We booked a 19 day, private tour with 5 Senses—visits to these sites in Tamil Nadu were part of it.
Five Senses did a fantastic job organizing our tour overall—no hiccups or headaches. Narayanan, the owner, is a joy to work with. He is super-responsive to emails and he checked in with us regularly to ensure that all was going smoothly. Also, the price was right. We stayed in excellent hotels, including one of the best we’ve ever had the pleasure to experience (The Leela Palace in Bangalore, not part of this particular trip segment). Narayanan gets much better rates than I could find on the web. When I checked Booking.com prices, our hotels alone added up to more than the cost of our entire trip, which also included transport, guides, domestic flights, cooking classes, dance demonstrations, etc. We choose not to include meals in our package, except for breakfast which came with our hotel rooms. We like to scout out our own restaurants.
It was wonderful to experience India, which can be challenging, in a comfortable, air-conditioned car. In Tamil Nadu our dedicated guide was Kannan, a knowledgeable, flexible and good guy overall. We had one driver and car in northern Tamil Nadu and a different driver and car in the south. (We left Kannan after Mahabalipuram to fly to Karnataka—see our separate review of those parts of the trip. Kannan met up with us again in Trichy.) Kannan was not happy with the first car the local company in Trichy assigned to us (he felt it was too noisy), so the morning after our evening airport pickup he greeted us in a better vehicle. We didn’t have to say anything, Kannan was on top of it. And once he learned we were keen on South Indian food, he recommended great local restaurants. Kannan knew when to visit to beat the crowds, the prices were jaw-droppingly low and the quality high. Yum!
I won’t review the big temples or historic sites we visited as there already is plenty of information about them on the web. Instead I’ll focus on activities specific to 5 Senses. That said, be sure to put Darasuram on your itinerary if you go to Trichy—it’s a much less crowded temple experience, especially in the morning. Kannan kindly allowed us to add it to our itinerary after we heard some other tourists raving about it at dinner. He also squeezed in the Vivekananda Center, an interesting visit in Chennai. And don’t miss the Sri Meenakshi temple at Madurai—it is amazing, even in the company of all the other incredible sites we visited. Our only disappointment is that they don’t allow photos in that temple. It broke my heart, but I found a lot of pix on the web to round out our collection.
One of our favorite 5 Senses experiences was a dosa and idli cooking class with Kannan’s aunt, at her house in Chennai. She and her son Ganesh were extremely hospitable, allowing us into their kitchen to watch, and to help a bit. It turns out that preparing dosa batter is complicated, and that one needs special equipment to cook idlis, so I don’t know if we will be able to replicate the experience back in the States. But it was great fun to see the process, to learn about foods we hadn’t tried before and to finish up by devouring all the good stuff Auntie had prepared.
We plan to return to India to explore the north in a year or two. I won’t bother checking with any other tour companies—why would I when I have faith in Narayanan and 5 Senses?