We arrived in Chennai after an easy four-hour Emirates flight from Dubai and were met by the Raintree Hotel staff. We then had an excellent dinner of kebabs at the sophisticated Roof Top restaurant of the hotel and soaked up the upper-class Chennai society.
Top tip: We stayed at the St Mary's Road branch of the Raintree.
Akila, our guide from Storytrails, was waiting for us to finish our South Indian breakfast so we could begin our private tour of Mylapore in Old Chennai. We visited the Kapaleeshwar Temple, which dates back 400 years or so, and were enthralled by stories of why women whispered into Nandi the Bull's ear, why they tied sacred thread and toy cradles around trees considered holy and were even lucky enough to see some idols being brought out from their enclosures under great palanquins with great ceremony.
Top tip: Don't miss going to the back of the temple to take in the shoals of huge catfish! Also go for a lazy lunch to Tuscana, an Italian restaurant on Wallace Garden Road just off Khader Nawaz Khan Road (which has some very classy shops — think Tommy Hilfiger).
Christopher, our driver, was ready to take us to Pondicherry (called "Pondy" by the locals) with a few detours!
Top tip and the first detour: Spend some time (and money) at the chic shopping complex at 85 Chamiers Road before heading out of Chennai. (They even have an eco café and a bookshop on the top floor.)
We included a quick stop at Dakshinchitra (South Indian crafts complex) and then had lunch at The Fisherman's Cove Hotel by the sea on the East Coast road — sublime prawn curry and local refreshments, even the kids were delighted to eat some home-made chicken and chips. We managed to make time for a quick stop for photos at Arjuna's Penance and the Shore Temple monuments before heading for Pondy.
Top tip: Buy a book and postcard of Arjuna's Penance from a local tout and try to spot all the aspects of this historic sculpture — the kids loved doing this.
We enjoyed another South Indian breakfast on the terrace of our hotel, Maison Perumal (the House of Vishnu) in the Tamil quarter. This is a chic boutique hotel decorated with Indian historical prince prints and a bar full of retro Bollywood paraphernalia but the interiors and furnishings are French — a perfect blend of French and Tamil! There was no request that was too great for Dinu, the general manager of the hotel, who quickly became a friend, took us shopping and organised an erudite French-English-speaking guide for our trip to Auroville.
Top tip: Try the quiche or any food at the Auroville Café — it's better than many European equivalents. Refreshments that evening at Hotel De L'Orient preceded a delicious seafood dinner at Maison Perumal. Oh, I forgot — don't miss seeing Lakshmi the elephant at the town temple next to the women selling flowers.
The long journey to Chettinad, specifically Kanadukathan, after a stop to take a look at the Big Temple at Thanjavur, led us to our next hotel, Visalam. Given as a dowry gift to Vishali, the daughter of a Chettiyar family, this has now been restored to an 11-bedroom Art Deco mansion hotel by CGH Earth. Do savour all the amazing meals served by the hotel — beetroot cutlets and Chettinad lamb are favourites with us now!
We spent an amazing day visiting mansions, seeing how sarees are woven and riding bikes — but the most mesmerising bit was the trip to the Athangadi tile factory, from where handmade tiles using Athangadi cement are sent to various parts of India. Many of the patterns I saw reminded me of hallways in Edwardian houses in England.
Oh, and you must swim in the cool swimming pool of the hotel.
We couldn't head to Thekkady without paying homage to the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai. Moreover, as it was our wedding anniversary, we ended up doing the married-couple-blessing-thing with everyone else there! It was not an easy drive from there and we were grateful to our driver for insisting we get a guide for this temple, which was nominated for the ten wonders of the world. In Thekkady, we were hit by the cooler, greener, calmer surroundings and shivered in our summery, cotton clothes.
The tour of the Spice Village at Thekkady with the Tiger Club leader was informative, fun-filled and free. Many know that pepper is the king of spices but did you know that cardamom is the queen?
Right from the fruit and vegetable gardens and the mushroom sheds to the recycled paper plant and the compost factory, there is only one word that describes all activities in this resort — "organic".
Top tip: Make sure you buy spices in bulk from the shops on the road outside the resort to take back home. Oh, and don't forget warmer clothes for this region.
On to Kumarakom, Kerala's backwater city, and the Coconut Lagoon on Lake Vembanad. The children loved arriving at the reception by boat (or kettuvelam in Malayalam). We splashed about a bit and stayed at the pool villas. Don't miss the free early-morning yoga classes in an enclosure that has thin gauze netting for walls and views of the lake and a butterfly sanctuary. With the only sound being that of birds, how can one not feel calm?
Top tip: If there is anything you would like to eat that's not in the lunch buffet, the chefs will make it for you free of charge.
The last stop was at an old converted shipyard, the Hotel Brunton Boatyard in Fort Kochi. Sightseeing in the old town was easy and a walk down the Old Jewish Quarter was interesting, especially because of its crafts shops and old temple. The best bit about Fort Kochi, however, was lunch at the Malabar House, an überchic boutique hotel.
On the morning we were to take an Emirates flight back to Dubai from Kochi, I was impressed by how efficient the Kochi airport was!
Top tip: The airport has a great bookshop. I picked up three copies of Following Fish: Travels around the Indian coast by Samanth Subramanian, as gifts for the Londoners back home!
We reached Dubai in three and a half hours with a lifetime's worth of memories. Go and see for yourself — it's Incredible India indeed!
— Monica Kapila is a UAE-based freelance writer