It’s 40 degrees as we sweat through Mumbai’s Dharavi Slum and I’m beyond thrilled when our driver pulls up. I grab a cold bottle of water, close my eyes and blast the AC on my flushed face as we zoom back to Colaba. Moments later and I’m skipping up the steps to India’s most famous hotel, The Taj Mahal Palace and can’t help but dwell on the city’s dichotomy. From rags to riches, literally.
Local pride in the face of colonial oppression is the subtext of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel located directly behind The Gateway to India. Its patron, the Parsi industrialist J.N. Tata, is said to have built the old Taj as an act of revenge after he was refused entry to what was then the best hotel in town, the “white only” Watson’s. The ban proved to be its undoing, Watson’s disappeared long ago, but the Taj still presides imperiously over the seafront, the preserve of Mumbai’s air-kissing jet set, visiting cricket teams and heads of state.
I glide up a romantic staircase under stunning crystal chandelier before spilling into the bustling Sea Lounge. Located on the Palace Wing, Sea Lounge offers old colonial charm with art deco furniture and a live pianist enhanced by its spectacular view of the Arabian Sea. It is considered to be a city institution for traditional Afternoon Tea and features an elaborate buffet spread of classic English delicacies as well as local Indian favourites complimented with a selection of the world’s finest teas and coffees.
High Tea at the Taj is best enjoyed just before sunset and if you’re smart you’ll call ahead and request one of the tables located beside a window so you can gaze out at swarms of colourful sari’s which linger and loiter at the Gateway to India below.
I start by sipping a cup of the hotel’s signature Taj House Blend (a muddling of assam and darjeeling) which has been served at the Sea Lounge since it first opened in 1903. Our table soon fills to the brim with a colourful collection of familiar favourites (scones, tarts, muffins, sandwiches and quiche) and local Mumbai treats which are explained to me in great detail, one by one.
High Tea at the Taj allows guests to indulge in their favourite Brit tradition while opening their eyes to the flavours, textures and aromas of Mumbai’s most famed street food. I have to admit I took a pause from slathering my scone to fixate on the spicy meets sweet crunch and munch of these local bite sized delicacies. I gobbled up tamarind, chutney and yogurt adorned Sev Puri, Dahivada, Bhel Puri and Pani Puri with great enthusiasm before nibbling through a basket of perfectly crispy pakora.
Once I had literally licked my plate clean we tip-toed downstairs to the hotel’s iconic Harbour Bar. I hopped up on a stool and shook hands with my smiling bartender, watching in awe as he prepared the city’s most famous cocktail, “From the Harbour Since 1933.” He muddled a fruit forward concoction featuring gin, peach liqueur, fresh fruit, chartreuse liquer, fresh juices, green apples and pomegranate seeds, which was set ablaze inches from my eyelids. Pomp meets panache!