A relic of the Raj - Kolkata’s iconic Fairlawn Hotel changes hands

Adam Nebbs
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A relic of the Raj - Kolkata’s iconic Fairlawn Hotel changes hands

I haven’t been to Kolkata, or Calcutta as it was then, since the 1980s, but I can remember writing aerogrammes and reading the obligatory City of Joy (1985) over cold beers on the garden terrace at the Fairlawn Hotel.

Although I was staying in one of the more “backpacker-cred” dives on Sudder Street, the comparatively expensive Fairlawn was a pleasant escape from the sometimes over­whelming world outside.

Known even then as “a relic of the Raj”, the Fairlawn was owned and run by the eccentric, 60-something memsahib Violet Smith. She had inherited the hotel in 1962 from her Armenian mother, Rosie Smith (née Sarkies), who had bought it from two English women in 1936. Violet passed away in 2014, aged 94 and still greeting guests, whereupon her daughter, Jennifer Fowler, took over.

In its heyday, the Fairlawn hosted many well-known guests. The recently deceased actor Shashi Kapoor honey­mooned at the hotel in 1958, with British actress Jennifer Kendal, whose more famous sister, Felicity, often also stayed there with the rest of the Kendal family of thespians.

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Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, whose 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah was loosely based on and starred the Kendals, stayed too, as did City of Joy author Dominique Lapierre. The cast and crew for its 1992 film version, including Patrick Swayze, also checked in. Other names in the guestbook include Eric Newby, Julie Christie, Tom Stoppard, Michael Palin, Günter Grass and Sting.

Last month, Fowler finalised the sale of the hotel, and handed over the keys to Diamond Oberoi, a member of the upmarket Oberoi Hotels & Resorts family. His company, Elgin Hotels, operates four colonial-style heritage properties in northern West Bengal and Sikkim. He reportedly plans renovations that will “take period hospitality to another level”, and while it’s sad to see the end of an era, the old place was apparently well past its prime.

For now, though, the website, fairlawnhotel.com, is still prom­ising the old “colonial charm and decor and a potpourri of styles”, and accepting reservations until March next year.

Cathay Dragon flies from Hong Kong to Kolkata six days a week.

Eastern approaches

The grand hotels of Europe are well known and frequently written about. The grand resort hotels of Japan are less familiar, at least outside the East Asian country.

Built between the late 19th century and the 1930s to accommodate some of the earliest foreign tourists, a half-dozen surviving examples are featured in a handsome and well-researched new book called Welcoming the West: Japan’s Grand Resort Hotels, by Andrea P. Leers.

These intriguing architectural hybrids include the Nara Hotel, Fujiya Hotel, Fuji View, Biwako, Gamagori and Nikko Kanaya.

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All six are located on the main island of Honshu, and are still open for business, recalling a bygone age when they provided “glamorous settings in which worldly Japanese and curious Westerners could mingle” against an exotic backdrop of “Beaux Arts grandeur and Japanese temple and shrine motifs”.

You can buy the book, and preview much of its content, at jovis.de/en.

Cape escape

If you are planning to visit Koh Samui this summer, take a look at the new 22-villa Cape Fahn Hotel. It is not due to open until June, and has so far received little media coverage, but with an accessible private island location just off the northeast coast, and some impressive imagery on its website, it looks like one of the most interesting Thai resort launches of the year.

Reservations should be open soon at capefahnhotel.com.

Deal of the week

TLX Travel’s two-night Bangkok promotion runs until October and starts from HK$2,500 per person (twin share) for a stay at the Lit Bangkok Hotel. Further choices include the Banyan Tree (from HK$3,200), the Shangri-La (from HK$3,300) and the Grand Hyatt Erawan (from HK$3,400).

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These prices, which are subject to peak-season surcharges, include flights with Cathay Pacific and daily breakfast.

For more hotels, package details and reservations, visit tlxtravel.com.

This article A relic of the Raj - Kolkata’s iconic Fairlawn Hotel changes hands first appeared on South China Morning Post

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