Take your overnight flight to Chennai (Madras) via Muscat.
On arrival we transfer to the four-star superior Raintree Hotel .
This morning your immersion in one of the world’s oldest cultures commences by discovering Chennai’s bustling streets, passing numerous Victorian-era buildings and the famous Marine Beach, with its fish market and multi-coloured long wooden fishing boats drawn up on the sand, before arriving at the very centre of colonial Madras, Fort St George. This was one of the most vital outposts of the British Empire – its first in India, the home of Clive of India for many years and the military base for numerous wars against the French. Continuing south we soon arrive at Mahabalipuram, a port which traded with Rome in ancient times. Its huge 7th century temples have been carved remarkably from vast granite monoliths and are now UNESCO World Heritage sites. Our hotel is the three-star superior Ideal Beach Resort, with breakfast and we have time to enjoy the lovely beach-side setting and pool in the afternoon.
After breakfast we travel south to Pondicherry and on arrival have a walking tour of the beautiful old French colonial centre of ‘Pondy’. Both its architecture and ambience are very different from any other Indian town. There’s a sleepy, almost Mediterranean air here, with bougainvillea-clad walls and mustard-yellow coloured neo-classical villas. We’ll see the impressive Governor’s residence, the former site of the French fort designed by the French military architect, Vauban – there is even a Hotel de Ville! We stay the night at the four-star Le Pondy Hotel, with breakfast. Our 2019 departures stay at the three-star superior Atithi Hotel.
We continue our journey south to Tanjore, with a two-night stay at the three-star superior Ideal River View Hotel with breakfast. The rest of the afternoon is at leisure to enjoy the tranquil surroundings and palm-shaded pool of this charming hotel.
Tanjore was the capital of the ancient Chola Empire and is mainly known for its extraordinary Brihadeeswara Temple, the template for all in southern India. Standing over 200ft tall, its main tower is covered with an intricately-carved ochre-coloured facade which glows in the morning light. A working temple for over a thousand years, surrounded by colonnaded halls and a fortified wall, it is a testament to the power and wealth of the Chola Empire which at sunset seems to give off a red hue. Tanjore is also noted for its fine metalwork and the nearby Royal Palace’s art gallery houses a fascinating array of bronze sculptures.
We drive to the nearby Chettinad region, which you are sure to love. Undiscovered, it’s a revelation, the real rural India of small farming communities where we’ll stay the night in a beautifully restored traditional Chettinad mansion, the Chidambara Vilas, with breakfast.
After breakfast we’ll explore this undiscovered region, visiting other remarkable mansions, seeing the local Maharaja’s palace, plus local handicrafts. A fascinating visit is to a tile workshop, where each piece is delicately handmade and decorated, whilst saris are still woven to age-old local designs on traditional wooden handlooms. We’ll also sample some of the region’s unique cuisine during lunch, served on a banana leaf. In the afternoon we drive to Madurai for one of the tour’s real highlights: the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This is the southern India’s Taj Mahal, a complex shrine of courtyards, vast pillared halls, a sacred lake and no less than twelve gateway towers completely covered with thousands of brightly-painted stucco carvings. Madurai was already an ancient city well before Chennai was even founded, trading spices with the ancient Romans. It is considered to be Tamil Nadu’s spiritual and cultural heart. This afternoon we take tuk-tuks to visit the temple at dusk, exploring its busy traditional markets full of impossibly laden stalls and tailors rattling away at their ancient Singer sewing machines! Our hotel is the four-star Taj Gateway Pasumalai, located on a quiet hilltop above Madurai. Our 2019 departures stay at the four-star Heritage Madurai hotel.
This morning we re-visit the temple in daylight plus tour the nearby Nayak Palace, with its vast throne-room and ceremonial courtyard. Then drive west towards the distant outlines of the Western Ghats, the mountain range and border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The road zig-zags through lush forest with fleeting glimpses of verdant valleys below then crossing the border, we arrive at Kumily, surrounded by spice plantations and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Our hotel for the next two nights is the charming four-star Spice Village, with breakfast. Made up of low-rise cottages thatched with local elephant grass and scattered across spacious gardens, it has a wonderfully atmospheric bar, a small pool and follows admirable eco-friendly practices.
Rising early, with a tropical dawn chorus ringing in our ears we enter the wildlife sanctuary for a guided nature walk through the tall stands of teak, bamboo, wild fig and beautiful jacaranda trees. The reserve has a small population of rarely seen tigers, however, as the reserve’s core surrounds a large lake, the birdlife is absolutely excellent, with over 260 species recorded, including hornbills, parakeets, kingfishers, eagles, kites and flycatchers. You may also be lucky enough to spot a Malabar giant squirrel or a lion-tailed macaque. After returning to the hotel for a late breakfast, the day is at leisure until our afternoon visit to one of the numerous local spice plantations where our guide explains the uses, medicinal and culinary, of pepper, cloves, curry leaves, cardamom, vanilla, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and a host of others.
This morning we leave the hills of Periyar behind us descending towards the Keralan coast, passing the almost carpet-like tea plantations en route. We stay at Kumarakom, at the four-star superior Coconut Lagoon, accessible only by boat through one of the many canals here. Occupying a prime lakefront position, the hotel’s grounds are a huge 33 acres, so it never feels crowded. There’s plenty of hammocks dotted about, a beautiful pool surrounded by swaying palms and an excellent spa centre. The rest of the day is free to enjoy the tranquillity and explore your home for the next two nights.
Today we discover the Keralan backwaters in the best way possible – by traditional houseboat. Leaving from nearby Alleppey, each houseboat accommodates six to eight guests plus three crew who prepare a delightful and typical Keralan lunch on board. It’s a wonderful way to travel, passing paddy fields, coconut palms and colourful local houses – watch out for the plentiful birdlife, children walking (or rowing!) back from school, people washing their clothes, pots and pans and even themselves in the narrow waterways. We return to our hotel in time for dinner.
This morning we leave Coconut Lagoon for the short drive to Cochin, the Malabar Coast’s most historic port, traditionally from where India’s invaluable spices were shipped to Europe. The city’s oldest quarter is Fort Cochin, a fascinating maze of narrow alleyways and large merchants’ houses, whilst the nearby bazaar district of Mattancherry has the Dutch Palace and the subcontinent's oldest synagogue. The iconic sight in Cochin is the famed Chinese fishing nets, vast cantilevered contraptions that still work to this day. Our hotel is the four-star Trident Hotel, with breakfast.
Fly home to the UK, via Colombo, arriving later the same day.