The more things change, the more they stay the same. Never was the phrase more appropriate. Mumbai’s Oberoi is constantly innovating and changing with the times. Yet regular visitors who patronise the hotel (Stylebible first stayed here in 2004 and has been back on numerous occasions), find the same pristine cutlery at Fenix, the hotel’s all-day restaurant, the same mixologist offering gins of Saharan dryness at the Eau Bar, the same piano player tinkling out tunes in the vast, sweeping foyer.
For to stay here, at the southern tip of Mumbai’s Nariman Point, is to drift back into a more genteel past, even while retaining all the wonderful luxuries that accompany our gilded age. Perhaps the Oberoi’s greatest blessing is its understated luxury. The Taj Mahal Palace and Towers, a few minutes’ cab ride away, may have the swimming pool, the marbled halls, and the celebrities – check out the photo of Roger Moore and his voluminous shades in the main hallway next time you go - but its rooms can be boxy, its beds a tad bulky. Other leading Mumbai hotels can be a bit too far from the action, or can suffer from stale décor.
Whereas the Oberoi, for this visitor, gets it pretty much spot on. The rooms are typically neither too large nor too poky, Even on the lower floors, the beds offer thick, well-sprung mattresses, designed to coax you into a long and lilting sleep. Each boasts a bath – not an inevitable addition in India’s financial capital – and a power shower. Also a genuinely high-speed wifi – again a rarity in a city often afflicted by slow download speeds. Room service is top-notch, offering a wide variety of local and foreign dishes, and a waiting staff happy to bring you anything your heart desires. (Bucket of ice? Coming right up. Whale omelette*? With you in ten. And so on).
It’s the foyer, though, that makes you stop and think. Thirty years ago, this was virtually the only place you could buy chilled champagne in a country suffering from economic dry rot. Then, the Oberoi seemed to visitors, almost an otherworldly experience. Locals were known to save up for months just to be able to treat their parents to high tea. Now, of course, India is bouncing. It has a confident new prime minister, Narendra Modi (who himself worked his way up from teaboy at a Gujarati railway station), and a renewed lust for life. And the Oberoi manages to bridge the divide between times past, and times to come.
There’s a deceptive sedateness to the staff – they give the impression of having all the time in the world for you even while, like ducks, their legs are paddling furiously beneath the surface. Thus, unlike at some other top-end local hotels, things actually get done when they are needed. (Shirts, for instance, are pressed, ironed and returned to your room before you’ve even remembered to ring housekeeping to ask where they are).
Then there’s the foyer itself. One of the greatest hotel receptions anywhere in the world. The vast exterior windows look out over the wide sweep of Back Bay, usually bathed in an ethereally golden glow. Inside, the marbled foyer is open-plan right to the roof, inducing in some a topsy-turvy sense of reverse vertigo. Equally extraordinary is the lack of noise. The air in the Oberoi hums like a well-tuned Rolls Royce, bearing the sounds of hushed conversations and whorls of quiet laughter. A clink of glasses breaks the silence here and there. Close your eyes and relax though and you could be on a remote beach in Scotland or Samoa, so quiet is the air you breathe.
Finally, there is the Oberoi’s ability to change with the times. This is a hotel that has weathered myriad shifting economic patterns over the years. It has adapted not only to accommodate India’s new stock of billionaires but also a rising, affluent middle-class and a veritable horde of goggle-eyed and moneyed tourists. Perhaps its most notable recent achievement is to acclimatise to changes in the city itself. As Mumbai’s business heart has moved northward in recent years, from Nariman Point to the crucifyingly poorly planned and amenity-free Bandra Kurla Complex, the Oberoi has been forced to change with the times. Fewer business customers would mean bankruptcy or a serious bout of soul searching for some, but not for an institution as sturdy as this.
Instead, it has adapted, fluidly and intelligently, catering to a new generation of aspirational tourists from across Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia. Visitors are attracted to India for all manner of reasons. Some come in search of Bollywood, or the roots of Buddhism. Others are here to party in the self-styled Maximum City. Yet many others come to soak up Indian culture while enjoying a bit of top-notch pampering in a truly great hotel. And there is no better place to find that mix than the Oberoi, an institution that manages to stay the same, the more it changes.
* The Oberoi doesn’t offer whale omelette on its in-room menu.