Highlights of Southern India

Resort:Highlights of Southern India
Operator: Explore
Destination: Asia, India
Price From: £1699.00

Over View

This two-week journey is the perfect introduction to India's varied south. As we wind our way around the region we discover intricately carved temple complexes, ornate palaces and lush scenery in the tropical south-west.
Palaces and temples – Visit the ornate Maharajah's Palace in Mysore and discover the colourful Meenakshi Temple in Madurai
Bandipur National Park – Search for endemic wildlife including elephant, chital and bison
Kochi and surrounds – Explore the Portuguese influenced city including the Chinese fishing nets and cruise the nearby backwaters


Day 1 Join trip in Chennai (Madras)

Arrive in Chennai (Madras); Capital of India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, the city is one of the most important economic hubs of the country, partly due to its role in the development of the automotive industry in India.

For those arriving on time today our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 2pm for the welcome meeting and to take us on a walk around the southern neighbourhood of Mylapore. Older than Chennai itself, Mylapore is an affluent and characterful quarter, home to a variety of cultural and historical sites as well as buildings influenced by the European colonies. As part of our walk we will visit the Kapaleeshwar Hindu Temple, rebuilt after it was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century and the Roman Catholic Luz Church (Our Lady of Light).

If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you’ll need to arrive into Chennai International Airport (MAA), which is 1 hour/20 km from the hotel.

Please note that if you wish to join the Mylapore tour today, you must arrive at the hotel by 2pm. If you are booking your own flights, we recommend giving yourself at least one hour to clear the airport. From the airport to the hotel is around one hour’s drive, so therefore the latest your flight can arrive is 12pm. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up.

Day 2 Drive to Pondicherry via Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary and discover the town’s French Quarters

This morning we drive to Vedanthangal Bird Sanctuary, approximately two hours drive from Chennai. The sanctuary is a protected area and an important breeding ground for large migrating birds such as herons, cormorants, storks, ibises, pelicans as well as other smaller species such as pintails and sandpipers. Migrating season is generally from November to March and in the height of breeding season there can be thousands of birds here (Please note Vedanthangal bird sanctuary is closed from 31st May to the 31st October).

After this, we drive to Pondicherry where we will check in to our hotel and have lunch in the town’s colonial French Quarters. The European influence both from a cultural and culinary perspective is very much alive here after the city remained under French reign until 1954. Many of the streets retain their French name and as we walk around we will see several bakeries and cafes serving up fresh baguettes, crepes, waffles and even croissants. The architecture also makes us feel as if we were in a Parisian suburb with whitewashed colourful mansions lining the streets and Pondicherry’s own version of the Arc De Triomphe and Notre Dame church (Notre Dames des Agnes).We will also visit the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, a small spiritual community devoted to providing its members with a balanced and healthy life. The ashram has a real presence in the town as they also run a handmade paper factory, making all sorts of goods out of waste material including wind chimes, notebooks, paper bags and birthday cards.

Day 3 Visit the Srirangam river island temples en route to Madurai

Early this morning we leave Pondicherry and travel to Tiruchirappalli to discover the Srirangam Hindu Temple. Located on an island, at the confluence of the Kaveri and Kollidam Rivers, the temple complex is one of the largest in India and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu, one of the main deities of Hinduism. We will also visit the river ghats at Amma Mandapam, where devotees and residents of Srirangam and the surrounding areas come to bathe.

After lunch, we will continue our journey towards Madurai, where we will arrive in the late afternoon. Madurai is a city at the heart of the Tamil and Dravidian cultures. Of huge importance to Hindus, Madurai is known as the ‘Nectar City’ as it is believed drops of nectar dropped from goddess Siva’s locks here. In the evening we plan to visit the impressive Meenakshi Temple for the evening ‘bed ceremony’ where the image of Siva is carried from its shrine to join his consort Pavarti in a separate part of the temple. All ceremonies carried out at Hindu temples are very spiritual as devotees say their prayers and bring offerings such as flower garlands and food to their gods. During this ceremony we may also see musicians, temple singers and priests accompany the image of the god to their resting place for the night.

Day 4 Explore the colourful Meenakshi Temple and Thirumalai Nayak Palace in Madurai

This morning we will return to the 16th century Meenakshi Temple for a closer look around. The temple features imposing gopurams (monumental gates) and dominating colourful towers that rise above the chaotic exuberance of the seemingly endless throngs of pilgrims. We will also visit the stunning Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, a 17th century building with impressive archways framing the indoor courtyard.

This afternoon has been left free in Madurai, where you can choose to visit the Gandhi Memorial Museum, housing a small collection of artefacts belonging to the iconic figure. Alternatively you can visit the flower market where thousands of marigolds, tuberoses and roses amongst others are traded each day.

Day 5 Drive to Thekkady and learn all about Indian spices with a tour of a spice garden

Today we drive west towards Thekkady and the south-western state of Kerala. The drive is roughly around five hours but as we climb through the scenery of the Western Ghats mountain range, we discover an ever-changing landscape which becomes noticeably greener in the form of spice plantations and rolling verdant hills.

After checking in to our hotel, we will learn a little about how Indian spices are grown and processed with a walking tour of a spice garden. India is the world’s largest exporter and consumer of spices and the soil composition in the area is ideal for growing cardamon, cloves, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon.

Day 6 Board a houseboat and sail through the tranquil Kerala backwaters

This morning we drive to the Kerala Backwaters, a network of low-lying waterways, lagoons and rivers running parallel to the Arabian Sea. Often lined with tropical plants and palm trees they are a haven for a variety of birdlife and also villages that dot the many shores. We board our houseboat around midday for an exotic journey, chugging in unhurried style on waterways used by villagers to connect each of the communities . We dock in the middle of the waterways before dusk and watch the sun go down over the horizon.

Converted from old rice-barges, the houseboats we use are simple yet comfortable vessels which have a en-suite rooms and an area to relax and watch riverside life as we go by. Whilst the engine boat is running there will be some power supply to charge cameras and the air conditioning will be limited to night time only.

Day 7 Travel to the fort city of Kochi. Afternoon optional Kathakali performance or a local cookery class

After disembarking our houseboat, we drive to the fort town of Kochi. With a beautiful natural harbour that earned it the title of ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’, the town was founded on trade from Jewish and Arab spice traders in the first century AD. Its prosperity and importance increased even more with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century, closely followed by the Dutch and the English, an eclectic heritage that helped produce a fascinating mix of styles and influences.

After lunch, we will walk around the fort and get our first look at the Chinese Fishing nets. First introduced by Chinese explorers in the 14th century, this style of fishing is rarely found in India and they have become a symbol of Kochi.

The rest of the day will be left free and there is an option to enjoy a Kathakali dance performance. Thought by some to be the very essence of the culture of Kerala. The intricate make-up is unique and often dancers can take up to three hours painting their faces – the features are heavily emphasised as it is the facial expressions and coordinated eye movements which are important in the dance. Alternatively you may wish to learn about south Indian cuisine with a cookery class at a local home. During the class you’ll learn to cook typical Keralan dishes including coconut milk curries and crispy laced rice pancakes, whilst chatting to your hosts about their life and culture.

Day 8 Walk around fort Kochi and take a sunset cruise around the harbour

After a leisurely breakfast, we will head towards Kochi’s Mattancherry Palace and explore this colonial gem. Built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, it underwent extensive renovations by the Dutch some hundred years later, which earned it its name as ‘The Dutch Palace’. Today it houses murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana and other great legends. Whilst in Kochi’s Jewish quarter we will visit the oldest active synagogue in India, the Paradesi Jewish synagogue. This area is also great for a variety of interesting stores including antique warehouses and spice auction rooms which we hope to visit. Later we will also visit St Francis Church, another fascinating example of the melting pot of cultures which have brushed past this fort town and left their mark. The church was the original burial site of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama before being returned to his native Portugal as his final resting place. Later in the afternoon we will take a cruise in Kochi’s harbour to watch the sun setting over the Chinese fishing nets.

Day 9 Explore the well preserved 18th century Palakkad Fort en route to Coimbatore

Today we have a long drive ahead of us as we head north-east back into the state of Tamil Nadu and the city of Coimbatore. On the way we will stop in Palakkad to admire the 18th century fort. Unlike sandstone examples seen in India’s Northern state of Rajasthan, Palakkad Fort is built out of granite and is surrounded by grass and a large water moat around it. After exploring the fort we will continue our drive towards Coimbatore, a journey of two hours approximately. Dinner is included tonight in Coimbatore as you get the opportunity to sample some south Indian delicacies such as savoury dosas served on a banana leaf with different chutneys, pickles and vegetables.

Day 10 Ride the toy train to ‘Snooty Ooty’ and drive to Bandipur National Park

Early this morning we travel towards Coonoor to board the toy train along the Niligiri Mountain Railway. Built by the British in the late 19th century to negotiate an otherwise difficult terrain, an old locomotive will pull us up the hill through dense green forest landscapes as we cover a distance of 19km from Coonoor to Ooty in about one and a half hours. The toy train has been running for many years so there are times where it doesn’t run due to maintenance or when the weather is poor. In such circumstances we will drive to Ooty instead, which still makes for a scenic journey through the hills.

The town of Ooty, often referred to as ‘Snooty Ooty’ was once a colonial hill station and home to officials from the British East India Company looking to escape from theat of the southern lowlands. On arrival we will have lunch and have a short tour of the town including a visit to the town’s botanical gardens, home to more than 1000 varieties of plants and trees arranged in a colourful way. Afterwards we will continue our journey towards Bandipur National Park.

Day 11 Search for wildlife on two game drives in Bandipur National Park

Today is a day dedicated to searching for wildlife with both morning and afternoon drives in Bandipur National Park included. The park was once the hunting ground for the Maharajah of Mysore but is today a thriving nature reserve made primarily out of dry deciduous forest. Some of the wildlife we hope to see includes chital (spotted deer), monkeys (especially langur), mongoose, sloth bear and gaur (Indian bison). The park’s elephant population is one of the largest in the country and we may see some of them walking in the forest. Though less common, there have also been sightings of leopard and tiger and there is a variety of birdlife such as crested hawk and serpent eagle.

Our wildlife drives in the park are usually at dawn and just before dusk in the afternoon when the animals are most active. Our safari drives will be in open top 4WD trucks designed for viewing wildlife. Each safari will be around three to four hours including our drive towards the park but will of course depend on the wildlife we get the chance to see.

In between the drives we will have some time to relax back at our lodge just outside of the park. There is the option to relax by the swimming pool, enjoy a massage or take a nature walk around the resort.

Day 12 Early morning optional safari and drive to Mysore for a sound and light show at Mysore Palace

Early this morning we have the option to take one final drive in the park in search of wildlife. Alternatively, enjoy a leisurely breakfast before we drive north towards Mysore. So called the ‘City of Palaces’, Mysore is today renowned as the cultural capital of Karnataka and home to one of the most ornate palaces in south India, the Maharajah’s Mysore Palace, which we plan to visit tomorrow.

After checking into our accommodation we will visit the Chamundi Hills area just outside of the city. Offering views over Mysore, the hills are home to an impressive Hindu Temple and the Nandi statue. This giant black granite bull statue is considered the vehicle of Lord Siva and is an icon of the city of Mysore. Later in the evening we will head to Mysore Palace for a sound and light show displayed on the facade of the building itself.

Day 13 Explore Mysore’s colourful market and the impressive Mysore Palace before taking an overnight train to Chennai

After a leisurely breakfast we will take a visit to Mysore’s Devaraja market. This vibrant market is a constant hive of activity as locals barter with sellers for the best deal. The market is a photographer’s paradise with fruit, vegetable, flower and spice stalls often meticulously displayed.

After our visit to the market we will head towards Mysore’s must see, the eccentric Mysore Palace. An eclectic mix of Hindu and British architecture, the palace was originally built in the 14th century and has undergone two subsequent re-buildings. Its opulence is demonstrated through its grand proportions, shiny marble floors, ivory doors and recognisable red domes on top of its main towers. After our sightseeing and an early dinner we will transfer to the railway station to board our overnight train to the city of Chennai.

For our overnight train journey will reserve berths in second class with air conditioning. Our berths will be separated by curtains and we will be in compartments which have 4/6 bunk beds. Bedding (sheet, blanket and pillow) is provided but you may wish to bring your own sleeping liner for added comfort. Train travel in India is safe and civilised but for added security whilst you sleep it may be a good idea to bring a bike lock for your bags. If you do not wish to carry one with you, your tour leader can help you to purchase one locally before your train journey.

Day 14 Travel to the coastal town of Mamallapuram, home to the fascinating shore temples

Arriving in Chennai very early this morning we will make a quick stop for a traditional south Indian dosa breakfast. These thin flat crepes are made out of rice batter and often served with a side of chutney, potatoes and lentil sambars. Following breakfast we’ll travel towards the shores of the Bay of Bengal and the town of Mamallapuram.

On arrival in Mamallapuram, we will check in to our hotel and enjoy some free time to relax before exploring the nearby shore temples. Mamallapuram was the chief harbour of the Pallavas Kingdom some 1200 years ago and a number of superb examples of its masterful rock carvings still exist today. We will walk around some of the areas most celebrated structures, including the 7th century Shore Temple – a UNESCO World Heritage site – and Ajuna’s Penance, the world’s largest bas-relief and one of the most impressive friezes in India. Although both have suffered at the hands of natural erosion over many centuries, a remarkable amount of detail still remains amongst the carvings.

The late afternoon has been left free to take an walk on Mamallapuram’s sandy beaches or visit the market for some last minute shopping.

Day 15 Trip ends in Mamallapuram

The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Mamallapuram .

There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Mamallapuram at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you’ll need to depart from Chennai Airport (MMA), which is around two hours from the hotel.