South India’s oldest hotel, Taj Connemara, reopens in a modern avatar, but with all the nostalgia intact.
It sits right in the middle of Chennai, unassuming, surrounded by a swanky mall on one side, some old buildings reminiscent of the British era on the other, and the typical chaos of a city that is trying hard to maintain an equilibrium between the old and the new. As you enter the Taj Connemara hotel, a cool white structure on Binny Road (named after the hotel’s second owner), you expect a throwback to the British era going by its exterior. What you get instead is a modern hotel lobby done up in very contemporary colours in its newly-renovated avatar. But turn your gaze around and a sense of déjà vu hits you. The modern décor sits comfortably with a grand piano dating back to the early 20th century, and wooden sculptures on the grand staircase from Mahabalipuram dating back to the 16th century, all achieving a fine balance. Much like the city of Chennai itself, where huge gates built in the memory of recent political leaders on Marina Beach compete with a British-era ice house, where an ancient temple faces one of the many multi-storey silk sari shops dotting the city, and where a historic church built on the remains of an apostle of Jesus sits squarely among busy coffee and juice shops.
At the Connemara, the sentiment does not stop at the lobby. There is a whole section termed the heritage wing where rooms reflect the glory of the days gone by, with extensive wood panelling, wooden staircases and cosy meeting points on every floor. An old well where the water never dries up even in the hottest of summers is a curious landmark not to be missed. Sixteenth-century iron pillars from Mahabalipuram grace the walkway to Raintree restaurant where traditional Chettinad cuisine can be sampled in an experience that resembles eating in a traditional household. Just like a warm host would do, the staff urge you to eat more, and you can almost detect a fleeting look of disapproval when you fail to do so. At the Verandah, dishes take you on a journey ranging from the era of the original owner of the building, Nawab of Arcot, like Ambur Biryani and Jhinga Nasha, to a taste of the Anglo-Indian times in Aunty Bridgette’s pan-fried fish and Dak Bungalow Murgi served with spiced ‘bubble and squeak’, to modern-day creations.
The hotel, which opened its doors a month back after two years of extensive renovation, is south India’s oldest hotel dating back to 1854. Named after erstwhile governor of Madras Lord Connemara, the new look of the hotel reflects architectural influences of classic colonial, art deco and elements from celebrated architect Geoffrey Bawa’s ‘Tropical Modernism’ style. Each of the hotel’s 147 rooms and suites combine the old and the new with modern fittings and colours, four-poster beds and vintage objects. As Puneet Chhatwal, managing director and chief executive officer at The Indian Hotels Company Limited, says: “Taj Connemara is another jewel in the Taj portfolio of iconic heritage hotels. The Taj Connemara draws on the hotel’s illustrious past whilst offering patrons a distinctive, modern and individualistic experience.”