“ Address: 419 Esplanade Road / Old cycle market opp red fort / Chandni Chowk / Delhi 110006 / Tel: 0091-11-23276465 „
~My first choice for value for money in Delhi~
We first stayed at the Tara Palace in October 2010 and we liked it so much that we went back again two years later. During those two years between our visits I kept 'almost' getting around to writing about the hotel but something kept stopping me. I'm not sure if it was the desire to keep the place to myself and not tell too many people about this secret little gem of a hotel, or if it was the challenge of how to express how deeply I liked a place that I knew had some surrounding features that might horrify other people. It's a tricky challenge indeed for Tara Palace is a bit of a diamond in the dirt and many people would be put off by some of its surroundings and would discount this little oasis of calm in the heart of Old Delhi.
I'll confess that it's maybe not a hotel for India 'first timers' as it comes with such a hearty dose of reality check that it might put some people off. It's not a place for those seeking luxury or those seeking a dirt-cheap deal in a slum (though there are many such places around). What Tara Palace represents is a clean, safe place, run by decent people who won't try to pester you into buying a tour or hiring a car (unless you ask of course), who will calmly and gently answer every question you have and keep drawing maps on the backs of scraps of paper to make sure you find the places for which you are looking and will cheerfully ring the people you can't face calling because you know they won't understand you. And all for a price that represents the best value in town - in my opinion of course.
I don't come to this conclusion lightly or without experience. I mentally totted up all the places I've stayed in Delhi and they number around a dozen. I've stayed in two of the most sublime hotels in the city, in some classy B&Bs in the suburbs and in a lot of 'budget' places in and around the centre. I have loved at least two thirds of them but no other place comes close to Tara Palace on both value for money and proximity to key attractions.
~So good we returned~
Our first visit was with my sister and her partner on the 'introduce you to India' tour that I arranged. I booked it on the strength of it having a great ranking on Tripadvisor (currently 43rdout of 541) and having read a lot of reviews of it on Trivago.co.uk. I used to do the review approvals on trivago and I got so fed up of seeing reviews of the place that I actually challenged one of the writers to find out more. I had suspected the reviews were fake but she assured me that it was just a really nice place, with super staff who at the time were asking happy customers to do them a big favour and post reviews of the place. I should say that on neither of my visits has anyone asked me to review the hotel or put any pressure on me for feedback.
Our first booking was a mix up. I used the hotel's online booking system (I think it doesn't work any more - this last time I contacted them directly to ask for a room) and booked my sister's room without incident and then booked our room for totally the wrong date two months too early. I was worried that I might have just lost all my money but when I wrote to the hotel they told me there was no problem at all, I'd need to pay slightly more because we'd be in high season but not to worry, the room was reserved and everything was fine. On our first visit the online booking system needed a deposit but this time when I asked if I needed to make a payment I was told that there was no need and I could pay when I arrived. I do find that I trust a hotel that trusts me - Tara Palace was happy to guarantee me a room with no deposit and no credit card number.
~They'll Pick You Up in more ways than one~
One really nice thing about the hotel is that they offer a free airport pick up service. Considering that they do this for even a one-night stay which can cost less than £30 and some hotels will charge up to £15 for that service, it's a very generous offer. Don't expect a limo though, and be prepared for some 'interesting' experiences. The website currently says they only pick up from the Indira Gandhi International Airport but since the new terminal was opened two years ago, plenty of domestic flights now land at IGIA and on our first visit we were picked up after a domestic flight. Be sure to double check if you aren't sure whether your flight would be included. Another nice touch is the mail they send to confirm your pick up which tells you where to meet the 'meet and greet' man and to take care that you don't go with someone else who tells you that the hotel is closed, being renovated, burned down or any other such nonsense. The mail actually tells people "Don't trust anyone until you get to the hotel". It might sound a bit extreme but it's not uncommon for scammers to copy the names they see on the meet and greet boards and try to take you to a different hotel. On our second visit I hadn't read the mail properly and called to say I couldn't find the driver. There was a good reason - he stands at one of the less busy doors where there are few people to attempt to steal his customers.
Our first visit pick up was a memorable experience. With four of us travelling and a late evening arrival, the hotel sent the standard small four seater car, an Indica or something similar. As the last pick up of the evening, the man who came to meet us was going back to the hotel in the car. With three adults squeezed in the back with some of the bags on our laps (Indica boots are not very big), my husband sat in the passenger seat, the driver in the driver's seat, and the other man perched on the hand break where he helpfully changed the gears for the driver. My sister was concerned that the young man might not father children after perching in such a position.
I was aware that the hotel was in the bicycle market area of Old Delhi so I wasn't too surprised when we found ourselves surrounded by trucks loading tyres and bike bits onto them when we arrived. I'd also read enough reviews to know that we'd be taken down what might appear to be a dark and seedy alley to reach the hotel. Thus I was as cool as a cucumber when we found ourselves somewhere that didn't look much like it had a hotel. Sure enough, we hopped out of the car, dragged our bags down the alleyway and into the Tara Palace.
The alleyway became one of our lasting memories of the hotel. My sister's and her partner are both very short and so for many Indians, they seem a lot less scary than my husband and me. A family lived in the alley - husband and wife sitting around chatting with friends and the children sleeping on one of the trolleys that are used to move things around the local shops. It was clear that the alley was their home and my sister's partner in particular took a shine to our 'neighbours', stopping to chat and give them sweets for the kids. Despite these people living in an alley and having very little, they were so cheerful and always greeted us when we arrived or left the hotel. On our last night, we gave them all the bits and pieces we weren't planning to take home - some old clothes, part used bottles of toiletries and some fabric I'd bought and then decided to leave behind. Knowing that one person's throwaways are someone else's little delights, I hoped they wouldn't be offended and in fact we were quite embarrassed by their enthusiasm for the things we planned to throw away. On our return this year, the family had gone and I can only hope they moved on to something better.
~Deluxe or Super Deluxe?~
Rooms come in deluxe or super deluxe types. We've always pushed the boat out for the super deluxe so I cannot comment on the cheaper rooms but I assume they are just a bit smaller. Rooms are available for single, double or triple occupancy and for comparison of the two room types, a super deluxe double costs just 200 rupees (about £2.50) per night more than the deluxe. Our room cost 2598 rupees (about £32) per night and included the free airport pick up and breakfast each morning. All taxes are included in the prices.
The reception area is clean and tidy but quite small. There's a computer in one corner with internet access but people who cannot survive without wifi should be aware that there isn't any even though lots of hotel booking sites incorrectly say that there is. If you should need it, there's a small office in the building next door where you can book tours or just a car and driver for the day. They'll also happily give you a map and any advice you need. We told the guy in the office that I'd emailed them to ask if they wanted to bid for the tour we wanted to do but nobody replied. He told me - with regret in his voice that it was "Our loss, madam, very sorry" but then when I told him what I was paying for 11 days in the Himalayas he told me that it was a really good price and he probably couldn't have beaten it. Check in was quick and the receptionist just asked me to sign the guest book and kept our passports so he could fill in the rest of the details which was much nicer than making us wait whilst he did it or making us do it ourselves.
There's a staircase - in places one that's a bit scary due to big gaps at the edges - or a lift for getting to the rooms. It's a tiny lift and takes just 2 or 3 people. When it's hot you can switch on a fan inside the lift. The hotel has 33 rooms laid out over three accommodation floors. On our first visit we had a room on the third floor on an internal corridor which was very quiet but of course had no view other than onto an internal light well. This time we had a room on the front corner of the hotel on the second floor which overlooked the alley way and the surrounding buildings. I really liked having a view and I enjoyed looking out in the mornings and watching the families living in the run-down buildings nearby getting ready for the day. Yes, I will happily wave to someone cleaning their teeth or having a shave on the rooftop.
~Room to Breathe~
Our room was spotlessly clean with all the furniture in good condition and none of the typical damp mouldy smell of most cheap Indian hotel rooms. It had everything we needed but nothing we didn't and was simple, pared down and perfect. The rooms have both air conditioning and ceiling fans and we always avoid the A/C anywhere it's offered if we can since it tends to give us colds. The room had grey marble floors and cream painted walls, a very neutral colour scheme of course, but better that than something too distinctive or colourful. There was a large king sized bed with a typical hard Indian mattress which was perfect for me, with clean sheets that actually were long enough to tuck in at the bottom (it sounds crazy but don't take anything for granted in India) and the classic mid-brown hotel blanket which seems to be the standard issue all over the country. Other furniture included a large wardrobe, a bag stand, a coffee table and two chairs, a small desk and bedside tables on each side of the bed. There was also a long wall mounted mirror and an old fashioned television set.
The bathroom had loo, sink and shower with a wall mounted mirror over the sink. In common with most budet Indian hotels (and some not so 'budget') the shower head just comes out of the wall without any cubicle but when the room is large enough - as this was - there's no need to fret over your toilet roll getting soggy or anything like that. I suspect that the water heater only goes on in the early morning and evening since the receptionist asked us when we arrived in the early afternoon if we'd need hot water and then flicked a switch and told us to give it half an hour until we used the shower.
Outside the room, the corridors are all marble floored and decorated with pleasant framed prints on the wall. One mistake we made on our second night (on the first we were too jet-confused to notice) was to not go out in the corridor and turn off the lights as there was a glass panel above our door which let in rather too much light and made both of us sleep badly. Sadly it didn't make either of us have the sense to get out of bed and sort it out.
~Eating and Drinking~
Breakfast is included in all the room rates and is served on the third floor in a small breakfast room or can be taken in the rooms. Personally I think it's a slippery slope to total slob-itude if you start eating breakfast or other meals in your hotel room so we always went to the breakfast room in every hotel on our trip but were clearly unusual in doing so since there were always more trays leaving the dining room to go to the guest rooms than being served in situ. There are several choices to be had - Indian, European or American breakfast. I recall the difference between the non-Indian options was whether or not you had eggs. I firmly believe my high consumption of eggs on Indian holidays (and it's the only time I do eat them) works as a talisman to protect me from dodgy tummy so both mornings we had omelette and toast along with cereal for my husband, fruit juice, and tea and coffee. On this particular trip I took my own cafetiere mug and made my own coffee each morning which might seem extreme but stopped me moaning about how crap the local instant coffee is.
On our first evening, after spending most of the afternoon asleep, we decided to eat in the hotel dining room rather than go out in search of inspiration. Vegetable biryani, paneer mushroom, a garlic naan and two sweet lassis set us back a few rupees less than £4 for the two of us. The menu has no meat and no alcohol and I'm not sure if the latter is due to the proximity to the mosque or whether a word in the right ear would find a 'boy' sent out to procure intoxicants if you wanted them. That's often the case but we weren't bothered by a 'dry' dinner. It's clearly not a vegetarian kitchen by Indian standards as Hindu vegetarianism classifies eggs as 'meat' and there were plenty of eggs around.
~Up on the Roof~
One of the most fun things about Tara Palace is the roof terrace. It's not a fancy place and indeed if you go up in the morning you'll have to fight your way through all the sheets hanging up to dry on lines. From the roof you can see most of the big attractions in the area including the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid or Friday Mosque, the Jain temple and bird hospital and the Sikh gurudwara (although I'll admit I didn't spot that on our last visit so I'm not sure if something got built in the meantime that blocked that view. I also love looking out over the homes of the local people who are just getting on with living their lives.
From Tara Palace you can reach any of the four sights I mentioned above in 5 to 10 minutes. For going further afield, simply turn left out of the alleyway and left again at the end of the road and you are on the famous Chandni Chowk. From there it's about a 5 minute walk to Chandni Chowk Metro station (not well signposted but turn left after the rubbish sorting depot) and that will connect those who are willing to use the Metro to the rest of the city. Take care at night because the route back from the Metro includes a stretch that's used as a bedding down spot for lots of the city's homeless people. There's not danger at all but some people - especially those new to India - might find it a bit upsetting to be quite so confronted with just how lucky they are to have a nice bed for the night when so many people clearly don't.
If you don't fancy the Metro, you can take your chances with the taxis, autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws but my recommendation would always be to see if you can hire a car and driver for the day so you don't have to fight over each taxi ride fare. Ask the hotel and they'll give you a price for the day.
I love the Tara Palace and we'll definitely go back as long as it continues to offer spotlessly clean rooms, kind and friendly staff and superb value for money. It's a hotel that's used more by local Indian tourists than by international travellers which means the room rates are pitched more at the local purse. The location in Old Delhi is for me one of the big benefits but it won't suit everyone. I love the buzz of the old city but it can be a bit too 'full on' for those who aren't used to the overt poverty that's sometimes on display.
Hotel Tara Palace
419, Esplanade Road,
Old Cycle Market opposite Red Fort,
Chandni Chowk, Delhi 110006