Into the wild
MudumalaiGetting there Nine hours by road (taxi cost: approximately Rs 15,000 for a Chevrolet Tavera). Closest railway station: Ooty, via Mettupalayam (14.5 hours by train, approximately Rs 1610 by Nilgiri Express and MTP Udagamandalam Passenger, first class). Closest airport: Coimbatore (one-hour flight, from Rs 3000).
Attractions At the Mudumalai Wildlife Sanctuary, spread over 321sqkm in the Nilgiri Hills, you could set out on an elephant or jeep safari (the faint-hearted may opt for bus safaris). Creatures to keep an eye out for include tigers (though admittedly, you'd be lucky to spot one - they are not referred to as the masters of secrecy for nothing), leopards, elephants, gaur (the Indian bison, considered the largest of the wild cattle species, beating one of Africa's Big Five, the Cape buffalo), sloth bears, pythons, giant squirrels, langurs (Indian monkey species) and sambar (south Asia's antlered deer). If you're into bird-watching, don't miss the magnificent peacocks, Malabar trogons, grey jungle fowls and crested hawk eagles that dot the forest.
Between February and April the weather in this region is rather warm and dry, so dress light.
Where to stay Jungle Hut is a good option (Tel 91-423-2526463). Rs 4000-5600 per double room per night (Rs 1600-2900 for a tent, if you'd rather camp out in the grounds), inclusive of food. A serene, homely stay in the jungle that comes with a pool and aromatherapy massages.
What to do Bird-watching, day trip
Getting there One hour by road (taxi cost: approximately Rs 3000 for a Chevrolet Tavera).
Attractions Pulicat Lake is India's second largest lagoon at approximately 350sqkm (varying with the tide), and attracts migratory birds between December and March. A bird-watching alternative to India's oldest bird sanctuary, Vedanthangal (a 90-minute drive from Chennai), the lake lies largely in Andhra Pradesh, with just its southern tip extending into Tamil Nadu. An ideal spot for bird-watchers, photographers and picnickers, it plays host to flamingos, pelicans, painted storks, spoonbills, herons, kingfishers and many other birds during the cool months. Try to make friends with a local fisherman - he'll take you boating in his humble craft for about Rs 100 per person and cook for you fish or prawns, bought fresh from the local market (though it's more advisable to pack a picnic lunch, especially if you're not used to Indian spices). Don't expect posh restrooms or lodges in the area, and remember the best times for bird watching are dawn (6-8am) and dusk (4-6pm).
What to do Trekking, two-day trip
Getting there Four hours by road (taxi cost: approximately Rs 6000 for a Chevrolet Tavera). Closest railway station: Jolarpettai (three hours by train, approximately Rs 335 by Kovai Express, Chair Car).
Attractions If you're looking for Tamil Nadu's most popular hill stations, you'd have to head to Ooty or Kodaikanal. But if it's peace, quiet and nature trails sans tourists that you prefer, Yelagiri is your best bet. Yet to be overcome by tourism, the tranquil little hill station (it's hardly 30km across in all, at an altitude of about 3500sqft) has internet and mobile connectivity that is patchy at best, making it the perfect getaway. Apart from a morning of boating on the Punganoor Lake, your main pastime here would be trekking across lantana bush-dominated forests, streams and a few steep, rocky expanses. Don't miss the treks to the Jalagamparai Waterfalls and Swamimalai Hill.
Where to stay Zeenath Taj Garden Resort, Rs 1200-1500 per double room per night. Rather plain rooms, without televisions. The upside? A fabulous, sprawling garden with grazing geese, nesting bulbuls and fruit trees (just the right height for you to help yourself to some of the fruit), within the premises.
What to do Bird-watching, day trip
Getting there Four hours by road (taxi cost: approximately Rs 6000 for a Chevrolet Tavera).
Attractions Pichavaram is said to be the second-largest mangrove forest in the world (after West Bengal's Sundarbans). Located just ahead of Chidambaram, Pichavaram's mangrove trees are spread out over 2800 water-submerged acres. All this water attracts its fair share of bird visitors from November to April - think watersnips, cormorants, egrets, herons and the like. Besides boating along the countless rivulets, you could befriend a member of the local Irula tribe and watch him catch prawns and crabs employing an ancient, hands-on (literally!) method. Rowboats and boatmen-cum-guides can be hired at the local Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation office for roughly Rs 600 for three hours (Tel 91-44-25367850). Remember, it's a long drive, so set out by 6am.