I am in the middle of a gorgeous custard apple orchard, surrounded by sitaphal trees for as far as I can see. The knobbly green fruits are hanging heavily on so many branches like Christmas tree decorations in camouflage. We have already seen other parts of the orchard where the pomegranates are in bloom. And now it’s time for our farmer’s picnic. The Dhumal family women are serving a simple and delectable Maharashtrian meal for us right in the middle of two rows of custard apple trees.
They have spread out a quilt made of natural fertiliser sacks and I settle on it with my family and am handed a thali. On it is a bowl of pithle, jowar bhakri, thecha, sesame chutney, a dry peanut powder and mango pickle. It tastes like a meal from heaven. The thecha is non-spicy and flavourful, the pithle tastes just right with the soft, nutritious bhakri, the chutney is delicious. We end with freshly picked and cut guava sprinkled with salt and chillie powder.
For dessert we go a small distance away to the fig orchard, walking past fields of cabbages and cauliflowers who seem to be smiling up at the sun through their bouquet of blueish-green leaves. Then suddenly we are in the midst of a forest of figs – a dream come true for a fig lover like me. Initially I think they are not ripe because they are green on the outside unlike the aubergine-coloured figs sold in the Mumbai markets. But then I am handed one and I break it open and it is bright red inside and when I put it in my mouth it is sweet and a tiny bit sour and soft and juicy. It hits just the right note as a dessert after the delicious meal we have just had. We keep walking around through the trees, picking figs and feasting on them.
I have my brother Sandeep Talaulicar to thank for this divine experience because this fruit farm picnic was organised by Jakson Inns, Phaltan, Maharashtra, a hotel he takes care of, where we are holidaying-away the end of 2020 and ushering in a new year. I can’t think of a more perfect way to spend the last day of this crazy pandemic year and there could not have been a more delicious last lunch of the year.
Since Jakson Inns was born seven years ago, my family has treated it like our personal getaway space. My kids, Tavish and Tarini were eleven and eight years old during their first visit. They are now seventeen and fourteen and have a treasure trove of wonderful memories created here. Picnics by the river, visits to the windmills, milking cows, baking croissants and cakes with the bakery chef and so much more. One of Tarini’s most precious memories has to be when a couple of years ago she was the guest of honour at the swimming pool inauguration. Dressed in her swimsuit, she cut the ribbon and then jumped into the water and swam a length across the brand-new pool. All the hotel’s staff were there clapping her on.
Situated next to the Phaltan-Lonand highway, and yet somehow cut off and surrounded by fields on the other three sides of the property, Jakson is a business hotel but feels like a retreat space. There is a feeling of warmth and welcome when you step in and everywhere you encounter friendly faces who are very willing to help you, or leave you alone if that’s what you prefer.
I remember one time I felt utterly looked after was when I decided to do some yoga on the Papaya lawn one late morning. The sun was already shining hotly when I lay down on my mat. There was no one around so it was a pleasant surprise when a wall fan turned on and dispelled any discomfort I felt from the heat of the day. I didn’t even see who this thoughtful member of the staff was, so he or she did not get thanked for this thoughtful gesture.
But I did mention it to Sandeep because it’s just the kind of thing he would notice and do. He has this quality of being sensitive to others’ needs, being kind and generous to the point of being a year-round Santa Claus, that makes him stand out in our family and in any group, he finds himself in. I guess that he trains his employees to also cultivate this thoughtfulness and kindness.
Sandeep was interested in everything to do with hotels right from childhood. As kids when we used to visit our maternal grandparents in Panjim, Goa, Sandeep would accompany Bhau (Purxotoma Ramnata Quenim), our grandfather on his daily rounds in Hotel Mandovi. Built in the early 1950s it stood looking out at the Mandovi River, an iconic Art Deco structure, and Goa’s first hotel. It has a very special place in the hearts of many locals and guests from all over the world who have stayed here or come for a party or an outstanding Goan-Portuguese meal at the restaurant.
On the daily inspection rounds, Sandeep would make his own list to present to Bhau, consisting of all the things he had noticed that housekeeping or the restaurant staff may have missed. “I loved going to Bhau’s office and cleaning it for him, making sure his desk was spic and span. I listened intently when he discussed menus for banquets,” recollects Sandeep. His love affair with hotels started right there as a little boy. Some years later Sandeep was hooked to the television series “Hotel” based on the book by Arthur Hailey. He used to borrow the videotapes and watch them over and over again.
After studying hotel management in Mumbai, Austria and the U.S. Sandeep began his own journey with hotels, beginning with the Holiday Inn as a trainee manager in Chicago and then rising through the ranks in a few years to oversee hotels across North and South America and Canada for the Inter-Continental Hotels and Resorts. He spent a couple of years as the Resident Director of the Melia Cancun in Mexico, later moving to the Dominican Republic with another classy hotel, before returning to India to join the Oberoi group. It was fun to have a brother who lived in some of the most beautiful hotels of the world. In India it was as General Manager of the Wildflower Hall in Mashobra and then Amar Vilas in Agra – both hotels with beautiful views. One in the Himalayas and the other looking out at the Taj Mahal.
My family and I managed to visit Sandeep in most of the places he was stationed at. I have great memories of being pampered in various hotels. My room would always have snacks and treats that were personalised for me. Delectable selections of dark chocolate to binge on, beautiful flower arrangements, my favourite fruit, a luxurious bath robe and so on. I remember the brightly coloured mocktails and yummy beach nibbles delivered to my deckchair on the beach in Cancun. And all the special treatment at the hotel boutiques and spas.
But the best part of the hotel experience till date has been the tours of the hotels – seeing what happens behind the doors that are usually closed to guests. Walking around the kitchen, the laundry, the bakery; taking the service elevators and visiting the staff canteen and meeting all the staff whom Sandeep gathers around us to show us how precious his hotel family is to him – he seems to know each team member personally and he freely praises and thanks them. Especially the cleaners, junior cooks, the trainees and others who do not often get singled out and made much of because they are rarely seen by hotel guests.
In 2005 when Sandeep quit his hotel job declaring that never again would he wear a suit, we were amused and waited to hear what the next project would be. I felt that part of the reason behind this move was to live at home in Mumbai with our parents who were now elderly and going through multiple health challenges. It was a relief that at least one of us three siblings were in-house, living with them. But it was also because he felt that he now wanted to plant the seeds of his dream hotel – the hotels he had worked in so far were takers and he now wanted to create a place which gave back more than it took, which had a sensitive heart and a social conscience and which included and could help the locals and others who would join the team.
When Jakson Inns came into being several years later in 2014 (during which time Sandeep and a friend started a successful Chinese take away called Mr Chow’s in Mumbai) it may not have been the mini boutique upscale resort hotel of his dreams which would have been in Goa, but it was a space in which to plant his ideas and see how they bore fruit.
Jakson Inns employs people of all sorts of abilities and talents. Amongst the employees are people who are hard of hearing, who have problems with vision and speech, people from disadvantaged communities who find it difficult to get a job because mainstream society discriminates against them. The hotel has also given jobs to women in difficult situations. There is a feeling of family and employees get a chance to express themselves in many ways. Apart from a motivating environment at work, interested folks can also participate in the hotel’s social initiatives by volunteering time at a local school or in a cleanliness or tree planting drive. The hotel also has a day care facility for employees’ children.
All of the hotel produce is sourced within a 100 km radius, with local farmers around the property supplying the hotel with the freshest of fruit, vegetables and grain. Many things are grown on the hotel property too. In fact, guests are encouraged to walk around the garden and pick their choice of greens for salad or a vegetable dish out of whatever is growing at the time.
Jakson Inns is trying hard not to burden Mother Earth. It is India’s first platinum rated green hotel in its category. All waste is segregated and recycled. Water waste gets treated, recycled and used in the flush and the garden. Using rain water harvesting, the well that used to dry up every six months no longer dries up. They now only need to call in a water tanker in May as opposed to six months of the year in the early years. The hotel uses 85% solar energy and they are confident of being independent in terms of the government power grid in 2022. They use energy efficient systems and appliances.
Apart from all the good that is happening in-house, Jakson Inns also contributes beyond its boundaries by supporting a local school for girls and another for the children of migrant workers. They have built toilets and a new wing and helped with the curriculum for the girl’s school. In the school for migrants they helped with infrastructure, donated computers and also provided teaching help.
In case this is beginning to sound like with so much focus on doing good Jakson Inns may be falling short where it comes to all the things a hotel guest expects… The truth is, the hotel looks after you in a way that far exceeds all expectations. It ticks all the boxes that a good business hotel does – plush rooms, a great restaurant – Green Bean, the Fulltoon Bar, the Maratha banquet hall, a board room, spa, gym and so on. If you are there for work and only remain in the hotel then too I’m sure you will have an enjoyable experience – but if you do want to go out, the hotel goes out of its way to help you to have a great time. They have curated a variety of experiences for guests who want to get to know this beautiful part of Maharashtra better.
History lovers will enjoy the Phaltan Rajwada, belonging to the Nimbalkars who happen to be the in-laws of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj through his first wife, Sai Bai. The beautiful, intricately carved palace with its ornate furniture and rows of chandeliers easily makes you feel like you have time travelled back over a hundred years at least. For the spiritual traveller there are many really old and interesting temples. Many guests with young children enjoy visiting local farms to ride the tractor, milk a cow, cuddle chicks and baby goats, pick fresh fruit and vegetables…
My daughter’s must-do thing in every Phaltan visit is to go to the Pusegaon windmills for a picnic. The drive is about an hour long through some very pretty hilly landscape and then suddenly you feel you have crossed over into a bizarre territory of stark rolling brown hills with just a few shrubs and these gigantic windmills studded all over them. We have a spot where we like to stop and walk around before we settle on some rocks to drink tea and enjoy the delights in the picnic basket.
And this time, we spent other late afternoons sitting on the Jakson lawn, on a large mat – each of us with our own books and things to do in our spot under the afternoon sun. We would be served tea, dark chocolate cookies and Christmas cake there. And we sat until after the sun had set, just chatting as the dusk morphed into darkness and then we would pick up everything and head indoors.
On our last evening in Phaltan, instead of tea on the lawn, we decided to just go for a drive and stop the car wherever it took our fancy and have a tea and vada pau party right there in some picturesque field. This turned out to be a piece of land with a patchwork of crops, sugarcane in one area, jowar in another. There were mango and tamarind trees. There was a well with a host of abandoned weaver bird nests snaking across it on a branch. There was a raised mound of land on which we spread out our mat and settled down to enjoy our chai and vada pau and watched as the sun set, colouring the clouds golden and then pink and orange; all playing hide and seek with the fading blue sky.