Tourists often overlook Chennai, but it’s India’s fourth-largest city, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and a great jumping-off point for exploring the area’s impressive Hindu temples. (Photo: Fotolia)
Tourists often overlook Chennai, but it’s India’s fourth-largest city, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and a great jumping-off point for exploring the area’s impressive Hindu temples. (Photo: Fotolia)

Incredible India

Step beyond your comfort zone, withstand the unpredictable and experience a different way of life.

‘‘Incredible India” is a phrase I repeated to myself over and over during my recent trip to that nation. Originally developed as a tagline to advertise the country’s magnificent hotels, tourist sites and natural beauty, the phrase caught on because it is so apt. It passed through my mind whenever surprises came my way, as they did multiple times per day.

Within hours of my arrival in India, I realized that almost all my preconceptions about the country were wrong. To gain insight into its culture, you must be ready to step beyond your comfort zone and withstand the unpredictable. In return, you’ll meet some of the most interesting people you’ll ever encounter and come to appreciate a different way of life.

I arrived in the country’s capital, Delhi, the former seat of the British Raj, which is home to nearly 17 million people. The city is well endowed with treasures from the Mogul era, including the Red Fort and Chandni Chowk, a sprawling open-air market that’s been operating since the 17th century.

On my first jet-lagged morning, I sat in amazement in the backseat of a car while my driver, a Sikh wearing a turban, somehow maneuvered his way through a frenzied traffic jam. Seven jumbled lanes of misaligned vehicles squished within three officially marked lines. As far as I could see, no rules of the road existed. A cacophony of honking horns seemed to announce simply, “I’m here.” Bicycles, rickshaws, motorcycles and hundreds of tiny Tok-Tok three-wheeled cars (occasionally overstuffed with people like clown cars at a circus) vied for space with regular-size vehicles, buses, trucks and ox carts. Every once in a while, a stray cow would wander onto the road. I’d been warned that traffic in Delhi is insane, but the extent of the madness still surprised me. 

Leave the city and the sensory overload abates. Southern India flourishes with green space; spice, tea and coffee plantations; wildlife preserves; rice fields; azure rivers; and ancient temples. Compared with northern India, the southern cities and villages are less densely populated and cleaner, though I wondered why people don’t pick up more trash.

To begin a southern sojourn, you fly from Delhi to central Bangalore or Chennai on the east coast. Tourists often overlook Chennai (formerly known as Madras), but it’s India’s fourth-largest city, the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu and a great jumping-off point for exploring the area’s impressive Hindu temples.

A short drive takes you to Mamallapuram, a beach town on the Bay of Bengal offering UNESCO World Heritage monuments. The Shore Temple complex has been partially ruined by salt air and seawater. It dates from around the eighth century, making it India’s oldest surviving architecture.

I was introduced to Hindu Gods, characters with stories that sound like soap operas. Two of the shore temples are adorned with sculptures dedicated to Lord Shiva and contain a Shiva lingam, a black column that is revered as a symbol of the energy and potentiality of God. I also visited a cave temple with a bas-relief implausibly carved from one block of granite, and chariot-shaped temples known as the five rathas. 

Tanjore and Madurai, both in Tamil Nadu, are famous pilgrim sites with temples that are more than a thousand years old. Madurai ranks among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities (more than two thousand years).

I purchased a silk sari and was encouraged to wear it to a temple celebration. A bit hesitant as a westerner with blond hair, I timidly took off my shoes and entered the sacred grounds. The security guards were so pleased with my outfit that they fixed the flow of my foreign gown and gave me a bindi—a dot in the middle of my forehead. Never have I experienced such an outpouring of friendship. Young and old came up to me, gave me flowers, welcomed and blessed me. I ended up sitting on the floor and discussing my grandchildren with Indian grandmothers.

During the time of British rule, more than a hundred years ago, bankers and financiers constructed opulent houses in Chettinad. Think Downton Abbey with an Indian staff. These houses played host to powerful members of the world’s princely, political and business communities. 

Since Chettinad lies just 60 miles from Tanjore, my guide and driver went out of their way to arrange accommodations at the finest heritage hotel. A stay at Chidambara Vilas offers an authentic luxury experience redolent of the pre-19th century era. The restored interior shines with polished ornate woodwork, period furniture and antique artwork, yet the guest rooms feature modern amenities. In the kitchen, chefs cook locally sourced ingredients using traditional techniques and guests are welcome to try their hand at creating spicy Chettiar cuisine.

The hotel’s exterior juxtaposes bold splashes of color against a white background while turrets and domes rise skyward, emblazoned with images of hundreds of gods and mythical scenes from Hindu epics. The architecture—a mix of opulent southern Indian and colonial styles—offers a striking contrast to the scene just across the road, where farmers drive oxen to plow a field.

The state of Kerala, nicknamed God’s Own Country, harkens with beautiful backwaters, rolling green hills, lagoons surrounded by date palms and rich traditions. Kerala is one of India’s most popular tourist destinations, especially for honeymooners. Alleppey, a town in Kerala, earns the moniker “Venice of the East” with 550 miles of canals and waterways, and it acts as the gateway for boarding traditional twine, wicker and bamboo houseboats.

Rent one of these luxury vessels to tour Kerala’s backwaters and you’ll be transported to a simpler way of life. A sign near the dock reads, “When you sail through the river of silence, that’s when you’ll hear your heart sing.” An overnight houseboat cruise delivers a grand aria. The thatched boats come with an open lounge; a kitchen; one, two or more air-conditioned bedrooms and baths; plus the crew of river pilots, a chef and an assistant. You can float down the waterway while waving to other boaters, glancing at colorful homes and churches and watching rice boats unload.

Arrange a canoe outing in the late afternoon and let the guide ease the craft through narrow channels so full of water lilies the motor might temporarily clog. Peek at women perched on low tree branches, fishing for the family dinner with a hook on a string. Others bathe children or scrub laundry in a canal. In Kerala, the waterways are life sustaining: the people live and work on the river banks, water taxis make regular runs like buses in a city, and canoes are used in place of autos.

At six o’clock all boat traffic stops. As the sun sets behind a silhouette of palms, houseboat chefs offer dinner—typically Keralan dishes like crab curry, fried karameen (a small local fish served whole), creamy diced beet salad, large-grained rice and coconut. (Kerala means “land of coconuts.”)

Nature is pristine and sublime here. You can fall asleep to sounds of lapping water and serenading frogs and birds. Awaken for sunrise and watch life return to these humble fishing villages. 

Drive through a valley, then up a -treacherous mountain road and be welcomed to Thekkady, a spice-trading community above the Malabar Coast. The town in the vibrant green rainforest balances on a sloping hill facing the Periyar Tiger Reserve. The area offers activities for varied interests: spice and tea plantation tasting tours, wildlife trekking in the national park, bamboo rafting, elephant rides, dance performances and, of course, shopping. Thekkady is the place to buy spices and order custom-fit Indian attire, ready for you the next day.

Kerala is renowned for Ayurvedic spas that incorporate ancient Hindu traditional methods to promote healthy living and reduce stress. However, Westerners should understand how Ayurvedic massages and treatments differ from those in America and Europe. The studios are no-frills with plain wooden tables, and lots of oil is dripped upon your body. A milk bath was a bucket of white liquid ladled over my head while I sat on a tiny three-legged stool. It may not qualify as an indulgence but it’s definitely memorable.

Don’t miss hiking through the Tiger Preserve with a ranger and climbing aboard a barebones bamboo raft on Periyar Lake.

The ranger stays on lookout for wildlife, though tigers remain elusive. As my craft approached the far end of the lake, the ranger shushed us and pointed to a mother elephant and calf wandering the distant shores. We quietly disembarked, and tiptoed as close as allowable. The group sat silently on the hillside as a collective spirit of awe grew from watching the wild pair.

Kochi, Kerala’s largest city, includes a fort plus some surprising Jewish history and a synagogue. Head down to the sea around sunset to survey Kochi’s famous Chinese Fishing Nets. Offer a tip to the fishermen to see how they operate. The beachside market sells the day’s catch—so fresh that some of the fish still breathe. Choose your dinner and runners will whisk it off to the local restaurant.

Kabini resides in the state of Karnataka,which borders Kerala, 60 miles southwest of Mysore. Perhaps nowhere else in India can you see so much wildlife. Nagarhole National Park was the exclusive hunting reserve of the former rulers of the Kingdom of Mysore. The restored lodges evoke a desire to see the past come to life.

The traditional people of the land, the Kuruba tribe, still live in the park. Nagarhole features 400 square miles of dense jungle and a lake with fantastic wildlife viewing. Safari sightings of elephants, spotted deer, wild boar, monkeys, gaurs and wild dogs are common.

If you’re lucky, a tiger or leopard will cross your path. Government-run Jeep safaris and boat trips—the only ways to tour the grounds—depart from Kabini River Lodge.

The Mysore Palace offered a fitting end to my trip, as it is one of India’s grandest buildings. Here, you can stroll through opulent halls and a stained-glass pavilion and past a solid-gold throne that weighs 440 pounds.

The annual festival in Mysore, Dussehra, is renowned for decorated elephants and grand processions. During the 10 days of the festival the city and palace are outlined with lights.

India presented me with unforgettable experiences, sights and flavors and filled me with a sense of creativity, adventure and wonder. I’m confident that a properly planned trip will do the same for you.


ACCOMMODATIONS (A): Luxury hotels are scattered across India. My favorite, Orange County in Kabini, is a five-star eco-resort built in Kuruba-village style. Another winner, Cardamom County in Thekkady, is a sprawling four-star property with excellent cuisine and connections to all area activities. Guest lodges dot the lush, hilly grounds. Then there’s ITC Raviz Kadavu, Kozhikode (aka Calicut or City of Spices), a five-star gateway to Malabar, where you can book a gorgeous room on the banks of the Chaliyar River; and Chidambara Vilas, a heritage hotel in Chettinand. 

CUISINE (A): Indian cuisine stands out for its blend of spices and herbs, slow cooking method and diverse array of regional dishes. Hotels invariably offer Western food, but often present Indian dishes in a buffet. Scoop up sauces with naan or other breads. Avoid ice and raw fruits and vegetables. Eat only cooked street foods and drink bottled water. Alcohol is available in major cities, but culturally unacceptable in much of India. Kingfisher beer is popular. 

ACTIVITIES (A): You can choose from an outstanding variety of adventures. Safaris are best in March and April, when waterholes are dry and animals visit the lakes. However, weather is more pleasant from November to March. Golf, boating and fishing are popular. Other options include cooking classes, Ayurvedic spa treatments and visits to spice and tea plantations, museums, markets, UNESCO World Heritage sites and ancient temples (where you’ll be far outnumbered by visiting Hindus). Five-star hotels offer in-house spas and escorted tours. 

Be sure to see India’s most famous landmark, the Taj Mahal in Agra. Hire a driver from Delhi and spend two nights if possible at the opulent ITC Mughal Hotel or the Oberoi Amarvilas. Visit the marble masterpiece at sunrise when it takes on a rosy hue and the inlaid gems sparkle. Don’t skip the museum. 


WHAT IT IS: India boasts one of South Asia’s richest cultures, many famous landmarks and unique cuisine. Its 1.2 billion people speak Hindi and English.

MONEY: U.S. currency and credit cards are widely accepted but carry some Indian rupees. Tip 5–10 percent in restaurants unless they add a service charge. Many hotels use a central tip box; leave 3–5 percent of the room rate at high-end places. 

CLIMATE: Peak tourist season is November through March with pleasant warm days and cool nights. April through June is hot—sometimes scorching. The monsoon sweeps from south to north between June and September. Many visitors go to see the torrid rains. In northern India, passes to Ladakh to the Himalaya are open from July through September. 

GETTING THERE: Direct flights leave major U.S. cities for Delhi and Mumbai. Consider flying Etihad Airways with a stopover in Abu Dhabi, then fly direct to such major Indian cities as Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Jaipur, Kochi, Kozhikrode and Trivadrum. Note that you’ll need a tourist visa to enter the country. Charter flight operators within the country include Taj Air and Air Charters India.

GETTING AROUND: If you’ve never been to India before, book a private guide and driver. An expert will determine your interests and travel style and work with local guides to arrange experiences you’d otherwise never be able to access. My expert comes highly recommended: Ranjit Vig with Caair Travels and American Express. 

FITTING IN: Jeans and shirts that cover shoulders are acceptable; avoid tight clothing. Saying “namaste” with hands together is a traditional greeting; handshakes or a small bow are also ok. Use only the right hand to exchange money or touch someone; the left hand is considered unclean.

Regular contributor Debi Lander wrote about Spain’s Balearic Islands for our August/September issue.