The new Intercontinental Hotel And Resort in Mahabalipuram is evocative of the region's transformation that combines contemporary luxury with old customs and aesthetics. Kalpana Sunder reveals how they do this.
Above: HAIR AND MAK E- UP: PINKY, STYLESMITH; ASSISTANT STYLIST: ANGAM LUIK HAM; MODEL: MODEL: ALYONA MUR ASHOVA, ANIMA CREATIVES. The grid like Nandyavarta painted on the wall, whose layout inspired the resort’s architecture. On the model, a silk jumpsuit by Gauri Nainika (available at Ensemble); straw hat by Accessorize; turquoise and coral necklace and turquoise ring by Silverline; raffia hobo by MICHAEL by Michael Kors; and wedges by MICHAEL by Michael Kors. Photographed by G Venket Ram, Produced by Ragini Singh, Styled by Mahima Shukla.
Above: The pool area is built like a temple tank with graded steps sloping gently and fringed by frangipani trees. The model is wearing a yellow key hole swimsuit by Turquoise and Gold; and silk scarf cover up by Shingora.
On the desk in the lobby, is an over-sized stone carving, a grid of built forms and open spaces called the Nandyavarta—used in the layout of ancient Indian towns. This is a modern interpretation of an Indian city settlement, highlighting the architectural concept of the resort. The high ceilings, the craggy walls made from blocks of granite sourced from Kanchipuram, juxtaposed against the leather loungers in the lobby, create the temple ambience, almost immediately. The majestic central courtyard with its pillars and the massive temple tank with lotus afloat, reinforce the heritage feel of the resort, located on a sprawling 15-acre property, not far from the ancient temple town of Mahabalipuram, famous for its UNESCO Shore temples. This 7th century port city of the Pallavas is most famous for its Shore Temples devoted to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu with their complex carvings embellished with beautiful motifs and craftsmanship.
I am at Mahabalipuram’s first luxury beach resort, InterContinental Chennai Mahabalipuram Resort, launched in January this year. The luxury resort is the brainchild of the firm of CV Sydney, an oﬀspring of the renowned Singapore-based Kerry Hill design firm. “The resort’s architecture is largely drawn from the majestic wealth of south Indian temple architecture with contemporary sleek lines fused eﬀortlessly,” explains Karuna Amarnath, the Marketing Manager of the resort. The temple motif continues across the resort—the two meeting rooms are called Mana and Manthan— heart and churning—and the banquet room just across the corridor is Samaya—the meeting of minds.
Above: The lobby with high wooden ceilings and walls hewn from granite offset by contemporary leather loungers.
Its 46 rooms overlook the self-sustaining bio-tank, studded with lotus and coconut trees, and a stunning brass installation of sunflowers with a dark patina by artist Bhavna Sonawane as well as a raised performance pavilion. The other 46 rooms overlook the swimming pool and 12 suites open into the ocean and the landscaped gardens with coconut and frangipani trees. There are water outlets on the sides of the corridors that resemble the spouts in South Indian temples. The corridors are lined with bright burgundy Athangudi tiles; the 4ft-deep temple-pond-like swimming pool has steps that gently descend into water.
The rooms come as a bit of a surprise, revealing a modern Indian aesthetic: bright canary yellow cushions, polished Terrazzo floors, comfortable day beds and benches, metallic urlis holding flowers, black stone basins, and coﬀee table books on South Indian architecture and religion shine. The spacious rooms have bright accents thrown in—dramatic light fixtures, statuettes of deities in tiny alcoves, and triangular niches cut into wardrobes that resemble the ones that hold lamps in temples. The attention to details is amazing: Thoughtfully placed beach bags, ironing boards and sockets of international standard that do not require adaptors. Every room has a black stone bathtub as well as a rain shower, fragrant L’Occitane cosmetics and a Lavazza coﬀee machine.
The general manager of the property Vijai Singh emphasises that all Intercontinental properties are luxury oﬀerings and talks about the Club InterContinental, another hallmark of the property, with separate rooms, lounge, and meals for the discerning guest. “Another unique element of the property is its dedicated concierge service which is a one-stop-shop that helps you with experiences within and outside the resort. These trips are not done by tour guides but established people who have a wealth of local knowledge, usually trained concierges who have the ‘golden keys'. The resort also oﬀers a luxury spa, Amrtam by Escenza that oﬀers therapies from across the world, Ayurveda and yoga.
What is perhaps the main stand-out element of the resort is the wide range of dining experiences oﬀered. The Melting Pot with live kitchens serving South Asian, European and Indian food; the Chinese eatery the Tao of Peng named after Peng Zu, known as the founder of Chinese cooking, oﬀering Hunan and Cantonese specialities; and The Gatsby Lounge bar, a space inspired by the Great Gatsby age, the roaring 20s, which oﬀers live music with classic cocktails and beverages. Two prominent highlights of dining at this resort are the ‘Dine by Design’ and ‘Wine by Design’. They feature a private dining experience by the ocean with special tables or tents. I talk to Executive Chef Ashis Rout, who has worked at Ananda in the Himalayas and Park Hyatt, Milan. The exquisite tasting menu is a plated work of art, which begs you to not demolish it. From freshly baked focaccia bread with dips, braised beetroot with orange and citrus emulsion, and chilled green pea and butter milk soup to the Porcini flower pot and Tamarind sorbet—everything is cooked and presented to perfection.
“What makes the resort special and rooted in the local milieu and its proximity to the UNESCO site of Mahabalipuram are certain special rituals and design elements,” says Karuna. She tells me about the evening ritual when staﬀ light lamps, place them at various points, and welcome the evening with a short prayer. Later, there are South Indian music performances on the pavilion beside the bio-pond. “There’s a special almost meditative magic, when the lamps are lit in the evening and the strains of music can be heard in the background,” says Karuna. At the InterContinental, history and modernity fuse seamlessly.
Above: The resort's Amrtam by Escenza Spa (on the model, a silk printed maxi dress by Anupamaa; coral and silver necklace by Grassroots by Anita Dongre; lapiz cuff by Silverline; and grecian sandals by Christian Louboutin)
Above: The Presidential Villa with its own plunge pool and view of the landscaped gardens and the sea
Above: Melting Pot: The Market Cafe has an open air area facing the bio-tank with floating lotus and a pavilion for musical performances; The Gatsby Lounge.
Visiting this new addition to Chennai’s travel landscape, brought back many memories. A bit of Madras nostalgia—being woken up with a tape of MS Subbalakshmi singing the suprabatham, veena classes thrice a week, strong frothy, filter coﬀee in stainless steel tumblers, demure silk pavadais and soaring temple gopurams, weekend trips to Higginbothams (the oldest bookstore), shopping on the pavements of Pondy bazaar and finishing with ‘tiffin’ at Woodlands' Drive-in restaurant.
Above:Asparagus and Corn Dimsums at the Chinese restaurant Tao of Peng;
Above: The Gatsby Lounge which has a retro look from the 20s (the model is wearing a wrap dress by Ritu Kumar; nude heels by HM; drop earrings by Zarin; and bracelets by Silverline)
Above: A view of the standard room with yellow accents, a day bed, and a black stone bath tub
Old bungalows in tree-lined avenues and the shrill cries of vegetable vendors selling fresh spinach at doorsteps. But Madras became Chennai and along with it came the winds of change— plain apartments rose where graceful bungalows once stood, the pavadais were replaced by the ubiquitous salwar kameez, the supermarkets killed vegetable vendors, and flyovers took over the wide tree-lined roads. Madras is more than 375 years old and has traditionally been the cultural bastion of the country, often referred to as ‘an overgrown village with old fashioned values’.
Dr Ennapadam S Krishnamoorthy, an eminent neuropsychiatrist and writer, recalls heading to Elliots Beach as a young boy, which used to be a barren wilderness, packed like sardines, in a leaf green Standard Herald along with his cousins, playing cricket on empty streets and watching a Kamal movie at Anand theatre for a mere `10. “Chennai was laidback, idyllic when we were children, not a bustling metro like today,” he says with a smile. But the beauty of the metropolis is that there are pockets of culture and tradition that are still there for those who want it. In December, the music and dance aficionados head to the Sabhas of the Margazhi Festival and savour tiffin in its canteens. Kalakshetra, the dance school, is still a culturalists’ oasis. The Theosophical Society on the bank of Adyar River is a green campus famous for its rare collection of books on religion and philosophy.
I talk to Krithika Subrahmanian, a leading city architect, talented dancer, and designer, who says, “As a designer, I have seen a lot of success in expanding the language of understated elegance with the quirky experimentation of that indefinable Tamil chic. Fast cars, slow joggers, hot coﬀee, and chill pills, all coexist happily in a city that has been a safe haven for migrants and women workers. I expect it will remain this way because that is Chennai”.