Best of Southern India
Day 1 Kochi
Arrive at Kochi (Cochin) at any time. There are no planned activities, so check into our hotel and enjoy the city. Attend an afternoon meeting, (approx 16.00), where you will meet your fellow group members to go over the details of your trip. Check the notice board or welcome note to confirm what time and where the group meeting will be held. After the meeting we head out to the harbour to enjoy sunset over the Chinese fishing nets followed by an optional group dinner. These old cantilevered fishing nets, quite common in Kerala, were originally brought from China. In Malayalam they're called 'cheena vala', and used mainly at high tide. If you arrive early read our Kochi welcome note for some suggestions. There are plenty of things to do in this seaside Indian city. Kochi was an important stop on the spice trading route due to its strategic location near the tip of the Indian subcontinent, Kochi has been a melting pot of influences since the 14th century. The city’s history stretches back much farther: by 1102, Kochi was already the seat of an eponymous princely state that traced its lineages to the Kulasekhara empire. Ancient travellers and tradesmen made references to Kochi in their writings, and in 1503 Kochi became the first European colonial settlement in India when it was occupied by the Portuguese. Later, both the Dutch and British occupied Kochi, resulting in the variety of architecture, food and other influences typical of today’s Kochi. Kochi is home to the Fort with its Dutch Palace and Jew Street. The oldest church in India sits near mosques and synagogues, and Portuguese housing sits side by side with English manor homes. Ernakulam is the modern and upmarket part of town and is best reached by ferry. Marine Drive is the most popular hangout for locals and MG Road and Broadway are the lifeline of the city. Kochi is quite famous for its exquisite gold designer jewellery and of course the finest spices which are in abundance.
Day 2 Kochi
Leaving early to avoid the heat, we have an orientation tour of Fort Kochi. We visit the Dutch Palace, Jew Town with it old curios shops and the more than 400 year old synagogue. We stop at the spice market before visiting St Francis Church. Vasco da Gama, the first European explorer to set sail for India, was initially buried in here until his remains were returned to Portugal in 1539. We have a quick look at the Dutch cemetery before eventually ending up at the Chinese fishing nets where perhaps you can assist the local fisherman raise these huge nets. In the late afternoon/early evening we will take in a performance of kathakali dancing (the Keralan tradition dance form), and you can even watch the performers put on their makeup beforehand. Considered one of the oldest dance forms in India, Kathakali is a combination of drama, dance, music and ritual. Characters with vividly painted faces and elaborate costumes re-enact stories from the Hindu epics, Mahabharatha and Ramayana.
Days 3-4 Wayanad
Estimated travel time (6 hours) Morning 4 hours train ride to Kozhikode. Later 2 hours of scenic drive to Kalpetta. Wayanad is one of the most scenic regions of Kerala with rolling hills covered with rain forests and rich plantations of Tea, Coffee, Rubber and various spices. With aboriginals of Kerala settled in the region whose culture is still intact in this protected zone, Wayanad region is little affected with the advent of tourism. Here we go on nature trails in Wayanad Wildlife sanctuary and visit the Edakkal Caves which is believed to have been a shelter of neolithic people.
Day 5 Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary
Estimated travel time: 4 hours Leaving the hills for the plains, we stop for the night at the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary. Mudumalai or "Ancient Hill Range" is situated at the base of the Nilgiri Hills. The sanctuary, provides one of the most important refuges for the elephant and bison in India. The park encompasses some 320 sq kms of undulating terrain and varrying vegetation. There is a rich diversity of wildlife within the sanctaury including Nilgiri tahr, sambar, tiger, spotted deer, flying squirrel. And more than 120 species of birds, including heron, stork, egret, kite, falcon, peafowl, woodpecker, drongo and the warbler will keep the keen bird watchers happy. We spend part of the afternoon on a short safari spotting the variety of wildlife within the park.
Days 6 Mysore
Estimated travel time: 4 hours Leaving our wildlife adventure we now imagine life as a Maharaja on a guided tour of the Mysore Palace, formerly the seat of the famed Wodeyar Maharajas of Mysore. Later, join the throngs of pilgrims at Chamundi Hills, with its Chamundeswari Temple on top, and Nandi the Bull (the bull the god Shiva rides) a short walk below. Visit the Devaraja fruit and vegetable market, which is certainly one of the most colorful in India or maybe join in a yoga class at one of the many institutes. Along with sandalwood products, silk and crafts, Mysore is also famous for its celebration of the ten-day Navaratri (Dasara) festival held every year. According to Hindu mythology, the area around Mysore city was once the domain of the demon king Mahishasura, who grew too powerful and began to wreak havoc on the world. The Goddess Chamundeshwari defeated the demon, and became known as Mahishasura Mardhini (Slayer of Mahisha). It is this battle and the victory that are commemorated by the annual nine-day Navaratri festival. It is because of this legend that the temple of the Goddess Chamundeshwari, located atop Chamundi Hills, is such an important place of pilgrimage. Of the 14000 metric tonnes of mulberry silk produced annually in India, Karnataka produces 9000, contributing nearly 70% of the country's total; most of this comes from the Mysore district. Go to see the local silkworm-rearing industry (seasonal) or simply haggle in the markets for clothing or raw material—this is the place for silk! Mysore is also a popular destination for spiritual tourism, with many yoga instructors drawing international students for extended yoga programs, teachers of Sanskrit, kirtan chant, Ayurveda and other yogic forms also readily available. We have an option to drive to Somnathpur one of the most famous Hoysala Temples in India. The temple is in excellent condition and has frescoed exteriors with episodes from the epics (Ramayana and Mahabrahata).
Days 7-8 Mamallapuram
Estimated travel time 1.5 Hours (65 Kms) Arriving early into Chennai (Madras) we continue south (approx 90 mins) to the small village of Mamallapuram, site of the 7th century Shore Temple, another of India’s many UNESCO World Heritage sites. In the late afternoon, perhaps after you have enjoyed a swim or jog along the beach, explore the monuments by bicycle or on foot, on our guided tour. The impressive group of monuments at Mamallapuram were sculpted by the Pallava kings during the 7th and 8th century A.D. Of these, the Shore Temple stands out in particular, owing to its extraordinary location abutting the sea. Actually a twin-temple dedicated both to Vishnu and Shiva, it was built by Narasimhavarman II (circa 690-715). The Five Rathas, sculpted in granite and situated nearby, were created by his predecessor Narasimhavarman I. Also known as Mamalla (A.D. 630-668), the great wrestler, it is from him Mamallapuram gets its name. After the tsunami that resulted from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, the force of the water removed sand deposits that had covered various rocky structures, revealing parts of a previously un-excavated temple. Still submerged, the Archaeological Survey of India sent divers to begin underwater excavations of the area in February 2005, still presently underway. Aside from its draw as a temple site, Mamallapuram is also a favorite shopping haunt for South Indian artifacts, both wooden and granite-based.
Day 9 Pondicherry
Estimate Travel Time: 2.5 hours drive and 5 1/2 hours train ride In the morning we drive to Pondicherry. Pondicherry was the largest French Colony in India and was an important trading town. There is a strong French influence in the lay out, boulevards, houses although the city is still very much Indian.
Days 10-11 Madurai
Catch a day train for a 5 1/2 hours ride to Madurai. Madurai has been an important commercial center since as early as 550 AD, but it is as a temple town that it most strongly identifies itself. Although there are many temples sprinkled throughout the city, none compares to the size and detail of Meenakshi temple. The enormous temple complex is dedicated to Shiva, known here as Sundareshvara and his consort Parvati or Meenakshi. The credit for making the temple as splendid as it is today goes to the Nayaks who ruled Madurai from the 16th to the 18th century. Even before you pass through the massive stone walls of the temple, the nine striking gopurams (towers, actually monumental gateways covered with stucco figures of dieties, mythical animals and monsters all painted in vivid colors) which distinguish the temple loom high above. The temple’s tallest spire rises as high as 60 meters, and was for many years the tallest structure in its category in Asia. Early morning of day 11 we will have an interesting and unique cycle rickshaw tour of Madurai. Covering things like the fruit & vegetable market and the area where aluminum products are made. Watch the pressing of oil by bullocks and the famous Gandhi museum and palace. After our tour of the temple complex, perhaps you want to shop for handicrafts or duck into the cool shade of the covered, stone tailor’s market, where for a few rupees rows of expert tailors will whip you up a custom shirt in a manner of minutes, all done on antique foot-pump sewing machines. In the late evening (about 9.00pm) you may like to visit the Meenakshi temple again for the night time rituals. Filled with incense, people and noise this is a wonderful spectacle.
Day 12 Thekkady (1D)
Estimated travel time 4 hours Thekkady, adjacent to Periyar National park is the spice capital of India, The rolling hills around the region grow some of the finest cardamoms in the world and are aptly called Cardamom hills, exotic spices like cloves, pepper (black gold), nutmeg, cinammon and a lot of medicinal herbs are in abundance. We do a guided tour of the spice plantations and Tea factory. Periyar National Park is primarily famous for Elephants and wild buffaloes which can be seen if you are lucky on an optional early morning boat ride at the Periyar Lake.
Day 13 Kerala Backwaters Homestay (1L,1D)
Estimate Travel Time: 5.5 Hours (145kms) In the morning we travel down to the backwaters, where we catch a private boat for the short journey (approx 15 mins) to our village homestay. Accommodation is on a multi-share basis and all the families live within a few hundred meters of each other, with at least one person in the family speaking a reasonable standard of English. Food is traditional Keralan home cooking and is superb. Lunch, dinner and tomorrows breakfast are included. This afternoon we explore the island with a local person to observe the different facets of local life - a great chance to meet and talk with the people who live here. Strolling under the palm trees, we weave in between the rice fields that cover the island and learn more about the lifestyles of the locals. Just before sunset we jump on a small country boat and journey along with the locals to enjoy sunset on the winding backwaters. There is may be time to kick back and enjoy the local toddy (alcoholic drink made from coconut). Note: You will only need to take a small day pack or small overnight bag with you to the home stay. Your main bags will be transferred directly to the hotel in Kochi.
Day 14 Kochi (1B)
The morning is spent enjoying the hospitality of our family homestay. We may learn how to cook some of the wonderful food, watch the toddy tappers at work, or simply wander around the village and explore more of the life on the backwaters. Then we travel back to our starting point at Kochi. Firstly we take our private boat (approx 1 1/2 hours) down to Alappuzha (Alleppey). Slipping silently through sleepy canals, shorelines dotted with the Chinese fishing nets, this is exactly as National Geographic describes it - one of the greatest destinations in "Gods own country". Then we jump on a local bus for our last journey (approx 2 hours) through the villages and roads of Kerala back into Fort Kochi. The trip ends on arrival back in Kochi in the early afternoon. If you are booking onward travel today we recommend that you don't book your flight until 4pm or later.