Comfort and Joy
Three special hotels that combine the best of both worlds: the comfort of luxury with the joy of cultural immersion.
When you think of immersive travel, you may think of living in a local’s house, eating home-cooked food and following the family’s daily rhythm. I do like staying in small guesthouses and homestays when I travel, but I also enjoy finding higher-end accommodation that tries to preserve the spirit of cultural authenticity.
The three hotels featured here ― the Bhakti Kutir in Goa, the Windamere Hotel in Darjeeling and the Uma Paro in Bhutan ― each combine the best of both worlds, the comfort of luxury with the joy of cultural immersion.
I opened the door to the bathroom of my wood hut and saw a small, tropical garden encircled by bamboo fencing. A palm tree curved postcard-style towards a cheery Goan sky, leafy vines crawled the walls and a toad hopped around a glossy ceramic pot filled with water. Where was the bathroom?
And then I saw a shower head and a terracotta pad, with a hole in the middle. This was the bathroom. It was completely outdoors, and only the bamboo siding separated it from the grounds of Bhakti Kutir, an eco-resort set in a banana grove, 10 minutes’ walk from Palolem Beach in south Goa. The Bhakti Kutir seems like it grew organically from the natural Goan environment — which, in a way it did. It was designed by the owners to be as natural and as culturally authentic as possible — while still being comfortable for western and mid-market Indian guests. And though I’ve had the good fortune to stay in some of the world’s finest hotels, I rate my al fresco Goan bathroom the most luxurious.
Goa is known for being a natural tropical paradise, and the Bhakti Kutir does not take you away from that environment; it immerses you into it — even while you’re washing.
Bliss in a swirl of haze
The Windamere Hotel occupies the prime spot in Darjeeling, a ridge near the top of Observatory Hill. The only thing higher is an ancient, and very sacred, Buddhist-Hindu temple. The stupendous views from the heritage hotel’s various terraces and buildings take in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim and about 20 of the world’s highest mountain peaks.
To enter the precincts of the Windamere is to step back in time, to the early years of the 20th century when the British Raj ruled India, the empire’s jewel in the crown. Geo-political considerations do not penetrate the genteel atmosphere of the Windamere, voted one of Asia’s top heritage hotels. When I was there in March 2010, to celebrate a landmark birthday, I stayed in the original building, which was a boarding house for bachelor tea planters out from Britain to make their fortune in the 19th century. It was turned into a hotel after India gained independence in 1947.
My room had floor-to-ceiling wood cupboards, chintz-covered furniture, a claw-foot tub and a working fireplace, lit each evening by the staff. Every day at three o’clock, a full tea service was laid in the drawing room: Darjeeling tea (of course), accompanied by biscuits, cakes and fruit. Dinner was a formal affair, with white-gloved waiters serving three-course continental and Indian suppers. And the entire effect was heightened by the secluded location, magnificent views and thick swirls of mist and haze that roll in and leave you feeling lost in time.
Shangri-la with a whirlpool
Bhutan is a tiny, remote Himalayan kingdom known for its Gross Domestic Happiness policy, pristine mountain geography and the preservation of its unique culture. All three can be found in abundance at the Uma Paro, a luxurious boutique hotel spread across the side of a mountain, a short drive from the country’s only airport.
The Uma Paro has gone to great lengths to create a culturally appropriate atmosphere. The main building, formerly a Bhutanese nobleman’s home, is an authentic cultural artifact, and each luxury villa is modeled on traditional Bhutanese design, with a tiled oriental roof and intricately carved eaves. There are so many thoughtful touches inspired by the culture throughout the hotel. The villas are heated by a bukhari, a traditional stove. The dining room menu features local specialties such as red rice and ema datshi (spicy chilies and cheese). And cultural authenticity even extends to the spa.
A winding path leads down the hill from the main building, through a pine forest, to a wooden bathhouse. Inside, a square tub set flush up against a picture window, overlooking the forest, is filled with scalding hot water. The water is heated Bhutanese-style, with hot stones. The bath attendant strews local herbs and flowers into the bath and serves herbal tea before quietly departing, to wait outside. If the water needs to be warmed up, the guest rings a bell, and the attendant opens a chute, dropping a fire-heated stone into a sectioned corner of the tub, where it greets the water with a hiss of steam.
The simplicity of Buddhism seems to infuse the Bhutanese stone bath ritual, which was a highlight of my stay at the Uma Paro. My muscles completely relaxed, my mind stilled and I felt, as I contemplated the magnificent view of the pine forest, Paro Valley and Himalayan peaks, that I had reached a state of Nirvana.
The Bhakti Kutir, Windamere Hotel and Uma Paro are three examples of hotels that are much more than just hotels; they each offer comfort, style and the feeling that you have experienced the local culture.