Everyday I count my blessings. The blessing of having a job that I love and that gets me up in the morning with a big smile on my face. The blessing of having a work partner who is also a life partner. And the blessing of having family and friends who surround me with love and support. This blog post is dedicated to the last group – the friends who I can call family. Amongst these are four very special ladies. Women I have known since we were girls (and one since I was a toddler!) and who I treasure on a daily basis.
Every year, the five of us plan three days away from our usual busy routines. This was our third year running and even though we were one woman down (you know who you are!), we seem to have finally cracked the code of a successful girlie trip. A) Fix a destination that is easy for everyone to get to. Believe me when you are juggling four different cities of residence, this knocks off a whole chunk from our burgeoning bucket lists. B) Choose a hotel that is clean, comfortable, and dare I say it – indulgent. These three days are not for unnecessary skimping. And C) Make sure there is plenty of good food and drinks around. With Goa and Bangalore already checked off, this year saw us a little more adventurous. This year it was to be Pondicherry.
Situated near Chennai (3 hours away by road), Pondicherry or Puducherry as it is now referred to, is a Union Territory town and a once thriving French colony. Now the only legacy of the French remains visible around the elegant but extremely abridged French Quarter. Chic pastel coloured bungalows vie with street signs that could have been transplanted directly from Paris. Over here you have a Rue Surcouf, over there a Rue Saint Martin. It’s all deliciously exotic.
To get to Pondicherry, we hired a taxi from the airport. A shout out here to all those thinking of doing the same thing – don’t. Firstly, and we only found this out later, regular taxis are not allowed to ply to and fro city limits. Thus at every toll, there were frantic mutterings and pleading from our driver with the powers that be. Luckily they allowed him through but it was simply an unnecessary waste of time. We should have just let our hotel send us a car. For a thousand rupees less, the taxi was just not worth the extra hassle. Plus the driver took us by a particularly boring highway route when the real fun way to get to Pondicherry is via the gorgeous East Coast Road that offers scenic views of the Bay of Bengal throughout the journey. This we discovered only on our way back to Chennai. Hmph.
We were booked to stay at La Villa. Located in the heart of the French Quarter or “White Town” as it is colloquially referred to, La Villa can be found bang opposite the Lycée Francais – a bright mustard coloured building on the Rue Surcouf. As we spilled out of our taxi, tired from the long journey, the grey gates of La Villa held a promise of shade and peace. And boy did it deliver on that promise! From the time you enter its leafy courtyard, this 100-year old bungalow welcomes you with open arms. Its cool white walls, authentic Athangadi tiles, wicker furniture and luxurious fittings create an ambience that is reminiscent of period novels and olde world charm.
Containing only six suites, La Villa, unlike its older more peppier family member – Villa Shanti, is best suited for a romantic escapade or for small groups looking for a quiet interlude. The fact that no children below 16 years are allowed is another deciding factor for those looking for the perfect abode to rest, recuperate and renew the romance. The four of us lucked out and got two of the three suites on the first floor. A hop skip and (literal) jump into the compact little pool that stretched past our front door, the rooms were surrounded by verdant foliage and comfy lounge furniture. Perfect for those evening cocktail hours we were planning to take.
The designers of La Villa have cleverly used the large and spacious rooms to echo a sense of indulgence. Local artefacts and handicrafts blend effortlessly with modern amenities such as plug points built into the platform beds, lamps that double up as art installations and walk in rain showers. My suite was called Timeless and it was huge. A super large bed resplendent with fluffy mattress and blindingly white bed linen shared space with a wonderful wooden armoire, a kitschy wooden ‘tree’, and a traditional charpoy painted a decidedly untraditional silver. Wooden French doors led us on to an exceptionally large verandah where sheer white curtains fluttered around white marble pillars and a day bed fought for attention with an orb-like rattan swing. Complete bliss! The other suite lacked nothing in terms of comfort either. While slightly smaller and with a more compact terrace, the bathroom was larger and it had a welcoming lounge / work area with writing desk and coffee table that inspired one to write or create or something!
Days at La Villa pass by in a serendipitous haze. Breakfasts (included in the tarriff) can be taken downstairs in the courtyard restaurant or served in your room. We opted to have it in our verandah and every morning woke up to the brilliant sight of our coffee table laden with freshly baked croissants and baguettes, fruit bowls served with yoghurt and honey, platters of locally produced artisanal cheeses, eggs made to order and fresh juices, filter coffee or masala chai to sip on. It wasn’t any wonder then that our breakfasts lasted through the hour and ended in a stupor that only another nap could remedy. We tried the highly touted restaurant offerings from the hotel as well and enjoyed a mango and chicken salad that was refreshing and an adequate club sandwich by the pool one afternoon. There is a mini-bar in each room that is replenished daily. Yes, you read that right! Stocked with miniatures of all your favourite spirits, cans of beer, coffee and tea sachets, biscuits, wafers and nuts, you can splurge to your heart’s content without breaking the bank. This generosity seems to be largely due to the fact that the hotel is still waiting on its alcohol licence. But till that happens, there will definitely be no complaints from our side!
Lest you think that all we did in Pondicherry was eat, sleep and drink, let me assure you that we did manage to actually leave the hotel. Once in a while. Walking around the French-named streets, admiring the brightly coloured villas and restored houses was lovely no doubt but the sapping heat and humidity took its toll. We often cut short our walks to run back to La Villa or pop into one of the many other boutique hotels that stood cheek by jowl in the French Quarter. We dined at Palais de Mahe one night and enjoyed traditional dishes such as fish moilee and prawn pepper fry with appams. Definitely a must do but skip the desserts. The panna cotta tasted like guava custard.
One evening was spent on the terrace of Hotel Le Pondy. Strangely this roof top bar came highly recommended on Trip Advisor but in our books it was too much like a kebab joint that served beer. Strange. One exemplary dinner was had at Buddha by the Bay – the Asian-inspired rooftop restaurant at Le Promenade. Overlooking the Bay of Bengal, the hotel prides itself on its enviable position on Goubert Avenue or the Promenade. Home to morning walkers, evening time-passers and tourists out looking for the ‘real’ Pondicherry, the Promenade is wide, exceptionally clean and a perfect way to spend an evening. If only it hadn’t been so damn hot! But back to dinner.
Go to Bay of Buddha for its experimental cocktails, and its better than average sushi and dim sum. Avoid the nasi goreng (more like a fried rice) and the basil cheesecake (more like baked custard) and enjoy the cool sea breeze and party vibe. Another lunch worthy of a mention was at Le Club. Around the corner from La Villa (pretty much everything is around the corner here) is this cafe that looks like a beach hut complete with thatched roof and cane furniture. While the alcohol prices seem on the higher side, the menu filled with continental staples such as steak and fries, prawns in white sauce and chicken a la kiev are perfect for a lazy brunch.
Ps: We did go to Auroville one morning. Hired a car for a half a day and trekked over town the see the iconic Golden Globe or Matrimandir. However, at the risk of irking a few people, I have to say that we left unimpressed. While the principles on which Auroville was built remain inspirational and the township is startlingly clean and green, besides the visitor’s center and a few shops selling hand made soaps and incense, it was really not worth the effort. But then again maybe that’s just us.
That said, there were a ton of things we didn’t get around to doing in Pondicherry. We merely glossed over the Aurobindo Ashram and library in town, we really didn’t venture too far into the Tamil Quarter where I am told one can find delightful antiques as well as traditional food, and we skipped on the beaches that bring with them their own set of charms. All this could wait for another trip. What matters is that we succeeded in accomplishing the original purpose of this trip which was to celebrate three unadulterated days of friendship, fun and food…and plan next year’s trip!
To know more about La Villa, do check out their site – http://www.lavillapondicherry.com/