An outstandingly comprehensive tour of India’s southern states, Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry and Kerala, discovering their remarkable cities, thought-provoking temples and astonishing natural wonders. Less familiar than the north, visiting the south of India is an incredible journey of discovery: we’ll see amazing thousand-year old rock-cut and granite temples, intricately carved, rising to over 200ft high, packed with pilgrims and devotees and remarkable forts, mansions and churches from British, French, Dutch and Portuguese colonial periods. We’ll sail on converted rice barges through the tranquil backwaters of Kerala and walk through fragrant spice plantations and pristine tropical forests of the Western Ghats. Staying in colonial hotels, lakeside bungalows, thatched cottages and hundred-year old original traders’ mansions and we’ll experience a cuisine and hospitality renowned throughout India. All blended together; this outstanding eclectic mix will ignite your imagination. Southern India and specifically the vast states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, are worlds away from New Delhi, Agra or Rajasthan. It’s much more laid back here, slower paced and a simpler way of life. There are no deserts here and lush fertile land yields plentiful harvests of rice and every sort of tropical fruit.
In the higher elevations of the Malabar Hills in the Western Ghats, the altitude and temperature are perfect for every type of spice - the ‘black gold’ of 500 years ago was not oil but pepper from these very hills. Vast fortunes were made and lost, battles and campaigns were fought and colonies founded just to control the spice trade. We’ll stay in Kumily, at 2,600ft, markedly cooler than the plains below, with its lush spice plantations and Kerala’s best known Nature Reserve, Periyar, where we’ll explore the enchanting forest during a fascinating walk with a naturalist guide.
The great temple cities of Tanjore and Madurai are quite unique - there is nothing like them anywhere else in India. The astonishing craftsmanship and sheer scale of these temples is extraordinary. But the real beauty here is that they are not mere tourist attractions; they are working Hindu shrines, many locals visit daily and many more travel great distances. You’ll see young people and families, from every walk of life, coming to pay their respects.
In Chennai, we’ll visit Fort St George, the British fortification where Clive of India first rose to prominence from a lowly clerk with no military training, to a Major-General securing India for the East India Company and ultimately the British Crown. The fascinating museum houses some of his letters, period military uniforms, cannons and arms.
We’ll also explore one of the least visited but most intriguing regions of Tamil Nadu - the Chettinadu. Originally home to the Chettiars, financiers and traders par excellence, they amassed vast wealth trading in raw materials with Burma and South East Asia. Using their profits to build opulent, flamboyantly coloured 60-room mansions housing their extended families, the beauty of these unique houses has recently been rediscovered and great efforts have been made to preserve their remarkable legacy.
The setting of the novel and film ‘The Life of Pi’, visiting Pondicherry is like stepping back in time. One of India’s few French colonial outposts, it was one of the major centres of military operations against the British. Changing hands several times during various wars, the French subsequently stayed, although nothing remains of the impressive fortifications – all were demolished. Independent since 1954, what remains is an elegant, quiet, tree-lined slice of the Côte d’Azur transplanted to sub-tropical India. Palm-fringed Kerala has the highest literacy rate of any Indian state and thus is one of the most affluent too. Its greatest natural assets are the 900kms of waterways known as the backwaters, creating a watery world of tranquil palm-shaded canals, with mats of water hyacinths lazily floating by and paddy fields stretching as far as the eye can see. Gliding gently in a typical Keralan houseboat all local life is there to be enjoyed: fishermen casting their nets from tiny wooden canoes, sari-clad women washing clothes, while kingfishers and darters look out for an easy meal. Cochin is the main city here, Portuguese in the 16th century, it was the first European colony in India. We’ll see St Francis church, India’s first, where Vasco da Gama was originally buried plus Cochin’s most iconic sight, the famous Chinese fishing nets – huge wooden cantilevered structures, operated by just four men as they are lowered and raised from the waters below.
Southern Indian cuisine displays a marked difference too; Tamil Nadu is known for the huge variety of its vegetarian dishes, different chutneys and pickles, whilst in Kerala, coconut, seafood and bananas feature heavily. Whatever your tastes, the food of the south is a revelation and completely different to what often passes for Indian cuisine at home.
In short, perhaps the greatest allure of India is that we feel it with all our senses: from the unbelievably luminescent saris of every hue and description, to the noisy excitement of the markets, the heady aromas of the spices, the delicate flavour of a dosa with a hot sambar soup. Azure skies above crown the lushest of greenery below, all reflected in the Keralan backwaters. Every day brings a myriad of new discoveries on this outstanding tour.
Take your overnight flight to Chennai (Madras) via Muscat.
On arrival we transfer to the four-star superior Raintree Hotel .
This morning your immersion in one of the world’s oldest cultures commences by discovering Chennai’s bustling streets, passing numerous Victorian-era buildings and the famous Marine Beach, with its fish market and multi-coloured long wooden fishing boats drawn up on the sand, before arriving at the very centre of colonial Madras, Fort St George. This was one of the most vital outposts of the British Empire – its first in India, the home of Clive of India for many years and the military base for numerous wars against the French.
Continuing south we soon arrive at Mahabalipuram, a port which traded with Rome in ancient times. Its huge 7th century temples have been carved remarkably from vast granite monoliths and are now UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Our hotel is the three-star superior Ideal Beach Resort, with breakfast and we have time to enjoy the lovely beach-side setting and pool in the afternoon.
After breakfast we travel south to Pondicherry and on arrival have a walking tour of the beautiful old French colonial centre of ‘Pondy’. Both its architecture and ambience are very different from any other Indian town. There’s a sleepy, almost Mediterranean air here, with bougainvillea-clad walls and mustard-yellow coloured neo-classical villas. We’ll see the impressive Governor’s residence, the former site of the French fort designed by the French military architect, Vauban – there is even a Hotel de Ville!
We stay the night that the three-star superior Atithi Hotel.
We continue our journey south to Tanjore, with a two-night stay at the three-star superior Ideal River View Hotel with breakfast. The rest of the afternoon is at leisure to enjoy the tranquil surroundings and palm-shaded pool of this charming hotel.
Tanjore was the capital of the ancient Chola Empire and is mainly known for its extraordinary Brihadeeswara Temple, the template for all in southern India. Standing over 200ft tall, its main tower is covered with an intricately-carved ochre-coloured facade which glows in the morning light. A working temple for over a thousand years, surrounded by colonnaded halls and a fortified wall, it is a testament to the power and wealth of the Chola Empire which at sunset seems to give off a red hue. Tanjore is also noted for its fine metalwork and the nearby Royal Palace’s art gallery houses a fascinating array of bronze sculptures.
We drive to the nearby Chettinad region, which you are sure to love. Undiscovered, it’s a revelation, the real rural India of small farming communities where we’ll stay the night in a beautifully restored traditional Chettinad mansion, the Chidambara Vilas, with breakfast.
After breakfast we’ll explore this undiscovered region, visiting other remarkable mansions, seeing the local Maharaja’s palace, plus local handicrafts. A fascinating visit is to a tile workshop, where each piece is delicately handmade and decorated, whilst saris are still woven to age-old local designs on traditional wooden handlooms.
We’ll also sample some of the region’s unique cuisine during lunch, served on a banana leaf. In the afternoon we drive to Madurai for one of the tour’s real highlights: the Meenakshi Amman Temple. This is the southern India’s Taj Mahal, a complex shrine of courtyards, vast pillared halls, a sacred lake and no less than twelve gateway towers completely covered with thousands of brightly-painted stucco carvings. Madurai was already an ancient city well before Chennai was even founded, trading spices with the ancient Romans. It is considered to be Tamil Nadu’s spiritual and cultural heart.
This afternoon we take tuk-tuks to visit the temple at dusk, exploring its busy traditional markets full of impossibly laden stalls and tailors rattling away at their ancient Singer sewing machines!
Our hotel is the four-star Heritage Madurai hotel.
This morning we re-visit the temple in daylight plus tour the nearby Nayak Palace, with its vast throne-room and ceremonial courtyard. Then drive west towards the distant outlines of the Western Ghats, the mountain range and border between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The road zig-zags through lush forest with fleeting glimpses of verdant valleys below then crossing the border, we arrive at Kumily, surrounded by spice plantations and the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
Our hotel for the next two nights is the charming four-star Spice Village, with breakfast. Made up of low-rise cottages thatched with local elephant grass and scattered across spacious gardens, it has a wonderfully atmospheric bar, a small pool and follows admirable eco-friendly practices.
Rising early, with a tropical dawn chorus ringing in our ears we enter the wildlife sanctuary for a guided nature walk through the tall stands of teak, bamboo, wild fig and beautiful jacaranda trees. The reserve has a small population of rarely seen tigers, however, as the reserve’s core surrounds a large lake, the birdlife is absolutely excellent, with over 260 species recorded, including hornbills, parakeets, kingfishers, eagles, kites and flycatchers. You may also be lucky enough to spot a Malabar giant squirrel or a lion-tailed macaque.
After returning to the hotel for a late breakfast, the day is at leisure until our afternoon visit to one of the numerous local spice plantations where our guide explains the uses, medicinal and culinary, of pepper, cloves, curry leaves, cardamom, vanilla, turmeric, nutmeg, cinnamon and a host of others.
This morning we leave the hills of Periyar behind us descending towards the Keralan coast, passing the almost carpet-like tea plantations en route.
We stay at Kumarakom, at the four-star superior Coconut Lagoon, accessible only by boat through one of the many canals here. Occupying a prime lakefront position, the hotel’s grounds are a huge 33 acres, so it never feels crowded. There’s plenty of hammocks dotted about, a beautiful pool surrounded by swaying palms and an excellent spa centre.
The rest of the day is free to enjoy the tranquillity and explore your home for the next two nights.
Today we discover the Keralan backwaters in the best way possible – by traditional houseboat. Leaving from nearby Alleppey, each houseboat accommodates six to eight guests plus three crew who prepare a delightful and typical Keralan lunch on board. It’s a wonderful way to travel, passing paddy fields, coconut palms and colourful local houses – watch out for the plentiful birdlife, children walking (or rowing!) back from school, people washing their clothes, pots and pans and even themselves in the narrow waterways. We return to our hotel in time for dinner.
This morning we leave Coconut Lagoon for the short drive to Cochin, the Malabar Coast’s most historic port, traditionally from where India’s invaluable spices were shipped to Europe. The city’s oldest quarter is Fort Cochin, a fascinating maze of narrow alleyways and large merchants’ houses, whilst the nearby bazaar district of Mattancherry has the Dutch Palace and the subcontinent's oldest synagogue. The iconic sight in Cochin is the famed Chinese fishing nets, vast cantilevered contraptions that still work to this day.
Our hotel is the four-star Trident Hotel, with breakfast.
Fly home to the UK, via Muscat, arriving later the same day.
The price of this holiday is per person, based on two people sharing a twin room. Single occupancy rooms are available at the relevant supplement. The price includes:
Along with a valid passport, UK citizens must have a visa in order to travel to India. For the most up-to-date passport and visa information visit
Tourist e-visa cost is US$25 per person (if date of entry is from April to June) or $10 per person (if date of entry is from July to March). Full details of how and when to apply will be sent with your booking confirmation.
We are unable to accept responsibility if you are unable to travel because you have not complied with any passport/entry/immigration requirements.
Please note that visa costs may be subject to change.
Flights with Oman Air from London Heathrow or Manchester will connect in Muscat on both the outbound and inbound journeys.
Please contact us if you would like timings and/or further information on the connecting flights. All flight details will be listed in your booking confirmation.
Whilst the travelling schedule shall pose no problems for people of any age in normal physical health, we would point out that in visiting a number of historical sites, paths may be uneven and uphill and we often enjoy walking tours of the main sights. Therefore, this holiday may not be suitable for clients of greatly impaired mobility.
In the tropics temperatures and humidity levels will also be quite high for most of the year. Please consult your GP regarding the appropriate inoculations required for India at least a month before departure.
We want to ensure you make the correct choice before you book your holiday with us. If you have any concerns regarding the suitability of the holiday due to reduced mobility we would encourage you to call us to discuss these concerns. General information on mobility in connection with our tours can be found here.
All transfer times listed here are approximate, and dependent on traffic. If you have a question regarding transfer times please don't hesitate to contact us.
|Arrival airport||First hotel location||Transfer time||Final hotel location||Departure airport||Transfer time|
|Chennai International Airport||Chennai||45 mins||Cochin||Cochin International Airport||1 hr 15 mins|
This was an amazing holiday made even better by our excellent guide Matt. A true professional in every sense, he made sure the whole holiday ran as smoothly as it could. The sights, colours and smells of India have to be experienc...
David Alston and Carolyn Brewster
We recently returned from our first tour with Riviera and it will not be our last. The tour was fantastic, well organised, well structured and with fabulous hotels. The initial part of the tour was with Matt and the Indian guide D...