The point of Pondicherry, I might argue, is that there is nothing much to see. And that’s what makes it a great vacation. It’s perfect for a vacance, if you can satisfy your need for the voyage with field trips to the Arikamedu excavations or the mandapas of Mahabalipuram. This former French colony still has a lot of French flavour and the spirit of the flaneur rules the street, and especially the waterfront promenade, of an evening. But colonial French is not Pondicherry’s only heritage, infused as it is by Tamil tradition as well as contemporary design sensibilities that Auroville and the Aurobindo Ashram have attracted to this Union Territory. This makes for a treasury of antique shops; fantastic value in handicrafts such as incense and fragrances, leather and pottery; as well as affordable high fashion—and bakeries that will give new meaning to your ideas about daily bread. When shop floors are clad in Athangudi craftsmanship, why should you laze on any less? Where award-winning heritage restoration lines the streets, wouldn’t you rather sleep on antiques too? And if a baguette sandwich with bite makes your day at dinner, shouldn’t breakfast bring you a croissant or crisp dosa with your monsooned coffee? To match your accommodation to your environs, then, we’d suggest eschewing the chain hotels for chambers with rather more character. Of which, these are our top 10 picks.
Warning: Land on planet Dune and you might never leave. If it’s your first visit to Pondicherry, you might want to reserve this treat for the end of your stay, or you won’t make it to town at all. Because, really, there’s no reason to.
In this 42-acre expanse of 50 entirely and determinedly different accommodation options, you can roam all day and find plenty to do. There’s a farm at the far-end, which not only grows vegetables and grain but also has cows you can milk dawn and dusk. There’s a spa with India’s only Watsu (water shiatsu) treatment centre — a close-to-zero-gravity experience that should leave you floating, quite literally, even after you leave the warm saltwater womb. There’s a casuarina-lined beach outside the iconic Dune door. No cable TV but literally hundreds of DVDs to watch in your room. There are canine companions for temporary adoption (though sometimes they turn the table and adopt you).
Using reclaimed timber and not too much cement, the far-flung and botanically camouflaged little villas are each unique in every sense. There’s the look-Ma, no-walls Nawabi House, a nature-cooled ‘room’ open on all sides with a mesh-caged old four-poster bed and al fresco bathroom. There’s the Granite House, reconstructed from the salvage of a Tanjore agraharam and another dismantled structure in Mahabalipuram. There’s a stand of Bamboo Houses; a pair of expansive Artist’s Studios; a pair of Wood Houses; the Doll House peopled with ethnic figurines; the Bangle House with furniture edged in broken glass arcs, thanks to one of a series of resident artists. Indeed, every room has legacies from the Dune’s artists’ residency programmes. One artist’s automobile art punctuates the greenery that proprietor Dimitri Klein is often found personally tending; another’s black and white photo prints make up the sliding screens that serve as shutters in the Artist’s Studio rooms; a third’s artwork is the cover of a children’s textbook used at the charitable school they run; at night, stacked plastic water jars recall a fourth who turned them into columns of light.
If you care about the earth, you will be happy to learn that the Dune uses no detergents, treats wastewater at its own biological plant and applies no pesticides and weed-killing chemicals to its green acres. Each room comes with a pair of bicycles to help you get around. Klein’s Elephant Valley farms near Kodaikanal supply fruits, more vegetables and salads, and coffee grown, roasted and ground on the premises, so that the kitchen is almost self-sufficient. There was a glut of avocados when we stayed, resulting in a fantastic avocado mousse. There’s a dizzying choice in fresh juices, and I chose one that included eggplant (it was delicious) to complement an eye-opener of a millet biryani. You can choose to eat Ayurvedically or in the French hypotoxic way, with the help of spa director Dr Henoc Marceau. The good doctor was out when we visited, but a pasta-free vegetable lasagne and jasmine sorbet certainly had me feeling more centred and energised than I have been in a long time.
Accommodation 17 ‘nature-cooled’ rooms, 15 AC units (6 of which have two bedrooms each), 6 AC suites and 6 AC luxury suites Best Rooms Difficult to choose a best, given each room is unique and breathtakingly so, but the two Artist’s Studio rooms and the Pool House have private pools, while the Tower House is distinguished by its eagle’s eyrie perch with a stunning 360-degree view of sea and lush land. Service Impeccable Food Innovative yet eminently comforting, it’s hard to choose badly from this book-sized menu even if you blindfold yourself and point at random. Execution is uniformly faultless. Tariff Rs 5,500 (nature-cooled), Rs 7,950 (AC), Rs 11,950 (AC suite), Rs 18,250 (luxury), inclusive of breakfast and taxes contact 0413-2655751, thedunehotel.com
Hotel Mango Hill
A more economical option if your primary destination is Auroville, this resort hotel about 6km from Pondicherry, is run by the Laederich family. While the architecture is entirely contemporary, the hotel draws inspiration from tradition with its brick-walled lounge and dining areas, a large swimming pool set around a cashewnut tree that made the premises home long before the French owners settled, and a generous use of IPS balustrades, thinnai-style seats and bed platforms. The food is casual but competent, with generous green salads, home-cured ham and homemade French-style cheeses and pâtés — there’s an organic vegetable garden and dairy on the premises. There’s again an emphasis on sound ecological practices, with all the grey water going to the garden, crops suited to the seasons and a good bunch of non-AC rooms.
Accommodation 10 air-cooled ‘Thai cottage’ rooms, 14 AC classic rooms and suites Best Rooms Suite rooms with sea view Service Serviceable Food Hearty and homely; the daily specials on the chalkboard are recommended Tariff Rs 2,500 (Thai cottages), Rs 3,200 (classic rooms) and Rs 3,700 (suites), inclusive of breakfast and taxes Contact26554913, hotel-mangohill-pondicherry.com
In the middle of the hectic Tamil Quarter is a harbour of good taste that could teach the best addresses in town a thing or two about values. A study in combining faithfulness to tradition with the best of contemporary local crafts and design, this CGH Earth property lives up to the extremely high standards of the group for style, simplicity, ecological sensitivity and local flavour. The colonial-era Tamil mansion with its twin courtyards capitalises on the natural light and heat insulation of the traditional architecture. The rooms outnumber the total staff strength (from manager to chef) by one!
The rooms have the most exquisite antique furniture in silky polished hardwoods and pre-War Japanese tiles. The light fittings cleverly complement old-fashioned milk glass with contemporary fabric shades that match the fuss-free silk furnishings. ‘Red oxide’ floors invite you to kick off your shoes and walk like an Indian. The walls wear framed advertisements from a century past; and the rooms are spacious enough to be called ‘suites’ in most hotels.
It takes an unusually bold kitchen to offer a single set menu, with just a couple of ‘safe’ fallbacks for fussy young palates and vegetarians — but the chef’s confidence is justified, given the freshness, subtlety and presentation of every single dish the kitchen turned out, and the fact that non-guests need a reservation to eat here.
Accommodation 10 rooms, each unique Best Rooms Second-floor rooms opening over the inner courtyard offer the most peace and privacy Service Enthusiastic, courteous, cheerful and very efficient Food Limited menu so well executed that you won’t mind the lack of choice; breakfast is Continental; typical main courses are an excellent East-meets-West seafood platter at dinnertime and appam with stew for lunch Tariff Rs 6,000, inclusive of breakfast and taxes contact 2227519, cghearth.com
An Unesco-recognised street restoration project on this piece of Vysial Street has transformed many façades, but this traditional frontage and thinnai have matching rooms and verandahs to back them up. This restored Chettiar mansion wears its past with proud authenticity — in the Athangudi tiles custom-made to match the original pattern, in shiny-smooth walls glazed with Chettinad lime plaster, scrubbed wooden staircase, granite-pillared courtyards, antique telephones and bathrooms with old-fashioned IPS bathing enclosures.
This Welcomheritage property may be shorn of the sprightly professionalism of many big hotels, but both service and spreads in the blue-plastered Salle A Manger recall old-fashioned hospitality. The wide range of Creole recipes is highly recommended, and it also does a mean steak and chocolate mousse.
Accommodation 5 Chettinad rooms, 3 duplex suites, 2 grand Calve chambers Best Room Grand Calve chamber with private balcony opening onto Vysial Street Service Very warm and helpful, if a trifle laidback Food Excellent; wide range of Creole options highly recommended Tariff Rs 4,000 (Chettinad rooms), Rs 4,800 (duplex suites), Rs 6,000 (grand Calve chambers), inclusive of breakfast contact 2223738, welcomheritagehotels.com
Hotel de l’Orient
There is no dearth of properties touting their ‘heritage’ roots in Pondy, but here’s one that’s actually INTACH-restored and Unesco-awarded for its restoration of an 18th-century mansion. The level of detail and authenticity is truly marvellous; from the old Chettinad plaster in some rooms echoed in the finish of the bathroom walls, to the whimsical lithographs and figurines, improvised in-room ‘tea chests’ and exquisite soft furnishings, this property amply lives up to the claim of Neemrana ‘non-hotels’. Individualistic rooms take their names and décor inspiration from former French colonies. The food, both menu and execution of individual dishes, is so superior as to draw non-resident guests regularly to the cheerful courtyard — a visit simply not to be missed, whether you stay here or not.
Accommodation 2 luxury suites, 2 grand rooms and 12 smaller rooms Best Room The Karaikal grand room, with its delightful enclosed verandah and terrace sitout Service Lively, friendly but unobtrusive Food Varied and very well executed Creole, Indian and Continental menu that changes daily; the three-course plat du jour at lunch is deservedly popular Tariff Rs 3,500-4,000 (smaller rooms, both double and twin single beds), Rs 5,500 (larger rooms and the Yanaon grand room) and Rs 7,000 (luxury suites and Karaikal grand room), inclusive of breakfast Contact 2343067-8, neemranahotels.com
Hotel du Parc
A renovated and expanded 17th-century colonial villa, this cheerful property is done up with traditional sensibilities bolstered by judicious innovation. The white-trimmed ochre walls so typical of the French Quarter are livened up by a lovely pale teal that plays up the deeper green of the ancient mango trees in the courtyard, which flower and fruit the year round, making a squirrel-happy canopy over the cantilevered dining deck. Well-chosen local furniture, fabrics and ceramics play up the heritage without seeming too stuffy. The modern bathrooms echo the masonry ledges and pedestals of an older era, and the way the mirrors back on to windows for a greenroom border of natural light is quite remarkable.
Accommodation 3 standard rooms, 5 deluxe rooms and 2 suites; all air-conditioned Best Room Either of the suites Service Unassuming and eager to please, very friendly Food Affordable, varied and competent Tariff Rs 2,800 (standard), Rs 3,800 (deluxe), Rs 5,400 (suite), inclusive of breakfast and taxes contact 2226591-94, hotelduparc.co.in
One of our very favourite finds is the home of S. Bascarane and his charming wife, granddaughter of Edouard Goubert, the first chief minister of Pondy. They added a storey to this 120-year-old house, and stories for their children — it was purchased as their legacy — to tell years hence, now that it is run as a guesthouse until the young ones grow up. The new construction echoes traditional architecture with high ceilings, terracotta-tiled floors, cheerful ochre walls and huge teak-louvred doors and windows. The décor, by the lady of the house, is warm with bright-polished brass utensils and rich dark hardwood, airy white curtains and colourful local figurines, old posters and exquisitely carved four-posters.
The local ladies who cook and clean make up their lack of English with eager warmth, echoing the graciousness of the host, who is on hand each morning to help with sightseeing plans or restaurant recommendations. Underlining the best of Pondicherry’s warm hospitality and penchant for everyday aesthetics that honours heritage, Les Hibiscus offers it all up at possibly the prettiest-priced packages we’ve seen, located on a quiet street with lovely little cafés and boutiques cheek by jowl.
Accommodation 4 AC rooms; a fifth air-cooled one is being added on the terrace Best Rooms The first-floor rooms both open conveniently into the dining/drawing area where breakfast is served Service Warm, friendly, eager and very helpful Food Breakfast is the only meal served, and it is both sumptuous and elegant Tariff Rs 2,300 without breakfast, Rs 2,500 with breakfast
Contact 2227480, leshibiscus.in
If you’re coming to town with friends or family, you could do worse than this three-bedroom guesthouse run out of a renovated residence by three friends. The drawing/dining area opening up into a bright, spacious courtyard is inviting, and you’ll be tempted to eat breakfast outside. The bathrooms are an unusually generous size, with lovely distressed IPS walls in green, blue and purple, respectively. Furniture and furnishings are stylish but understated; there’s a fully fitted-out kitchen you can use, and plenty of popular restaurants round the corner.
Accommodation 3 AC rooms, one of which has the bed up on a loft Best Room If you want a little quirk, the Jasmine’s loft is fun Service Like staying at home Food Can be prepared for you on special request, or you can take over the kitchen yourself Tariff Rs 3,000 (Jasmine), Rs 3,500 (Hibiscus and Frangipane), including breakfast Contact 9025817351 (Umesh Dhandhania, one of the three proprietors), villachristophe.com
It’s not the prettiest place in Pondicherry, and far from atmospheric. But its position bang in the centre of the promenade that many consider the very point of Pondicherry makes for a great view. Add a nice little courtyard full of bright blue cast-iron chairs, one of the few pools in town (you can’t swim in Pondy’s sea) and very varied buffet spreads, and this Sarovar-managed Hidesign hotel is almost redeemed from the sin of overly steep pricing.
Accommodation 26 deluxe rooms, 11 deluxe sea-facing rooms, 1 Presidential suite Best Rooms The sea-facing rooms on the second floor Service Impersonal and slightly casual for the business hotel atmosphere Food Varied buffet at the24-hour Blueline restaurant; the dinner-only Lighthouse specialises in seafood; Risque may be the best-located hotel bar in town for walking off the fumes Tariff Rs 6,000 (deluxe rooms), Rs 7,500 (sea-facing rooms), Rs 12,000 (suite), inclusive of taxes Contact 2227750-57, sarovarhotels.com
The Promenade’s cousin a long-jump away, Le Dupleix has better architectural and atmospheric justification for its stratospheric prices (the highest in town limits). Studded with carved rosewood panels salvaged from Governor-General Dupleix’s old house, plus generous lashings of ornate heritage-styled furniture and furnishings, valances and chandeliers, reclaimed wood and granite pillars up top, these plush rooms in a quiet nook of White Town is a great over-the-top luxury treat.
Accommodation 2 superior rooms, 4 deluxe rooms, 5 penthouse rooms and 3 suites Best Rooms For a fascinating view out of gigantic glass window walls, choose one of the corner penthouse rooms Service Friendly and happy-go-lucky Food Barely competent, but there are plenty of nearby local legends to eat at Tariff Rs 5,000 (superior) Rs 7,500 (deluxe), Rs 9,400 (penthouse), Rs 10,200 (suite), including taxes Contact 2226999, sarovarhotels.com