Tamil Nadu beach review – and Puducherry, too

Garbage is part of the Tamil Nadu beach review.

Last Updated on September 17, 2023 by Ellen

We are currently at the edge of the Himalayan range in North Central India. It’s a long way to any sea or beachfront.

The beach pic above is from our previous six-week stay in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. It was taken more than a week before we departed to meet my mom, Diane, in New Delhi where she flew in from New York for an extended winter visit.

Maybe it’s the two ‘COVID years’ we spent ‘paused’ on a Philippine beach… or perhaps my advancing age… but somehow, this Cleveland, Ohio boy now feels most at peace with an ocean beach nearby. And the time spent near Chennai, Tamil Nadu was my first real Indian beach experience.

Chennai beaches have a lot of trash, generally speaking.

I got to nearby Kanathur beach about half the days we spent at our comfy, modern AirBnb rental along East Coast Road south of Chennai. Usually, I’d stroll the sand at sunset while enjoying a big cold beer.

It was not the beach-walk most people envision in Southern India. The truly beautiful, most well-known and touristed Indian beaches are on the opposite coast – the Southwest: Goa, Kerala, Karnataka.

The beaches on the Bay of Bengal (the Coromandel Coast) are of more compact sand, sometimes rocky, and hazardous for swimming due to undercurrants. Often they are unclean. As I show in the video below, and our 2022 Christmas card, the beach nearest our suburban Chennai apartment was often covered in trash.

To be fair, I don’t believe all the trash was of local origin. Much seemed to be deposited at high tide — coming from somewhere ‘out there’. Another tide would take it away too.

Still, as seen below, there was some amount of refuse from the land. Lots of dog waste, diapers, fishing rigs, plastic galore. A couple drain pipes dribbled foul liquid from??? Sometimes it smelled. One day I jokingly termed it ‘dead thing beach’ after discovering a dead sea turtle, pig, dog, numerous odd fish and THIS scary creature below. Yuk!

Dead creatures on the beaches of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India.

I did explore a few miles on foot in each direction and found both better and worse cleanliness conditions. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to explain the differences, especially in more remote/unused areas.

Meanwhile, closer to Chennai, the beaches were much wider. Tiruvanmiyur Beach, Elliot Beach, and Marina Beach near the city center were all expansive and obviously tended regularly – with less general trash, walking and seating areas, and basic food/drink options. They were also busier, the nearby roads congested, a semi-urban vibe – and still no swimming.

Unfortunately, a grand seaside walkway along Marina Beach with lighthouse, statues, monuments, food carts, public swimming pool, and more was bisected by walled construction of a subway line when we visited. We never got to the far end near the river, old fort, museum, and amusement rides.

Tamil Nadu beaches in Chennai, India.

In the opposite direction, 20 minutes south by bus from our AirBnb, we were surprised to find a ‘Blue Flag’ certified beach. The town of Kovalam sits on what looks to be a big sand bar and Kovalam beach extends for about two miles to include the Blue Flag designated area at the northern tip.

We’ve been to Blue Flag beaches around the world – and this one came close. I will say, the area was the nicest Indian beach we’ve visited yet. There were some swimmers, a surf school, playground, small ‘food court’ and a handful of palapas and beach chairs on a mostly clean soft yellow sand beach. 

As at the other beaches, the waves and waterline played now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t with plastics and other debris. Most noticeable here was the plethora of garbage cans and signs imploring visitors to use them and take special care of this place – one of only eight Blue Flag beaches in all of India.

Blue Flag beach named Kovalam in Tamil Nadu, India.

45 minutes south of Kovalam another beach and town well known to Indian Hindus. Mamallapuram is a seaside city with incredible ancient stone carvings. Huge boulders and formations were chiseled into temples and monuments back in the 7th and 8th centuries. The place is revered. I visited in the run-up to the Tamil harvest festival of Pongal. Bus loads of pilgrims swarmed the city.

A number of higher-end private beachfront resorts line the Mamallapuram coast. Some beach areas are manicured. A small fishing fleet occupies the center of town – making for good photos but limiting use. And again, it appeared the cleanliness of other beach areas depended on wind, waves, tides, and chance.

Mamallapuram beach and stone carvings in Tamil Nadu, India.

Finally, about 150 Kilometers (100 miles) south of Chennai was the delightful surprise of Puducherry/Pondicherry – a long-time French enclave in India.

Ellen was off at a meditation retreat when I made the day-trip to Puducherry – but she would have liked it. The beaches seemed fewer and further spaced in this area and rocky shorelines are common. The trash situation: again variable.

I spent most of my day in the central historic ‘White Town’ area and along Rock Beach, Lighthouse Beach, and White Sand beach; all quite nice and clean with signs urging public participation in beach protection and pride.

The waterfront campaign mirrors an ongoing city effort to preserve the old French quarter along the seashore. French Pondicherry was established in the late 1600’s as a colonial trading post. Over centuries it was captured and restored in various conquests. Today it is recognized as an Indian “Union Territory” (a federally administrated division).

Beaches at Puducherry/Pondicherry, Tamil Nadu, India.

Walking around the area was a bizarre experience. One would never think it was India. Although smack up against the frenetic downtown of Puducherry, the White Town historic district had the beauty and calmness of 200 years ago. Really charming, unique, enjoyable — but also more costly than ‘regular’ India.

In addition, Puducherry is now known internationally for both the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the Auroville collective community. Both are famous for their meditative spiritual focus on peace and human unity. 

No doubt my wife would be fascinated by such activities and the old French town too. In fact, I would consider returning to the place for a longer stay — and more beaches.

Of course, the trash situation is lamentable – in India and everywhere. And sadly, it seems to be worsening. More population. More economic development. More consumption. More plastic refuse. An ongoing challenge to the planet and all who inhabit it.

As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.

Life is NOW!

Thanks for reading, “Tamil Nadu beach review – and Puducherry, too.”

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