Bringing Chennai's Iconic Stay Back

After an impressive refurbishment, the Taj Connemara has reclaimed its spot as the iconic Chennai property
The Taj Connemara's inviting poolside
The Taj Connemara's inviting poolside

In my suite at the Taj Connemara I was greeted by a welcome note, the envelope secured with a red lac seal that simply said &lsquoTaj Connemara Since 1891&rsquo, setting a distinctly classy tone to proceedings. Of course, the hotel is much older, opening as the Imperial in 1854. Some say it is South India&rsquos oldest. The building is even more venerable, having earlier served as a guesthouse for visitors to one of the palaces of the Nawab of Arcot. In 1891, the hotel was renamed in honour of the Baron of Connemara. Lady Connemara also stayed here for a year and a saucy tale hangs by it, but you must visit yourself and let the staff spill the beans. Later run by mega-retailers Spencer and Co, it was the venue for classy dinner parties and elegant balls. It was also one of the first places to introduce centralised air-conditioning, which must have been a blessing in sultry Madras. I soon had history oozing out of my ears.

It was after a two year refurbishment that the Taj Connemara had a much anticipated relaunch late last year. It lit up Chennai&rsquos otherwise quiet party calendar. Luminaries like Anand Amritraj and The Hindu&rsquos N. Ram turned up, not to mention the unassuming chairman of Tata Sons, N. Chandrasekaran. We could all have been in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel&mdashif only the idlis hadn&rsquot been so good. Most of the partygoers retired at 11 sharp, reminding us that this was still Chennai.

The spruced up rooms, especially in the heritage wing, are looking absolutely gorgeous, replete with old world elegance. From mine I could have walked straight into the pool. The bathrooms are plush although they could have done better than faux-marble tiles. The inviting bathtub and aromatic bath salts were welcome distractions.

Few hotels in India can boast a legacy as impressive as the Connemara&rsquos. Thing is, you don&rsquot only live history here, you eat it too. Recipes from the kitchens of the Nawab of Arcot have been revived at the hotel, and include the likes of nilufer kebab (&lsquobeetroot and zesty ch&egravevre kebab&rsquo) or the soova machhi (&lsquodelicate gravy of fish and dill leaves, served with veechu parotta&rsquo). Then there are the Connemara classics, which have stood the test of time. In fact, the menu cites the year in which some of these beloved dishes were introduced, like the fried chicken burger of 1997 or the chilli cheese toast of 1988. There are three F&ampB venues Verandah, the all-day diner the Lady Connemara Bar & Lounge, quietly building a reputation for colonial-era cocktails and lavish afternoon teas and Raintree, their Chettinad restaurant.

The last, named for the tree under whose canopy it thrives, is one of those restaurants that has such a magical ambience, you almost feel sated by that alone. And then the food arrives, and blows you away. The menu includes gems like the kozhi varuthathu (chicken with curd, green chilli and curry leaves) and uppu kari (lamb with red chilli, fennel and curry leaves).

In an informal conversation at the sun-filled Lady Connemara Lounge, Puneet Chhatwal, IHCL&rsquos soft-spoken but decisive MD and CEO, outlined plans for the group. They had just taken over the Connaught in New Delhi and it would reopen soon. There was going to be a Taj in Sikkim. Their budget brand Ginger was getting a much needed refresh, graduating to a &lsquolean luxury&rsquo concept. I passed over the fancy international coffee blends in favour of the Connemara Degree Kaapi, the staff keeping up a steady supply of scones and clotted cream and other dainties.

I also spent a nice afternoon sampling the sort of immersive local experiences the Connemara organises for its guests. Lakshmi Shankar of Storytrails, who took us on a tour of &lsquoOld Madras&rsquo, packed more history into an hour than I absorbed in all my school years. We took in, among other things, the Indo-Saracenic architecture of Madras University, the icehouses along Marina Beach, the charms of Sahukarpet and the Buckingham Canal. The conversation was wide-ranging, from kuthu dance to Yale University&rsquos Madrasi connection.

As an experience, it was memorable. But, above all, what hotels sell is sleep. If you don&rsquot get a good night&rsquos sleep for your money, nothing the hotel can do will make up for it. So in good news the Connemara has one of the most comfortable beds I&rsquove ever slept in.

A local jeweller I ran into at the launch party spoke fondly of frequenting the hotel even as a child. That&rsquos the sort of connection the residents of Chennai have with the hotel. It&rsquos where it all happens. In the 1970s, a new wing was added under the watchful eye of the legendary, if cantankerous, Geoffrey Bawa. You can still admire the exquisite wood cladding he commissioned if you walk up the grand staircase from the lobby area. Suffused with delicate carvings depicting Indian motifs, it&rsquos unashamedly rooted in place. Just like the Connemara itself, which is as far from cookie-cutter as it gets.

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