The Unhotel holiday experience

Co-founder of the famous OYO Rooms, Manish Sinha left the ad world behind to create a collection of hand-picked cottages, heritage homes, luxury camps, jungle lodges, homestays, beach villas and other accommodation which he calls Unhotels.

Environmental friendly, the Unhotel is not a typical commercial establishment which is usually incidental to the whole travel experience. Manish describes the Unhotel as collective of ‘home-inside-a-hotel’ kind of places.

Their clients are people seeking new experiences, “whether they are adventure-lovers, heritage-enthusiasts, want to explore art, culture, wildlife, anything. It’s all about wanting to travel different. They are often well-travelled people who aren’t particularly focused on digging deeper but rather on digging smarter. Sometimes that means focusing on their end goal – what they want to achieve from the trip – over a tight budget. They’re people who interested equally in seeing more of India but also experiencing things outside, all over the world,” says Manish.

Goa is dream for the nature lover. But even for the frequent Goan vacationer, Unhotel seems to offer a uniquely different experience, away from the mesmerising beaches. Wading through semi-hidden waterfalls and streams; spotting the rare Sambar deer, sloth bear, porcupine, ant eater or the more elusive leopard one can trek through the forests and Savannah-like grasslands. A bird lover’s paradise, one can catch glimpses of the Asian Fairy Bluebird, Rufous Babbler, Great Indian Hornbill, White-bellied Blue Flycatcher and many more.

The Forest Refuge in Goa is hosted by Sylvia Kerkar and John Pollard who together, with a dedicated staff, tend to a variety of tasks at the homestay. John, who is English, is an adventure sports enthusiast and the first to pioneer white water rafting in South India in 1999. He started the first Rafting operations in Peninsular India which later opened up South India’s rivers for recreational white water boating. Pollard, a veritable rafting legend, has taken more than 50,000 people through swirling rapids in rivers in South India. Sylvia is passionate about ceramics and runs her own pottery studio at the Unhotel. She offers classes on demand to visitors.

To capture the essence of Goa, rustic and earthy, the Forest Refuge uses its own basic energy supply which is solar-powered; water is supplied by a waterfall nearby and firewood from the forest is used for cooking in ovens, grills and stoves. And there is no internet or telephone connection, offering a total digital detox.

The Unhotels offer a variety of culinary experiences, depending on what kind of experience a guest wants. “Simple homestays, home cooked food, grandma’s secret recipes, and regional delicacies are paired up with gourmet menus and fusion food inventions. Malabar, Chettinad, Goan, Assamese, our culinary options are diverse and inspired,” says Manish.

A celebrity client whom Unhotel hosted at their Granny’s Inn homestay in Varanasi was cine star Dia Mirza who stayed with them while doing a food show for Zee TV. “She was looking for an authentic UP-Bihar meal experience, and we were happy to have her at our inn. We are also very happy to have had her since she’s a UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and a future leader, and our company believes in sustainability.”

The Banarasiya experience is all about traditional sarees, ​a visit​ to a weaver ​family, the history of the ghats, and a thousand temples – while staying at Granny’s Inn run by Manish’s mother in law. The beauty of sur and taal can be experienced during the famous Sankat Mochan Music Festival in April every year. One can take it in in the sprawling verandahs of the Sankat Mochan Hanuman temple.

For the conscious traveller, there is a homestay in the Himalayas to support Ladakhi women. And also an opportunity to visit Sonam Wangchuk’s school in Leh and see his work in water conservation through artificial glaciers. Wangchuk’s solution for the water crisis in Ladakh was to conserve a tower of ice in summer so that when it melts, it feeds the fields until the glacial melt waters start flowing in June. Artificial glaciers formed horizontally on a flat surface melt faster as compared to ice cones which extend vertically upwards towards the sun and which receive fewer of the sun’s rays per volume of water stored; taking longer to melt.

The vacation itch for most people is not predictable. The ‘want to get away’ feeling usually strikes one suddenly and people frequently make choices based on budgets, ticket availability, and the experience itself. But apart from all the mundane considerations, Manish says, “People are always looking for meaning and purpose – that is one of the main goals of travel. They are looking to enrich their lives and souls, by seeking local and authentic experiences. There is a dedication to spending time learning about a place, and discovering the land through its art, cuisine, architecture, you name it.”

The serene cottages and homes are located in offbeat places near metros but also away at Varanasi, Goa, Kerala, Rajasthan. “One thing I want people to know is that we are not just a market of homestays and unhotels – we are an experiential travel company. The marketing of properties is only a small, technical part of what we do. Our main focus is on crafting uncommon experiences around wellness, art and culture, conservation, adventure, and the culinary world. We are aimed at the discerning audience towards the premium end of the market.”

Unhotels also offers a good place for writers to beat the block. “We have hosted writers’ retreats and creative writing workshops at our Unhotels in the past. We also do book readings, and foster a space where literature and knowledge lovers can work passionately.”

While remote, the places offer luxury. “A major pre-requisite for selecting an Unhotel is safety and comfort. Equally important is service quality and eco-sensitivity. The rest is all about finding a unique story to tell and what captures the imagination when one visits the place – that sums up our entire Unhotel selection process.”

While the hospitality industry relies on standardisation for better recall and branding in its décor and utilities the Unhotel has steered away from stereotypes. “We are not a cookie-cutter travel company, as our name suggests. As a result, we don’t have one dominant colour in our decor. Rather, we have dominant themes that reflect fresh-ness, positive energy, softness and tranquillity.”

Manish and his team is constantly on the move, enjoying holidays of their own. Be it boutique hotels in Italy, cosy bed and breakfasts in Scotland, Airbnbs in Switzerland, or eco-hotels in Bali – they are eager to sit back and enjoy a holiday once in a while themselves.

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