Dimitri Klein has forged new grounds for eco-tourism in India. His latest hotel, The Dune, uses only local and organic products and consumes 3.5 kilowatts of energy while supporting a network of local communities. Klein is hoping that tourism can help save the world.

 

 

Dimitri Klein knew that setting up an environmentally sustainable hotel in India would involve a number of challenges. He just didn’t expect the headaches to begin with the toilet.

When he first opened the Dune, a 50-room property on Tamil Nadu’s steamy Coramandel Coast, Klein outfitted it with dry composting toilets imported from Australia. His earliest guests were either horrified by the contraptions, or tossed water down them. A septic system was soon installed.

“You can’t please everybody,” recalls the fortysomething Frenchman. “I guess composting toilets are just way ahead of their time for India. It would be wonderful to be 100 percent sustainable, but it’s not always possible. Instead, we’re happy just to narrow the margin.”

Klein arrived in Tamil Nadu in 1997, lured by the utopian promises of Auroville, an international community located a few kilometers north of the former French colony of Pondicherry (officially Puducherry). Founded by French philosopher Mirra Alfassa in 1968, Auroville aims “to be a universal town where men and women from all countries will be able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.” It’s an admirable goal, though on previous visits, I’ve found the Aurovillians- who can count 35 different nationalities among their 1,800-strong community- to be a bit cliquey, a little bit too hippy-dippy. Klein’s budding entrepreneurial spirit didn’t jive with Auroville’s quasi-socialist ideals (capitalist endeavors are forbidden), so he left four years later to embark on the first of his three hotel projects, Le Dupleix, in Pondicherry.

Named after French India’s most celebrated governor, who once lived in the mansion, the 14-room Le Dupleix is a lovely heritage property finished in traditional lime plaster and antique hand-carved woodwork. It’s also a world away from Klein’s second Tamil Nadu venture, Elephant Valley, a 40-hectare organic farm-cum-eco-lodge situated on an abandoned tea plantation in the Palni Hills of the Western Ghats, not far from the hill station of Kodaikanal.

But it is at the Dune, where he lives with his wife and three young children, that you get the clearest sense of Klein’s commitment to ecotourism. For starters, the place has a rustic-verging on rugged-feel to it, mostly because it has been pieced together from recycled building materials. I spot several pillars, doors, and window frames from Chettinad, a once-prosperous mercantile community renowned for its exquisite turn-of-the-last-century mansions. Arrayed in no discernable order, some villas have been built entirely from bamboo; others feature mud or brick walls; some have no walls at all (the Flower House and the Nawabi House are open to the elements). Tribes of cheeky geese, ducks, and dogs wander the 14-hectare property, splashing in ponds or cozying up to guests.

Despite jettisoning the composting toilets, Klein remains committed to minimizing the resort’s ecological footprint. During my visit, he is haggling with customs officials over an order of reverse-cycle air conditioners that has arrived at Chennai Port. When installed, they will reduce his electricity consumption by 70%. The place runs on about 3.5 kilowatts of energy as it is- less than a third that consumed by most hotels its size. Showers are solar-heated, while gray water is treated, recycled, and pumped by windmill around the property to irrigate the gardens. Plastic water bottles are virtually banned; the laundry operation is chemical free; food waste is composted onsite; and wherever possible, the resort uses fair-trade and organic products, like the herbal toiletries it brings in from Kerala.

Such ideals often come with quirks- and the Dune has plenty. The duplex Tower House, for instance, occupies an old water tower, transformed in situ into what a 2006 edition of India Today magazine declared the country’s best honeymoon suite. The views are sweeping, but they require effort: guests must climb 62 steps up an open-air spiral staircase to reach the bedroom, and then another two dozen to get to the living room. The colorful Nawabi House, a stilted bungalow designed by Chennai fashion photographer Monica Gurdhe, would make an intimate roost were it not for the lack of walls. The Artists Suite’s door is so big that its cast-iron key is kept in a box and requires a second key to retrieve the first one; the Karaikudi Suite is accessed through a safe. And while the thatched-roof Pop House is a whimsical homage to Tamil cinema, you need to be an ardent film buff to appreciate its garish decor.

Yet the guest quarters, despite some being a little too kitsch or- in the case of the “air cooled” rooms- too buggy, are quite comfortable. I opt for a top floor Garden Room- by far the most conventional rooms available-and am rewarded with a big balcony and daybed from which I enjoy the afternoon’s offshore breeze. It doesn’t, however, stand up to that night’s monsoonal downpour, which floods the polished-concrete floor and makes flotsam of some of my belongings.

Guests hail mainly from Europe, though I also meet several Indians during my stay-savvy young couples weekending from Chennai, a two-hour drive away, or families looking to give their kids a taste of the countryside. They fill the dome-shaped restaurant and the poolside seafood bar (furnished with chairs rescued from a decommissioned ferry) over lazy breakfasts and late lunches, and then disappear to the beach- a long swath of golden sand pounded by a roaring sea. Thanks to rip tides and local sanitation issues, the water is not safe for swimming, and due to local sensitivities nor is the beach suitable for sun-baking, but the resort’s saltwater infinity pool makes up for all of this. Other distractions include bicycles (each room comes with two), a decent Ayurvedic spa, and crafts workshops led by ladies from the nearby village of Pudhukuppam.

The restaurant “lives land to mouth,” says Chef Sanjay Matta, who buys his seafood from local fishermen (guests are welcome to venture out at the crack of dawn to help them bring in the day’s catch) and makes his own yogurt from cow’s milk. The eggs served at breakfast are collected from free-range chickens, and Matta’s heavy, unbleached-wheat bread is served with homemade sugar-free preserves. What vegetables the resort doesn’t grow onsite come from nearby farms, while the earthy coffee is harvested and roasted at Elephant Valley. And if chef Matta’s attempts at French food lack zest, his organic fusion fare-based on a toxin-free diet proposed by the late French biologist Jean Seignalet- proves an unexpected delight. Indian cuisine aficionados may scoff at such dishes as the millet biryani with seared fish and beetroot raita, but I find them ingenious.

The Dune was originally envisioned as a nonprofit artists’ retreat. After that proved too expensive to run, Klein decided to expand the property into a resort. It was due to open on January 1, 2005- but one week earlier the Indian Ocean tsunami smashed into the shores of Tamil Nadu.

Apart from the overwhelming loss of life it caused (the official state death toll is 6,238), the tsunami hurled tons of sand and salt onto coastal farmland and tainted the local water supply. The Dune, protected from the sea by a broad foreshore, suffered only limited damage, but the mud huts of neighboring Pudhukuppam were washed away. Klein and his resident manager Sunil Varghese were quick to organize relief efforts. Teaming up with Children of the World India, an NGO supported by the French Red Cross, the Dune has since been helping to rehabilitate more than 200 hectares of land between Pondicherry and Chennai, including the establishment of a model organic farm that demonstrates sustainable agricultural techniques. Then there is the 200-head, tuition-free vocational school in Chennai which is partly-funded by the hotel, and teaches such things as catering, garment making, and graphic design to village youths affected by the wave.

For Klein, who can usually be spotted pottering around the property in flip flops and an old T-shirt digging holes, milking cows, or planting trees, his little resort is about defending the cultural and environmental integrity of its location.

“I have been to so many hotels around the world, and at most of them, you could be anywhere, they’re so similar. A hotel should be the key to a destination; it should teach guests about where they are, about the people and the culture around them. Many ecotourism projects in India claim themselves to be eco because it’s the latest buzzword. Ecotourism shouldn’t be about trying to fill a market niche; it should about genuinely making a difference.”

He adds, “Hotels are in the prime position to help improve lives in developing communities. They provide economic opportunities and are the bridge between locals and tourists. They can achieve so much with so little.”

The Dune, Pudhukuppam, Tamil Nadu, India; +91 936/445-5440; www.thedunehotel.com

A version of this article ran in DestinAsian Magazine in June 2009. Photographs and text by Leisa Tyler.