Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

Taj Bengal


Located in an historic and lush area of Kolkata, with views across to the Victoria Memorial

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Taj Bengal


Walking distance from the Victoria Memorial, Royal Calcutta Race Course, Horticultural Gardens, National Library and the Zoological Gardens

Travel Information

Kolkata airport - 60 mins

Top Tips

Taxis are the best way to get around - the metro is under construction though

5-Star X-Factors

The 9 restaurants!

Getaway in a gateway

We chose Kolkata as our gateway city into Bhutan primarily because of its ease of connection from London with just a further hour's flight into Paro. We were blissfully unaware of the impending spell that both Kolkata and the Taj Bengal would cast upon us; perhaps it was the combination of the two.

We arrived at an ugly body-clock hour, minutes before the tunes of morning twilight, but the welcome was so uplifting we almost forgot to lie down. With a gentle welcoming ceremony behind us having been adorned in a sweet smelling garland and a vermillion tilak on our weary foreheads we were led starry-eyed to our impeccably refurbished deluxe double on the fifth floor. Our immaculate personal butler, silver-tray-in-hand, was waiting with two champagne flutes, rose-petals and chocolates. After enjoying the bubbles I've never been known to turn them away we were soon submerged beneath the fabulously soft Egyptian cotton sheets.

Even if you ventured no further from your grand-luxe base at the Taj Bengal a subtle though aesthetically-pleasing modern build near the Victoria Memorial and Zoological Gardens, with terraces amid lush decorative vegetation you would leave Kolkata having felt thoroughly pampered. For a hotel of such impressive stature and capacity, it feels remarkably intimate, blending the preconditions of city-five-star with indigenous exotica, along with a staff that fast familiarise themselves to your exacting needs.

Water features and lush tropical vegetation swirl up through the rising interior, with dramatic effect, while the suites and deluxe doubles proffer a couture twist using strikingly coloured raw silks on bespoke Brahman styled furniture. Our distant view was across to the Victoria Memorial, with a spattering of random 'Mowgli' jungle (book) in the foreground, amid the Dickensian decay of yesteryear.

The thinking person's city

However, venture out we did because this city, once only famous for the 'black-hole', is anything but black: it is undersold (few tourist foot prints) and underrated, with a wealth of historical value instantly evident in its Baroque-themed architecture, crumbling with nostalgic appeal. It is also obsessively cultural, holding perhaps the most creative and artistic core of India within its philosophical midst. It is a city of deep thinkers, often referred to as the 'intellectual city' of India, which provides Kolkata with a fascinating personality.

Its extraordinary physicality is almost disarming at times, not only as a result of the neoclassical Western architecture. In certain areas of the city the botanical and bird life seem to thrive, in spite of the metropolis chaos and unwavering pollution. The early morning and late afternoon veil of spice and smog, set beneath a throbbing sun, encapsulates the uncommon atmosphere within its misty interior.

The soon familiar team at the Taj organised our two-day agenda, but were also open to requests. However, if not for their intuitive suggestions, we would not have had such memorable experiences. Open a travel book and all the obvious landmarks are noted along with the footnotes, but there really is so much more to discover here and it is worth pre-planning a bit; however the Taj responds with astounding speed to spontaneity. We have a full list of our adventures with our concierge team.

Into the heart

On our first morning following a banquet of fanned fruits, Taj-spun muesli, many iced jugs of sweetly pressed nectar, perfect porridge, all the cooked variety for western palates, as well as many local curried assortments we were whisked off in our air-conditioned car for a boat trip up the heart of Kolkata on the Hooghly River: a bustling tributary of the infamous and much maligned River Ganges. Murky preconceptions were soon washed away as floral wreaths, tributes to loved ones, puckered up beside our boat while mourners ceremoniously washed away their grief in this holy water.

There was also that indefatigable aroma of spice, chilli, musk and smog that followed us with the current; it's quite easy to get spellbound here. The banks of impermanent makeshift homes, of tropical foliage that dares to hang-in there, and of riverside life in general, were all in splendid contrast to the gleaming Golden Vidyasagar Setu, or second Hooghly Bridge, which connects the twin cities of Kolkataand Howrah. There are contrasts here, but for much of Kolkata, the wealth appears pretty well hidden.

Cerebral concepts

After our boat ride we chose to tap into the more authentic 'sources of soul' within this remarkable city. We visited the Calcutta Coffee House, a brewing pot of ideology and intellectualism, a breeding ground for cultural aesthetes, which serves great shots of coffee too. High fans, known as punkahs, sluggishly swept the smoulderingly elite atmosphere as Lu and I, so obviously foreign (and blonde to boot), surmised our sandals and now grimy feet with increasing intensity, while leaning diffidently against a mildew-spattered browning wall. In contrast to our somewhat awkward stance, the pulsating elixir for positive change felt strongly apparent.

Outside the Coffee House the streets and 'gullys' (lanes) are stacked with stalls of bulging bibliomania, apparently unchanged in appearance and purpose for many years. It was fascinating, and I bought a wonderful first edition copy of 'Wind In The Willows' while Lu purchased perhaps the first ever published book on road signs. We strolled around the music streets where generations of families have sold a variety of instruments, many of which are probably still hanging from their last strings.

Fruit sellers, money counters, rice sellers, bap-makers and cyclists spill out onto pavements and into the roads, most of which are clogged up with honking yellow and white Ambassadors and rickshaws. The odd stalwart-natured tree stands firm above crumbling pavements, some in rapturous shades of purple and pinks (bougainvillea, jacaranda) and hundreds of crows are constantly surveying the scene.

Building hope

Future Hope is not just a charity; it is a near miracle. It is several homes, a future, a school, a wholesome way of life; it is the realisation of one amazing man's dream. We were fortunate to track Tim (the inspiration and orchestrator) down, in order to witness for ourselves how one man has influenced many children's lives.

Tim gave up his big city job and started Future Hope in his one-bedroom flat 16 years ago. Why? He knew he could make a difference, and that difference, in a nutshell, is this: he takes homeless, abandoned, deserted and often very poorly children, off the streets or from the stations in Kolkata. After several attempts at reuniting them with their families, Tim, along with his dedicated team of workers, gives the children a future brighter than they ever believed possible.

We met a couple of these 'children', now young men: one a pastry chef, the other at university, and the smiles on their faces said it all. If you would like to find out more about Future Hope please contact our concierge team when booking a trip to Kolkata.

Forget Jemima and Elizabeth

We turned ourselves over for some shopping respite, upon the excellent recommendation of our wonderful Taj source, at the seriously stylish fashion house, 85 Lansdowne Road. The owner, an astute, immaculately groomed Kolkatan, has brought immensely fashionable Indian couture to Kolkata.

To make sure she satisfies the prerequisites of a multitude of purchasers, she has designed several groovy rooms stacked to the rails with wardrobe-glory: bejewelled salwar khamis, pashmina to match, dainty shoes beneath, crystalline bags in cupboard, embroidered cashmere tail coats, waistcoats, hand-stitched kutas, jewellery? The sale was on. So, all purchases were an absolute bargain, of course.

With sizes not too small, thankfully, we dined that evening in Taj's cozy oven-clad and terracotta Indian restaurant, Sonargaon. I asked the gifted head chef, as I often do, to surprise us. He not only surprised us, he delighted us too, with an extravaganza on surf and turf; 'tikkad', curried, 'somalad', minted, 'lemoned', harpooned and diver caught. The sommelier selected the most perfect Riesling from Alsace to complement the feast. We had no better meal in India!

One of the most satisfying feelings of all, while in Kolkata, was simply returning to the revitalising 'arms' of the Taj Bengal. It isn't one of the grand white colonial buildings, in fact it is a little luxe Mediterranean on first glance: a discreet haven of genuine tranquillity with a service that has to be a world leader. It is also in a beautiful part of the city, 'very up-market' we were told, where the bustle feels a little behind you, the air a little thinner, the trees a little greener, the flowers more exotic.

Our greatest in-house indulgences were in the spa and hair salon on the lower ground level: our crowning-glories outshone our London counterparts, and, at a fraction of the cost! The monsoon would not do my hair any favours, apparently. While my meridian line was being sorted via a reflexology master I knew that I would return; when he worked the heart zone, it simply soared.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant

Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer