Perfection in Pondy
Right Up Your Rue
After six days in the humid breath of Chennai with traffic that makes London feel like a rural backwater and rickshaws, motorbikes and cars which seemed to have developed honking Tourette’s my senses craved a tender touch. Less noise, more space, cleaner air and the sophistication of a by-gone era. A place where the karma was, altogether….calmer.
Heading 3 hours south of Chennai on the East Coast Highway, my stoic driver steered his honking car around rickshaws, cows, herds of goats and menacing trucks finally delivering me safely into the refuge of my hotel, Palais de Mahe. Situated in the former French Indian colony of Pondicherry where its Gallic past seems to have retained a gentle embrace on its culture. Laid back streets, serenaded by colonial architecture shaded by weeping trees and the pleasant sound of bicycle bells ping as they alert you to their presence. Don’t be fooled however this is still India and rickshaws still buzz about but with less fanaticism.
Historically split by a canal this coastal enclave is a town of two halves. ‘White Town’ where Francophiles resided in architecture reminding them of home with shaded graceful courtyards and ‘Tamil Town’ which housed the local Tamil population, vibrant, smiling, and with the pulse of a nation hard at work.
I was on a personal mission to discover the taste of Gallic India, my stimuli began at the colonially influenced hotel, Palais de Mahe in ‘White Town’. Three stories of elegant Indian influenced French design, balanced with a well needed courtyard swimming pool. The perfect haven from the diesel choked air of Chennai. The first thing that strikes you is the lemon grass scented reception hall, decked with genteel wicker armchairs, hypnotic ceiling fans and the warm smile of the reception staff. Somehow the team behind the hotel led by its General Manager, Dinu (owned by CHG Hotels) have discovered that fine balance of warm human hospitality, which is often sacrificed by hotels in favour of amenities and facilities. The colonnaded swimming pool leads the eye upwards to the Pondicherrian sky revealing a roof top terrace restaurant and a collection of sensitively designed and furnished suites. Each room touched by unfussy design, instead deferring to simple elegance, ochre coloured floors, polished plaster walls, cinnamon coloured furniture and furnishings, which soften the crisp edges of each suite.
Palais de Mahe breathes life into aching bones and weary travellers aided by the restaurant led by its Head Chef, Kathir. It delights end entertains with progressive Indian food, taking classic South Indian ingredients and re-inventing their applications. This is fine dining without the formality…think Red Snapper coated in a lentil crust, red grape reduction alongside Fish Kebabs, Sesame Pork Chops touched by tamarind and crushed nuts. The ingenuity behind the menu is however, self-effacing…perhaps the true mark of an artist at work. It’s a foodie paradise and the nostalgic club room bar does make one linger for just another glass of crisp white Indian wine.
When your feet get a little itchy…there’s a great collection of nearby boutiques, antique stores and jaunty cafes. If sea air and the zen of the ashram appeal they’re all in stumbling distance of the hotel. I think I’ve left a piece of my soul here…I just may need to return to check in on it.