Starting point: You begin in Mumbai, amid all the heat, colour, noise and energy you would expect from the world’s sixth most populous city. You are met at the airport and have time to freshen up in the peace and quiet of a comfortable city hotel before being transferred to the railway station for the air-conditioned overnight express to Hubli.
As you journey south towards Karnataka, the pace of life noticeably slows. You arrive in the town of Hubli in time for lunch (pay locally), before the drive (2-3 hours) to the spice-growing village of Hulgol, near the market town of Sirsi. Surrounding the village is a landscape of grassland and lush plantations, lakes and waterfalls, that is home to an array of birds such as hornbills, parakeets, peacocks, bee-eaters, jungle babblers and mynahs. All manner of spices are cultivated on these hills: vanilla pods, peppercorns, cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom, to name but a few. You have four nights at the aptly named Spice House.
Your guide will be happy to show you around the local area, where there is much to see and do: pay a visit to farmers amid their hillside plantations to learn about spice cultivation; watch a demonstration of spice cookery by village women (one of whom has more than a hundred recipes for curry alone!); and witness the colourful and aromatic market in Sirsi – it’s great fun to see how the spice auction is carried out. You can also use the guesthouse bikes to visit a sacred river, complete with remarkable rock carvings and waterfalls; or meander on guided walks along shady paths through the exotic-feeling forest, admiring betel nut production methods. We also include a car and driver on one day, a chance to visit the ornate Banvasi Temple and Yana Caves, or to take a trip east to Hampi where you can wander amid the ruined palaces, statues and elephant stables of the ancient city of Vijayanagara. (Better still, add two nights in Hampi en route to Hulgol so that you have more time to admire the celebrated ruins and Vittala Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.)
After lunch, you are transferred to Hubli in time to catch the overnight train south to Mysore.
Arriving in Mysore early in the morning, you are met by your driver, whose services you have for the full day. There is plenty of time to explore this flamboyant city and its fascinating regal heritage. You will no doubt wish to take in the staggeringly opulent Mysore Palace – lit by 100,000 light bulbs on certain nights – though you are just as likely to find yourself captivated by the bustling markets selling sandalwood and silk. Your two nights here are spent in a luxurious former palace.
Today you may wish to take the bus out of the city to the nearby Chamundi Hills to admire the beautiful hill-top Sri Chamundeswari Temple.
After breakfast, you are driven south to the Wayanad region of north Kerala. Over the course of the four-hour drive, you enter yet another landscape as you wind through the Nilgiri Hills whose tranquil slopes are cloaked in coffee and spice plantations arranged in regimental style. A warm welcome awaits you at your homestay in the village of Thrikkaipetta.
Your hosts act as your guides today, and will be pleased to show you around the village, the surrounding coffee plantations, and the fascinating women’s bamboo cooperative whose members produce beautiful bamboo handicrafts.
After a three-hour transfer to Kozhikode, you take the day train to Ernakulam (4.5 hours). You are met here for the hour-long drive to Vayalar, amid the enchanting backwaters of Kerala. This is a famously easy-going and relaxed state, populated by a well-educated and hospitable people, and its bucolic and labyrinthine backwaters are arguably the jewel in the crown of southern India. Intricate networks of rivers, canals and lagoons nourish countless rice paddies and coconut groves, among which entire communities live out their lives. In Vayalar, you board a specially built houseboat, the Kayal Kettuvallam, which – through its unique construction – allows you to visit areas that remain ‘off limits’ to the larger tourist vessels. (You can also use its canoe to travel even deeper into this magical land.) This boat is your home for the next three nights as you embark on a slow-paced, leisurely and laid-back cruise that you will never forget.
You see quiet, rarely visited backwaters, mooring each evening at a different village where you are welcomed enthusiastically before enjoying Keralan specialities for dinner. The three villages are all strikingly beautiful, but each has a very individual character and focus, whether it be coir-rope making, in the case of Vayalar, or the fish and seafood farming of Kodamanthurthu. Each morning and evening you are free to explore with your guide, perhaps witnessing farmers herding their ducks down the backwaters or learning how prawns are cultivated. The cruise itself takes place during the heat of the afternoon, a chance for you to sit back and watch the world go by as you drift languidly beneath a shady canopy to your next port of call.
You bid goodbye to the Kayal Kettuvallam after breakfast and are taken by car to Kochi, where you spend your final two nights in the centre at a homestay. Resplendent and serene on the Malabar Coast, Kochi was once the centre of India’s lucrative spice trade where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama set up the first European trading post.
Spend your final day taking in more of the historic splendour of Kochi. Where else could you find enormous, cantilevered fishing nets from China; a 400-year-old synagogue; ancient mosques and Portuguese houses – all mixed in with the crumbling remnants of the British Raj? Combined with some of the most tastebud-tingling cuisine in the whole of India, this makes for a suitably grand finale to your memorable southern Indian adventure.