- 2 Weeks
With its coconut-palm-fringed beaches and lazy backwater boat rides, Kerala can justly claim to be India's most laid-back state. But there's plenty of colour and fun to spice up your tropical idyll – elephant festivals and snake-boat races, Kathakali dance-dramas, quaint colonial-era quarters and a famously flavoursome cuisine.
Spend a day visiting the zoological gardens and museums in the capital, Thiruvananthapuram, aka Trivandrum, before making the half-hour hop to the beach resort of Kovalam. Then shift down another gear at Varkala, a holy town with a dizzying clifftop guesthouse-and-restaurant enclave, where you can chill out with some yoga or surfing. Continue north to Kollam (Quilon) and take the tourist cruise along the canals to Alappuzha (Alleppey) with an overnight stop at the Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission, the pink ashram of 'The Hugging Mother’. Reaching Alleppey, you’re at houseboat central. Scout for a houseboat or canoe operator and discover what the sublime backwaters are all about. Continuing north by train to Kochi (Cochin), take the short ferry ride to the old colonial outpost of Fort Cochin. Aromatic seafood barbecues, wonderfully warm homestays, colonial-era mansions, Kathakali shows and the intriguing Jewish quarter at Mattancherry make this a fascinating place to while away a few days.
Goa, Caves & Cities
- 4 Weeks
City lights, historic sites, beachy bliss, jungle adventure and a touch of colonial-era quaintness – this trip will give you the flavour of all that's best about the south.
Begin in cosmopolitan Mumbai (Bombay), Bollywood's beating heart and home to some of the nation’s best spots to shop, eat and drink. Take a sunset stroll along Marine Dr, a curvaceous oceanside promenade dubbed the ‘Queen’s Necklace’ because of its sparkling night lights, finishing with bhelpuri (fried rounds of dough with rice, lentils and chutney) and a neck massage on Chowpatty beach. Catch a ferry to Elephanta Island from Mumbai’s historic Gateway of India to explore its stunning rock-cut temples and the triple-faced sculpture of Lord Shiva.
Next, make your way to the dazzling vineyards of Indian wine country around Nasik, sipping on award-winning juice at Grover Zampa or Sula Vineyards, an outside-the-box Indian experience. Continue northeast to explore the ancient cave art at Ajanta and Ellora, situated within 150km of each other near Aurangabad. The incredible frescoed Buddhist caves of Ajanta are clustered along a horseshoe-shaped gorge, while the rock-cut caves of Ellora – containing a mix of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist shrines – are set on a 2km escarpment. Next stop: the tropical beach haven of Goa for some soul-reviving sandcastle therapy. Wander through a lush spice plantation, visit Portuguese-era cathedrals at Old Goa, shop at Anjuna's colourful flea market and take your pick from dozens of fabulous beach spots, before travelling east to the traveller hot spot of Hampi in neighbouring Karnataka. Ramble around Hampi’s enigmatic boulder-strewn landscape and imagine what life here was like when it was a centre of the mighty Vijayanagar empire. Make the long trip down to Mysuru (Mysore) to explore the Maharaja's Palace, one of India's grandest royal buildings, and shop for silk and sandalwood in its colourful markets. From Mysuru it's an exciting bus ride across the Western Ghats into Kerala and the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary, a pristine forest and jungle reserve and one of the best places in the south to spot wild elephants. Finally, take the hair-raising road down to the coast and make your way to Kochi, Kerala's intriguing colonial-era city, where a blend of Portuguese, Dutch and English history combines with wonderful homestays and a buzzing traveller scene.
Cities, Hill Stations & Sanctuaries
- 3 Weeks
An offbeat trip through the contrasting cities, wildlife parks and hill stations of the Deccan and Western Ghats will give you a true taste of the fascinating variety of inland South India.
Start with a venture to the little-visited but fantastic Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve, offering some of India's best prospects for sighting wild tigers, then journey south to the wonderful old princely capital Hyderabad, with its centuries-old Islamic monuments and labyrinthine bazaars. Continue south to the culinary and shopping delights of India's 21st-century IT capital, Bengaluru (Bangalore), and glimpse a royal past at its whimsical Bangalore Palace. Next stop: the royal city of Mysuru. Gawp at the Maharaja’s Palace, an ubergrand complex topped with rhubarb-red and chalky-white domes. Head south to Mudumalai Tiger Reserve, where you can spot wild elephants and take a safari through pristine jungle, and on to the cool hill town of Ooty (Udhagamandalam), one of India’s most-loved holiday retreats. Take the toy train down to Coimbatore, then cross into Kerala and the emerald-green, tea-covered hills of Munnar, with fine hiking and secluded forest accommodation. Finish with some jungle trekking and more chances of a tiger sighting at pretty Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Sacred Tamil Nadu
- 12 Days
A journey through Tamil Nadu is a trip into South India's spiritual soul: Tamils are among India's most fervent in their Hindu faith, and their spectacular temples are the 3D expression of devotion.
Delve into the rich history of Chennai (Madras) with a wander around the Government Museum before visiting the ancient Kapaleeshwarar and Parthasarathy Temples. Travel south to beachside Mamallapuram (Mahabalipuram) and its superb rock-cut shrines carved under the ancient Pallava dynasty. Move inland to Tiruvannamalai, where the Arunachaleshwar Temple is one of India's largest sacred complexes, below a hill where Shiva appeared as a lingam of fire. Trade in temples for flamboyant churches and cathedrals in the quaint old French seaside colony of Puducherry (Pondicherry) before heading back inland to the stunning Unesco World Heritage–listed medieval temples around Kumbakonam and Thanjavur. Continue to Trichy (Tiruchirappalli), home to the spectacular Rock Fort Temple and the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple, probably India's biggest temple (and definitely the tallest temple tower). Then head south to Madurai and the incredible Meenakshi Amman Temple, widely reckoned the pinnacle of South Indian temple architecture. Wind down at Kanyakumari, the southern tip of India, with its temple to the virgin sea goddess Kumari.
Cities & Civilisations
- 1 Week
From one cultural capital to another, this off-the-beaten-track inland route takes in Islamic forts, Hindu temples and historic palaces.
Start in Hyderabad, capital of Andhra Pradesh and a wealth of centuries-old Islamic monuments. Don't miss the impressive 16th-century Golconda fort or the fascinating tribal museum. Travel northwest into Karnataka to the old walled town of Bidar and its historic fort. Although off most tourists' radar, it's well worth a day spent wandering the ramparts and ruins. Travel on to Vijapura, a fascinating open-air museum of Islamic monuments, where the centrepiece is the stunning Golgumbaz, an enormous mausoleum capped by one of India's largest domes. The train will take you south to Badami, with its ancient rock-cut cave temples and the nearby Hindu temples of Pattadakal and Aihole. From here it's an easy trip to Hampi, where the bewitching landscape and ethereal ruins are complemented by one of South India's most chilled backpacker scenes. Finish your journey in Bengaluru, Karnataka's cosmopolitan capital. Explore the palace of the maharajas, then have a beer with India's upwardly trendy at some of the country's most sophisticated bars and craft-beer breweries.