Those on the group flight will arrive in Cochin in the morning and transfer to the hotel. Those who have made their own flight arrangements will join us at the start hotel. Set on the Malabar, or 'Pepper Coast', Cochin (Kochi) is one of South India's most interesting towns and is believed to have been the first European settlement in India. Rich in history despite recent growth it retains a relaxed, quiet atmosphere. Narrow spits of land and coconut covered islands jut out into the wide, almost enclosed bay whose neck is lined with the famous Chinese fishing nets.
Today we do a sightseeing tour of Fort Cochin where most of the historic buildings are located in amongst the narrow streets. The Portuguese Vasco de Gama landed here in 1500 and began trading with the Raja of Cochin. The Mattancherry Palace was built by the Portuguese in the mid 1500's and then was largely rebuilt by its second occupants, the Dutch. Built in traditional Kerala style the wooden architecture and wall paintings of scenes from the Ramayana are still well preserved. Jewish settlers first arrived in Cochin in 587BC and a synagogue dating from the late 1500's still stands in Fort Cochin. Although there are only now about half a dozen Jewish families, the synagogue is a real gem and the individual hand painted 18th century blue ceramic Cantonese floor tiles are evidence of past trading with China. St Francis Church is where Vasco de Gama died in 1524 and the building reflects the new European influence in the area. The Santa Cruz Cathedral is close by and was originally used as a warehouse by the British. The Chinese fishing nets line the entrance to the harbour and were introduced by the Chinese in the late 14th century. There is also time to wander round the tiny back streets of Jew Town hunting for souvenirs in the many antique shops and warehouses.
A long drive today (approx. 9/10 hours) as we leave the coast and drive inland into the Niligiri Hills. We leave Kerala and enter Tamil Nadu as the road winds up through forested hillsides to Coimbatore. The ghat journey up to Coonoor is one of the most scenic in South India giving superb views of the plains below and magnificent groves of the tall, slender areca nut palm trees line the road. Passing through the small hill station of Coonoor we continue winding our way through lush tea and coffee plantations to Ooty where we stay for the next two nights. At some point during your time here is should be possible to take the narrow gauge steam Blue Mountain Railway from Coonoor to Ooty. This is a delightful one-hour train journey which most groups love to take (please be aware that this isn't always possible if there are bad weather conditions or if they have technical problems with the train).
Ootacamund, or 'Snooty Ooty' is queen of the southern hill stations and was a refuge for British Officials and tea planters in Southern India. At 2,286m. the climate is much cooler here and evenings in winter can be quite chilly. In the morning we will drive to Dodabetta Peak. At 2,638m. it is the second highest in the Western Ghats. From the top on a clear day we can see as far as the Mysore Plateau. For those who want, there is a pleasant walk through a variety of woodland (eucalyptus, conifer, shola) to Snowdon Peak (2,450m) after which we walk back to the Botanical Gardens in town. The Botanical Gardens contain over 1,000 varieties of plants, shrubs and trees including orchids, ferns and alpines set amidst beautiful lawns. In the afternoon there is time to wander round the bazaar and maybe try some of the locally made chocolate.
A beautiful drive of about five hours winds down the eastern side of the Niligiri Hills back to the plains. We drive through the Mudumalai and Bandipur National Parks as we cross the border from Tamil Nadu and into Karnataka. We may spot deer, elephant and monkeys as we drive along. Just before we enter Mysore we will visit Chaumundi Hill where there is a temple dedicated to Durga. On the road up to the temple there is a giant stone Nandi bull carved in 1659. We arrive in Mysore in the late afternoon and spend two nights here.
Mysore is the city of royal palaces, sandalwood and the manufacture of incense sticks; it is the former capital of the princely state and is Karnataka's second largest city. Today we have a sightseeing tour of Mysore and its surroundings. Just outside of Mysore is Srirangapatnam the capital of Haider Ali and his famous son, Tipu Sultan. Tipus' famous battles against both the French and the British are depicted in the murals on the walls of his delightful summer palace. Ruins of the Fort and the Gumbaz, the family mausoleums are also here. Returning to Mysore we spend the afternoon exploring the beautifully restored City Palace. Designed by Henry Irwin and built in 1897, it is a remarkable building with domes, arches and colonnades of carved pillars and shiny marble floors. The stained glass, wall paintings, ivory inlaid doors and ornate golden throne are all remarkable. The rest of the day is free to wander round the bazaar.
This morning we drive about 3 hours to Sravanabelagola, a city sacred to the Jains. Standing on Vindhyagiri Hill, is the 17m high statue of Gommateshwara. Erected in the 10th century it represents the saintly prince Bahubali. Nearly 700 steps carved in the granite hill lead to the statue. The carved statue captures the tranquillity of much Buddhist and Jain art. The site is visited by hundreds of pilgrims daily. We will also visit the temples at Belur and Halebid. Belur and Helebid were the centre of the great Hoysala dynasty, who ruled during the 11th to 14th centuries. Great warriors, they also patronised culture and art. Although small, these temples show some of the finest carvings to be found anywhere in India. Halebid is the largest of all Hoysala Temples. Started in 1121 it remains unfinished. The friezes on the outside are particularly well carved and show scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. We transfer to Hassan in the evening.
In the morning we drive to Bangalore, the capital of Karnataka. In the afternoon we take the train to Chennai arriving in the late evening.
In the morning you will have time to do some sightseeing in Chennai before we drive to Kanchipuram, one of Hinduism's seven most sacred cities, 'the Golden City of a Thousand Temples'. Dating from the early Chola dynasty in the second century there are still about 70 temples in the town. We visit some of the most impressive, including the Ekambaresvara Temple with its Thousand Pillared Hall and the Kailasanatha Temple, considered to be the most beautiful of the town's temples (please note some temples remain closed from 1130-1530) Later in the day we drive to the coast to stay at Mahabalipuram.
This part of Tamil Nadu was once known as the Coromandal Coast. It has a language over 2,000 years old and poetry dating back to before the birth of Christ. It also boasts some of the most remarkable temple architecture in India, and with a living tradition of music and dance, is culturally very rich. In the morning we visit the rock cut caves and temples at Mahabalupuram. Occupying a stunning position on a rocky outcrop between the beach and a lagoon, the port was made famous by the Pallava dynasty in the 7th century. There are numerous cave temples, monolithic carved shrines in the shape of chariots, stone temples and relief sculptured rock panels all dating back to the 7th century. Carving in stone is still a living art here and we will see stonemasons chipping away from dawn till dusk along the busy roadside, practising the skills that flourished centuries ago. Afternoon free to enjoy the beach and local area.
Today we drive south following the coast to Pondicherry. Pondicherry still enjoys a hint of its French colonial atmosphere in the grid pattern streets, distinctive police uniforms and the occasional colonial building.
Today we drive to Thanjavur through the wonderfully fertile Kaveri Delta, an area lush with rice paddy fields. The journey today will take approximately 4 hours.
This city is famous for The Thanjavur Brihadisvara Temple, a World Heritage Site, and is one of the great monuments of southern India. The temple is the achievement of the Chola king, Rajaraja I, who was a great patron of the arts. It is built mainly from granite and has outstanding inscriptions and sculptures of Shiva, Vishnu and Durga. We visit a beautiful 16th century palace which houses a huge library as well as the Rajaraja Museum with a collection of magnificent Chola bronzes. We drive to Madurai in the late afternoon (approx. 4 hours), past granite mountain ranges. Spread along the banks of the rocky bed of the Vaigai River stands the bustling city of Madurai, where we spend two nights.
Madurai is one of Tamil culture's most vital centres and the temple and bazaar are at the heart of this vibrant and colourful city. The most famous sight in Madurai is the Meenakshi Temple, an outstanding example of Vijaynagar temple architecture. Built between the 16th and 18th centuries, it is at the heart of the city and the life of the town revolves around it. It is a hive of activity and the scene of an almost continuous religious festival. The temple's nine towering gopurams stand out with their colourful stucco images of gods, goddesses and animals. There are about 4,000 granite sculptures on the lower levels and numerous pillared temple halls surrounding the Golden Lotus Tank. The main temple is dedicated to Meenakshi, the 'fish-eyed goddess' and the consort of Shiva. One of the spectacular parts of the complex is the 16th century Thousand Pillared Hall with exquisitely carved columns and its sculptured ceiling, which depicts a wheel showing the 60 Tamil years. There is also time to visit the Thirumalai Nayaka Palace, which was built in 1636 in Indo-Mughal style by the Nayak dynasty. The bazaars are colourful and lively and Madurai is renowned for its silk and cotton.
We drive westwards and enter the state of Kerala today. Nicknamed 'God's own country', it is the southern most state of India. High levels of education and healthcare have given Kerala an enviable reputation elsewhere in India and its unique balance of Hindu, Muslim and Christian sets it apart from its neighbouring states. The journey takes about four hours through lush countryside to Thekaddy and the Periyar National Park. Set on the attractive Periyar lakeside the wildlife park is known for its elephants, sambar, wild boar and barking deer. This afternoon there is the option to do a jungle walk or to go on a tour of the spice gardens. Coffee, tea, rubber, cardamom and pepper are just some of the local produce
A full day to explore Periyar. We join our local guide for a short walk in the wildlife sanctuary (2-3hrs) before we return to town for lunch. In the afternoon there is an optional boat cruise on the lake (tickets can not be purchased in advance and therefore you may need to queue up to buy a ticket). This is an ideal way to get close to the animals and we have the opportunity of spotting elephant, otter, wild pig and buffalo. There is also an abundance of bird life - kingfishers, storks and hornbills are the most commonly spotted. Other options available today are an Ayurvedic Massage, a visit to a Kathakali Dance or Martial Arts display.
We board our houseboats around noon and begin our cruise along the backwaters of Kerala towards Allepey. The houseboat cruise is one of the highlights of the trip - these enchanting houseboats, built of Anjili wood and bamboo were the traditional method of transport of goods for hundreds of years. Now they have been decorated and made into comfortable cruise boats. The network of rivers, streams, lagoons and canals occupies the alluvial plain between the Western Ghats and the Indian Ocean. As our boat meanders through areas of lush tropical vegetation we have the opportunity to view not only the prolific bird life but also gain a differing perspective on village life. The cruise takes us along shallow, palm-fringed canals where coconut fibre and cashews are loaded on to dugouts. In the evening the boat is anchored in the backwaters and we can watch the sunset over the rice paddies. All the houseboats are comfortably equipped and have 2 twin bedded rooms with bathroom. There is a cook and boat driver and assistants for each boat and the food served is traditional Keralan fare using local produce. No trip to Kerala would be complete without the wonderful experience of the backwaters aboard these traditional Keralite vessels. Houseboat
This morning we leave our houseboat and drive along the scenic Malabar coast to Kovalam, once a relaxing hideaway on the old hippie trail this beachside town has now been discovered, but the influx of tourism has not diminished this beautiful setting. Free afternoon.
We have a free day to enjoy the idyllic soft sandy beaches, warm clear waters and wide views of the ocean horizon that Kovalam has to offer. There is also the opportunity to do an optional day's sightseeing by taxi from Kovalam to Kanyakumari, the end point of India where 3 oceans meet, the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. The trip also takes in the old wooden palace of the rulers of Travancore at Padmapuhamban - a marvellous building with fantastic woodcarvings, and the Hindu temple at Suchindran with its amazing stone carvings (This trip can be booked and paid for locally).
Those on the flight inclusive package will depart for London this morning for the daytime flight back to London; Land Only arrangements will finish after check-out from the hotel.