What to See and Do in Southern India

Suzanne Hall visits a temple in Southern India. Hall was impressed by the diversity and the enduring artistic and spiritual culture that’s woven throughout this region of the country.
 
Suzanne Hall visits a temple in Southern India. Hall was impressed by the diversity and the enduring artistic and spiritual culture that’s woven throughout this region of the country.

Rarely, if ever, am I at a loss for words, especially when it comes to things that matter most to me, like family, friends, food — and of course, travel. And so it was a major surprise when I recently traveled to Southern India (Chennai to Mumbai) where, for two weeks, was totally immersed in an experience that often left me speechless. My travel companions — husband Jim and Ensemble Travel Group members Chuck and Janice Maida, owners of All Seasons Travel in Jacksonville, FL — felt the same way.

Without our luxury travel partners — Emirates, Zutshi Travel World Service (Ensemble’s On Location partner in India) and Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces — our experience would have never been as meaningful.

Our trip to India began on Emirates out of New York’s JFK. We knew that an otherwise long flight would feel far shorter, even with a connection in Dubai, due to the ultra-modern Emirates A380 aircraft and super new cabin design. And we were right. There’s no question that Emirates’ business class is the crème de la crème in terms of exceptional service, dining and in-flight entertainment. We also loved the cozy lounge at the back of the aircraft and found it to be the perfect respite for our over-the-water flights.

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Upon arrival in Chennai, we were greeted by Akshay Ahuja, owner of Zutshi, who had flown in especially from Delhi, along with our private guide Satish and driver Anand. I now know why Zutshi consistently earns high marks from our members. Their planning and attention to detail, coupled with the sincere care taken to ensure an extraordinary experience, went far beyond our expectations. We took their suggestion to travel with a private guide and driver, discovering early on the major benefit of the flexibility it afforded. They were also over-the-top knowledgeable, personable and very well connected.

Suzanne Hall with a little girl at an outdoor Indian wedding for 6,000 guests.
 
Suzanne Hall with a little girl at an outdoor Indian wedding for 6,000 guests.

Our hotel accommodations were stellar, too, staying primarily at Taj waterfront properties including, Fisherman’s Cove (Chennai), Taj Kumarakom, Taj Malabar (Cochin), and Taj Mahal Palace (Mumbai). All properties aptly reflected the unique culture and architecture of the local destination. Service was impeccable. Accommodations, luxurious. And dining, divine.

The people of Southern India have a way of reaching inside and pulling at your heartstrings. And it’s not out of pity, but because of their inner beauty and how they bare their souls with such grace and humility. Most of them spoke English, and even if they didn’t, their expressions easily conveyed their thoughts. We all brought along small gifts — pens, stickers, hats and candies — to give away, especially for the children. Did their eyes and smiles ever light up! Being highly respectful, the children couldn’t thank us enough for these small tokens. I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention their hard work ethic and cleanliness. There were no idle hands. Whatever they’re tasked with: sweeping the floor, washing the clothes, cooking the meals — they do in earnest. And they take pride in their appearance and dress and homes, and it showed, even in the outlying villages.

Our travel companion Chuck Maida summed it up best by saying, “Janice and I have traveled many places, but we have never been anywhere where the people are as warm, welcoming, humble, loving, inclusive, caring and giving as they are in India.”

What impressed me most about our “official” itinerary were the diversity (from mythical structures and wildlife outings to museums, animal encounters and unique shopping) and the enduring artistic and spiritual culture that’s woven throughout Southern India. Among the not-to-miss: the Cave Temples of Mahabalipuram, the Meenakshi Temple and palaces of Mattancherry and Mysore, for sure. Our elephant ride and interaction with these incredible animals in Thekkady was truly another highlight, as was exploring a private spice plantation where our guide’s expert narration was peppered with insights from the owner’s engaging son. (Who knew that Southern India produces among the world’s best coffee and cocoa beans? We sampled and bought plenty.)

Suzanne Hall shopping at a local market. She loved the fragrances, colors and tastes of Southern India.
 
Suzanne Hall shopping at a local market. She loved the fragrances, colors and tastes of Southern India.

But what about our “unofficial” itinerary, those off-the-beaten-path, unexpected surprises we enjoyed, thanks to a sense of wanderlust by all and our guide’s eagerness for us to truly feel the soul of Southern India. It’s these spontaneous moments that I remember most vividly: our veering off the roadside to experience a myriad of amazing moments like pulling up to an outdoor Indian wedding (for 6,000 guests!) and being ushered to the front to meet the bridal party and partake in an unforgettable meal; nearly capturing a villager for a ride on his oxcart; exploring a roadside vineyard that, in appearance at least, rivaled Tuscany (but on the smaller side, of course); touring a local bronze sculptor’s workshop to see the process first-hand; maneuvering the packed streets of Pondicherry in a wild tuk tuk ride; shopping for silk scarves made on a generations-old loom in a weaver’s home studio; and discovering how to make the much-talked-about, crepe-like “appam” in the lovely home of a friend of our guide. It was all about seeking out the authentic experience, being spontaneous, and taking advantage of the special moments that pop up as we traveled.

While Indian cuisine is one of my favorites, nothing prepared me for the sensory immersion we encountered on our journey through Southern India. The fragrances, colors, tastes and textures were intoxicating. We could not get enough. We loved going to the local markets where flower vendors, fish mongers, spice dealers, nut and rice merchants and vegetable farmers made their living each day. Meal time was much the same as our curiosity would often lead us to the kitchen or to seek out the chef with a multitude of questions. They were always delighted to share and many sent us home with recipes to try.

Southern India was all that I dreamed of, and more. It’s the perfect destination for A-List clients who are curious, adventuresome and yearn to be totally immersed within a culture that’s truly a hidden gem.

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