Hospitality Haven: Creating a home away from home for visitors to India

Creating a home away from home for visitors to India, as Caroline Gabriel recalls returning to India at the end of 2021 after a COVID-enforced absence, it was as though the pieces of a jigsaw had slotted back together.

It meant was finally able to properly take over the running of Mizpah Delhi, the bed and breakfast she’d bought in an exclusive area of the nation’s capital in early 2020. Regular readers of Australian Country may recall meeting Caroline and her husband, Shaun Bowden, four years ago at the gorgeous cottage they had made their own in the Victorian Goldfields city of Ballarat. Caroline and Shaun, who both worked as nurse educators and are keen foodies and travellers, had named their home Mizpah, a Hebrew word for ‘watchtower’, which has come to mean an emotional bond between two people who are separated.
Back then, Caroline, who was born in Kolkata and came to Adelaide with her family when she was 12, talked of her passion for her birth country and how she loved showing visitors around Delhi and other parts of the country.

She’d already put her toe in the waters of the travel industry by leading small tour groups to Delhi. “I always felt there was a part of me that was left in India,” she says. “I needed to maintain the connection and even though I loved our life and work in Ballarat, we travelled to India as often as possible.” During one of those trips, Caroline had booked her tour group into a boutique hotel she’d heard about via a MasterChef contestant she’d been following on Instagram. It’s located in Delhi’s south in an enclave known as Safdarjung close to the leafy haven of Deer Park and near nthe trendy district of Hauz Khas, which began life as a medieval centre for Islamic scholars and is now Dehli’s centre for ethnic chic, brimming with boutiques, galleries, antique shops restaurants and bars.

A bed and breakfast decorated with prints, pillows and flowers to create a homey atmosphere.

“Lots of foreigners, diplomats and professional people live in the area,” Caroline explains. “While the streets are always bustling, it’s quiet and safe. As soon as I arrived, I thought ‘this is the kind of house Shaun and I should own’. As luck would have it, the owners, a couple of French women, one of whom owned a textile business in Delhi, told Caroline they were looking to sell. After quick consultation with Shaun, Caroline became the new owner. “Then the pandemic hit and I couldn’t go there, so for almost two years I ran the place by WhatsApp,” Caroline says.

“I did everything by video from supervising the refit and decorating to managing the staff. After a while, Europeans were allowed into India on business visas, so I found myself running a four-suite B&B remotely. Of course, when I finally got there I changed everything around, but essentially what I was trying to achieve was a comfortable and welcoming space that felt like being a guest in an Indian home.” She adds that attention to detail is key to providing this experience, whether it’s via the welcome ceremony with (weather depending) hot or cold towels, a marigold or jasmine garland and incense burning in the background, the turndown service in the evening, or the personalised farewell gifts on departure.

“A lot of our guests are solo women here on business,” Caroline says. “Possibly the smartest thing I did was introduce in-house lunch and dinner, so guests don’t have to go out to eat if they don’t want to. When you’re out working all day, you often don’t feel like heading out again to dinner. Or eating every meal on your own. So I started a rotational menu similar to the meals my grandmother used to serve at home. The guests often end up chatting and having a drink together in the evenings and end up eating together. They’ll pull tables together and become friends. I just want them to feel at home, with the trappings of a luxury hotel.”

A close up of a room in a bed and breakfast with pink hues throughout, to create a homey feel. A home away from home for visitors to India.

Caroline travelled back and forth during 2022, using up all her holidays and long-service leave, until she finally quit her job at the end of the year. “I realised that it was important that I was resident and hands-on,” she says. “The guests appreciate having a familiar face they can turn to help sort out problems, arrange transport, day trips and market tours, or even just massage treatments in-house. One of the unexpected benefits of running Mizpah Delhi is that some of our regulars have now become friends.” While Shaun still has his job in Australia, the advent of work-from-home during the pandemic means he can travel between the two countries, usually spending about six weeks on each rotation.

Caroline also enjoys trips back to Ballarat, visiting during her favourite season of winter, when Delhi’s heat is at its most intolerable. Back in Dehli she says no two days are the same as she may begin by taking interested guests on her daily visits to the local flower market, move on to arranging a day trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, hosting shopping expeditions to her favourite bazaars and markets, tweaking the menu or serving tea and cake when guests come home in the afternoon. “Every day brings some new joy,” she says. “Each guest brings new energy to the house and we’re lucky to have a lot of repeat visitors, including many who used to stay with the French ladies.

I’m not going to pretend it’s all smooth sailing as running a business in a foreign country is always challenging, particularly in a country like India, where there’s a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. But I truly feel that I’m finally doing what I was always meant to do.” Caroline hastens to add that she will always be grateful for her nursing career. “I appreciate the 30-plus years I spent as a nurse,” she says. “I’m used to dealing with different people every day and I’m still using my service and communication skills, though in a different way. But running Mizpah Delhi feels as though I’m finally doing what I wanted to do when I was young, but I didn’t know how to go about it. It feels as though I’ve been searching for this role for 40 years. I circled around the world to come back home where I was always meant to be.” – Creating a home away from home for visitors to India.

Photography by Tryambika Shah

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