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India embraces eco-luxury with new hotel

Is there such a thing as an environmentally friendly, 5-star behemoth of a hotel in the heart of a city? Probably not. The ITC Royal Gardenia in Bengaluru, India, knows this, carefully choosing the term ‘Responsible Luxury’ to describe the ethos of their 55m high, 292-room citadel.

It’s a slightly awkward term, and one that immediately raises questions about the marriage of conscience and opulence: surely the allure of luxury hotels is that you can abdicate responsibility for a short time, in exchange for lots of money? I drain my cocktail and turn from the private balcony to share this epiphany with my dinner guest. He’s not listening. Eyes closed, mouth open, he’s slowly disappearing into the kneading folds of our own personal massage chair.

The Royal Gardenia is the latest luxury hotel from the ITC group, a green showcase from a company that manufactures cigarettes, paper and packaging to name but a few, yet prides itself on being ‘carbon positive, water positive and solid waste recycling positive.’ The hotel building has been carefully designed to aid a lesser environmental impact, and from an engineering point of view (always just round the corner from my own point of view, sadly) it seems pretty impressive.

The main entrance lobby is a huge open hall, filled with natural light and cooled by gentle wind, which cancels the need for air conditioning and reduces the need for electric light, as well as creating a bright and airy ambience too often choked out in business hotels.

Elsewhere, bulbs are CFLs or LEDs, and the air conditioning contains no climate-clogging CFCs or HCFCs, and by monitoring temperature has achieved a 50 per cent reduction in the energy it uses for chilling air. The glass in the windows reflects infra-red radiation to reduce the need for indoor cooling, all paints and carpets are low-VOC (volatile organic compounds), meaning they contain less of the toxic gases that most finishings emit into the air for years after application, and indoor air quality is good.

Every inch of the ground is covered for rainwater harvesting, water is recycled through toilets and drip irrigation systems and most motors and machineries are energy efficient (save the gym machines, ironically). The result of all this is that the hotel’s energy consumption is 40 per cent lower than the benchmark, and the water consumption has been reduced by 45 per cent. So far, so commendable.

But what of the experience?

Well, they’ve got the luxury sorted. The rooms are more like suites, huge and tastefully designed, and room service has been scrapped in favour of a personal butler (ours a young woman in a modified tux) who will bring you moist, perfect dark chocolate tart with praline mousse at 2am. Perhaps you’d like to have it in a bubble bath, looking out through the plate glass wall onto the lit-up swimming pool, or nestled in mountains of pillows in the magnificent, organic-cotton-coated bed.

Still under construction is the Presidential Suite, a 5040sq ft, split-level apartment including private infinity pool, terraces and helipad. If you’re just a voter (as opposed to a votee) you can relax in the spa or general swimming pool, two stories up and overlooked by one of Bangalore’s beautiful signature Banyan trees.

You might want to skip the ‘Foot Hydrotherapy’ pool, though, which feels a bit like hobbling on pebbly Brighton beach, and head straight for the bar to swig a pineapple and cardamom martini. This low-lit lounge specialises in whiskies - a unique and welcome concept to the uninspiring Bangalore bar scene – and even has a ‘Malt Vault’ and tiny corner museum, replete with a map of Scotland and some tartan playing cards. Unfortunately, not even this little highland nugget can escape the city’s ridiculous 11pm curfew.

The trendy green movement in the UK has rooted itself in the food market, allowing lots of quaffing of organic cappuccinos to assuage your decidedly non-organic hangover. Although there’s a strong organic food movement in India, it’s yet to cross (back) over into the mainstream and your choice as a consumer is far more limited.

Perhaps sourcing is a challenge when catering to such a large audience as this, but the hotel menu is noticeably lacking in organic, fair trade or even free-range ingredients, and if ITC wants to be a green trailblazer then it has the clout to really affect change in the Indian food market. If ITC were to demand organic jam for its 5-star hotel, for example, as opposed to serving a brand it manufactures itself, you can bet it will be only a matter of weeks before it’s available. It seems a little incongruous to wrap yourself in organic cotton at night, but scoff down pesticides and additives in the morning.

That aside, you can look forward to your dinner at signature restaurant Kebabs and Kurries (alliteration deliberate), where the chefs coax delicious Indian cuisine out of deep tandoor ovens and hissing, flame-flashed pans, orchestrated behind a glass wall so you can watch the spectacle. We had the Murgh Khush Purdah, boneless chicken cured in star anise and pomegranate and baked in a pot sealed with a lid of dough, broken open in a cloud of aroma at your table. It goes well with the soft baby cloves of roasted garlic in the homemade chutneys, and soft, freshly-baked naan. As part of the hotel’s waste management project, all used cooking oil is rather sweetly donated to the railways to fuel a pilot scheme seeking to replace diesel.

Meanwhile when ITC’s windmill farm outside the city becomes operational, powering both the Royal Gardenia and the group’s other Bangalorean hote, the hotel's green credetials will get a massive boost. Aside from maintenance costs, the the power will be completely free... and herein lies the secret. Eco pays – as well it should, if we need the markets to shift to a more sustainable energy paradigm. The ‘Green Luxury’ label creates an identity for the Royal Gardenia that makes it stand out amongst the glitter of all the other 5-star hotels. The chief engineer told me that even the building and installation costs weren’t particularly elevated, as companies are so keen to jump on the eco bandwagon that they provided their constituent parts at reduced cost.

So go stay at the ITC Royal Gardenia, enjoy yourself, and demand that they do more. If you can rally the concern from the sweet, pliant depths of the massage chair.

Travel facts

British Airways offer return flights from London Heathrow to Bangalore from £442 per person based on January 2010 departures (includes all UK taxes).

For reservations visit ba.com or call 0844 493 0787. Rates start from £155 per night (excluding tax) including breakfast and happy hour. www.itcwelcomgroup.in/itcroyalgardenia. The address is No.1, Residency Road, Bengaluru. 560 001, India.