189km (117 miles) S of Chennai
Pondicherry's ancient history dates from the Vedic era; the Romans traded here 2 millennia ago, and the Portuguese arrived in 1521. Dutch and Danish traders followed, but it was the French -- who purchased the town in the late 17th century, only relinquishing their hold in 1954 -- who left by far the most enduring legacy. Now a Union Territory, with its own local government, this seaside colony retains its French élan, tempered by South Indian warmth, making it one of India's most relaxing destinations, with virtually all sights and shops within walking distance. After hanging out in your antiques-filled colonial hotel and sauntering around the broad boulevards of the tranquil French Quarter (where you'll see old men in thick-rimmed spectacles under the apparent illusion that they're in a Parisian arrondissement), it comes as a pleasant shock to step over the "Grand Canal" into a typical Tamil town, where cracked pavements are jam-packed with people and shops, and wares on offer blend Indian craftsmanship with Western-influenced designs. Even if you're not a keen shopper or particularly interested in French colonial architecture, you can immerse yourself in the spirituality of Puducherry (as it is increasingly referred to) by joining the New Age travelers and Indian pilgrims here to pay their respects at the ashram of Sri Aurobindo, their blissful commitment making this a bizarrely authentic spiritual experience. Or you can visit nearby Auroville, an interesting experiment in alternative living, also optimistically known as the City of Dawn. Ashramic allure and Aurovillian aura aside, Pondi (as it is affectionately called) is the type of charming seaside town where you arrive for a quick overnighter and will end up wishing you could stay for longer; like Goa, it has a number of expats whizzing around on scooters to prove the strong pull it exerts. And, yes, it's far friendlier than Bordeaux.