Iconic architect Geoffrey Bawa brings contemporary style to India’s second oldest living city, known for clean lines, sparse interiors, open spaces, pillared pavilions and stretches of sleek garden. The majestic pool replicates an ancient temple tank while the reception showcases an elaborate carved wooden door from a royal fort. Villas come with dark wood furniture and stone-floor open bathrooms endowed with private plunge pools that trees arch over.
Romance inheres in Madurai whose fish-eyed goddess Meenakshi and her consort Siva is a love story celebrated at the Meenakshi Temple, a love poem in rock of unbelievable grandeur.
On average Chinese tourists visit thrice annually, and the Japanese wed in its hypnotic environs with the scent of jasmine, emblematic of the city, and dawn-picked as oblation to the goddess.
Madurai is as sensual as it is sacred and the hotel captures its romance in Madurai Malli Spa rituals and dinners with ingredients from its flower and spice markets, which are a carnival of colour and fragrance. Amidst a profusion of jasmine and roses suppers unfold culminating in local speciality jigarthanda, ambrosial with almonds.
CGH EARTH MANTRA KOODAM
This new sanctuary nested in opulent paddy fields opens to a shrine set on a tree-lined temple tank. Cottages and bungalows scatter across preened gardens. Bathrooms with open-air showers thrill while the pool splashes urbanity upon the emphatic rural experience. On the restaurant’s gardened verandas relish vegetarian maharaja thalis whose compositions weave in nuanced flavours as intricate as the famous silk saris woven around here. Then the Mantra tea kadai charmingly recreates a village tea shop with complimentary local snacks. Discover fabled Kumbakonam Degree Coffee prepared fresh tumbling coffee across filters held a metre apart.
Temple Town Kumbakonan has the world’s highest concentration of temples and Mantra is a luxury pad from which to explore the legendary Great Living Chola Temples, nine Navagraha temples dedicated to the nine planets and 5,000 other temples. Afterwards you’ll need a massage in the Ayurveda spa. Thereafter shop for Swamimalai’s extraordinary bronze icons that Augustin Rodin called “the most perfect movement of rhythmic movement in art”. Unless you have an astrologer’s appointment – Astrological Tourism is a new phenomenon impelling everyone from China to Chile.
RAJAKKAD ESTATE, PALAN
An 18th-century palace 1,000m up on the Palani Hills engulfed by coffee and pepper plantations amidst a mosaic of pools, courtyards, gardens and an on-site farm. The British owner dismantled and tastefully reassembled Pallam Palace, an intricate ensemble of wood composed in southern style, making a seven-room hideaway for the discerning few. Internet is deliberately slow. The message is clear: disconnect! And give yourself up to nature. Listen to the birds, not the ping of your phone.
The hotel is run like a private home, communal meals are European-flashed South Indian fare with ingredients mostly from the estate itself. People usually withdraw here to read, write, paint and walk. Another draw is hilltop Palani Temple, among the Six Abodes of Lord Murugan, magically ablaze with what seems a billion swaying lamps on festival days.
INTERCONTINENTAL CHENNAI MAHABALIPURAM RESORT
The InterContinental turns preconceptions about what a Mahabalipuram resort should be – relaxed, accessible beach accommodation – on its head. Snooty, sexy and not quite in Mahabalipuram, it stands aloof from other luxury resorts surrounding the spectacular seventh-century Shore Temple.
A compact driveway leads to the lobby, a dusky enclosure sealed with lofty Mahabalipuram granite walls perhaps recalling the heritage site’s sculpted cavernous shrines or a temple sanctum – except you don’t expect suave leather sofas in a temple. A granite walkway, long like the Shore Temple’s superb reclining Vishnu figure, strides between an Aman-esque pool fortressed in granite walls and lotus ponds spouting palm trees.
Ultra-modern rooms beckon when the blazing afternoon sun makes it too hot to visit the bewitching Pallava monuments, instead melt in the spa with a candle massage. Then hit Gatsby Bar before beachfront dining while Concierge manage your shopping extravagances, usually those amazing Mahabalipuram rock sculptures whose delicate workmanship belies they weigh a ton.