“ Address: 4-1-938/26/A / New Marketing Complex / Abids / Tilak Road / Hyderabad 500001 / India / Tel: 0091 40 66635500 „
If you believe in the concept of karma, then it would be fair to assume that I must have done something good in an earlier life to have deserved the fun we had at the Hotel Geetanjali.
~ Finding Hotels in India ~
Trying to find a hotel in a city that you don't know is always a bit of a challenge and when it's in India, it can be doubly tricky. Many's the evening I've spent staggering round the internet trying to get an objective opinion on Indian hotels but this time we really fell on our feet. We've stayed in some very dodgy cheap Indian hotels in the past; who could forget the one with the massive hole in the carpet and the waiter who scratched his groin before serving dinner?; or the one with the main electrical fuse box right under the shower head; oh, and I can still dine out on the tale of the mouse in my sleeping bag in the Punjab. With a history like that you could imagine I'd be a bit nervous about choosing an inexpensive hotel but when I looked at reviews of mid-priced hotels in Hyderabad, I couldn't find anything that persuaded me it was worth paying the extra. All I really wanted was to find a base from which we could explore and get the most out of the city.
Normally I ask people who've been to a city I'm going to visit. I try to find out the 'right' areas to stay in and then go and search the internet for something suitable. Sadly when I planned our recent trip to Hyderabad I forgot that nobody I knew had ever been there; in fact I couldn't find many who could find it on a map so there was nobody to ask and I really didn't know which areas were good, bad or indifferent. I found the Geetanjali on an Indian travel forum (I forget which one) where it was recommended as a reliable cheap hotel, clean but basic. Best of all it had its own website so I would be able to book direct instead of having to go through local 'agents' who'd double the price the moment they knew I was in Europe. I like to book direct so I can firm up any odd arrangements and I can tell the hotel to expect us to arrive at stupid-o'clock in the morning.
~ First Impressions of the Website ~
The Geetanjali website showed a basic but clean and rather simple hotel that wouldn't have stood out from the zillions of others across India but for a certain sense of style in the writing. I'm used to reading the flowery and excessive claims of Indian hotel websites, but this one stuck to the facts, kept things straight and didn't claim to be the Ritz. I found the 'Managers Blog' with lots of information about what the hotel was trying to do, how it was responding to feedback and evolving to improve its offering, and giving advice on things to do and what to see. Everything was written in the kind of pleasant straightforward style that makes you think "I just might want to stay with these guys". It was clear that they didn't just have rooms, they were offering to take you into the city and show you how it worked.
~ The Vacation 'Package' ~
I'm the kind of person who thinks the word 'package' means two weeks on the Costa del Wotsit surrounded by lobster-pink people who drink too much beer and eat fried breakfasts, so I was intrigued to discover that the hotel had designed two special 'vacation packages', one based on a minimum 2 night stay and the other on a 3 night stay. When you go to a new city, especially one that's not REALLY on the tourist trail, it's not easy to find out what's what and what's where and most importantly what's actually worth bothering to see. It's not a problem if you are travelling with a tour group but if you are on your own, you don't really want to spend half your time arguing with taxi drivers and trying to work out where to go.
The longer of the two packages offered us 4 days of comprehensive entertainment with a car and driver for the whole stay, entrance to a slew of local attractions, a day trip to the Ramoji Film city, a superior room for 3 nights, breakfast and when we were finally done with Hyderabad, drop off at the railway station. Go on, take a guess at what that'll set you back for two people? (I'll tell you later).
~ Booking ~
Impressed by both the service on offer and the style of the website I sent them an email. If I'd wanted to, I could have sent an SMS and they'd have called me back but I didn't want to put them to the expense of an international phone call. In just a few hours (I hate to think what time it was in India) I'd got a very polite email from Varun Grover, the manager, thanking me for contacting them and recommending their 4-day package. We got into a series of emails in which he always got back to me quickly with answers to my questions. Best of all, the answers all made sense which isn't something I've been able to take for granted when dealing with other Indian hotels. I instinctively trusted him and arranged to send my credit card details split over two emails and an SMS at his suggestion. Unfortunately he then found that his local bank wouldn't accept my authorisation to use my card and after several more emails, he agreed as a special favour to accept the booking without any kind of deposit.
(They now have an online payment system which should mean that the problems we had became an excellent example of Varun's determination to remove all road-blocks in the pursuit of getting the business). A few days before we flew I dropped him another mail to reconfirm that we'd be arriving at a stupidly early hour and were looking forward to our visit. I checked the hotel's website for a map and set off to India, confident that everything was in hand.
~ Finding the Hotel on Arrival ~
It was a good thing I'd checked the map and an even better thing that it had been clear enough for me to remember because the hotel is not brash about publicising its existence. The taxi driver didn't know it but I was able to send him the right way up a quiet side street. When we got to reception, the guys on the desk had been pre-warned to expect us and didn't seem at all bothered that we hadn't paid yet and they took us straight up to our room. In fact it took us a couple of days before we'd got the money together to pay them because we needed to give them cash because they'd already paid for the car and driver in advance.
~ Home Sweet Home ~
I'm not going to pretend to you that the hotel is luxurious or equipped with lots of facilities because that wouldn't be true and would be a disservice to Varun and his colleagues. It is a budget hotel and the rooms start at less than £9 a night for the non-Air con option and rise to under £15 for our A/C room. The hotel doesn't have a restaurant, or a business centre, a big car park or a gym or a sauna but let's be honest, how often do you go to a hotel and not use any of those things? We'd gone to Hyderabad to see the city, not to sit in our room watching TV so all we needed was something simple.
The room was quite basic without much in the way of frills. There was a large firm bed (two singles pushed together) with base sheets and blankets, a single chair, a television, a desk or dressing table, a wardrobe and a large mirror. The walls were painted in a light colour and the cream tiled floor was shiny and spotless. The en suite bathroom had a western toilet (what a relief) and a quite powerful shower which had hot water on all but the first time we used it. That might have just been an issue of us not getting the taps right or the hot water not having 'run through' fully. There was a sink with a small mirror over but no towels. We've long been wise to inadequate Indian hotel towelling even in mid-range hotels so we always travel with our own towels as well as our own sleeping bag liners which came in handy with just a lower sheet and not a top sheet. I suspect that Indian people typically sleep in quite a lot of clothes as we'd experienced this absence of top sheet before (and later in our trip) so we weren't too surprised. The sheets weren't sparkling white (not much is after going through Indian laundries) but they were changed every day which quite surprised and reassured me.
Hubby was ready with his tip for the porter who clearly wasn't expecting it and had to be chased down the corridor. He was back shortly after with soap and his colleagues dropped by to say hello and ask if we wanted tea or coffee and any breakfast but all we really wanted was sleep. The Geetanjali operates a 24 hour check in service which I hadn't come across before anywhere in the world (though three of our four hotels on this trip did the same). With this system it doesn't matter what time you arrive, the room is yours for units of 24 hours. I had expected when I first contacted them that turning up at 6 am would mean having to pay for the night before, but that wasn't the case. They were even kind enough to let us check out two and a half hours late on the last day because they could see there wasn't a lot two tourists could do at 6 am in the morning.
After a bit of a nap, interrupted only by reception sending up some very welcome apple juice cartons, we were ready to go and explore. We asked if we could have our car and driver about an hour later and they recommended a restaurant nearby where we could get some lunch. It's called the New Santosh and they have copies of the menu in reception so I'm sure it's the place they recommend as standard and the food was lovely. We set off with our driver after lunch and the weather was pretty pitiful. After driving for about twenty minutes towards Golconda Fort, we realised that it was daft to be trying to go to a ruined fort in the rain so we changed our plans on the hoof and asked the driver to take us to the Salar Jung museum instead.
The front desk staff were kind and helpful. They couldn't all speak English but a couple of the older gentlemen understood us and we were able to arrange everything that we wanted to do. One of the guys wanted to arrange our breakfasts and asked if we'd like South Indian breakfast. I was a bit wary but didn't like to ask if there was an alternative so we just went along with his suggestion. You should have seen my husband's face when they turned up with a plastic bag containing lots of little bags with idlis (odd rice dumpling-like things with the texture of a breast implant), two chutneys, a weird savoury donut-like thingy with chillies in it, and the southern speciality of 'sambar' - a type of runny curry that contains a spice that turns my stomach every time I smell it. If that weren't hard enough to stomach, there were TWO bags of all of this. We tried, honestly we did, and it was very kind of them to go to so much trouble but it was a once-only experience and they practically chased us down the street with the plastic bags on the second morning as we attempted to escape without having to eat it. By the final day we'd persuaded them we weren't really 'breakfast-people'.
~ The Area ~
The hotel is on a quiet street of fabric shops and book sellers in the central Hyderabad district known as Abids. Much to our amazement Hyderabad doesn't wake up early and most of the shops were closed on our street most of the time. However, if you want to buy a wedding sari, you'll find you're in the perfect place. We ate twice at the restaurant up the road and one evening at the Taj Mahal hotel (a heritage place about 5 minutes walk away). Whilst our street was remarkably quiet, it was only one block from a busy street with lots of shops and places to buy food. At no time did we ever feel unsafe whilst wandering around and I'd happily recommend staying there.
~ In Praise of our driver, Mohin ~
Whilst it might seem a little over the top to include a lot of info about our driver, Mohin, he was a major part of why we had so much fun and why we'd recommend staying at the hotel on one of their tourist packages. On day one we wondered how he was going to cope with us because he didn't seem to speak much English. As the time passed, his English got more confident and we all developed a sort of sixth sense about what he was suggesting and what we wanted to do. He looked after us like we were his relatives and the term 'nothing was too much trouble' was designed for Mohin. He was a safe, reliable driver, his car was always clean and tidy and he went out of his way to make sure we saw everything, including the things we didn't think we wanted to see. Each morning he picked up his instructions from the hotel about where to take us and if we wanted to change anything he'd call the hotel for confirmation and everything was quickly sorted out.
On day one he took us to the museum which was all we felt up to after our overnight flight. Day two was our main local sightseeing trip and we started with the Birla Temple followed by the Birla Science Museum and then on to the park by the lake for a speedboat trip to the Buddha Island in the lake. In the afternoon we visited the Charminar, Hyderabad's most famous landmark and the Mecca Masjid mosque before heading back north of the river to the bizarre NTR Park and finally onto Golconda for the Sound and Light Show. Day three he took us to Ramoji Film City then back to Hyderabad for an absurd hand-built novelty car museum and Snow World (a giant freezer full of over-excited Indians playing snowballs). On our final day we went back to Golconda for another look and to the Qut'b Shahi tombs. I think it's fair to say we saw a lot of places that have never made it into guide books, some of them fabulous fun and really interesting and Mohin the driver and Varun the hotel manager are to be congratulated for putting such a great programme together.
At each place we went to Mohin leapt out of the car, rushed off to buy our tickets and then made sure we knew where to go and what to do. When the entrance fees were only a few rupees, he bought an extra ticket so he could come in and show us around, grabbing our camera every now and then to take pictures of us posing around in the parks. A lot of the attractions ban cameras so he always waited outside to make sure we were OK and to take the cameras if we were banned from using them. Every time we emerged from a site he was waiting for us, as if by magic, like the shopkeeper in the children's cartoon Mr Benn.
When we needed to find an internet café one evening to print our train tickets, he drove all over town trying to find a place for us because the first few places we stopped all had broken servers. When we wanted to buy packets of tissues and some dental floss, he stopped half a dozen times until we'd tracked down the tissues. Amazingly the dental floss was easy but packets of tissues were surprisingly challenging.
Whenever we'd skipped breakfast, the hotel told him and he always tried to make sure to offer us a bakery or another place to pick up some food. One day when we'd already been out for about 11 hours, he still took us to a place with lots of restaurants and offered to wait whilst we got dinner (we just grabbed some sandwiches and told him he should go home to his family). We were so well looked after and so fond of him after 4 days together that we were really sad to leave Mohin when he finally dropped us at the railway station.
~ What we got - we got the lot!~
With the exception of the second visit to Golconda and the trip to the tombs, which were extras that we asked for, all our entrance fees were included in our package. We went back to Golconda because I'd fallen asleep at the Fort the first time (that's the effect that Sound and Light shows have on me every time) and we wanted to see it properly in daylight and the tombs were something I'd found in my guide book and wanted to go and see. We missed only one thing on our list of included sites and that was a zoo which was closed on our main sightseeing day and we ran out of time by going 'off piste' to the fort and the tombs on the last day. Not all of the included attractions were cheap to go into and many charged much higher fees for us as foreigners than they would have been for locals. The entrance fees on the third day alone were more than £20 but all those fees were included in our deal.
That brings me to the 'reveal' of what we paid. For four days with a car and driver, 3 nights in the hotel, breakfast, all our entrance fees and drop off at the railway station, we paid about £150 for the two of us. I only wish that more hotels had the imagination and customer focus of the Geetanjali and would offer such packages. We were only their second set of tour-package guinea pigs and we absolutely loved the imagination that had gone into the programme and the courtesy shown by all the staff. People told me on forums that we'd only need two days to see Hyderabad and half of that would be shopping. I'd have to disagree - we went flat out for three and a half days and found plenty to do.
4-1-938/26/A, New Marketing Complex, Abids, Tilak Road
Hyderabad - 500001
Phone:+(91)-(40)- 66635500, 66845444