Those on the group flights depart London the day before, and usually arrive into Cochin in the mid-afternoon - you will be met on arrival and transferred to the start hotel. Those not on the group flights will join us at the hotel. After freshening up, our leader will brief us on what to expect in the days ahead. The rest of the day is free to enjoy as you please. Today or tomorrow perhaps you'll also take in a Kathakali show, a traditional dance drama in which performers wear an incredible amount of colourful costume and make-up. They sway to the music as local legends are retold by this art form dating back 500 years or more (optional).
Today we'll take a sightseeing tour of Cochin's main attractions. Cochin (now known by the local name Kochi) - is built around a saltwater lagoon on the Arabian Sea, and remains the commercial capital of Kerala. From the tightly packed streets the scents of cinnamon, cloves and countless other spices mingle in the sea breeze. On the western shore of the Fort Cochin peninsular, rows of cantilevered Chinese fishing nets remind us of Kerala's trade links with the outside world. The area is also home to a small community of Jews whose descendants sailed into exile some 2,000 years ago - a synagogue still remains. Close by is Mattancherry Palace originally built by the Portuguese and given to the Raja of Kochi in exchange for trading rights. Here we'll see the remarkable series of murals, which illustrate tales from the sacred epic of the Ramayana.
There is plenty of time to wander through the narrow lanes lined with houses built by the Portuguese, Dutch and British in their own distinctive styles. However it's not only the extraordinary assortment of architectural styles that can be found but also an array of interesting and tasty local dishes. This evening we have included a harbour cruise, a relaxing end to the day.
This morning we leave Cochin and head to Guruvayur where we check in to our hotel and enjoy some free time to relax. Later we visit the Punathir Kota Elephant Camp - undoubted fun for the kids who will be able to get close to these gentle giants. Elephants are loved, revered, groomed and are an integral part of Keralan culture and daily life. Over forty elephants are groomed at the Punathir kota (kota means 'fort') and are brought to the temple as offerings. Watching the naughty baby elephants' playful antics is an entertaining experience. The place provides us with an opportunity to see how the sick elephants are medically treated in the traditional manner. We can also see how the training is given to the elephants for various religious rituals.
Day 4 - 5
After breakfast we board our bus for the journey eastward (approx 5-6hrs) to Munnar. We're now in hill country and should notice the difference in both temperature and humidity from Cochin. Munnar was developed by British tea companies in the early 20th century and many buildings still reflect the town's days as a British 'hill station'. Today you can visit a local family and share lunch with them. The following day we explore Eravikulum National Park. This park was established in the 1970's, primarily as a means of protecting an endangered species of wild goat, the Nilgiri Tahr. We'll take a gentle trek along good paths, to spot these animals along with possibly elephants, sambar and macaques. This afternoon there's time to wander around Munnar's bazaars.
Please note that Eravikulum National Park is normally closed in April due to breeding season and for a part of the summer due to monsoons. In these instances, we will visit a tea museum and take a guided walk around the town. Also, the lunch with a local family will either take place in Munnar or Periyar, depending on their commitments.
This morning we continue our journey westward by bus to Madurai, a city with an illustrious history. The journey usually takes around four hours and we should arrive at our hotel around lunch time, however road conditions may affect the journey time. Madurai is the largest of what are collectively known as 'The Temple Towns'. South India's temple architecture is very different to that of the north, but these are iconic structures in their own right. On the northern plains, temples are graced with slim sikaras (towers) whereas here in the south immense gopurams (gateways) carved with thousands of painted Hindu gods are the most striking elements of the Dravidian temples. Meenakshi temple is no exception - inside is a maze of halls, pillared cloisters and sanctuaries - all of which seem to be decorated with a profusion of murals, carvings and inscriptions. The heady fragrance of incense is everywhere, as is the chanting of priests whose deities are garlanded with colourful flowers. Outside the temple complex the streets are no less enthralling and resemble one huge bazaar with hawkers, stalls and even the occasional passing elephant! Every morning Shiva is taken from his resting place with Meenakshi to the main temple shrine and returned in the evening with great ritual. Tonight, after an afternoon's exploration, we should have the chance to visit the Meenakshi temple to witness the daily ceremony of 'Putting Shiva to Bed'. We'll return to our hotel by cycle or auto rickshaw.
Today is set aside for you to choose your own activities. You might choose to laze by the hotel pool, or if you're feeling more energetic, take an auto rickshaw to the impressive Thirumalai Nayak Palace. Built in Indo-Mhugal style, the Palace was restored by the British in the 19th century and retains some beautiful examples of Tamil decoration. Alternatively you may decide to visit Trichy and its towering Rock Fort Temple, at which there are 400 steps leading past several shrines onto a rock plateau. From the plateau there are stunning views over the city, coconut palms and paddy field patchwork of the Cauvery River plains. The old town is a labyrinth of narrow, 18th century streets lined with craft workshops and small textile shops.
Day 8 - 9
We cross from Tamil Nadu into Kerala and drive the five hours to Periyar National Park, one of the main wildlife sanctuaries of southern India and one of the countries largest. Situated in the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats, the park covers 777 square kilometres, at an altitude of between 914 and 1,828m. At its centre lies a large artificial lake, built by the British in 1895 to supply water to the region around Madurai and over 15 square kilometres in area. In 1973 the park became part of Project Tiger in an effort to save this wonderful animal from extinction. The park has a rich variety of wildlife - both mammals and birds. We would be lucky to see the elusive tiger and leopard - both of which inhabit the forest, but should certainly see sambar, chital, otter, wild boar and gaur along with a rich variety of birdlife (and the odd leech!). In addition, wild elephants are often seen in the park.
We'll have some free time to relax and get used to the sounds of the wildlife in the park. You might like to take a bullock and cart ride which is part of a community-based eco-tourism project where locals take you around their village. You could also hire a bike in the village of Kumily and explore the area, visiting the local tea and spice markets, or cycle amongst the cardamom-covered hills. Later on, you'll spend time at a nearby elephant camp where you can see these majstic animals at close quarters before rounding the day off with a visit to a local market.
The next day we'll continue our exploration of the park on foot in a small group; this is one of the few wildlife parks in which visitors are able to walk. We make regular stops to watch for elephant and gaur, as well as monkeys and birds.
This morning we descend from the hills and make the three hour drive to Kumarakom. Here we board a houseboat to begin a cruise through the complex system of beautiful lagoons and canals known as the 'Malabar Backwaters'. These waterways are the principal means of communication and trade for scores of homes and villages. Along the banks, at jetties and ferry stops, there's often a wonderful array of produce ready for market - sacks of cashews are piled high next to coconuts.
Tonight's accommodation is on board a houseboat - tranquility in the middle of nowhere.
Before our backwaters cruise comes to an end, soak up the surroundings and tranquil atmosphere. We pass houses, perched on strips of land only a few metres wide. Lined with swaying palms, with shimmering green paddy fields beyond, the backwaters make a beautiful and peaceful setting. We may even encounter traditional boats with their huge sails and dragon-carved prows.
Many people are employed in the coconut industry, where the coir (fibres) and copra (white meat) is processed in numerous small, often family-run, mills. Cashews are an important cash crop, and fishing plays an obviously vital role in the economy. After breakfast on board, our houseboat cruise ends at Aleppy where we'll transfer to our hotel.
Day 12 - 13
This morning we transfer to Kollam Railway Station and catch the train to Trivandrum (2hrs). Approximately 25 minutes drive from Trivandrum lies our accommodation for the next two nights at Kovalam Beach. You're free to spend your time here lazing on the beach or by the hotel pool. Alternatively you could have a traditional ayurvedic massage, where oils extracted from plants with medicinal properties are worked into the head, arms, shoulders and back - a perfect trip end for parents. Or journey to the very south of India, to Kanyakumari and look south towards Antarctica (full day)! You can explore on foot and sometimes bikes can be found to rent out.
On your last evening the leader will usually organise a traditional 'last supper' for the group.
For those not on the group flights, the trip ends after breakfast this morning.
Those on the group flights willl be transferred to the airport for your flight home (via Colombo), usually arriving into London in the evening.