South India – Travel Review
India conjures up images of frenetic cities, ancient traditions and stunning historical monuments. Its vibrancy and colour greets the traveller at every turn. But head to the south of this vast country and you will discover a different land. A place of spices and sandalwood, of stunning natural beauty, and a more gentle and tranquil pace of life…
Like many travellers, my introduction to India was ‘the golden triangle’. That stunning area of Rajasthan that takes in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. At its heart is the Taj Mahal. One of those iconic ‘must see before you die’ sites and one that firmly meets and, invariably, exceeds expectations. That was 30-years ago.
“It will assault your senses” is a phrase commonly used to prepare first time visitors for India. Noisy and bustling towns and cities teeming with people. Tuk-tuks backed up on crowded streets. A pace of life that seems only to exist in fifth gear. And, amidst the heat, smells and dust, a country which at turns can be fascinating and shocking.
But the great beauty and timeless appeal of India is that she wears many faces. Over the past three decades I have been drawn back time and again. Especially to the south of the country. An exotic land in which life moves at a much less frenetic pace. It boasts an almost perfect year-round tropical climate. There are palm-fringe beaches, misty highlands and lush green tea plantations, which meet tranquil backwaters and colourful temples.
“A treasure trove for the wildlife enthusiast”
South India comprises of four states: Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala. They represent not just the crossroads at which numerous cultures collide, but individually boast their own distinct, unique and captivating identity. A wonderful place to start any journey through South India is the delightful palace city of Mysore. Great explored on foot, its centre is bursting with life. The air is permanently peppered with the aroma of roasting coffee and sandalwood. Make time to explore its many colourful markets. My favourite is Devaraja – one of the best in South India. An exotic location that attracts photographers and foodies alike.
Outside the city, the temple at Somnathpur is considered one of the most beautiful and interesting buildings in India. The area is a treasure trove for the wildlife enthusiast and the setting for the Nagarhole National Park. One of the finest in the region and home to tigers, leopards, elephants, sloth bears, striped hyena and much more. It is best to visit at dawn or dusk.
But to really soak up the atmosphere stay overnight in a luxury safari tent on the banks of the Kabini River. Nearby you will find Tranquil – a secluded plantation bungalow in the heart of the Waynad coffee, cardamom and vanilla growing region. It’s a seductive spot in which to escape for a couple of days. This 70-year old property consists of two buildings joined by an open veranda. It has been beautifully restored and decorated with planter’s furniture. There are 400 acres of estate to be explore. Seven well-defined paths cut through the grounds and the beautiful scenery.
“A hair-raising journey through wonderful scenery”
From here, head to the hill station of Ooty. It is the capital of the Nilgiri “Blue Mountain” district. The place boasts a temperate climate that enticed the colonial British to escape the summer heat of Madras to while away their time with endless socialising, bridge parties and Tiffin. This gave it the nickname of “Snooty Ooty”.
A must for the intrepid is a ride on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway. Built by the British in 1908, it climbs a ratchet and pinion track and provides a hair-raising journey through wonderful scenery of spectacular curves, tunnels, deep ravines, streams and tea gardens.
The drive to Kochi (formerly Cochin) is one I never tire of taking. One of India’s most interesting towns, a principle port and the centre of the spice trade on the Malabar Coast. Kochi was founded by Vasco da Gama and is the oldest European settlement in India. It’s a good base for exploring the nearby tropical backwaters. The local streets still throb with merchants selling everything from rice to antiques. Everywhere are reminders of the foreign traders who over the years built churches, forts, palaces and a synagogue. A walk along the waterfront will introduce you to the sight of Chinese fishing nets in action. But my best memory is of a sunset cruise around the picturesque harbour with the Bolghatty Palace. Industrious fishermen are at work in silhouette as light gives way to dusk.
“Network of lakes, shady coconut canals and estuaries”
For centuries transport of goods by barge takes place through the backwaters of South India. It’s a network of lakes, shady coconut canals and estuaries. Here, tiled and thatched cottages bright with hibiscus dot the embankments. Many of these barges are now houseboats. They provide a relaxing way to leisurely explore the beauty and tranquillity of the backwaters.
Tourists can meet its warm, charming people, and see children swimming and playing in the water, women attending to daily chores and men fishing from canoes. Simply furnished and consisting of a thatch-covered lounge and dining area, one or two double bedrooms and bathrooms with a toilet, these houseboats are the perfect way to take in this magical and beautiful corner of the world.
And, if that isn’t enough, there’s a catch of some of the best South Indian food I’ll ever taste for my lunch or dinner. I just sit back and watch local life unfold before me.