Chennai, apart from being a destination in itself, is a great base to explore the southern part of the state where ancient temples and opulent mansions rub shoulders with colonial forts and serene hill stations. With the Nilgiris, the spectacular east coast and fertile river beds and fields just a weekend drive away, the state offers a smorgasbord of experiences waiting to be unravelled. Here are four such places you can visit over a weekend.
The lure of the hills is irresistible; if they’re calling out to you, you must go. And in this case, give the crowded hill station of Ooty a miss, and discover serenity at neighbouring Coonoor, instead. Set high up in the Nilgiris, near Ooty and Kotagiri, this hill station is your best bet if you want to experience the best of what the region offers, sans the crowds.
Sim’s Park, a botanical garden, is a great place to start your day; take in the splendid views as you stroll down, and stop to breathe, and just be. Coonoor is a lush valley that brims over with roaring waterfalls, panoramic viewpoints and plenty of opportunities for trekking and bird watching. The pace of life here is slow, and one can spend hours in the region’s tea and coffee estates, where you can watch how your favourite brew is processed.
There are plenty of quaint cottages, bungalows, and old-school cafes, bakeries and restaurants here where you could get everything from a standard English breakfast to piping hot sambhar and delicious homemade chocolates or cheese.
Distance: About 550 km (more than 8-9 hours by road).
The Chettinad region comprising Karaikudi, Devakottai and villages in the neighbourhood is a veritable treasure trove of culture and cuisine. Home to the Nattukottai Chettiars, who were enterprising bankers, traders and shrewd business people, the region is rife with palatial houses, most of which are abandoned. Some, though, have been converted to heritage hotels, such as The Bangala. The mansions of Chettinad are a study in design and reveal the global aesthetic of the well-travelled Chettiar; Italian marble, stained glass, giant pillars, intricate woodwork, open courtyards and Belgian cookware embellish these massive homes.
Even if you’re not a culture vulture or an architecture enthusiast, go to the region just for the food. Chettinad cuisine is rich, flavourful and iconic – a meat-lover’s delight. Dig into sumptuous Chettinad chicken, mutton kola urundai (fried meat balls) and if you’re adventurous, try the ratha kootu (goat blood curry) or the thalai maas (goat brain curry). Don’t leave without picking up Athangudi tiles and Chettinad sarees.
Distance: 420 km (over seven hours by road). Alternatively, you could fly to Madurai and hire a cab or bus to Karaikudi (about 80 km)
Tharangambadi (or Tranquebar) means ‘land of the singing waves’ and this nondescript town is set on the east coast, in the Nagapattinam district. But what makes this relatively non-touristy place a great weekend idea is its rich Danish heritage. This was the seat of the Danish East India Company and Fort Dansborg, built by Danish Admiral Ove Gjedde in1620, stands tall on the shores, as testimony to the town’s colonial past.
The fort houses a museum with a much-coveted collection of antiques dating back several centuries. Zion Church, in the same complex as the fort, was built in 1701 by a Protestant missionary, and is widely regarded as the first Protestant church in the country. While travellers who wanted to explore this town would simply have to make do with a brief pitstop due to lack of accommodation options, but things are different today. Neemrana’s Bungalow On The Beach is among the best places to stay
Distance: 270 km (about 5 hours); Puducherry (115 km)
If you’ve spent a considerable amount of time in Chennai, chances are you’ve definitely been to ‘Pondy’ on a Friday night at least twice. The former French colony, located just 150 km or so away from Chennai, never gets boring. The scenic drive along the famed East Coast Road (ECR) is a delight, with several cafes and restaurants flanking the highway. The Union Territory on the shores of the Bay Of Bengal is a cornucopia of cultural influences – from Dutch and Portuguese to French and British, and of course, Tamil.
The Aurobindo Ashram is a haven of peace. The temples and churches here, including the Basilica Of The Sacred Heart Of Jesus and the Thirukameswar temple, are worth visiting. Head to Auroville, an experimental township with people from all corners of the world, for an unparalleled spiritual experience.
The French quarter of Puducherry has colonial-style buildings with colourful bougainvillea-lined avenues; bike around or take a stroll to soak in its vibe. Don’t leave this seaside town without gorging on the food, which is a heady mix of South Indian, French and European cuisines, with some great bakeries and steakhouses to boot. Auroville Bakery, Café Des Artes, Villa Shanti, Café Xtasi and Rendezvous are just some of the few places to swing by for a meal and a drink.
Distance: 155 km (about 2.5 to 3 hours).