The Mirror, 17/09/2005, p54.
by SHAUN MILNE
IF the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalayas are the Land of the Gods, Wildflower Hall nestling in it’s shadow must surely be Heaven on Earth.
This exquisite retreat simply takes your breath away, and not only because it is perched a lofty 8,250ft above sea level where the air is thin and pure.
Surrounded by nature in all its glory, the Oberoi Hotel Group’s crown jewel is a discreet little haven of well-being up among the clouds.
From the very moment you arrive, staff treat every guest as if Lord Kitchener himself has turned up.
It was the former British general who first commissioned a retreat at this glorious location in the mountainous Himachal Pradesh region of India.
Oberoi have now rebuilt it with an even greater degree of opulence.
Polished brass gleams while light dances from the huge chandeliers which float overhead in the reception area, dominated by a picture of the great man himself.
From here, the heart of the hotel, visitors can swig on gin and tonic or savour some world-class wines as they come to terms with the sheer decadence of the place.
Shiny parquet floors littered with sumptuous chairs and sofas lead to a warren of corridors, each warmed by the huge roaring log fires, which keep any mountain chills at bay.
The intimate surroundings of The Cavalry Bar is a favoured retreat, sporting artifacts from British regiments gone by, offering an array of drinks from across the world.
Guests can sit back and read local and international newspapers, or a work from the resident book-shop.
Others may prefer the challenge of billiards in a room specially recreated to relive a bygone era when officers whiled away hours with a cue. Nearby lies the green baize of the card tables, under muted lights, for those who prefer a game of chance.
The room also houses the library, furnished with books from the Oberoi family’s own private collections.
But, like any great hotel, the hub of success lies in the delectable Lutyens restaurant, offering the best Indian food from the North West frontier.
Executive Chef Baranidharan and his team melt both the stomach and minds of their subjects with food fit for a raja, all as mouth watering as it sounds.
Lamb simply slides of the bone, paneer is dry and gentle, while the soft and fluffy nan bread may as well have been plucked from the clouds outside.
The house wine takes you aback – an Australian “Chinkara”, as opposed to the French or Italian which could easily have been plucked from the menu.
But the velvety liquid which glides across the tongue stands as a perfect accompaniment to the spice of the food, and magic of the candle-lit surroundings.
Mr P.R.S. Oberoi’s own daughter, an expert in the field, chooses the range for the family’s clutch of hotels, so its quality should be of little surprise.
Wildflower Hall benefits too from having one of the group’s most distinguished managers at the helm in David Mathews.
In his second stint with Oberoi, he has brought together a skilled, close-knit team of 150 staff delivering the very best in understated service.
It is that vital ingredient which has seen this 87-bedroomed haven become a must for the most discerning of visitors.
Bollywood stars, cricketers, writers and politicians are among those to have discovered the hotel’s charms.
A significant feature of Wildflower Hall has been its decision to ban kids under 12, preserving its intimate feel.
It is the first hotel in India to do so, with no exceptions even for VIP guests.
It has now been short-listed as a venue for future meetings between India’s PM Dr Manmohan Singh and foreign governments thanks to it’s lavish conference rooms.
The recognition is a huge coup for the six-storey hotel, situated just a short ride from the Prime Minister’s own helipad, which the hotel hope to negotiate for the use of guests. If that can be secured, it will mark a whole new era for the resort, which hopes to offer trips to the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas and north to the Dalai Lama’s temple.
The hotel marks a proud return “home” for Mr Oberoi, who began the family business with his first hotel in nearby Shimla, adding the notable Cecil and now Wildflower along the way.
Arriving by train at Kalka, a three-hour drive through wondrous scenery follows, while the “toy train” to Shimla offers a quite unforgettable alternative.
Oberoi also offers a one-hour flight to Shimla aboard it’s King Air C-90A turbo-prop, for up to five people, to be met by a driver from the hotel for a 90-minute passage.
The effort in reaching the hotel is well worth it.
Through each of the sunburst picture windows framed by Burmese teak panelling, thick evergreen forest stand tall, adding to the sense of seclusion.
The hotel even boasts a wildlife sanctuary populated by deer, leopards, black bears and jackals, roaming free among the cedars and pine.
Nature trails, some gentle with others more of a hike, weave their way through this romantic splendour, accompanied by a hotel picnic if it is required.
Should you be lucky enough, former mountaineer and now manager, Manoj Biswas, is a walking encyclopaedia of the area, and a first-class guide to all it has to offer.
For the active, there is pulse-racing white water rafting over the River Sutlej, challenging mountain biking through the forest or even archery, tennis, horse riding and ice-skating in winter.
Indoors, construction of the massive heated pool was supervised by Mr Oberoi himself, insisting on the giant chandeliers above and boasting a poolside bar.
On the cusp of the terrace is an open air Jacuzzi and window to the top of the world, while indoors stands saunas and steam rooms within the sensational spa.
Buddy suites for partners to have spa treatments at the same time as each other are also a fabulous feature.
“Banyan Tree” offers the very best in massage treatments, aromatherapy with meditation and yoga sessions available on the newly-erected “elements” pavilions.
Oberoi say this hotel is luxury, redefined. They are not wrong. This world-class resort recreates the grandness of a colonial era, with an indulgent pampering of the soul.
The location at the top of the world where footprints rarely tread makes Wildflower Hall an undiscovered gem. But it is one which surely must not remain hidden any longer.
FLYING eight-and-a-half hours from Heathrow may not be everyone’s cup of chai but India is well-worth the wait. Traditionally travellers have opted to fly to Delhi but bmi now flies a four-times a week return route to Mumbai. Using Mumbai as a staging post opens up a huge choice of onward routes.To the south lies Goa and its golden beaches, north both Chandigarh and Shimla, gateway to the Himalayas, Udaipur and middle India. Return fares with bmi including tax for September from Glasgow via Heathrow to Mumbai start from £489.10. They can be booked at http://www.flybmi.com or through telephone reservations on 0870 60 70 555.
ESCAPE TO THE HIMALAYAS
Two nights/three days double occupancy: £694. Includes transfers in Delhi, Oberoi Air Charter to Shimla and on to hotel, deluxe accommodation for two, breakfast, dinner and use of all leisure facilities. Valid until March 31.
WILDFLOWER HALL SPA RETREAT
Three nights/four days double occupancy: £762. Includes complimentary transfer to and from Shimla, deluxe room for two with breakfast and dinner, daily 60 minute spa treatment, yoga, meditation, use of leisure facilities. Valid until December 22.
EXOTIC INDIA HONEYMOON
Six nights/seven days: £1089. Includes return transfers between airport or rail station at Shimla to hotel, deluxe double room, champagne on arrival, breakfast, a candlelight dinner with wine, a 60-minute spa-treatment for couple in special suite and use of leisure facilities.
Standard charges for rooms are: Deluxe: £177; Executive suites at £308; The Lord Kitchener Suite £463 a night.