Our journey started in Glasgow and we flew with Emirates to Hyderabad via Dubai. I had first been to Hyderabad in 1958 as a girl, and been fascinated by this interesting city set amidst lakes and boulders; flying in to Begumpet Airport in the dawn light showed a still beautiful city, but one that has grown and developed enormously in the intervening years. Now Hyderabad is well known not only for historic architecture and antiquities but because it is also 'Cyberabad' with huge world famous multinationals based there for the information technology advantage that has brought India to the fore. Thankfully Hyderabad is clean and this is a huge advantage for those of us living in the West; we are not happy faced with litter strewn streets and acres of plastic detritus. Hyderabad has met this challenge very successfully and thus retains its charm. We stayed at the ITC Welcomgroup Grand Kakatiya Sheraton Towers. It is a lovely welcoming hotel with every comfort and the beauty is that having arrived at 06.50 hours we were in our hotel suite by 07.30 having a shower. Now that is what I call a good arrival in India!
There is so much to see but I recommend a drive around first to get one's bearings. The Nizams of Hyderabad were world famous and their enormous wealth made them the stuff of legends. It is a city that is comfortable with its Urdu, Hindi and Telegu languages and values people of all beliefs which is also important. Andhra Pradesh has so much to offer the tourist whether it be spiritual destinations or historic sites; bird sanctuaries, wildlife; crafts and pearls! The other name for Hyderabad is the Pearl City and one can truly lose oneself in shopping for these beautiful objects.
Golkonda Fort is a short distance away and a must for the first time visitor; it will soon have its own golf course I am reliably told. Andhra Pradesh has two very fine rivers in the Godavari and the Krishna and life has continued on the banks of these ancient waterways since time began. The iconic image of Hyderabad is the Charminar in the centre of the old town, which had been laid out in 1591 by a far sighted Nizam. Now of course the city has spread in all directions but the Hussainsagar Lake with its elegant statue of Buddha makes a good focal point with a nice strand on which to walk and take the air and watch life passing by. Having spent a couple of days in Andhra Pradesh I advise flying on to Tamil Nadu. Jet Airways is my preferred carrier and I have flown the length and breadth of India with them and always been delighted by the service and punctuality. We flew Jet down to Chennai and embarked on the Temple Trail. Once again I chose to stay in an ITC hotel - the Chola Sheraton which gave us the most sumptuous full suite. Both the Grand Kakatiya and Chola Sheraton have excellent restaurants with different cuisines; my favourite has to be the Peshavri.
In Tamil Nadu our first stop was Mahabalipuram to visit the wealth of historic antiquities. The Shore Temple is world famous and so beautiful; it was hit by the tsunami but mercifully not damaged and as it was early in the morning there were not many people about. We stayed at Sterling Mahabalipuram which has grounds that go down to the beach; the watchman told me how he had to run and climb into a tree to escape the waves; nothing else was damaged but the hotel acknowledges nature's terror with a beautiful piece of driftwood that was thrown on to their land and is now a memorial. There is so much to see in this small village with a pleasant atmosphere. I found the monolithic rock temples - the Panch Rathas quite extraordinary and seeing it all on a beautiful sunlit afternoon under a blue sky was enchanting. In the late evening in darkness we took a bullock cart ride round the village which I found quite moving - the silence of a place settling down for the night and the silhouette of the bullocks and the cart depicted on the bas reliefs of Arjuna's Penance was moving; here in the twenty first century we had chosen to go in an ageless form of transport which threw its shadows on something carved in the seventh century in the reign of the Pallava dynasty - time seemed to have stood still. Above the bas relief on the rocks little goats and kids slept free from danger of predators, completely unworried by us and our night visit.
Tamil Nadu has so many wonderful ancient temples and we managed to visit six but the individual will have their own priorities. I loved Gangaikondacholapuram, Kumbakonam, Darasuram and Thanjavur. We stayed at Sterling Swamimalai which was so enjoyable. Sterling Swamimalai is situated on the soil on which the late Hindu Pontiff Sri Sankaracharya once lived. In line with his thoughts a unique atmosphere has been created to imbue the location with values that offer peace and harmony to all. It has been visited by many famous people from outside India as well as distinguished Indians. They gave us a suite which was decorated as if a typical Tamil Nadu landlord's house, except we had the added luxury of a lotus bath strewn with petals in which to relax before hearing a wonderful concert of Carnatic music. The food at Swamimalai is a table d'hote menu but served in a thali tradition and excellent. Both hotels have excellent ayurvedic facilities with a physician in attendance. I am told quite a few people fly in from other countries just to have the ayurvedic treatments which they find enhances their lives.
We visited the Chettinad district and stayed at The Bangala which is a charming home stay heritage hotel. There is great attention to detail with wonderful cuisine. The arid region encompassing the towns of Karaikudi, Davakottai and their neighbouring villages, collectively known as Chettinad is distinguished by large ornate mansions which are the ancestral homes of Chettiars, Tamil Nadu's rich merchant community. These mansions were built at the beginning of the 20th century and are a fascinating reflection of that community - I believe that were the area to be thoroughly cleaned up and mansions renovated this could become a short break destination with lots of attractions.
Kerala is a lovely green diverse small state with so much to offer the traveller. Fly into Cochin directly from Dubai using Emirates or drive in from Tamil Nadu as we did; the drive from Madurai is quite lovely. One can stay at Spice Village at Thekkady or Cardamom County both of which are very nice. Periyar Wildlife Reserve is on the doorstep and well worth a visit, but I have to say that I was upset by the condition of Kerala State Tourism boats and the clamour from the visiting public. Wildlife viewing should be orderly and calm. Spice Village has a lovely calm atmosphere set in beautiful grounds with vines and creepers and wonderful trees. A flock of Guinea Fowl patrol the green lawns. Spice Village has a good public amenity dedicated to wildlife of which I approved; all of us must understand that the Tiger is in crisis and we all need to take ownership of the responsibility to ensure the Indian Government does not stand by and do nothing, or very little to save this most magnificent of beasts, the emblem of India. Indian Government statements sometimes give the impression that because they have been uttered the problem or challenge is solved, whereas in fact it is only the first tiny step in the path towards possible achievement.
The Brunton Boat Yard is a heritage style five star property on the very edge of Cochin's wide attractive harbour and lagoon. This too belongs to cghearth group and if one flies into Cochin is reached in about 45 minutes from the new international airport. This elegant comfortable hotel that has been carefully renovated has lovely rooms and full suites with a charming tree shaded courtyard and a pool on the harbour's edge from which to watch the ceaseless maritime traffic. The management and staff are friendly and helpful and the food is fantastic. Cochin has so much to offer the first time visitor with the Spice Market, the Mattancherry Palace, St Francis Church (where Vasco da Gama was buried in 1524), the Paradesi Synagogue and the famous Chinese fishing nets that were first erected in the fourteenth century.
Two nights at Brunton should be followed by a short car journey to Marari Beach, another of cghearth's lovely resorts. In 35 acres of lawns dotted by palms and a wealth of exotic vegetation the grounds sweep down to the wide open beach. The ethnic architecture of individual chalets makes it seem that it has always been there but in fact the property is about five years old and engagingly laid out so that one does not feel crowded. Pools full of pink lotus blossoms with tiny kingfishers darting in and out add to the serenity of this place. I really enjoyed my ayurvedic massages and gram showers which left me feeling polished and refreshed and the body totally relaxed. If your budget allows ask for a chalet with its own private pool in a courtyard which one can access from the outdoor bathroom ensuite to the bedroom as well as from the private lounge. Lying in the Jacuzzi end of the pool floating naked looking up at the full moon and stars must be one of my most treasured memories.
All cghearth properties encourage the guest to participate in local activities like village walks, coir weaving, learning a musical instrument, nature and spice trails and cooking demonstrations; yoga and meditation can be experienced daily. From Marari Beach take a short car journey to embark on the Spice Boat. This is quite simply enchanting and something I long wanted to do - I found it even more pleasurable than the Mekong Delta; spice boats called Kettuvellams are now converted into very comfortable houseboats with a crew of three who do everything including making delicious food and supplying cool or hot drinks. The 'loo' and the hot and cold shower make it all very civilised. Gliding through the backwaters and watching village life going on all around is unique - flocks of noisy ducks, fishermen, children swimming after school; old men praying, women washing, daily tasks carrying on with church bells ringing or the muezzin calling. At night moored in the middle of Lake Vembanad lying out on the comfortable deck looking up at the stars with a gentle breeze and no noise except for the fish jumping is sublime, followed by a delicious meal and chilled wine with after dinner coffee. In the morning light one could see other Kettuvellams moored far away; the early morning bird chorus and the sun rising through the mist along with a welcome cup of tea made it so special. After breakfast we disembarked at Coconut Lagoon. Coconut Lagoon is at Kumarakom and totally enchanting with distinct Keralan architecture and the whole property divided by small backwaters with charming foot bridges under which small craft can glide. Again, it is possible to have a cottage with its own pool that directly looks on to the lake and its tranquillity. The restaurants, bars, main pool and lawns are so inviting; there is a small bird sanctuary nearby and the hotel has its own butterfly trail. Each hotel has its resident enthusiastic naturalist.
South India will welcome you with smiles, friendship and service and you will want to return again. www.cghearth.com; www.sterlingmahabalipuram.net; www.sterlingswamimalai.net; www.thebangala.com