Day 1: Arrive in Chennai (Madras)
You will be met on arrival and transferred to your hotel. The day is free to explore on your own before meeting with the group for dinner and an orientation meeting this evening. Overnight in Chennai (Madras).
Day 2: Chennai (Madras) City Tour
Chennai is the state capital of Tamil Nadu and is the fourth largest city in India. This ancient city is exemplified in its many monuments of the past, which we explore today during our city tour.
This morning we visit Kalashetra, a dance/music school that teaches traditional Bharatnatyam dances and music. We visit Fort St. George, the site of the Secretariat and Legislative Assembly. We will also visit San Thome's Cathedral which is said to hold the remains of St. Thomas the Apostle (Doubting Thomas), St. Mary's Church and the National Museum. Overnight in Chennai (Madras).
Day 3: Chennai to Pondicherry via Mahabalipuram
After breakfast we depart for Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram) once a flourishing port of the Pallava Kings of Kanchipuram.
We visit The Shore Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, originally constructed around the 7th century and which contains shrines dedicated to Shiva and Vishnu. Explore the Old Light House, Trimurthi, Varaha and Tiger Caves before we continue our journey to Pondicherry.
After lunch, we explore this ancient city, which was prosperous as early as the 1st century. Legend has it that Sage Agastya built his Ashram here and Pondicherry became a Vedic center. The French became the rulers of this small place in 1816, ruling until it became a part of India in 1954.
Sightseeing includes The French Institute, the famous Sri Aurobindo Ashram, The Vedapruis War Temple and The Sacred Heart Church. Overnight in Pondicherry.
Day 4: Pondicherry-Tanjore and The Brahadiswara Temple
Our first stop today is Tanjore (Thanjavur) where we visit the grandest temple in all of South India. The World Heritage Listed Brahadiswara Temple is noted for its superb religious, historical and artistic associations. The dome of the Temple was made from a single piece of granite and weighs approximately 80 tonnes. The sanctum of the temple houses a 13ft high lingam that has a circumference of 23ft.
Tanjore was the ancient capital of The Chola Kings and became the center of learning and culture between the 10th and 14th centuries. Tanjore is known for its original style of painting, known as Tanjore Painting, a combination of raised and painted surfaces.
Sights we explore in Tanjore include Sri Brahadis War Temple, The Art Gallery with its wonderful collection of 9th-12th century Chola Bronze Statues, the Library and the Hall of Music. We overnight in Tanjore.
Day 5: Tiruchirapalli Sightseeing-Madurai and The Meenakshi Temple
We depart early this morning for Tiruchirapalli (also called Trichy). Situated on the banks of the river Cauvery, Tiruchirapalli is the Chola Centre from the Sangam Age. The Nayaks of Madurai built the town and the Fort, which played a vital role in the Carnatic War in the 18th Century. It is now a pilgrim and business center. On arrival, we visit Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple which is dedicated to Vishnu and dates from the 10th century, and also pay a visit to the Cavery River Ghats.
We then continue on to Madurai, the second largest city in the state of Tamil Nadu and one of the oldest cities in India. Madurai is celebrated for its Meenakshi Temple which is an exquisite example of Dravidian style architecture: it has nine majestic Gopuram (towers) which are covered in fantastic, multi-colored images of animals, gods and goddesses. The most interesting feature of this temple is the thousand-pillared hall built in the 16th century; some of its life-size sculptures are a marvel of patience and artistic skill. We visit the temple in the evening, during Pooja Time. Overnight in Madurai.
Day 6: Madurai Sightseeing
We start off this morning on our full day sightseeing tour of Madurai, first visiting The Menakshi Temple, followed by a visit to a local market selling fabric, utensils, vegetables and flowers. After lunch we tour the Tirumalai Nayak Palace and Vandiyur Mariamman Tank, and The Koodal and Gandhi Museum. The Gandhi Museum holds many interesting articles from Gandhi's life, including the sandals he wore on his long march to Dandi. Overnight in Madurai.
Day 7: Periyar National Park
We travel to Periyar National Park this morning and on arrival visit the Spice Gardens to see pepper, coffee, cardamon, vanilla, and clove growing and learn about how it is all harvested and processed.
After lunch, we go for a boat ride on Lake Periyar. Periyar is one of India's most picturesque reserves. The sanctuary is set around the artificial lake formed by damming the Periyar River that led to the submersion of a large forested area and the formation of a 34 sq. mile lake. There are stumps and branches of the dead trees in the lake giving a fossilized appearance. From our boat we may see herds of wild elephants coming down to water and swim. In the words of the leading naturalist, M. Krishnan, “Nowhere in India, nowhere else in the world, can one observe these great beasts in such variety and so many circumstances as here; herds, parties, lone bulls, veterans long past their prime and calves barely a week old, elephants of all shapes and sizes can all be seen here.”
The other prominent fauna that we may see are tiger, sambar, barking deer, mouse deer, Nilgiri Tahr, wild pigs, wild dogs, porcupine, lion-tailed macaque, Malabar squirrel, flying squirrel, sloth bear, gaur and black langur (monkey). Tigers and leopards seldom come to the lakeside by day. (Please note that wildlife sightings vary day by day). Overnight in Periyar.
Day 8: Periyar Tribal Village—Munnar
This morning we walk to visit a local tribal village before continuing on to Munnar — “The Land of the Miracle Blossom.” Legend has it that 3 mountain maidens who were the best of friends fell under a curse and were separated from each other. So much did they pine for one another's company that a kind sage turned them into streams and they sped down the mountains and were united at Munnar.
Set amid South India's most dramatic mountain scenery in what was once known as the “High Range of Travancore”, the tiny hill town of Munnar is the commercial center of some of the world's highest tea growing estates. Overnight in Munnar.
Day 9: Munnar sights, Cochin (Kochi)
We set off first this morning to visit Christ's Church with its beautiful stained glass before continuing on to Pothamedu View. This is the highest point of the Kannan Devan Hills, and it makes for an impressive contrast to the verdant expanse below — the hard, grey rocks rising menacingly into the sky, to be embraced by the clouds. We have lunch at Copper Castle.
We continue on to Eravikulam. The drive up makes for an exhilarating ride along narrow, winding paths that twist and turn precariously. The beautiful Nayamakkad waterfalls en route begin in a cavernous home in the mountains and cascade in torrents over several layers of rocks before, surprisingly, coming to a tame end.
This afternoon we head off to Cochin (Kochi) passing through lush green tea, coffee, rubber, coconut tree and rice plantations to arrive in Cochin late afternoon. Overnight in Cochin.
Day 10: Cochin city tour and the back waters of Cochin
Cochin is regarded as one of the most beautiful spots of India. The Port of Cochin is known as the “Queen of the Arabian Sea” and is the industrial hub of the state where the ancient civilization mingles with the 20th century.
This morning we visit the synagogue; the center for the Jewish community — which can be traced back to the exodus from Palestine 2000 years ago. The magnificent structure was built in 1568. The Great Scrolls of the Old Testament, copper plates of inestimable historical worth containing the privileges granted to Jews by the Cochin Maharajas, and the exquisite Chinese hand painted tiles are artifacts of great interest at the synagogue.
The area around the synagogue is known as “Jewtown” and is one of the Kochi spice trade centers. We also stop at Mattancherry Dutch Palace which was built by the Portuguese, and presented to the Maharaja of Cochin in 1568. At the center of the building is a large coronation hall. Seventeenth century mural paintings depicting scenes from the India epic Ramayana can be seen in the palace.
We see St. Francis Church; the first church to be built in India by the Portuguese. Vasco-de-Gama, who discovered the sea route to India from Europe, was originally buried here (his remains were later taken to Portugal). We see the High Court Building, Santa Cruz Cathedral and also view the famous Cochin Chinese fishing nets.
After lunch we will enjoy a motor launch ride on the palm fringed back waters of Cochin and observe the daily routine of Kerala's rural life. Cruising back waters is a real pleasure and is a fascinating way to observe the countryside.
This evening we take in a performance of the famous Kathakali Dances; this performance is one of Cochin's highlights. This form of dance theater, dating back 500 years, can be seen nightly, with explanation and narration, all over the city. By tradition, all dancers are male and wear elaborate costumes and mask-like make-up to mime stories from the great Hindu epics; the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The make-up is highly symbolic: green denotes the hero king or god, and black and red denote demons. The actor slips a seed from the cunlappuvu, or eggplant vine, under his eyelids to make his eyes red.
As much an act of worship as a highly dramatic folk theatre, Kathakali is traditionally performed by the flickering light of temple lamps, accompanied by musicians and a chanting Brahman priest. Artists use a vast repertoire of acrobatic eye movements, dramatic facial expressions and perfect muscle control that requires years of training. Following the show we will enjoy dinner in a local restaurant. Overnight in Cochin.
Day 11: Houseboat adventure
After breakfast depart Cochin for Alleppey to board our houseboat. We spend the day cruising through small canals; passing by rice paddy villages, small townships and coconut plantations.
Kettuvalloms or houseboats (Riceboats) are country boats that were used in the early days for the transport of goods from the isolated interior villages to the towns. With the advent of roads, bridges and ferry services, gradually the Kettuvalloms went off the scene. Now these Kettuvalloms are back again! A journey on a Kettuvallom is a fabulous way to explore the fascinating beauty of the backwaters. The materials that go into the making of the houseboats are all local and eco-friendly: bamboo poles, coconut fiber ropes, bamboo mats, coir carpets etc. The main wood used is “Anjili”. Traditional lanterns are used as lights. Accommodation on the houseboats are double rooms with attached bathroom. Overnight on the houseboat.
Day 12: To Kumarakom
We disembark from our houseboat this morning and travel on to Kumarakom to board a ferry to cross beautiful Vembanad Lake to reach our unique hotel. Ancient village and plantation homes, called Tharawads, have been painstakingly transported and reconstructed using ancient carpentry methods. Set around the lake and the irrigation canals, they retain their original charm with thick doors , intricate window carvings and terra cotta tile floors, even some lampstands have been carved from old wooden hinges. Traditionally, Keralites bathed in the rivers and in rural areas many people still do, however our cottages feature bathrooms, some located in an inner courtyard so you can shower al fresco under a starlit sky in complete privacy. The reception buiding was originally a mansion constructed in 1860 in the nearby village of Vaikom. The restaurant is the oldest structure and it belonged to a prominent Malayali family living in a nearby village. Overnight lakeside in Kumarakom.
Day 13: At Our Kumarakom Lake Resort
Today we have the full day to appreciate our resort. We can take a boat trip through the maze of canals, visit the bird sanctuary on the nearby Kanavar River where we may see Brahminy kites and roosting Herons or enjoy the swimming pool. Some activities such as in the Ayurveda Treatment Centre, and yoga classes are available at additonal cost, payable locally. Perhaps we will visit the nearby villages. local farms or take a sunset cruise - whatever the activity, this is a place to relax and unwind in a truly historical setting. Overnight lakeside in Kumarakom.
Day 14: Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram)
Our journey continues as we travel on to Trivandrum; arriving around lunchtime. Trivandrum is the capital city of Kerala and is situated at the southwestern tip of India. The city, built across seven hills, still retains its regal ambience with a number of colonial and traditional buildings.
This afternoon's activities include a visit to The Kanakakunnu Palace; the palace with its sprawling grounds are now the venue for many cultural events.
We have some time at the Sri Chithra Art Gallery that displays Raja Ravi Varma paintings as well as exquisite works from the Rajput Mughal and Tanjore schools of art. Before finishing up our day's sightseeing we will visit Kuthiramalika (Puthenmalika), a palace that is a rare example of workmanship in the traditional Travancore style. Overnight in Kovalam Beach Resort.
Day 15: Cape Comorin
We depart after breakfast for a full day excursion to Cape Comorin and the majestic Padmanabhapuram Palace. With its carved mahogany ceiling, colored mica windows, secret underground passages, inner courtyards, durbar hall, a museum, Belgian mirrors, pictures of Lord Krishna, granite dance halls, and special shiny black floors made from a unique combination of egg white, jagger, lime, burnt coconut, charcoal and river sand — the palace is simply spectacular. We visit the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple which is dedicated to Lord Vishnu and is a blend of the Kerala and Dravidian styles of architecture, and is known for its murals and carvings.
Kanyakumari is the “Land's End” of the Indian subcontinent. Here the Bay of Bengal meets the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, and at Chaitrapurnima (the Tamil name for the full moon day in April), it is possible to enjoy the unique experience of seeing the sun set and the moon rise over the ocean simultaneously. It is believed that this is the only place on the planet where it is possible to see this.
Kanyakumari is a popular pilgrimage destination and is of great spiritual significance to Hindus. It is dedicated to the Goddess Devi Kanya, the Youthful Virgin, who also happens to be an incarnation of Devi- Shiva's wife. Pilgrims come here from all over the country to visit the temple and bathe in sacred waters. Overnight at Kovalam Beach Resort.
Day 16: Kovalam Beach
Kovalam is a wonderful beach resort. The old palace of the Rajas — Halcyon Castle — is now the Kovalam Hotel and stands sentinel on a rocky bluff, overlooking the sea. The five-tiered hotel descends to the beach, following the outlines of the natural landscape.
Kovalam is perhaps the most beautiful beach resort in India, with breakers foaming around the rocks in the sea, and lashing the soft sands of the curved bay fringed by thousands of coconut palms. Besides swimming, surfing, and catamaran riding, one can avail oneself of the age-old ayurvedic massage and oil bath to tone the body. One can also experience a yoga class. (Cost not included — payable locally.) We have the entire day free before our farewell dinner this evening.
Day 17: To Trivandrum and departure
Our fascinating journey though the richness of Southern India concludes today with a transfer to Trivandrum (Thiravananthapuram) Airport for your departure flight.