Take your pick from making cheese at Acres Wild or visiting the temples of Thanjavur that have been tagged UNESCO World Heritage or driving to Yelagiri for the long Republic Day weekend
The old-worldly charms of Ooty
The trick to enjoying the Queen of the Nilgiris, just as she used to be back when they began calling her that, is to find a quiet place to stay and retreat to it quickly because, in the Ooty of nowadays, it’s hard to avoid day trippers jamming roads lined with chaotic commercial establishments and candy pink houses. But there’s no shortage of sylvan sanctuaries. There’s the lovely Bouganvilla (Rs 2,900; bouganvilla.in) off Silverton Road, The Bungalow in Ooty (from Rs 3,000; tranquilitea.in) up above the Race Course, King’s Cliff (from Rs 4,500; kingscliff-ooty.com) on Havelock Road, Sherlock (from Rs 3,000; littlearth.in/Sherlock) on Tiger Hill Road, Lymond House (from Rs 4,000; serendipityo.com/lymondhouse) on Sylks Road, next door to the Taj Savoy (from Rs 5,500; tajhotels.com), which is adorably unchanging and always worth the indulgence (take overnight train to Coimbatore and drive up in three hours from there).
A boutique break in Pondicherry
Pondy is always relaxing because its pace remains quite willingly somnolent and when you do wake up from long naps, it’s in a quiet mansion, lovingly restored, with great food to be found a stroll away at most. Book ahead at favourites like The Dune (from Rs 5,800; duneecogroup.com), La Maison Perumal (from Rs 6,400; cghearth.com/maison-perumal), Hotel de L’Orient (from Rs 3,700; hotel-de-lorient.neemranahotels.com), La Maison Tamoule (from Rs 3,200; la-maison-tamoule.neemranahotels.com), Mango Hill (from Rs 2,600; hotel-mangohill-pondicherry.com), La Closerie (from Rs 3,750; lacloseriepondichery.com), Hotel du Parc (from Rs 3,750; hotelduparc.co.in) or Les Hibiscus (from Rs 1,500; leshibiscus.in). If you arrive by a road-trip down ECR (the East Coast Road for the uninitiated), stop for a fresh-catch seafood meal at the wayside shacks in Vennangupattu en route. Nobody needs an exhortation to go to Pondy, of course, so this is just a gentle reminder.
It’s the sort of trip that many make over a long and tiring day from Chennai (about five hours each way) but Chidambaram ideally deserves a weekend. The temple to Nataraja, one of the fabled Panchabhoota shrines, has been managed for centuries by the Deekshitar community, who can still be seen in their traditional attire, worn even by the young. The Veeranam erie (lake), and the Pichavaram mangrove forest and its diverse birdlife are close by. A drive to Cuddalore’s Silver Beach, particularly in time for a tranquil sunrise or sunset, would be worth your time. There are plenty of basic hotels in town but if you prefer a heritage experience, try lakshmivilas.co.in, sister concern of the Saradharamproperties in Chidambaram and Pichavaram. Fans of Kalki Krishnamurthy’s famous novel, you must ask for their Ponniyin Selvan circuit!
Chennai to Vellore and Kanchipuram
It takes under an hour to get to Kanchipuram if you start before dawn and you can stay on at the city of silk saris to enjoy all its magnificent temples and dazzling shops at leisure, or head out to Vellore before nightfall for another day or two at the latter. Remember that temples in Tamil Nadu open very early in the morning (by 5am in some months) but close by noon to reopen by 4pm, after which most of them will stay open till 9-10pm in the night. Kanchipuram has a couple of reliable Saravana Bhavans although if it’s nostalgia that feeds your appetite, try Sridhar Café, which old-timers will tell you was even better a generation ago. Proceed to Vellore, where the fort and the Jalakanteshwarar temple set within are peaceful gems to visit. The ‘golden temple’ at Sripuram, a drive out of town, is modern and glittering. Take the Guindy-Porur-Poonnamallee route out of Chennai to avoid the worst of traffic and potholes. Both Kanchi and Vellore have a clutch of budget hotels though Vellore’s GRT Sameera (from Rs 3,200; grthotels.com/vellore) is a notch above them (140km/3hrs to Vellore; ttdconline.com).
Temples of Thanjavur
The Great Living Chola Temples of the Unesco World Heritage list embody their description—the massive expanse (although Darasuram is a relatively compact complex), their continuing purpose as a place of worship over a thousand years after they were built, the towering grandeur of classic Chola architecture, and the ASI’s efforts in keeping all three temples in a state of immaculate tidiness. Let’s add one more reason why you must go there now: the weather is perfect (neither hot, nor too cold, and the best it is ever going to be in the plains of Tamil Nadu). The Brihadeeswara temple at Thanjavur (an auto ride from anywhere in town); the Airavateswara temple at Darasuram (about 4km outside Kumbakonam; take auto or cab); and the other Brihadeeswara temple at Gangaikondacholapuram (35km from Kumbakonam, in the Perambalur district; take cab or bus) — they all make for a very memorable long weekend (ttdconline.com; take overnight train to Thanjavur or Kumbakonam, and then bus about between the towns, or hire a cab).
Make cheese at Acres Wild
Don’t even think about it if you are ruminating over weight loss — Acres Wild’s cheeses are so yummy and Coonoor’s air so bracing that calories should be the last thing on your mind when you sit down to eat. They have done away with day visits so we suggest you sign up for a cheese-making course (Rs 5,000 per person for two cheeses over two full days, from 10am-7pm but never on a Sunday, everything you need and equipment provided). Of course, you need not sign up for any exertion at all while you stay at this charming, ecologically caring 20-acre stretch of pure holiday, in which accommodation has to be booked separately (take overnight train to Coimbatore and drive up in a couple of hours from there; from Rs 2,700; acres-wild.com).
Take a train to Tuticorin (58km away) or to the temple town of Tiruchendur (18km) and then it’s a short hop to the seaside pleasures of Manapad. The ocean is never far away, and other than fishermen and their boats, the entire stretch is quite guilelessly un-touristy — the advantage of being in a state that hasn’t nearly developed its scenic and extensive coastline for holidaymakers. The incredible vistas of Mani Rathnam’s last film in Tamil, Kadal (ocean), were shot here. Manapad’s other claim to fame is the Holy Cross Church, built 1581, and said to have a relic from the True Cross of Jerusalem. St Francis Xavier, who ministered Manapad for over a year after arriving in 1542, lived in grotto facing the sea, now a shrine named after him. Villa de Joseph (from Rs 2,500; manapad.in), a pioneering local homestay, introduces the sleepy coastal village to it guests with heritage walks, excursions, fishing and surfing.
Stay in Valparai and visit Anamalai
The tea gardens of Valparai are occasionally surprised by visits from fauna feeling adventurous, including wild boars, spotted and barking deer, or even the odd herd of elephants emerging from the mist, but better chances at sightings await visitors to the Indira Gandhi National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary, locally better known as Anamalai (elephant hill), accessed via the touristy visitors’ centre at Topslip (less than an hour from Valparai, depending on where you are staying). Other popular attractions include the forest department’s elephant training camp, seasonal waterfalls en route, and an on-and-off night safari. Valparai itself is great for birding (Lion-tailed Macaque, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Rocket-tailed Drongo). Right up from the scenic ‘coconut city’ of Pollachi, the setting is incredibly picturesque, the waters of the Aliyar dammed into a lake at the foothills of the blue-hued Nilgiris. Take an overnight train to Coimbatore, drive up to Valparai via Pollachi to reach by lunchtime, and be sure to stay at one of the charming Briar tea bungalows (from Rs 3,800; teabungalows.com)
Drive to Yelagiri
The Northeast monsoon is over and summer is, thank goodness, still some time away — which brings us to Yelagiri, the pleasant elevation in Vellore district that’s easy to reach by a nice drive. There’s a modest lake and a touristy boathouse, a similar garden and children’s park, and there’s some nice shopping to be done — honey, herbs and spices sold by the local women’s co-ops. Enjoy kuzhi puniyaram doled out with spicy chutneys by the roadside. Everyone troops over to the Jalagamparai waterfalls near Thirupathur but the Beeman falls in Jamunamarathur, which most people either don’t know about or skip, are recommendable just for that reason (approach from Vaniyambadi-Kavalur observatory-Alangayam). Stay in Vellore, or opt for one of Yelagiri’s modest hotels (230km, 4.5hrs; ttdconline.com).
Drive to Gingee and Tiruvannamalai
It’s the Grand South Trunk NH45 till the Tindivanam bypass after which you take the turn to the temple town of Tiruvannamalai, and drive for nearly an hour and a half through green countryside upon a moody road that’s quite nice in sections and barely rubble in others. This slows down your pace, naturally, which is a good thing really, especially if you have enjoyed hot ‘only Kumbakonam degree coffee’ at the many outlets which claim to offer just that along the highway. The occasional bus might overtake you and things will get a tad busy around Gingee, its desolate fort perched photogenically upon a rocky hill, and onward still must you go till you hit the bustle of Tiruvannamalai. The temple is grand and gorgeous, and a visit to the tranquil Ramanashram is a must. Stay a night or two at one of the many basic hotels in town, pick up organic breads and guilt-free snacks from Auroville at the supermarket opposite the ashram, and sip on spicy ginger tea and south-style onion samosas by the roadside (unless you prefer goli soda). If you are up to climbing the fort, make sure you get there at dawn or well before dusk. The hour’s drive out to the Sathanur dam across the Pennaiyar river will yield some more lovely views (190km, 4.5hrs; ttdconline.com).