Far from the bustle of India’s larger cities, Visalam boutique hotel in Tamil Nadu is a visit to turn-of-the-century India, with family-style hospitality in a converted mansion. Settle into intricately designed art deco-inspired rooms overlooking bougainvillea-brightened gardens and a serene pool. In celebration of the region’s cultural heritage, the staff share stories about the local history, arrange ox-cart rides to local artists’ workshops or hold dance or cookery lessons on-site. Showcasing the fiery fare of Chettinad, the chefs offer top-tier cooking, including a 16-course swan dive into the flavours of Southern India.
11am, but flexible, subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 2pm.
Double rooms from $72.48 (INR5,156), excluding tax at 28 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of 12.5% per room per night prior to arrival and an additional service charge of 10% per room per night on check-out.
Rates include Continental breakfast.
Each morning, the staff prepare a kolam, or brightly coloured rice-flour illustration on the floor of the common area. Guests can join in the mesmerising artistry.
Each room is spacious, with art deco furniture, original Italian tiles and framed vintage photos of the region on the walls. Light sleepers should request a room overlooking the gardens, but those who like to watch the local goings-on should request 204, the largest room, which has a balcony overlooking the town.
Tucked into a private courtyard with a grassy perimeter, the unheated outdoor pool is family-friendly and ideal for cooling off. A shaded veranda at one end doubles as a casual café.
Save plenty of room to bring back the local spices – including anise, peppercorns and kalpasi – that helped make Chettinad famous.
The public spaces are wheelchair-accessible.
All ages are welcome. Though there are no dedicated services, the large rooms have space for additional beds, and staff adore little ones.
The hotel goes to extra lengths to ensure it’s as green as can be, relying on solar-powered water heaters, harvesting rainwater, recycling wastewater in its gardens and using an oxygenated treatment process to filter the pool in lieu of chlorine.
Request a candlelit table on the terrace for an especially romantic dinner.
Evoke the spiciness of Chettinad food with saffron gold and turmeric yellow.
There are four eateries, each open at different times of day. The Terrace and Grill Restaurant serves the boldly spiced dishes of Chettinad at dinner each night on the terrace overlooking the garden and pool. Using a large, open grill, the restaurant staff serve grilled fish and prawns, alongside local specials, including tamarind-brightened fish in tomato gravy, mutton with chilli and peppery chicken Chettinadu. There are plenty of vegetarian options, including steamed lentil dumplings in rich tomato sauce. The spice averse can request milder preparations that use garden-sourced produce and local seeds, flowers and vegetables. At the art deco-inspired Saapad Shaala dining room, lunches of rice dishes and local specialties are served in banana leaves for guests to eat with their choice of hands or forks. The Continental breakfast is served each morning on the veranda beside the garden. Throughout the day, peckish guests can grab light snacks at the covered Pool Side Café.
The hotel does not serve alcohol, so there is no bar at Visalam, though the restaurant squeezes fresh juices and serves an array of creative non-alcoholic drinks.
Breakfast is served from 7.30am to 10am, lunch from 12.30pm to 3pm and dinner from 7.30pm to 9.30pm.
Visalam is in Tamil Nadu's Chettinad area, toward the southern tip of India.
Madurai Airport is 95 kilometres away (around a two-hour drive); hotel transfers can be arranged from INR4,500. Domestic flights arrive here from Dubai, Colombo, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru.
The roads in India can be perilous for the uninitiated, but those who brave them can take advantage of on-site parking. Drivers-for-hire are relatively inexpensive and use their local knowledge to navigate the chaotic car lanes.
Worth getting out of bed for
The walled gardens of Visalam are ideal for catching up on books or learning the rules of Pallanguzhi, a mancala-like Tamil board game. The staff will gladly guide guests in preparing local flower garlands or teach women how to wear sari silks. In the evenings, they lead interactive kolattam dancing, encouraging guests to join in the stick-centric dancing. Pedal your way through town on an architectural cycling tour of of the Chettinad village around Visalam. Those who prefer a less-rigorous method of transport can hop aboard a bullock cart for an authentically jostled ride through Kanadukathan village, past the historic mansions and textile workshops. The region is home to many grand, turn-of-the-century mansions and homes with intricately carved exteriors that will entertain architecture buffs for hours. See local craftsmen at work on handmade Indian tiles at the Attangudi tile-making village, a 20-minute drive from the hotel. The fashion-inclined should also visit Sri Mahalakshmi Weaving Centre, where skilled artists prepare silks for garments and wall hangings. Chettinad cuisine is renowned for its peppery spices and unabashed heat. Dive into the flavours in a cooking lesson with the hotel team. Staff can also arrange a guided tour of the village market to help guests better understand the produce and spices that are liberally scattered into cooking pots.
Use your hands to dive into the spicy food at The Bangala. Renowned for its superlative Chettinad cuisine, the restaurant, on Devakottai Road, serves its stews and rices on banana leaves, without knives and forks.
Every hotel featured is visited personally by members of our team, given the Smith seal of approval, and then anonymously reviewed. As soon as our reviewers have returned from this boutique hotel in Tamil Nadu and unpacked their spices and sari silks, a full account of their village break will be with you. In the meantime, to whet your wanderlust, here's a quick peek inside Visalam in Chettinad…
A stay at Visalam adds a sprinkle of spice to an Indian getaway. Set in Chettinad, which is famous for its peppery fare, the hotel immerses guests in the arts, customs and food of the region. Occupying a historic mansion – a generous wedding gift to the former owners – the boutique hotel includes hand-painted tiles, carved furniture and teak accents. Activities are designed to teach the guests about the local culture. Gather with the staff in the atrium each morning to help create the day’s kolam, a brightly mandala-like illustration crafted on the floor using coloured powders poured in intricate designs. Evenings bring stick-dancing workshops – yes, really – or time to learn the local board games, stocked for guests’ use. Each room is spacious and uniquely designed to capture the original feel of the space, with art deco furniture, four-poster and framed beds and vintage photos, making it the ideal home from home after a day exploring the workshops and textile shops of Tamil Nadu.
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