I had heard about the Sterling Resortat Swamimalai, in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu, when a couple of my friends had been to the small Tamizh Nadu town to attend a wedding, and stayed there. They returned raving about it, and urged me to go and visit as soon as possible.
But it took me all of four years before this could happen. A few weeks ago, I got a call from Chennai; someone who was a member of Sterling was going to stay for a weekend at the resort. I instantly counted myself in!
There is a very convenient overnight train from Bangalore to Kumbakonam,(train no. 6832, the Mysore-Kumbakonam Express) which is just 4 or 5 km from the resort. But tickets at the height of the summer holiday season are hard to come by, and I resorted to the convenient "tatkaal" booking to ensure that I made it this time
On the 29th morning, I walked out of the picturesque, tiny Kumbakonam station (our smaller stations, including Cantonment Station at Bangalore, are still very picture-postcardish) and found a car from the resort waiting for me. It was only later that I found out that the resort did not do this as a complimentary gesture, though the distance was only a few kilometres...they charged for this (and other things too...but more of that anon.)
I bumped our way over the rustic roads and the approach to the resort was quite narrow...but as we went into the gates, the greenery was really amazing. Even the light was slightly greenish, as the morning sun filtered through the extensively planted trees and the lush banana groves. We drove past a few terracotta sculptures and stopped in front of a beautiful hut that serves as the reception.
Poornima and Kavita generally take care of the front office, and I was given a room and taken to it. The high tiled roof, the beautiful and traditional architecture of the buildings and the way they were laid out, made the room so comfortable that I decided to do without air-conditioning in the last week of April!
Having deposited my Strolley, I decided to wander around as I waited for the others to drive in from Chennai. The resort is built on an ancient "agrahaaram" (temple perimeter) around the open-air temple of Adhi Ganesha, or Ganesha before he got his elephant's head. The temple is small and looks very nice, and is set in a small pond which has been left as it is. The other temple pond has become the resort's swimming pool...it is also a beautiful structure, with niches all around where glowing lamps are sometimes placed, and overlooked by big and small trees. I promptly changed into my swimsuit, and spent an hour and a half in the pool; doing the backstroke, I could look up into the sky and the rustling leaves, and watched several birds flitting to and fro, including a kingfisher that swooped down several times into the water to take a drink.
I then went across to see the museum that Sterling is also maintaining there, with various curiosities and artefacts very aesthetically displayed in the original building which dates back to 1876. Then I ambled over to the amphitheatre and the Ayurveda rooms behind it, and wandered around the cattle sheds too...the resort is self-sufficient in milk production..and their filter coffee is amongst the best I have ever drunk! Degree coffee, indeed, as South Indian Brahmins say about good coffee, served, not in cups and saucers, but in steel "davara-tumblers".
Meanwhile the other three-- my beloved sister in law Neelu, my friend Bela Kothari and her niece Veera...arrived, having taken the lovely East Coast Road, breakfasted in Pondicherry, and visited the Chidamabram temple en route. I joined them for the complimentary welcome drink (Rooh Afza..we wished it had been "neer mor",the lovely salty buttermilk thatis so delicious in summer.)and the complimentary foot massage (more of a foot-oil-and-tickle!) in the reception area.
We all went in to lunch together and got our first taste, not only of the food, but of the less than brilliant level of service that we would encounter for the next day and a half. We were sitting at our table for quite ten minutes before a waiter in spotless white shirt and "veshti" came up and asked us if we had ordered. "No," we said, "what do you have?" "We only have the thali meal," the guy replied! If that was all that was available, what was the need to ask us if we had ordered? Did he imagine that we were in the dining hall to pass the time?
Lunch was a bit too garlicky and oniony for our taste, but pretty nice for all that. Apparently, for groups, the resort also does "banana leaf" meals...we just got the round, big steel plates. Service was definitely slow...and another thing that put me off was the way they keep pushing Aquafina mineral water on us all the time. There was NO water in my room except a bottle of Aquafina in the refrigerator...and a notice informed that I would be charged for it. At the restaurant, too, when I said I didn't want cold water, I was given a bottle of the mineral water at room temperature, and at every meal I had to keep insisting that I wanted "ordinary, non-mineral" water.
The other three were given a suite adjacent to the dining hall, with two rooms and really beautiful furniture. We went around the resort again, and Neelu and Bela had an excellent head massage, while Veera went and tried her hand at pottery, under the supervision of the potter there, called . After they showered, we went off to visit Swamimalai temple and the Kumbheswarar Temple at Kumbhakonam. It was a lovely evening, and we returned and I decided to take another swim in the pool and then join the others at dinner. By this time, all of us were tired out, and we went off to sleep.
I woke up much earlier than the others the next morning, and went off for another lovely session in the pool. It was most delightful...as relaxing as the most intense session of yoga could have been.
By about 7.30, we left for Thanjavur, and had a lovely time visiting the Brahadeeshwara Temple built by Raja Raja Chola, which is now a World Heritage Site and beautifully maintained. We had a latish but good breakfast in Thanjavur, and returned to Sterling in time for a leisurely lunch, which was even more leisurely than it should have been as a group of foreigners visiting took all the waiters' attention!
After lounging around in our room (the others vacated the suite as I was leaving in the evening), we went for another chakkar around the resort after more excellent coffee. Veera by this time had produced two beautiful lamps. I showed the others an Indian roller at the Thanjavur temple (it was nice that the state bird of Karnataka had come to visit a Tamil Nadu landmark, following the Kaveri, perhaps!) and here, we watched several babblers and the kingfisher again. I had a chat with Mr Laxminarayan, the GM of the resort, who told me of the initiatives the MD, Mr Steve Borgia (imagine, someone in the hospitality business having this name!) and he are undertaking in this resort. They are supporting some educational programmes and also support an old age home nearby. The coconuts and mangoes from the resort are leased out and add to the income of the resort, and its concerns. Only local people are employed and trained at the resort, and there are 100 of them on the property. The restaurant, he said, had 60 covers. They offered bullock-cart rides to a nearby village, too...but we didn't take this up!
By now, it was time for me to leave...I took the packed idlis that the resort provided for me, and drove off to the lovely station again, saying goodbye to the others who were planning to visit a couple of more temples, and drive down slowly back to Chennai the next day. A beautiful weekend at a lovely place had me back at Bangalore early on Monday morning with my batteries recharged...
Do check out Sterling Swamimalai as a weekend getaway at:
the place is really as beautiful as the pictures show!