There's Another Taj Mahal to Visit In India

The longstanding rumor about the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower goes something like this: A very wealthy man was once denied a room at a premier hotel in the city formerly known as Bombay. Instead of getting angry, the man got even by building his own hotel, an enormous palace for Indians, British and everyone else.

The Taj neither confirms nor denies the rumor. It's certainly good for business if people believe this romantic tale of "take that!" triumph over rejection. But one fact is undeniable: The hotel became and remains the place to stay in Mumbai.

Sure, there are other luxurious hotels, including a few other Tajs; plus the city's most recent addition of a Four Seasons. But at the end of the day, the best place to lay weary heads on extra-high-thread-count sheets is here.

"I've stayed at the Oberoi and the Intercontinental," said Tony Schulp, one of the many business travelers, mainly from the United States and United Kingdom, who stay at the hotel. "But I much prefer this place. It's busier and you always meet people."

And not just any people. Famous People. Celebrities.

Forget Hollywood, New York and Vegas. If you have ever wanted to see a celebrity up close, head to Mumbai.

Last fall, this reporter found herself working out in the hotel gym next to Mick Jagger, who was on the elliptical machine just a few feet away. Madonna is apparently not as accessible; the Material Girl had enough clout to close the hotel's gym for her private afternoon workouts. When Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt filmed last year's "A Mighty Heart" in India, they were swarmed by paparazzi outside, but retreated each night to the Taj.

Since Jamsetji N. Tata opened the hotel in 1903, it has drawn some of the most famous people in history, including former President Bill Clinton, Jacqueline Onassis, Margaret Thatcher, George Bernard Shaw and Prince Charles. Today, the hotel is part of the Tata Group, whose annual revenues are over $11 billion.

Unlike other must-see cities around the globe full of tourist attractions, Mumbai's list of attractions is short. Most everyone sees the Gateway of India monument and its neighbor, the Taj. The Taj actually arrived about 20 years before the Gateway and was the landmark for ships entering the harbor.

The hallways of the Palace look like an art museum.
Karen Russo/ABC

Outside the Taj, guests are practically accosted by men selling enormous balloons and the endless honking of taxis is stressful enough to require a large glass of whiskey (yes, the ice has been filtered for foreigners).

But inside the hotel is a sanctuary from the chaos, where daily room rates start at about $300.

Antiques, sculptures and paintings fill the walls and halls. Behind the front desk on the Tower side is an enormous painting by M.F. Husain, one of India's most famous artists.

"It's not publicized as so, but it's almost like an art gallery," said Kirti Dhingra, the hotel's public relations manager.

"We're Bill Murray in 'Lost in Translation,' running around this big hotel and being really far away from home," said Christian Colson, 39, a film producer who was in town making the Mumbai-based movie "Slum Dog Millionaire."

Colson and a colleague were sitting on the porch next to the palm-lined pool, checking e-mail on their laptops as fans whirled quietly overhead.

Some of the Mumbai's finest restaurants like Indigo, Henry Tham and Trishna are within walking distance of the hotel. But really, there is no need to leave the air-conditioned cocoon of calm when some of the city's best meals are offered inside.

Hermant Oberoi has been the grand executive chef at the Taj for more than 20 years, helping to transform the Taj from a hotel to an "it" spot for Mumbaikers wanting an evening out. In many places, people leave hotels for a good meal, in Mumbai, locals flood the place.

Lion statue at the Palace swimming pool
Karen Russo/ABC

At Wasabi, a sushi restaurant, fish is flown in twice weekly from Japan's largest fish market. Famous customers — many actors and actresses from Bollywood — have their own chopsticks waiting for them upon arrival.

And as the financial capital of India's wealth has grown, so has the selection of international stores inside the hotel, which now includes Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Burberry and Ermenegildo Zegna.