Tamil Nadu’s top hotels have the history (and fancy eats) that would delight royalty
Pristine beaches, century-old temples, lush green paddy fields and scorching heat, Tamil Nadu is the gateway to southern India. With a population of more than 80 million people, the state has earned a place in the spotlight for its top-notch cuisine, architecture and musical heritage. Here are five, five-star luxury hotels in this hotbed of Indian culture.
Taj Connemara, Chennai
Feel like time travelling back to the British era? Dating back to 1854, this hotel in the capital has a legendary history that shows in its classic colonial style. Each of the 147 suites comes with period four-poster beds, vintage prints, illustrations of maps of yesteryears and objects d’art. The Lady Connemara Bar & Lounge, with its high ceilings, timber floors and the extensive use of Macassar ebony, will remind visitors of a London gentlemen’s club. Raintree restaurant represents the best of Chettinadu cuisine with their specialty: slow-cooked lamb shoulder in pepper masala.
The popular hill resort town of Ooty is perched in the cool Nilgiri hills. All 40 suites at the 190-year-old Savoy are cottage-style, opening up onto the property’s sprawling lawns. Previous guests who have sought refuge here include King Edward VII, writer Harold Robbins and director David Lean. The Savoy’s outdoor afternoon high tea—think Nilgiri Spiced Tea Tarts (baked tart shells filled with Indian masala chai)—is served with old-fashioned cutlery and warm smiles from the butler. During the hotel’s tea mixology session, I learned about inventive cocktail strategies like Glendale Twirl, whose ingredients include black tea, pineapple juice and whiskey. But the sweetest touch is the postcards emblazoned with vintage images of the hotel, available for mailing from the 150-year-old postbox situated on the hotel’s main porch.
Heritage Madurai, Madurai
The cultural capital of Tamil Nadu, Madurai, an ancient city on the banks of the Vaigai River, is an essential stop for travellers. In fact, Madurai’s appeal and importance gets a mention in Tamil Sangam literature dating back to the 6th century. I established my base at the Heritage Madurai, formerly called the Madras Club. Its architect, Geoffrey Bawa, was a force in the style known as Tropical Modernism. Built in 1959, the hotel has had a modern restoration by Bawa student Vinod Jayasinghe, who maintained the Bawa’s aesthetic but added features like an Olympic-sized temple tank pool. Of the 72 suites, 35 are private villas with personal courtyards, some overlooking blossom-laden frangipani trees.
The Tamara Kodai, Kodaikanal
The hill town of Kodaikanal has abundant forested hills and a star-shaped lake, and The Tamara Kodai provides stellar views of much of it. This luxury resort, the former estate of a British district judge, dates back to 1840. Almost 2,000 metres above sea level, the property also offers guests cool fresh air. I stayed in a luxury suite with a colonial-style sitting area, sophisticated bedroom and a balcony with a view of the surrounding hills. After trying out a couples archery session, visitors can take a seat in Bistro 1845, a vintage English-themed resto-bar (think brick walls, intricately carved wooden chairs and an area for bonfires on chilly nights) that serves European, Asian and Indian cuisine.
The Vaadhyar’s House
Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga region is known for its opulent mansions, ancient temple architecture, athangudi tiles (manufactured by a unique method using local soil), spicy food (even by Indian standards) and arid red soil. I chose as my base this 150-year-old palatial bungalow which was, at one point, rented out as a teachers’ (vaadhyars) residence. Recently restored by Apeejay Surrendra Park Hotels (one of India’s oldest and largest business conglomerates), this property has been flooding Instagram with its courtyards, intricate woodwork on the door frames, Italian furniture and massive chandeliers. The food is the right mix of local favourites like kuzhi paniyaram (shallow fried rice dumplings) and kavunarish halwa (native black rice pudding); their “Vaadhyar’s Wife’s” thali includes more than 18 vegetarian dishes.