This fascinating tour takes you right across southern India from the Bay of Bengal to the Arabian Sea, exploring the cultural highlights of Tamil Nadu and the natural wonders of Kerala.
Amazing Culture in Tamil Nadu
After a night flight, the ITC Grand Chola greeted us like a dream and I almost lost my way in the most palatial bathroom I had ever seen. Welcome to Chennai. Formerly called Madras, it’s the capital of Tamil Nadu, the prosperous south-eastern state dotted with majestic temples and colonial buildings. Lively, colourful, the city beckoned, and we soon discovered Fort St George, set up by the East India Company, St Mary’s, the oldest Anglican church in India, and the stunning Government Museum where we marvelled at ancient statues and carvings. Meanwhile on the wide sands of Marina Beach, fishermen sorted out their nets, ready to sail on the choppy waters of the Bay of Bengal.
The following day, a short drive led us down the Coromandel coast to Mahabalipuram and the lovely Radisson Blu Resort, all lush palms and tropical blooms meandering along one of the longest swimming pools in India. Wow, but by mid-afternoon, we were off to the nearby UNESCO site and three breath taking monuments, dating back to the Pallava dynasty in the 7th-8th centuries: the Shore Temple and shrines, the Arjuna’s Penance – one of the world’s largest open-air rock reliefs and most spectacular, the Five Rathas – the monolithic processional chariots carved out of massive rocks. The Pallava were the rulers of Kanchipuram, a city now famous for its silk and ‘1000 temples’ but we focussed on the Mango Tree complex dedicated to Shiva with its colonnades, sculptures, lingam and shrines and myriad pilgrims doing their devotions.
Then Pondicherry took us by surprise, a ‘Union Territory’ enclosed by Tamil Nadu though opening onto the bay with a long promenade and high sea wall. Having changed hands many times, Pondicherry was French until 1954 and the neat colonial quarter has kept much of its character from tree-lined boulevards to chic boutiques and stylish mansions. There are churches and temples, tuk-tuks and food stalls and after a look around the local Ashram or the museum, visitors can relax in the pleasant Botanical Gardens.
Now the time had come to turn inland past paddies and sugarcane and sleepy villages where women wore bright saris and flowers in their hair. We wandered around a local market, tempted by coconut milk and pomegranates, then drove towards our riverside resort near Tanjore, stopping en route at the ‘Great Temple’ as drums echoed in the distance. There was hardly a tourist in sight and beyond the golden statue of Shiva’s bull, we strolled on the lawn, full of mysterious vibes drifting from towers and shrines. The next day in town, we visited the equally impressive ‘Big Temple’, this one bustling with families and friends having fun on a holiday com pilgrimage. The highest tower has 13 tiers and the wall around the complex is topped by 1008 stone bulls. Both temples are world heritage sites, known as Brihadeshwara or by the long names of the Chola kings who built them in medieval times.
Templed-out? Not yet for in the pretty town of Trichy, on the way to Madurai, Srirangam dazzled us with 21 ‘gopurams’ – the towering gates covered in multi-coloured statues-, halls and shrines while devotees queued for blessings and free food. Then by late afternoon, we arrived in Madurai, our final stop in Tamil Nadu, where main attractions included the Nayak Palace audience hall, the Ghandi Memorial Museum and our last temple, Meenakshi, stretching from the fertility tree by the entrance to the remote golden dome of a sanctuary open only to Hindus. We rode trishaws in the old alleyways, gazing at huge piles of onions, apples. ginger and more then climbed up the Paisu Hill to the Taj Gateway Hotel and its wonderful views over the city twinkling with fairy lights and pastel colours. When the sun set on the river, the surrounding hills glowed for a while, inviting us to continue our journey across the Western Ghats to the Arabian Sea.
Kerala Natural Wonders
Our farewell to Tamil Nadu was a lovely drive in rich agricultural land, including a few vineyards, then climbing through forested hills up to the Kerala border. At just over 700 metres in the Western Ghats, Kumily was our first abode in Kerala, a bustling little place with a pleasant climate and stalls full of souvenirs and local crafts. Most tempting were spices and on our guided plantation tour, we learned all about lemon ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper and cardamom, the ‘Queen of Spices’. There was time to watch a martial art performance, truly acrobatic, and a spot of traditional dancing before we retired to ‘Spice Village’, our eco-friendly hotel with thatched cottages and organic farm.
Soon after six next morning, we hopped on the local bus to nearby Thekkady, the gateway to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary where monkeys chased each other in the trees. There were trekking trails and treetop look-outs, but we opted for a cruise on the Mulla-Periyar lake where both rivers meet. The early morning mist drifted here and there and in the first light of dawn snake birds and cormorants stretched their wings on dead trees rising eerily from the water. Grasslands along the banks attract bison and elephants while tigers, leopards and bears shelter in the forest. We did not see much wildlife but birds twittered everywhere and when the sun was up, myriad colours lit up the scene, red earth, yellow patches of grass and all shades of turquoise and green on the lake framed by wooded hills.
Back to ‘Spice Village’ for a quick breakfast before driving down the western slopes draped in tea and rubber plantations. The Kerala backwaters beckoned far below and by late afternoon we reached Kumarakom, on the bank of Wembanad, the largest lake in Kerala. ‘Coconut Lagoon’ was a superb overnight stop, labelled ‘CGH Earth’ – cool green healthy-and laced in tiny waterways and pretty footbridges. We feasted on seafood, gazed at the ‘sacred grove’ and walked to the village where red lilies and hyacinths floated on the canal while the temple bell echoed under a blue sky. Birds splashed colour in the lush hotel grounds, purple heron, green bee-eater, golden oriole and more, and dozens of exotic butterflies fluttered in the flower garden.
The Kerala backwaters are truly stunning: 38 rivers, five imposing lakes, numerous lagoons and canals stretching over 1000 km. How can you see it all? Jules Verne offered the best option: cruising on a luxurious houseboat which would be our home until next morning. We sailed on the lake and explored the canals packed with crafts of every colour and shape, from fishing boats and canoes to the odd coracle and traditional rice barges like ours, restored for tourists. Laundry dried along the banks, rice fields shimmered green and gold and houses and palm trees mirrored their reflections in the water. It was beautifully relaxing and after a peaceful night, we were back on the road heading for Cochin, our final destination on the shore of the Arabian Sea.
Spread across peninsulas and islands, Cochin is a city full of character and charm. Blessed by a natural harbour where Lake Wembanad flows into the sea, it attracted merchants from far and wide, especially for the spice trade in the 14th century onwards. Today cruise ships may have pride of place but the past lingers in the old district, be it the Dutch Fort com Palace, adorned to appease the local king, St Francis Church where Vasco de Gama was buried, until his son took the remains back to Lisbon, or the synagogue with Belgium chandeliers and blue and white Chinese tiles. Yet most iconic on Cochin’s skyline are the huge Chinese nets, hauled out of the water every 15 minutes. There wasn’t much of a beach near our CGH hotel but we enjoyed the shaded promenade then on the last day, we sailed to Kumbalanghi, a quiet craft village nestling under the coconut trees. When evening came, we were treated to Kathakali, a classical drama performed by characters with colourful attire and facial expressions we would never forget.
I travelled with Jules Verne on ‘Splendours of Southern India’.
When visiting temples, wear appropriate dress as recommended by your guide and expect some restricted access.
Photographs of monuments or temples may incur a small charge and not be allowed in certain areas.
ATMs can run out of cash in remote areas, give your guide plenty of notice when you are likely to need one.
Menu prices don’t always include taxes and that could add 20% or more to your bill. Check before you order.
Kerala is malaria free but insect repellent is a good idea in the backwaters.
Tips are customary as elsewhere in India.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Jules Verne.