Northern Tamil Nadu
It takes a while to get out of the urban sprawl that is Chennai, but it's well worth it. Northern Tamil Nadu is a fantastic place to put on weight, whether by lazing by the beach and enjoying fresh seafood in Mamallapuram or indulging in the fusion French cuisine of Puducherry.
The Western Ghats
Welcome to the lush Western Ghats, some of the most welcome heat relief in India. Rising like an impassable bulwark of evergreen and deciduous tangle from north of Mumbai to the tip of Tamil Nadu, the World Heritage-listed Ghats (with an average elevation of 915m) contain 27% of India’s flowering plants and an incredible array of endemic wildlife.
Mamallapuram was the major seaport of the ancient Pallava kingdom based at Kanchipuram, and a wander round the town’s magnificent, World Heritage–listed temples and carvings inflames the imagination, especially at sunset. And then, in addition to ancient archaeological wonders and coastal beauty, there’s the traveller ghetto of Othavadai and Othavadai Cross Sts.
Welcome to (more or less) the geographic centre of Tamil Nadu. Tiruchirappalli, universally known as Trichy or Tiruchi, isn’t just a travel junction; it also mixes up a heaving bazaar with some major must-see temples. It's a huge, crowded, busy city, and the fact that most hotels are clumped together around the big bus station isn't exactly a plus point.
There are few more refreshing Tamil Nadu moments than boarding a bus in the heat-soaked plains and disembarking in the sharp pinch of a Kodaikanal night or morning. This misty hill station, 120km northwest of Madurai in the Palani hills, is more relaxed and intimate than its big sister Ooty (Kodai is the ‘Princess of Hill Stations’, while Ooty is the Queen).
Here are the ochre foundation blocks of perhaps the most remarkable civilisation of Dravidian history, one of the few kingdoms to expand Hinduism beyond India, a bedrock for aesthetic styles that spread from Madurai to the Mekong. A dizzying historical legacy was forged from Thanjavur, capital of the great Chola Empire during its heyday.
Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin)
This is it, the end of India. There’s a sense of accomplishment on making it to the tip of the subcontinent's 'V', past the final dramatic flourish of the Western Ghats and the green fields, glinting rice paddies and slow-looping wind turbines of India's deep south. Like all edges, there's a sense of the surreal here.
This big business and junction city – Tamil Nadu's second largest, often known as the Manchester of India for its textile industry – is friendly enough and increasingly cosmopolitan, but the lack of interesting sights means that for most travellers it's just a stepping stone towards Ooty or Kerala. It has plenty of accommodation and eating options if you're spending the night.
There’s basically one reason to visit Chidambaram: the great temple complex of Nataraja, Shiva as the Dancer of the Universe. One of the holiest of all Shiva sites, this also happens to be a Dravidian architectural highlight. Most accommodation is close to the temple or the bus stand (500m southeast of the temple). The train station is about 1km further southeast.