Family holidays in India

From Chennai to Kochi, Monica Kapila and crew take a 10-day road trip

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Chennai

After a pleasant four-hour direct flight, we arrive in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, where I’ve pre-booked a child-friendly tour – known as the Peacock Tour – of Old Chennai that takes in the 400-year-old Kapaleeshwar Temple and the area of Mylapore. The cameras never stop clicking as our brilliant English-speaking guide focuses completely on the kids (I have to interrupt to ask a question). The girls are particularly fascinated by a large white marble statue of a bull into whose ears women would whisper their wishes, believing they would come true. Our two listen avidly as the guide explains why young women tie sacred thread around a holy tree (to ensure a good husband) and later return to attach toy cradles (to make sure they have a child). The nearby houses are hundreds of years old and it’s in one of these that the girls practice drawing Kolums (Indian chalk patterns that decorate thresholds of a home) on the patio and also have a go at using a giant grinding stone to crush up coriander and other herbs.

Stay… at the eco-friendly Raintree Hotel, St Mary’s Road branch.
Eat… kebabs and chicken tikka on the roof of the hotel while soaking up upper class Chennai society.


Pondicherry

Christopher, our driver, is ready bright and early to take us to Pondicherry, an old French, Tamil port. Here, a guide, organised by our hotel, takes us to meet Laxshmi, the resident elephant at a local temple which is decorated with flowers, chalk patterns and jewellery and tame enough for the kids to touch. They see traditional ways of decorating paper and, mesmerised by the swirls and patterns made by multi-coloured inks in the large, flat, liquid trays, they create their own works of art. After learning all about the Aurobindo Ashram and Auroville (a self-sustaining international community with yoga and meditation at its centre) it’s time for some exercise. We ignore the groans and grumbles and trek to the grand meditation hall at the centre of Auroville, where we all agree that the giant golf ball-shaped dome made from 80kg of gold is impressive. Pondicherry is also a great place to buy souvenirs, with handmade soaps and pretty cloth notebooks topping the list of pocket money purchases.

Stay… at the Maison Perumal, which offers an excellent seafood platter.
Eat… your fill at the vegetarian, organic canteen in Auroville and try Hotel de L’Orient in town for drinks and dinner on the elegant terrace.


Chettinad

Our drive to Chettinad is definitely on the arduous side (around five hours with one break) but a stop at the impressive Big Temple (yes, that’s its name) in Thanjore along the way is well worth it, and the mansion hotel Visalam is a glorious sight at the end of a long day. The kids find our cavernous Art Deco hotel (we’re the only guests) a bit on the scary side, but soon get used to the fabulous food (all cooked to order and usually four whopping courses) and the staff, who treat us all like long-lost friends. A local resident is our guide for the day and takes us to see cotton sarees woven the old-fashioned way on wooden looms. We can’t resist the craft shop where we buy brightly-coloured sarees to use as table cloths and to turn into cushion covers back home in Dubai. We stop at a local tile factory where the process of producing a hand-painted tile from cement to finished product captivates the kids from start to finish before heading back for a refreshing dip in the hotel’s gorgeous Tuscan-style pool. While everyone naps, I head to the kitchen to learn to cook some Chettinad favourites from resident chef Shiva. Our relaxing stay ends with a leisurely bike ride, taking in the Chettinad mansions and observing the calmness of real village life up close.

Stay… at the Hotel Visalam – a beautifully restored, 11-bedroom mansion in the village of Kanadukathan, Kariakudi.
Eat… all your meals at the hotel itself: breakfast on the pool terrace, lunch in the enormous kitchen and dinner on the upper verandah.


Kerala

Time to don jerseys and socks as Kerala is much cooler than Tamil Nadu, but we love observing the greenery, acres of paddy fields and monkeys along the way. We head to the spice village, high up in Thekkady – a resort which prides itself on its organic and fresh produce. Taking an informative (and free) tour of the property, we explore the organic vegetable farm and the recycled paper plant. The kids are naturally fascinated by the compost stop, where we see special worms eat away at all types of food waste to eventually create organic fertiliser. Then it’s all aboard as we travel by boat to our next hotel, Coconut Lagoon, where we’re happy to say ‘goodbye’ to our car for a couple of days. The pool villas (it’s worth spending the extra to stay at these) are blissfully peaceful with vast lakes behind and in front, so we kick back, relax and watch backwater life happen outside our door.

Stay… at the green Spice Village Resort, Kumily Road in Thekkady, before heading to the lakeside Coconut Lagoon.
Eat… breakfast and dinner at Spice Village. Don’t miss the huge array of impressive homemade organic pickles and chutneys, while the kids will love the conical, clown hat dosas for breakfast! Try out some of the local cafés serving simple South Indian food along the Kumily Road for lunch. At Coconut Lagoon, you must try the delicious CurryMeen or Pearl Spot fish at the hotel’s buffet, where the chef will gladly rustle up anything that’s not already on offer.


Kochi

Last stop, historic Kochi, where we stay at a converted boatyard. Taking a long walk in the old quarter, we linger over craft shops before a fabulous lunch at Malabar House, an incredibly chic hotel a few minutes from where we are staying. Kochi airport ticks all the boxes for being efficient, clean and well organised before we hop on our easy, three-hour flight back to Dubai with memories to last a lifetime!

Stay… at the Brunton Boatyard – a former shipyard now converted into an elegant, nautical-themed hotel.
Eat… impressive and very posh breakfasts and four-course dinners at the hotel, but try the nearby Malabar House for a laid-back, authentic lunch in stylish surroundings. www.malabarhouse.com.

Easy essentials

I booked everything myself, using Emirates for flights (www.emirates.com). I booked the Peacock Tour with Storytrails in Chennai (www.storytrails.in; contact Vijay and ask for Akila to be your guide) and everything else, including our driver and car – an air-conditioned Innova which was perfectly adequate for a family of four plus the driver – with the Kerala-based CGH Earth group of hotels (www.cghearth.com; +91 484 3011 711). Maps and guidebooks for the whole trip were easy to pick up in Chennai.

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