Holiday on a Banana Leaf: Best Places to Stay in Tamil Nadu

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One of the most popular tourist circuits in the country, Tamil Nadu has witnessed the impact of several cultures across centuries. Besides the royal stamp of the Pallavas, Cholas and Pandyas whose bustling seaports lured colonial powers like the Portuguese, Dutch, Danish, British and French, Tamil Nadu also bears the imprint of Roman and Armenian trade. Dotting the entire state are grand monuments, imperial forts, pristine beaches with soft sands, traditional temple towns, mist-covered hill stations and lush green paddy fields. The diversity of accommodation options would woo any traveller to overstay – from heritage hotels to boutique five star luxury, palatial mansions in Chettinad to French villas in Pondicherry, eco-friendly resorts on the Coromandel Coast to British clubs and bungalows in the hills… Here’s a selection of some amazing places to stay.

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Around Chennai: Vivanta by Taj Fisherman’s Cove
Though Chennai has its share of 5-star hotels, perhaps the best place to stay is far from the mob, 36 km south at Covelong. Fisherman’s Cove is a luxurious beachfront hotel near the serene Muttukadu backwaters off the East Coast Road. Built on the ramparts of an old 18th century Dutch fort and spread over 22 acres, the resort’s plush rooms, beachfront cottages and Scandinavian villas offer splendid views of the sea. Wade in 10,000 sq ft of crystal clear waters in the hotel’s Infinity pool with its luxurious plunge bar Sun Burst. Dine on exotic Seafood, Med and Continental fare at the three restaurants – Bay View, Upper Deck, Seagull while the signature Jiva Spa adds to the other sensual pleasures of the cove. It’s also a great base to visit nearby attractions like DakshinaChitra and Madras Crocodile Bank.

Covelong Beach, Kanchipuram District 603112
t 044 67413333
www.vivantabytaj.com
Tariff Rs.8,400-11,900

Also check out: Hilton, Le Meridien, Sheraton, Marriott, Trident, Radisson, GRT Grand and The Park aresome of the biggest names in 5-star hospitality, though Taj Connemara, Chennai’s only heritage hotel, is the top pick.

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Mamallapuram: Radisson Blu Resort Temple Bay
The maritime capital of the Pallavas, Mamallapuram was known in antiquity as The Town of Seven Pagodas after the seven Shore Temples that once dotted its coast. Today, only one remains and the best way to see it is not from land, but from sea, like the ancient mariners did. Boat rides to the Shore Temple are the signature activity at Temple Bay, besides a range of water sports. Set in a 46-acre oasis along a spotless waterfront, the resort has a wide choice of stay options. Exclusive pool villas come with private plunge pools while elegant chalets, villas and bungalows face the bay, the garden or the meandering swimming pool, one of the largest in south Asia. Sumptuous platters, grills and pastas await you at The Wharf, the seaside specialty restaurant (rated among Asia’s best) and Water’s Edge café a 24×7 multi-cuisine restaurant. A fitness centre, a 9-hole putting course and an uber cool spa make it the perfect setting for pleasure-seekers.

57 Covelong Road, Kanchipuram Dist, Mamallapuram 603104
Ph 044 27443636
www.radissonblu.com  
Tariff Rs.6,250-11,250

Also check out: Indeco Mahabalipuram near Shore Temple, a hotel housed in a museum on an 1820’s British camping site or the psychedelic guesthouses and lodges with rooftop cafes on Ottavadai Street, a favourite backpackers hangout.

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Pondicherry: Maison Perumal
With wide rues (streets) named after French governors lined by tall villas washed in yellow and white, Pondicherry has an archetypal colonial air about it. Yet, most travellers tend to miss Pondy’s other charms. Located in a quiet part of the Tamil Quarter is Maison Perumal, an extraordinary double-storeyed Chettiar bungalow. In keeping to its theme of homely hospitality, the renovated rooms are left unnumbered and the restaurant is sans a name. The friendly staff smile and clarify, “When you visit a friend’s place, does the guestroom or kitchen have a number or name?” Mellow lights, a smattering of antiques and furniture, sepia photographs and posters add to the old world charm. Large urali (metal cauldrons) with fronds and ferns pretty up the two sunlit courtyards while a band of geometric coloured stained glass bordering the balcony livens the interiors. After delicious seafood platters and eclectic Franco Tamil cuisine, the soft inviting bed beckons…need one ask for more?  

58, Perumal Koil Street, Pondicherry 605001
Ph 0413 2227519, 9442127519
www.cghearth.com  
Tariff Rs.6,790

Also check out: Other heritage stays and boutique addresses like Calve, Hotel de l’Orient, Le Dupleix, Villa Helena, Hotel de Pondicherry, Gratitude offer the characteristic trappings of French colonial comfort.

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ECR (East Coast Road): The Dune Eco-village Resort & Spa
Imagine a sprawling 35-acre area sprinkled with villas and rooms hidden from public view, gourmet restaurants dishing out fusion food, an exotic designer spa offering wat-su (water shiatsu treatment) and 700m of seafront just for you. Sounds as implausible as the desert planet of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune saga? Well, The Dune eco-hotel is as surreal as its literary inspiration. Bearing the creative stamp of architects Dimitri Klein and Neils Schonfelder, each room is radically different in design using recycled materials from local homes and palaces, besides a ship breaking yard! Dimitri confesses “It was a mistake that evolved into a hotel”! Organic linen, recycled wine bottles for water, CFL lamps, solar heating, cycles for guests and an in-house organic farm have ensured that the resort’s carbon footprint is 75% less than the industry standard. No surprise why it was voted as one of the 5 Best Ecological Hotels in the world (Geo), the Best Spa Destination (Harper Bazaar) and the Best Luxury Resort in 2011 (The Hindu-NDTV Lifestyle Award). Shop at Artyzan, a vocational academy cum design studio, for handmade local crafts.

Eco Beach Village, Pudhukuppam, Keelputhupet (via Pondy University) 605014
Ph 0413 2655751, 3244040, 9364455440
www.thedunehotel.com   
Tariff Rs.5,500-17,950

Also check out: Ocean Spray, Mango Hill and Ashok Resort off the ECR are great places to explore Auroville nearby

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Tranquebar: The Bungalow on the Beach
At dawn, in the erstwhile Danish outpost of Tranquebar, the old Dansborg Fort on the beach is cast into gold by the awakening sun; on the gilded sea, silhouettes of fishermen set sail for the days’ catch past the 12th Century Masilamani Nathar Temple. Such picture postcard images are what you wake up to at Neemrana’s heritage property, The Bungalow on the Beach, once the British Collector’s Office. Built on two levels with a runaround verandah offering views of the garden and the sea, the bungalow’s eight spacious rooms are named after Danish ships that docked at Tranquebar – Prince Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, Queen Anna Sophia, Countess Moltke, Christianus Septimus. Parquet flooring, period furniture and collectibles, blue and white china and a trellised garden by the pool imbue the place with old world allure. An INTACH walk around the quaint town takes you to a Danish cemetery, Zion Church, New Jerusalem Church and The Governor’s bungalow, all built in the 1700s. 

24 King Street, Tharangambadi 609313, District Nagapattinam
t 04364 288065, 289034-36, 9750816034
www.neemranahotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-6,000

Also check out: Neemrana also runs a B&B facility in the Danish-Tamil style Gate House and the vernacular Nayak House, a Tamil sea-facing home with 4 rooms, which includes a Tower Room (the loftiest in town), ideal for honeymooners.

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Madurai: Heritage Madurai
The graceful peacock origami towel painstakingly embellished with tiny flower petals in the room defines Heritage Madurai’s idea of hospitality – god is in the details. Plush rooms, a sagely 200-year old banyan tree and a 17-acre shaded enclave diffuse the reality of being in a hectic temple town. Conceptualized by Geoffrey Bawa around the original British Clubhouse, the architecture illustrates his design philosophy of ‘tropical modernism’ and creating spaces that seamlessly blend the outside with the inside. The resort’s 72 rooms include 35 villas with sundecks and private plunge pools. Antique lamps and lanterns have been cleverly transformed into modern light fittings. Dine at Banyan Tree restaurant overlooking its namesake as chefs rustle up traditional Tamil, multi-cuisine and Sri Lankan fare. Indulge in the wellness spa offering traditional Ayurvedic therapies and western aroma massages. Swim in the Olympic-sized pool styled after Madurai’s famous temple tank Theppakulam. After the customary visit to Madurai Meenakshi Temple and Tirumala Nayaka Palace, drop by at the Gandhi Museum.

Heritage Madurai, 11 Melakkal Main Road, Kochadai, Madurai 625 016
Ph 0452 2385455, 3244185
www.heritagemadurai.com
Tariff Rs.6,400-10,000

Also check out: GRT Regency inthe heart of town and Taj Gateway a colonial retreatperched atop Pasumalai hill on the outskirts

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Kumbakonam: Mantra Veppathur
A welcome drink of panakam (jaggery and ginger), a relaxing foot massage and a gong sounded to mark your arrival, get ready for a traditional holiday at Mantra Veppathur. Situated in a coconut grove between the Cauvery and Veezhacholan rivers, the eco-resort has agraharam-style cottages called Mantra Ilam or Paniyar Ilam, decorated with Kanjeevaram silks and Thaliyatti bommai (Tanjore dolls). Wake up to the call of peacocks, dine on sattvik (veg) cuisine at Annaprasanna, take a plunge in the Infinity swimming pool and get an Ayurvedic massage at the Punarjenma spa. Traditional games like daayam (dice), palaanguri (cowrie), parama padam (snakes and ladders) add an authentic rural touch. In the evening, sip freshly brewed Kumbakonam coffee at the Mantra Chai Kadai, enjoy pastoral life on bullock cart rides, visit silk-weaving units or witness cultural performances at Mantra Kalairangam, the open-air theatre. And of course, don’t miss the grand Chola temples at Thanjavur, Kumbakonam, Darasuram and Gangaikondacholapuram.

No.1 Bagavathapuram Main Road Extn, 536/537A Sri Sailapathipuram Village, Veppathur 612 103, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur District.
T 0435 2462261, 2460141
www.mantraveppathur.com
Tariff Rs.7,000-12,000

Also check out: The riverside heritage property Paradise Resort and Indeco Swamimalai, an ethnic 1896 Tanjore village resort, India’s only winner of the Global Eco Tourism Award

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Chettinad: Chidambara Vilas
Chettinad’s latest heritage hotel is easily the final word in opulence. Earlier the mansion of TS Krishnappa Chettiar, Chidambara Vilas was built over a century ago at the cost of Rs.7 lakh! As you enter through the gate bearing the owner’s insignia, an ornately carved doorway makes you stop in your tracks. The profusion of carving, the pillars made of teak, rosewood and granite and the string of courtyards leave you in a whirl. Meticulously restored by the Sangam group, the resort’s 24 heritage rooms overlook a beautiful pool. The terrace offers a magnificent view of the region’s typical architectural landscape with endless rows of tiled roofs. The Bomma kottai (Hall of Dolls), renovated into a restaurant, serves authentic Chettinad fare on banana leaf. The only problem is, with so much pampering, you might not even stir out to see the Tirumayam Fort nearby.

TSK House, Ramachandrapuram, Kadiapatti, Pudukkottai Dist.
Ph 0433 3267070, 9843348531
www.chidambaravilas.com
Tariff Rs.12,000-15,000

Also check out: The other beautiful mansion hotels, Visalam, The Bangala, Chettinadu Mansion and Saratha Vilas, are located further south around Karaikudi and the heritage town of Kanadukathan

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Nilgiris: The Kurumba Village Resort
Cut away from the clamour of Ooty and Coonoor, Kurumba Village is located in a quiet forest patch between the 4th and 5th hairpin bends on the Mettupalayam-Coonoor road. Named after one of the five ancient tribes of the Nilgiris, its tribal-styled cottages in earthy tones, thatch-work roofs and Kurumba artefacts are a tribute to the ingenious forest dwellers. French windows offer an unhindered view of the Nilgiri hills while the balcony overlooks a British spice plantation of nutmeg, cloves, pepper and lofty trees of jackfruit and rosewood. Treetops, afire with the Flame of the Forest, attract sunbirds and flowerpeckers and one can spend hours watching the dance of wings. The large thatched dining area, where delicious meals are served, is an ideal perch above a murmuring brook. Go on a walking tour of the spice plantation, luxuriate in the stunning pool or hop on to the mountain railway for a leisurely ride up the hills.

Ooty Mettupalayam Road, Hill Grove Post, Kurumbadi 643102, The Nilgiris
Ph 0423 2103002-4, 2237222, 9443998886
www.kurumbavillageresort.com
Tariff Rs.8,500-13,000

Also check out: Heritage bungalows like Fernhills Palace, an organic cheese-making farmstay Acres Wild or the plush Destiny Farm, which also runs unique concept hotels like King’s Cliff and Sherlock

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Yercaud: Indeco Lake Forest Hotel
Half-hidden by tall trees dressed in pepper vines in a wooded corner near Yercaud Lake, this delightful resort was once the Eastlyne Farm Coffee Estate. Rosar Villa, the charming bungalow built in the 1800s overlooking the lobby and restaurant, is named after its former Portuguese owner Henrietta Charlotte Rosario, who resided here during the British days. Like all Indeco Hotels, the resort bears the signature of its chairman Steve Borgia – a front lobby that doubles up as a museum, adorned with carefully documented rare memorabilia.  A friendly chef and attentive staff make dining at the restaurant or in the sun-dappled courtyard, a pleasure. The Eastlyne Garden and Wood House suites give panoramic vistas of the Shevaroy Hills. Besides nature walks, Lake Forest is a great base to explore Yercaud’s main sights – the lake, Shevaroyan Temple, Botanical Garden and lookouts like Pagoda viewpoint, Lady’s Seat and Gent’s Seat.

Near Anna Park, Ondikadai Post, Yercaud 636 602, Salem District
Ph 04281 223217/8, 9444001438
www.yercaud.indecohotels.com
Tariff Rs.4,000-10,000

Also check out: GRT Nature Trails SkyRocca Yercaud, an extravagant resort contoured against the mountains and The Grange Resort, the first camping place of the British with facilities for off-road adventure.

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November, 2011 issue of JetWings magazine.  

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