The 4th largest city and India and known as the “Detroit of India,” Chennai itself is not so much a destination as it is a hub which travelers stop-over on their way to something else. While I wouldn’t recommend Chennai as a destination, there are a couple of fun ways to spend a day…from strolling through carefully curated boutiques in old colonial homes to eating fabulous South Indian food, there are a few gems in this otherwise rough city.
India can overwhelm the senses….the colors, the cacophony, the smells. Landing in Chennai was no different – come prepared for anything! The taxi ride itself was a test of endurance. Un-air conditioned in 40 degree Celsius heat (105 degrees Fahrenheit), my driver and his midget co-pilot threw my bags in the trunk at the airport with what seemed a loose grasp on my hotel address.
In the 45 minutes from hotel to airport my taxi driver managed to narrowly escape a few collisions weaving in and out of the lanes. Perilously close to other cars in doing so, finally there was he unmistakeable sound of metal on metal. Cars stopped, shouting of insults commenced and then….a big splat of spit hit our windshield as the driver of a bus joined in the “fun” in an effort to break up the argument so he could continue his route. After more spitting and arguing with other drivers, we arrived at the Park Hotel in Chennai.
The Park Hotel Chennai is part of a group of hotels all over India, an oasis of calm after the spirited journey, the cool marble lobby with impossibly high ceilings, felt at once expansive yet welcoming. We had picked this particular hotel because in being in Chennai only one night, we had heard that it had the most happening bar and nightclub in the city.
Although the Park calls itself a boutique hotel, it is not entirely accurate – with multiple restaurants and bars in a rather large high rise it feels more like a big hotel chain, a la Sheraton. And while the restaurants, bar and nightclub were modern in design and high in quality, the rooms themselves were a bit tired and in need of a face lift. With that said, I would still recommend the Park Hotel as the quality of the food and drink and service made me feel a bit more forgiving about the room. While at the Park I would recommend:
- Six-O-One restaurant: This is where a lovely breakfast is served – try the made to order Dosas. Also the dinner is repleat with South Indian favorites like Biryani, Dahl, vada, poori bread and much, much more.
- The Leather Bar: Enjoy a cocktail and yummy complimentary chili-scented chips in this hip bar where the floors and walls are covered in suede.
- Pasha: Also on premises, this city’s most elite nightclub doesn’t get going until about mid-night, so plan accordingly. Depending on where you are from, the décor can feel a bit dated, but it is unquestionably one of the best night spots in the city.
See how the locals chill out
For a bit of local flavour in Chennai, head to Marina Beach to see all walks of life gather at sunset on the beach. The second largest city beach in the world on the Bay of Bengal (Ocean Beach in San Francisco is the first), this is where the local families, groups of schoolchildren and teenagers, grandparents and well…just about everyone…come to have a snack at one of the food stalls, ride a make-shift carousel, play cricket and lounge about while the sun goes down (no swimming allowed). Any taxi driver will know how to take you there. If you are not Indian, and especially if fair / blonde, prepare for lingering eyes to curiously follow your every move. The boys can be a bit aggressive, so ladies, be sure to maintain conservative dress.
Score some fabulous Indian souvenirs
Two truly lovely stores await – filled with Indian jewelery, textiles, clothing, antiques, books, music and more. If you can only see one, I would recommend Amethyst in the Gopalapurum section of Chennai.
A colonial bungalow set in century-old trees, Amethyst is a unique cultural / shopping / café / lounge experience. The selection is immense although not inexpensive as Amethyst features some of the highest quality Indian designers to be found in one location. The list goes on an on… from handmade holy basil soaps, to gorgeous silks, real pashmina scarves, saris and tunics, to costume and gemstone jewellery, to books by Indian authors and local favourites in music, to colonial antiques of the highest calibre. I ended up leaving with some hammered gold necklaces for $60USD each and my friend Gretchen bought an eyecatching ring that we both could not stop admiring. We intended to go for 1 hour but stayed for 4 hours, enjoying the last bit of it in the café’s garden sipping tea and having a sandwich while watching the locals do the same. I loved it so much I wish I could take you there now as my guest just to see it and share a tea with me – and also to pick up those intricate filigree earrings I regret not buying.
Also wonderful is Chamiers and Anokhi on Chamiers Road across from the Sheraton Hotel. Of a similar ilk, these co-located stores offer Indian textiles and handicrafts on a smaller scale than Amethyst…still it is a beautiful place. Also with the Eco Café on site, one can both shop and relax with friends over a tea. My favorite offerings were the printed Indian textiles as well as the beautiful tortoise shell and mother of pearl housewares. While I didn’t buy much here, Gretchen bought some adorable children’s dresses and was tempted by snugly soft cotton duvets and sheets.
Dine like royalty at the Taj Hotel
Outside of Amethyst, my other favourite spot was the Southern Spice restaurant in the Taj Coromandel Hotel in Chennai. Southern Spice has a simple but compelling concept – the menu is broken into the 4 southern states of India (Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka) and diners can sample famous foods from each region. Part education and part fine dining, the menu describes what the unique tastes and spices of each region are and then details the dishes. We paired the following with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and it was easily the most delectable meal I had while in Chennai.
- From Tamil Nadu -> Vendakkai Cholapinji Theratel, okra and baby corn cooked dry with tomato and onion
- From Kerala -> famous for mild curries, we tried the king prawn and coconut curry
- Andhra Pradesh -> Gutti Vonkaya, aubergine in a tamrind and spiced nut gravy, a delicacy from Hyderabad
- From Karnataka -> Mysore Kori, a special preparation of boneless chicken in a mild, tomato based sauce
- All served with fresh, hot appam – a bread made of rice batter. And 4 dipping sauces – coriander, coconut almond paste, ginger chutney, and saffron sauce
The service was excellent and meal was accompanied by traditional dance and a fortune telling parrot. A little luxe and a little campy, all at the same time.
Don’t overlook Chennai
The dirty, bustling city on its surface can feel a bit uninspiring and thus, tempting to skip. But if you have time, I recommend that you spend a day in Chennai…enjoy shopping at Amethyst, some local sightseeing, dinner at the Taj and a little nightlife. It’s all an adventure when in India and these are bright spots on an otherwise dusty road.
The Park Hotel, Chennai
Also in Bangalore, Mumbai, New Delhi, Calcutta and Visakhapatnam
#601 Anna Salai
Telephone: +91 (0)44 4267 6000
Jeypore Colony, Gopalapurum
Telephone: +91 44 2835 1627
#85 (old #47) Chamiers Road
Telephone: +91 (0) 44 2431 1495
#37 Mahatma Gandhi Road
Tel: (91-44) 6600 2827