Maharajas and the like.

One of many crumbling buildings I wanted to adopt

We stayed with friends while in Kolkata, but I believe that there is a Taj and an Oberoi in town if you are a devout sybarite, or a range of other options to suit most budgets. My other recommendations for a few days in Kolkata include...

Sightseeing & Shopping:

The Marble Palace - I have no photos as they are not allowed, but this is one of the most amazing 19th century Colonial buildings in all of India, let alone West Bengal. Our host in Kolkata knows the owners and arranged a private tour for us, so we were incredibly lucky to say the least. The house was built in 1835 by Raja Rajendra Mullick, a wealthy Bengali merchant who had a passion for collection European art. Part of the house is still used as a private residence by Mullick's descendants, hence the no photo policy. I can't begin to describe to you the surreal collection that is housed in this amazing mansion. Vast collections of ceramics, paintings (one by Rubens and two by Sir Joshua Reynolds amongst many others), clocks, rugs, furniture, the list goes on. The rooms are expansive, typical of the era it was built in, and its easy to imagine how opulent and luxurious they would have been in their heyday. Unfortunately as the home is still privately owned, and India seems to be a little slow to cotton on to historical preservation, the house has crumbled and faded a little, and it seems these magnificent artworks and treasure run the risk of deteriorating into oblivion. Even if you are only in Kolkata for just a day, you must visit this place. If for no other reason that you will never see photos of the inside.

The Victoria Memorial is another tribute to the British Empire. Built as a memorial to Queen Victoria, it now houses a museum with a collection of memorabilia of Queen Victoria, the British monarchy, and their presence in India. I visited the memorial on both visits to Kolkata, but did not go inside either visit. The building is impressive, and the gardens a nice location for a walk away from the hustle and bustle of Kolkata's streets.

If you are particularly interested in the history of Britain in India, and the founding of the East India Company, or you're a fan of colonial architecture then I would recommend a walk around the old city. Around BBD Bag you'll find the old GPO, St Andrews Church, Job Charnock's Tomb (he was the original British founder of what is now know as Kolkata), the Writer's Building, and many many more.

The Mallick Ghat Flower market is a one of the largest in Asia and a great way to see a whole lot of colour in a short space of time. But then, its not like India is short on colour...The market is just under the Howrah bridge and worth a look (see photos below.

If you're a bookworm like we are, then make the most of Kolkata's entrenched literary history and take a walk along College street which is lined with book vendors selling all manor of titles. I had read rumours that first editions could be picked up at a very low cost, but the day we were there it was mostly text books for university students. I did pick up a copy of an early 20th century book on Indian architecture and home design, titled "Modern Ideal Homes for India". Houses cost as little as $14,000 Rupees at the time of publishing...(equivalent to USD$310!). If you have the time, pop into the Ashutosh Museum, housed nearby within the grounds of Calcutta University, it specialises in East Indian Art. Unfortunately it was closed the day we tried to visit, along with the India Museum. I've heard that both are worth a visit.

As for shopaholics, you can get your fix at New Market, located directly behind the Oberoi Grand Hotel. A wide range of goods on sale, and lots of people watching to be done - its worth a wander around. And, if you're game, there is plenty of street food on offer (very delicious, we sample two different local dishes), and if you can find a Chai Wallah a delicious Masala chai will set you back as little as 3 rupees (about USD 6 cents) and that includes the hand turned ceramic cup its served in! They're normally discarded on the street, but we kept ours as souvenirs.

Kolkata's flower market - one of the largest in Asia

Eating: Apart from the street food - which I wouldn't normally recommend but we were feeling brave on our last day and had good experiences - there are a few other good local eateries.

Oh Calcutta! is hidden away in a mall but has a great range of traditional West Bengali dishes (typically more fish and less spicy than food from other regions of India). If you want something local style this is my recommendation. Otherwise, check the Taj and Oberoi in-house restaurants. I ate at "Baan Thai" the last time I was in town and the food was excellent.

Thanks for indulging me with my ongoing travelogue...back to normal programming soon!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Udaipur - the Venice of the East

The Taj Lake Palace, otherwise known as Jag Niwas

Udaipur is honestly one of the most beautiful places I've ever been, anywhere in the world. Its a stunning location - lakes dotted with old royal palaces, surrounded by more palaces and the picturesque Araveli hills. Its not hard to see why Udaipur is known as the Venice of the East. We stayed here for 4 days which was enough to see the sights and spend some quality time by the pool (and oh what a pool), but I feel like I definitely want to go back. Here are a few of my tips:

Sleeping: We stayed at the Taj Lake Palace Hotel, the iconic palace in the middle of Lake Pichola (seen above) that was also the backdrop to the very cheesy James Bond film Octopussy. The Taj (otherwise known as Jag Niwas) was formerly the Maharana of Udaipur's summer residence. If you are looking for a romantic getaway, this is definitely your best bet. I think I mentioned in a previous post we were travelling off peak and were luckily upgraded once again to a suite that overlooked the other palace on Lake Pichola, Jag Mandir. The view from our room was amazing, and the sun setting behind the City Palace each night was so beautiful and felt like a private show just for us. It would be very easy to spend the entire time in Udaipur in this hotel, especially seeing as its the top tourist attraction listed in quite a few guidebooks. The view from the pool alone is enough, add to that the spa facilities and two restaurants (with a performance each night, plus a heritage walk of the hotel AND a boat tour around the lakes)...I seriously did consider not stepping foot off the hotel island...

Eating: If you are staying at the Taj then look no further than the two in house restaurants. The Indian speciality restaurant has a fantastic range of local Rajasthan cuisine with some great dishes we'd never tried before. Or, if you want something more international the All Day Dining restaurant - which also happens to have an amazing view over the lake - has a pretty good menu to select from.

We dined one evening at the Sunset Terrace in the Fateh Prakesh Palace Hotel, within the City Palace. The view at night of the sun setting behind the hills behind the lake and both palaces is unparalleled. Shame the food is not much to rave about, but its reasonably priced, and the view alone may just be worth it.

Shopping: Within the City Palace complex are some cute local shops and a few more upscale boutiques. One of the later is Aashka, the brainchild of Princess Bhargavi Kumari Mewar - the elder daughter of Udaipur's Maharana. Aashka stocks a range of clothing, furniture, homewares, jewellery and other accessories. The jewellery was what caught my eye, in particular the Amrapali and En Inde designs. Both lines are stocked elsewhere so check out their websites for other stockists. I walked away with a lovely necklace from en inde, and am very much looking forward to them adding more images to their website. Opposite the Aashka boutique was another Anokhi store. A little smaller than their boutique in Jaipur, but definitely worth a look.

If you are after more of a local shopping experience then head straight through the City Palace complex towards the Jagdish Temple and you'll find you're in another world. My new friend Mukesh of Marco Polo Collection can help you out if you're looking for Pashmina or silk scarves (his shop is on the left, just past all the Auto rickshaw drivers trying to sell everyone drugs..) If you keep walking you'll happen upon the Clock Tower, and turning right will lead to you one of the main market streets - Bara Bazaar. If you keep going down Bara Bazaar you'll eventually find the other main market street - Bapu Bazaar. Here you'll find a mix of fabrics, jewellery, spices, tea, more scarves and pashminas and a treasure trove of other goodies.

Sight seeing: Like I said, the Taj Hotel (otherwise known as Jag Niwas, or the Summer palace) is definitely high up on the list of places to see in Udaipur, so if you're not staying here you definitely need to take a trip across for a meal or just for a sticky beak, because it truly is beautiful. Jag Mandir, the other palace on Lake Pichola is still currently owned by the Maharana of Udaipur but is apparently set to be handed over to the Taj group, so no doubt this will end up being another luxury hotel. Maybe I'll have to stay there next time....

Other than the two lake palaces, the City Palace is the main attraction in town. The large complex of buildings that has been added to over time by each successive Maharana is so large it now houses the current residence of the Maharana, not one but TWO luxury hotels AND a museum. Seriously impressive.

There are other former palaces, haveli's and other grand structures around to visit, but the only other one we made the trip to was the Monsoon Palace, otherwise known as Sajjan Garh Palace. The Monsoon palace was built on a large hilltop overlooking lake Pichola and the surrounding Araveli hills as an escape for the Maharana during the monsoon season. Sadly it was never finished and has remained in an abandoned state since 1884. I couldn't help but hope that someone cashed up would buy it and restore it to the glory it once could have been. Luckily though, despite its abandoned state, the site is still a fantastic location for sunrise and sunset and is open to all to view from the terrace. We make the trip up for sunset and were not disappointed.

All in all I'm not sure I can say enough good things about Udaipur. Its a beautiful, quiet and laid back town with lots of culture, history and great food to be enjoyed. I am planning my next trip in my head already!

The view from the Monsoon Palace in Udaipur

Stay tuned for the final installment....Calcutta!

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Agra and the Pink City

We could have chosen to take the train from Delhi to Agra, which would have been faster and hassle free, but as we were travelling with friends and had a few more trips to do, we hired a car with a driver. This way were were able to sit back, listen to some tunes and enjoy the ride! The drive from Delhi to Agra should normally take 3-4 hours, but I think a lot of that is just getting out of the city. So my recommendation is to LEAVE EARLY! The well worn paths between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur are known as the 'Golden Triangle' - so you can imagine its a fairly well travelled road with a constant stream of traffic...

We left Delhi around 10am and arrived in Agra just in time to settle into our hotel before heading out to watch sundown at the Taj Mahal. It was a very exciting first glimpse of what we'd been looking forward to for days. While our friends headed out again late the next morning, my husband and I decided to get up at 5am to watch the sun rise. I am not really much of a morning person and had to be seriously talked into getting up at such a crazy hour, but it was well worth it. We were the first people inside the gate and managed to get some fantastic photos. Better still, we could wander around and enjoy the ambiance without having to share it with a million other tourists (oh, and it was also much cooler at that hour too!).

The Taj Mahal, of course

But, lest you think that Agra is only about the Taj Mahal...do not be fooled so easily. Agra is also home to a very grand Fort - the Agra Fort, of course. And not too far out of town, a great stop-off on the way to Jaipur if you're heading that way is Fatehpur Sikri.

We stayed at the Oberoi in Agra, definitely the best hotel in town and the closest to the Taj (and all the rooms have a view of the Taj!) The hotel is exquisite, staff and the service were impeccable, pool dreamy and the food in the restaurant amazing. I cannot speak more highly of it.

Next stop: Jaipur (the Pink City)

the "Hawa Mahal" or Wind Palace in Jaipur

Jaipur, being the capital of Rajasthan, is a little bit hectic, but if you are staying in a good hotel (with a pool is a must!) you will be able to balance the crazy with the calm....

Sleeping: We stayed at the Samode Haveli. The Samode group of hotels is a smaller more boutique chain, but still with great service. The Haveli (the word for a private home, generally with some sort of internal courtyard) is on the outskirts of the city, right between the old city and Amber, home to the Amber Fort. In other words, its a great position. Its a little faded around the edges, but still very chic. This place came recommended by several guidebooks, and the NY designer Muriel Brandolini via her website, so I knew it must be good. And I guess Jade Jagger thought so too as she was there lounging by the pool most days during our stay. We were lucky enough to be travelling during the off-peak season and were upgraded (twice!) to a huge suite. I was a very happy girl indeed. Aside from this, the restaurant serves fantastic local and international cuisine inside the ornately decorated restaurant, or outside in the lovely courtyard. The pool cooled us down every afternoon, and the sweet lime sodas served were sooo addictive. In fact I'm salivating now as I think about it.

The other "it" hotels in town are the Oberoi, nestled on top of a cliff on the other side of town, where it was rumoured Liz Hurley and Aussie ex-cricketer Shane Warne were bunkered down. Aside from this, and more centrally located are the three, yes three, Taj Hotels in town. All of which are still owned by the Maharaja of Jaipur and his forefather's previous residences. I can personally vouch for the Taj Rambagh Palace as we had lunch there one day during our stay. Probably more of a dinner experience, but it certainly was nice to see the grounds during daylight, with the polo field etc.

Aside from the hotel restaurant and the restaurant at the Taj Hotel, I have a few recommendations.

On our first night we ate at Mosaics Guesthouse, a guidebook recommendation. A bit of a drive out of town, a little further out past the Amber Fort, you'll find Mosaics Guesthouse, run by local French mosaic artist (hence the name). Some international cuisine is served, but needs to be booked in advance, otherwise its a set menu of whatever the chef has prepared. The night we were there we were alone on the rooftop terrace, and were served far too much food for us to finish. Mutton, Dahl, Rice, Naan, Salad plus more that I've forgotten AND dessert...it was truly amazing, very flavoursome and very very fresh. One catch is they only take cash, but then you'll need a bit on you for the auto rickshaw ride as the road are not great for cars. The night we were there we saw two elephants amble past.

Another guidebook recommendation we tried was Cafe Kooba. The food was nothing to write home about (although clearly okay to blog about), not bad, but not as good as some of the meals we'd had. The selling point is the rooftop, where we at our dinner watching the IPL cricket match that was on TV, and just enjoyed eating outside.

In terms of lunching, you can't really go past Anokhi. Also recommended by the guide book, its a great way to spend some time eating, and then shopping when you're done - it's located right next door to the Anokhi Shop (see my notes below on shopping). Anokhi has been around for a while and has a bit of a cult following. Run by an Aussie girl, using mostly organic local produce, the food is a bit more international in style so a good place to go if you're getting tired of curry.

The Amber Fort is a must see - I won't post photos and do it an injustice. Just know that it is one of the most spectacular monuments I've ever seen. Mirrored mosaic ceilings. Enough said.

The City Palace, the current residence of the Majaraja of Jaipur, is also jaw dropping and a must see. We went to the Government Central Museum, otherwise known as Albert Hall, and its worth going just to see the building alone. Housed inside is a collection of ceramics, paintings, textiles and other crafts from all over Rajasthan.

The Jal Mahal, or "Water Palace" we saw, but did not go in as it is modelled on the Lake Palace hotel we stayed at in Udaipur, but more on that in my next post.

On our last night in Jaipur we did an Elephant safari through Dera Amer, which was definitely one of the highlights of our trip. Arriving just before sun down we met our elephant, painted her trunk, then promptly boarded before a walk through the Araveli hills as the sun went down. The path was torch lit and we made a brief stop for a G&T before heading back to base camp for dinner. Another fabulous meal. While we ate we watched a game of night time Elephant polo and had the chance to join in or ride a camel. An absolutely surreal experience.

Most of the sights to be seen are in Jaipur's old city which is a dark pink (hence the name the Pink City), including the "Jawa Mahal", or Wind Palace. Walking the markets etc are a fabulous way to understand the local culture....which brings me to....

I've saved the best til last. Jaipur is a shoppers paradise. Ceramics, jewellery, textiles, spices, cooking utensils, clothes, scarves, shoes, you name it, Jaipur has got it. In spades.

Apart from the fantastic markets, which are along most of the main roads in the centre of the old city (see image below), there are many, many fantastic places to shop in Jaipur. My favorites were:

Hot Pink - has two shops in town, one inside the walls of Amber Fort, and the other larger store within the Narain Niwas Palace hotel. Started by two French designers this shop stocks a range of their own designs and locally produced garments, accessories and home wares. Lots of colour, especially pink (as the name suggests), you could definitely blow some cash in this place. Check out their website for their own recommendations on all things Jaipur.

Anokhi - has been producing traditional wood-block prints for over 40 years. Anokhi has played an active role in the revival of skills involved in this local tradition. There are stores all over India, so check out their website for other locations. The store in Jaipur has a great range of clothing for adults and children, as well as cotton bedding and other homewares. Jaipur is also home to the Anokhi museum, which I might have to pay a visit to on my next trip.

Soma - also stocks a wide range of traditional block-printed cotton bedding, homeewares and clothing, lots of colours to chose from too. These guys also have several shops around India, so check out their website if you're interested.

So, what is this guidebook I've mentioned over and over? Make sure you get your hands on a copy of the "Love Jaipur, Rajasthan" book if you're heading this way, it was definitely the best range of recommendations we've found. We picked ours up in Delhi, but they are available all over (check their websites for retailers). The Love Travel Guides are written by another Australian, Fiona Caulfield. There are a few more in the series, only Indian cities for now, so if you're heading here check them out. We found ours invaluable, and our friend who moved to Delhi has found the guidebook on her new home city very useful.

Coming up next: Udaipur & Kolkata...

(first image: the sunrise at the Taj Mahal, Agra)

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Incredible India

What can I possibly say about India that hasn't already been said? Probably not much I'm guessing. Home to over a billion people of diverse religions, cultures, speaking many languages and living in landscapes from lush tropical coasts to dry arid desert. India. Its sublime and its ridiculous, all in one. And I loved it.

We started our trip in New Delhi where we stayed with old friends, and made some new ones. From there we travelled by car with other friends to Agra and then to Jaipur. On our own from there, my husband and I made our way further south in the state of Rajasthan to the picturesque town of Udaipur, making another new friend on the way. Then, back to New Delhi for a night before hopping on a plane over to Kolkata (Calcutta).

I have a few travel tips and recommendations we garnered in our very short visit that I will share with you over a few installments. First, New Delhi...

We had dinner on our first night in town at Bukhara, in the Sheraton Hotel. This place is a bit of an institution amongst the upper echelons of locals and international visitors (we saw Sania Mirza there - highest ranked Indian female tennis player ever). Prices are high if you are comparing them to other local eateries, but quite reasonable if you compare them to back home. The food (North India style) is fantastic.

Our last night in town we ate at a great little place called Gunpowder. Quite the opposite of Bukhara in all ways (its from the South of India, but still fantastic). A much more chilled and local vibe with outdoor seating, and a bit less punishing on your wallet. We ate outside with new friends and sampled a lot of new to us dishes, all of which were great. Located in the charming Hauz Khas village that we had already fallen in love with the day before on a shopping expedition. Definitely worth the visit.

Sight seeing:
I got the impression there are a lot more sights to be seen in New Delhi than people give it credit for. We did a bit, but to be honest we were quite content relaxing by the pool and catching up with our friends too. What we did see we loved, including the Red Fort (below), Rashtrapati Bhavan and the India Gate, the gardens - we didn't make it to Lodi but did enjoy a wonderful free concert in Nehru Park on our last night (Thanks Brian & Puru!). In and around Connaught Place, the centre of the British capital is quite interesting too, unfortunately we left quite a bit unexplored. I felt that there were many layers to Delhi that needed to be peeled back to reveal the true city, though it felt like we only partly peeled back the first one. Needless to say, I would love to go back.

We didn't get as much shopping done as we could have in the total of 4 days we were in town, but from what I gathered, there is a lot that could be done. Where I did shop:

Hauz Khas Village. A really charming part of town that was a little off the usual tourist beaten track. Filled with great shops, galleries and cafes (see my notes on Gunpowder in the eating section). My recommendations are Lola's World - french designed and locally made clothes, kids stuff and homewares. Nappa Dori - beautiful leather goods (which kinda took me by surprise considering its India), and hand made luggage. Ogaan - a great range of contemporary Indian designed clothing and homewares, a real treasure trove. Two other galleries took my eye, although I forgot to take a card, with lots of great contemporary art that I would have happily brought back with me had I the space in my suitcase (and my walls at home).

Lodi Colony Market. I didn't make it here, but my trusty guidebooks told me there are quite a few nifty looking shops in this area, which might just have to wait til I get back next time.

Other outstanding shops to note were Viya Home, whose name might sound familiar because of their recent collaboration with US based Odegard. Famous for their outstanding metal work, the Viya Home store in Delhi is a little out of the centre of town but I felt was worth the trip. The two-level store is lovely and would be hard to leave without taking something with you.

Its hard to leave India without having done some shopping somewhere in the city, and the airport is certainly no less tempting. Kimaya has an outlet in the international departure hall and sells contemporary clothing and accessories from over 100 Indian designers. I did a little damage to my credit card here...

We stayed with friends for the first 3 nights of our trip, but then the overnight stay before Kolkata was at the Aman, which in one word is: Amazing. Created from an existing hotel and designed by Australian architect Kerry Hill, the Aman in New Delhi (below) is just a bit of a modern masterpiece. Only 31 rooms and 8 suites, all of which have their own plunge pool (!)....no, that was not a typo. The Aman in New Delhi is a great example of modern Asian style, my only criticism of the design was that it might have been a bit too generic and felt as though it could have been located in almost any of the large Asian cities. (Oh, and the shower heads were a bit too small for my liking!). Apart from that, great. Great service, beautifully designed hotel, two wonderful restaurants to choose from (although we ate at the Tapas bar twice while we were in town....best Tapas outside of Spain!), fantastic local contemporary art on display, a wide range of spa services, and lovely serene rooms. We actually didn't leave ours for the day/night we were there. Being picked up from the train station in one of the hotels fleet of steely grey iconic Ambassadors was definitely a great first impression! The hotel is also quite conveniently located, not far from the lovely Lodi Gardens, India Gate and Humayun’s Tomb.

The only other hotel in town I would vouch for is The Imperial. We had lunch there with our friends one day and it is really lovely. The total opposite of the Aman in every way, and if you prefer to stay in a more period style accommodation then this is right up your alley. The food was great, and our friend mentioned over lunch that he stayed here quite a bit on business trips before moving over and he liked it so much it became his office away from the office (not a bad place to meet with clients I guess!).

Stay tuned, the next installment will be tips on Agra and Jaipur...

(first image: Lutyens designed iron gates at the entrance of Rashtrapati Bhavan, the Indian President's residence in New Delhi)