The capital city of West Bengal, Kolkata was once renowned as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of British India. Even today, seventy years after the country’s independence from colonial rule, many remnants of the British Raj remain in the city, including famous landmarks such as the imposing Victoria Memorial, Indian Museum and Metcalfe Hall. For this reason, Kolkata is a popular travel destination for nostalgic international visitors, particular those from Great Britain, who have an interest in the British Raj or historical connections to India. One of the most unique hotels in Kolkata that caters to such visitors is the Fairlawn Hotel, a charming old colonial guesthouse located in the heart of the city on Sudder Street, just a short walk from the Indian Museum.
A sojourn at the Fairlawn Hotel is an experience to be relished. Although travellers hankering for the five-star luxury of an impersonal modern hotel room might be disappointed at its lack of overt sophistication, it’s this very quality that earns the hotel innumerable loyal fans – many prominent in the arts and theatrical world - who wouldn’t dream of staying anywhere else when in Kolkata.
One of the things I love most about the Fairlawn is its charming and authentic atmosphere. Its relatively small size (from what I recall, there are only about fifteen guest rooms) and general ambiance are more like that of an English country house than a typical hotel. The staff members are friendly and knowledgeable, going out of their way to help guests feel at home, and offer suggestions about things to see and do locally. Many of them are the sons and grandsons of previous employees and are therefore great sources of information about the lovely old building, and Kolkata in general.
The first resident of the building we now know as the Fairlawn Hotel was an Englishman, Mr William Ford, who had purchased the land in 1783, and constructed a fine house on it shortly afterwards. Over the following decades – and centuries – the old house changed hands numerous times, eventually being purchased by Rosie Sarkies, a refugee from the Armenian Genocide, in the 1930s. Upon the death of Sarkies in 1962, her daughter Violet Smith inherited the property, continuing to manage it as a hotel, even after the end of British rule – and right up until her own death in 2014 at the age of 93.
Having served as a home for so many diverse personalities over the centuries, the Fairlawn Hotel is truly a history-lover’s delight. Although these days it can’t really be described as grand, its graceful design, rustic colonial furniture and interesting historical memorabilia make the overall ambiance a little bit like a quirky living museum. Guest rooms are situated throughout the building, with several of the upstairs ones opening onto a couple of spacious sitting rooms evocatively adorned with vintage furniture and large wooden china cabinets filled with an eclectic assortment of colonial-era bric-a-brac, Bengali craft and other miscellanea. Covering the walls is an assortment of framed historic photos, pictures and old newspaper articles. Lounging around on the old cane settees, as a cool breeze blows through the louvre windows, it’s easy to envision that it’s still the 1940s.
Each room in the Fairlawn Hotel is unique, with most being quite large and spacious, and furnished in an assortment of rustic vintage furniture. Please note, these furniture items are not fancy antiques. Guests who expect to find that the rooms will be adorned in a style befitting a Maharaja or Viceroy are bound to be disappointed. Although they’re genuine vintage items, they’re more likely to have been used in the family homes of minor colonial officials or business people. However, their utilisation in this lovely old hotel serves to enhance its ‘home away from home’ atmosphere. Each room has an ensuite bathroom, often quite spacious, and always spotlessly clean.
Downstairs, the hotel’s dining room serves tasty meals three times a day – breakfast, lunch and dinner. With a predominant colour scheme of dark green, the decor here is also evocative of the colonial days, and many heritage features remain. Adjacent to the dining room is another sitting area, comfortably furnished with vintage cane furniture, solid old side-boards and potted palms – a great spot to relax in the late afternoon and share adventures with fellow travellers. Tucked away here and there are other comfortable sitting spots, including a small rooftop garden. Relaxing in this way, it’s hard to believe that you’re only minutes away from all the noise, colour and activity of downtown Kolkata.
In a nutshell, the things I love about the Fairlawn Hotel are many and varied. As someone who travels through Kolkata fairly regularly, it’s always my first choice of accommodation in the city, when I need to stop over. Over the years I’ve stayed there several times and am always touched by how friendly and welcoming the staff members are. They seem to love the rustic old hotel as much as its guests do – many who keep returning, due to the special atmosphere. Despite its location in the heart of a very big city, it’s also a place where I feel very safe – especially when I’m travelling alone. Finally, the hotel’s central location makes it a very convenient base for visitors who want to explore Kolkata’s most popular attractions. Many are just a short walk away, while others can be easily reached by rickshaw or taxi.
The Fairlawn Hotel is situated at 13A Sudder Street, Kolkata. To find out more take a look at their website. Bookings can be made via a reservation page on the website or by emailing Fairlawn@cal.vsnl.net.in. The hotel can also be contacted by phone on 91 - (33) - 2252 1510.