There’s no view from the room — not of the grand spreading tree that overhangs the pool on the ground floor nor of the sliver of silver ahead that is the Bay of Bengal. The arched window that opens onto the wide wraparound verandah is kept permanently shuttered. To enjoy the view, I must step onto the wide wraparound verandah and settle into the cane chair waiting outside the door. Which I naturally do.
There, I’ve said it, the one debatably negative thing I observed about the Palais de Mahé in Pondicherry, set around the corner from the seafront Promenade, on Rue de Bussy.
I am a notoriously hard-to-please reviewer, but send me to a CGH Earth hotel and I tend to gush. Okay, here I go: over the last two decades, this hotel group in South India has managed to create (often recreate) an astonishingly good bunch of hotels — all differently stunning, all extremely well-run, all highly priced. I have visited seven of its 13 properties on assignment — most are in Kerala, but there’s one each in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and now two in Pondicherry — and each visit has left me weak with happiness and a strong desire to be stinking rich. So self-indulgent do these hotels make you feel that I once defied my sad lack of filthy lucre and blew up half a year’s savings on a family holiday at their Marari Beach Resort, with the unfortunate effect of persuading my children that all holidays should be like this.
But the thing is that the children were, in the unconsciously clever way of children, responding simply and precisely to the whole point of a CGH Earth hotel — the luxury leavened by casual friendliness, the deeply satisfying food presented unostentatiously and generously, the swift attention paid to your smallest need with not a hint of obsequiousness. Must have felt like hanging out at the vast, smart home of a wealthy, warm, fun friend of their parents (if they had any).
So it is that the group’s Palais de Mahé, in its first full season, is already Pondicherry’s best hotel. No mean feat: for a small urban hamlet — it’s barely possible to dignify it with the term ‘town’ — Pondicherry has a large number of attractive hostelries. I visited the first of these ‘heritage hotels’ a little less than a decade ago, which proved to be a delightful, painstakingly restored colonial mansion. This first was followed by a slew of others, offering ‘heritage’ accommodation in the ‘French Quarter’ for people on different budgets. But it took a CGH Earth to explore the possibilities of the just as historically important and rather more alive ‘Tamil Quarter’ — their first Pondy hotel, Maison Perumal, is housed in a restored Brahmin residence on Perumal Koil Street. (Neemrana Hotels too now have one in the ‘Black Town’, La Maison Tamoule.)
I remark to the hotel’s general manager, who’s known simply as Dinu (and is so not GM-like that I once caught him manning the reception desk because the nice girl was on leave), that it’s fitting that the Tamil heritage Maison Perumal has a counterpart in the French heritage Palais de Mahé. Oh but, Dinu gently interrupts me, the Palais isn’t a heritage building at all! The ruined building that stood on these grounds was razed and an entirely new structure erected. The building is a labour of love by Pondicherry Intach architect, Ajit Koujalgi.
Sometimes it’s good to be taken down a peg or two. I admit to having been sniffy about this recreated heritage, Singapore-style repackaged stuff. But having enjoyed a full day at the Palais, revelling in its high-beamed ceilings, vast bedrooms, gleaming yellow and black floors, stone-tiled corridors, ochre façade with white-painted arches and wooden balcony overhanging the entrance — buying fully into the illusion of grandly restored history — I was in no position, or indeed state of mind, to cavil. Ajit Koujalgi has described this as “façade intervention” — “building something decent…if you can’t stop the destruction…” All I can say is, Mr Koujalgi, I’m glad you intervened.
Because what all lucky people get to enjoy is a very fine hotel. The look is perfect, and so too the ‘feel’. For dinner at the open-air restaurant, on the top floor of the three-storey building, it’s advisable to book a table of your choice well in advance so you get to properly enjoy the breeze wafting in from the nearby sea. I didn’t ask for a reservation well in advance (6pm didn’t cut it) but even so my waitstaff pals quickly contrived to set up a table for me in a corner. I had planned to try the Vietnamese restaurant next door but abandoned the idea when told the day’s special was fennel-spiced pork chops. What a good decision that was, and I congratulated myself further when my meal ended with a perfect bowlful of the Kerala classic, ada prathaman.
The menu cards reveal a subtle but distinct Kerala flavour — appropriate for a hotel named after the tiny French enclave in north Kerala. Off the compact lunch menu, for instance, I choose a prawn wrap to find that it’s really a prawn ularthiyathu smartly encased in a dosa. Thus, I happily ate all meals bar one at the Palais. And the miss turned out to be a hit too: when I mentioned to Dinu my interest in visiting the Maison Perumal, he bundled me into an auto calling out that I should lunch there too. I won’t go into the Maison’s plentiful charms here, but will say this: you might never forgive yourself for not at least dropping in for a meal. Lunches are outstanding traditional Tamil meals and dinners (sadly untasted) Creole.
CGH Earth isn’t a great one for blowing its own trumpet (just take a look at its sketchy website), but I can tell you there are other good reasons to DIY a package ‘experience’ of their two Pondy hotels — if Palais guests should go eat great traditional meals at Perumal, those staying at the more affordable Tamil hotel can use the Palais pool and full-fledged Ayurveda centre, and throw in a posh meal here for good measure. Pondy has never been this stylish.
Where: 4 Rue de Bussy, Puducherry 605001
Accommodation: 18 double rooms
Contact: 0484-3011711, 0413-2345611, cghearth.com