Travel: Passage to India (no backpack required)

How about sleeping in a hotel with an early-morning elephant option, or lying on a Bounty Bar beach? John Laurenson has an ideal route
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The Independent Culture
Reclining semi-nude on some airport seating, a sort of Harrison Ford with body-piercing, Ronnie, 27, recounted his India experience. From the glass of tap water drunk "to see how his body would take it", to the night with an amputee, Ronnie's route to the subcontinent is the back passage to India. It is very popular with the young. But there is another way, gentler on the senses and hardly more expensive, which will send you back to your loved ones tanned, refreshed and full of tales of a beautiful country.

The key to this milder India is knowing where to go, in what order, and for how long. Here, then, is an itinerary for three weeks in south India - during our winter - at a cost of about pounds 750 (say pounds 400 for the flight and pounds 350 for everything else).

Fly to Trivandrum. Take a taxi or auto-rickshaw to Varkala, a little over an hour's drive away (300-550Rs, depending on your bargaining technique). Varkala, you will be pleased to find, is one of the most beautiful places on Earth. The beach is a Bounty Bar advert - a paradise of sand, coconut trees and birds that whoop in the night.

Back from the sea, you can sit drinking lassi by the temple tank, a large and stately holy pond. At night, at one of the cliff-top shack cafes, eat a fine crab with a pot of "special tea" (the nudge-is-as-good-as-a- wink name for beer in the dry state of Kerala). Way out on the Arabian Sea, the lamps on the fishing skiffs flicker on the horizon like the lights of another shore.

The best place to stay in Varkala is the Government Guest House, a former Maharaja's residence, now a resting point for Indian bureaucrats on-the- move. There are usually a few beds left over for tourists and with a bit of luck you'll end up with a room the size of a squash court for a pound a night.

Varkalan drawback: oglers. It is a sad fact that large numbers of Indian men are prepared to travel long distances in order to see a woman in a bathing costume.

After a week or so, it's time to move. Get the morning train to Kollam (formerly Quilon). Go second class, deftly avoiding being frozen alive by the first-class air conditioning. Instead, stand, TE Lawrence-like, at the open door of the moving train as you chug through the lush and lovely Keralan backwaters.

At Kollam, take the next train to the temple town of Madurai. First class. (Here, the extra money will buy you space and a bouncy seat for this seven- hour journey and there's no horsing around with air-conditioning, just a lot of fans.)

The train ambles up into the hills, brushing past banana and pineapple trees like a nonchalant cow. It takes you through great green valleys, then down on to the roasting plains of Tamil Nadu where cotton and chilli- peppers grow and goatherds carry umbrellas to keep off the sun.

It is strange to smell fresh dung in the heart of a big city. Not in Madurai. A thousand sacred cows with horns painted red and green wander about as if they own the place.

The temple is one of the most impressive in India, an ancient labyrinth of shady arcades where gods are carried in litters, draped in jasmine petals or spattered with butter. If you see an elephant in the temple, give him a rupee and he'll touch your head with the tip of his trunk.

The Aarathy is a good place to stay. It is clean, reasonably priced and has an early-morning elephant option. An elephant comes to the hotel at dawn each morning and eats 14 rice cakes. Ask at the desk and someone will shout "elephant" at your door at 6.30am.

After a night or two, you'll probably be fed-up of Madurai - this is an Indian town that seethes. It's time to go shopping and get out. Buy Madras check shirts, precious jewels, tea-towels, semi-precious jewels, excellent women's beach bags in woven plastic, saffron, and a small pot of Tiger Balm, then take a bus to Kodaikanal.

If you book at the Tourist Information desk at the railway station, a Kodaikanal-bound mini-bus will drive round to your hotel and pick you up. The trip lasts a bit over three hours and costs around pounds 2 in the mini- bus, or next-to-nothing on what is likely to be a very crowded, regular bus.

Kodaikanal is a former hill station, 2,000 metres up. The British would withdraw here in the summer months to escape the heat and malaria of the plains, and do a bit of gardening.

A serious bid was made by Kodaikanal's former occupiers to make it as much like Surrey as circumstances allowed. There are, then, hedgerows, grey-stone cottages, a parish church and a Tudor-style hotel and bar.

Here, the place to stay is a little nest of cottages called Taj villas (pounds 6 a night for a handsome double-room with fireplace). It gets nippy at night until April so you'll need long trousers and a jumper. In the mornings, on the lawn looking down over the valleys, you can breakfast on banana porridge, peanut-buttered toast and masala tea, then strike out on foot. This is fine walking country, full of plunging valleys, exotic birds and bison, waterfalls, monkeys and mimosa. If you're intrepid, you might even come across one of the ancient, isolated hill villages, hours away on foot (or donkey) from the nearest road.

There are five days left. You're feeling fit, almost invincibly fit. You're already starting to wonder if you really need to keep using Evian to brush your teeth. Tame that tiger! And make your way back quietly the way you came.

Getting there: the cheapest flights to India are generally on airlines from the former Soviet Union. You can expect to pay around pounds 300 return to Delhi on an airline such as Armenian Airlines via Yerevan, booked through Classic Travels (0171-499 2222). Aeroflot comes in at about pounds 350. For more familiar airlines, you can expect to pay rather more. To reach Kerala, the best plan is to find a cheap charter flight to Trivandrum, e.g. through advertisements on ITV's Teletext