The south Indian city offers an exceptional cultural experience.
Chennai is at the art of the matter
To get a taste of south Indian culture; because this city of 7.6 million people, on India's Coromandel coast has preserved its essential character more so than cosmopolitan Bangalore or politically volatile Hyderabad; because it is my hometown, a city that I love. In Chennai, you get a real sense of place, time and history that is lacking in many other Indian metros (save Kolkata).
If you are an archaeology buff, the nearby temple towns of Kanchipuram and Mahabalipuram offer a glimpse into the architectural grandeur of the Chola, Pallava, Pandya, Vijaynagar and Arcot Nawab dynasties that date to the second century. Tamil, the Dravidian language spoken in Chennai, is one of the oldest in the world, with texts going back 2,000 years.
Today, Tamil maidens still wake up early in the cool months of December and January, wash their hair with purifying turmeric water and visit temples to pray for a good husband. Come sunset and these same women go to Eliot's or Marina beach clad in jeans (not shorts, though) and tight T-shirts. Fusing ancient traditions with modern practices makes this city both the "seat of Tamil culture" as it was once known, and "Singara Chennai", or Pretty Chennai as it is known today.
A comfortable bed
The centrally located Raintree hotels in two locations are stylish and green, with recycled water, eco-flushes and renewable rubber wood (www.raintreehotels.com; doubles for 6,803 Indian rupees, Dh550). The Taj group has three lovely properties in the area. My favourite is the Taj Fisherman's Cove, en route to Mahabalipuram on the East Coast Road. Fish Cove, as it is called, is right on the Bay of Bengal with villas that look out to the sea. Take a yoga lesson on the beach or hobnob with the Tamil movie stars who throng here on weekends (www.tajhotels.com; doubles for 11,335 rupees, Dh918).
Chola Sheraton is the oldest five-star. It was where I used to go as a child to gawk and eat. Park Sheraton, its sibling, has nice restaurants and offers good value for money (www.itcwelcomgroup.in; doubles for 9,076 rupees, Dh735). The Park and the Park Pod hotels offer cool flourishes at wallet-friendly prices with Louis Ghost chairs, mood lighting and stencilled walls (www.theparkhotels.com; doubles for 9,076 rupees, Dh735).
Find your feet
All of Chennai walks on the beach in the morning. Join the crowd, either at Marina, Eliot's or Kovalam beach. Be warned, though. South Indian ladies power-walk in fully covered regalia, including sari and canvas shoes. If you jog along wearing shorts and a halter-neck shirt, you will be stared at.
Nizhal, which means shade in Tamil, organises "Tree Walks" all across the city for a nominal fee of 45 rupees (Dh4). A group of nature-lovers converge to identify and so protect trees (www.nizhaltn.org). Amateur photographers are free to join Chennai Photo Walks (www.chennaiphotowalk.wordpress.com), a loose group of photo buffs who shoot pictures regularly in the atmospheric parts of town. Chennai Magic has customised tours throughout the city (www.chennaimagic.com). Try the Mylapore Walk, around one of the city's oldest neighbourhoods; it's 1,580 rupees (Dh128) per person for two hours.
Meet the locals
At the Music Academy or any of the other concert halls that dot the city. Attending a Carnatic music concert is de rigueur in Chennai for the city has the finest in south Indian music (www.musicacademymadras.in). Get there early to have a cup of flavourful south Indian filter coffee with the locals and learn how to dissect a Carnatic music concert with its beautiful ragas, rhythms and songs. For a calendar of concerts around the city throughout the year, visit www.kutcheribuzz.com.
Temples such as the Mylapore or Triplicane are good places to met locals but you don't need to trek far to find a temple in Chennai - every neighbourhood has at least one. Visiting them is also a good introduction to understanding the local culture.
Book a table
Saravana Bhavan is a local chain that has now gone global. It has several outlets within the city and is still the best place to try some "curd rice" (www.saravanabhavan.com/index.php). For high-end south Indian food, try Dakshin at the Park Sheraton, where the Iyer's trolley comes around and makes tiny appam right by the table. A meal for two will set you back about 2,721 rupees (Dh220). Murugan Idli Shop is where I go to have a good breakfast of idli (dumplings) and dosa (crèpes), laced with coconut chutney (www.muruganidlishop.com). Benjarong offers Thai food such as char-grilled duck and healthy salads. Azulia at the GRT Grand is where locals converge for Mediterranean. Zara is Chennai's first Tapas bar and is popular with the party crowd. A meal at most Indian restaurants can be had for 457 rupees (Dh37) per person. A meal at restaurants serving non-Indian food can double or triple to 1,358 rupees (Dh110) per person.
If you like jewellery and saris, head to T Nagar. Nalli Silks (www.nallisilks.com), offers three floors of silk, brocade and silk-cotton blends. For Indo-western wear, head to Amethyst, Anokhi or FabIndia where you can buy kurtas, block-printed shirts and funky accessories.
What to avoid
The midday heat. Take a siesta. Don't venture out.
Sunset at Marina beach, one of the longest in India. Vendors sell peanuts, families come to relax, retirees sit in large circles and talk about yoga and health and lovers come to hide from their families. The wind is cool, the sky is purple and the sea is inviting.