New Delhi Revamped and Reloaded

The very first article I had on my blog, was this one on New Delhi, India, which I consider my own special shopping mecca. Since I ran this, nearly seven months ago, Indians – and Delhi, as their official fashion capital – have acquired their own edition of Vogue, complete with Indian top models and designers. The very first issue came out in October and was immediately sold out. The only place to find it these day is on Ebay and it doesn’t come cheap. But I suggest grabbing the November 2007 – second issue at Ink, the international newsstand on Avenue A, between 4th and 5th, right here in NYC. The magazine is a fashion dreamer’s fantasy come true, filled with bright colors and imaginative editorials, while still not lacking true fashionistas favorites like Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton. Anyway, the point I am making here is that India is forever evolving and constantly reinventing itself, more and more as a global superpower to contend with on every level. Just as Indian Vogue doesn’t come cheap to us on this side of the globe, neither does India anymore. Hotels in the cities are nearing record rates and the clothes that used to make it worth it to travel with an empty suitcase – to be filled in Delhi or Bombay, of course – are now at big-name American designer prices. But the shops and places I list below are still somewhat affordable and there are ways to get accommodations that won’t cost as much for one night as your whole month’s rent in NYC. For information and help in planning your India trip, do check out www.DekhoMyIndia.com and then contact Mr.Rajiv Bajaj, at his own personal email (cut and paste this one) rb@interface-india.com. Interface is an inbound and outbound travel agency based in Delhi, which operates in conjunction with the website. Mr. Bajaj can help in organizing a more custom tailored trip, as well as simply helping with hotel reservations and air tickets. So, read up and don’t forget to go to Itunes, then click on Imix and check out the Curry Hill soundtrack from HUEA. It is just as appropriate while reading this week’s column. N-joy!

“Delhi is one of my favorite shopping cities on earth and the home of Indian fashion. As much as Bombay is touted by many as a fabulous spot to shop, I have not found there the incredible quality and luxury I am able to find – at relatively affordable prices – in Delhi. It is a great destination for a single girl and a friend, to experience someplace really exotic, without straying too far off the map. Hotels and their services in India are always first quality, as long as one stays away from the backpackers’ quarters. And if you can’t find a friend to go with you, by all means, go by yourself. I did, and had the time of my life!

HOW TO GET THERE: Since Continental Airlines began their nonstop service from Newark International to Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi just about two years ago, it has never been so easy to fly to India for a long weekend. I checked rates for peak tourist season in January 2008 and a round trip ticket for a nine-days stay – HEY, that’s my idea of a long weekend! – will run about $1,250, which is a good deal. For stopover flights, check out Orbitz as they offer fares as low as $750. The convenience of Orbitz is that you can book the hotel there as well, saving a bundle in the process. But beware that they do not offer many good quality choices. January is a great time to visit Delhi. You might even catch one of the multitudes of wedding processions that run through the city streets, in the early evenings. Keep a lookout for white horses and large luminaries and you should be able to view this thrilling spectacle. The only thing to remember is that even if the weather in Delhi is never NYC or London cold, it does get quite chilly and foggy during the night, and in the early morning hours. So, bring along a nice, long, stylish sweater. DKNY makes a “cozy” that is well… how shall I put it… cozy! For you gents out there, a warmer jacket is good. No need to pack a windbreaker as those do NOT look good anywhere except, of course, on a sailboat.

WHERE TO STAY: Call me spoiled, but I have never been one to stay at cheap hotels. I just don’t want to bring home fleas, bedbugs and intestinal parasites as souvenirs. I would rather spend a little more, and feel safe. Plus, for two women traveling alone, or even a single girl, it is better to have the security of a good, reputable place, not to mention the allure of going down to breakfast in the morning to a glorious buffet or even sauntering down for a late night drink with some newfound friends.

The Taj Palace Hotel Taj Palace Hotel is located on Sardar Patel Marg, in the Diplomatic Enclave. Slightly out of the way, but at $365 a night, a great bargain for luxury in Delhi. Its sister hotel, the Taj Mansingh, now sports rates of $700 per night. Taj Palace is wonderful and has an added perk of being right next door to the Sheraton Hotel, with its fabulous Bukhara restaurant, quite possibly the best Indian restaurant in the world. Just ask for a free transfer service to the Sheraton and enjoy having two hotels for the price of one.

The Ambassador is located in Sujan Singh Park, Cornwallis Road, near Lodi Gardens. It is slightly more central than the Taj Palace and it belongs to the same Taj Group of hotels, which always makes for a luxurious experience. It used to be a great hotel for the money, but now is just another good choice, since the rates have gone up considerably. At this time, it appears to be sold out for all of January and February.

The Ashok Hotel is located in Chanakayapuri, right across from one of my favorite shopping centers, Santushti Complex. That makes it convenient when trying to get there, which requires a quick jaunt across the traffic circle, and the rate is $300 per day for two, including breakfast, for a room on the Club (executive) floor. Most Indian professionals coming to Delhi for business stay at the Ashok. It is a large, comfortable hotel. I cannot recommend it personally as I have not stayed there. But I have never heard bad things about it.

WHERE TO EAT: I always have breakfast at the hotel where I am staying. Even if it is not included in the price of the room – which is quite rare – it is worth the money charged, as it will usually take you through the day. Here are a few fabulous places, most are much more fun for dinner.

Tea House of August Moon is located in the Taj Palace. Probably the best Chinese food I have ever had, but definitely the best in India. Obviously devoid of MSG – which I could tell from the conspicuous absence of a Chinese food headache – portions here are moderate and the prices not too bad. The ambiance is great and private, even if you do end up eating on your own. The service is good and unobtrusive. While in Taj Palace, check out the new Orient Express, with a dining room inspired by the famous – and infamous – train.

Yellow Brick Road in the Ambassador Hotel. It is the typical coffee shop in an Indian hotel, but fun atmosphere and good food. I have not been but it comes highly recommended.

Bukhara in the Maurya Sheraton is probably my favorite spot in all of India. It is tandoori cooking at its best and although I try to be vegetarian when I travel, I am addicted to the lamb shank, which literally melts off the bone. Have never had a bad meal there, even if the bill can be a bit high, for Indian standards (still cheaper than most NYC restaurants!) Service is fabulous, even if one is forcibly encouraged to wear a checkered bib to avoid indelible masala food stains.

Basil & Thyme at Santushti Market, is quite convenient when shopping the complex. It is popular with “kitty parties” meaning a group of ladies who get together to chat and have fun. Nice rest spot for a quiet lunch. Mixed cuisine, with Indian flair.

NIGHTLIFE: Yes, there is a lot of that these days in Delhi. It is no longer necessary to go to Bombay or Goa for a hip night out. My favorite bar – and I promise I do a lot more shopping in Delhi than drinking – is the Dublin Pub inside the Maurya Sheraton Hotel. It’s a fun place, where the atmosphere is truly relaxed and very pub-like. There is music and lots of cute people, so worth checking out. For more of the night and bar scene check out this article from the NY Times.

SIGHTSEEING: I highly recommend reading and printing out another NY Times article titled “India Made Easy” by Jonathan Allen. Click on the article title above to quickly access the page. It was published in the March 25th, 2007 travel section and it is the best I have read, as far as guiding the visitor to places worth seeing and sometimes overlooked. It focuses on Delhi and surroundings. It is worth more than any travel book you can buy.

WHERE TO SHOP: Ahhhh, where to begin!? Delhi is a serious shopping city and deciding where to start is always difficult for me. But no matter where one starts, I suggest going over to India with an empty suitcase. Travel only with the clothes on your back and maybe a slightly dressier outfit for the first day. After that, Delhi will take care of dressing you for many, many months to come.

Khan Market is an upscale place, very popular with expats. There is a lovely coffee shop, Barista, where one can rest and people watch all the stylish women passing by in their embroidered outfits and the outfit of the moment, a kurta – shirt – with jeans and heels. The stores in the complex include Anokhi, great for block print outfits and home furnishings at really good prices, a few great and inexpensive sunglass places, many fabulous bookstores, a body wellness shop in the back, near the grocery stands, that sells fantastic “Forest Essentials” products, and then, on the very inside alley, where one cannot believe any place worth good money could be, the best shops in the complex, Amrapali, a jeweler famous for ethnic silver as well as Maharani-inspired stunning gold pieces, and Ogaan, a very hip shop with fashions worthy of upscale stores in the US. A great place to start. But no bargaining here. Prices are fixed.

Santushti is, as I mentioned in my eating guide, a wonderful place. There aren’t too many shops, but what it lacks in quantity, it makes up for in quality. Anokhi has a good size shop there and Ogaan has the best of its three locations in the complex. Also, not a place to bargain.

Dilli Haat is an outdoor market, with Indian crafts from all over the country. They do change the vendors every two weeks, so it’s always fun to go and see what is new there. The best place to buy pashminas and Kashmiri scarves. And here is where all your bargaining prowess can be exercised. Start low, and reach a comfortable price together with the merchant. Also, it a has a very good ethnic food court, safe and clean enough to be worthy of trying. Check out the kebabs and the dosas there. Wash it all down with a mango lassi.

The Craft Museum near Pragati Maidan, is worth a visit inside and outside. Once finished with the permanent exhibits, the visitor is invited to view the current displays by the artisans invited there for the month. It is a hit or miss kind of thing, as I have come away with a wonderful embroidered choli (a backless shirt worn by Gujarati gypsy women) or empty handed. But their permanent shop, inside, has good prices on cards and little nic-nacs.

Central Cottage Industries Emporium near Janpath and Connaught Place, is a five story establishment where one can find many different things. No bargaining, as all are fixed prices and the line to pay is always long and tedious. But it is a good place to get one’s bearings for the right amount to pay when buying somewhere else. I find it a bit pricey, but did not come away empty handed from there either, as it was the only store where I could find a long black skirt to match a Ritu Kumar top I bought in Bombay…

Haus Khas has designer Ritu Kumar’s shop and the third location of Ogaan. All are worth visiting, as all carry different merchandise and styles. Don’t be put off by the dusty little alleys of the place, as there are treasures around every corner. Ritu Kumar is great for colorful kurtas (shirts) and great Delhi style. You will be stopped by Indian women asking where you bought your wonderful top, whenever you wear Mrs. Kumar’s designs.

My current favorite designers are Rathore Jodhpur and Anuradha Vakil, the later designed the female protagonist’s clothes for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s new masterpiece “Saawariya”. If in doubt, click above on the name of the film and you will be entering a world of color, superb taste and unbelievable fantasy. Rathore’s flowing silk clothes in pastel colors were featured at a fashion show in Bryant Park this summer, to celebrate the 60th year of India’s independence. Ms. Vakhil is originally Gujarati, which explains her flair for muted, dark colors and long, dramatic silhouettes. Another fave of the moment is Anamika Khanna, who has a knack for offbeat clothes, with a bright splash of unexpected color. If you are lucky enough to live in NYC, you can check out some of the designs, though in a very limited assortment, at Indomix on Mulberry Street. Otherwise, while in Delhi, head to Haus Khas or GK Market for more assortment. Lastly, but very important, is the Happily Unmarried line of items for the home, all inspired by the “bachelor lifestyle” – for men and women of course! You can check out their line, as well as get shop locations in several Indian cities, by clicking on the link I have listed to the right, under “Friends”.

Baba Kharak Singh Marg is near Connaught Place and is where all the State’s Emporia are located. Worth walking down the street, also to view the Hindu temple across from the shops. Some shops are dusty and devoid of anything of value, but still some carry good merchandise.

There are many, many more places to go like Connaught Place itself, G.K Market’s M & N blocks in South Delhi and all the hotels have fabulous little shops, though many very pricey. Always check the local papers – Times of India is the best – for sample sales and “exhibition-cum-sale”. Some can be real treasure troves. The one thing I suggest is never asking the taxi driver to wait for you. And never accepting that a place is “Closed due to state holiday” or “Traffic jam there, Madam” since this is a ploy to get you to go to their shop, where they will be paid a commission for all that you purchase. A great big – though always kind in tone – “NO” is necessary when they suggest this. On the way back, no matter where your hotel is located, it is easy to get an auto rickshaw on the street, and a really fun experience to try while in Delhi. Taxi drivers must use a meter, even if they never want to, so ask your hotel doorman to insist for the meter, and check before leaving the hotel grounds that it has been turned on. When catching a rickshaw, bargain for a price before getting in. Usually, they are quite fair – always a bad apple in the bunch though – and so cheap that it is not worth haggling too much.

Now that I have given you my inside tricks for enjoying Delhi, you have nothing left to do but book the trip, pack your beauty case, and take your empty suitcase with you on the adventure of a lifetime. N-JOY!”

Hope this was helpful. Of course, I am always open to suggestions and recommendations. If you have a favorite spot you wish to share with others, do write in by using the contact page of this blog.

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