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ISSUE OF NOVEMBER 2003  
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The Potporurri Highway

You’re missing out on a melange of entertainment options, if you leave Chennai without cruising down the East Coast Road, says Susan George

They housed their dreams in a thatched hut. It was 1966 and seven artists – all between 15 and 19 years – pooled their resources into buying half an acre of land. Armed with their talent, and an unrelenting vision for a self-supporting artists’ commune, they set to work to create the Cholamandal Artists’ Village. Thirty-seven years later, the youngest of the group, Gopinath recalls, “We decided to live on Rs 100 per month. We helped fishermen in the area bring in the catch and they would give us free fish. We would go into the village on a cart to buy fresh vegetables.” Over the decades, this intrepid experiment grew to a 10-acre colony for artists who, quite literally, live and breathe art - since 1966, 30 artists have made the village their home, encouraging art lovers to share the experience with them.

Cholamandal is just one of the destinations stamped with a ‘wow’ factor on the East Coast Road, popularly known as ECR. Winding its way along the Bay of Bengal, the newly revamped highway connects Chennai with Pondicherry. Weave your way through chock-a-block roads of southern Chennai, dodging hunkering trucks, swerving motorists, darting children and ambling cows, and you’ll gradually encounter the open highway. The tarmac glides beneath you, and on the left, the sea glistens in the sunlight, as cars rev up their engines for a one-of-a-kind ride along ECR. A hoarding en route captures the thrill of cruising down the 113 km highway - “Sometimes the road becomes the destination.” Sprinkled with luxury resorts, adventure sport arenas, quaint eat outs, and tourist spots immersed in south Indian culture, this potpourri highway has something for everyone. The “Enjoy East Coast Road” concept took off last year with the Chennai Festival conducted by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the state tourism department. With the festival slated for the end of this year again, we sieved the slew of options to present the best and the most unusual.

The tap-tap of metal being chiselled punctuates the silence of Cholamandal. Barely 20 minutes from the city, the colony gives you the opportunity to set free the latent bohemian in you. Relaxing in the red-brick art gallery, Gopinath, now the vice president of Cholamandal says, “This is the only self-supporting artists’ colony in the world. Visitors can see how we work and they have the chance to directly interact with the artists and exchange ideas with them.” Today, art lovers have the option of hiring a studio by the sea, or the German government sponsored guesthouse. Bewitching, often quirky, forms in metal, stone and wood peek between the trees - there aren’t many other guesthouses in the world where the front yard boasts a Tantra-inspired stone sculpture created by a renowned Japanese artist. Visitors who require more than food for the soul, can sample home-cooked meals in the thatched outdoor cafeteria.

Dakshinachitra is another unusual destination on the ECR roadmap. Intent on preserving south India’s distinctive culture, this project of the Madras Craft Foundation has relocated parts of traditional homes from the four southern states, and reassembled them on the property. If you’re a history and culture aficionado, you’ll find yourself lost in the intricate woodwork of the Chettinadu home, or the typical furnishing of the Syrian Christian home. A slice-of-life sentiment sweeps over visitors as the archetypal homes are embellished with real-life residents - a woman absentmindedly weaving a basket or a man hunched over a potter’s wheel. A craft bazaar with craftspeople selling directly to visitors makes for a unique shopping experience. Accommodation at Dakshinachitra is inexpensive (between Rs 150 to Rs 800 a day), and, in keeping with the theme, Kanali restaurant dishes out authentic south Indian cuisine.

If the traditional circuit is not up your alley, you still have a multitude of adrenaline-pumping options on ECR. Coast down the highway after 10 pm, and the gleaming Cats’ Eye road studs will guide your way to EC 41 at VGP’s Golden Beach Resort, one of the “hip ‘n’ happening” nightspots on the route. The driveway to the disco is lined with kitschy sculptures which lend it the appearance of a B-grade movie set, and the entrance is guarded by a row of fierce looking burnt-red terracotta figures brandishing sticks. Ignore the filmi décor, and you’ll find yourself letting your hair down on a large concrete stage on the beach. With the roaring sea competing with the booming music pumped out at the DJ station, EC 41 will keep you enthralled till the wee hours of the morning.

Says, D Devadas, manager-sales, “We get about 200 couples a night, and many of them are business visitors. When we have celebrity DJ’s from other cities, it attracts large crowds of visitors from other cities who are in Chennai. Double the number of foot-tapping, swirling, sashaying couples throng the venue on event nights.” EC 41 also hosts private parties for companies, complete with residential DJs, buffet counters and a bar. With a sandy stretch of beach, 25,000 watts worth of music, and dark-grey sea dancing in tandem, EC 41 is proof that many in the city pooh-pooh at the label of “conservative Chennai”. Wait a few hours after the party winds down and you’ll be able to catch the orange-red sunrise deepening over the Bay of Bengal horizon.

Energy kicks are lavishly doled out at the go-karting tracks on ECR. Kart Attack and Danny’s Karting are two of the places to be, if formula racing is your thing. Grab a helmet and ease yourself into the go-kart for a few rounds of high-speed competition. If you’re game for risking a few sore muscles for the raw thrill of parasailing, rock climbing, shooting, camping and scuba diving, then head to Adventure Zone in the Silver Sands Resort. A sure-fire fix to a “been there, done that” attitude, it’s a great place for the business traveller who wants to flex his muscles after a week of meetings and presentations. Run by a former army commando, the most stringent safety norms are followed. Parasailing is one of the most popular activities: harnessed to a parachute towed by a jeep, the participant is lifted into the air to sail at heights of 200 to 400 feet. If for five minutes, you want to literally experience a ‘top of the world’ feeling, then chip in Rs 250 for a ride. Another hit with corporate teams who come on team-building tours is the 40-foot climbing wall, where with the help of grips and holds, they can attempt climbing to the summit of the rock face.

If you want your weekend to steer clear of the topsy-turvy (even if it is of the non-corporate variety), Spa Vyana at the Taj Fisherman’s Cove is the most beckoning option. Tastefully designed, the spa, run by Biotique, comprises a gymnasium, parlour, a couples’ suite, and exclusive men’s and women’s sections. Cosset yourself with a one-hour massage in the couple’s suite, with your significant other - essential oils like Neruli, Bulgarian Otto, and Lavender are gently kneaded into your body, wishing away the stress of corporate life. The masseurs discreetly make their exit, leaving you two to enjoy the luxurious soak tub, and the outdoor garden shower. Fisherman’s Cove has been a landmark for leisure on the East Coast Road since 1974. When it comes to indulgence on ECR, there’s no place quite like it.

Eat Outs on ECR

Basera

146, 2/169 East Coast Road, Vettuvankeni, Chennai
Tel: (044)24492361

Food Village

1/81 East Road, Injambakkam, Chennai - 41
Tel: (044) 24492692, 24493309

Hot Kitchen

78,79 Injambakkam Village,
Chennai - 41
Tel: (044) 24490730, 24493139

Samir Khanna, general manager, Fisherman’s Cove, says, “There are several business visitors who are in Chennai on work during the week. On the weekend, they prefer to be with us. We get several guests from Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Pondicherry as well.” Your frazzled nerves could get adequate therapy at the sea-facing villas, with the wind whipping your face as you lounge on the hammock suspended in the private garden. While its heart is set on leisure, Fisherman’s Cove is also a convention destination for corporate clients. While the sandy stretch on the beach can accommodate about 3,000 people, an indoor 4,000 square feet convention centre holds about 300. “Several team building exercises are held here,” says Khanna, pointing out that the activities are outsourced to an HR consultancy. “Guests can also choose to go on a catamaran ride, take a trip on a dune buggy, play beach volleyball, and so on,” he adds. If you’re a firm believer in ‘food maketh the vacation’ dictum, then executive chef Fabian recommends the al fresco dining experience at “Upper Deck”.

Accommodation

GRT Temple Bay Beach Resorts

Mamallapuram - 603104
Tel: 04114-242251,242254

Quality Inn MGM

No. 1/74, New Mamallapuram Road
Muttukkadu - 603112
Tel: 04114-245435

Fisherman's Cove Covelong Beach

Mamallapuram - 603112
Tel: 04114-272304-310

V G P Golden Beach Resort
East Coast Road
Injambakkam
Tel: 044-24491101

Perched on a stump of a palm tree, under the canopy of stars, you can crunch your way through crispy Foccaza, and round off your meal with a sinful portion of Tiramisu. “People enjoy the rustic atmosphere. The cuisine, I would say, is easygoing - Mediterranean, with an accent on Italian and Lebanese. Many people from the city drive out here just to come to the restaurant,” says Chef Fabian, the culinary expert behind the launch of Patio, the signature continental restaurant at the Taj Coromandel.

While dining at a swanky restaurant may border too much on the la-di-da, the gastronome has a never-ending list of eat-outs to choose from. Seafood wins hands down at relatively inexpensive restaurants like Coastal Kitchen and Casuarina. Hot Kitchen, Food Village and Basera are also popular with the ECR regulars.

ECR boasts entertainment unlimited. The highway eventually veers off towards Pondicherry - the former French colony and a popular weekend guzzling abode for Chennaiites. The white-washed buildings from a bygone era and the word-famous Auroville commune merit a day’s trip, at the very least.

If you run out of time on the first ride down ECR, you can always make another trip down the motley highway, with its melange of entertainment options. Even if you’re heading nowhere in particular, when you’re coasting down the midnight-black highway, the road itself becomes the destination.

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