I’ve recently returned from a trip to India. Like most fine wines, I had in all honesty expected my journeys there to improve with age. However, I soon realised that there’s a fine balance between luxury travel and ‘luxury’ travel. The world has changed considerably, but should we always expect to have our expectations met and how can we tell if they’re too high in the first place?
Trips to India while we were children felt like trips to a strange alien landscape. I should have appreciated that we were a small percentage of Britons that actually went as far as the third world on their summer holidays - there was a sort of glamour to this to begin with (just replace images of poverty with those of exoticism). India’s landscape before the economic changes of Manmohan Singh’s recent government felt wild and dangerous. The streets were full of strangers you couldn’t speak to, you’d never know where the nearest western toilet was and and ‘NO!’ you mustn’t drink the water. The rich were very rich and the poor were everywhere.
Spring forwards about ten years and we’re in a very different India, but can I now convince myself that I’m living in the lap of luxury, as is often insisted? And how exactly should this be defined?
As we exited a shiny gleaming Terminal 3 at Indira Gandhi Airport I realised that the soldiers with guns in a dark vast hall had long gone, this was now the polite client-facing India. On we went, though before I could mention Namaste - we were thrown head first into a world of air-conditioning and malls. Of course it’s nicely convenient that these little bits of western culture had been quietly festering away in India and are having their moment - but hold on, my own taste-of-India itinerary was lagging behind. Forget this, just give me old school glamour; I’d like a cocktail on a veranda under a fan overlooking some Udaipur wilderness.
Never mind, I’ll appreciate what I can get. It’s always nice feeling like you’re actually super-rich for a moment. However, my interpretation of what this meant was wildly different from everyone else’s. In London, when does one have the time to sit around for bespoke tailoring for example? In India - a moment of luxury for me was spending some quality time with a tailor - detailing the intricacies of the shirts, dressing gowns and pyjamas that I wanted. Where else could I find printed patterns that could compete, or rise above, the likes of Etro and Paul Smith? At this point, a relative pointed out I should be going to a mall instead. ‘Why?’ I wondered. The malls are currently demonstrating globally saturated trend for plaid shirts, which cost the same, if not more, than the ones back home. The tailor on the other hand is not only offering me his time and service, but leaving me with a garment that is totally unique that I’ll keep for years. The discussion ceased at this point, but it was exemplary of all the others that followed: I was encouraged to go for branded labels; but again, I didn’t understand why this would be so important. Yes, in some way you can associate labels with luxury - but all I saw was another way that burgeoning middle class was finding a means of segregating itself further.
Naturally there were plenty of joyous moments on the trip, and I look back on it with great nostalgia. Ultimately - one comes to realise that when you’re traveling with others - things are always a little trickier. There are fine balances to be drawn with people’s hospitality which need to be delicately managed. There are some wins and some losses. On this occasion, the losses included missing out on lunch at the Cecil Oberoi in Simla - but then we got to spend Diwali with the extended family and see how it’s celebrated in India, which was a sort of magic all its own.
As I clutched my copy of Conde Nast Traveller (India Special) every night. I looked longingly at the glossy pages of cutting-edge hotels, spa treatments and fancy restaurants. I was somehow so close, yet so far. In Delhi, I read rave reviews about the new Oberoi in Gurgaon, but we were offered accommodation elsewhere and stayed at a lodge reserved for Punjabi officers and officials visiting Delhi. Again, not what I’d hoped for, but an altogether new experience.
Following every trip, I always wonder what’s next, what have I learnt that can be carried forward? In this spirit, I recently visited the Conde Nast Luxury Travel Fair at London’s Olympia to see what the market was offering.
As expected, this was a neatly put together affair, with exhibitors and their representatives from all over the world all presenting their corner of paradise. I wondered who might be travelling to these far flung destinations and what was defined as luxury. Everything seemed to be offered for the right price from the Northern Lights to jungle spas. Of course this was to be expected - but what I was eager to learn - was how exhibitors defined their interpretation of luxury and how this compared to my trip. Essentially this boiled down to a few simple things:
Comfort. All human beings love to rest when rest is required. This needn’t involve lots of money - but as we know - space is limited and thus becomes a commodity based on the country’s size. ‘What a lovely cottage you have’ one aunt remarked when she saw our London home. In India - the rate of development is threatening the rural idyll - but as long as the government realises that following a period of great industrial growth - economies move onto rely on hospitality and tertiary services - then I’m sure this will come into effect. Of course it should be sooner. As tourists, we often paid a higher price for entry into parks and places of national interest - though technically unfair, we were happy to offer what we could to maintain the country’s heritage.
Access. There’s no knowing when you want that massage or bowl of custard at 3am in the morning. Most of us put up with the cultural laws of the country we’re visiting, but if it loads-a-money you’re spending - then yes - you can set the rules. As long as someone is willing to abide by them.
Worry. Some say this is part of the enjoyment. Though really, I’d like to be pleasantly surprised that an itinerary has somehow magically appeared before me. Cost? Travel? No need to worry about that - someone else will sort it out for you. You just say what you like.
Admittedly, people will find their own version of these things. And as the travel industry develops more things will become accessible. Just as budget travel has made it easier for more people to travel - so too has the opportunity for people access the things they once thought beyond reach, like swimming with dolphins for instance. However, like with any secret club, the moment everyone can start doing the same things as you - you don’t want to do them any more. I suppose there’s a elite group of trailblazers re-defining the boundaries of extreme luxury as we speak. As some of us save for the Orient Express - they’ll be sipping cocktails on the moon. As such, some things will always remain aspirational - though that can be a good thing. One must always have something to look forward to. Sadly for me, the cheaper air travel becomes - the more it seems to me that my legs are growing. I can’t seem to sit in the back of a plane any more. My next target is to make sleeping horizontally on a plane an expectation, not a luxury.
Photo credit: mysticindia.co.uk