My life over last one year was terribly hectic. Weekend parties, friends meet, work pressure and regular visits to parents, my son’s 10th standard, new fund infusion in company etc. leaving no time for anything else, even a short getaway. So eventually after 15 relentless months (during which even Sundays were not spared), I was left completely high and dry with nothing left in my tank.
A longer break is what I longed for (I still haven’t got it) but a 4 day extended break was still something that I opted for, something better than nothing.
End July can be daunting for deciding where to go for a break. Monsoon is everywhere. Being from Mumbai, enjoying monsoon on a break is not what one really fancies. So eventually decided to set off for the eastern coast, where impact of South West Monsoon is the least.
Being an experiential traveller, three things that we look at an extended getaway is hotels, cuisine and experiences. Being part of a travel company, its always an additional incentive if the area is something that hasn’t been fully explored in past.
So Pondicherry for its easy access (Chennai – 160 kms – 2.5 hours), Heritage hotels (in French and Tamil Quarters), Cuisine (French and Tamil Cuisine), heritage (Architecture / monuments / temples) and experiences (Heritage walk) was the logical choice.
Arrival – Day 1 – Chennai arrival and travel to Pondicherry
An early flight out of Mumbai, we were in Chennai by 9 in time for some authentic South Indian Breakfast. We stopped over at Balajee Bhavan at Chrompet (On Chennai Outskirts) enroute and then the begin on the right note. Mini-Tiffin (a Breakfast version of set meal or “Thali”) was simply too good alongwith a South Indian Coffee. From there to Chengalpettu (30 kms), one could sense how bustling the suburbs of Chennai were. Beyond Chengalpettu (We decided to take Trichy highway instead of ECR) it was a good straight countryside drive and we were in Pondicherry by 1:15.
If you’d built a bit of hype in your head about Pondicherry, its character etc. then drive from entry point towards Kamraj Salai look like are nothing but any small town in Tamil Nadu sans any character. However it all clears moment one enters heritage town (Tamil Quarters) and White Town (French Quarters) areas. So picking a stay location in Pondicherry can make or mar a trip. Fortunately we understood this well in advance and our first stay was CGH Maison Perumal in Tamil Quarters.
CGH Maison Perumal is a fully restored Chettinad home offering just the kind of character and charm for us weary experiential travellers to get energised. The courtyards, Verandahs and the room itself were the kinds we like i.e. No unnecessary luxuries, attention to detail, oodles of heritage character and informal hospitality.
CGH as a chain of hotels (if you could call them one) have dared to be different. They made their money and got their fame focussing on essence of every destination in terms of heritage, cuisine and a range of local experience. They seem minimalistic at times but still sufficiently luxurious otherwise. Not everything is stated or documented but a well heeled traveller is able to understand and appreciate subtleties behind every little thing that now part of CGH folklore.
We had some Fish and some chicken with Appam and rice for Lunch and decided to rest for the rest of the afternoon to get ourselves for days to come.
Evening was spent taking a long walk understanding our surroundings. Tamil Quarters lies adjacent to French Quarters and everything is a short walk to the renowned Promenade (Sea Face). Tamil area is a set of quiet bylanes with homes built with traditional Tamil architecture alongwith some busy market areas such as Mission Street, MG Road, Anna Salai etc. As against that French quarters has very few shops and are much quieter having many heritage hotels, in bylanes parallel to the promenade. What is amazing is that neither French quarters has encroached upon the bustle of Tamil Quarters nor the busy market areas have taken over tranquillity of the French quarters. All seem to amazingly co-exist and have done so over so many decades while resisting any kind pressures that come from a urban development of a booming town.
Day 2 – Pondicherry Local exploration
We scheduled a morning Cycle Rickshaw Ride to explore heritage areas and market areas of Pondicherry. Bustle of markets (Fish market, vegetable market, flower market) was a photographers delight. I was clear why international travellers, experiential travellers and photographers loved Pondicherry. I once asked an International traveller why he and his wife kept coming back to India. He said allure for India comes from its genuinely authentic elements and cultural diversity. I understood what that meant. There may be very few places on the planet where one gets to see a blacksmith, a cycle rickshaw puller, a flower vendor, a coffee vendor on a bicycle and an amazing amalgamation of cultures like one in Pondicherry
From markets we moved to Aurobindo Ashram to Vinayagar Temple (One of its kind Lord Ganesha Temple) to French Memorial to the Promenade to Churches (French Protestant as well as Roman Catholic). In one and a half hour we were able to capture entire Pondicherry in a snapshot.
Upon return we were treated to some sumptuous South Indian breakfast before we started for our excursion to Panchavatee and Auroville.
Panchavatee Kshetram (10 kms from town centre) is a Lord Hanuman Temple believed to be built in an area where Lord Rama, Goddess Sita and Lord Lakshmana stayed during their 14 year hiatus as depicted in the Hindu epic Ramayana. 36 ft five faced Lord Hanuman deity (Called Panchmukha) is believed to be one of its kind and worth a visit.
Auroville (few kms from Panchavatee Kshetram) is an Ashram area developed by “Mother”, the partner and principle disciple of the great philosopher Aurobindo. It is an integrated craft centre and a large complex where locals involve themselves in making many crafts (that gets distributed by Auroville) and live in harmony with many disciples of Auroville that arrive from across the world.
From a tourist perspective I just saw as a craft centre where one can get to purchase some authentic craft items. The Matrimandir, the dome is also a bit of a spectacle and must do for selfie junkies.
We returned from Auroville to another CGH hotel, Palai De Mahe. This one is larger (having a swimming pool) set in heart of French Quarters and just a few steps away from the Promenade. It was remarkable how CGH were able to implement their ethos across different kind of hotels. While Palai de Mahe was a completely different to Maison Perumal, the CGH stamp was evident in its hospitality, character and the room. The verandahs, sitting areas, the restaurant, the Menu, the arches and the overall ambience all were focussed around giving a unique fervour that’s generically known as the CGH experience. I do not see any hotel chain having institutionalised their ethos across the board to such a great painstaking degree.
Our rest of the day was spent enjoying sumptuous lunch which had a Kerala character and walking in evening around French quarters exploring boutique shops and absorbing sights and sounds. The terrace restaurant at Palai De Mahe offered excellent ambience for an intimate evening. The service was just perfect and so was the Menu. Did not leave us too heavy and we still had lots.
Day 3 – Chidambaram Excursion
This was the day we planned an excursion to Chidambaram, a renowned pilgrim town, home to Nataraja Temple, a renowned Lord Shiva Temple and one of the five Panchabhoota Temples. The drive was about 86 kms. It happened to be a Sunday and I was told by the driver that we were lucky to have not met with the dreaded Pondicherry morning traffic. Two hours of drive through green countryside and we were in Chidambaram by 10. The entry gate was huge, there four such entry gates (About 7 storied in height) which tool devotees to a common ground which then again had a temple complex which housed the temple. Temple was traditional and the walls, the hallway ceiling and the approach gangways all depicted a unique temple architecture. The architecture, the art and magnitude of the effort would leave anyone gasping. There was a huge wooden chariot in front of one of the gates and there were giant ropes inside the temple that were used to pull the chariot during a Car Festival (once a year on a specific day the deity is paraded in open amidst festivities and pageantry, known as the Car festival). The only flip side of the experience was that the priests there were too happy to pursue devotees to undertake some “Special Poojas”, we were off course too seasoned and avoided taking the bait.
After Temple visit we decided to go to a nearby Mangrove forest “Pichavaram” (14 kms), supposed to be one of the largest in India and renowned for its bird watching and overall experience. This certainly was a surprise packet of the trip. While it was noon time and a Sunday so there was a long queue for boating and not ideal for bird watching, so we eventually gave it a miss. However I would recommend this for a bird watcher (Recommended overnight stay at the Tourism dept hotel at Picharavam).
The highlight of the day off course was to come a bit later. We stopped at Cuddalore for lunch at Ananda Bhavan, a local chain of South Indian cuisine. We were treated to an amazing South Indian meal that left us licking our fingers. Five rounds of rice with curries / sambar / rasam / curd etc. and we were over the moon. We were foodies who loved ethnic cuisine in its purest form and Ananda Bhavan Cuddalore had lots of what we look for in every meal.
Later in the day on our way back to Pondicherry we visited some of the beachside resorts in outskirts of Pondicherry, meant for getaway seekers and all those who are looking for a resort by the beach and not arriving for any of the Pondicherry heritage experience.
Day 4 – Departure from Chennai via Mahabalipuram
This was the final day of the trip. We decided to leave early and take the ECR. East Coast Road (ECR) is a coastal highway that runs parallel to Chennai – Trichy highway and has a bit of character all through. At some point it runs close to the shoreline and water bodies. There is thick tree cover all through and very little traffic (except local movements), no wonder ECR is a favourite route for many bikers across India.
Idea of taking ECR was to pass through Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram), a beachfront area 60 kms South of Chennai, renowned for its Shore temple, a UNESCO world heritage site. Mahabalipuram area is renowned for many sculpting units. We reached Mahabalipuram around 11 and there were many sculptors by the roadside selling some exquisite stuff. Mahabalipuram itself was a bit of a disappointment as its basically one street of monuments (Five Ratha temple, Krishna’s butter ball and Shore Temple). The entry fees to each was exorbitant and even though it was worth a few pics (especially Shore Temple with Bay of Bengal in the background), those having seen other heritage areas in Tamil Nadu, this was definitely not one to remember. For the Lunch we opted for the traditional South Indian and to our dismay it was not even a patch on the Cuddalore Ananda Bhavan. Some tourist destination experiences get drowned in the sea of hype and expectations and Mahabalipuram was certainly one of them (I remember Kanyakumari being another one many years ago). We proceeded towards Chennai Airport with a brief stopover at a lake enroute for some bird watching. The sky was colorful and vividly so. Our thoughts reflected on the trip that was short but packed many things, and we were going home refreshed, recharged and raring to join the race again!!
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