There are plenty of places to stay in Madurai. Two that you may want to consider, both located north of the river, around 10 minutes' drive from the temple, is the Fortune Pandiyan Hotel (www.fortunehotels.in) and Sangam (www.hotelsangam.com). Both are large and utterly characterless, and charge similar rates (around Rs 4,000-Rs 4,750 for a room; Rs 500 for an airport transfer); of the two, Sangam is currently preferable thanks to the more recent renovation efforts (2007). But given that you can bag a Club Room at Heritance for Rs 3,500, I wouldn't think twice before booking one of these, the best-value rooms in town -- move fast though, as there are only seven!
If you want to be walking distance to the temple and immersed in the fabulous (albeit noisy) atmosphere of the lanes that radiate from it, Royal Court has the edge in terms fittings and amenities, but a very good alternative, particularly if you're watching your rupees, is a standard room at Hotel Park Plaza: a steal at Rs 2,100 double, including breakfast (avoid suites). The receptionist's shirt may be grubby but the rooms are not -- fittings are looking a little worn but are sparkling clean, as are the marble floors and linens.
Tracking Elephants in the Forested Ghats of Tamil Nadu
The Eastern and Western Ghats (mountain ranges) of South India meet in Tamil Nadu and it is here, deep in the cool highlands, that some of India's most popular hill stations are located. As elsewhere, these "stations" were traditionally where the British retreated to during the hottest months, and they are still immensely popular summer destinations, though now predominantly with domestic visitors, who fill the streets of Ooty and Coonor (located in the Nilgiri Hills) and Kodaikanal (in the Palani Hills) to capacity. For the most part these hill stations are truly not worth the time and effort it takes to get to them, with plenty of unchecked development stripping them of their original charm, and huge visitor numbers (500,000 descended on Ooty in Apr 2009 alone). The real gems of the Ghats lie off the beaten path, surrounded by indigenous forests that hide its rich and varied wildlife, including some of India's rarest birds. One such gem is the charmingly rustic Elephant Valley Farm Hotel, located some 25km (16 miles) from Kodaikanal (tel. 0454/2230399; www.elephantvalleyhotel.com; Rs 3,300-Rs 4,700 double including breakfast, additional meals Rs 500 per person) Part of a working organic farm and coffee estate, and seamlessly adjoining a nature reserve, it's a wonderful laid-back nonhotel, with just 12 rustic bungalows -- some of them totally secluded and set deep in the forest; warm attentive staff, and the most delicious, nutritious food: just the place to catch your breath before descending into the heat and chaos of Madurai. It is possible to drive to Elephant Valley from Munnar, in Kerala, overnighting for 2 nights (management will e-mail you a driving tour); 2 nights may seem like a long time but you will need at least this to enjoy the pace and peace of life here. It's by no means luxurious accommodations, but then again, luxury is a relative concept. Here a huge bonfire every night takes the place of TV and one of the most memorable moments in India may await: As your steed picks its way through the forest at dawn (the stable has fabulous horses) you hear a loud crack; silhouetted just below the canopy is your first glimpse of that rarest of sights: an Indian elephant in the wilds.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.