I have been traveling to Tamil Nadu since 1997, it is a fascinating destination, full of temples and Dravidian influences but it has always been a tough destination to sell for a couple of reasons. The first is that many people just focus on the temples, let’s face it, you can hardly move in the state without tripping over a few, but like with all great things you can have too much and so they need interspersing with other experiences . The second, is that whilst there was no decent accommodation in most destinations in 1997, other places quickly caught onto their tourism potential, Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa have produced a plethora of fabulous hotels to suit all budgets, but Tamil Nadu, with barely an exception (though I do know of one or two) lagged behind. However, of late, this has started to change and on my recent visit to the region, I found some places which will help put Tamil Nadu firmly on the tourist map, finally! Here are four places which should definitely be considered.
1. La Villa Shanti, Pondicherry.
Ok, so technically speaking this isn’t Tamil Nadu but it is on the same circuit. Pondicherry is where India and France effortlessly entwine. A town which is, unusually, proud of its colonial heritage; whose street names are still in French, where the policemen still wear kepis and the colonial buildings are being lovingly and thoughtfully restored. INTACH are doing a great job here. Despite what one hears in the news, I find India to be a country which accepts and absorbs, like a tidal wave that picks you up and carries you along on its chaotic trajectory. Nowhere is this more apparent than here. A walk along the (traffic free) promenade this morning was reminiscent of the French Riviera, chai stalls stand along side chic cafes, Tamil figures amidst catholic edifices.
Villa Shanti, was wonderful discovery. A seamless mix of colonial architecture and Tamil touches with clean lines, chic and contemporary spaces and dashes of authenticity, right down to the Frenchman having a cigarette for breakfast! Incidentally a breakfast of baguette, croissant, home-made preserves, fresh fruit and south Indian coffee from the Nilgiris.
Most of the 15 or so boutique hotels in the “White town” have stayed true to the colonial and Tamil designs, surprisingly, given my penchant for all things traditional, I liked that La Villa Shanti, with its chic and contemporary feel has opted for something which also encompasses modern India.
Fast Facts: 15 rooms/suites, a restaurant and bar, no pool.
Contact details: www.lavillashanti.com
2. Svatma, Tanjore
For once I was at a loss of what to say, or rather where to start having just spent the night at Svatma, Thanjavur. This hotel is a new kid on the block which has come in and really shown the industry how it’s done. The brain child of Krithika Subrahmaniam, Svatma was created not only to fill a much needed gap in the market and provide an excellent hotel in the area but also to showcase the culture of the region. I learnt more in an 18 hour stay than I have in my 18 years here.
I have always loved Tamil Nadu and the temples but have gained little more from previous experiences than enjoying the spectacle of temples, people watching, taking a wonderful collection of photos and trying to assimilate a baffling array of god’s. Not bad, I was certainly not dissatisfied but I didn’t realise how differently it could be done.
A stay at Svatma takes the whole “Experiential Hotel” theme to a different level, that to one of appreciation. You hear about musical and dance performances and think, “So what?” And quite frankly I glazed over at the mere mention of Vedic Chanting. Oh, how utterly wrong could I have been? These art forms are offered in such a way, that isn’t forced down your throat. We had been out and seen the veena making and therefore had more of an understanding of the instrument (made from jack fruit) and the ensuing performance was enchanting. We had an explanatory performance of the Bharatanatyam classic dance. I finally understood it and was mesmerised. Despite this, I was still sceptical about Vedic Chanting but dragged myself along and got my first, understandable introduction to the Vedas. Did I have any questions? Yes, tons, but didn’t have the luxury of the rest of the day to quiz the master.
Over and above that, what can I say? Svatma isn’t about attention to detail, it is about attention to the finest detail, from the placing of the jasmine to the table top games to the foot massages available at the pool side to the food. The food is TO DIE FOR. Every meal of every course (vegetarian South Indian) was a taste sensation. South Indian as I have never experienced before, it befits an entire blog post in its own right. Pineapple rasam, peanut chutneys, masala dosas as I never knew they could be.
A stay at Svatma isn’t a hotel visit to go and see the Sri Brihadeshwara (which you simply have to do). It is an encapsulation in a charming capsule of the culture of the region. A stay here takes the done to death expression “experiential travel” to a whole new level, that of an elegantly executed, insightful appreciation of a destination.
Fast Facts: Rooms/suites 31, pool, spa
Contact Details: http://www.svatma.in/
3. Rajakkad, Palani Hills
I am not going to lie, I had my doubts, a Keralan Palace, in the middle of nowhere in Tamil Nadu. Why? I didn’t make sense to me.
Then one starts to hear the story, a salvage operation, the house dismantled in to 30,000 pieces, labeled and transported to a rubber plantation with no access roads, where it was reassembled. Now anyone who has ever tried to build a set of drawers from IKEA should be in awe. However, this place does not have any screws or nails, it is all interlocking, which alleviates the classic Ikea “missing last screw” conundrum at least.
The plantation grows rubber and coffee but this is the land of plenty and so pepper, jackfruit, avocado, cardamom, guava, the list goes on, are all grown here and organically too. All the staff are retrained plantation workers who live in the local village, it all adds to the ambiance.
At Rajakkad, they actively promote doing nothing (see what I did there?) which is something I have always advocated on a busy, often overwhelming trip around any part of India. No matter the destination, it is always a good idea to have a couple of days when you aren’t being frog marched around historical sights, spoken at by guides, and let’s face it, it doesn’t matter where you are in India, culture can’t be avoided and so you don’t really ever lose out.
Here they recommend a stroll around the plantation and then stop for chai and a chat; lemongrass, tulsi, mint and ginger tea all also available, grown on site. Then relax in a hammock and contemplate the view, watch the birds, and allow the mind to wander. Meet Bus (Yorkshire pronunciation) their friendly cat who is more then happy to accompany you on a walk and, as I discovered, share your chai! After more chilling out, head to pre dinner drinks. Robesh is the GM and an interesting host; quiz him on anything from politics to plantation life and he is more than happy to oblige in answering any questions you may have.
Rajakkad has just seven rooms, and unlike the rescued/restored Keralan Houses of old, has been cleverly decorated to alleviate the gloom of the dark and dingy rooms, those of us who have been around too long remember, none too fondly. All rooms have a view over the plantation and I chose to sleep with the sliding doors open to the elements. At 1000m above sea level, there was no need for a/c, a fan or mosquito nets and waking up to birdsong and the ratatatat of a nearby woodpecker was simply enchanting. Fortunately I don’t mind the occasional spider!
There is also a lack of WiFi and phone reception which encourages one to indulge in their bijoux library, with its excellent collection of books. Heaven for a book lover such as myself.
So, I discovered that Rajakkad is truly a place to relax, kick back, reflect on the journey so far and regroup before hitting the road once more. Oh, and bizarrely, I found that the dose of Keralan heritage in it’s architecture only added to its charm.
Fast Facts: 7 rooms, no pool or spa.
Contact Details: http://rajakkadestate.com/
4. Anantya Resort, Palani Hills
Did you know that you can make honey out of rubber? Well, ok, not out of rubber exactly but from a rubber tree? Bees love them at certain times of year apparently. And did you know that a traditional Onam Celebration sadhya meal contains 26 elements or that the 17th century, beautiful Padmanabhapuram Palace (don’t ask me to pronounce it) despite being in Tamil Nadu is taken care of by the Keralan State govt? These were just three of the discoveries I made whilst staying at Anantya Resort, located almost on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border, in the deep south of the country. Fifteen acres of land have been reclaimed from the family’s rubber plantation, one of the most successful in the country, fifteen acres which incidentally, overlook the lake and Chittar Dam which in turn are overlooked by the southern extremities of the Western Ghats. Not too shabby a location at all.
There is an awful lot to explore and experience in the region and no time was wasted on our two night stay.
We were whisked off to see the Sri Adikesava Perumal Temple, over 3000 years old with a statue of a sleeping Vishnu; off the beaten path, extraordinarily beautiful, intricate carvings beautifully preserved and original paintings not so much so. One hopes that if they are restored they will be expertly done, experience has taught me that this may not be the case. Then into the 17th Century Padmanabhapuram Palace, the only one of its kind in the country, a wonderful example of traditional Keralan architecture with a 300 year old clock tower that still works.
In addition to the above, we were treated to an evening Kalaripayattu demonstration, the spectacular, ancient martial art of the region and a traditional Onam Celebration, from helping to prepare the flower arrangements accompanied by songs from the staff to a typical meal, drummers and games. I had never managed to see either of these traditions in my last 18 years of travel to the region and so they were a treat. We enjoyed an informative, guided walk around the rubber plantation; we really do take so much for granted every time we get into a car. Do you know how many years it takes to grow the tree ready for tapping and just how complicated the subsequent process is before we can happily head off in our cars and sit in a Delhi traffic jam? Come to think of it, without rubber we could also not fly off to discover such facts.
Sadly there was no time to trek to one of the many view points around and I skipped the yoga and Ayurveda for the same reason, but the practitioners come from the nearby ‘school’ which is considered one of the best in the country. Of course, if one wanted to, one could also just relax by the pool and do nothing.
The cottages, each with a lake view and private garden, some with a private pool, some a lotus pond, are spacious and comfortable, the food is tasty combining Keralan and Tamil dishes and the staff are friendly and welcoming. Together with the explorations on offer, a visit here packs a whole lot of the lesser known Tamil Nadu, with a stong Keralan influence into one bundle. Don’t expect to come back being able to pronounce any of the things or places you have seen, but content yourself with having learnt a little bit more about a wonderful culture and having been enriched by the experience.
Fast Facts:Room 21, pool, spa
Contact Details: www.anantyaresorts.com
Philippa is founder of Indian Experiences and author of Escape to India