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A taste of paradise

Very rarely does a really crack team come together to open a new hotel.

It happened in 1978 when the Taj group opened its first Delhi hotel on Man Singh Road, packing it with the best Taj employees from all over the country.


It happened two decades later when the Oberois opened Raj Vilas, the first Vilas property in Jaipur when Vikram Oberoi led a team of the group’s finest and transformed the paradigm for resort hotels in India forever.


   And, it happened in Mumbai in 2007, when the Four Seasons opened. If you have been to the hotel, you will know that it is no architectural marvel, and nor is it situated in a particularly scenic spot. But, when it opened, and for some years after that, it was the best-run hotel in Mumbai, and, perhaps, in any Indian city.


   This was almost entirely down to the people who slaved to make the hotel a success. The team was led by Armando Kraenzlin with Uday Rao as the Hotel Manager. It included brilliant chefs, a great F&B Manager and was marked by an attention to detail that has never been bettered in Mumbai.


   Most of the people who opened the hotel came from the Four Seasons in the Maldives. Called Kuda Huraa, it was one of the first truly luxurious hotels to open in that country. The island belonged to BS Ong, the Singapore Chinese billionaire who had been an early advocate of tourism in the Maldives. When the Four Seasons took it over, Armando Kraenzlin became General Manager and created what was, at that time, the best hotel in the Maldives.


   Armando was then plucked from the Maldives by the Four Seasons management and dispatched to Mumbai to open the first Four Seasons in India. He brought his people with him. In his heart though, I think he always missed the Maldives and he was particularly sorry to miss the  opening of the second Four Seasons in the Maldives, called Landaa Giraavaru (or LG for short), a hotel he had spent a long time conceiving of.


   LG opened without Armando and went on to eclipse Kuda Huraa, becoming an even bigger success. But by then, the Four Seasons Mumbai with its excellent food and its flawless service was also a huge success.


   After a couple of years though, Armando decided he wanted to go back to the Maldives. He said he missed the beautiful islands (“like paradise” he would say) which was certainly true. But he may have also guessed that nothing much would come of Four Seasons’ ambitious plans for expansion in India: there has been just one more opening, a decade or so later, in Bengaluru and that has caused only the tiniest of ripples.


   Armando and I have kept in regular touch but though I go to the Maldives so often, I had never been to any of his hotels. My son went to LG for his honeymoon and came back raving about it. Meanwhile, Armando became an even bigger deal within the Four Seasons system: he now oversees the Bali hotels and has just been put back in overall charge of the Mumbai hotel.


   Finally, this year, Armando and I agreed that it had been too long and so, over 15 years after we first met, my wife and I went to Armando’s Four Seasons properties in the Maldives, first LG and then Kuda Huraa.


"I stayed five days at LG and when I left for Kuda Huraa I had the sense that I could have spent another week there and still not discovered all of the resort’s treasures and secrets."

   Though LG has recently been renovated, its basic structure still has enough of the old Maldives—a focus on the lagoon and a massive beach—to please old-timers like myself who hate so many of the new concrete cookie-cutter monstrosities that have come up all over the Maldives. There are manta rays in the sea, frisky dolphins and baby sharks in the waters and enough sea-life to give you a real sense of the Maldives.


   Our stay was fantastic, of course; with Armando in charge I would have expected nothing less. We had a lagoon villa which offered panoramic views of first, the clear blue waters of the lagoon and then, the inky choppiness of the Indian Ocean that lay beyond. The room was extraordinarily comfortable and the service was impeccable.


   But, there was much more. A few years ago, Armando entered into an agreement with Gaetano Trovato, who runs a two Michelin star restaurant near Sienna in Tuscany. Chef Trovato would come to LG twice a year and would send chefs to cook in the Maldives for the rest of the year. Further, staff from the Four Seasons LG (sommeliers, chefs, service people) would go regularly to Tuscany and train at his restaurant.


   The result, I reckon, is the best Italian restaurant in the Maldives with real Italian food (as distinct from hotel-style Italian cuisine) served by the side of the lagoon. I was fortunate to go when Chef Trovato was cooking, but even after he had left, the food was outstanding. So outstanding, in fact, that I had to drag myself away to try the hotel’s many other excellent restaurants.


   Armando is constantly expanding the Four Seasons network in the Maldives. One evening he took us to the FS Private Island, a ten minute boat ride from LG which has just seven luxurious independent villas, its own yacht and gourmet cuisine cooked by chefs from LG. You have to book the whole island and though Armando is famously discreet, I’ve read about the kind of people who have booked it out, from Justin Bieber to assorted Indian billionaires.


   A new Four Seasons is also planned on an uninhabited island in another atoll and one day, my wife and I took a boat and went there for a picnic to admire the island’s  natural beauty (construction is yet to begin) and what is, perhaps, the most spectacular reef in the Maldives. The LG chefs packed what passes for a picnic in the world of the Four Seasons (egg and white truffle sandwiches, champagne, etc.) and we had a relaxed day by the sea.


   Then, there is the Four Season Explorer, a luxury cruiser owned by the hotel (it is a real ship: it can go all the way to Singapore), which guests who are tired of the land can use to tour the seas for a few days.


   It was pretty much as Armando had described it: a taste of paradise.  But there were little touches that most guests might miss. A high proportion of the staff are Indian (many from the Mumbai property) and there are also more Maldivians than you might expect, performing skilled jobs. I asked around and discovered that many years ago, Armando and Rajan Vishwanathan, his Director of People and Culture, started the tradition of travelling to remote islands in the Maldives and hiring young people. Many of those people have grown so much that they now do the jobs that other Maldives hotels hire expatriates to do. The best steak I had was at the hotel’s teppan grill, which is run by a gifted, young, Maldivian chef, who had been recruited by Armando directly from his island.


   I stayed five days at LG and when I left for Kuda Huraa (which is also lovely, by the way, and offers exceptional value) I had the sense that I could have spent another week there and still not discovered all of the resort’s treasures and secrets.


   Kaul Wachtveitl, the legendary former General Manager of the Oriental, once told me that Armando (who was once Kurt’s deputy) was the only man who could succeed him.


   Well, what can one say? The Oriental’s loss is the Maldives' gain!



Posted On: 09 Dec 2022 02:10 PM
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