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“I am basically a finance professional,” said Arun Nanda, founder of Club Mahindra Holidays, a collection of family-oriented properties throughout India. We had met Arun, (who is also one of the principals of Mahindra and Mahindra, the automobile manufacturing and tractor sales company), in Israel the year before when he was delivering a series of lectures at Tel Aviv University. And now, in the manner in which way leads on to way, we were seated in a bright streamlined office in Mumbai, guests of the hospitality executive who, as a result of that chance encounter, had invited us to visit and “experience India.”
“In the mid 1990’s, the economy was opening up,” Arun told us by way of introduction to what lay in store, “and my board suggested we look into some service businesses. So I began researching business hotels and that is how I came across some articles about timesharing. ‘Times Share or Times Scare – Fun Filled Holidays or Hassles’ was one of the headlines. There was the implication that timeshare operators were taking people for a ride.
“As this was before Google, I asked my communications person to find whatever articles he could about timesharing. They all seemed to tell the same story. Nobody said the product was bad; it was the operators who were bad. They were interested in the quick buck.
“I spoke to our chairman about this phenomenon, and compared it the way we did business. ‘Our strength is our reputation because it’s a promise to deliver,’ I told him. Soon afterwards, we sold our four business hotels which had made a lot of money for us, and we started Mahindra Holidays with $4 million and a million dollar market cap.
“It took us five years to break even,” he went on. “But today we have 43 properties, one in Innsbruck, two in Thailand, one in Dubai, and the rest throughout India. Goa was the first; it remains one of the most popular. We are still expanding. But we are not doing timesharing.”
What Club Mahindra does is provide a kind of vacation ownership, largely for an Indian clientel of pre-bought one-week stays for 25 years (!) at a range of extraordinary resorts with an emphasis on family activities. Although we are not Indian, had not purchased any kind of “ownership,” and were traveling without any other family members, Arun had arranged for us to “experience India” (as he put it) first hand beginning with a flight out of Mumbai to the ancient coastal city of Cochin in the state of Kerala, a narrow sliver of land at the southwest tip of India bordering on the Indian Ocean and the Malabar Coast.
A taxi was waiting for us as we exited the Cochin terminal, and off we went to our first Mahindra Holiday Resort in a place called Munnar. The journey along largely unpaved roads proved long and arduous. At one point when the road ran over a deep gorge, our driver stopped for a break. We decided we could use one too and followed him to a narrow, unstable walkway with a single rope along the edge. Before us, roaring streams were rushing down the sides of steep inclines yet somehow they were avoiding massive bursts of hydrangeas and lilies that forced their way through crevices between the rocks. We wondered if the scene were a harbinger of things to come.
By the time we arrived at Club Mahindra Lakeview Resort, it was in the depth of night. All was silent and dark save for starlight and the glow of lamplights fronting guesthouses spread out around the hilly property. The next morning we would see the buildings’ smooth stone exteriors, their peaked shingled roofs and tall French doors that opened to small terraces painted leaf green. But for the moment, our attention was fixed on the single guesthouse before us. Interior lights had been turned on, and a pair of women in silk saris were descending a stairway towards us. Then they were beside us with garlands of flowers. They draped strings of fragrant cardamom beads around our necks and drew a dot between our eyes. Such was our welcome, our first impression of Munnar.
We were then escorted to a second guesthouse and up a flight of stairs into a spacious apartment with huge windows that framed breathtaking views when seen in the light of day. But for the moment, it seemed enough to walk from room to room on gleaming wood floors, and take in the décor, contemporary furnishings accented by exquisite Indian accessories. One could move right in, we thought.
Our reverie was soon broken by a loud knock on the door. Opening it, we came face-to-face with a chef, resplendent in his whites, beaming in friendship, and accompanied by several uniformed servers carrying a variety of bags and packages which they set on the kitchen table. Then, with great efficiency, they proceeded to prepare an elaborate dinner containing some of the exotic delicacies we had begun to appreciate during our stay in Mumbai. It was nearly midnight, the end of a long day. But whatever fatigue we had felt moments before evaporated as we enjoyed a splendid repast in the private setting of our very own dining room at a table set with fine china, crystal and silver. It was the proverbial dinner “fit for a king.”
Before our trip to India, we’d never heard of Munnar. Now it is stamped in memory, permanently it would seem, along with the yearning to see it once more. The images from our first daylight vision repeated again and again throughout our stay: sweeping panoramas viewed from hilltop perspectives embracing rises and declines of grassy expanses like swaths of green velvet, glass-like lakes, meandering brooks, fulsome tea plantations, and in the far distance, a backdrop of mountains, ever present, maternal, sheltering, hard to leave. But our driver had arrived and was waiting to bring us to the next stop on our Indian itinerary. And so we headed southwards, from the mountains of Munnar down to the rain forests of Thekkady.
The broad, stone-fronted, multi-level guest house of Club Mahindra Thekkady is trimmed with teakwood; lush vines grow climb up its edifice. Much of the main floor is taken up with an expansive, light-flooded dining area with tables arranged according to group-size from banquets to the little corners for two. Directly outside, a spacious stone patio surrounds a free-form swimming pool continuously being refreshed by streams of water spilling out of a rocky wall. After the ride from Munnar, we could think of no better way to spend an afternoon than to sack out on one of the lounges overlooking the pool in a setting that could be a luxury resort in Palm Springs, California.
But such thoughts swiftly disappear in rain forest territory which is the actual heart of Club Mahindra Thekkady. Here open spaces give way to dense evergreen foliage, pine and palm trees stretch upwards for light, and a multitude of tropical plants crowd one against another in a perpetual battle for space.
Accommodations in the resort are primarily thatched-roof cottages planted throughout the forest, each one about ten feet off the ground and accessed through an iron stairway. Our cottage was charming and comfortable; we even enjoyed the nightly cacophony of sounds made by unknown creatures in the wild. But we did take heed of the warning to keep doors and windows closed lest one of the many curious monkeys in the vicinity might try to break in and pay us a call.
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College in the MALS program where they have taught for more than two decades..
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean.