Chennai (or Madras as it was earlier known) does not figure in the itineraries of most people visiting India for the first time. But if you do happen to be there with your children, worry not. Once you get used to the sapping heat and humidity, the sleepy city offers some very unique experiences that your children and you will cherish.
- Stroll on Marina Beach – Considered to be the second largest urban beach strip in the world, go to Marina to take in how the locals enjoy their leisure time. From boisterous children, to ladies pulling up their saris to their knees and wading into the water, Marina will entertain you for sure. Cricket, kite flying, horse riding, small rides for children and balloon shooting can all be found here. Food stalls dot the beach and hawkers and fortune tellers roam it looking for potental customers, so be prepared to ward off not one, but many looking for their next customer.
Tip: Plan your visit to the beach closer to sunset. Along with the cool sea breeze, the beach comes alive in the evenings. You're on the beach, but its best you dress conservatively. Carry your own food and water for a little picnic on the beach.
- Spend a day at Mahabalipuram – a trading city of the Pallava Dynasty – one of the most prominent and powerful dynasties of the South. Steeped in legend and lore, the lone Shore Temple that stands right on the beach is a fantastic example of Pallava architecture. Legend goes that there were 7 such temples, of which only one is visible today. The town of Mamallapuram (as it is otherwise known) has a number of other historical sites to explore. Spend the night or relax at one of many high end resorts in the vicinity, or grab a meal at one of the small shacks offering fresh sea food.
Tip: If possible try to see the Shore Temple closer to sunset. Flanked by the crashing waves and the orange sun, the Shore Temple is a sight to behold. Wear comfortable walking shoes and dress appropriately for the warm weather.
- Visit Dakshina Chitra, a cross cultural living museum - Dakshina Chitra (www.dakshinachitra.net) showcases architecture, crafts and performing arts from the 4 Southern States of India, namely, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. Explore 17 heritage houses, some painstakingly relocated, walk through recreated streetscapes, watch live performances, interact with artisans and learn traditional arts and crafts here. Its the best place to introduce children to Southern India in a nutshell. Children can try their hand at traditional crafts, and participate in a number of kids-friendly activities.
Tip: There's a lot of walking around to be done and you need to take off your footwear before entering some places, so wear comfortable walking shoes that are also easy to take off and put on.
- Have 1000 eyes stare at you at the Madras Crocodile Bank – one of my favourites since when I was a child, Crocodile Bank (www.madrascrocodilebank.org) is one of the largest reptile zoos in the world. Conservation and education have been their mainstays and a lot of effort is put into teaching children about reptiles, the threats they face and what is needed to safegaurd natural ecosystems. You can be a part of feeding sessions, animal talks and the famous night safari.
Tip: Its closed on Mondays, so make sure you plan for this.
- Get your children to eat off a banana leaf – you are in the land where traditional wedding festivities are followed by a sit down meal served on banana leaves. Head to Murugan Idli Shop (www.muruganidlishop.com), an iconic eatery that serves local fare on a banana leaf. Dosas and Idlis, their specialities are favourites with children. Easy to eat, watch your kids tear off pieces of a crisp brown dosa and devour it.
Tip: Encourage your children to eat with their hands (it really is a skill and something like a dosa is hard to eat with a spoon), but if you absolutely do need a spoon, you can ask the staff at the restuarant for one.