India Travel: Shifting Sands

  • The Dune’s thatched-roof restaurant.

    The Dune’s thatched-roof restaurant.

  • Dimitri Klein after a morning’s milking.

    Dimitri Klein after a morning’s milking.

  • The Restaurant’s Organic Offerings Include Millet Biryani With Seared Seafood.

    The Restaurant’s Organic Offerings Include Millet Biryani With Seared Seafood.

  • The  Bedroom of an Artist Studio Suite.

    The Bedroom of an Artist Studio Suite.

  • The Tower House offers the resort’s best views.

    The Tower House offers the resort’s best views.

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Above: Reclaimed furnishings at the seafood bar.

A trailblazing beach resort on the shores of Tamil Nadu puts sustainability first

By Leisa Tyler

 

 

 

Dimitri Klein figured that setting up an eco-hotel in India would be a challenge. He just didn’t expect the headaches to begin in the bathroom.

When he first opened the Dune, a 51-room resort on Tamil Nadu’s steamy Coramandel Coast, Klein outfitted the property with dry composting toilets imported from Australia. His earliest guests were either horrified by the contraptions, or tossed water down them. A septic system was soon installed.

“You can’t please everybody,” recalls the fortysomething Frenchman with a chuckle. “I guess composting toilets are just way ahead of their time for India. It would be wonderful to be 100-percent sustainable, but it’s not always possible. Instead, we’re happy just to narrow the margin.”

Klein arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1997, lured by the utopian promises of Auroville, a commune-like township located outside the former French colony of Pondicherry (officially Puducherry). Founded three decades ago by the late Paris-born mystic Mirra Alfassa—known to her disciples as the Mother —Auroville aims “to be a universal town where men and women from all countries will be able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics, and all nationalities.” It’s an admirable goal, though on previous visits I’ve found the Aurovillians—who can count 35 different nationalities among their 2,000-strong spiritual community—to be a somewhat cliquey bunch, if not downright odd. Still, Klein lived there four years before leaving to embark on the first of his three hotel projects, Le Dupleix, in Pondicherry.

Named after French India’s most celebrated governor, the 14-room Le Dupleix is a sensitively restored 18th-century mansion finished in traditional lime plaster and antique hand-carved woodwork. It’s also a world away from Klein’s second Tamil Nadu venture, Elephant Valley, a 40-hectare organic farm–cum–eco-lodge situated on an abandoned tea plantation in the Palni Hills of the Western Ghats, not far from the hill station of Kodaikanal.

But it is at the Dune, where he lives with his wife and three young children, that you get the clearest sense of Klein’s commitment to ecotourism. For starters, the place has a rustic, almost rugged feel to it, mostly because it has been pieced together from recycled building materials. I spot several pillars, window frames, and doors from Chettinad, a once-prosperous mercantile community renowned for its exquisite mansions. Individually designed and arrayed in no discernible order, some villas have been built entirely from bamboo; others feature walls of mud or brick, while a few have no walls at all. Tribes of cheeky geese, ducks, and dogs wander the 14-hectare property, splashing in ponds or cozying up to guests.

Despite jettisoning the composting toilets, Klein remains committed to minimizing the resort’s ecological footprint. During my visit, he is haggling with customs officials over an order of reverse-cycle air conditioners that has arrived at Chennai Port. When installed, they will reduce the Dune’s electricity consumption by 70 percent. As it is, the place runs on about one-third of the energy consumed by most hotels its size. Showers are solar-heated, while gray water is treated, recycled, and pumped by windmill around the property to irrigate the gardens. Plastic is virtually banned; the laundry operation is chemical-free; food waste is composted on-site; and wherever possible, the resort uses fair-trade and organic products, like the herbal toiletries it brings in from Kerala.

Such ideals often come with quirks—and the Dune has plenty. The duplex Tower House, for instance, occupies an old water tower transformed into what a 2006 edition of India Today magazine declared the country’s best honeymoon suite. The Bay of Bengal views are sweeping, but they require effort: guests must climb 62 steps up an open-air spiral staircase to reach the bedroom, and then another two dozen to get to the living room. Then there’s the Nawabi House, a stilted bungalow designed by Chennai fashion photographer Monica Gurdhe, which would make an intimate roost were it not for the lack of walls. And while the Pop House is a whimsical homage to Tamil cinema, you need to be an ardent film buff to appreciate its garish decor.

Yet the guest quarters, despite some being a little too kitsch or, as in the case of the “nature cooled” rooms, too buggy, are quite comfortable. I opt for a Garden Suite—by far the most conventional rooms available—and am rewarded with a rooftop terrace and daybed from which I enjoy the afternoon’s offshore breeze. It doesn’t, however, stand up to that night’s monsoonal downpour, which floods the polished-concrete floor and makes flotsam of some of my belongings.

Guests hail mainly from Europe, though I also meet several Indians during my stay—savvy young couples weekending from Chennai, a two-hour drive away, or families looking to give their kids a taste of the countryside. They fill the conical-roofed restaurant and the poolside seafood bar (furnished with chairs rescued from a decommissioned ferry) over lazy breakfasts and late lunches, and then disappear to the beach—a long swath of golden sand pounded by roaring surf. Due to riptides and local sanitation issues, the water is not safe for swimming, but the resort’s saltwater infinity pool makes up for that. Other diversions include bicycles (each room comes with two), a decent Ayurvedic spa, and crafts workshops led by ladies from the village of Pudhukuppam.

The restaurant “lives land to mouth,” says chef Sanjay Matta, who buys his seafood from local fishermen (guests are welcome to venture out at the crack of dawn to help them bring in the day’s catch) and makes his own yogurt. The eggs at breakfast are collected from free-range chickens, and Matta’s heavy, unbleached wheat bread is served with homemade preserves. What vegetables the resort doesn’t grow itself come from nearby farms, while the earthy coffee is harvested at Elephant Valley. And if chef Matta’s attempts at French food lack zest, his organic fusion fare—based, we’re told, on a toxin-free diet proposed by French biologist Jean Seignalet —proves an unexpected delight. Indian cuisine aficionados may scoff at such dishes as the millet biryani with fish and beetroot raita, but I find them ingenious.

The Dune was originally envisioned as a nonprofit artists’ retreat, and indeed still hosts an artists-in-residence program. But after that proved too costly to run, Klein decided to expand the property into a resort. It was due to open on January 1, 2005 —but one week earlier the Indian Ocean tsunami smashed into the shores of Tamil Nadu.

Apart from the deaths it caused, the tsunami hurled tons of sand and salt onto coastal farmland and tainted the local water supply. The Dune, protected from the sea by a broad foreshore, suffered limited damage, but the mud huts of neighboring Pudhukuppam were washed away. Klein and his resident manager Sunil Varghese were quick to organize relief efforts. Teaming up with Children of the World India, an NGO supported by the French Red Cross, the Dune has since been helping to rehabilitate more than 200 hectares of land between Pondicherry and Chennai, including the establishment of a model organic farm that demonstrates sustainable agricultural techniques. It also helps fund a 200-head, tuition-free vocational school in Chennai, which teaches such things as catering, garment making, and graphic design to village youths affected by the tsunami.

For Klein, who can usually be spotted around the property in flip-flops and an old T-shirt digging holes, milking cows, or planting trees, his little resort is about defending the cultural and environmental integrity of its location.

“I have been to so many hotels around the world and, at most of them, you could be anywhere, they’re so similar,” he tells me one morning while tending his kitchen garden. “A hotel should be the key to a destination; it should teach guests about where they are, about the people and the culture around them. Many ecotourism projects in India claim themselves to be that because it’s the latest buzzword.

Ecotourism shouldn’t be about trying to fill a market niche, it should be about genuinely making a difference.”

Toeing the soil, he adds, “Hotels are in the prime position to help improve lives in developing communities. They can achieve so much with so little.”

The Dune, Pudhukuppam, Tamil Nadu; 91-936/445-5440; thedunehotel.com; doubles from US$113, including breakfast.

Going Green

Four more eco-friendly lodgings in India

Shahpura Bagh Located in Rajasthan midway between Jaipur and Udaipur, this 10-room heritage hotel was once the summer residence of the rulers of Shahpura. It’s still owned by the same family, who these days have taken the lead in bringing ecotourism to the area, utilizing solar-heated water, low-wattage lighting, biodegradable cleaning products, and locally sourced food. The hotel also helps to conserve the surrounding wetlands, and donates a portion of its turnover to local charities (91-148/422-2077; shahpurabagh.com; doubles from US$103).

Orange County, Kabini With its sights set firmly on responsible tourism, Orange County gets its design cues—and a good portion of its staff and produce—from local tribal villages. Overlooking a river on the fringe of Karnataka’s Nagarhole National Park, the resort provides a level of comfort and service that belies its low-impact sensibilities. Villas come with plunge pools or Jacuzzis, but water wastage is minimal thanks to dual-flush toilets, splash-proof taps, and reverse-osmosis filtration systems. And while there are no on-site alternative energy sources, the owners have installed windmills in a nearby district. Wildlife conservation and cultural activities are also high on the agenda (91-8228/269-100; orangecounty.in; doubles from US$382).

Wildernest Set high in Goa’s Chorla Ghats, Wildernest is the brainchild of a group of conservationists who rescued the surrounding tract of forest from development by a mining consortium. Facilities include 16 rustic but comfortable acacia-wood cottages and a freeform infinity pool that overlooks the Swapnagandha Valley. There’s also an informative nature center that doubles as a research station for visiting ecologists (91-831/420-1662; wildernest-goa.com; doubles from US$78).

Marari Beach Kochi-based hotel group CGH Earth operates a number of eco-friendly properties, from yoga retreat SwaSwara on the shores of Karnataka to Bangaram Island in the Lakshadweep archipelago. But for its seamless marriage of comfort and green credentials, it’s hard to beat the Marari Beach, a 62-villa resort on Kerala’s Malabar Coast that converts kitchen waste into biogas, grows its own organic vegetables, and employs two full-time naturalists (91-484/301-1711; cghearth.com; doubles from US$118).

Originally appeared in the August/September 2009 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Shifting Sands”)

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