Luxury hotels seem to be cut from the same cloth. You are assigned a room by an employee at the main desk, who smiles fervently and wishes you a great stay. The ding of the elevator announces your floor. After walking down a carpeted hallway, you use your key card on a thick, wooden door emblazoned with your room number in brass letters. You enter a spacious room, tastefully decorated, equipped with everything you’d ever need. So what is that sets ITC Grand Chola apart? While the hotel honours its guests, there is an important entity they honour far more – the environment.
This palatial property, built as a tribute to one of the greatest empires of south India, is set in the beating heart of Chennai. If believers of the ITC brand are to be...well, believed, the hotel embodies the principles of ‘responsible luxury’ with panache. To many of us, the term may seem like a massive contrast, however “luxury without compromising the earth and sustainability without comprising luxury” is an apparent cornerstone of the ethos of this hotel chain. I arrived at the hotel, with my tiny blue suitcase in tow, and made it my mission to find out exactly what this seeming juxtaposition entailed and whether a hotel could really ‘have it all’ in today’s hyper competitive environment.
Once I was escorted to my room by my valet, I took my time to enjoy the sheer opulence. The room was elegant, and the pride of place was taken up by a very comfy-looking bed. The view from my window was spectacular – the stately façade of the hotel stood underneath the stark blue sky with a smattering of fluffy clouds. A small table at the foot of the bed had been decorated with so many chocolates, amongst other delicious treats, that my inner child rejoiced! On the same table lay a small placard with my name and picture welcoming me ‘home’. When my inner narcissist nudged me to pick it up for closer inspection, it turned out to be made of white chocolate! A glass full of chilled coconut water sat invitingly on the writing desk, along with a plate of delectable-looking cheeses. I found no sign of packaged water bottles; instead, there were at least four glass bottles with crystal clear water in them. Considering how polluting plastic is, this was an excellent start. Right next to them were some local treats – banana chips, murukku, almonds and cashews. As the stickers on the jars indicated, this was part of ITC’s ‘Local Love’ initiative, an effort to highlight the wonderful cuisine of the city.
Though I was relishing those banana chips, my hunger was far from being satiated. Mercifully, it was lunch time. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have gorged on those chips and left them for later. I was seated at the private dining area of Madras Pavilion, and boy did I feel like royalty. On the menu was a delicious sadya preparation from Kerala served on a banana leaf. The meal started with a glass of steaming rasam and papadam, and was followed by a variety of rice dishes served with thoran, avial, sambar and a delicious mango pickle that I couldn’t get enough of. My stomach was so full by the end of it that I couldn’t move. But there’s always room for dessert! And I’m so glad my stomach was able to accommodate that delicious dose of sweetness – payasam made with coconut milk served to me in a shot glass! While sitting at the table, I learned that a significant amount of edible ingredients at the kitchens in all of ITC properties are sourced locally, helping the environment and boosting the local economy. So, you can eat like a king, guilt-free!
What I really wanted after this luxuriously heavy meal was to take a nap, but something more informative was the order of the day. I was about to go on a tour of the property, with Chief Engineer Mr Narayanaswamy Ramamoorthy, where I would get all the answers about this mysterious term – responsible luxury. I was told that ITC’s environmentally sustainable measures began even before the construction of the present building started – rather than cutting trees within property limits, the team transplanted them around the premises; a sustainability measure that seems so simple, but one that many large companies overlook. Our first stop was the sewage treatment plant of the Grand Chola, which was a two-minute walk from the main entrance. Hundred per cent of the waste water of the hotel is treated through the plant and recycled for a multitude of uses such as horticulture, flushing and campus cleaning. The hotel also has areas for water harvesting, which help retain all the storm water catchment on-site. Along with these measures, even the fixtures inside the hotel were put in place to reduce water usage, which lowers the hotel’s water usage by as much as 35 per cent when compared to other buildings just like it! The vegetation around the hotel, which is grown vertically so that more plants can be potted in less space, is also low-maintenance to help minimise water usage. Water wastage is a big concern for the people at ITC Grand Chola and it was a privilege to see persistent effort to combat it at every step. I also visited their facility for in-house drinking water purification. Deemed SunyaAqua (pronounced shunya aqua), a path-breaking initiative of what they call zero-mile water. A mineral water bottle pollutes not just because it’s plastic. The process of shipping and delivering such bottles to hotels by fuel-guzzling trucks leaves a huge impact on the environment.Since this water is purified in- house, SunyaAqua travels exactly zero miles, thereby creating no carbon footprint whatsoever. This is the water inside every glass bottle in ITC Grand Chola. Their process does not just remove contaminants, but also infuses the water with the goodness of tulsi, fennel and cinnamon.
The hotel also uses solar energy and 20 per cent of their domestic hot water requirement is met through this. Considering the sheer size of this property – ITC Grand Chola has 600 rooms – this is no small feat! The electricity inside the hotel comes from their self-owned wind farm at Kundadam, near Coimbatore, the excess of which is contributed to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. The efficiency of this building has not gone unnoticed – ITC Grand Chola is the world’s largest LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum-rated hotel in the new constructions category, and they display this plaque proudly in the lobby. LEED certifies buildings based on reduced stress on the environment.
During the tour, I also visited the hotel’s boilers. Before you scoff and wonder how a boiler could be efficient, the hotel uses bio diesel, which is made from vegetable oil rather than more polluting fuel such as wood or coal. Even their heat pump is operated with the help of bio diesel, drastically reducing the amount of carbon dioxide that goes into the atmosphere while it’s being used.
The last stop of this extremely educational tour was their fully automatic organic waste converter, which converts organic waste into compost. So well-known is this machine that people from around the area come to the hotel for this compost, which Grand Chola gives away free of cost.
Tip If you wish to take an eco tour of the property to learn about all of ITC Grand Chola’s green initiatives, contact the duty manager.
As we went around the building, Mr Ramamoorthy explained that it wasn’t just its name that was inspired by the imperial Cholas, but its architecture as well. One of the longest ruling dynasties of south India, the Cholas were great patrons of the art and were responsible for sculpting some of the most incredible temples that are still extant. Just like south Indian temples built in the Dravidian architectural style, the hotel has four entrances named Vallavan (north), Sembiyan (east), Killi (south) and Chola (west). The central structure of the complex is domed. Though the interiors are modern, there are soft flower motifs sculpted on the walls, ceilings and pillars. These are inspired by the Brihadeeswara Temple of Thanjavur and were meticulously etched out by 4,000 artisans who came from nearby Mamallapuram. One of the most remarkable features of the building is the grand, sweeping staircase near the main lobby of the hotel, which boasts an elaborate wooden sculpture of two horse-drawn carriages on the wall. And it becomes even more remarkable at 6.00pm in the evenings every day when a short Bharatnatyam performance takes place here. Don’t miss it; all guests are welcome to attend!
I bid adieu to Mr Ramamoorthy and walked back to my room, truly amazed and inspired by all that this ITC property was doing for the sake of the environment. After a quick, energising nap, it was time for me to head to Avartana, which serves contemporary south Indian. How, you may ask, can south Indian cuisine be contemporary? I was about to find out just that. My stomach had still not recovered from my heavy lunch, and here I was, sitting at a restaurant where the spectacular lighting was making every dish in the hands of passing servers look so deliciously tempting. I was treated to course after course of modern takes on traditional south Indian dishes. There was the interesting asparagus, French beans and coconut stew; a truly palate cleansing sorbet; and sago and yoghurt, amongst other fascinating culinary offerings. Thank the gourmand gods that the portions were small! Last came the dessert, which was a show unto itself – mango and ginger jelly encased in white pudding surrounded by sugar threads. Yes, if the image that sentence is conjuring is that of an egg inside a nest, you are absolutely right! That sumptuous meal had me feeling pleasantly drowsy. So I made my way to my room to give in to the tempting call for sweet, sweet slumber.
I awoke well-rested the next morning and headed straight for the gym. If you have some time free, I recommend heading here since they have top-notch equipment and trainers to give you an amazing work out. You can also go for a dip in any one of their three swimming pools (there is also a pool for children and a Jacuzzi).
My itinerary had a spa-day in store for me and I couldn’t have been more excited. ITC’s Kaya Kalp spas are rooted in traditional Indian wellness philosophies and offer visitors exotic beauty treatments, relaxing massages and Ayurvedic rituals. The treatment that I was being offered was their 60-minute signature Kaya Kalp Massage. I entered the calming environment of the spa, ready to be pampered. My masseuse gave me three options for the blend of essential oils she would be using: Mysore sandalwood, to de-stress; lime and ginger, to detoxify; and eucalyptus and black pepper, to soothe tired muscles. Since I had been staying in a cocoon of luxury for two days and there were no aching and tired muscles to soothe, I chose to detoxify with the lime and ginger blend. With the adeptness of a practised hand, she massaged my body with the delicious-smelling oils and I didn’t even realise when the hour was up. She had to nudge me out of my peaceful conscious slumber and escort me back to the changing room. Though I was a little disappointed that the experience had flown by so fast, I was invigorated and ready to tackle the day ahead of me.
I decided to explore a little of the beautiful city of Chennai that day. I visited the Marina Beach, the longest urban beach in the country. I sat awhile on the sand, admiring the crashing waves on the shore and enjoying the pleasant breeze. Once the noisy crowd started distracting my senses, I decided to head to the next attraction on my agenda – the Government Museum. Established in 1851, this is the second oldest museum in India. The collection here, which included archaeological and numismatic exhibits, was vast and varied and I wish I had more time on my hands to explore the museum properly. Alas, that was not to be, but I made a mental note to make this lovely city a part of my travel plans again.
By late evening, I was back in the hotel. Rather than going back to my room, I decided to spend some time at ITC Grand Chola’s Tranquebar, a restaurant that derives its name from the famous Danish colony in Tamil Nadu now called Tharangambadi. I savoured a cocktail called Femme Fatale, a fruity blend of litchi, peach and pisco, along with some yummy chips and dip while I got some reading done. While you’re at ITC Grand Chola, you also have the option of visiting The Cheroot – Malt and Cigar Lounge, perfect for an evening of conversation. The delicious cocktails had only served to give me a voracious appetite. Little did I know that I was about to embark on the most splendid culinary journey yet. Gourmands, be warned. Before you head to the luxurious Royal Vega restaurant, make sure that your stomach has lots of room!
As soon as I entered through the doorway, I was swept away by the magnificence of this restau-rant. It looked nothing less than the dining room of a palace somewhere in Rajasthan during its heydays. I’ll be honest, I felt a tad under-dressed for a place like this; even the servers were wearing smart sherwanis! I was welcomed inside with an aarti and garlanded with a string of jasmine. As soon as I was seated on a chair that could easily pass for a small throne, I met up with Chef Varun Mohan who explained that the interiors of the restaurant are indeed inspired by the dining areas of ancient royalty, just as I had suspected. They call it an ‘honestly vegetarian restaurant’ and for good reason. None of the utensils here have ever been used for meat-based dishes. The staff here is also pure vegetarian. The menu, which changes every two months, is according to the prevailing rithu or season and is based on Ayurvedic principles (the items are listed by their traditional names, for instance dalika is lentils, so you might need a server’s help to translate). What was in store for me, instead, was the Ranjit Khasa, a three course meal served in silver thalis with a variety of dals and sabzis accompanied by an assortment of Indian breads. This allowed me to sample a little bit of everything, and my taste buds could not have been happier! I particularly relished the palak mungori karhi, a dish made up of fine-cut spinach, mung lentils and buttermilk karhi. Despite having eaten more than my small stature could handle, I just had to taste dessert. The Chandragupta malpua was just the right note to end the meal on – lighter-than-air barley pancakes sweetened with jaggery and honey, a recipe that apparently dates back to 300 BCE!
Back in my room after the much-too-hearty meal, I proceeded to check ITC’s ‘sleeep menu’, carefully selected food and beverage offerings that evidently enable a good night’s sleep. You can choose between buttermilk pancakes, soya tofu, oatmeal, and even a preparation of salmon. I picked the camomile herbal tea, and before I knew it, I was off to dreamland, just as the menu foretold! To my dismay, it was already time for me to head back to my home city.
In a jet-setting metropolis like Chennai, life is passing people by so quickly that they don’t often stop to smell the roses, much less worry about the state of their surroundings. So for ITC Grand Chola, located in the heart of this very environment, to take such strident and all-encompassing measures to protect the eco-system is admirable indeed. The thoughtful, long-term approach they have taken to protect the environment and bolster the local economy goes above and beyond what you would expect from a luxury hospitality firm. And with the rising threat of global warming and the very real need for all of us to do our bit in order to stave off its rapid advance, it is heartening to see places like the ITC Grand Chola stand up and lead the way.
The ‘Responsible’ Ethos of the ITC Chain
Every ITC hotel in India embodies the principle of ‘responsible luxury’ with élan. More than 58 per cent of electricity requirements at all ITC hotels are met through renewable sources such as wind and solar power. The properties have reduced water consumption thanks to in-house waste water treatment plants. All excess recycled water is shared with local municipal authorities. Fourty per cent of all kitchen produce is sourced locally. ITC Maurya (New Delhi) was the first hotel in the world to install a solar paraboloid concentrator on its roof. ITC Sonar (Kolkata) is the only hotel in the world to have earned carbon credits. ITC Green Centre, the ITC headquarters, has been certified with the highest LEED platinum green points accorded to any ‘green’ building in the world by the US Green Building Council. ITC hotels were also amongst the top three at the National Geographic World Legacy Awards in 2017 in the ‘earth changers’ category.
However, ITC is more than just its ‘green’ initiatives; the hotels beautifully mirror the culture of the region they are located in. The ‘Namaste Ambassadors’ at every hotel are donned in local saris. At sundown, each hotel hosts a local ritual that guests can participate in. Shopping trails highlight local weaves. The ‘Food Sherpa’ programme and ‘Kitchens of India’ food festivals aim to showcase regional culinary favourites. Heritage walks cover the cities’ landmarks, and art walks bring attention to local artists.
Another note-worthy initiative is ‘Welcom-Jawan’ that provides gainful employment to retired armed forces personnel. The hotels also have ease of access for differently-abled individuals.
- Solar power
- Wind power
- Waste water recycling and reusing
- Rainwater harvesting
- In-house water purification
- Use of local produce
- Local Love initiative
- World’s largest LEED platinum-rated hotel
When to go September to February
ITC Grand Chola
63, Mount Rd, Guindy Institutional Area
Little Mount, Guindy
Chennai - 600032
Tariff Service residence from ₹10,000 (approx); Suite from ₹20,000 (approx)
- Eco tour
- Kaya Kalp Spa
- Gym/ pool/ Jacuzzi
- Food Sherpa trails (local cuisine)
- Exploring Chennai
Air Nearest airport: Chennai airport is well-connected by domestic as well as international flights. A taxi to the hotel will cost between ₹700 and ₹800 for a drop
Rail Chennai’s three railway stations, Central, Egmore and Tambaram are well-connected to all major metros and cities in and outside the state. Autos, taxis and radio cabs are readily available outside the stations
Road Chennai is an excellent road hub for destinations within Tamil Nadu Bus Both private and state bus services are available from Chennai to other parts of the state.
Read more in the new Outlook Traveller Getaways Responsible Escapes