Thekkady (Periyar) is 190km (118 miles) from Kochi and 145km (90 miles) from Madurai

Each year, around half a million travelers make their way up into the Cardamom Hills, where the crisp, cool air is redolent with the scents of spices, and soaring mountains give way to tea plantations and dense jungle. Most people intent on seeing the best of Kerala head from the backwaters to the village of Thekaddy, gateway to Periyar Tiger Reserve, the stomping grounds for large herds of wild elephants and apparently where as many as 22 to 40 tigers avoid being spotted. Although it's true that Periyar is one of India's largest and most popular elephant reserves, this is not a wilderness experience in the true sense. Unless you opt for an overnight trek or one of the full-day hikes, the popular boat trip on the lake feels much like being processed like sheep by regimented nature rangers, and the intense tourist activity around the roads leading to the gates is quite disheartening.

However, with a couple of lovely places to stay, it is well worth overnighting here if you are traveling by car from Kerala to Tamil Nadu (or vice versa), though the most direct route (if you're driving between Madurai and Kochi) is via Munnar, which lies 4 hours due north of Thekkady. At a much greater altitude than Periyar, Munnar is a collection of vast green-tea estates first established by a Scotsman in the late 19th century -- it's hardly surprising, then, that the area is sometimes referred to as Kerala's Scottish highlands. In the days of the Raj, it became a popular "hill station" -- a place to escape from the summer heat in the plains. Today the landscape -- for the most part -- retains a classic hill station atmosphere. Watched over by Mount Anamudi, South India's highest peak (2,695m/8,840 ft.), Munnar's primary attractions are its gorgeous views of rolling hills covered with tea and cardamom plantations, and the cool climate -- great, if you intend to stay more than 1 night, for leisurely walks and cycle-tours (not to mention a close encounter with the endangered Nilgiri tahr, a variety of mountain goat).