March 31, 2009

A conversation with the Amanbagh’s Robyn Bickford

We recently met up with Robyn Bickford at the Amanbagh, one of our preferred luxury resorts in Rajasthan, India. She and her husband, Manav, are the renowned general managers of this exquisite property.

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Q: We love the Amanbagh and always try to include it in the tours we design for our clients visiting India. What do you think makes it such a special place?

A: A guest said to me recently, “Do you know how powerful the energy lines are that run through the area where Amanbagh is situated? They are the most powerful and positive that I have ever felt.” I totally agree with him. Amanbagh, and the area around the resort, is more than beautiful architecture, caring staff and honest food—it is difficult to quantify as it is more intrinsic rather than visual. I describe it as “magical.”

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Q: Gallivanter’s Guide recently named you and your husband “General Managers of the Year.” In the same issue, Amanbagh was named “Best Hotel of the Year.” Congratulations. How did you get started in the industry? How would you summarize your hospitality philosophy?

A: The Gallivanter’s Guide awards were a wonderful, positive surprise to start 2009. Amanbagh was named the “Best Hotel in India” earlier in 2008 by Gallivanter’s Guide as well.

Our start with Amanresorts was a very serendipitous happening and is very recent as we were appointed GMs at Amanbagh in October 2007. I was a diplomat with the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 27 years with postings in Russia, China, Greece, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. We then set up our own lodge, Opou—A Country House, in New Zealand for five years before joining Amanresorts. During our time in New Zealand, I also worked as Acting Director of the Tairawhiti Regional Museum on the East Coast of the North Island, so became very involved in local Maori culture.

Manav’s and my philosophies on hospitality were very much “mini” versions of those of Amanresorts so there was a meeting of minds in our interviews with Mr. Zecha, the founder of Amanresorts. We like clients to come as guests but leave as friends, promising to return. We endeavor to create an atmosphere similar to a house party or to joining friends at their holiday house or in their home.

We respect guests’ privacy or need to be alone but equally we love sitting with them exchanging stories and hearing about their lives and families. We have the most interesting guests at Amanbagh, so for us there is never a feeling of being out of mainstream—we are kept up to date and in touch by our guests.

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Q: What are some of the special touches that guests most seem to appreciate while staying at the Amanbagh?

A: Again, the warmth and friendliness of our staff, many of whom come from our local villages and who joined Amanbagh when it opened. I would like to quote another “many-times-repeated” guest who likened Amanbagh to a hand-made rather than a machine-made product, fashioned with love and care but with the occasional bump or ripple rather than something processed and smooth. I felt that this aptly summed up Amanbagh.

I am absolutely passionate about food and am very involved in menu preparation. Guests love to feel safe eating our homegrown salads and vegetables and enjoy touring our gardens. Our food is fresh, seasonal and honest, and it is never a problem to prepare something special or different.

One of the most simple excursions from Amanbagh, a tour through our tiny unspoilt local villages and hamlets, is such an escape from the frenetic pace of modern life that it is often likened by guests to a reality check when they see the traditional ways of farming and indeed, living—like going to bed and getting up with the sun and growing what you eat. They appreciate that there are no tourist shops, that the local children do not ask for money, and that the interaction is very natural and not contrived.

We have consistently positive feedback about our spa treatments, about how holistic and healing they are and how the therapists really care. I can really endorse this as our therapists all live very simple and holistic lives with daily meditation and are all vegetarian. They are very committed to what they do and love the healing side of their choice of career.

The simplicity and understatement of Amanbagh really appeals to guests who find that they can retreat from the color, pace and movement of a trip through Rajasthan and get everything back into perspective. I think that India can challenge every sense that we have (visual, physical, spiritual, emotional, sight, smell, sound) and Amanbagh offers respite from this. Guests leave recharged and energized and ready for more or for the journey home.

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Q: Do you have any free time these days? If so, how do you like to spend it?

A: I smiled at this question. I have to be dragged away from Amanbagh to go to Delhi or Jaipur. Being GM at Amanbagh is like an all-consuming passion or can be likened to a wonderful affair, so free time is not something I think about a lot. Manav, however, loves to take guests to Jaipur for golf. It is the one thing that he misses as he used to play very regularly. I do take time out to attend local festivals like the vibrant Jaipur Literary Festival each January, which attracts a great range of international and Indian authors, some well-known and some emerging. We will be working with the organizers of the Jaipur Festival to add on a literary retreat at Amanbagh for January 2010.

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Q: Since moving to Alwar, have you changed what or how you eat at all? Are there any local Rajasthani flavors or dishes that are now a staple for you?

A: For as long as I can remember, and even as a child, I have been passionate about the cuisines of India. I have even taught Indian food classes while in New Zealand and will publish a book on this one day! Next week, we will have our first in-residence cooking experience with eight days at Amanbagh and one night in Jaipur (for more food, lessons and retail therapy) when we will cook, learn about the foods of Rajasthan, gather ingredients from local villages and salads, make cheeses from local goats and buffalo milk, and have a great time.

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Q: What are some of your favorite purchases you’ve made while in India?

A: Far too many, especially since we live in one of the pool pavilions with our two dogs, Tara and Begum, so there is not much space. Manav has banned me from our boutique, which is like Aladdin’s Cave, full of treasures from Jaipur, Rajasthan and India. I love the arts and crafts of India and have many exquisite pieces of traditional embroidery, hand-blocked work in natural dyes, silverwork, jewelry—especially some of the old enameled pieces that one finds in the jewelry shops in Jaipur. I wear only Indian clothes so I have a great time having salwar kameez and the very full Rajasthani lenghas (skirts) made to order. One of my new favorites is the almost full-length coat made for me by Brigitte Singh, a French woman living in Jaipur for many years, who I would describe as the “queen of the blockmakers.” It is hand blocked with stylized bright red poppies and quilted intricately, and I love wearing it even though it is getting too warm. It would attract a lot of attention on the streets of New York, but in India we can wear “fancy dress” every day and play out all our fantasies. We sleep in Indian pure cotton sheets with white-on-white embroidery of elephants and palm trees that I had especially made for us in Calcutta and under a Jaipuri razai, a hand-blocked cotton coverlet with pure cotton filling. I am addicted to them and find it hard to sleep without one.

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Q: What’s your favorite time of day at the Amanbagh? Why?

A: Must I have only one?

Early mornings in winter, when I walk into the courtyard and see the huge green marble heated swimming pool steaming in the cold air and lots of the bright green parrots having their warm morning bath, ducking in and out of the steam and the water.

In the late afternoons all year, when the shadows lengthen and the light softens and the dust rises under the feet of the goats and cattle going home for the night. It is the best time, in my view, to visit mysterious Bhangarh—the 15th-century abandoned, ruined city so close to Amanbagh—as the play of shadows and light on the old palaces and temples is superb.

And late at night looking up at the millions of stars in these very clear skies, especially lying in my private swimming pool in my pool pavilion home. And I have to mention full moon, when the moon rises over the hill on the eastern side of Amanbagh and lights the whole area—again I am using the word “magical.”

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Q: I know you have really gotten to know many Artisans of Leisure travelers. Are there any characteristics that seem to stand out?

A: There are many characteristics that I identify in Artisans of Leisure clients—discerning, interested, curious, adaptable, eager to experience something different and learn about new cultures, well-educated and -traveled, egalitarian, not at all pretentious, aware. But I also value the way that you send information about Artisans’ clients in advance of their visit so that we are more aware of special interests, likes and dislikes and dietary restrictions. It makes us feel as though we are greeting friends we already know.

Q: What is your favorite hotel—anywhere in the world? Why?

Amanbagh, of course. I would love to return one day as a guest and take full enjoyment from this. I have to tell you that Manav and I had not been to Amanbagh before we accepted Mr. Zecha’s offer to take over as General Managers, so there was slight trepidation as we travelled further and further into the Rajasthan countryside. But the sense of wonder that I experienced on arrival has not dissipated at all in the 16 months we have been here. I am still discovering new elements that I haven’t noticed before. Many guests who are “Amanjunkies” describe it as “the ultimate Aman,” and I tend to agree, although I still have a long list of Amanresorts to visit.

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Q: Do you have a favorite restaurant in Delhi at the moment?

A: While my food favorites are more Asian than European, I am spoiled for home-cooked Indian food at Amanbagh, so I would choose Diva, an authentic Italian restaurant in Greater Kailash II, owned and “cheffed” by Ritu Dalmia, who is truly passionate about Italian food. It is warm, friendly and unpretentious and consistently delivers great dishes. But Delhi has a great proliferation of new restaurants outside the big hotels and many are very, very good. And the new restaurants at the about-to-be-opened Aman Delhi are stunning.

Mossein’s kebabs behind the Jama Masjid in Old Delhi, with family recipes dating from Mughal times, are very special. I could go on and on and also talk about the great cooks, hosts and hostesses whose food I really enjoy at their homes in Delhi, but we will save and savor that for another time…

Q: What book are you reading right now?

A: I am an avid reader so I usually have a few books going at the same time. Current ones include young Indian-English author Nikita Lalwani’s Gifted, Sonia Falero’s The Girl, Pico Iyer’s very perceptive book, The Open Road, about the Dalai Lama, and the delightfully “spicy” We Can’t Help Being Fabulous by Peta Mathias, who usually writes cookbooks. I am a great follower of Indian authors, particularly woman writers, and I must have read every South American author who has written in the last thirty years.

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Q: Where would you most like to travel next? Why?

A: I think it will be Bhutan, a country that has long fascinated me. I have been intending to go there for years, so I am planning this for later this year. And Siem Reap, Cambodia, to visit the temples of Angkor Wat. I had a “tick list” of countries to visit as a child in rural New Zealand reading National Geographic magazines that included Bali, Samarkand, Mandalay, Angkor Wat and India (of course), so Angkor Wat still remains to be seen—soon. Plus, I have the advantage of Amanresorts in both places.

Destinations:  India

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