World ? Asia ? India

India: The South in 2 Weeks

South India is where the great Dravidian kingdoms were established, and anyone interested in ancient history and grand temples must visit Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. Here we've included only a few temples, but if you crave more, you'll find an exhaustive variety of exquisitely carved temples to explore. For natural beauty and rejuvenation, there are few places in India like Kerala, India's most verdant state, where we recommend you end your trip. This itinerary also takes you through its tea estates, backwaters, and wildlife parks.

Days 1 & 2: Bangalore or Mumbai

Fly straight into Bangalore or Mumbai. You'll probably arrive in the middle of the night, so spend the day relaxing or wandering through Karnataka's capital city. If you're in Bangalore, at some point take in Bull Temple on Bugle Hill. Built by the city's original architect, Kempe Gowda, this 16th-century black-granite statue of Nandi (Shiva's sacred bull "vehicle") literally dwarfs its "master," and is kept glistening by regular applications of coconut oil. Stay at either the ultra-modern Park.hotel or the Taj West End for old-world charm. If you're on a budget, book a room at lovely Villa Pottipati. If you arrive in Mumbai instead, you can spend the day relaxing at one of the city's numerous luxury hotels or at a good-value option like Gordons. Set aside a few hours to wander around and acclimate yourself to India's most bustling metropolis.

Day 3: Chennai-Mamallapuram

From Bangalore (or Mumbai), fly to Chennai (or take the train). You can either head straight down the coast to Fisherman's Cove resort (1 hr.) or take a detour to Kanchipuram 80km (50 miles) southwest of Chennai to visit the temples there before heading to Fisherman's Cove. If you prefer to be closer to Mamallapuram, book a room at Temple Bay resort instead. En route, stop along the scenic East Coast Highway at the cultural centers of Cholamandalam and Dakshina Chitra for local arts and crafts. At Cholamandalam Artists' Village, you can observe artists at work, while Dakshina Chitra is a heritage center showcasing different living styles from India's four southern states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh.

Day 4: Mamallapuram

Set out early and take in Mamallapuram's monolithic shrines and rock-cut cave temples, which lie scattered over a landscape heaped with boulders and rocky hillocks. Among these, the excellent Shore Temple, built to Lord Shiva, and the Five Rathas, a cluster of temples named for the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame, are definitely worth seeking out. The celebrated Arjuna's Penance is the largest relief-carving on earth. When you've finished your tour, you can enjoy a great seafood meal at one of the numerous beach shacks or restaurants before continuing down the coast to the French colonial town of Pondicherry. Overnight at Hotel de l'Orient.

Days 5 & 6: Pondicherry

Besides hanging out in your antiques-filled colonial hotel or sauntering around the oceanfront French Quarter, you can visit Auroville, an interesting experiment in alternative living, also optimistically known as the City of Dawn; or you can join New Age travelers and visit the ashram of Sri Aurobindo. While wandering the Quarter, you may want to take a look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jȳsus), an 18th-century neo-Gothic Catholic church on South Boulevard; and at the Church of Immaculate Conception on Mission Street. At twilight, stroll to Goubert Salai (Beach Rd.), where you'll see the colonial HɄtel de Ville (now the Municipal Offices building) and a statue of Gandhi standing at the pier. On the evening of Day 6, drive to Chennai, from where you can take a flight to Madurai. Overnight at the Taj Garden Retreat, Madurai.

Day 7: Madurai

Early in the morning, visit Shri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, one of South India's biggest, busiest pilgrimage sites. Garish stucco gods, demons, beasts, and heroes smother the various towers in a writhing, fascinating mass of symbolism, vividly painted a riot of bright colors. Near the inner gate, a temple elephant, daubed with eye shadow and blusher, earns her keep by accepting a few rupees in exchange for a blessing -- bestowed with a light tap of her dexterous trunk. From here you can wander at will, finding your way at some stage to the Thousand Pillar Museum, housed in the impressive 16th-century Hall of a Thousand Pillars. This hall has 985 elegantly sculpted columns, including a set of "musical pillars" that produce the seven Carnatic musical notes when tapped. All around the complex of shrines and effigies, various pujas (prayers) and rituals are conducted. Once you're done exploring the site and have spent an hour or so wandering the lanes adjacent to the temple, drive to Munnar, sometimes referred to as Kerala's Scottish highlands. Overnight at The Siena Village, a 30-minute drive from Munnar town.

Day 8: Munnar

Munnar is a collection of vast green tea estates first established by a Scotsman in the late-19th century. Besides enjoying the rolling mists and endless greenery, you can arrange a tea factory visit and a stopover at the Tea Museum. To get up close to some of the world's last Nilgiri tahr (a variety of mountain goat or ibex), visit nearby Eravikulam National Park. Existing only in the mountain grasslands of the Western ghats at altitudes above 2,000m (6,560 ft.), the tahr is as endangered as the tiger.

Day 9: Periyar

Drive to Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, originally the hunting grounds of the Maharajah of Travancore. The park covers 777 sq. km (303 sq. miles) and is divided into core, buffer, and tourist zones. Although this is a tiger reserve, tiger sightings are rare, particularly in the tourist zone, but the reserve is also home to the elephant, sloth bear, sambar, Indian bison or gaur, wild dog, leopard, spotted deer, Malabar flying squirrel, barking deer, and Nilgiri tahr, as well as some 260 species of birds. More than 2,000 species of flowering plants grow here, including at least 150 different kinds of orchids. Organize a private boat launch ride from where you can view animals coming to drink at the water's edge. You can also take one of the 3-hour daily walks, which give you the opportunity to admire the area's stunning flora. To ensure you have a close-up encounter with an elephant, go on a 30-minute elephant ride in the park. Overnight at Shalimar Spice Garden Resort.

Day 10: Kumarakom

Drive to the heart of Kerala's backwaters region to Kumarakom, which has by far the best accommodations. Idle away the hours on a backwaters cruise, indulge in Ayurvedic therapies, and laze under the tropical sun -- that's about as busy as your day is likely to get. Overnight at the Kumarakom Lake Resort.

Day 11: Houseboat

Reset your watch to a rhythm of life that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries: Board a kettuvallam, one of the long, beautifully crafted cargo boats that ply the waterways. The houseboat experience allows you to aimlessly drift past villages, temples, and churches and be thoroughly exposed to the rural lifestyle of the backwaters. As you drift along, you can watch women, unperturbed by your presence, wash their long ebony tresses or pound away at laundry, while children play at the water's edge, men dive for mussels, and elephants and water buffalo wade at will. Although the onboard facilities might strike some as rather basic, you'll be spoiled rotten by your private team -- a guide, a cook, and a pilot -- who work hard to make your experience unique and exceptional.

Days 12 & 13: Kochi (Cochin)

Travel north to Kochi and settle into a hotel in Fort Kochi (we suggest either The Brunton Boatyard Hotel or the Malabar Residency), then explore Fort Kochi on foot. Start your tour at the harbor near Vasco da Gama Square, where you can watch the Chinese fishing nets, then visit St. Francis Church and Santa Cruz Cathedral. Stop to admire the facade of Koder House -- built in 1808 by Jewish patriarch Samuel Koder, it's a good example of the hybrid Indo-European style that developed in Cochin. Also nearby is the Pierce Leslie Bungalow, a charming 19th-century mansion reflecting Portuguese and Dutch influences on local architecture. Take an auto-rickshaw to Mattancherry, where you should visit the Dutch (Mattancherry) Palace and Paradesi Synagogue before discovering the fragrant scents of Kerala's spice warehouses. Make time to visit a few of the antiques warehouses, where some real treasures are to be found. A sunset cruise around the harbor is another must; it's the best way to enjoy the most-photographed of Cochin's historic sights, the Chinese fishing nets that form wonderful silhouettes against a red- and orange-hued sky.

Day 14: Wyanad

From Cochin, take the early Cannanore Express train to Calicut, from where you can catch a taxi for the 2-hour journey to Sulthan Bathery in Wyanad. Without a doubt the best accommodations, Tranquil Resorts is a wonderful homestay on a 162-hectare (400-acre) coffee and vanilla plantation at the edge of Wyanad National Park. Visit tea, pepper, cardamom, coffee, banana, and coconut plantations, or take one of the many splendid walks on this scenic estate; alternatively, take a trip into the park or to Edakkal Caves. Either way, the hospitality of Victor and Ranjini Dey at this gorgeous planter's bungalow makes for an excellent end-of-trip sojourn.

Day 15: Wyanad-Calicut-Home

Hearts heavy with regret, you must now make your way back to Calicut to fly to either Mumbai or Bangalore to connect to your flight home. If you arrive in Mumbai, you will need to transfer from the domestic to the international airport. En route, you can stop off for dinner at one of the superb restaurants near the airport (Dum Pukht or Dakshin at the ITC Grand Maratha Sheraton; or Stax, the Italian restaurant at the Hyatt Regency, if you'd prefer a less spice-intense meal), before you catch the late-night flight home.

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