South India is where the great Dravidian kingdoms were established, and anyone interested in ancient history and grand temples must visit Tamil Nadu or Karnataka. Here we've included only a few temples, but if you crave more, you'll find an exhaustive variety of exquisitely carved temples to explore. For natural beauty and rejuvenation, there are few places in India like Kerala, India's most verdant state, where we recommend you end your trip. This itinerary also takes you through its tea estates, backwaters, wildlife parks, and rainforests.
Days 1 & 2: Bengaluru or Mumbai
Fly straight into Bengaluru or Mumbai. You'll probably arrive in the middle of the night, so spend the day relaxing or wandering through Karnataka's capital city. If you're in Bengaluru, at some point take in Bull Temple on Bugle Hill. Built by the city's original architect, Kempe Gowda, this 16th-century black-granite statue of Nandi (Shiva's sacred bull "vehicle") literally dwarfs its "master," and is kept glistening by regular applications of coconut oil. Stay at either the ultramodern Park.hotel or the Taj West End for old-world charm. If you're on a budget, book a room at lovely Villa Pottipati. If you arrive in Mumbai instead, you can spend the day relaxing at one of the city's numerous luxury hotels (preferably in a heritage suite at the Taj Mahal Palace or on the top floor of the Four Seasons) or at a good-value option like Ascot. Set aside a few hours to wander around and acclimate yourself to India's most bustling megalopolis.
Day 3: Chennai & Mamallapuram
From Bengaluru (or Mumbai), fly to Chennai (or take the train). You can either head straight down the coast to Fisherman's Cove resort (1 hr.) or take a detour to Kanchipuram 80km (50 miles) southwest of Chennai to visit the temples there before heading to Fisherman's Cove. If you prefer to be closer to Mamallapuram, book a room at Temple Bay resort instead. En route, stop along the scenic East Coast Highway at the cultural centers of Cholamandalam and Dakshina Chitra for local arts and crafts. Dakshina Chitra is a heritage center showcasing different living styles from India's four southern states: Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Andhra Pradesh.
Day 4: Mamallapuram
Set out early and take in Mamallapuram's monolithic shrines and rock-cut cave temples, which lie scattered over a landscape heaped with boulders and rocky hillocks. Among these, the excellent Shore Temple, built to Lord Shiva, and the Five Rathas, a cluster of temples named for the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame, are definitely worth seeking out. The celebrated Arjuna's Penance is the largest relief-carving on earth. When you've finished your tour, you can enjoy a great seafood meal at one of the numerous beach shacks or restaurants before continuing down the coast to the French colonial town of Puducherry (aka Pondicherry). Overnight at nearby Dune Eco-Village, or in Pondi at Miason Perumal or Hotel de l'Orient.
Days 5 & 6: Puducherry (Pondicherry) & Trichy/Thanjavur
Besides hanging out in your antiques-filled colonial hotel or sauntering around the oceanfront French Quarter, you can visit Auroville, an interesting experiment in alternative living, also optimistically known as the City of Dawn (if you plan ahead you can enter the sci-fi Matrimandir, well worth the extra effort it takes to book); or you can join New Age travelers and earnest pilgrims and visit the atmospheric ashram of Sri Aurobindo. While wandering the Quarter, you may want to take a look at the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Eglise de Sacre Coeur de Jésus), an 18th-century neo-Gothic Catholic church on South Boulevard; and at the Church of Immaculate Conception on Mission Street. At twilight, stroll to Goubert Salai (Beach Rd.), where you'll see the colonial Hôtel de Ville (now the Municipal Offices building) and a statue of Gandhi standing at the pier. On Day 6, drive southwest, to Trichy, to see the sacred temple town of Srirangam, then overnight at Ideal River Resort near Thanjavur.
Day 7 & 8: Thanjavur & Chettinad Region & Madurai
After viewing the Brihadeshvara Temple in Thanjavur at dawn, head into the rural delights of the Chettiar district, where you can admire the peeling facades of mansions that line the dusty streets of Kanadukathan, just outside Karaikkudi, before retiring to your very own mansion, the gorgeous Visalam. From the Chettinad area, Madurai is a 2-hour drive southwest; once there, choose between the gracious Taj Gateway Pasumalai Madurai or the chic new boutique hotel, Heritance Madurai.
Day 9: Madurai
Early in the morning, visit Shri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple, one of South India's biggest, busiest pilgrimage sites. Garish stucco gods, demons, beasts, and heroes smother the various towers in a writhing, fascinating mass of symbolism, vividly painted a riot of bright colors. Near the inner gate, a temple elephant, daubed with eye shadow and blusher, earns her keep by accepting a few rupees in exchange for a blessing -- bestowed with a light tap of her dexterous trunk. From here you can wander at will, finding your way at some stage to the Thousand Pillar Museum, housed in the impressive 16th-century Hall of a Thousand Pillars. This hall has 985 elegantly sculpted columns, including a set of "musical pillars" that produce the seven Carnatic musical notes when tapped. All around the complex of shrines and effigies, various pujas (prayers) and rituals are conducted. Once you're done exploring the site and have spent an hour or so wandering the lanes adjacent to the temple, either retire to your hotel and return to witness the evening ceremony, or push on and drive to Munnar, sometimes referred to as Kerala's Scottish highlands. Overnight at Windermere Estate or one of the planter's bungalows at Tea Sanctuary.
Day 10: Munnar
Munnar is a collection of vast green tea estates first established by a Scotsman in the late-19th century. Besides enjoying the rolling mists and endless greenery, you can arrange a tea factory visit and a stopover at the Tea Museum. To get up close to some of the world's last Nilgiri tahr (a variety of mountain goat or ibex), visit nearby Eravikulam National Park. Existing only in the mountain grasslands of the Western ghats at altitudes above 2,000m (6,560 ft.), the tahr is as endangered as the tiger.
Day 11: Periyar
Drive to Periyar Tiger Reserve, originally the hunting grounds of the Maharajah of Travancore. The park covers 777 sq. km (303 sq. miles) and is divided into core, buffer, and tourist zones. Although this is a tiger reserve, tiger sightings are rare, particularly in the tourist zone, but the reserve is also home to the elephant, sloth bear, sambar, Indian bison or gaur, wild dog, leopard, spotted deer, Malabar flying squirrel, barking deer, and Nilgiri tahr, as well as some 260 species of birds. More than 2,000 species of flowering plants grow here, including at least 150 different kinds of orchids. Organize a private boat launch ride from where you can view animals coming to drink at the water's edge. You can also take one of the 3-hour daily walks, which give you the opportunity to admire the area's stunning flora. To ensure you have a close-up encounter with an elephant, go on a 30-minute elephant ride in the park. Overnight at Shalimar Spice Garden or Spice Village.
Day 12: Kumarakom
Drive to the heart of Kerala's backwaters region to Kumarakom, which has by far the best accommodations. Idle away the hours on a backwaters cruise, indulge in Ayurvedic therapies, and laze under the tropical sun -- that's about as busy as your day is likely to get. Overnight at the Kumarakom Lake Resort or Coconut Lagoon (or Green Lagoon if you don't mind shelling out for absolute exclusivity) -- or head for the beach resorts at Mararikulam.
Day 13: Houseboat
Reset your watch to a rhythm of life that has remained relatively unchanged for centuries: Board a kettuvallam, one of the long, beautifully crafted cargo boats that ply the waterways. The houseboat experience allows you to aimlessly drift past villages, temples, and churches and be thoroughly exposed to the rural lifestyle of the backwaters. As you drift along, you can watch women, unperturbed by your presence, wash their long ebony tresses or pound away at laundry, while children play at the water's edge, men dive for mussels, and elephants and water buffalo wade at will. Although the onboard facilities might strike some as rather basic, you'll be spoiled rotten by your private team -- a guide, a cook, and a pilot -- who work hard to make your experience unique and exceptional.
Days 14 & 15: Kochi (Cochin)
Travel north to Kochi and settle into a hotel in Fort Kochi (we recommend the Old Harbour Hotel or Le Colonial), then explore Fort Kochi on foot. Start your tour at the harbor near Vasco da Gama Square, where you can watch the Chinese fishing nets, then visit St. Francis Church and Santa Cruz Cathedral. Stop to admire the facade of Koder House -- built in 1808 by Jewish patriarch Samuel Koder, it's a good example of the hybrid Indo-European style that developed in Cochin. Also nearby is the Pierce Leslie Bungalow, a charming 19th-century mansion reflecting Portuguese and Dutch influences on local architecture. Take an auto-rickshaw to Mattancherry, where you should visit the Dutch (Mattancherry) Palace and Paradesi Synagogue before discovering the fragrant scents of Kerala's spice warehouses. Make time to visit a few of the antiques warehouses, where some real treasures are to be found. A sunset cruise around the harbor is another must; it's the best way to enjoy the most-photographed of Cochin's historic sights, the Chinese fishing nets that form wonderful silhouettes against a red- and orange-hued sky.
Day 16: Wyanad
From Cochin, take the early Cannanore Express train to Calicut, from where you can catch a taxi for the 2-hour journey to Sulthan Bathery in Wyanad. Without a doubt the best accommodations, Tranquil Resorts is a wonderful opportunity to stay in one of two luxury "treehouses" on a 162-hectare (400-acre) coffee and vanilla plantation at the edge of Wyanad National Park. Visit tea, pepper, cardamom, coffee, banana, and coconut plantations, or take one of the many splendid walks on this scenic estate; alternatively, take a trip into the park or to Edakkal Caves. Either way, the hospitality of Victor and Ranjini Dey at this gorgeous planter's bungalow makes for an excellent end-of-trip sojourn.
Day 17 & 18: Wyanad & Neeleshwar & Home
From the Wyanad Hills, head for the unexplored far-northern coast of Kerala, where you can laze on the beach right in front of the exceptional new Neeleshwar Hermitage (near Kanhangad), visiting nearby Bekal Fort and stopping by Anandashram, one of the intriguing, totally tranquil ashrams in the vicinity. And, for an evening of lively entertainment, ensure that your hosts have organized for you to witness a ritual theyyam performance. Hearts heavy with regret, you must now make your way back to Mangalore (or Calicut) to fly to either Mumbai or Bengaluru to connect to your flight home. If you arrive in Mumbai, you will need to transfer from the domestic to the international airport. En route, you can stop off for dinner at one of the superb restaurants near the airport (Peshawri at ITC The Maratha; or Celini, the Italian restaurant at the Grand Hyatt, if you'd prefer a less spice-intense meal), before you catch the late-night flight home.