Indulge your senses on this 12-day tour of southern India, featuring the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Discover Tamil Nadu's cultural wealth as you explore its ornate Hindu temples, sacred cities, and French-colonial towns. Cross over the Western Ghats into biodiverse Kerala and immerse yourself in the stunning landscapes of tea and spice plantations, jungle, forests, and lakes and rivers.

Highlights

  • Stroll along the shores of the Bay of Bengal in Mahabalipuram
  • Admire the colorful detail of the Thillai Nataraja Temple in Chidambaram
  • Wander Madurai, one of the oldest cities in the world and capital of Tamil Nadu
  • Try your hands at washing an elephant in Periyar National Park
  • Fall asleep to the sounds of Vembanad Lake on a kettuvallam

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Chennai; Drive to Mahabalipuram Mahabalipuram
Day 2 Explore Shore Temple; Drive to Pondicherry Pondicherry
Day 3 Explore Pondicherry Pondicherry
Day 4 Discover Chola dynasty temples; Drive to Thanjavur Thanjavur
Day 5 Drive to Chettinad  Chettinad
Day 6 Drive to Madurai; Visit Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple Madurai
Day 7 Drive to Munnar Munnar
Day 8 Explore Periyar; Drive to Thekkady Thekkady
Day 9 Explore Periyar National Park Thekkady
Day 10 Cruise Kerala backwaters at Kumarakom Kumarakom
Day 11 Drive to Cochin Cochin
Day 12 Depart Cochin  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Chennai - Drive to Mahabalipuram

Mahābalipuram Beach, Tamil, India
Take an evening stroll along the Mahabalipuram beach

Welcome to southern India! Meet your driver at the Chennai airport with a welcome in Tamil before setting off down the coast to the village of Mahabalipuram (1 hour). An ancient port of the Pallava dynasty, Mahabalipuram dates back to the 7th century and is famous for its many temples and beautiful beaches. Depending on your arrival time, drop your things off at your hotel and go for a walk on the beach and enjoy the refreshing sea air. In the evening, enjoy traditional spiced Tamil cuisine.

Day 2: Explore Shore Temple - Drive to Pondicherry

Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram, India
Explore the sun-kissed Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram

Rise early this morning to explore the sandcastle-like Shore Temple at Mahabalipuram on the Coromandel Coast. Admire the thousands of sculptures dedicated to Shiva lit by the golden morning light. Continue your way through the sprawling complex until you reach the Descent of the Ganges monument, a massive rock relief carved on two boulders. Admire the precision of the Indian sculptors of this period. Next, visit the famous Pancha Rathas, also known as the Five Rathas, a monument complex made up of five chariot-shaped temples in procession, each carved from a single rock of granite.

In the afternoon, you will continue the hour and a half drive further south to the ex-French coastal enclave of Pondicherry (officially known as Puducherry). Settle into your hotel, before venturing out in the evening for an authentic southern Indian meal served on a banana leaf at Pushpa's. Meet the lady of the house and chat with her to discover the ingredients and steps to replicate her tasty creations.

Day 3: Explore Pondicherry

India - White Town - Pondicherry
Traipse through Pondicherry's French Quarter 

Rise early this morning and join your guide for a walking tour of the French Quarter (Ville Blanche or White Town) where you will walk cobblestoned and tree-lined streets passing by mustard yellow French colonial-era buildings. Carry on to the Indian district (Ville Noire or Black Town) and roam the many-stalled market—an excellent opportunity for a little souvenir and gift shopping. In the evening, stroll along the beachfront promenade that borders the Bay of Bengal for lovely views and to cool off with the sea breeze.

Day 4: Discover Chola dynasty temples - Drive to Thanjavur

Nataraja temple, Chidambaram, Tamil Nadu, South India
Colorful detail of the Thillai Nataraja Temple

After breakfast, you'll head south to explore three major temples of the Chola dynasty, stopping first at the Thillai Nataraja Temple (also known as the Chidambaram Nataraja Temple) in Chidambaram (2 hours). A Hindu temple erected to the lord of dance, Shiva; it is a UNESCO-protected site and an excellent example of the Chola dynasty craftsmanship typical of South India. Wander the temple complex and discover the colorful artwork of the nine gopurams (monumental, ornate entrance tower).

Next, continue to the temple of Lord Brihadisvara in the former capital of the Chola dynasty, Gangaikonda Cholapuram, before driving another hour further inland to Darasuram to check out the 12th-century AiravateswaraTemple. From here, it's another hour west to your hotel in Thanjavur.

Day 5: Drive to Chettinad 

Brihadishvara Temple,Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu, India
Roam the Brihadishvara Temple complex

This morning, visit one of the largest temples in the region, the Brihadishvara Temple—a masterpiece of religious architecture, done in the Dravidian style. After lunch, venture further south to Chettinad, driving through lush-green rice fields and passing by several palatial homes characteristic of the region (and now used as movie sets or for weddings). Once in Chettinad, visit the Thirumayam Fortress as well as the Sri Gokarneshwara Temple. Stroll through the village taking in the sites of the grand and ornately decorated historic mansions.

Day 6: Drive to Madurai - Visit Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple

Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, India
Two of the 14 gopuram's of the Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple

Leave bright and early this morning for Madurai, the cultural capital of Tamil Nadu (2 hours) and one of the oldest cities in the world. A primary Hindu pilgrimage site, you will see your fair share of face-painted sadhus (holy men). After checking into your hotel, head out to visit the Thirumalai Nayak Palace, before spending some time at the Sri Meenakshi Amman Temple, one of the most vibrant temples in South India. In the evening, you'll take in a religious procession of priests, listening to the reed instrument, Nagaswaram, of the region.

Day 7: Drive to Munnar

Munnar tea plantations, Kerala, India
Learn the tea making process from harvest to tasting

Enjoy your last Tamil breakfast, Idii Vada (made from fermented chickpea flour and rice), before you depart for the state of Kerala and onward to Munnar (5-6 hours). Enjoy the scenic drive, surrounded by the green-covered Western Ghats. With its contoured hills, sparkling waterfalls, vast tea plantations, and picture-postcard hamlets, the area is a perfect getaway from the bustle of the previously visited cities.

Upon arrival, check into your hotel and spend the rest of the day at your own pace enjoying what Munnar has to offer. Like a visit to Top Station, one of the region's tea roasting factories where you'll learn what goes into the making of tea, from harvest to sipping on a freshly brewed cup.

Day 8: Explore Periyar; Drive to Thekkady

Spice market of Thekkady
Indulge your senses at a spice market in Thekkady

Early this morning you'll travel south to the small mountainous village of Periyar (4.5 hours). Surrounded by tea and spice plantations, you'll visit a nearby world-renowned spice garden and learn the secrets of making masala, a combination of spices that perfume most Indian dishes. Take the opportunity to stock up on the aromatic spices, before driving the short distance to Thekkady, another small village, on the outskirts of the Periyar National Park (also referred to as the Periyar Tiger Reserve).

Day 9: Explore Periyar National Park

Periyar National Park, Kerala, India
Ride and bathe an elephant in Periyar National Park

Set out early for a full day excursion to explore Periyar National Park. Cruise the lake of the park, taking in panoramic vistas of forested hills reflected in the lake. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including elephants, gaurs (Indian bison), and sambars (large deer) that are often sighted near the water's edge. Switch up the pace, and climb atop an elephant for a ride into the Kerala jungle. Together with the elephant's mahout (its keeper), you'll also have the chance to aide in bathing the giant pachyderm. If there's interest, take in a performance of Kalaripayattu, a display of full-contact martial arts that originated in Kerala.

Day 10: Cruise Kerala backwaters at Kumarakom

Houseboat stay in Kumarakom, India
Cruise Kerala's backwaters on a kettuvallam

This morning, trade in the Western Ghats for the backwaters of Kerala and head to Kumarakom (3.5 hours). An extensive network of lagoons and canals lined with thick vegetation and quaint villages, you'll board a kettuvallam (a thatched roof and wooden hull houseboat) and meander along the waterways of Vembanad Lake. Fall asleep in comfort on your kettuvallam, listening to the sounds of distant tropical birds.

Day 11: Drive to Cochin

Kathakali performers, Fort Cochin, India
Take in a Kathakali performance

Disembark your kettuvallam this morning to meet your driver and make the drive north along the coast of the Laccadive Sea to Cochin (also known as Kochi). The cultural and historical capital of Kerala, Cochin is a melting pot of cultures, including Portuguese, Jewish, Dutch, Hindu and even Chinese heritage due to the centuries of colonization.

Find your way to the historic core of the city and to Fort Cochin. Here you will discover India's oldest European church, St. Francis Church, a 16th-century synagogue, the Mattancherry Palace, a Portuguese palace commonly referred to as the Dutch Palace, and a number of mosques, like the Kanjiramattam and Chembittapally mosques. In the evening, take in a traditional performance of Kathakali—a classical Indian dance unique to Kerala. Kathakali is a story-driven dance and consists of mostly male dancers wearing elaborate and colorful makeup, costumes, and facemasks.

Day 12: Depart from Cochin

Fishermen, Fort Cochin, Cochin, India
Watch the unique to the area fishing practice introduced by Chinese explorers in the 14th century

Depending on your departure details, take the morning to stroll along the Cochin harbor to spot the Chinese fishing nets unique to this part of the world. Or enjoy an Ayurvedic massage to rebalance the body followed by a curry lunch and cup of chai masala. Afterward, meet your driver and head to the airport for your return journey home.