Even as the car entered the neat landscaped gardens and passed a glittering fountain on our right, we knew we had arrived. As we pulled up outside the grand entrance, a beaming burly porter strode over wearing what looked like the red and black uniform of a Beefeater. He directed other porters, also in smart red uniforms, to carry in our bags. Already – and we’d only been here thirty seconds – we realised this was a place where pomp and colour and gleaming efficiency held sway.
We were ushered through a long panelled hallway into a plush sofa filled lounge. A friendly lady in a grey uniform showed us where we could sit, then beckoned over a man in a white uniform who offered us hot towels. Promptly followed by a tea boy in another white uniform who brought us cups of delicious vanilla tea and a dish of fudge. Our room wasn’t quite ready – hardly surprising seeing it was only half past ten in the morning – yet if we could endure forty minutes listening to the automated piano playing Christmas tunes, they’d make our room up.
Really, this was hardly up to the welcome we’d received the night before at The Hotel At The Edge Of Nowhere. At that very out of the way hotel, beyond Beyond on the edge of the hill, they’d not offered us not towels, drinks nor fudge, but absolutely nothing. The receptionist had interrupted processing our booking as well in order to serve a coach party arriving after us. Then he’d informed us we didn’t have breakfast, when in fact we’d paid for this, and that there was no a la carte menu, only an expensive, and mostly tasteless, buffet at two and half thousand rupees a head.
Thankfully, the Grand Hotel at Nuwara Eliya was going to be a different story. This famous hotel is one of the town’s must see sights with its mock-Tudor façade, immaculate gardens, and period public rooms. Originally we’d booked a room somewhere else. Yet as a last minute splurge, a chance to experience a little decadence, we decided to upgrade to the Grand instead. For one night only, along with all the other Western and Indian tourists staying here, we could pretend we were royalty or celebrities like all the other big names who’d once put their feet up here: Lord Mountbatten, President Nixon, Roger Moore, and Carrie Fisher.
The automated piano played a few more tunes, and the remaining fudge wafted its enticing aroma further into the room. Tourists in shorts and T-shirts shuffled in to take photos and shuffled out. Then before we knew it, our room was ready. The lady in grey appeared again and another porter, this time in brown. The lady led us into another long corridor, while the porter tugged our cases along the polished wooden floor. We passed a glass cabinet displaying silver tongs and other items of silver tableware as the porter rolled our cases across a faded yet quality piece of carpet. A workman was busy retouching the wooden bannister, the smell of his lacquer ancient and strong. Then another corner, past an immense ornate metal goblet, and to a dark wooden door.
Number one hundred and sixty-nine. Our room for the night; our lavish boudoir of aspiring aristocracy.
The lady unlocked the door, and the porter wheeled our luggage in. He seemed very enthusiastic about the bathroom, explaining how all the taps worked, the flush mechanism on the toilet, and the caps on the little shampoo bottles too. Then he asked us if we’d enjoyed our breakfast – which we hadn’t particularly, because it had been a cheese and tomato sandwich (without the tomato) and obligatory hardboiled egg from our previous accommodation, The Hotel At The Edge of Nowhere. The porter didn’t know this though, and carried on showing us the safe, then how the curtains could be opened or closed simply by pulling them. Amazing the things you learn on your travels. Eventually I gave him his tip and he decided we were capable of working out the rest of the room for ourselves.
The room was comfortable yet nothing extraordinary. Nicely furnished yet no soft chairs, no sofa, and definitely no view. We looked out onto an inner courtyard with workmen busy on the roof. Although to be fair, we’d booked only a deluxe double – and had checked in very early too.
The hotel’s grandness lay in its public areas however, in its many corridors, meeting rooms, lounges, high-tea galleries and restaurants. Walking around, I discovered a wood panelled wine restaurant, and then through another door, the even more sublime billiards room. And somewhere else a saloon with a life-sized nativity scene (the baby surrounded by the three wise men, an angel hanging overhead) and huge wall mirrors. Everything very old, with polished wooden floors, and dark pieces of antique furniture, cabinets and chests of drawers, pictures and photographs, hiding in plain sight.
The most noticeable features though were the staff. They graced every nook and cranny in their white tunics and white sarongs, their brown and grey uniforms, their officious expressions and business suits. All of them striding purposely, or else standing to attention as if their sole duty was to greet the guests. And then there were the guests themselves, tourists much like ourselves, ill-dressed, phone camera happy, a mixture of older couples, squealing families, and perhaps the odd baronet. In all, an accelerated, labour intensive, fully working parody of what this grand place once was. The guests are no longer plantation managers, but tourists, and the rules, although observed, have workarounds. Men must still wear a jacket and long trousers for dinner in the Barnes restaurant, yet they don’t need to be coordinated, and they can borrow their clobber from the cloakroom.
We wandered around the gardens, where a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson had been painted on a sign. “Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” Strangely appropriate for this place and the people who came here. We sampled a Celebration High Tea on the veranda, though not as good as the one at the Amangalla Hotel in Galle. We went to play snooker in the Billiards room on a fully-sized, very old green slate table. There was a dress code here too. Male players had to wear long trousers and shoes. And female players were odds on to win. While I went to change, an attendant named Bala set up the balls, chalked our cues and – once our long game finished – handed us a bill for two hundred rupees. The balls were apparently very old as well, made of tusk, and Kate predictably had won.
There were other areas of the hotel to explore: the elegant indoor swimming pool, a gymnasium, a shop selling tea and souvenirs, and another section of garden at the back. More restaurants too, an Indian and a Thai, accessed from the street. Yet we couldn’t do everything, and anyway we didn’t want to. We were failed royals, uncelebrated celebrities, ordinary people like all the other guests. The stars were the staff in their finery, the people who truly made this hotel grand.
Defeated, we retired to our room to sleep. Tomorrow was another day we could pretend to be famous. Or not.