The two southernmost states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala perfectly depict the contrasting nature of India. Seeing them on two wheels gives us an excellent opportunity to soak up the rich culture and appreciate the different landscapes as we cycle by. Tamil Nadu sees far fewer visitors than other Indian states, but this is part of the attraction as we follow quiet backroads from the fertile coastal plains in the east to the remarkable hills of the Western Ghats, which form the border with Kerala. Our ride takes us past some of the most impressive sites of southern India, including the former French colony of Pondicherry and the magnificent Sri Meenakshi Temple at Madurai. After cycling through the cooler highlands and tea estates of the Western Ghats, we reach the tranquil backwaters of Kerala, where a relaxing houseboat cruise offers the chance to unwind and reflect on a memorable journey.
Those who are on the group flights will land in Chennai early in the morning. Those not on the group flights will need to be at the airport when the group land if they would like to join the group transfer. Once everyone has arrived we will then depart on the 3.5 hour drive to Pondicherry with a break at Mahabalipuram which is famous for its shore temples and rock carvings. Carving in stone is still a living art here and we will see stonemasons chipping away along the roadside, practicing skills that have flourished for centuries. On arrival in Pondicherry we assemble the bikes and explore this former French colony, a short 6km ride, before an evening briefing about our cycling adventure.
Circular ride to Auroville, a new-age spiritual commune. Founded in 1968 by 'The Mother' and named after her Guru Sri Aurobindo, it offers a more balanced way of living. Revitalized by some earthly fruit juices, we ride the 15km back into town, seeing some fishing communities and cycling along the promenade, which still retains some of its Gallic charm. Depending on time, lunch may be at Auroville or back in Pondicherry, and the rest of the day is free to explore.
Starting from our hotel, we ride out of Pondicherry and soon leave the bustle of the city for quiet backroads, experiencing rural life where simple mud huts contrast with the brightly coloured saris worn by the local women. This is the real India and in true Indian style we stop at a roadside restaurant for a tea break. Back on our bikes we cycle another 66km to Chidambaram. Staying in the grand mansion of the village we sleep in the extended family villa with its own temple its almost like stepping back in time.
Scenic morning ride following quiet roads and tracks along the banks of the Cauvery River to Thanjavur. Previously a capital between the 9th and 13th Centuries, it regained its status under the Nayaks in the 16th Century who rebuilt the Royal Palace, Durbar Hall and libraries. After lunch, we take a vehicle transfer to the Thanjavur Hotel. Late afternoon we visit the palace which houses one of the finest collections of bronze sculptures and stone carvings in southern India and the famous vegetable market at Tanjore followed by a visit to the huge Brihadishwara Temple, one of the largest in India and known locally as simply the 'Big Temple'.
Leaving the city by the old road, we head out into the Tamil Nadu heartland, visiting the oldest clay horse temple en route, to an area renowned for its impressive mansions built by wealthy traders known as Chettiars. Some of these palatial houses have been converted to boutique hotels, offering a glimpse of the past. The grand interiors of Burmese teak and elaborate plaster work retain much of the traditional architecture of a bygone age. But it's from the kitchens tucked away at the rear of the house that the real flavour of India comes to life: Chettinad cuisine is as traditional as its buildings, the piquant curries are slow cooked in copper pots over a wood stove and are as memorable as the ride to get here.
Today we have a scenic ride to Madurai. Another rocky outcrop is the sacred abode of Lord Murugan, the son of Shiva and also know as Skanda, the most revered god in Tamil Nadu. Staying at Madurai we avoid the worst of the busy traffic.
Morning free to explore the old city and Sri Meenakshi Temple, one of the largest temple complexes in India and one of the highlights of Tamil Nadu. Thousands of huge stone pillars line the hallways, each adorned with different deities, are said to represent the 3,333,333 gods of the Hindu cosmos. A constant flow of worshipers, offering pujas, (rituals performed by the temple priests to the various deities) add to the heady atmosphere of incense and camphor smoke, and make this an unforgettable experience of Hindu culture. Blessed, we leave the heat of Madurai for the cool air of the Cardamom Hills. We transfer by vehicle to our lunch stop at Theni. After lunch we will be dropped off at Cambam, from where we ride to Kumily. Hidden behind the banana plantation are the vineyards of southern India's new venture into wine making. These give way to the forested slopes of the Western Ghats and a slow but beautiful ascent up through the rainforest to Thekkaday, a small town close to the entrance of Periyar National Park and our accommodation for the next two nights.
Today is free to relax or go on one of the trekking and boat safaris to the nearby Periyar National Park. Centred around a man-made reservoir, it is possible to see wildlife all year round, although the best time is the dry season (March-May) when herds of elephant come to the lake to graze by the shore; if you are very lucky you may even see a leopard or tiger coming down to quench their thirst.
Riding from the hotel we cycle through cardamom and tea estates, stopping mid-morning for tea and to visit the local tea factory, learning more about the tea making process. Refreshed, we continue along hilly tea plantation roads with a lunch break at a small roadside restaurant en route to Vagamon, an area of outstanding natural beauty and one of the most scenic roads in Kerala. We end the ride with a superb winding descent on a quiet road and stay at an old plantation bungalow.
Today we ride through rubber and spice plantations en route to Kottayam, known as the Syrian Christian heartland of Kerala. Here grand churches dot the landscape and we break at Palai to visit St Thomas Church, its white washed facade and distinct gilded ceiling predates its Portuguese renovation. All roads converge into Kottayam City, and we avoid the city by following country roads and stop for a lunch break at Erttumanoor Town. Then entering a world in which the author Arundhati Roy set in her book 'The God of Small Things', close to the shore of Vembanad Lake.
Free morning to relax and enjoy the lake view; or ride to the nearby Kumarakom bird sanctuary and then take a sightseeing ride along the shore of the lake. Midday we board our houseboats for a stunning backwater cruise. The houseboats, converted rice barges now come with a captain, cook and crew; we just sit back, sip long drinks and watch the world go by.
In the middle of the morning we disembark at Muhamma. Riding along the backroad we cross over to the coastal road to the Arthingal Beach for our first view of the Arabian Sea, and finally know that we've cycled across India from coast to coast. We then ride on to Fort Cochin for lunch.
A free day to explore the town of Cochin, its bazaars and old harbour area. Warehouses filled with the smell of tea and spices are limewashed bright green, yellow and blue; rickety old bikes and handpainted trucks piled high with goods, fill the narrow streets and food stalls stand on every corner. Further along the road we come to Mattancherry and the Dutch Palace. Next to the Palace is the synagogue, built in 1568 for the Jewish members of Cochin's trading communities, adorned with hand-painted tiles from China and elegant Belgian chandeliers, all donations from wealthy merchants. The area around the synagogue is excellent for shopping. For food, try the fish market near the Chinese fishing nets, where you can buy the day's catch and have it cooked to your own taste. There are also plenty of shopping opportunities here.
If you are on the group flight you will have an early morning transfer to the airport for the flight back to London. Those not flying with the group will leave us at the hotel in Cochin.