6 Days, 1031km: A Definitive Guide To India's Dazzling Eastern Coast

Tripoto

Credits: Lance Asper

Photo of Tamil Nadu, India by Sonalika Debnath

This drive will be an experience evocative of colours, cultures, history and heritage, strung together by a fistful of beaches. Each sea breeze-laced day of the trip bestows a minute-by-minute, mile-by-mile narration of exactly how diverse the southern part of our country is, in terms of both languages and legends, and traditions and topography. In the watchful presence of a sultry sun and a tropical tailwind, you'll cruise down broad blacktop roads across six days and end up making memories for a lifetime. So charge your camera batteries, grab your friends and psych up for a journey through time-worn temple towns, nondescript beaches and impossibly blue skies.

The route

The trip starts with a day spent in Mamallapuram, after which we ride down to Puducherry, which is around two hours away. Stay the night at Tharangambadi. Next day, we enter the heritage town of Karaikudi and head to Rameswaram on the fourth day. Thoothukudi is explored the next afternoon with the night spent at Tiruchendur. On our last day of the trip, we cover India's coastal paradise of Kanyakumari.

This is a suggested route for the Tamil Nadu road trip:

Chennai – Mamallapuram – Puducherry – Tharangambadi – Karaikudi – Rameswaram – Thoothukudi – Tiruchendur – Kanyakumari – Thiruvananthapuram

Itinerary

This itinerary is spread across four days:

Day 1

Chennai–Mamallapuram

Credits: Tom Bradnock

Photo of Mamallapuram, Tamil Nadu, India by Sonalika Debnath

A little over an hour away from the Chennai International Airport, the trail starts from Mamallapuram. Sitting in Tamil Nadu's Kancheepuram district, the town's also referred to as Mahabalipuram or Seven Pagodas. Sometime in the 1st millennium CE, the historic establishment was a seaport for the Pallava kingdom and is today home to a handful of World Heritage monuments.

Time on the road: 1 hour 25 minutes

Distance: 55 kilometres

Top experiences: Explore the 7th and 8th century UNESCO World Heritage monuments that are a lesson in ancient temple design inspired by Hindu mythology; visit the outlandish Krishna’s Butter Ball sitting on a steep slope; book yourself an hour or so of wreck-diving and deep-sea fishing; visit the ancient caves of Mahishamardini and Varaha; on the East Raja Street, walk down to the Sculpture Museum to marvel at the hundreds of sculptures fashioned out of stone; feast on a lip-smacking vegetarian thali at Mamalla Bhavan for a measly ₹60.

Where to stay: Vinodhara Guest House and Chariot Beach Resort. For more options, check here.

Day 2

Mamallapuram–Puducherry–Tharangambadi

Credits: thaths

Photo of Puducherry, India by Sonalika Debnath

The road to the former French town of Puducherry (formerly known as Pondicherry), is strewn with Gallic landscapes of bougainvillea draped colonial townhouses, pastel villas and leafy boulevards. You'll find yourself driving past traditional homes, ashrams and bohemian cafes – all an ode to both south Indian culture, and French flavours. A three hour-long drive down NH32 and the scenic East Coast Road will take you to the dazzling Danish village of Tharangambadi, translating to ‘land of the singing waves’. Known as Tranquebar till the early 17th century, the quiet fishing dwellings are home to an assortment of archaic forts and crumbling churches.

Time on the road: 4 hour 31 minutes

Distance: 215 kilometres

Top experiences: Hop from one florid temple to the text at the temple town of Chidambaram; in Puducherry, walk past and through the pastel toned French quarters and catch a sunset at the local beach; each more ornate than the other, make sure to visit one or all the churches in the town; stop by the one-of-a-kind Sri Aurobindo Ashram and fit in an hour or so of meditation; with dewy-eyed wonder take in the Tharangambadi Town Gate etched with Danish insignias; brought to life in 1620, explore Fort Dansborg and soak in the historic tales; visit the centuries-old Zion church that's India's oldest protestant church; try any dish from the Bungalow on the Beach's seafood menu.

Where to stay: Hotel Nippon Palace and Hotel Anandhiram Heritage. For more options, check here.

Day 3

Tharangambadi–Karaikudi

Credits: simianwolverine

Photo of Karaikudi, Tamil Nadu, India by Sonalika Debnath

Driving around Karaikudi on the third day, you can stop to explore the capital city of Chettinad before driving further down towards Nagoor. Established in the 19th century, Karaikudi is a canvas of serenity. Its sun-drenched afternoons are punctuated with shimmying coconut fronds, distant ferries scratched into the tangerine horizon and tiny fishing ports – some abandoned, others thriving with activity. This town can also be accredited for the fiery delicacies of the Chettinad cuisine.

Time on the road: 4 hours 24 minutes

Distance: 210 kilometres

Top experiences: On your way to Karaikudi, stop at Nagoor and visit the serene Sufi shrine and church of Velankanni; make sure to explore one of the traditional Chettiar homes that are open to the public; head down to the Sri Mahalakshmi Handloom Cotton Weaving Centre or any other local weaving unit and take back home a Kandangi cotton sari; from any local market, buy woven kottan baskets as souvenirs; go temple-hopping, and make sure to visit the ones of Nagara Sivan Kovil and Ariyakudi Kovil.

Where to stay: Thappa Garden and Visalam - CGH Earth. For more options, check here.

Day 4

Karaikudi–Rameswaram

Credits: mo Shine

Photo of Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu, India by Sonalika Debnath

Via SH536 and AH43, we'll ride back towards the coast on the fourth day. The roads meet the sea at Rameswaram's Pamban Island and this cinematic stretch of road is littered with rickety bridges, pearly-white shores and a multitude of water bodies. The local haunt of the Kathadi Beach, sustaining a medley of reefs, sandbanks and islets is an adventurer's utopia. Stay the night at Rameswaram or Dhanushkodi.

Time on the road: 2 hours 47 minutes

Distance: 200 kilometres

Top experiences: At Pamban Island's Shiva temple, watch the colourful madness that ensues when Hindu pilgrims come out in droves every morning; drive up to the Ram Sethu Point to access the surreal landscape of Dhanushkodi; at the frenzied Kathadi Beach, sign up for kayaking or kite-surfing; pay a visit to the seafront premises of the Sri Ramanathaswamy Temple that's enveloped in many a myth from the Hindu epic of Ramayana; at the highest point of the island – Gandamadana Parvatham, try to spot the imprint of Lord Rama’s feet on a chakra.

Where to stay: Daiwik Hotels and Cabana Coral Reef. For more options, check here.

Day 5

Rameswaram–Thoothukudi–Tiruchendur

Credits: Simply CVR

Photo of Thoothukudi, Tamil Nadu, India by Sonalika Debnath

As you cruise down NH87, you'll find yourself navigating through endless stretches of saltpans that render the landscape a shimmering sea of white. Charted mainly through Thoothukudi's (also known as Tuticorin) fishing communities, the town is cloaked in history dating back to the 6th century AD. Your journey to Tiruchendur will be mapped through swaying paddy fields and parties of wallowing buffalos.

Time on the road: 4 hours 16 minutes

Distance: 230 kilometres

Top experiences: At Thoothukudi, start with a walk down the temples of Vembati Essaki Amman Kovil and Sri Mariamman Kovil; next, we go church hopping all the way from Tuticorin to Nazareth, crossing the gorgeous structures of Our Lady of Snows Basilica and the Sacred Heart Cathedral; in the afternoon, make a beeline for the mosques that dot the streets of Tuticorin in abundance; get macaroons from Ganesh Bakery on the VOC Road and vazhapazha innipu (banana halwa) from any street eatery by the Beach Road; at Tiruchendur make sure to explore the cluster of nine Sri Vaishnava temples, known as the Navathirupathis.

Where to stay: Roxel Inn Pearl and AAR Royal Park. For more options, check here.

Day 6

Tiruchendur–Kanyakumari–Thiruvananthapuram

Credits: Aleksandr Zykov

Photo of Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, India by Sonalika Debnath

Possibly the most dramatic length of the trip, driving through SH176 to Kanyakumari and then taking SH66 for Thiruvananthapuram will render your camera roll bursting. Home to India's southernmost tip of Vivekananda Rock Memorial, Kanyakumari is a sheer delight to the senses. A kaleidoscope of sounds and sights swirl around you when you approach the freshly-painted temples, hole-in-the-wall shops and the flurry of tourists – all encompassed by the sea, making way for a visual, and aural ecstasy.

Time on the road: 4 hours 41 minutes

Distance: 185 kilometres

Top experiences: The second the sea comes to view, go in for a leisurely dip into the water; stop by any of the numerous fishing villages that you'll drive past on your way to Kanyakumari for a traditional meal; ferry your way to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and watch the sun set; visit the plush Padmanabhapuram Palace, the erstwhile residence of the rulers of Travancore; devoid of tourists, the Chothavilai Beach is a must if you're seeking some peace and quiet.

When to go

November through February are the months when these regions are at their most beautiful. The monsoons withdraw by October, making way for pleasant nights, and the winters are welcomed to the towns by mid-November.

Credits: Austin Neill

Photo of 6 Days, 1031km: A Definitive Guide To India's Dazzling Eastern Coast by Sonalika Debnath

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