Chennai is a south Indian city of eight million by the sea. A quintessential port city, it's the most sedate of India's metros: conservative, industrious and scorned by many as a city of second bests, lacking the verve of Mumbai, the derelict grandeur of Kolkata and the sophistication of Delhi. I was born in Madras but live in Chennai; in 1996, the government changed the name of the city to reflect a new ideology. With a new name came a new personality: less sleepy, more gregarious.
Today, Chennai is famous for its robust economy - known as the "Detroit of India" for its car industry - and is a centre for medical tourism. It is the second largest exporter of BPOs and IT in the country. Yet, it retains its cultural cache. It is home to the Madras Music Season, the world's largest music festival, held every December to January, and to India's less-famous Tamil film industry, Kollywood. For me, Chennai will always be a city of musicians and mathematicians, filter coffee and jasmine, dance, the beach and heavy salt air.
A comfortable bed
The Taj offers several options depending on whether you want to be in the city or on the coast. The Connemara is one of the oldest properties in Chennai, located on Mount Road - the central nerve of the city. With spacious rooms, excellent restaurants and five-star services, it's a good base from which to explore the city. Rooms start from Rs 6,000 (Dh401). If you prefer to be by the sea, book a bungalow at the Fisherman's Cove. Indulge in fresh seafood at the Bay View restaurant on the beach and splash out on a Pehlwan Malish at the sumptuous Jiva Spa to invigorate your system (www.vivantabytaj.com).
For a more intimate experience, Footprint Bed & Breakfast in the Boat Club Area of town is a great option. Situated on two floors of an apartment building, all nine rooms are elegant, tastefully-decorated, with en-suite bathrooms and free Wi-Fi access. Rooms start at Rs 3,600 (Dh240) including breakfast, excluding taxes (www.footprint.in).
Find your feet
The ocean is the great redeeming factor of Chennai - bringing much-needed cool sea breeze to the residents. Of the 19 kilometres along the Coromandel Coast that covers Chennai, 12km is the shoreline of Marina Beach. So, after exploring the historic centres of George Town, Mylapore and Mount Road, make your way there. All along this promenade there are historic buildings including the Senate House, Vivekananda House, Queen Mary's College and Fort St George. Keeping the sea in sight, head south down the coast on the East Coast Road towards Pondicherry. Make pit stops at the Theosophical Society, the Kalakshetra Dance School, Cholamandal's Artist's Village (the first and largest artist commune in India), Dakshin Chitra (a heritage centre and museum that showcases the arts and crafts of south India), and the Crocodile Bank (one of the largest reptile zoos in the world).
Meet the locals
For a true Chennai experience, go to the cinema for a Tamil film, if possible starring the superstar Rajinikanth - one of the highest-paid actors in India. Satyam cinemas are an excellent venue with plush, state-of-the-art technology. You can book tickets online, choose your seats, and even pre-order a snack to be delivered during intermission (www.sathyam.spicinemas.in).
Book a table
Rice is the staple grain of Tamil Nadu. The New Woodlands Hotel is authentic and inexpensive. Lunch for four will set you back US$10 (Dh36, www.newwoodlands.com). For something more leisurely and upscale try Dakshin at the Sheraton Park Hotel, or Southern Spice at the Taj Coromandel. If you need a break from the carbohydrates, go to Amethyst for a fresh juice and salad. Amethyst is one of the few outdoor restaurants in the city - a real oasis of green, with a cafe set in the gardens, and a fabulous boutique (www.amethystchennai.com).
Chennai is famous for silk saris, particularly Kanjeevarams. Head to Nalli's in Mylapore to experience a multi-storey textile heaven (www.nallisilks.com). Even if you don't wear a sari, the sheer volume and variety of silk and cotton on the roll will delight. Be sure to visit the nearby Kapaleeshwarar Temple and wander the streets that wind around it. For contemporary fare, check out Brass Tacks - a small boutique specialising in women's clothing, using traditional Indian fabrics, styled into structured, chic designs (www.brasstacksmadras.com). For men's suits, try Syed Bawkher, Chennai's equivalent of Savile Row (www.syedbawkher.com). For souvenirs or gifts, try the Auroville Shop, Kalpa Druma, Fabindia and Chamiers.
What to avoid
May is the hottest month of the year in Chennai with temperatures reaching up to 45°C. But if you are there during these humid times, May is also the start of the mango season and it would be a shame not to indulge in them.
A trip to Fort St George to discover the colonial history of the city. Take in the grandeur of Marina Beach, purported to be the second longest strip of beach in the world. Wander around St Mary's Church, the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez, and don't miss the eclectic collection of swords, canons and aquatints at the Fort Museum.
Etihad Airways (www.etihad airways.com) has direct flights from Abu Dhabi to Chennai from Dh2,000 return including taxes.