World ? Asia ? India

India: A Leisurely Southern Sojourn

South India is perfect for a slow-paced 2-week holiday that's more unhurried escape than hectic vacation filled with must-see sights. This itinerary does explore a few tourist sites, but mostly it's about relaxing and enjoying a few beautiful and varied environments. Kerala is the ideal place to unwind and indulge; this is, after all, where succumbing to therapeutic Ayurvedic massages and treatments is as mandatory as idling away an afternoon aboard a slowly drifting kettuvallam, or sipping coconut water under a tropical sun.

Days 1 & 2: Mumbai

Though Mumbai is India's busiest city, it's also a perfect place to begin an unhurried vacation. From the airport, head either to the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower (only a Heritage Wing room will do) or The Oberoi; enjoy the warm weather on a sun-bed by the pool, or make your way to the hotel spa for the pampering you deserve after that long journey. Alternatively, a stay at Gordon House Hotel, Colaba's sexiest lodging option, will suit party animals who appreciate the in-house nightclub. Mumbai doesn't have a wealth of historical attractions; it's a city you experience rather than sightsee, and sampling the restaurants' fare should be high on your must-do list. From your hotel you can also explore on foot the Marine Drive/Chowpatty Beach area, and if you're at all inspired by Gothic Victorian architecture, plan a jaunt through Mumbai's older districts. Stop off at the Gateway of India, from where it's a 15-minute walk north to Fort, passing the Prince of Wales Museum as well as a host of Raj-era Gothic architectural highlights. From the museum, continue to Flora Fountain and beyond to Victoria Terminus Station. Wander back to the Fountain, taking in the impressive High Court building and the Rajabai Clock Tower, which overlooks the Bombay University complex. Some of the best restaurants in Mumbai are in this general neighborhood, so take your pick. If you want to sample the coastal seafood for which Mumbai is famous, go no farther than Mahesh Lunch Home in Fort.

Days 3 & 4: Goa

Fly to Goa, old Portuguese colony and beach paradise. Take your pick of accommodations, from sprawling beachfront five-star hotels to small boutique hotels. If pampering is part of your plan, book into the Pousada Tauma, a gorgeous getaway and Ayurvedic retreat with a superb in-house restaurant. If you can drag yourself away from the beach and poolside, explore Old Goa; most sights are clustered together, so it can be covered in a few hours. These include Arch of the Viceroys, built in 1597 in commemoration of the arrival of Vasco da Gama in India; Church of St. Cajetan, modeled after St. Peter's in Rome; and Adil Shah's Gate, a simple lintel supported by two black basalt columns. Southwest of St. Cajetan's are the highlights of Old Goa: splendid Sȳ Cathedral, said to be larger than any church in Portugal; and the Basilica of Bom Jesus (Cathedral of the Good Jesus). Nearby is the Convent and Church of St. Francis of Assisi, while up the hill are the ruins of the Church of St. Augustine; below are the Church and Convent of Santa Monica and the Chapel of the Weeping Cross.

Days 5 & 6: Hampi

Take the biweekly train from Goa to Hampi, endure an overnight bus ride, or fly to Bangalore the previous evening, from where you can get a convenient overnight train to Hospet. Check in at Hampi's Boulders. Spend your time leisurely exploring the ancient city, whose isolated ruins are scattered among impossibly balanced wind-smoothed boulders and immense stretches of verdant landscape. Highlights are fabulous Virupaksha Temple and Vitthala Temple, dedicated to an incarnation of Vishnu and one of the most spectacular of Hampi's monuments; also make sure to see the royal enclosure, which incorporates the ruined palaces where the Vijayanagara kings would have lived and held court. Not much survives, but you can still visit Hazara Rama Temple (where the royals went to worship), a small stepped tank, and Mahanavami Dibba (a platform where performances and entertainment were held). On the outskirts of the royal complex, you will see the zenana enclosure, marked by the two-story Indo-Saracenic pavilion, Kamala (Lotus) Mahal, and, just outside the enclosure, the awesome Elephant Stables.

Days 7 & 8: Kochi (Cochin)

Take the train to Bangalore and from there fly to Kochi, where you should get a room in Fort Kochi (at either the Brunton Boatyard Hotel or the Malabar Residency). Fort Kochi can be explored on foot. Visit St. Francis Church and Santa Cruz Cathedral; stop to gaze at the famous Chinese fishing nets. Drive to Mattancherry Palace (Dutch Palace) and Paradesi Synagogue before following your nose to the spice warehouses. Antiques lovers will be bowled over by Kochi's antiques warehouses full of real treasures. Take a sunset cruise around the harbor at dusk and then dine on a seafood platter at one of Kochi's wonderful restaurants.

Days 9 & 10: Kumarakom

Drive to Alleppey to experience Kerala's backwaters. Spend 2 nights at one of the wonderful homestays in the region (Philipkutty's Farm or Emerald Isle) or on a houseboat; alternatively, book into Coconut Lagoon or Kumarakom Lake Resort. If you opt for the houseboat experience, you bed aboard a kettuvallam, one of the long, beautifully crafted cargo boats that ply the waterways -- a wonderful way to experience the rural lifestyle of the backwaters as you aimlessly drift past villages, temples, and churches. If the facilities strike you as too basic, and if you're not keen on a homestay either, spend the night at the intimate Kayaloram Lake Resort and take a sunset backwaters cruise instead.

Days 11, 12 & 13: Kovalam & Beyond

Drive to Trivandrum and continue beyond it to the famous Surya Samudra Beach Garden. Spread over 8 hectares (20 acres) amid terraced gardens, Surya has such a glorious setting that as soon as you arrive you will wonder why you didn't come straight here in the first place. Accommodations are in the centuries-old carved wooden cottages transplanted from villages around Kerala. Much of your time here is best spent lazing by the infinity pool carved out of the rock bed or on one of the two beaches. Spend the rest of your time here enjoying Ayurvedic treatments and massages. If you can bear to tear yourself away, take an early-morning excursion to sacred Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India, where three oceans meet and crowds worship the sunrise; or to Padmanabhapuram Palace, for several centuries the traditional home of Kerala's Travancore royal family. Alternatively, spend a night in the hills nearby at Duke's Forest Lodge, located on the edge of a river and rubber plantation near Pepara Sanctuary. Book a pool pavilion -- each with a plunge pool -- and enjoy a romantic getaway before heading back to Surya Samudra for your final night in India.

Day 14: Trivandrum-Home

Completely relaxed and rejuvenated, make your way back to Trivandrum, and from there fly to Mumbai or Bangalore for your international flight back home. If you arrive in Mumbai, where you will have many hours before your flight, enjoy dinner at one of the marvelous restaurants in Mumbai's suburbs, since the airport has no dining facilities.

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