Taking your king or queen to Mumbai? Why not stay in style at this regal establishment, writes Chris Leadbeater.
By the time I reach the third floor, I'm lost in indecision. Should I continue downwards or retrace my route by three storeys to savour the descent - and the view - all over again?
The central staircase at the Taj Mahal Palace rather fails at its main job - which is to take guests swiftly between their rooms and the lobby of this vastly elegant hotel. The problem is one of distraction. So beautiful is this ornate curl of steps, and the cathedral of space that it serves, that it is difficult to use it without stopping to admire the scene. It is easily the equal of any noble sweep in, say, the regal confines of Versailles. It may even be superior.
Finally, I reach the ground level of a hotel that knows its place in the world. In this case, that place is Apollo Bunder, a small harbour area on the Arabian Sea in the southerly Colaba district of Mumbai. It's a salubrious address and helps make the Taj Mahal Palace the statement hotel in India's most populous city, a status it's held since it opened in 1903.
If you were to bring a loved one here, there's no doubt you would both feel like royalty.
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The hotel's snazzy side is evident on the afternoon I check in. The West Indies cricket team is dozing by the courtyard pool, Chris Gayle swamping his sun lounger with his 6ft 4in frame. Hilary Swank and Sharon Stone, in town for an Aids charity event, are somewhere upstairs. Both actresses will presumably make the honours board - a cabinet of photos in a corridor off the reception area. They are all here, check-in moments preserved by flashbulb - actors Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, Roger Moore and Alfred Hitchcock; rock stars Mick Jagger and John Lennon; politicians George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Both the current US president and his predecessor have visited the hotel - both in response to the dark hours of 2008, when Mumbai was attacked by Pakistani militants. For three days in November the hotel came under siege, gunmen running amok in its halls. The carnage left 31 staff and guests dead (fatalities in the city totalled 164). The victims are honoured by a small memorial in the lobby - a quiet tribute that acknowledges the tragedy without dwelling on the trauma. Understandably, the hotel wants to move on from this bloody chapter. It has, and did successfully. Parts of the complex reopened within a month.
The contrast between the rich and poor of Mumbai is stark outside of the hotel. When I take an evening walk along the harbourfront, a stream of super-cars is queuing for the valet parking service as adjacent, a chi-chi club plays host to a grand wedding. None of the expensively dressed attendees notice the man in rags on the pavement, cooking dinner for his family of six on a charcoal stove. This is the ugly contradiction of modern India in microcosm.
Unlike other relics of the Raj in Mumbai the Taj Mahal Palace is not a fruit of colonialism. It was built by Indian industrialist Jamsetji Tata. The story that he created his own place to stay after being refused entry to the nearby Watson's Hotel, though sadly plausible, is probably apocryphal. More likely, he constructed his retreat because he felt that Mumbai lacked a hotel of grace and charm. More than a century on, it is impossible to say he did not achieve his aim.