With moonlight kayaking, kite surfing and snorkelling, Aqua Outback is Chennai’s newest weekend getaway.
When any excuse for travel suffices, a long weekend seems just the right time to pack my bags and put another dent in my savings account. This time, the destination is Aqua Outback, a small four-room resort (in the Santorini white-and-blue style) and activity centre in Tuticorin. It is perfect, considering its proximity and the budget. So off I go with friends, with just backpacks, slippers and my snorkel kit that travels everywhere with me.
Aqua Outback combines the beach and mangroves, with some great activities (kayaking or bird-watching, anyone?) and good old-fashion relaxation. The humble establishment was started by Arjun Motha, a Tuticorin-based environmental conservationist and adventure lover, a year ago. An overnight train from Chennai brings us to the Tuticorin station early in the morning, where the first friendly face from Aqua Outback—whom we nickname Paddy, our diver-cum-guide for the next three days—meets us. A bumpy half-hour drive across some rugged terrain, sandwiched between white salt fields scattered with flamingos and untouched green expanses, brings us to the quiet coral reef where the resort is located. The interiors are rustic—simple bamboo furniture, lamps made from recycled wood, a stone bar, and straw-and-wood mattresses with printed sea-themed cushions. My favourite spot is a bamboo ladder that leads up to a little deck with a panoramic view of the sea and the neighbouring islands. The rustic theme extends to the spacious rooms, furnished with antique wood decor and an open-air bathroom. All of this is managed perfectly by Madasami, the chief of hospitality, whose radiant smile never slips—come rain, shine or power cuts.
Day 1: We are greeted with strong homemade tea/coffee, brewed by chef Munisamy whose kitchen skills—a home-style multi-cuisine menu customised to guests’ preferences—will leave us in a food coma in the days to come. Then, with a chilled beer and a book in hand, we settle down in the shack. But soon I can’t ignore the call of the sea and slip into my snorkelling gear. The sea is silent and the bright hues of green, red and yellow of the reefs are crystal clear, with a variety of fish swimming in and out. Not too deep, the waters are perfect for swimming, too. After a quick break—snacking on fresh seafood—we go kayaking through the beautiful mangrove forests of the Gulf of Manar Biosphere, which is right next door. My first time kayaking is exhilarating, a mix of exercise, fun and pure freedom. And the sunset is indescribable.
Day 2: We wake up fresh, ready to do justice to the breakfast. Some beach volleyball, and even a spot of ‘sea volleyball’ follows. A private stretch of beach gives me plenty of space to just wander, collect my thoughts, and add shells to my collection. A group of kindred guests—on a birthday trip from Bengaluru—join us. We try our hand at some line fishing in a man-made pond (created to revive fish breeding due to the over-exploitation of fish by the locals). Maximus, the in-house cocker spaniel and sergeant of Aqua Outback, stands guard as we end the day with a surreal moonlit kayaking expedition into the mangroves, surrounded by bioluminescent algae.
Day 3: Thanks to some light showers, our reef exploration and bird watching plans are halted. Instead, we entertain ourselves with board games, snorkelling, kayaking and some great conversation, while enjoying the fresh air. Our last treat on the trip is a quick stop at Aadvark Cafe, a little bakery that has some of Tuticorin’s best cakes. The three days are a welcome break, and highly recommended to anyone who wants to escape the monotonous hustle and bustle of the city. In fact, my round two is already booked.
Macaroons and fish markets
While at the resort, head out for a walk in the salt fields or do a spot of bird watching. Guided tours will take you around Tuticorin—with stops at the 16th century Our Lady of Snows Basilica, Gamesh bakery (to see how the town’s famous macaroons are made) and fish auctions at the local market. Motha, who plans to start a dive school soon, has recently introduced kite surfing. You can also sign up for the volunteering programme there and help with re-wilding fish, mangrove forest conservation and the like.
Rs 3,500 onwards per person per day. Details: aquaoutback.com.