After our wonderful stay at the Fort-Palace Neemrana hotel outside Delhi last fall, I looked forward to staying at the De L'Orient in Pondicherry, another Neemrana establishment. We were not disappointed.
1 SEPTEMBER 2007
But let me back up. The drive from Chennai takes about 2 Â½ hours and we caravanned with our neighbors. Actually, we put all the kids in our car, complete with DVD player and movies. They said the trip went by quickly. Ian and I and our two neighbor friends had a longer trip in their, shall we say, basic vehicle. But we all had snacks and drinks and entertainment, so a relatively painless drive all around.
Pondicherry is an old French holding from the colonial days. It is it's own person, separate from the rest of Tamil Nadu. Well, I guess it would have to be since Tamil Nadu is a dry state and the French certainly couldn't survive without their vin! We picked up a few bottles of Indian wine from an actual liquor store at the end of our hotel's street.
Since India just celebrated 60 years of freedom from colonial rule, some of the flavor from the British (in general), Portuguese (Goa) and French (Pondicherry) lingers on. But it seems the French didn't leave much behind beyond some architecture, a lycÃ¨e and French street names. In fact, Pondicherry is an Indian town with a mild French flavor and the French quarter only spans four roads inland from the beach, and about a dozen roads north to south. It's easily walkable in a few hours and while the streets are quiet, there's such a thing as too quiet. Doors were bolted, windows were closed and barred. The joy of usable sidewalks was a little dampened by having nowhere to walk to. And that wonder of every French town, the sidewalk cafÃ©, while perfectly situated for Pondicherry's tree covered lanes was nonexistent. Folks zipped around on their rented bikes and mopeds, or meandered down the wide "boardwalk" looking over the sharp black rocks to the crashing waves 10 feet below. But even the NesCafÃ© stall on the boardwalk didn't have chairs... or serve any coffee.
We had our expectations too high.
What did meet our expectations was our hotel with its open cafÃ© style restaurant and rooms with huge windows, 18 foot ceilings and fabulous furniture. We had two adjoining rooms, ours with a couple of tiny twins pushed together and drapes hanging only on the backside of the four poster frame. This, we discovered, was the bathroom door as behind the bed were two small partial walls, one partially blocking the toilet from view and one blocking the shower. It sounds odd, and it was, but it was charming as well. The kids had a room as long as our house, with two twin beds for the girls, a chaise longue for Nicholas and a reclining wicker seat that sufficed for Jonathon. I don't really know how to describe the rest, so photos will have to suffice. We were happy.
We had a quick lunch at The Promenade where our neighbors had rooms, then decided to spend the afternoon at our hotel just relaxing. On the way we let the six kids play at a huge playground, well maintained for India and packed with people but not crazy. Of course the equipment would never pass a safety inspection but we left without blood or an ER run so it was all good. Of course all our little kids were snagged at some point to be in random stranger photographs but they had fun anyway.
Ian was bummed the hotel didn't have WiFi. I was not. The rest of the afternoon frittered away with "Monk" before dinner at Le Dupleix. Dupleix doesn't mean anything; it's apparently the name of someone from a by-gone age. Though the appetizers took an hour to reach the table the food was yummy and we enjoyed ourselves. I strongly recommend the Lettuce Salad. The Baby Spinach Salad with grilled fruits was just OK.
2 SEPTEMBER 2007 - Quiet Day
Church in the morning was at Our Lady of Angels, with a view of the beach. We had a choice of 8:30 in the morning in English or 5:15 in the evening in French. I would have really liked to attend the evening service, but hotel sleeping typically means early wake-ups and we didn't know what our plans for the day were. This was a very different vacation from my regular plan-to-the-minute variety.
Our Lady of Angels is a couple blocks north and a block over from De L'Orient. A raised pink building, furnished simply with stations in French, a sleeping dog, bare pews and white walls. The Mass began with "Sing a New Song," more familiar than anything played at a regular Sunday service at the Chennai Basilica and in less than an hour we were returning to our hotel, down quiet lanes under another overcast sky.
Auroville was our morning destination. A created community by the "Mother," it professed to be a place to welcome those of all faiths and walks of life, provided they gave up any semblance of a faith and all outside identifying behavior and activity. The single paved road through the community led to the Visitor's Center and passed tumble down shacks, leaning fences, dirt roads, tourist trap shops and little else. The main attraction is the Matrimandir, a huge metal golf ball about 10 minute walk from the Visitor's Center. Matrimandir means "Temple of the Mother" but the information book was quick to clarify that it was most definitely not a temple but more a free range unguided meditation center. There are grandiose plans of a dozen intricate gardens and fountains to surround the giant shiny nut but little is completed so far. On the whole, we were disappointed to miss the true Aurovillians, those grungy mole type people of myth, who build their own homes yet cannot sell them if they leave or move into larger accommodations, provide service to the community, are forbidden to marry, earn no income, yet provide a monthly due to the community at large. Were the clay-coated foreign-born natives hidden behind the huge promising gates along the road that appeared to lead to nowhere? Were they cooped up, writing letters home asking for another dip into their trust funds and another batch of mom's brownies? Were they preparing for the next meteor shower when the massive pocked sphere would rise into the heavens?
It would be really humorous in a quirky sort of way if it wasn't so depressing. Or if I didn't know that Katherine had stayed at a guest house in Auroville when she went to Pondicherry for her French field trip last school year. Ew. But we must have missed the true Auroville, behind the gates, among the trees, passed the edges of the muddy roads. Those hard-working people building and growing and providing for themselves and each other. The schools and the children. Where were the children? Beyond the run-down dilapidated Indian village and the golden egg, there must have been more.
We bailed and went to lunch at Rendezvous back in the French Quarter. The food took forever but was quite good, though Jonathon insisted he wanted grilled Tiger Paws. He was less than thrilled with the Tiger Prawns actually on the menu. The avocat crevette needed a dressing on the avocat, while the crevette had a nice tang. We passed food around, sharing the fried calamari and pizza, seer steak and pasta. Ordering a couple appetizers worked best for me, the food came quickly and was filling; even with just a soup and salad there was no room for dessert. And again the rest of the afternoon was devoted to lounging. My neighbor and I popped into the disappointing Rajasthan Handicraft Fair next door to The Promenade, drove around for a bit for antiquing and clothing, and stumbled upon an elephant giving blessings. For the price of a guava or bundle of grass (Rs10 or so), or better yet a coin, the elephant bonked people on the head with its trunk. This the kids would enjoy seeing. We high-tailed it back to the hotel, piled 11 people into one car (after collecting one who'd been left behind in the room while she was changing... oops), and brought them all to the elephant. With guavas in hand, the kids fed it and most got a full on bonk. For some we bought bundles of grass because the elephant took their guava and moved on, but just about everyone got their blessing. It was nifty and there were scrapbook stickers too, so we were doubly enthused. But the excitement ran out and we made our way back to the hotel. My neighbor and I sat in the courtyard while the kids finished their movie and instead of reading my book Glitter and Greed, I read through most of an article about The Dune hotel just outside Pondicherry, a really quirky resort that sounds fascinating. Each bungalow is a completely different design, from the Kerala house made entirely of rich wood to the Tower that soars upwards. The beach has its own physical doorway. There are artisans in residence and regular evening entertainment. Unfortunately I didn't finish the article, it was in French so it went slowly. If we go back down to Pondicherry (not at all a definite at this point), that's where we want to stay.
Dinner was at the Lighthouse restaurant on the rooftop. Aside from the interminable wait and the sporadic rain drops, dinner was good with the white noise of the Bay of Bengal surf. We all shared meals to save room for dessert but it still took two full hours. A blink for true Frenchmen, an eternity for the rest of us.
3 SEPTEMBER 2007 - Future plans
We came home from Pondicherry and made several future plans. The trip down and back wasn't as harrowing as I'd anticipated though there were still a couple of close calls passing a vehicle on the right, with a bus tearing from the opposite direction.
But knowing that the drive is doable, we have some ideas. Within an hour of Chennai along the ECR are Fisherman's Cove, Temple Bay and Ideal Beach. Just about everyone in Chennai knows these beach resorts but us. We did go to a lunch at Fisherman's Cove once and it's a Taj resort, so we'd like to take a weekend there. Also within an hour is Mahaballipuram/Mamallapuram, an old temple city we didn't stop at. Near Mahaballipuram are some submerged temples (they were further exposed by the receding tsunami waters three years ago), "Krishna's Butterball," a precariously perched massive boulder, salt farms and loads of shrimp hatcheries. One in particular caught our funny bone, a hatchery and orphanage listed on the same sign. Orphanage... not funny... but associated with a hatchery we came up with plenty of "Adopt a Shrimp" lines. On another route south but also within an hour or so of home we've learned of the **Anna Salai Zoo with a lion safari. Thanks to another friend for that tip. Overall I'm just happy we have day trip options.
Jonathon woke with a fever this morning. He crashed on the couch as soon as we got home, took a 2 hour nap and woke hotter than before and reached 105.1F/40.5C. Katherine did her homework, she practiced her flute at the hotel, and our Internet is out so she went to the neighbor's house to do what she could there for her Language Arts class. The rest of the family settled in front of the xBox and Wii. It's a pizza kind of night.