South India

Essence of South India       Price on request

Stretching across some 900km, the Kerala backwaters are a tangle of lakes, rivers, inlets and canals. Locals who make their living from fishing and agriculture go about their daily work without fuss, while travellers cruise the waterways and spend time on the shore; observing, admiring and unwinding.

  • The Tour Plan for Essence of South by Vacations-International
DAY 01 Arrive at Mumbai

on arrival, you will be welcomed by Vacations International representative at the airport and transferred to your hotel. Relax and unwind as you wish. Overnight, stay at the hotel (Vehicle for transfer only)

DAY 02 Mumbai. (B,L,D)

Proceed for a guided city tour of Mumbai. The tour begins at the Prince of Wales Museum, built to commemorate King George V’s first visit to India in 1905. Designed in the Indo-Saracenic style, the museum has sections of art, paintings, archeological exhibits and natural history. After the museum tour you will visit the famous Dhobi Ghat and observe the age old tradition of the Dhobi’s doing Mumbai’s laundry! There is a break for lunch. Continue the tour with a drive up to Malabar Hill where the hanging gardens give a panoramic view of the city and the Queen’s Necklace (Marine Drive). The tour then takes a drive through the Flora Fountain and Fort area where you can view the impressive Gothic and Victorian buildings that were constructed during the British Raj. Visit the Victoria Terminus (now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus). It is India’s finest example of Gothic architecture and one of the world’s busiest railway stations. Drive around Harriman Circle and visit the Town Hall, right beside the docks of Mumbai. Visit the city’s signature landmark, The Gateway of India, situated overlooking Mumbai’s harbor. This structure was built to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary to Mumbai. Stay overnight at hotel

DAY 03 Mumbai – Aurangabad. (B,L,D)

You are assisted with an early morning checkout of your hotel and then driven to the airport where you are assisted with boarding the early morning flight to Aurangabad. You are greeted upon arrival at the airport by your Aurangabad Tour Director. Enjoy a full day guided excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ajanta. Buddhist monks and local craftsmen began excavating, sculpting, and painting at Ajanta in the 2nd century B.C. The incredible variety of paintings and sculpture were created in hard rock by using primitive yet ingenious lighting, tools and materials. These 28 caves are a testimony to the devotion of the Buddhists, as well as the talents of their skilled craftsmen. Of particular interest is the concept of Vertical Excavation. When your Vacations International Guide passionately explains this concept and describes the processes, you will be awed by the achievements of the craftsmen. Although the caves themselves are very impressive in their design and massive volume ofsculpturing and excavation, it is the art inside the caves that will take your breath away. The incredible artistry and colors of the paintings and sculptures is unique – such art has not been seen anywhere else, not just in India, but anywhere in the world. Ajanta's incredible paintings are even more impressive considering that the color and texture you're admiring today was created by artists about two thousand years ago. After exploring the caves at Ajanta you drive to Aurangabad and your hotel.

DAY 04 Aurangabad. (B, L, D)

This morning you will proceed for a half day guided excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ellora. We recommend that you consider taking advantage of the packed lunch that the hotel offers to its guests. Explore the magnificently sculptured cave temples and monasteries of Ellora. There are 34 Caves at Ellora, and any of them would individually be considered a significant attraction in most nations. They were built between 600 - 1000 A.D. and are devoted to Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. Seventeen of these caves illustrate a resurgence of Hinduism in this area, as reflected by their Hindu themes, sculpture and art. The epitome of this is Cave 16, the awe-inspiring Kailash Temple. It was finished during the 8th century and is supposed to evoke one of the abodes of Lord Shiva, Mount Kailash in the Himalayas. The Kailash Temple is notable for its immense scale and detail; it is the most awe-inspiring of all of the amazing monuments at Ajanta Ellora. More than 200,000 tons of rock was excavated and six generations of craftsmen worked for a hundred and twenty years to create this masterpiece. On your way back to your hotel, you can stop at Daulatabad Fort. This 14th century hilltop Fort is an impressive sight but what will amaze you is your guide’s illustration of the multiple ingenious architectural facets that were used to make it virtually impregnable. The once sloping sides of the massive stone hill were manually carved sheer on all sides so that no one could climb straight to the top.

DAY 05 Aurangabad – Mumbai - Cochin. (B, L, D)

In the morning transfer to the airport to board flight for Mumbai from where connect with the flight to Cochin and on your arrival at Cochin you are greeted at the airport and transfer to your hotel. Afternoon - You are at leisure this afternoon. You can relax and enjoy your boutique hotel or venture out for local excursions in the charming and historical area nearby. Evening – Your South India Tour Director or Vacations International Facilitator will pick you up from your hotel and accompany you to a local theatre where you get to experience Kerala’s ancient performing art, a Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali literally means the art of storytelling through dance and the dance form is an ancient forefather of many Asian dance forms.

DAY 06 Cochin (B,L,D)

Start your exploration of the fascinating port city of Cochin and marvel in its culture and architecture, a result of centuries of various European influences combined with rich indigenous history The guided tour begins from the Jewish Synagogue (closed on Fridays and Saturdays – will be facilitated on other days for some departures), which was built in 1568 and is still an active house of worship for the few remaining Jews in the area. If the synagogue is closed on this day, the visit can be facilitated on one of the other days that you are in Cochin. Next to the synagogue is Cochin’s ancient and colorful Jew Street with its antique stores and souvenir peddlers. There is evidence of a Jewish presence in Kochi from 70 A.D. After the synagogue you visit the St. Francis Church, which was established by the Portuguese Franciscan friars in 1503. This is one of the first European churches built in India, and the famed Vasco Da Gama was buried in its courtyard for a few years before his remains were returned to Portugal. You now visit the most photogenic of Cochin’s attractions, the Chinese fishing nets. Folklore will have it that these enormous nets (or at least their design) were brought here by famed Chinese Explorer Zhang He about 600 years ago. Local fishermen manipulate these massive nets with an ease that comes from centuries of practice – it is a vocation handed down by generations. The lowering and raising of the nets has a synchronicity and rhythm that is quite an amazing experience. Some of the nets are more than a century old as the fishermen patch them up and keep going. Finish your exploration with a short guided walk through Fort Kochi and experience the unique local culture and architecture – Fort Kochi is one of India’s best cities to explore on foot. You will be driven back to your hotel after your walk. In the evening you are driven to an experience that is the highlight of many of our guests’ time in Kerala. You will be hosted by a famous Keralan Chef and her family at their home. A delicious dinner will follow, and cooking lessons are included. At the end of dinner you will be driven back to your hotel.

DAY 07 Cochin - Backwaters cruise. (B,L,D)

You are assisted with your checkout by Vacations International Travel Facilitator and driven to the backwaters. Arrive at Alleppey and you are assisted in boarding your houseboat. Take our word for this, your backwaters cruise will very likely become one of your most treasured travel memories. The incredible lushness of the vegetation around the fresh water canals, rivulets and lakes, the beauty of the water bodies themselves and the abundance of coconut trees and other exotic plants create a subtropical environment not found elsewhere on this planet. When you combine this with the opportunity to be part of a unique way of life that hasn’t changed much for a few centuries, it results in most visitors’ second highest rated experience in India (after the Taj Mahal). Relax and have a great time until the next morning as you cruise the amazing backwaters. The cook and other staff make sure that all your needs are taken care of, while serving you with delicious Kerala cuisine. You have the option of taking shore excursions at one or two of the tiny rural communities as you cruise by – the locals are very friendly and communicative.

DAY 08 Backwaters Cruise – Thekkady (Periyar National Park). (B,L,D)

Disembark from your houseboat in the morning and enjoy the fascinating drive through the Western Ghats as you to head for Thekkady. This is one of the most beautiful drives in all of South India. Arrive at Thekkady and you are assisted with your check-in to your scenic nature resort. You are now in the heart of spice country, and, if you breathe deeply, the air carries a faint aroma that will delight you. There is a break for a late lunch. This is the heart of spice country and the mild and pleasant aroma from the surrounding plantations will fascinate you when you arrive. Periyar National Park is located around a picturesque artificial lake that was formed in 1895 by building a dam on the Periyar River. The terrain is hilly and the elevation of the park ranges from a few hundred feet to about 6,000 feet above sea level. The lake occupies the valleys of the thickly forested hills serving as a permanent source of water for wildlife in the Park. Although it falls under Project Tiger, the main attractions of the park are definitely elephants. Periyar is home to just under a thousand elephants and also more than 60 other mammal species including tigers, bison, deer, wild boar and wild dog. There are more than 300 species of birds, and even 160 species of butterflies. Prominent among the birds are Cormorants, Kingfishers, Darters, the great Malabar Hornbill, and the racket-tailed Drongoes. Unlike Ranthambore, your chances of seeing a tiger in this park are extremely slim. Thekkady is a great stopover on this itinerary for a variety of reasons, only one of them being the National Park. The Spice plantations are another reason to stop here, as is the fact that this rural area happens to be located in one of the most picturesque parts of the Western Ghats. Afternoon – Visit a neighboring spice plantation where an experienced naturalist will guide you through scores of different spice plants and illustrate their medicinal and gastronomical properties.

DAY 09 Thekkady (Periyar). (B, L, D)

Start your day with a drive up to Lake Periyar and embark on a lake cruise on the spectacular lake. Periyar is a man-made lake that was created by the building of a dam in 1895. The scenery is both gorgeous and surreal, as ancient tree stumps still protrude from the waters of the26-square-kilometer lake. Although Lake Periyar is officially a Tiger Reserve, chances of you seeing a big cat here are almost non-existent. What is very common is to see elephant herds as they come to the lake to drink, or as they traverse the terraced hills surrounding the lake. Wild boars are also a common sight. There is a break for Lunch after the cruise. Afternoon -you can choose to enjoy your scenic pastoral resort and its surroundings this afternoon, or you can opt to visit Elephant Junction. The flora (and other attractions) of your nature resort are very impressive, as is the nearby spice market that sells locally grown products. The resort staff will be happy to give you a guided tour of the variety of plants and trees there, as well as their organic gardens. Upon request you can spend time with the chefs who will give you insights into the preparation of the delightful local cuisine that they offer. There is also a great Ayurvedic Spa that you can try – advance reservations are recommended. If you choose the Elephant Junction option (no charge), you will get a couple of hours where you can mingle with the trainers and other staff as they go about their daily business. You will have opportunities to feed and assist in bathing the gentle giants, as well as experience elephant back rides.

DAY 10 Thekkady - Madurai. (B,L,D)

You are assisted with your checkout and your baggage is loaded into your vehicle. You will be taken by a 45 minute or so jeep ride to a scenic village that lies hidden in the valley behind the mountains of Periyar Tiger Reserve. Here, among many other experiences, you will have the option of traveling in a bullock cart. The village is rich in bird diversity and has diverse agricultural crops such as mango, tamarind, onion, sunflower, jasmine and dozens of other fruits and vegetables. The drive and the village are both very scenic and the excursion is fascinating, especially the glimpses of rural life that you will experience. Your Tour Director will illustrate how farming has woven itself inextricably with the culture and the life of the natives. After this experience, you will join your chauffeur at a scenic spot next to some grape plantations and then you will be driven to Madurai. A bagged lunch will be provided for this journey. Arrive at Madurai where you are assisted with your check-in to your hotel. More than 2,500 years old, Madurai is the second largest city of Tamil Nadu and an important cultural and commercial hub. It was once the seat of Tamil learning; it is still the area where the Tamil language is spoken in its purest form. The city is planned in the shape of a lotus. In contrast with its ancient roots, modern Madurai is a burgeoning industrial center, surrounded by vast stretches of paddy fields, dusty roads and crowded bazaars. Evening - Attend the iconic and impressive evening Palli Arai ceremony at the mammoth Sree Meenakshi Temple Complex with your guide. This elaborate and ritualistic ceremony has been written up in many international publications. You will be amazed by the incredible scale and colors that you are about to witness. Besides a glimpse of the ancient ceremony, this evening will give you a taste of what you will experience on the next day when you do a detailed tour of this awe-inspiring Temple complex.

DAY 11 Madurai. (B,L,D)

Proceed for a guided city tour of Madurai. By far the main attraction of Madurai is the great Sree Meenakshi Temple. This awe-imposing monument is the finest example of Dravidian temple architecture on this planet. Its Hall of a Thousand Pillars is a fabulous collection of elaborately sculpted and painted deities as well as other creatures from Hindu religious annals. The temple is always a beehive of activity as pilgrims from all over India come to seek the blessings of Meenakshi (Goddess Parvati) and Sundareswarar (Lord Shiva. Its vast interior is filled with worshippers at all hours of the day. You will witness Hindu priests performing various ceremonies in different parts of the temple complex as you explore this huge structure, including religious aspects of traditional weddings. According to Tamil belief, the temple has existed for about 2,000 years, but this current structure is a mere four centuries old (the previous majestic temple was destroyed by Muslim invaders in the 14th century). The massive complex includes 14 magnificent Gopurams that jut into the sky from different parts of the temple. These Gopurams have thousands of elaborate sculptures carved into them and these have been colorfully painted. The most significant of these Gopurams are the two golden towers dedicated to the two main deities, the tallest one reaches 170 feet. After you leave the temple you are driven to nearby Thirumalai Nayak Palace. Constructed in 1636 A.D. by an Italian architect, the palace is an interesting confluence of Dravidian, Islamic and European architectural styles. You are at leisure for the balance of the afternoon with your Tour Director and chauffeur.

DAY 12 Madurai – Karaikudi (Chettinad). (B, L, D)

You are assisted with your checkout in the morning and then you proceed on the drive to nearby Karaikudi. There is a stop along the way for a tour of an old fashioned brick kiln, and you can try your hand at forming the bricks. Arrive at Karaikudi and you are assisted with your check-in at your boutique lodging. A Chettinad mansion is impossible to describe in words. The incredible detail, the opulence of the materials used in its construction and the remarkable design all combine to make this a unique architectural achievement that creates an ambience not found elsewhere. There is a break for lunch (included) at your mansion. Chettinad cuisine is famous all over Asia for a very good reason. It is different from most Indian cuisine and the famous banana leaf lunch, with its multitude of courses and dishes, will not fail to impress you. When you learn how the owners of these mansions were traders who settled in various South Asian countries and became prominent businessman there, it will become easier to understand how they were able to secure all the materials for their mansions, and how the cuisine evolved. There are 22,000 such mansions in the Chettinad region, and more than half of them are now in a state of disrepair. Most of the mansion owners no longer live in Chettinad, having settled in other South Asian countries or various parts of India. Afternoon - Enjoy a guided exploration of Chettinad. Karaikudi is the capital of the Chettinad region, a fascinating rural area made up of 76 villages and small towns. The community of traders from this region that created the mansions and the cuisine enjoyed an affluent lifestyle for the last thousand years, and only settled in this region in the 17th century. Their wealth is reflected in the unique and amazing architecture and cuisine, as well as the culture. Although it would be hard pressed to compete with the renovated mansion that you are staying at, you will visit one of the other famous Mansions of Chettinad, where wide open spaces are enhanced by generous use of Burma teak and marble, and the ambiance created puts most modern mansions to shame. A fascinating excursion this afternoon will be to the rural tile manufacturing plant. You will observe how this ancient skill is still being practiced, and the amazing, colorful tiles that are produced by hand even today. Another stopover will be at a handloom weaving plant where, again, an ancient set of skills is practiced even today.

DAY 13 Chettinad – Tanjore - Trichy – Mahabalipuram. (B, L, D)

You are assisted with your check-out and then you proceed on the two hour drive to Tanjore. As you approach your destination, you will be driving by cashew plantations. A brief stop at a rural roadside cashew roasting and shelling operation will provide great photo opportunities. The Great Living Chola Temples are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and your day will start with a guided visit to the most amazing example of these, the Brihadishwara. This thousand-year-old awe-inspiring Temple Complex is constructed solely of granite, a material so hard that, with all our current technology, no architect today would even dream of building a structure with the incredible detail and mammoth scale of the Brihadishwara. These are just a few of the reasons why this monument is one of India’s most treasured architectural achievements. This ancient temple’s crown is a massive granite monolithic cupola made up of ten different pieces totaling about eighty two tons. This temple was built by the great King Rajaraja Chola. Construction commenced in 1003 A.D. and the height of the main structure is 216 feet, which means that the incredibly heavy cupola had to be raised about 200 feet and placed at the top of the structure. The temple itself is decorated with carved panels depicting mythological events. An immense Nandi (the Bull) stands in front of the main shrine – carved out of a single piece of granite and measuring 16 feet long and 13 feet high. The colors used on the elaborate frescoes inside the structures are said to have lasted this long because they were achieved by locating stones in those natural shades and grinding those stones to a paste. After your exploration of the Brihadishwara there will be a break for a late lunch (included). After lunch you will drive to Tanjore Museum. The Tanjore Museum has a fascinating collection of ancient temple stone sculptures and lost wax process bronzes, gathered from all over the region. The exploration of this museum is something that art lovers will really enjoy. After the museum you will proceed on the short drive to Trichy. Arrive at Trichy and you will stop for a photo opportunity at the ancient Tiruchirapali Rock Fort and Temple Complex. The complex is perched on an immense boulder that is 256 feet high. This boulder is one of the largest such formations on our planet and is also one of the oldest at more than 3 billion years. After the photo opportunity you will be driven close to the temple complex. The Vinayak temple, dedicated to Lord Ganesh and built in 580 A.D., is located at the very summit. An ascent to the top is not included as you have to climb 437 steps that have been cut into the rock itself, and it takes a lot of time (and effort) to climb up and down. At the base of the boulder is the Manikka Vinayakar temple, a large and impressive Hindu house of worship, and a brief exploration of this is included. There is also a tank and a pavilion, which are used during the float festivals of the temples. Among all these temples you will find an 18th century Church that was built by Reverend Schwartz, a Danish Priest who was part of the British occupying garrisons, and a brief stop here is included. There is a break for refreshments or an early dinner. Evening - You are driven to the Trichy airport and assisted in boarding the late evening flight to Chennai. You are greeted at the Chennai airport and then driven to Mahabalipuram where you are assisted with your check-in to your ocean front resort.

DAY 14 Mahabalipuram. (B, L, D)

You are at leisure this morning to recuperate from your late flight on the previous night.Start your day at 11 am with a guided exploration of the ancient port of Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This laid back coastal town south of Chennai is world famous for its 8th century shore temple and other historical marvels. Mahabalipuram was the second capital of the Pallava Kings of Kanchipuram, the first Tamil dynasty after the fall of the Gupta Empire. The massive rock sculptures carved into softly sloping hills, monolithic temples, ancient manmade caverns with incredible sculptures and the world’s largest bas-relief in stone, all combine to make Mahabalipuram a living museum. Vying with this splendor is a beach and the picturesque Bay of Bengal. The famous Pancha Rathas (Five Chariots) Temples, the Penance of Bhagirath (also known as Arjuna’s Penance), the Shore Temple, the massive bas-relief Descent of the Ganges and the eight Mandapams (Shallow halls carved out of sheer rock) are all located within the small coastal community. A captivating sight can be experienced from the beach twice a day as the local fisherman head out in their colorful fishing boats early in the morning and then again when they return in the afternoon with their catch. Late afternoon – Enjoy a guided walk down the beach as this allows you to mingle with the local fishing community and their colorful wooden boats. You will see a variety of activities going on - many of the fishermen are returning from their days work and they are going through various processes of pulling their boats up on the beach and organizing their nets and other gear. The fish are stacked into plastic bins which are then weighed right there on the beach. Now the negotiating takes place. You will witness women repairing nets and a lot of other similar activity. Boats will be coming ashore, and some of the larger boats will actually head out at this time of day. Photo opportunities abound, including the famed 8th century Shore Temple, from which you are only a stone’s throw away.

DAY 15 Mahabalipuram. (B,L,D)

Enjoy a guided excursion to Kanchipuram. If you are feeling templed out by this time, you may want to not take this excursion as none of the temples at Kanchipuram are close to (individually) what you will have already experienced at Madurai. You can, on your own, enjoy your resort or the neighboring fishing community and bazaar. The ancient holy city of Kanchipuram is known as the Golden City of a Thousand Temples and is one of the seven sacred cities of India. Its many Gopurams (temple domes) can be seen from a long ways away as you approach the city. Kanchipuram history can be traced back for about three millenniums, and it was successively the capital of many South Indian dynasties. It was a great center of learning, and famous sages of the Buddhist and Jain faiths originated here. The occupation of many residents of this city is silk weaving, and Kanchi silk sarees are considered to be the finest on the planet – a visit to a silk weaving family’s home is part of the tour. After touring Kanchipuram you will return to your resort in nearby Mahabalipuram.

DAY 16 Chennai – International Flight OR Mumbai/Delhi.

For departure, you will be transferred to the airport for your return flight. (Vehicle for transfer)

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