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By Cheryl Simchowitz
Last December I experienced my best holiday yet. I combined a short budget escorted tour of southern India with a luxury Maldives breakaway. The idea was to experience India as a traveller, unplugged, then to recover somewhere exotic, remote and quiet.
My last visit to India was more than 20 years ago, when I took in the highlights of the north. I remember loving and hating it at the same moment. I was constantly overwhelmed by sights, sounds and smells and deeply distressed by the extreme poverty, overcrowding and filth everywhere I went.
Last year I saw a humorous movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, about British retirees who end up living in a not-so-exotic hotel in Jaipur, northern India. I laughed my way through the movie and thought it was time for me to be brave and explore the south.
I chose Intrepid Travel, an Australian company that specialises in adventure and budget holidays, with whom I’d travelled before. Judging by the tour price, this was going to be basic. The brochure promised two or three-star accommodation at best, local transport and a local guide.
The tour started and ended in the coastal city of Kochi. Our group was a small United Nations with members from Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, Italy and America. Despite the “language barrier”, we got on famously.
The old part of Kochi (formerly Cochin) is rich in history, dating back to early explorers and merchants who traded here more than 600 years ago. The Portuguese adventurer Vasco da Gama is buried in St Francis Church and next door is the Dutch cemetery dating back to 1724.
It was exciting just to walk the streets and explore the narrow alleys. One of the highlights of my short stay was meeting one of the city’s last surviving Jews, Sarah Cohen. This lively octogenarian has an embroidery shop in Jew Town close to the beautiful old synagogue which she helps maintain.
At the tip of Fort Cochin, fishermen still use Chinese fishing nets; a legacy from traders dating back to the court of Kublai Khan. It takes at least four men to operate these huge spider-like nets. There are excellent little fish eateries around the harbour.
Kochi is a shopper’s delight, with quaint bookstores, excellent coffee shops, retro clothing places, spice and antique shops. I experienced some blissful moments at the Ayurveda Centre.
We were treated to a dramatic storytelling evening of Kathakali dance where much attention was paid to make-up, costumes and traditional dance movement and music.
We left a hot and steamy Kochi by train en route to Ootacamund, a hill station surrounded by tea estates. The cooler weather was a relief. Here we sampled tea at an estate in Coonoor and rode the famous toy train, so called because at a distance it looks like a child’s train set. Otty, as it is affectionately called by the locals, is where the game of snooker originated.
From Otty we took a mini bus to Mudumalai National Park, where we spent two great days relaxing and enjoying Christmas festivities. On our game drive we saw elephant, bear, and some birdlife but, alas, no tigers – only their paw prints.
Our travels took us to Mysore, an ancient city with a rich and varied history. One of the highlights for the group was a tour of the grand Maharaja’s Palace which was the seat of the Wodejar maharajas. The interior is a kaleidoscope of mirrors, stained glass and gaudy colours.
There is much to see and do in this vibrant city. The Devaraja market is a lively bazaar with vendors selling anything from garlands, spices and conical piles of coloured paints to household goods, cellphones and cheap clothing. Mysore is a splendid place to shop for exquisite silks and the rare sandalwood for which the city is world famous. The Government Silk Factory has the best and cheapest selection of silk.
At Chamundi Hill, outside the city, we encountered throngs of Hindi devotees visiting the temple and praying at an impressive 5m statue of Nandi (Lord Shiva’s bull), which was carved out of solid rock in 1659.
From Mysore we boarded an overnight sleeper train to Chennai on the east coast. Travelling second class in India is not for the feeble or faint-hearted. The train was packed to the roof with people and piles of baggage headed home for New Year.
Our next stop was Mamallapuran, famed for its beautiful Shore Temple, a World Heritage Site. The temple was built in the 7th century and is well preserved. The city is famed for its exceptional stone carvers and we were fortunate to see them at work.
Leaving Mamallapuran, we had a short overnight stay in Pondicherry as we moved down the east coast. This city has some interesting remnants of French colonial influence, but its soul is Tamil Nadu.
From Pondicherry we caught a train to Madurai, which has one of the most splendid temple complexes in southern India. We arrived in the late afternoon, so unfortunately missed a visit to the Gandhi Museum. The rooms there contain a detailed account of India’s struggle for independence from 1757 to 1947.
At dusk we joined throngs of pilgrims en route to worship. The temple complex has been called the Taj Mahal of the south. It is not so much a temple as a six-hectare complex enclosed by 12 towers which are carved with a staggering array of gods, goddesses, demons and heroes.
New Year was celebrated close to Periyar National Park, which is set high in the Western Ghats. The vast region is home to bison, sambar, wild boar, elephants and tigers. I was hoping to catch a glimpse of a tiger, but again no luck.
Before returning to Kochi, we took a trip to the palm-fringed tropical backwaters of Kerala to spend an evening with a local family. We were met by a friendly local who took us on a short tour of the village. That night we dined with a family, sampling their fare.
The decadent part of the holiday was ahead of me. After a hectic 14 days of travelling I was looking forward to chilling in Kuredu Resort in the Maldives, which is surprisingly close to southern India. The resort is in the northern Lhaviyani Atoll.
From Kochi, I flew via Colombo into Mahe, capital of the Maldives. From there it was a 45-minute flight by seaplane to the resort. Flying over the atolls and sea was spectacular enough. I was shown to my beautiful garden bungalow close to the lagoon and that was where I spent seven days doing very little.
Manta rays, black-tipped reef sharks and myriad other tropical fish were regular visitors to the lagoon. This is truly paradise.
There were a host of activities. The only down side was that drinks were expensive (by South African standards), as were water sports. I had the experience of my life when I rode pillion on a jet ski hanging on to a hunky instructor at 70km/h.
The combination of the two styles of holiday– budget and luxury – was perfect for me and to be recommended. - Sunday Tribune
If You Go...
Emirates Airlines: www.emirates.com
Kuredu Resort Maldives: www.kuredu.com