CoVid Getaway Experience: A retreat at the Hilton Shillim Estate post lockdown

After five months of being cooped up at home, Ajay and I wanted to spend our wedding anniversary outside our four walls, without having to worry about running our daily household affairs or having to bake a loaf of banana bread for our anniversary. Our initial plans were to do a staycation in the city itself, like the one we enjoyed at the Westin in Mumbai many moons ago. However, most of the 5-star properties on our list were operating as quarantine facilities for international arrivals. Hence we canned the plan.

With the Maharashtra government permitting hotels to open up at 33% capacity, our next best option, very last minute though, was a road trip out of the city. We started looking for places we could drive out to spend a few days and not be worried about our safety. Ajay insisted on not getting out of the state because at the time domestic quarantine rules were still pretty harsh and he did not want to take a chance getting stuck in quarantine getting back home.

Enter Hilton Shillim?

After racking our brains long and hard, we decided on the Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat & Spa, which is a 3-hour drive away from Mumbai.  We were comfortable with picking the Hilton Shillim for two reasons. Firstly, Hilton Hotels was one of the first global hotel chains to publish a health and hygiene protocol that would be applicable once their hotels began to re-open, way back in April 2020. For us, this meant we knew beforehand the safety standards to expect and the changes in service levels due to the coronavirus. Secondly, Shillim is inside Maharashtra, hence no bother of quarantine. Complying with the local travel regulations, we applied online for an e-pass to travel between Mumbai and Pune Rural, which is where Shillim is located. The pass was approved within 24 hours, and we were all set to travel. [Update: No pass required as of September 1]

Hilton Shillim is nestled inside 320-acres of the over 3,000-acre large and expansive Shillim estate. The rest of the estate is virgin forests and fenced away, so that flora and fauna are not bothered by the humans. The resort is located amidst the Western Ghats jungle, and the Villas offer a sweeping view of the forest greenery, bamboo plantations and rice paddies.

Shillim is an hour’s drive from Pune, and a comfortable three hours drive from Mumbai. Post the lockdown, the resort is now open in compliance with the government guidelines and is operational at 33% capacity. This means that of the 100-Villas on the property, only 33 can be simultaneously occupied on any given day.

The ride to Shillim is scenic and stunning in the rains. The hotel staff advised us to avoid the Lonavala route due to poor conditions and instead take a different route via Karjat, which they sent us the map for.

The last few kilometres of the drive are by the Pawana lakeside with mountains and a fortress in the backdrop. I could also spot a few waterfalls that turned up due to the rains. After staying indoors in our apartment for months, all the greenery around was such a breath of fresh air.

Arrival and Check-in at Hilton Shillim

We left Mumbai in the morning at around 9 AM and arrived at the Hilton Shillim Estate at 1 PM. Upon arrival, a hotel staff member approached our car and checked off our names against the reservation list for the day. After this, we were subject to temperature checks, and both of us had to sanitise our hands before heading over to the reception lobby. The car was also sanitised on arrival. All our bags were sanitised and sent to our room later.

The reception lobby had an open-air seating that was well spaced out, and guests were checked-in one at a time. There were several signage and sanitisers to keep guests aware of the new social distancing norms.

At check-in, our temperatures were retaken, with pulse oximeter readings and recorded on the arrival form. I was hesitant to stick my finger in the oximeter that was being used for all the guests, but the check-in crew were cleaning and sanitising the device after every use.

We were also informed that as Hilton Honors elites (the both of us), we were upgraded from a base category villa to a Deluxe Valley View Villa. The Hilton Shillim is an all-villa property, and the villas are divided into the following categories

  • Valley Villas – base category
  • Deluxe Valley Villas  – has a private outdoor seating area.
  • Forest Villas – situated atop a mountain in the estate
  • Pool Villas  – has a private pool and a separate living area.
  • Presidential – suitable for large families

Since the property is vast and built-in hilly terrain, Tata Nanos are used for ferrying guests around the resort. This is quite different from the golf carts I’ve seen at other hotels in India. In Ajay’s last visit here which was in 2013, he tells me the Golf Carts existed here too.

Our driver, who was basically a member of the check-in staff, was wearing a face mask and a visor and had gloves on. The cars now have a plastic partition to separate the driver, and the guests and only two people are allowed to sit in the back of the vehicle with the driver in front, again in line with local government guidelines for the moment.

The ride from the reception to our villa was about 5 minutes. We had to climb down a few steps to get to our Villa No 328, and in the first instance, it felt like we were going to be living in a cabin in the woods.

Because of the pandemic, Hilton has introduced a CleanStay Room Seal. Once the room is prepared and sanitised for the arrival of the guests, it is sealed to ensure that no one else has access to the room. The seal on our Villa door was intact until Ajay broke it open to enter. We were informed that the place was left empty for 24 hours before it was handed over to us.

Hilton Shillim’s Deluxe Valley View Villa

Keeping in line with its surroundings and the environment, the Villas had an earthy feel. There is stone panelled flooring all through. Our deluxe studio villa had a four-poster bed. On the wall side, there was a seating that gave a glimpse into the valley outside. However, the real charm of the villa was a private patio that opened straight into the forest.

Every morning, I would wake up at 6 (without an alarm), make myself a cup of tea, sit in the patio and hear the birds sing.

The bath area of our studio villa was pretty large, as large as the living area perhaps. Apart from a soaking tub and an indoor shower, there was also an open shower. With the amount of green cover and wildlife living around, I wasn’t going to use the open showers for sure.

Hilton’s CleanStay protocol states that there will be extra disinfection of top 10 high touch areas in guest rooms such as light switches and door handles, I could not find any evidence or message to communicate that this was done. Therefore anyone who wouldn’t have read the safety document would be wondering whether to use the in-room amenities. We carried Savlon disinfectant wipes with us, with which did the second round of disinfection for our mental comfort.  The minibar was empty though there was a provision to make tea & coffee in the room.

The next day, we happened to run into the General Manager over breakfast and had a long chat about the safety of the staff and the guests. We learnt that all the sealed, unused toiletries are aired out for six days before they are placed back in a room by housekeeping. Another safety measure that Hilton’s CleanStay policy mentions is the use of new technologies. The GM showed us pictures from the Executive Housekeeper, about how after every room is prepared for arriving guests. As the last check, the housekeeping manager as a final check runs an ultraviolet light stick over surfaces and objects to scan for any areas of concern. I was impressed.

One change that was evident from all our previous hotel stays was that there was no paper and writing material in the room. The welcome letter we were used to in the past, note pads on the bedside, in-room dining menus, laundry lists in the wardrobes were all gone. Instead, all information could now be scanned on mobile phones by scanning a QR code on the television.

The only paper in the room was a sealed box of face tissue kept by the washbasin and the toilet paper roll. There was also an addition to the bathroom amenities, pocket-size hand sanitisers. I’m not complaining!

The other service alteration I noticed was that the staff placed the bags around the corner in the room. In the pre-coronavirus era, the team placing our bags on the luggage rack and in the cupboard. For a brief moment, I thought he was in a rush to leave, only to realise later that the staff were to minimise contact with guests.  We were advised that after entering our room, no hotel staff will enter the villa without our permission. That also meant no room servicing for the next three days. In case we needed our room serviced, we could always call up the housekeeping, tell them a time slot when we would be out of our room and the housekeeping staff would then come, clean and sanitise the room.

I think during the lockdown we had gotten so used to doing our chores that we did not need anyone to come and make our beds. We did request for the trash bin to be emptied for which we placed the bin outside the villa and the staff replaced it with a clean bin. The other time we needed housekeeping was to replenish drinking water bottles in the room. The hotel staff laid the bottles on a tray outside our room, and I carried them inside. On the same tray, I placed the empty bottles for them to take away with them.

One positive of this property is that each villa has its unattached air conditioning unit, which is a big positive for those who believe contamination could occur via centralised air conditioning.

Dining at the resort

Of the seven dining facilities spread at the resort, only two were operational. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served at the all-day dining restaurant, Terrazo.

The seating had been spread out at the restaurant, with a few metres of distance between tables, much more than needed for health laws compliance. Terrazo also has an outdoor seating which is reasonably well spaced out. The fact that the resort is operational at 33% capacity and has the option of in-villa dining ensured that the restaurant was never too crowded.

I was concerned about using common dining spaces, as well. What happens after someone uses a table for dining, and then the table is occupied by another guest. So after every table was vacated, it is cleaned and then disinfected using Diversey’s Virex solution, twice. First once the earlier guests go away, and then right before the guests are seated. This happened without fail across all our seven meals we ate at the restaurant. All the staff serving was always in protective gear with visors and gloves on. In fact, on arrival, they’d first point you to the sanitiser stand before they’d take you to the seat, and once Ajay’s mask fell off and got dirty, they had a new mask for him to wear ready at the restaurant.

There were no paper menus in the restaurants; instead, after we were seated, a scan code was presented to us to access the menu on our phones and order in person.

The menu, while limited, had enough variety for us to not repeat the same stuff over three days. Apart from the usual Indian curries, there was south-east Asian, Mediterranean and Italian food. The restaurant staff told us that we’d like to have something off the menu, the chef would be pleased to make it for us. I saw other people having off the menu items like khichdi and pizza. Despite the limited menu, the food was delicious. We tried quite a few things during our stay, and the Indian – Asian selection was great. In the spirit of hospitality, every meal would start with an amuse-bouche.

 

The most significant change for us was the breakfast buffet spread. Hilton Shillim lays out scrumptious morning spreads, as per Ajay who had been here before. However, in the current situation, no buffet spread was laid out. Instead we had to scan the code and order off a breakfast menu. Here are some of their breakfast options. You can check out the complete menu here, on a private FB page set up for menus.

 

While the in-villa dining facility was available at no extra charges to guests for breakfast, Ajay and I would walk down to the restaurant in the morning. The views of the Western Ghats from Terrazo are mind-blowing. We would usually go early, get ourselves a table outdoors and laze over breakfast for hours.

The breakfast menu was expansive for current standards. There were eggs to order along with Indian and Western options. During our three days stay, we managed to try everything on the breakfast menu. The dosas were excellent, and Ajay spoke very highly of the Eggs Benedict.

Once upon a time, we would start breakfast with juice shots, but here we were served kadha shots. That kadha was quite tasty and nowhere close to the immunity builders I had been gulping down back home.

Every evening a high tea was served at the Valley Bar. It was a scone, or a cupcake served on our table with a pot of herbal tea.

For me, it was particularly intriguing to see how the staff while all clad in uncomfortable protective gear still had their smiles on.

During our lengthy conversation with the staff, we learnt that the team had not left the property during the lockdown. While it was comforting for me from a safety aspect, I also felt sad that there were people who hadn’t met their families for months. Yet, behind their masks, they served us with a smile.

We also tried out the room service one time, on the day of our check-out, and discovered that there were massive delays to deliver, given everyone orders at the same time, and the distances are large for every villa to be covered in good time. The food was also sort of unimpressive when it got over to the villa. The restaurant was the better experience, clearly, for us. 

Activities at Hilton Shillim

While I was quite happy wiling my time away listening to nature in my patio and chasing butterflies walking around, there were a few activities which were being offered by the resort at this time as well.

Hilton Shillim is a wellness retreat, and they have a state-of-the-art wellness centre. When we were there, contact therapies had not started at the spa, but the general manager told us during our chat, they will eventually open those to guests with safety guidelines in place.

The morning Yoga sessions and afternoon meditation sessions are held every day and open to guests. The Dharna Yogashala has a massive meditation cave and a lovely instructor. On a Sunday afternoon, we spent our time meditating, socially distant of course, and another day we overslept and did not turn up for our Yoga appointment.

There were two outdoor activities available; a hike into the forest and a guided river stream walk. The resort is surrounded by water streams and no better time to explore these than during the monsoons. I almost cancelled it because of the rains, but everyone highly recommended this, and it turned out to be the best part of our stay.

We walked down to the stream, splashed ourselves in water. This is absolute must-do if you are visiting the place, especially when the streams are not dry. The activities organised by the resort were free of charge for resident guests once a day. They could manage customised timings, at a cost. Common pools and the gym remain closed for guests.

We spent a lot of time walking around the resort, discovering their organic farm and stables in the process as well.

Check out Experience

At check-out, we wanted to pay with our card but given the low limits for contactless transactions, we had to dip the card in the payment terminal and then sanitize it and put it in the pocket. For the invoice, it was emailed to us, however, we had to check a physical copy of the information invoice to ensure everything was charged alright. The bags were brought from the room in a separate vehicle and directly deposited in our car.

How to book

The Hilton Shillim can be booked directly on the Hilton’s website. Hilton does offer a price match guarantee where if you find a lower qualified rate on any other online travel agent’s website not only will they match the price but also give an additional 25% off on that stay. For our visit, if we would have booked during the sale, we could have gotten 35% discount, but since we decided last minute, we went for a points redemption given prices were very high.

A reward stay at the Hilton is approximately 55,000 points per night. Hilton Honors have dynamic points on redemption stays. We were only booked for three nights, however, had we redeemed for four nights, we would have gotten the fifth night free. Remember you can always transfer American Express Membership Rewards to Hilton Honors and book points stay here.

Bottomline

Travel has changed as we know it for the time being, and as much as the new normal is about sanitisation and safety, it is also about getting back to our old lives. The Hilton Shillim demonstrated adequately that it is safe to travel with precautions, and our negative RT-PCR test again proved the same. Read Ajay’s piece on travel in the Covid-19 era as well.

Have you been to the Hilton Shillim Estate Retreat? How has your experience been here?


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Comments

  1. That’s quite impressive to see the level of care being taken here to ensure guest safety. I also sort of expected it to be the case of Asian properties more than their American counterparts. Glad to see that you were able to getaway safely.

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