I can’t think of a better antidote to an extended home stay than an escape to fascinating India with its spectacular potpourri of colors, flavors and aromas to delight your senses. And with the news that the country started reopening its hotels, resorts, temples and tourist attractions on June 8th with enhanced hygiene measures and protocols in place – we can all start planning.
Pondicherry Dazzles With Its Fabulous French Flair
The Academy Award-winning film ‘Life of Pi’ was shot in Pondicherry, the hero’s hometown with the backdrop of its gorgeous French quarter. Tucked away on the Bay of Bengal on India’s southeastern coast, Pondy, as the locals affectionately call it, is a unique mix of French colonial style and vibrant Indian culture. Actually, the destination was under French rule until 1954. That the region has long attracted both Gallic and Indian designers and artists, many speaking French or English with French accents, plus the unhurried boho–chic vibe and decidedly French flair – adds to its cachet.
My excellent Guide Prasanth, a Pondy native provided by the prestigious travel company Travel Scope India, gave me an impressive insider tour of this charming and delightfuly walkable city. I love meandering the French Quarter; its tree lined streets dotted with pastel hued colonial mansions draped with bougainvillea, grand houses turned into heritage hotels and restaurants, Parisian style cafes, art galleries, antique shops and fashionable boutiques such as La Maison Rose, FabIndia, Via Pondichery and Janaki selling fabulous jewelry, clothing, handbags, shawls and household goods.
Upon entering Pondy Dreams, a small shop where a variety of lovelies were on display, a beautiful young lady in a royal blue silk sari asked me if I wanted to see a dance performance that was about to start. I passed through red doors that opened to a jewel box of a theater with a few dozen seats, and beheld renowned classical artist Raghunath Manet clad in striking gold and burgundy who moved magnificently as a trio played gorgeous Indian music. That’s the magic of Pondy.
A grand canal separates the city into the French and Indian Tamil quarters. Buildings in the French section showcase classical European architecture with huge gates on the exterior that provide total privacy from the street for the colonnade, portico, porch and garden. In contrast, Tamil houses have a central courtyard displaying grand columns and verandas with sitting platforms opening onto the street, welcoming neighbors or passers by for a visit.
It’s hard not to be captivated by the lively, walled Grand Bazaar on Rue Jawaharlal Nehru, the setting for Pi’s flirtations with his girlfriend Anandi. Stroll the giant market chock full of bananas, beans, fresh produce, spices, woven baskets, leather items, garments, footwear and local goods. What a surprise to see men only behind the flower market stalls whereas the fish market is staffed entirely by women. And these ladies sure know how to skin a fish. The iconic Indian Coffee House that inspired the winning book ‘Life of Pi’ by Yann Martel Booker is minutes away, should you care to swing by.
Don’t miss Manakula Vinayagar, a colorful 500 year old Hindu shrine with ornately carved stone walls where you can offer a coin to adorable Lakshmi the temple elephant and she will bless your head ever so gently with her trunk. Just next door famed Sri Aurobindo Ashram attracts spiritually minded travelers from around the world. You’re welcome to visit and immerse yourself in the serene aura. Afterwards, do as the locals do and spend some time in lush Barati Park taking in nature’s beauty.
Early evening the action is at the seafront palm tree lined promenade adjacent to the beach that offers a hint of the Côte d’Azur. At sunset it’s buzzing with food vendors and Pondicherrians out for a stroll as they catch the cooling breeze of waves splashing dramatically against the rocks. A gigantic statue of Gandhi occupies center-stage on the esplanade. Just beyond, Le Café a 24 hr eatery is a good spot for an iced coffee as you revel in glorious views of the blue Bay of Bengal.
Stay: Palais de Mahé Hotel
The handsome colonial style Palais de Mahé Hotel located in the French Quarter just steps from the promenade, charms with its mango façade and banistered balcony lined with potted palms. The breezy rooftop restaurant Les Alizes, serves up delectable seafood and innovative Indian-Continental fusion cuisine paired with sublime cocktails and fine wine. With its elegant period furniture, soaring-ceilings, scenic verandahs, white pillars and arches adorning daffodil yellow walls and courtyard pool with loungers – this heritage beauty makes for a perfect Pondy stay.
Rajasthan’s Fabled Pink City
Jaipur, Rajasthan’s vibrant capital is renowned for its rich heritage and flamboyant culture, its buildings swathed in romantic hues of pastel pink. The fabled city was built nearly 300 years ago as a home for both royal palaces and artisans’ workshops. Today tuk tuks crowd the streets where craftsmen offering hand blocked textiles, vibrant fabrics, handicrafts, jewels and traditional foods, ply their trades in markets, shops and outdoor stalls – in the exact same spots as their forefathers, centuries ago. A sensory delight of aromas and vivid Rajasthani colors, await at every turn. I strolled the lively streets bustling with bejeweled men and women alike clad in striking hues of yellow, purple, fuchsia, red, magenta, gold, cobalt and emerald.
Some of the spectacular highlights included visits to: famed Hawa Mahal also known as the Palace of Winds, a five story marvel with latticed screens, stones and spires, originally built so the women of the royal court could watch the city life unseen; opulent City Palace with its elaborate gardens, courtyards and notable museum; retail therapy at Gems Paradise, a favorite of fashionistas for their exquisite jewelry, both precious and semi-precious stones; and Channi Textiles for hand made carpets and beautifully embellished textiles. Located high on a hill, surrounding the city, the stupendous Amber Fort is a star attraction.
Walking With Elephants
Elephants symbolize royalty according to Rajasthan tradition. In Indian Mythology, demons and gods stirred the ocean, hoping for eternal life. An elephant was one of the nine jewels that surfaced from the water and since that time, the elephant has been regarded as a precious animal here.
There’s no better place to get up close and personal with these gentle giants than Dera Amer, a private eco farm set on 180 acre grounds in the foothills of the Aravalli Mountain range on the outskirts of Jaipur. Founder Udaijit Singh impresses with his devotion to makes sure the elephants are treated like royalty. Visitors can observe and interact with Laxmi, Rangmala and Anarkali and walk with them as they romp through verdant Saluwar Forest, feeding them their beloved bananas or assisting with bathing (not riding on them which is actually harmful.) Strolling beside these magnificent creatures in the lush jungle like landscape felt like a walking meditation.
Guests can visit for lunch, dinner or afternoon tea or stay overnight in one of the six luxury tents and really soak in the serenity of the natural habitat. The stylish interiors feature décor inspired by the Raj era including wood planters chairs, handsome king sized beds and decorative accents in burgundy, red, blue and gold. Each luxury tent has a fully equipped bathroom and a staff member is always around in case you need something.
After saying goodnight to the sweet elephants, I dined on an array of sublime Indian dishes paired with fine wine, sitting by the fire in the gorgeous outdoors under the starry Jaipur sky feeling remarkably peaceful, without a worry in the world.
How To Plan The Trip
It’s key to have a good organizer in this exotic country who can create a unique and authentic customized trip. Travel Scope India, an elite travel company, has the taste level and expertise to plan the ultimate remarkable journey, which I experienced firsthand. They arrange finely curated experiences, individually designed itineraries, insider access, top guides, excellent drivers, premier hotels, culinary outings, all important shopping recommendations, domestic flights and VIP transfers – all organized by consummate professionals who are leading experts in their fields.
How To Get There
In addition to spacious seats that turn into comfortable lie flat beds in Business Class, excellent food, stellar entertainment, top amenities, superb service and the ultra luxe 3 room suite, ‘The Residence’ with Travel Concierge and in-flight Butler on its A380s, Etihad Airways has seamless connections through Abu Dhabi to Chennai, and other cities in India. The carrier will be using enhanced protocols for hygiene and safety for guests.
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