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Explore the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka
A region of great charm, southern India offers travellers beautiful cities, colonial hill stations, colourful temples, a relaxed lifestyle, attractive scenery and some of the best food in India. The major cities of the south were once princely capitals of the maharajas, and their magnificent remains contrast dramatically with the cool, mist-shrouded hill stations established by the British Raj. The natural scenery is also immensely rewarding; forest-clad hills slope down to a shoreline of shady lagoons, wooded islands, ancient spice ports and sandy beaches. This is an exceptionally varied and interesting trip and gives a comprehensive view of the whole of South India.
NOTE:- All the itineraries can be customized to suit your own special interests, preferences, abilities, extension and reduction of numbers of days.
Those on the group flight will arrive in Cochin in the afternoon and transfer to the hotel. Those who have made their own flight arrangements will join us at the start hotel. Set on the Malabar, or ‘Pepper Coast’, Cochin (Kochi) is one of South India’s most interesting towns and is believed to have been the first European settlement in India. Rich in history despite recent growth it retains a relaxed, quiet atmosphere. Narrow spits of land and coconut covered islands jut out into the wide, almost enclosed bay whose neck is lined with the famous Chinese fishing nets. In the afternoon there will be a full trip briefing by your leader.
Today we do a sightseeing tour of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, where most of the historic buildings are located amongst the narrow streets. The Portuguese Vasco de Gama landed here in 1498 and began trading with the Raja of Cochin. The Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese in the mid 1500’s and then was largely rebuilt by its second occupants, the Dutch. Built in traditional Keralan style the wooden architecture and wall paintings of scenes from the Ramayana are still well preserved. Jewish settlers first arrived in Cochin in 587BC and a synagogue dating from the late 1500’s still stands in Fort Cochin. Although now there are only about half a dozen Jewish families, the synagogue is a real gem and the individual hand painted 18th century blue ceramic Cantonese floor tiles are evidence of past trading with China. St Francis Church is where Vasco de Gama died in 1524 and the building reflects the new European influence in the area. The Santa Cruz Cathedral is close by and was originally used as a warehouse by the British. The Chinese fishing nets line the entrance to the harbour and were introduced by the Chinese in the late 14th century. In the evening there is the option to see a Kathakali dance performan
A long but scenic journey today as we leave the coast and make our way inland into the Niligiri Hills. We leave Kerala and catch the Express train from Cochin to Pallakad (approx. 2.5hrs). We then drive through forested hillsides to Coimbatore (approx. 4-5 hrs drive). The ghat journey up to Coonoor is one of the most scenic in South India giving superb views of the plains below and magnificent groves of the tall, slender areca nut palm trees line the road. Passing through the small hill station of Coonoor we continue winding our way through lush tea and coffee plantations to Ooty, where we stay for the next two nights.
Ootacamund, or ‘Snooty Ooty’ is queen of the southern hill stations and was a refuge for British officials and tea planters in Southern India. At 2,286m, the climate is much cooler and evenings in winter can be quite chilly. Today we have a tour of various parts of Ooty including Dobetta Peak which at 2,638m is the second highest in the Western Ghats. From the top on a clear day we can see as far as the Mysore Plateau. A visit to the Botanical Gardens is relaxing and rewarding with 1,000 varieties of plants, shrubs and trees including orchids, ferns and alpines set amidst beautiful lawns. We will also visit a tea factory for a guided tour. A major attraction in Ooty is the narrow gauge steam Blue Mountain Railway from Coonoor to Ooty. There is time today to take this optional one-hour train journey (please be aware that this isn’t always possible if the weather is bad or if there are technical problems with the train). Your leader will provide details and make bookings for those who would like to experience this delightful trip.
A beautiful drive of about five hours winds down the eastern side of the Niligiri Hills back to the plains. We drive through the Mudumalai and Bandipur National Parks as we cross the border from Tamil Nadu and into Karnataka. We may spot deer, elephant and monkeys on our journey. Just before we enter Mysore we will visit Chaumundi Hill where there is a temple dedicated to Durga. On the road up to the temple there is a giant stone Nandi bull carved in 1659. We arrive in Mysore in the late afternoon and spend two nights here.
Mysore is the city of royal palaces, sandalwood and the manufacture of incense sticks; it is the former capital of the princely state and is Karnataka’s second largest city. Today we have a sightseeing tour of Mysore and its surroundings. Just outside of Mysore is Srirangapatnam the capital of Haider Ali and his famous son, Tipu Sultan. Tipu’s famous battles against both the French and the British are depicted in the murals of his delightful summer palace. Ruins of the fort and the Gumbaz, the family mausoleums are also here. Returning to Mysore we spend the afternoon exploring the beautifully restored City Palace. Designed by Henry Irwin and built in 1897, it is a remarkable building with domes, arches and colonnades of carved pillars and shiny marble floors. The stained glass, wall paintings, ivory inlaid doors and ornate golden throne are all remarkable. The rest of the day is free to wander round the bazaar.
We leave early for the 1.5 hour drive to Sravanabelagola, a city sacred to the Jains. Standing on Vindhyagiri Hill, is the 17m high statue of Gommateshwara. Erected in the 10th century it represents the saintly prince Bahubali. Nearly 700 steps carved in the granite hill lead to the statue. The carved statue captures the tranquillity of much Buddhist and Jain art. The site is visited by hundreds of pilgrims daily. (Please note that climbing up to the statue is quite demanding as there are 700 steps to walk up in bare feet and it can be very hot. We recommend you take a pair of old socks for the temple visits. If you feel the climb is too much there will be the option to sit and wait and have a cup of tea). We have a typical Jain lunch in one of the many road side cafes (dhabas) in the town. After lunch there is the option to visit another Jain temple built on a rock on the opposite side of town. We then visit the temples at Belur and Halebid. Belur and Helebid were the centre of the great Hoysala dynasty, who ruled during the 11th to 14th centuries. Great warriors, they also patronised culture and art. Although small, these temples show some of the finest carvings to be found anywhere in India. Halebid is the largest of all Hoysala temples. Starting in 1121 it remains unfinished. The friezes on the outside are particularly well carved and show scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. After the temple visits, we drive to Hassan where we stay overnight.
This morning we transfer to Bangalore (the capital of Karnataka) arriving by lunch time. We will take a drive around this IT capital of India and then take a train to Chennai. We will board an afternoon train to Chennai where we will stay overnight.
After breakfast we will have a tour of Chennai and then visit St Thomas Church. From here we drive for around 1.5hrs down the coast to Mahabalipuram where we stay for the next 2 nights. There will be time to relax in this quaint seaside resort after the last few busy days.
This part of Tamil Nadu was once known as the Coromandal Coast. It has a language over 2,000 years old and poetry dating back to before the birth of Christ. It also boasts some of the most remarkable temple architecture in India, and with a living tradition of music and dance, is culturally very rich. In the morning we visit the rock cut caves and temples at Mahabalupuram. Occupying a stunning position on a rocky outcrop between the beach and a lagoon, the port was made famous by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th century. There are numerous cave temples, monolithic carved shrines in the shape of chariots, stone temples and relief sculptured rock panels all dating back to the 7th century. Carving in stone is still a living art here and we will see stonemasons chipping away from dawn till dusk along the busy roadside, practicing the skills that flourished centuries ago. Afternoon free to walk along the beach and explore the local area
This morning we leave the coast for a while and head inland for 52km to the Vedantangal Bird Sanctuary, an important breeding ground for water birds. Cormorants, egrets, herons, storks, ibises and pelicans come here to breed and nest for about six months from November to March. At the height of the breeding season in December and January there can be up to 3000 birds here. (Please note that the bird sanctuary is closed from 31st May – 31st October). We then head to Pondicherry. Pondicherry still enjoys a hint of its French colonial atmosphere in the grid pattern streets, distinctive police uniforms and the occasional colonial building. There will be a short orientation walk in the afternoon of around 2 – 3 hour
Today we drive to Thanjavur through the wonderfully fertile Kaveri Delta, an area lush with rice paddy fields. The journey today will take approx. 5 hours.
This morning we visit a beautiful 16th century palace which houses a huge library as well as the Rajaraja Museum with a collection of magnificent Chola bronzes. Thanjavur is famous for the Brihadisvara Temple, a World Heritage Site, and is one of the great monuments of southern India. The temple is the achievement of the Chola King, Rajaraja I, who was a great patron of the arts. It is built mainly from granite and has outstanding inscriptions and sculptures of Shiva, Vishnu and Durga. We have a snack lunch today and drive to Madurai in the late afternoon (approx. 4 hrs), past granite mountain ranges. Spread along the banks of the rocky bed of the Vaigai River stands the bustling city of Madurai, where we spend two nights
Madurai is one of Tamil culture’s most vital centres and the temple and bazaar are at the heart of this vibrant and colourful city. The most famous sight in Madurai is the Meenakshi Temple, an outstanding example of Vijaynagar temple architecture. Built between the 16th and 18th centuries, it is at the heart of the city and the life of the town revolves around it. It is a hive of activity and the scene of an almost continuous religious festival. The temple’s nine towering gopurams stand out with their colourful stucco images of gods, goddesses and animals. There are about 4,000 granite sculptures on the lower levels and numerous pillared temple halls surrounding the Golden Lotus Tank. The main temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, the ‘fish-eyed goddess’ and the consort of Shiva. One of the spectacular parts of the complex is the 16th century Thousand Pillared Hall with exquisitely carved columns and its sculptured ceiling, which depicts a wheel showing the 60 Tamil years. We also visit the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, which was built in 1636 in Indo-Mughal style by the Nayak dynasty. The bazaars are colourful and lively and Madurai is a great place to take a cycle rickshaw ride. The town is also renowned for its silk and cotton.
We drive westwards and enter the state of Kerala today. Nicknamed ‘God’s own country’, it is the southernmost state of India. High levels of education and healthcare have given Kerala an enviable reputation elsewhere in India and its unique balance of Hindu, Muslim and Christian sets it apart from its neighbouring states. The journey takes about four hours through lush countryside to Thekaddy and the Periyar National Park. Set on the attractive Periyar lakeside the wildlife park is known for its elephants, sambar, wild boar and barking deer. This afternoon there is the option to do a tour of the spice gardens. Coffee, tea, rubber, cardamom and pepper are just some of the local crops.
A full day to explore Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. We join our local guide for a short nature walk in the park (2-3hrs) before we return to town for lunch. In the afternoon there is an optional boat cruise on the lake. This is an ideal way to get close to the animals and we have the opportunity of spotting elephant, otter, wild pig and buffalo. There is also an abundance of bird life – kingfishers, storks and hornbills are the most commonly spotted. Tickets can be purchased online in advance (approx. £8 or US$10). We recommend doing this in order to avoid possible long queues at the ticket office. Please inform your leader if you wish to book this in advance. Other activities available today include a Ayurvedic Massage (approx. £10-15 or US$13-20), a tribal dance show (approx. £5 or US$7), Kathakali Dance Show (approx. £3 or US$4), Bamboo Rafting (approx. £20-30 or US$27-40) or Martial Arts Show (approx. £3 or US$4).
We leave early today and drive approximately 5 hrs to Allepey, where we board our houseboats around noon and begin our cruise along the backwaters of Kerala. The houseboat cruise is one of the highlights of the trip – these enchanting houseboats, built of Anjili wood and bamboo were the traditional method of transport of goods for hundreds of years. Now they have been decorated and made into cosy cruise boats. The network of rivers, streams, lagoons and canals occupies the alluvial plain between the Western Ghats and the Indian Ocean. As our boat meanders through areas of lush tropical vegetation we have the opportunity to view not only the prolific bird life but also gain a differing perspective on village life. The cruise takes us around the lake and along palm-fringed waterways where coconut fibre and cashews are loaded on to dugouts. In the evening the boat is anchored in the lake and we can watch the sunset over the rice paddies. All the houseboats are comfortably equipped and one boat has between 3 and 5 twin or double bedded rooms with bathroom. There is a cook and boat driver and assistants for each boat and the food served is traditional Keralan fare using local produce. No trip to Kerala would be complete without the wonderful experience of the backwaters aboard these traditional Keralite vessels.
This morning we leave our houseboat and drive along the scenic Malabar Coast to Kovalam (approx. 5hrs), once a relaxing hideaway on the old hippie trail this beachside town has now been discovered, but the influx of tourism has not diminished this beautiful setting. Free afternoon.
We have a free day to enjoy the idyllic soft sandy beaches, warm clear waters and wide views of the ocean horizon that Kovalam has to offer. There is also the opportunity to do an optional day’s sightseeing from Kovalam to Kanyakumari, the end point of India where 3 oceans meet, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. If it’s open, the trip also takes in the old wooden palace of the rulers of Travancore at Padmapuhamban – a marvellous building with fantastic woodcarvings, and the Hindu temple at Suchindran with its amazing stone carvings. This trip can be booked and paid for locally – please note it is a very long day and the road conditions are not very good. The cost of this excursion depends on group size, but it is usually INR 4800 (approx. £58) between 4 people travelling together, or INR 6400 (approx. £75) if more than 4 people travelling together. If visiting Padmanabhapuram Palace en route it’s an extra INR 300 (approx. £4) per person
Those on the flight inclusive package will depart for home this morning, from Trivandrum airport, for the daytime flight back to home ; Land Only arrangements will finish after check-out from the hotel.
Air tickets, meals not noted in the itinerary, insurance, medical and evacuation, tipping to guides and local staff, visa fees, excess baggage charges, airport taxes, cost of medical immunizations, items of a personal nature, alcoholic beverages, cold drinks, laundry, etc.
Visas are required if you are British and for most other nationalities. For UK residents full details of the visa process can be found here. Other nationalities should check with their travel agent or the relevant embassies.
If your trip visits Ladakh, in the very north of India, or Sikkim in the northeast, do not mention this on your Indian visa application. This can sometimes slow down or even cause the embassy to reject your visa.
When you reach immigration, you are required to pick up an immigration form. If you have an e-visa, ensure you stand in the correct queue – please follow the signs to the e-visa booth (in Delhi this is at the back of the immigration hall). You will need to fill out an additional form at the booth – please make sure that you have the details of your start hotel ready (these details can be found on your Final Joining Instructions).
There are no mandatory vaccination requirements. Recommended vaccinations are: Polio, Tetanus, Diphtheria, Typhoid, Hepatitis A. The risk of malaria is slight but you may wish to consult your GP or travel health clinic for further advice. Dengue fever is a known risk in places visited. It is a tropical viral disease spread by daytime biting mosquitoes. There is currently no vaccine or prophylaxis available for Dengue, therefore the best form of prevention is to avoid being bitten. Some of our India trips spend time at altitude. In regions over approx. 2000m, there is low to no risk of mosquito-borne diseases. For trips going to altitudes of over 3000m there is a risk of being affected by Acute Mountain Sickness. Our itineraries are designed to enable everyone to acclimatise to these altitudes, but you should be aware that it is still possible for you to be affected. Please see the TRIP NOTES for further information.
Eating and Drinking
Dinner is included at the homestay, and we also include a dinner and cooking demonstration with a local family in Periyar. The houseboat is full board. You should allow at least £15 (approx. US$24) per day for lunch and dinner. You can eat out very cheaply in India, but if you go to the more expensive restaurants most of the time, you will spend more than the suggested amount. In most of the towns there is a good choice of restaurants and a choice between Indian and Western style food. If you are a vegetarian, India is probably one of the best destinations to travel to. Tea and soft drinks are very cheap. Please note that hotels (apart from 5-star hotels) and bars in Kerala are no longer allowed to sell alcohol, but it is still possible to buy alcohol in government shops. Mineral water is available in the bus in 20ltr containers so please bring a bottle with you to refill. Please note that service in restaurants can be quite slow.
The most important feature of the Indian climate is the ‘wet season’ or monsoon. The main monsoon strikes the coast of Kerala in late May and sweeps its way northward over the next month or so. The ideal time to visit is during the dry season from October to March. Days will be hot and the nights warm, the average range of maximum daytime temperatures being between 21ºC – 30ºC and from 6ºC – 20ºC at night. However, in the hills temperatures can be considerably cooler and you can expect temperatures to drop to a few degrees above zero at night. We ask you to note that frequent rainstorms can be expected throughout the tour on November departures. However, the storms are usually of quite short duration and the sun normally comes out fairly quickly afterwards. Please note that swimming in the sea at Kovalam is not always possible, depending on recent weather conditions, however the hotel we use in Kovalam will always have a pool.