India evokes fantasies of riotous colors, opulent cultures, and surreal landscapes. But South India turns this intensity up a notch, in two states that remain largely untrammelled by tourists. Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are an exuberance of ornate temples, World Heritage sites, and ancient native arts. Their vastness spans golden sandy coastlines, misty hill towns, national safari parks, and even a Universal Peace Town. Pondicherry, aka “India’s French Riviera,” entices Europeans with its exciting café culture, propelled to fame in film The Life of Pi. But nothing beats their manic markets—an overwhelming sensory overload for a true taste of local life.
South India is literally adorned in elaborate Hindu temples. You won’t find a city, town, village, or community without its own exquisite offering, or hundred. You’ll notice their multi-story Gopura (entrances), embellished in abundant fanciful carvings of the Hindu pantheon, rocketing into the sky. Many are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Brihadisvara, India’s tallest temple devoted to Lord Shiva. Within the 1st-century architectural legacy of the Great Chola Kings, the profound sacred bull statue is omnipresent and intimately entwined with belief.
Don’t Miss: The 10 Gopura of Madurai’s Meenakshi Amman temple dominate the city skyline, emblazoned in mind-boggling feats of architecture left by vanished ancient dynasties. Explore the sprawling group of UNESCO World Heritage sites in Mamallapuram, with 7th and 8th century temples, shrines and sanctuaries. The Shore Temple survived the tsunami. Behind it, the hill is punctuated with enchanting cave temples. Be sure to visit the spellbinding night ceremonies. Always remove shoes outside.
Recommended Fodor’s Video
Nagarahole National Park, former hunting ground of the Mysore Maharaja, is blessed with beautiful but elusive tigers. Leopards are plentiful here, as are Asiatic elephants, gaur, and sambar. Boarding open-sided Jeeps with over-zealous photographer-guides is unforgettable, as they pull out gigantic telephoto lenses. The Nagarahole Jeeps are shared with mostly domestic tourists who have to be reminded, often, to keep quiet—adding to the authenticity of an Indian safari.
Don’t Miss: Eco-luxury lodge Kaav features just four suites. Steeped in the solitude of safari, every inch radiates the essence of wilderness. Dip in the infinity pool overlooking vast grasslands while chefs cook gourmet meals for al-fresco dining. Post game-drive movie nights screen wildlife documentaries, accompanied by snacks and tea. The manager points out, with moving passion, starry constellations through on-site telescope. Take the Coracle boat-ride across a crocodile-infested lake in an oversized handmade bamboo saucer, steered only by a single oar.
3. TEA PLANTATIONS
Driving to the top of an incredible verge, jutting into the sky, and scaling the clouds at 2,240 meters proves a hairy drive. Atop the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’ crowning the Nilgiri Hills, Ooty is one of 14 bio-hotspots in the world. The route from Ooty to Coonoor is a stepped carpet of verdant tea plantations blanketing hectares of misty undulating hills. The annual Tea and Tourism Festival attracts huge crowds. Up here, the cool crisp air made it the choice summer residence of the British Chennai government.
Don’t Miss: Major tea estates pick, process, and package tea leaves, keeping it a buoyant year-round economy, on which the region survives. Take a tour of Dodabetta Tea Factory and Museum, for a journey from the origins of tea to its current live processing.
Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are ingenious with transport—as cars are still unaffordable for most rural-dwellers. The Toy Train traverses UNESCO Heritage Nilgiri Mountain Railway at high altitude. Chugging through 26 viaducts, 16 tunnels, and tall olden bridges, over gurgling streams and deep ravines, in rickety old-fashioned carriages through the cool crisp mountain air is a highlight. Nagarhole National Safari Park enables a thrilling open-sided Jeep safari and Coracle boat ride; the latter an unparalleled adventure. Ending on horseback on a beach in Chennai is magical.
Don’t Miss: Kick-start any itinerary with a rail journey from Chennai to Mysore, the city of palaces and sandalwood. Indian trains embody all that’s grand and traditional while being typically authentic. Majestic sunrise views through valleys and villages, South Indian colours weave in and out of view. It’s a great way to take in true sights of India otherwise missed by car.
5. TASTE BUDS
South India embodies the phrase “Atithi Deva Bhavo”—”Guest is God.” Nowhere is this more visible than at mealtimes. Typical Tamil Nadu breakfasts consist of Idly rice-flour cakes, Uttapam, and Dosa with spicy Sambar and coconut, chilli, and coriander chutneys. Bordering the Bay of Bengal, the region benefits from the freshest seafood. Don’t miss firm favorite, Crab Claw cooked Chettiar style, just part of a feast platter served at award-winning Southern Spice restaurant. The chef encourages sampling all corners of South India. My only advice is to go in very hungry.
Don’t Miss: The chef at Taj Madurai prepares the best of the local region in a Thali platter. Sumptuous meals are spiced exactly to your comfort. With chilli and fig cocktails to complement, extravagance and authenticity pique in perfection. South Indian cuisine here is an epic adventure for the taste buds.
Having traveled to 80-plus countries, Anisha Shah intrinsically uses her BBC TV & Radio News journalism background, connecting with and documenting people in all corners of the globe. Traveling extensively through Ethiopia, and choosing to go alone, was a successful challenge. She's now planning trips to South Sudan, Iraq, and Senegal.