Travel

Travel inspiration: relax and refuel at a chic oasis in India’s liveliest city

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Helen Bownass
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Hotel Where to Stay Mumbai

Stylist’s entertainment director Helen Bownass falls for the vibrant, fast-paced energy of Mumbai

I have never been anywhere like Mumbai. It’s loud. Colourful. Sometimes grubby. Crowded. Alive. There’s so much life everywhere. On the drive from the airport I see a man who has set up a barber’s chair on the pavement next to the park – he’s doing a good trade in beard trims. But Mumbai is also the financial and technological capital of a country that’s growing exponentially. It all makes for an electric vibe.

It’s only a 20-minute drive from the airport to Juhu, one of Mumbai’s buzziest and wealthiest neighbourhoods and home to some of Bollywood’s biggest stars. Juhu Beach lies on the shore of the Arabian Sea, where groups of children play games of cricket, people deep in conversation stroll in pairs and, in among the palm trees, you’ll find Soho House’s newest outpost.

Like other Soho House properties, it is low-key luxury chic as standard. But here it appears alongside swathes of sumptuous Indian furnishings; lampshades made from vintage saris, teak drinks cabinets that house crystal tumblers and sisal carpets. It’s a feast for the eyes.

The 11-storey building feels particularly intimate – my favourite floor is the top one, home to a relaxed restaurant bedecked with cane furniture and a rooftop pool framed by daybeds, gorgeous patterned tiles and verdant foliage. I suppose I should also point out that the gym, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach, is very impressive, but the outdoor Yoga Under The Stars class is far more my holiday vibe.

The perfect spot to rest weary legs after a day of exploring 

Particular praise must go to the breakfast dosas (giant, crisp, savoury pancakes) served with minty chutney, and the creamiest butter chicken for dinner. However, be aware that the local licensing laws mean a glass of wine is often the same price as a main meal. That said, a curry dish with sides only comes in at around £7.50.

There’s also much evening fun to be had. My competitive side came out screaming during a session of Bitchy Bingo in the library. For something more sedate, settle into the screening room or kick back on a sofa in the sweeping bar with a house gimlet (gin, jasmine, cardamom cordial and fresh basil) or a sweet and salty fresh lime and soda.

Juhu itself is nestled close to hip Bandra, which is replete with street art, Catholic churches (it was once under Portuguese rule) and a crowded shopping area along Hill Road where you can haggle for the best Bollywood-inspired earrings. First you have to get there, though.

This is how you cross a road in India: walk out into the high-speed traffic and hold your hand up – this will hopefully signal to the onslaught that they should stop. If you were vaguely considering hiring a car or taking a leisurely bike tour of the city, I’m here to tell you, as a witness to the chaos, absolutely do not do that. Happily, though, cabs are cheap. And Uber exists. And rickshaws, too.

While local delicacies tickle the tastebuds, Mumbai’s architecture provides a feast for the eyes

The oldest area of Mumbai is about an hour away (if the traffic is good) but is worth the trip for the architecture alone; a unique fusion of Victorian, Gothic and Art Deco. Pay particular attention to the Rajabai clock tower and the train station. 

You’ll also pass Antilia, a 27-storey building with three helipads and 600 members of staff that’s believed to be the world’s most expensive home. Jhaveri Contemporary is a brilliant gallery which shows work by artists with a South Asian connection, while the stone arch of The Gateway of India is Mumbai’s most iconic landmark and the entry point to the country for people travelling by sea. 

While you’re there, stop at the wedding cake-esque Taj Mahal Palace hotel (a victim of the Mumbai terrorist attack in 2008) for a coffee or beer. It’s where I discovered Bira 91 Blonde, a craft beer newly beloved across India.

From here, you can take an hour’s boat ride to the Elephanta Caves, a World Heritage Site where you can wander around a labyrinth of ancient caves carved out between AD 450 and AD 750. Don’t try to eat or drink anything sweet as you’re walking up to the caves – local monkeys will have it out of your hands in seconds.

The Gateway of India, Mumbai’s most iconic landmark

I was solo for some of my trip and was a little worried about walking around alone, but I found that as long as I had a plan, it was truly fine. I liked the Kala Ghoda area, where I stumbled across Kulture Shop (kultureshop.in), a friendly store that sells posters, notebooks and cards by local designers. The top floor of nearby Fab India (fabindia.com) has every cushion cover and throw I’ve ever dreamt of. Refuel with masala chai and almond cake at the Khala Ghoda Cafe (kgcafe.in) before heading to Nicobar (nicobar.com) for homeware and cotton dresses.

While shopping, I also stumbled across brilliant beauty brand Kama Ayurveda (kamaayurveda.com), where I indulged my Nineties emo teen self with Havan incense and my 2019 mindful self with rose and jasmine bath oil.

Unsurprisingly, excellent food is available throughout Mumbai. Panipuri – crispy chickpea spheres filled with potato and onion dipped in tamarind and jaggery – at Elco in Bandra (elcorestaurants.com) were delicious pops of savoury, sour crunchiness. I had the cheapest (£2) – and possibly tastiest – chicken kebab of all time at Bademiya (bademiya.com), with the thinnest roomali roti and an ice-cold Coke (a word on water: stick to bottled). A little more upmarket was the elegantly eclectic Pali Bhavan – where we became particularly obsessed with bhel, a puffed, crunchy rice dish – and Trishna, which is worth the trip for the butter garlic crab alone.

My appetite well and truly whetted, my trip to Mumbai ignited a desire to explore the rest of the country – just remind me to practise crossing the road Indian-style before I return.

Rooms at Soho House Mumbai start from £175 per night (£140 for members); sohohousemumbai.com