Whether it’s the rooms, the food or the spa, Ista Amritsar leaves you wanting more.

The first thing you notice as you enter the lobby at Ista Amritsar is a sense of subdued elegance and a faint elusive fragrance that pervades the entire hotel. That’s all you have time for; the next thing you know is being swamped by a flurry of good natured greetings, almost as if you are a long-lost friend. I staggered into this boutique hotel well past midnight, thanks to the vagaries of the Indian Railways, practically falling asleep on my feet. But Vibhu at the front desk didn’t seem to suffer from any such problem. With a cheerful ‘namaskar’, he quickly took the details for the register and guided me to my room, chatting all the while to prevent me from falling where I stood.

First impressions

Once inside the room, the first impression was of a huge mirror and pillows a mile high before I plunged into oblivion. Once I surfaced the next morning, I looked at the room service menu to order a morning cuppa, and was stunned to discover many varieties of tea. I opted for Earl Grey and waited to see what they would make of it. No tea bags, was the first thing I noticed as the tray arrived. Slices of lemon, honey, sachets of sugar and sweeteners and a couple of cookies accompanied the fat white pot. With my first sip, Ista went up in my estimation. Not everyone can brew that perfect cup of tea.

Comfortably placed on around three acres, Ista looms large on Amritsar’s horizon: not very difficult when most other buildings in the city don’t get beyond two-three storeys. With 248 rooms spread over 20 floors, Ista also houses two restaurants (Collage and Thai Chi), a spa manned by people trained in the Ananda in the Himalayas, a fitness centre, banquet halls and business centres. Nothing new, one might think but there are some differences.

For one, the entrance to the tented banquet hall is away from the hotel’s main entrance, keeping casual visitors away from resident guests. For another, they take security more seriously. Apart from the first and second floors, which are open to all, the other floors can be accessed only by swiping your bar-coded room key in the lift; which means that if your room is on the 12th floor, you can’t get off at any other floor.

Another feature that rather took my fancy is the inter-connecting suites on each floor. Ashwin Handa, the friendly GM, explains that it’s meant for large families. “It’s not easy to sandwich two kids between the parents,” he laughs, “So the parents can have the main room and the kids – or even older parents - the inter-connected on. This way you don’t have to worry about another room.”

Having seen my fill of the place, I wandered off to lunch at Collage. As a strict vegetarian, I’ve learnt to settle for dal-roti/chawal but Ista surprised me with a long list of veggie options: Indian and Continental. In Punjabi heartland, I decided to go Punjabi and opted for chole-kulcha and almost collapsed at the size of their portions. I ate valiantly but the pile didn’t seem to diminish. All the while a concerned Mohit hovered around asking, “Are you sure you’ve had enough?”

At dinner time, the interactive Teppenyaki and tempura counter was a big hit while the open wood-fired oven dished out delicious pizzas. I opted to go Continental this time, with a Mushroom and Saffron Risotto. Again huge portions but amazingly tasty.

Spa time

As evening fell, it was time to head to the spa. First you have to fill a form about your medical problems (if any) and the medication you are taking. The next is to sip a hibiscus-lemongrass tea while you discuss what might suit you. With Western and Ayurvedic treatments on offer, it is a difficult choice. I finally settle for an aromatherapy massage.

With soft music and a dimly lit room to lull your senses, the fragrance from the essential oils and the rhythmic kneading soothes and relaxes you with aches and pains being banished to dim memory. The one-hour treatment is completed by placing hot stones along the spine. After a shower to wash off, I’m out rejuvenated and fresh to discover it’s time for dinner.

But after that lunch and the massage, I didn’t feel like facing food. So I settle for a burnt plum and tomato soup and a sandwich. With chunks of plums and tomatoes it is both tasty and filling. I stare at the sandwich for a while hoping it’ll disappear on its own but no such luck. Again I have to deal with concerned staff who seem extremely worried at my lack of appetite.

A dreamless seven-hour sleep later, I feel like I can face a new day. First on the agenda was the abhyanga massage at the spa. Back to sipping the hibiscus-lemongrass tea. This time I face two masseurs: synchronised massage, they call it. In perfect tandem, they ease out the kinks and twitches left over from the aromatherapy massage for about an hour. Again a hot shower, with an Ayurvedic paste to wash off the oil, and I left feeling at peace with the world.

Lunch at Thai Chi again was a surprise; there were quite a few veggie dishes and I settled for Bean Curd Thai Chilli Sauce with Fried Rice. While the rice was nothing new, the bean curd was a revelation; the chilli sauce slipping in silently and igniting a mini fire.

All good things come to and end and I left at as unearthly an hour as I came in and finally figured out where that elusive fragrance was coming from: the huge ceramic jars were not just mere decoration; they were also used to spread the fragrance of aromatherapy. Ista, the hotel’s brochure informs you, means “most desirable” in Sanskrit. Thinking that a stay in Ista is certainly a most desirable experience, I head out back home.

Koong Phad Krapow

A recipe from ThaiChi

Serves 1

Ingredients

Tail Prawns 5

Mushroom (White) 50 gm

Onion 50 gm

Garlic cloves 5

Dry Red Chilli 3

Oyster Sauce 2 tbsp

Soya Sauce 2 tsp

Hot Basil Leaves 10

Oil 2 tbsp                       

Method:          

Heat oil in wok, add garlic and chillies. Add oyster sauce and soya sauce, cook a while. Add prawns and stir fry; add onions and mushrooms, cook further. When prawn is just done, add basil leaves and toss in wok well.

Getting There

By Air: The Rajasansi airport, about 11 km from town, is connected by domestic flights to Delhi, Srinagar and Chandigarh.

By Train: Amritsar is connected by direct trains to major Indian cities like Delhi, Jammu, Mumbai, Nagpur, Calcutta and Puri.

By Road: From Chandigarh (235 Km), Delhi (450 Km). Buses available from Shimla, Kulu, Manali, Dharamshala and Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh, Dehradun and Rishikesh in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu.

Places to visit

Golden Temple

Wagah Border

Jallianwala Bagh

Where it is

Ista Amritsar

Adjoining Alpha One City Center

MBM Farms, G. T. Road

Amritsar, Punjab - 143001

Tel : 0183- 2708888

Fax: 0183- 2700186

E-mail: sales@istaamritsar.com