I flew to Chennai for the next leg of my trip. Since I had an extra day, I went to the coast. While Pondicherry is the more obvious destination, I picked Mahabalipuram and stayed at the Ideal Beach Resort. Extremely helpful over email with the booking. Reasonable transfer rate (~$16) for a 60km+ airport transfer. And a good price (beachfront room < $50). I had been somewhat worried about the ethics of visiting an area recently impacted by the tsunami. However, by the second week of January, the news on NPR had shifted to the devastated tourist industry and the state of Tamil Nadu had a prominent message on their website begging tourists to return. So I made the booking, assuming they had avoided the tsunami that affected the area.
I was wrong about the tsunami. While no one was killed at the resort, my room and the major common areas had been under seven feet of water. What was incredible was their rebuilding effort. The staff was somewhat reticent to discuss it, but the scope was enormous. Just for my room (first floor), they would have needed all new drywall, electrical wiring, furniture, etc. Not a hint of mold or any indication of less than a total rebuild. They had built a new reception area. Every speck of dirt had been removed due to salt poisoning and replaced with new dirt. To mask the lack of permanent plantings, hundreds of potted plants lined every walkway. Enormous 25-foot palm trees and other large trees had been planted with a crane to return it to a forested state (there were a few large trees remaining, which looked very sick due to the salt).
My theory is that they were trying to retain pre-tsunami bookings from their mostly European tourist base. Certainly anyone who arrived by mid-January would be entirely happy with the condition of the resort.
Oddly, a large seawall had been built out of sand which hurt the view and was unlikely to have meaningful effect. The staff seemed deeply concerned that the next tsunami was coming in the next week (they asked me what I had heard in America -- I discussed hurricanes and the 100-year risk that was more likely the case). The beach was redflagged. Although it was rough, it was not unswimmable. But I never saw anyone in the water elsewhere on the beach either, and decided that was a cultural sensitivity best not to risk upsetting.
But I could have easily stayed there a week. Great food. Great pool (and poolside service). Indian massage onsite (definitely not what I'm accustomed to). Satellite TV and direct dial phones. Great beach with empty hammocks swaying beneath the palm trees. Interesting town nearby. This is the only beach resort I have ever been to where I could imagine staying for three or four months.
Before I left, I made a contribution for common furniture for the staff quarters. Apparently things behind the scenes were still in progress and many of the workers had lost everything. But as I walked toward town along the beach, I saw competitor after competitor completely closed with heavily damaged buildings. The Ideal's immediate investment in preserving a high-quality guest experience will lead to long-term market share gains and kept the staff intact and employed. An amazing example of successful disaster recovery in a consumer business.