Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel, Mumbai review: With grace and defiance

Read our writer's views on this property below

The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower was long a symbol of Indian modernity but today it stands for something far more grand, writes Anthony Dennis.

IT'S mid-afternoon in Mumbai and the lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower Hotel is a refreshing swirl of suits, saris and suitcases.

There's the smell of fresh paint from the shops and restaurants in the adjoining arcade, while outside in the driveway is state-of-the-art security, complete with embassy-style retractable bollards.

These are, initially, the only hints of the dramatic events that occurred here nearly two years ago. At the rear of the lobby, however, a closer look reveals a marble memorial, positioned discreetly behind a clear glass wall, next to a fountain. It contains a poignant roll-call of the 35 guests (including Australians), staff and a security dog, killed at the Taj during the November 26, 2008, terrorist assault on the hotel.

"For now and forever you will inspire us," the memorial reads.

I admit it was with some mild apprehension that I checked in recently for what was to be my second visit but I was drawn back, intrigued by how a hotel of the Taj Mahal Palace's stature recovers from such a horrendous incident and how it has dealt with the immense challenge of securing the property without turning it into a fortress.

The Mumbai attacks prompted an overdue global rethink of hotel security; the Taj management said they were "motivated by a clear and unyielding conviction to rebuild and restore the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower to its former glory".

The attacks, after all, were directly at odds with the open-door policy of hotels, in which guests are welcome to pass in and out. The Taj Group has dealt with the misfortune that befell the hotel with maturity and transparency. Guests won't see details of the incident plastered on the hotel's website but it's not ignored, either.

The owners consulted the Israelis, the undisputed global experts in security, about how best to protect the hotel from any future incursion. Now visitors, as is the case at all Taj hotels in India, are subjected to airport-style baggage and personal-effects screenings, while vehicles are inspected by security guards before they can enter the driveway. There are doubtless a host of other security measures that go unseen by hotel guests, making the hotel possibly the safest in the world.

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Far from being an imposition, the security strangely adds to the sense of arrival to a still grand hotel, as well as providing immediate reassurance.

On the day of the attack, I was at home in Sydney, ill in bed. I switched on the television, channel-surfing to CNN. The network was broadcasting live coverage of the events in Mumbai. Watching in horror, I could see the room in which I'd stayed in the heritage wing of the Taj just a few years before. Last month, the Taj reopened its prestigious wing in what represents a remarkable, and defiant, recovery. Rooms at the Taj Mahal Tower, the hotel's modern appendage, reopened on December 21, 2008, less than a month after the attacks, along with some of its signature restaurants, such as the Masala Kraft and Souk.

But it is the rebirth of the more prestigious heritage wing that was most eagerly awaited.

The Taj Mahal Palace & Tower is one of those rare hotels in that it is genuinely more than just a hotel. It's a symbol of Indian modernity and hospitality and, for Mumbai, a social gathering point for the

city's well-to-do. It was the location for Mumbai's first licensed bar, India's first all-day dining restaurant and the country's first "international discotheque".

The hotel was founded in 1903, when Mumbai was Bombay, by Parsi businessman Jamsetji N. Tata. He believed that India's commercial capital deserved a grand hotel and one, for that matter, that was open to all of the city's races.

Tata ensured guests would enjoy all the "latest arrangements and contrivances", such as electricity, the first electric lifts, electric fans, a Turkish bath, post office, chemist and modern sanitation.

The hotel's florid facade is an amalgam of architectural styles including Florentine Renaissance, Oriental, Rajput and Moorish. A 23-storey high-rise wing was added in 1973. The Taj's location is superb, being diagonally across from the Gateway to India, built in 1924, the heyday of the British Raj, and traditionally the first sight for ships calling at the port. Today, the hotel and the Gateway to India complement each other in a similar way to that of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

One of the biggest milestones in the hotel's reopening came in May, when the famed Sea Lounge, with its majestic views of Mumbai's harbour, opened its doors. The lounge is a favoured venue for upper-class couples and their matchmakers, who gather for the objective of arranged marriages.

This is a hotel that demands to be explored. The centrepiece is the magnificent ornamental cantilever stairwell, which rises several floors inside the palace wing to meet a heroic, domed ceiling.

Of course, for those who'd rather not walk between floors to their rooms, which run off a series of sun-kissed galleries, there's an old-fashioned lift. This faces the garden and swimming pool, where you can indulge in a meal under a series of whirling fans while seated on lavish wicker chairs.

In response to the attack and the human toll it exacted, the Taj Group established the Taj Public Service Welfare Trust with the aim of providing assistance to victims and their families.

If you're visiting Mumbai, even for one night, a stay in either the tower or heritage wings is a simple, though powerful, statement of defiance, as much as that achieved by the hotel's owners in their reopening of one of the genuine jewels of India.

The writer was a guest of the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower and Singapore Airlines.

Trip notes

Where

Apollo Bundar, 400 001 Mumbai. +91 22 6665 3366, tajhotels.com.

How much

Superior City View rooms in the tower start from 14,000 rupees ($333); Luxury Grand City View rooms in the heritage wing start from 29,500 rupees.

Top marks

Aside from the sheer triumph of recovery from disaster, the service is second to none. The staff seem to revel in working in a hotel that has had a second life.

Black mark

My room in the tower wing was small and in need of TLC.

Don't miss

The hotel's amazing array of restaurants, including the Golden Dragon (India's first Sichuan restaurant), the highly rated Japanese eatery Wasabi and the Middle Eastern-style Souk, on the top floor of the tower wing (tables by the window on the city side have terrific views of colonial Mumbai).