December 2018 | 1300 words | 5-minute read
Lord Connemara, the story goes, loved to party. So, when he arrived as the Governor of Madras in 1886, the fourth Nawab of Arcot began to indulge him with soirees that were rather un-Victorian in nature.
All of it, however, came to a dramatic end when Lady Connemara returned from a holiday without notice and walked into one such party. Leaving the Governor's house in a fit of rage, she took refuge at The Albany, then the only hotel in town for the British, until she could sail back to England.
It was in the wake of Lady Connemara’s departure in 1890 that The Albany became the Connemara Hotel. Though some like to believe it was named after her, it was in fact rechristened in honour of Lord Connemara because of all the good that he did for Madras before resigning his post that year.
The Taj Connemara, which re-opened in October 2018 — after a two-year renovation, redesign and rebranding — is full of such fascinating stories dating back to when it first opened its doors.
The Taj Connemara, in various avatars, has been a continuously running hotel since 1854. It has undergone several renovations, including one in the 1930s when it earned its Art Deco façade.
The plan, when it shut for renovation in 2016, was to recapture Connemara’s Colonial heritage without tampering with its eclectic architectural nuances. The refurbishment was carried out by London-based interior designer Sue Freeman, who successfully wed Classic Colonial with Art Deco yet retained elements from celebrated Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa’s ‘Tropical Modernism’ redesign of 1974.
Past the hotel’s Art Deco façade, the sepia-tinted lobby—with its dark timbers, brass and stone — sets the tone for the Connemara’s Colonial ambience. This is accentuated by charming touches like a piano that has been at the hotel from 1922; it used to be played in the ballroom them and is now played in the lobby on weekdays. The hotel has even retained the wooden carvings, sourced from the 16th and 17thcentury temples of Mahabalipuram, which have crowned the Grand Staircase rising from the lobby since they were placed there in 1974 by Bawa.
Unique for a city hotel, the Taj Connemara also allows guests the luxury of 4.5 acres of landscaped greens and enclosed atrium gardens.
The 147 rooms and suites, spread across the Tower and Heritage wings, are done up in a palette of powdery blues and sepia with accents of golden and green. They provide an Anglo-Indian view of India, combining traditional British interior detailing and furniture with Indian influences in colour and fabrics. No room, irrespective of the category, feels cramped; they have all been designed to ensure that every guest enjoys the space associated with the words luxury and heritage.
The Colonial Rooms — converted from what was once the bachelors’ block for British army officers and is now the oldest, most luxurious part of the hotel — stand out in particular. The tranquil powder blue rooms, with high timber ceilings in white and dark timber flooring, are dominated by a four-poster bed and French doors that open into spacious private balconies. If you can tear yourself away from that king-sized bed, the balcony, with its view of the pool and Planter’s Chairs (one of the most recognisable symbols of India’s Colonial past), is a perfect spot for relaxing with a book and lulling yourself into an indulgent mid-day snooze.
The old-world glamour of the new Taj Connemara also extends to the food.
The hotel has retained The Verandah and Raintree restaurants but recreated the menus. The former, an all-day diner that has stood in the same spot overlooking the pool for about 25 years, incorporates Anglo-Indian dishes, Madras specialties and dishes that the Nawab of Arcot would have feasted on. The latter, which has been a Chettinad restaurant for about 30 years, offers a taste of traditional flavours crafted by chefs who travelled around the state— to Tuticorin, Tirunelveli, Madurai, Karaikudi, Kumbakonam and Thanjavur — for months to learn old, almost forgotten recipes.
The hotel’s new additions include the Lady Connemara Bar & Lounge, a nod to its history of opening the first licensed bar in Madras. The Cocktail Bar, as it was then known, was as famous for its entertainment value as it was for serving iced drinks — a legacy that Bartender Senthil Nathan and Bar Manager Raja Selvan have honoured with a signature cocktail. The Madras No. 1 represents this era with its most prominent ingredient: a large clear ice cube. As the ice melts, the blend of gin and Pimm’s No. 1 slowly brings out the taste of basil, cucumber and pear, all ingredients enjoyed in Colonial times.
The Lady Connemara Bar & Lounge also hides an annexe with wing and club chairs and books, perfect for the newly introduced afternoon tea. It offers an extensive tea and coffee menu, including signature Connemara selections made by Tata Tea and Tata Coffee. The afternoon tea menu ranges from the Classical, featuring scones, sandwiches and pastries, to a Best of Madras ‘tiffin’ special — just one of the many ways in which the hotel acknowledges the place it has always had in the city’s heart.
A Chennai tradition
The Taj Connemara today is a mix of staff from different parts of the country — on my very first day there I met people from Jammu, Lucknow, Ranchi, Kolkata, Mumbai and more — who have all understood what this hotel has meant to Chennai since it first opened.
As the historian S Muthiah says in A Tradition of Madras that is Chennai: The Taj Connemara, “The Connemara has always spelt CLASS.”
“Position it as you will, as a toned-up heritage hotel, as a business hotel, as a downtown hotel,” he adds, “the Taj Connemara will always remain a tradition of Madras.”
What not to miss
- The Connemara Heritage Walk — aided with artefacts, vintage photographs and charming but forgotten stories — takes you from the time this was “the house on Choultry Plain” to its transition to the Taj Connemara of today.
- An exclusively-curated walk called 'A Madras Affair' will take you on a tour of the city’s colonial past starting with the Connemara. Since Chennai has been declared a part of the UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, this is a must do.
- Raintree's wide array of dishes could tempt you to order more than you can possibly eat. So, opt for the vegetarian or non-vegetarian tasting menus instead. Do not miss the elaneerpayasam, cooked in cardamom and coconut milk with tender coconut kernels and pistachio coral spice crisp.
- Don't leave The Verandah without trying the ‘Cabbage cigar of tender green beans fogath’, ‘Cottage cheese croquet with devilled chutney’, ‘Connemara lamb Irish stew’ and ‘Aunty Bridget’s pan fried fish’ from the Anglo-Indian menu or the ‘Ambur biryani’, which is also available as a vegetarian option on the largely non-vegetarian Nawab of Arcot cuisine.
- The ‘Verandah apricot croissant’ and ‘Butter pudding’ is another must have.
- Come for the Celebration Afternoon tea — think champagne and 24k gold-dusted cake to go with your scones and sandwiches. Stay back for the ‘Since 1891’, a signature cocktail blended in honour of Lady Connemara. The Lady Connemara Bar & Lounge also offers award-winning Connemara Peated Irish Whisky and the soulful live music.
- An hour or two at The Jiva Spa at Taj Connemara
- Pop over to the Taj Coromandel for a meal at the iconic Golden Dragon or the award-winning Southern Spice
- Make a day-trip to Taj Fisherman’s Cove, where you can laze at one of the three restaurants with private views of the beach
- Take a curated tour, which can be organised through the hotel concierge, to the Mahabalipuram temple complex, which is a UNESCO Heritage site