January 10 - 23, 2024
Open - Guaranteed
CELEBRATING SUN AND EARTH
Toto Tours has chosen for decades to visit various regions in India at times when we can observe and participate in one or more of its dazzling festivals. This particular tour has been organized so that our explorations of the Southern Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala coincide with the three-day Pongal Festival – a Harvest Festival thanking the Sun God for abundance in agricultural harvests. This is one of the major festivals celebrated by Tamil communities, and we join in the revelries while at the same time experiencing all the glories of this region – the massive temple complexes that make up India’s heart and soul, the verdant national parks and hill tea estates, and the lush backwaters of Kerala.
South India is one of the most relaxed and congenial parts of Asia to explore. Accommodations are wonderful, and freshly cooked, nutritious food is always on offer. The widespread use of English makes communication relatively easy. South Indians are extremely friendly and outgoing, deeply interested in getting to know visitors. Prepare to fall in love with the South India vibe!
Our journey begins in the Tamil Nadu state, whose capital is Chennai (formerly Madras). Tamil Nadu is known as the cradle of Dravidian culture, and the icons of this unique civilization are everywhere – huge temples, intricate rock carvings, evocative music and complex classical dances. We work our way south along the coast, exploring historic temples along the way, then gradually turn inland to the beautiful highlands with their colorful tea estates as we cross into lush and romantic Kerala.
Whether under a dazzling sun or a cloudy sky, the brilliant hues of South India – the riot of colors on the temple deities, red silk saris, shimmering classical dance costumes, luminescent green rice paddies, lush tea plantations and rainbow-hued frangipani flowers – astound with a kaleidoscopic display. Join us as we explore the architectural glories, natural wonders and unique cultural events in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. This is an unforgettable journey to another world!
COVID-19 VACCINATION POLICY:
All plans for this tour are made considering the COVID procedures in effect at the time of publication. Entry requirements and vaccination requirements are subject to change at any time without notice. Please be sure you comply with the latest India entry requirements at the time of departure. For the safety of our groups, we encourage our tour participants to be fully vaccinated, and current with their covid vaccines (including any recommended boosters) by one month prior to departure. We ask our travelers to provide us with their vaccination records four weeks prior to departure.
- Chennai, formerly known as Madras
- Dravidian art and architecture of Mahabalipuram
- Pondicherry and its French Quarter
- Auroville, and the unusual Sri Aurobindo Ashram
- Arts and handicrafts of Tanjore
- UNESCO Brihadeshwara Temple, a huge Chola temple
- Pongal Festival celebrations in a village with a local family
- Unique Pongal sport where crowds attempt to tame a bull
- Madurai, center of Tamil culture with the dazzling Meenakshi Temple
- Wildlife viewing in Periyar National Park
- Tea estates of Munnar
- Lakeside town of Kumarakom
- Vembanad Lake, Kerala’s largest freshwater lake
- Boating on the romantic backwaters of Kerala
- Kochi, beautiful port city formerly known as Cochin
- Martial arts show demonstrating the amazing Kalarai dance
- Kathakali Dance – the most classic dance of Kerala
Arrive in Chennai, India
Plan your flights to arrive tonight in Chennai. When searching for the best travel options, use the airport code MAA for the Chennai Madras International Airport. You will book a multi-city itinerary, returning from Kochi (airport code COK). Most flights arrive late tonight (or early tomorrow morning), so we have not planned any meals or group activities today. We’ll meet you at the airport and whisk you to our hotel for a good night’s sleep. Please let us know on your reservation form if you would like to book an additional night in Chennai to get over jet lag. Hotel check-in time is 2pm. If you arrive at 2am today, you will definitely want to reserve an extra night’s lodging so that your room is immediately available upon arrival at the hotel. (Meals Aloft)
Chennai Sightseeing / Mahabalipuram
Enjoy a relaxed morning to recuperate from the long flights. At 10:00am we check out and depart our hotel for a city tour of Chennai, formerly named Madras by the British. Our visit includes a walking tour of the Mylapore temple area visiting the 16th century Kapaleeshwarar Temple dedicated to Shiva. These are living temples where you will see local residents, as well as pilgrims who come from afar, in acts of devotion.
A look at the State Museum and National Art Gallery is followed by lunch at a local restaurant in Chennai. Then we continue our journey south to Mahabalipuram (also known as Mamallapuram). Along the way we visit Dakshina Chitra, a wonderfully conceived Folk Museum that showcases the rich architectural and artistic heritage of South India. All the traditional buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed with original materials and the exhibitions express many craft traditions. There are also some artists demonstrating their traditional crafts.
Upon arrival, check-in at our lovely resort hotel. This evening is at leisure. Welcome Dinner at “The Wharf” Restaurant, and overnight in Mahabalipuram. (Breakfast / Lunch / Welcome Dinner)
Mahabalipuram / Sunset at the Seashore
After a leisurely breakfast we visit the Government College of Sculpture to gain insight into the process of creating the elaborate sculptures that adorn the temples of South India.
Next, we visit the world-famous India Seashell Museum. More than 40,000 different kinds of seashells collected from all over the world are on display. Some are as small as coriander seeds! The complex also includes a Pearl Museum, a virtual reality show and an aquarium.
Returning to our resort, we enjoy free time and lunch on our own. Highly recommended is an appointment with the Doctor Fish, guaranteed to make you giggle uncontrollably.
This afternoon we visit a place considered the glittering jewel in the crown of Tamil Nadu – the area at the seaside containing temples and stone carvings that are among the most outstanding examples of Dravidian art and architecture. The are so important as to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These are the remnants of the Pallava Kings, who were at the height of their power and artistic creativity from the fifth to eighth centuries CE. Our visit will include the Five Rathas, Ajuna’s Penance and the Shore Temple just before sunset.
The Five Rathas are an exemplary set of rock temples. They are excellent examples of the evolution of Dravidian style architecture. They are built in the same shape as pagodas, and greatly resemble Buddhist shrines and monasteries. The temples are associated with the great epic, the Mahabharata.
Arjuna's Penance is an enormous rock-cut relief, one of the largest in the whole world. It is also known by the name 'Descent of the Ganges' because the structure depicts either or both of these two significant and symbolic events of Hindu mythology, making this spot a favourite among historians, scholars and academics as well as tourists.
Shore Temple: Built during the 7th century, Shore Temple is one of the oldest South Indian temples constructed in the Dravidian style and depicts the royal taste of the Pallava dynasty. Its beauty is even more exquisite at sunset. After the sun has gone down, we return to our resort for dinner and overnight. (All Meals)
PondicherryAfter breakfast we check out and begin our journey to Pondicherry (120km / 2.5hrs). Officially known as Puducherry, it is most often simply referred to as “Pondy.” It is one of the seven Union Territories of India which are bounded by the southern state of Tamil Nadu. This former French colony is a perfect amalgamation of traditional Indian sensibilities and French architecture, making it a dreamy escape that offers the best of both worlds. The streets of the French Quarter of Pondicherry, also known as White Town, are dotted with charming mustard-yellow colonial structures with bougainvillaea laden walls. These are interspersed with cosy cafes and chic boutiques that offer delectable French cuisine and beverages. We’ll have free time in White Town for lunch on your own.
This afternoon we visit Sri Aurobindo’s Ashram (a meditation centre), founded by the poet philosopher Sri Aurobindo, and the golden Mata Mandir, a center of meditation and an architectural marvel in Auroville. Afterwards, we go to Auroville Beach, popularly known among the locals as “Auro Beach.” It offers a picturesque landscape with the crystal blue waters and a phenomenal sunrise and sunset. Overnight in Puducherry. (Breakfast / Dinner)
Today we drive to Tanjore (180km / 5hrs). Also called Thanjavur, the city flourished during the rule of the Nayaks & Mahrattas. It has been the treasure house of art for centuries. It is also considered the Rice Bowl of Tamil Nadu for its many rice fields. Thanjavur is well-known throughout the world for its exquisite handicrafts like art plates, pith work, bronze icons, Thanjavur paintings, and classical South Indian musical instruments. We enjoy lunch enroute at Kumbakonam.
In the late afternoon, we visit the Brihadeshwara Temple, also known as the Big Temple. It was built by Rajaraja Chola I and was completed around 1010 CE. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a brilliant example of the Dravidian Style of temple architecture. The beautiful Chola fresco paintings on the inner walls of the temple are no less beautiful than the famous Ajanta paintings. We check in at our riverside resort for dinner and overnight in Tanjore. (All Meals)
Pongal Festivities / Madurai
This morning we visit a small village near Tanjore to observe and participate in Pongal festival celebrations with a local family, including lunch. This second day of the three-day festival is the main day of Pongal . On this day, the Sun God is honoured. Colourful decorative floor patterns called kolam are drawn at the entrance of each home, and each household cooks a pot of fresh rice with milk at an auspicious time. As the milk boils freely over the pot, family members shout out happily “Pongalo Pongal”! After the Pongal is offered to the Sun God, we feast on several Pongal dishes that are prepared especially for the day.
Later we leave for Madurai (190km / 5 hrs) via Trichy, with a quick view of the Rock Fort Temple if time permits. Madurai is a center of Tamil culture, famous for its writers and poets. Its history goes back to the 6th century BCE. The Nayakas laid out the old town in the pattern of a lotus with narrow streets surrounding the Meenakshi Temple at the center. Upon arrival at our hotel, the remainder of the day is free for independent activities. Dinner is at the hotel restaurant. Overnight in Madurai. (All Meals)
After breakfast we attend Jallikattu, a traditional sport of Tamil Nadu that is celebrated on the third day of Pongal. The history of this “bullfight” dates back to 400-100 BCE when it was played by the Ayars, an ethnic group in India. The name is coined from two words, Jalli (silver and gold coins) and Kattu (tied). A bull is let loose among a crowd of people and whoever tames it will get the coins tied to its horn. The people who participate in the sport try to hold on to the animal’s hump to stop it. Sometimes, they run along with the bull.
We return to the hotel for lunch on our own and to enjoy some free time. In the afternoon we tour Sri Meenakshi Sundereshwara Temple. This is a living temple, complete with temple elephants, and each shrine has priests performing rituals. The temple was built in the Dravidian style of temple architecture. The Gopurams are covered from top to bottom with profuse multi-colored images of gods, goddesses, animals, and mythical figures. The main temple has long galleries and large halls supported by columns. The Hall of 1000 Columns has musical pillars. We will also visit the museum that displays temple architecture, and the Tirumalai Nayak Palace, built in 1636 in the Indo-Mughal style. The original complex had an armory, a theatre, royal quarters and a shrine. It is our chance to enjoy this fascinating place with ample time to meander inside and see the details without the large crowds and frenzy we will encounter when we return tonight.
This evening we return to Sri Meenakshi Temple using auto-rickshaws to witness the nightly spiritual ceremony (pooja) in which Lord Shiva is carried in a palanquin and accompanied by musicians, temple singers and priests to the temple of his consort, Parvati, to spend the night. He is brought back to his temple in the morning. This is all performed with great ceremony and devotion, and it is truly a privilege to witness this nightly ritual. Later we enjoy dinner at a rooftop restaurant. Overnight in Madurai. (Breakfast / Dinner)
After breakfast we drive to Thekkady (150km / 4hrs), location of the Periyar National Park and an enormous lake formed by a dam built by the British back in 1895. After checking in at our hotel and taking a break for lunch, we enjoy a boat cruise on Lake Periyar to view wildlife. This area is home to bison, sambars, wild boars, monkeys, nilgiri langurs, a wide variety of birds, and some 750 elephants that frequent the shore at sunset. Overnight in Thekkady. (Breakfast / Dinner)
After breakfast we check out and drive to Munnar (100km / 3.5hrs), situated at the confluence of three mountain streams - Mudrapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundala. At 5,250 feet above sea level, this hill station was once the summer resort of the erstwhile British Government in South India. En route we’ll stop at a water fall for photography.
Upon arrival we check in at our hotel and have lunch and some free time. In the late afternoon we commence a trek with our in-house naturalist, who guides us through the tea plantations all the way up to the Attukad waterfalls. On the way you will encounter people from the local community at work delicately plucking tea leaves that are sufficiently developed for harvesting. In the distance we enjoy the beautiful sight of the waterfalls dropping like a stream of milk over the rocks. Overnight in Munnar. (All Meals)
This morning we enjoy a half-day sightseeing tour of Munnar, including visits to the Mattupetty Dam, Eco Point, Tea Estates and Tea Museum, returning to the hotel for lunch.
This afternoon we take a wildlife sighting expedition to Eravikulam National Park, which is a 30-minute drive from Munnar town. We’ll be on the lookout for the main attraction of this park, the ‘Nilgiri Tahr’ – a rare species of mountain goat which is protected here. We return to our hotel for dinner and overnight. (All Meals)
Depart to Kumarakom (150km / 5hrs), an unbelievably beautiful paradise of mangrove forests, emerald green paddy fields and coconut groves interspersed with enchanting waterways and canals adorned with white lilies. Situated on Vembanad Lake, this small water world has plenty of traditional country boats, crafts and canoes which will take you to the heart of scenic Kerala. Upon arrival we check into our hotel and the remainder of the day is free for independent activities and enjoyment of our beautiful hotel’s facilities, from private boat tours to relaxing massages. Lunch & dinner are at our hotel’s restaurant. (All Meals)
After breakfast we take a short drive to Alleppy to board a traditional rice boat for a day of cruising on the backwaters of Kerala. A series of canals thread their way through the area to the sea, and they provide a glimpse of life in Kerala that is impossible to get from land transport. Along the way we pass rice fields, tiny villages, boats transporting children to school, farmers transporting their produce to market, and women completing household tasks such as laundry and washing utensils. We disembark from the boat to wander through villages and interact with the people. The "kettuvolloms" or rice boats are made completely of natural material. A hot lunch is served on board. After a day spent in paradise, we return to our hotel for dinner on our own. This evening we have arranged for a special martial arts show (Kalari Dance performance) at the hotel. (Breakfast / Lunch)
After breakfast we make the two-hour drive to Cochin, an historic port city with trade connections to ports in the Middle East, Mediterranean, Europe, Holland and England. It has one of the finest natural harbours in the world. Its cosmopolitan character is reflected in the buildings and structures representing different cultures that have had influence here. Upon arrival we check-in at our hotel and take some free time for lunch on our own.
This afternoon, enjoy a half-day sightseeing tour comprising an easy walk around the heritage zone. We visit St. Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was buried for 14 years before his remains were transferred to Lisbon. His tombstone still stands there. The church was built in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars. Nearby is the Mattancherry Palace or "Dutch Palace” built in 1557 AD. The central hall on the 1st floor was the coronation hall of the rajas of Cochin. Other rooms depict scenes from the Ramayana and Puranic Legends connected with Hindu gods. Next we visit the waterfront fish markets and see the Chinese Fishing Nets along Vypeen Island, set up between 1350 - 1450 CE. These cantilevered fishing nets were introduced by traders from the courts of Kublai Khan.
Before dinner tonight we attend a performance of the famous Kathakali Dance, arriving early to get a back-stage view of the performers applying their elaborate make-up. After the show we celebrate the conclusion of our South India tour with a Farewell Dinner at a wonderful restaurant in the heritage zone. Overnight in Kochi. (Breakfast / Farewell Dinner)
Synagogue / Shopping / Departure
We depart the hotel at 9 am for a tour of the Jewish Synagogue, constructed in 1568 CE, with hand-painted willow-pattern floor tiles brought from Canton in the mid-18th century by a Rabbi who had trading interests there. Afterwards you’ll have time to browse the nearby market area, including its well-known antique shops. We return to the hotel for lunch on our own and the remainder of the day is free for independent activities.
We have arranged a 9pm late check-out tonight since most flights depart Cochin very late. Arrange your return flight for any convenient time tonight. If your flight doesn’t leave until morning or afternoon tomorrow, let us know and we can extend your reservation for the full night tonight. Toto Tours will arrange for your transportation to the international airport in time to connect with your departing flight. (Breakfast)
EASY TO MODERATE WALKING
This Toto Tours Cultural and Scenic Expedition is accessible and suitable to all those with good health and who are able to walk 2-3 hours without much carrying. This tour is based on moderate city walking for several hours daily. Walks in the rock temples, hill stations, and nature hikes will be more active with some gain and decrease in elevation and possible uneven surfaces. We recommend you commence a daily walking and stair-climbing regimen well in advance of this tour to boost your endurance and enhance your ability to enjoy this adventure to the fullest extent.
Entry Requirements - For U.S. citizens, a valid passport and a visa for travel to India are required. Your passport needs to have six more months of validity from the date of entry. You must enter with either a paper visa, or an e-tourist visa. The e-tourist visa is easy to obtain at this website: https://india.visaonlinegov.org/apply-visa
Immunizations & Health - As of May 19, 2023, there are no longer any Covid-related entry requirements applicable for US Citizens. Testing on entry/quarantine may apply based on random testing upon arrival (2% of incoming passengers will be screened). No other immunizations are required, but the U.S. Center for Disease Control strongly recommends the following inoculations: tetanus, hepatitis A & B, typhoid, and Japanese encephalitis. Please check out their website at: http://www.cdc.gov/travel/indianrg.htm for complete details. You should only drink boiled or bottled water in India. Avoid cut salads, raw vegetables and fruits without skin everywhere except in hotel restaurants.Exit Requirements - Your airport departure tax will be included in the cost of your international airline ticket. Please check the requirements for entry to your final destination. As of this writing there are no longer any Covid-related tests or documents required for re-entry to the USA.
Making Travel Arrangements to India
International airfare is not included in your tour price. You will need to purchase your international air to and from New Delhi, India. We encourage you to work with Steven Goldberg at Frosch Travel in Chicago, who can help you choose the best flights to meet the following requirements.
Arrive at the Chennai International Airport on Wednesday, January 10, 2024. The airport code is MAA. Hotel services are paid beginning at 3pm that day, so keep that in mind as you plan your arrival. If you land at 1am on that day, you will want to book an additional night so that your room is ready for you when you reach the hotel. Schedule your departure from the Kochi International Airport (COK) late at night on Tuesday, January 23, 2024. You have hotel services until late that night. If your flight doesn’t leave until sometime on the morning of January 24, we can arrange a full night at our hotel for an additional fee.
Steven Goldberg / Frosch Travel
Toll-Free in USA: 1-800-323-1276
International guests, please call +1-312-371-9686
When calling, please identify yourself as a Toto Tours participant. If you leave a message on Steven’s voice mail, he will return your call promptly. He will be happy to discuss your travel plans and help you decide when to purchase your ticket for the best rate.
NOTE: The recent trend in travel is for travelers to finalize their plans much closer to departure time than was customary in the past. While we try to be as flexible as possible, we often must turn away last-minute registrants because we relinquish hotel space and any internal air reservations 8 – 12 weeks prior to departure! Please keep this in mind when making your travel plans.
WHAT TO BRING
The dry season (December - March) is the ideal time of year to visit southern India. These are the reliable months to visit India as a whole, but especially for exploring the calmer southern states at a comfortable temperature ranging between 68-86°F. Please pack light and limit yourself to no more than one suitcase and a carry-on bag. Pack medications in your carry-on just in case your suitcase doesn’t arrive when you do. We suggest leaving expensive jewelry at home!
Suggested Packing List:
- Proof of citizenship. Passport required.
- Lightweight slacks for city sightseeing and evening meals
- Shorts for hiking or excursions on warm days
- Socks and underwear for several days (laundry service readily available at all hotels)
- Sweater and/or windbreaker
- Rain jacket / umbrella
- Comfortable walking shoes
- T-shirts / polo shirts / short-sleeved shirts (4 - 5)
- Casual long-sleeved shirts (3 or 4)
- Sunscreen / lip balm / sunglasses / sun hat
- Personal toiletries
- Electrical Adapter. The electricity supply in India is 220 Volts/50 Hertz. Click here to see examples of the outlets you will encounter, and the plugs you will need.
- A good book for the long flights.
MONEY MATTERSThe currency unit in India is the Rupee (INR). As of May 19, 2023, the interbank exchange rate was 82 INR to the U.S. $1.00. ATMs are readily available in the major cities and they offer the best exchange rate for obtaining local currency. Credit cards are also widely accepted in establishments catering to tourists. Click here to see the most up-to-date exchange rate.
Tipping Guidelines: Tipping is customary and expected of foreign tourists by service providers in India. Here is an excellent guide for how much to tip in various situations. We will give group tips at appropriate times throughout the tour, and guidelines concerning this will be sent to you prior to departure.
THE TOTO SPIRITToto Tours provides Adventure Travel Experiences as differentiated from tours in the traditional sense. Adventure Travel allows (even encourages) you to be an active participant. Adventurers can be identified by certain traits. They are:
- fun-loving optimists who have a sense of humor and accentuate the positive;
- good natured realists who are willing to accept situations as they exist;
- undaunted by the unexpected, like occasional delays or bad weather;
- willing to forego some of the amenities we normally take for granted;
- eager to try new things & test limits;
- not whiners!
Travel InsuranceWe recommend you purchase travel insurance with Travel Guard to cover for unforeseen events prior to and during your trip. Please click on the image or link below or call us for more information.
(tour prices per person)Price: $4,500 in double occupancy hotel accommodations
Single Supplement: $1,200 additional, for a total tour price of $5,700
(Due at time of registration for the tour. May be paid with a credit card.)
Remaining Balance : $3,900 double / $5,100 single
Remaining Balance Due: October 23, 2023 (80 days prior to departure)
(Full payment required with reservation form if enrolling after this date.)
Included: Private greeting and transfer to hotel upon arrival; private transfer to airport in Kochi for departure; full time tour leader; full time English-speaking guide; private vehicle and driver; 13 nights hotel accommodations plus late check-out the day of departure; hotel breakfasts daily plus Welcome & Farewell Dinners and other meals as specified in the itinerary; bottled mineral water during sightseeing excursions and long drives; sightseeing activities and entrances as listed in the itinerary; fully guided and escorted tour.
Not Included: International round-trip airfare to Chennai (MMA) and returning from Kochi (COK); ground transportation for sightseeing on your own (taxis, local guides, etc.); meals and optional activities not specifically listed in the itinerary; camera fees; alcoholic beverages; insurance; laundry, telephone calls, faxes, or any other expenses of a personal nature. Tips to drivers and guides and other conveyance attendants are not included; tipping guidelines for our group tips will be provided prior to departure.
Click hotel name to read description
- Chennai (1 night) Radisson Blu City Centre (Superior Room)
- Mahabalipuram (2 nights) – Raddison Blu Temple Bay Resort (Garden Room)
- Pondicherry (1 night) Accord Puducherry (Superior Room)
- Tanjore (1 night) – Great Trails River View Resort (River View Room)
- Madurai (2 nights) – Heritage Madurai (Deluxe Club Room)
- Periyar (1 night) – Cardamom County by Xandari (Periyar Cottage)
- Munnar (2 nights) – Blanket Hotels & Spa (Blanket Camellia Room)
- Kumarakom (2 nights) – The Zuri Kumarakom (Deluxe Room)
- Kochi (1.5 nights) – Eighth Bastion (Bastion Room)
- Late check-out at 9pm on January 23, 2024