Two hotels, set in the different picturesque frames of Srinagar and Pahalgam, and both belonging to the Ahad Group of Hotels and managed by ITC Hotels, have another thing in common – the famed Kashmiri hospitality that warms the heart and touches the soul
By Steena Joy
Even as Irfan Mir, GM, Fortune Resort Heevan walks out to welcome you, you know he is from the Valley, his firm handshake truly welcoming you to Paradise. Located close to Nishat Bag, one of the many attractions of Srinagar, with a magnificent view of the Zabarwan Mountains, the ITC managed hotel is a wonderful blend of traditional Kashmiri architecture with new-age conveniences. The building has the half timber style that is so typical of Europe. Mir adds, “This style is also typical of Kashmir. Most of the houses here have this style.”
The hotel offers 39 beautifully furnished rooms, including 16 standard rooms, 18 Fortune Club Rooms and three Deluxe Suites and two Executive Suites. The rooms look out to views of snow capped mountain peaks and fir trees. “With one more block coming up, after a year it will be a 80 room property. All the rooms as well as the four culinary outlets have Kashmiri names. The room block is called Falaknuma while the suites are called Kahlan and Mehjoor. Cafe Chinar (or maple leaf) is the all day dining, Fortune Deli, Earthen Oven the specialty restaurant with 72 covers including three PDAs (private dining areas) and then there is Kehwakhana, the place for relaxing while drinking ‘kehwa’ the tea made with kesar or saffron,” informs Mir. Incidentally, Heevan in Kashmiri means ‘flower in the forest.’
Two landscaped lawns offer banqueting venues. Gulistan 1 can accommodate 350 people and Gulistan 2 can take 180 to 200 pax. Shejar, meaning ‘covered place’ is another meeting area, an extension of the Earthen Oven restaurant. Evenings at the restaurant see live performances by local artisans including santoor artists. You can see a lot of local Kashmiri utensils like sarposh, tash nari, etc at the restaurant. There is also a huge authentic samovar (teapot) that is the centre of attraction in the lobby. Recently, Fortune Resort Heevan held a very special food festival for the entire month called Hokh Syun Festival. Hokh Syun is one of the
famous delicacies of Kashmir. An interesting spread of dishes made out of dry vegetables. Mir explains, “The story behind Hokh Syun is an interesting one. Earlier due to harsh winters in the Valley, vegetables were never available. So Kashmiris would sun-dry the vegetables during the summers and store them for the winters and would make tasty meals out of it. We got a very good response for the festival both from guests as well as locals.”
He adds, “The hotel also gets its fair share of weddings and ring ceremonies. In March this year, we hosted nearly six to seven ring ceremonies. In 2017, we hosted a huge destination wedding party from Nepal. For such social events, people come from Delhi too.” Film crews have also stayed here like Rockstar team, Sanjay Dutt’s Lamhaa, Alia Bhatt starrer Highway as well as her more recent Raazi.
“From 2003 onwards, tourism was something everybody was excited about and everyone wanted to be part of the industry. Tourism was thriving and it was difficult to find a room here without prior booking, mostly in March to June. So many hotels came up in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. This went on till 2013-14. This 10 year period was probably the golden period of Kashmir tourism.
After that things have become difficult. Many hotels have even converted to hospitals because it became difficult to survive and maintain the properties,” laments Mir.
The Valley of Shepherds
Pahalgam or the Valley of Shepherds is a two hour drive from Fortune Heevan Resort. The drive is scenic with bursts of yellow mustard fields hugging the new highway connecting Srinagar to the hillstation. Located atop the Rajwas Plateau, the WelcomHotel Pine and Peak Pahalgam ensures the best views of snow topped mountains and the Lidder River now swollen with melted snow. The property offers rooms, suites and cottages. A staff member mentions that Salman Khan stayed in one of the cottages during the filming of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The film unit of Raazi has also stayed here as it gave them proximity to the film’s locales of Betaab Valley and Aru Valley which are just a stone’s throw from here. The production units of a few Netflix webseries have also stayed here including Gul Panag and Manoj Bajpai’s Family Man.
There are three dining outlets, overlooking the garden and the river – Lolaab, the all day dining, Saahil – Tea Lounge and the Gulistan offering multi-cuisine delicacies. Anjuman Banquet Hall, has a capacity to host up to 100 guests. All this is serviced by a touch of Kashmiri hospitality.
Roop Pandita, GM, WelcomHotel Pine and Peak Pahalgam who himself grew up in the nearby village, says, “We are hospitable by default. So we may falter technically and professionally, but what we do we do from the heart. I have not seen that anywhere else.”
This is a 30 year old property of Ahad Hotels that was renovated and rebranded as an ITC property in 2017. It originally had 80 rooms which have now been refurbished to 60 rooms, one Presidential Suite, two Deluxe Suites and three cottage blocks (of that, two are three bedroom cottages and one is a four bedroom cottage), then we have another set of two bedroom cottages which will become operational soon. Once that is done we will again have 80 units but in different nomenclature. There is also a spa and a gym with equipment recommended by Salman Khan.
“We had to renovate keeping in mind that Pahalgam is an eco sensitive zone. We had to take a lot of permissions. We were optimistic about the business. Initially especially in 2018 things improved but now it is getting more difficult as tourists are keeping away. Operational costs are fixed and maintaining the property is also a challenge. That’s why lots of hotels shut down. Because we are a brand, we somehow keep the show going on,” says Pandita.
Speaking of attrition levels, he informs that people of this Valley prefer staying back here. The hotel has staff who have worked here since its inception. Some of them have their children working for the hotel now. So ironically retrenching them is also a different problem. “Most of our team are Pahalgam locals. These people have families so they don’t want to go outside the region. Even if they are educated, they stay because they have farms and land which they have to look after. So a job here allows them the flexibility to do all of that,” he adds.
Having locals as staff also helps the hotel connect its guests to the local tourism. “They become guides for our guests as they are familiar with the local traditions, cuisine and culture. They have this connection and our guests love it,” affirms Pandita.
The GM believes that the government is doing its best. “It’s not only the government. The people, the local administration must also work hard. The mindset at the base level has to change. The youth have to be involved in some way so that they don’t get time to think otherwise and they don’t get alienated. It has to be handled very tactfully and delicately.”