Think white sands, blue waters, cotton ball clouds, delectable food and cultural vibrance. Chances are Pondicherry wouldn’t be the first place to cross your mind. For far too long, India’s little Parisian paradise down South has remained a highly underrated tourism destination. And thankfully so.
In a bid to take in the sights and sounds of the erstwhile French colonial settlement that has been relatively under the radar, we set out on a road trip to Pondy from Chennai taking the exceptionally pretty route along the East Coast Road (ECR). Our ride was the new Maruti Suzuki S-Cross SHVS Diesel, which we planned to test on the three-hour long drive and over our week-long stay.
The scenic coastal route would rank amongst the best we have traversed in India. The continuous smooth highway made high speed cruising a joy, and the views were breathtaking – spectacular vistas of the shimmering sea, swaying palms, pristine uninhabited golden beaches, with a sprinkling of little villages and the backwaters along the way.
All through, the new S-Cross proved to be an able highway cruiser. Powered by the DDiS 200 1.3L diesel motor producing 90 PS of power and 200 Nm of torque, it really came into its own as we sped along the coast, providing impressive driving dynamics even at high speeds without compromising on fuel efficiency. A little more grunt from the 1.3L diesel motor would have been sweeter, but the S-Cross managed to hold its own on country roads and highways alike. The sure footed handling, high ground clearance, generous cabin & luggage space, seamless Android Auto & Apple Music compatibility and a good sound system were features that stood out. As we navigated along the coastal highways, beach roads and narrow unpaved stretches through several exploratory detours, the S-Cross kept its composure and proved to be an able ally. It’s a practical urban family vehicle sans histrionics, with hatch like convenience, sedan like comfort and SUV like cabin space and driving position. Click here for our complete in-depth review of the new S-Cross.
A road trip without experimenting with local flavours would be sacrilege, and we didn’t miss an opportunity while we were at it. Two pit stops stood out for us. The first was Courtallam Border Parotta (yes, that’s the name of this highway joint) at Mahabalipuram. We ordered the Naatu Kozhi Aracha Kozhambu (country chicken in a village-style aromatic gravy with traditional home ground organic herbs & spices) with Poricha Parota (a crispy deep fried layered parotta), which really set the tone and benchmark extremely high for the next few days. Our next stop was Hotel Sri Saravana Vilas at Mugaiyur, for their simple but authentic vegan thali served in a traditional banana leaf, followed by some filter coffee. If you ever plan a drive around this part of the world, bookmark them. And thank us later.
Pondicherry is a treasure trove of travel trivia, no matter what you are looking for. An eclectic mix of heritage, culture and a bohemian spirit, it is neatly bifurcated into three zones – the French Quarters a.k.a. White Town, the Tamil Quarters a.k.a. Heritage Town and the experimental community of Auroville. The influence of Sri Aurobindo is omnipresent and the Ashram way of life is a fine display of discipline and serenity amongst the diverse peace loving community.
Unlike many beach towns, Pondicherry isn’t a victim of over tourism yet. Loud & boisterous groups or hedonistic behaviour would be completely out of place here. On the contrary, the warmth & friendliness of the local community, the spiritual connect, the civic discipline, cleanliness and safety are things that immediately strike a chord. You could walk freely around Promenade or White Town at midnight without fear. It’s a place brimming with happy and helpful people (even the cops are always smiling), which is a rarity in these raging times.
Pondicherry and Auroville together offer a range of activities that could make a week seem insufficient. The varied places of interest, drive out opportunities, stores selling locally produced sustainable fashion, home decor & fresh organic produce, and a slew of eclectic bistros & cafes make it some sort of nirvana land that you never wish to leave.
Hiring a scooter or a bicycle is the best way to get around town and here are a few things you shouldn’t miss out on while you are there:
Explore the French Quarter. A walk around White Town is an uplifting experience. You could walk across to the Pondicherry Museum, which takes you through an art & history tour with separate sections for numismatics, transportation, paintings, and more. Located opposite the Governor’s residence, the Museum has some rare bronze & stone sculptures, relics, precious stones and weaponry from the Pallava and Chola dynasty.
Pondicherry is also home to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which has rare stained glass panels depicting events from the life of Christ and Saints of the Catholic Church. The Romain Rolland Library and Alliance Française de Pondichéry, a French cultural centre which hosts Francophile events, movie screenings and workshops are some of the places that add to the unique flavour of the French Quarter.
Ashram Visit. A visit to Pondicherry wouldn’t be complete without a deeper dive into the Ashram culture. What started as a congregation of a few of Sri Aurobindo’s disciples is now a collection of various properties across Pondicherry. A visit to the Ashram would take you into the inner sanctums of the Ashram’s workings, the meditation area, and you can follow it up with a simple lunch at the dining hall. It’s all very calming. Always good to have a local to show around, and take you through the walking tours.
Promenade Walk. The Promenade is Pondicherry’s beach front driveway and home to a number of hotels, cafes, souvenir shops and important landmarks. From the War Memorial on one side to the Dupleix Park on the other, this one km. stretch also hosts the famed Gandhi Mandapam – the biggest statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Asia. The long Navy pier at the far end makes for a scenic sight.
The Promenade comes alive during morning and evening and is squeaky clean in its overall upkeep and ambience. It remains a tourist attraction through the day, but by evening locals come out to join the festive atmospherics which continue till wee hours of the night. Catch the spectacular sunrise here or take a late night stroll under the shimmer of the moonlight. They are equally magical.
Food. If you have an experimental palate, Pondicherry offers a range of eclectic choices – from authentic Tamilian meals to exquisite European delicacies. Just walk a hundred metres to discover a great new place round the corner.
White Town particularly is home to a number of bistros and cafes serving delectable cuisine. Some of them include small boutiques and book stores within them. It’s all very easy, laid back and epitomises the utopian slow living culture. The very lovely Coromandel Cafe is one such place, with some great vegan & meat choices and excellent seafood options. They also have an extensive cocktail list, and its setting makes it perfect for relaxed lunches and fancy soirée.
Blueline at Hotel Promenade serves some fine oriental and mediterranean cuisine, while Le Chateau, Xtasi, Villa Shanti, De Bluefin Seafood and Karaikal Chettinad Restaurant are some of the standalone places worth trying. For an authentic South Indian/ Chettinad food experience, head to Junior Kuppanna at 100 Feet Road where traditional meals are served on a banana leaf. Be warned though – their melt in the mouth ghee parotta, mutton fry, biryani and mutton kothu parotta can lead to death by gluttony. The famed Le Cafe, a 24-hour coffee shop at the beachfront is shoddily maintained, but good to stroll in for some coffee by the bay.
Shop. The French Quarter is dotted with chic boutiques, curio shops and a walk around the area reveals several hidden gems. Chintz by Amethyst located above the Coromandel Cafe is an Indo-Western boutique which stocks apparel and accessories by a number of Indian designers. If island wear is your thing, you won’t be disappointed. Domus is another lovely little store with a courtyard cafe, which selectively stocks apparel for men & women, home furnishings & accessories, jewellery, curios, art, antiques and furniture. Stores like Janaki, Cluny Embroidery Centre, Kalki and Via Pondicherry are good options for sustainable fashion, organic collections, local designs & accessories.
For a slightly more authentic local shopping experience, head to the famed Sunday market on MG Road or the weekend Serenity Beach Bazaar. If you are lucky, you could get some really good bargains.
Explore. While it is a fairly scattered settlement spread across 20 sq. kms., the Visitors Centre at Auroville is a good place to start, and get to know about the community. There are videos, exhibits and written hand outs that one can browse through. Auroville isn’t exactly touristy, and one needs to spend a fair bit of time and energy to absorb and appreciate the community’s existence, ideals and vision at a deeper level.
Matrimandir remains the soul of Auroville. The structure signifies peace & spirituality for practitioners of ‘Integral Yoga’, which was initiated by ‘Mother’ Mirra Alfassa in pursuit of self-perfection and a higher state of being, connected to the universe. The golden dome surrounded by beautiful gardens is a sight to behold. While entering the inner sanctum premises has its fair share of procedures, just a glimpse of it from the surrounding gardens is astounding enough.
Visitors can buy passes from the Visitors Centre and go up to the viewing point. After that one can make prior bookings in person (at least a day in advance) to visit the Matrimandir Inner Chamber. More details on the same can be sourced from their website.
Food. The food experience at Auroville is more informal and has the vibe of all-day European bistros. Managed by members & families from the community or run as self service establishments, they tend to be friendly, homely places where you could drop by and stay for as long as you wish. Most places open early for breakfast and the popular ones are The Auroville Bakery (for their croissants, pies & tarts), Bread & Chocolate (for what else, but bread & chocolate), Marc’s Cafe (for breakfast), Aurovelo (for a juicy beef burger) and Tanto Pizzeria. Casual, laid back, semi-outdoor settings make these places great to hang out and catch up with friends over relaxed conversations.
There’s also the famous Solar Kitchen, a collective community kitchen that serves wholesome, fresh vegan meals from locally grown organic produce for diners, school children and the extended community. It is a testament to the inclusive nature at Auroville, and each diner is expected to wash his/her own dishes.
Shop. Auroville products are inspired by nature, consciously fashionable, made out of organic or recycled material, handcrafted, and empower women with livelihood opportunities. So when you buy from Auroville, you buy good and do good. The Visitors Centre Complex at Auroville has a shopping area that sells everything from stationery to fragrances, personal care products to furnishings, clothes and jewellery. Each item is made within the community, by the community.
Mira Boutique, La Boutique d’ Auroville and Kalki Boutique are the three main stores, though there are others tucked away within the community. As a self sufficient commune which makes products with sustainability in mind, its stationery, personal & beauty products are well known for their quality and environmental consciousness. There are several Auroville-run brands that could give bigger and more established names a run for their money. Each with their own unique story. A brand called Gecko makes fashionable clothing out of bamboo that are unbelievably good. Another popular brand Upasana believes in conscious fashion and upcycle, with some stunning results.
To know more about their entire range, a good starting point would be the Auroville Online Store. But it’s nothing close to physically experiencing it all, out there.
Cheese Farms. When we got to know about him we went hunting for Massimo Bovi, an Italian cheese maker who runs an establishment by the name of M&M Cheese Factory at Auroville. A relatively new store compared to the more well known La Ferme, Massimo completely blew us away with his produce. His artisanal range includes Fontina, Duro, Morbido, Dolce, Scamorza and Ricotta, and a lot of what he makes is a result of unique techniques and experiments with cow and buffalo milk (or a mix of both). His Fontina is one of a kind in India he claims, and we shall not dispute that.
In conjunction with each other, Pondicherry and Auroville create an experience that makes you feel more at home than like a weary traveler. The longer you stay, the more you absorb. The more you abosrb, the more you feel a sense of physical, emotional and spiritual connect that gently tugs at you. It is neither pretentious, nor does it make any attempt or effort to be overly tourist friendly. Yet it is. And that’s just because of the way it is. A small place with a large heart that gently nudges you to come back at your own pace and time.