An introduction to Kerala – A backwater bliss in India
By Mike Pedley
Kerala offers a gentle introduction to India. Meander through its soothing backwaters to the tea gardens and spice plantations of the hill country and wind up on idyllic palm-fringed beaches
Have you ever longed to go to India but been a bit daunted by tales of its full-on, take-no-prisoners reputation? If so, Kerala, the ‘Land of Coconuts’, is the easy way in. Languid days cruising the unique Kuttanad backwaters in kettuvalam rice boats, hiking in the cool, clean air of the inland Western Ghats mountain range, and endless beaches tickled by feathery palm fronds are just three reasons that make it the ideal place to get to grips with this larger-than-life nation of over a billion souls.
Kerala might be relatively new on the tourist map, but the region’s inhabitants are quite used to foreign visitors. Ever since the spice trade brought pioneering traders from Europe and Arabia two millennia ago, Kerala has been a gateway to the Indian sub-continent. If you’re a first-timer to the country who’s just too downright tasteful and sensible to rough it in scuzzy backpacker dens, Kerala has an impressive infrastructure with some seriously swanky hotels running the spectrum from colonial-chic boutique hotels, glossy beachside resort complexes with ayurvedic spas for a spot of pampering, and on a more simple level, delightful homestay guesthouses in traditional Keralan teak-built houses.
Ok – let’s pop a few stereotypes now. Indians live in either crippling rural poverty or out-of-control boomtown megacities where the poor exist in endless shanty slums and the rich retreat behind their gated enclaves, right? Wrong. As Indian states go, Kerala is a real misfit. First off, look at its astonishingly maverick politics. A democratically-elected communist state government has run Kerala since 1957 which, unlike the failed or repressive communist systems elsewhere in the world, has produced a progressive state with undeniably impressive achievements – the highest literacy rate in India – over 90% – as well as the highest life expectancy and a tolerably comfy standard of prosperity. Good education means that English is spoken widely.
Then there’s its astonishing mix of religions. One in five Keralans is Christian, with an ancient lineage running down from from the 1st century AD, when the Syrian Orthodox church exported its newfangled Christianity eastwards. This ancient sect has is one of the first Christian communities, established by the Apostle St Peter in Antioch (modern Antakya in Turkey) It has been in business much longer than Roman Catholicism and the Anglican church, and still has its base in Damascus. How’s about that for pedigree? And that’s just one element of the improbable mishmash of religions intertwined in Keralan faith. So when you’re there visit as many churches as you can, and see Madonnas, saints and biblical figures draped with garlands of marigolds and given offerings of food in the fashion of Hindu deities, and turn up at festivals to see Muslims, Hindus and Christians all getting on famously at each other’s celebrations.
KERALA – HOW TO GET AROUND AND SEE IT ALL
It would be oh-so-easy to do nothing more energetic than flop out and recharge the batteries on Kerala’s glorious beaches, but it would be a crime not to haul yourself off the sun lounger and do proper justice to the region’s heritage and cultural sites.
Unless you’re an experienced and confident independent traveller with time and patience to spare, the easiest way to see as much as possible of Kerala’s highlights is to book an escorted group tour, or put together a tailor-made itinerary with a specialist such as the Kerala Travel Centre. That way you’ll be in your own minibus or car with a driver to do the hard work while you sit back and watch the scenery unfold. Even when you’re cocooned within an air-conditioned bus or car, travelling in Kerala is painfully slow.
Despite its generally good infrastructure, the state lacks the multi-lane highways you’ll find in some parts of India – most journeys are on two-lane roads clogged with insanely erratic drivers, auto rickshaws and small motorcycles weaving through. Relatively short distances can unfold on a geological timescale – for example, Kumarakom to Periyar is just 125km, but the journey takes around 3.5 hours. Periyar to Munnar takes around 4 hours. Munnar to Cochin is around 125km, but you can expect a journey of around 5 hours So you can see the attraction of visiting Kerala on an escorted tour when time is short and money isn’t. But going it alone is great fun too. Independent travel using public transport in India is not difficult and can be an unforgettable adventure (usually in a good way) – you’ll have a far more rewarding experience and real contact with local people compared to when you’re on a tourist group tour. Just come equipped with ample time and the patience of a saint, and you could get around Kerala by bus, taxi, train and the odd boat. Take a good practical guide book, such as the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet guide to the area to help plan your journey.
The truly adventurous could hire a self-drive rental car, but this is not a good idea unless you’re very confident you can cope with the frankly unhinged driving on Indian roads. Drivers obey no known rules of the road and routinely drive with complete disregard for life and limb. Driving on Kerala’s roads you will regularly see casually suicidal manouevres that leave you open mouthed with disbelief.
KERALA – FLIGHTS FROM THE UK
You can’t currently fly direct from the UK to Kerala. Qatar Airways flies to Trivandrum and Cochin via Doha from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Belfast.
Emirates flies to Trivandrum via Dubai from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Glasgow.
Air India flies from Heathrow via Mumbai to Cochin and Trivandrum.
SPECIALIST TOUR OPERATORS
This is not a comprehensive list, but it’s a good starting point. See the website of the Association of Independent Tour Operators for more ideas
|Kerala Travel Centre||Kerala Connections||Transindus|
|Greaves||Ampersand Travel||Audley Travel|
KERALA’S BEST BEACH RETREATS
Who wants to rough it with the gap-year backpackers when you can retreat to a more serene, exclusive and upmarket idyll?
Kerala’s busiest resorts lie a short drive south of the state capital Trivandrum. The sea of coconut groves shrouding the long coastline south of Kovalam enfolds a fine selection of glossy pampering resort hotels along a beach shared with ramshackle fishing villages. Chowara, 8km south of Kovalam, is home to a cluster of upmarket boltholes with ayurvedic spas and treatment centres, such as the Travancore Heritage. Where the palm trees stop, there’s a seemingly endless sandy beach, littered with dozens of high-prowed fishing boats and pounded by breakers rolling in from the Arabian Sea.
Kovalam is Kerala’s buzziest, most developed resort area – but we’re hardly talking Benidorm here. Even compared to laid-back Goa (the main competitor in the Indian sun and sand resort stakes) Kerala’s beach resorts are small-scale tiddlers. Kovalam offers a wide range of low-key hotels and guesthouses ranging from backpacker-basic to plush boltholes clustered around white sand, coconut-fringed beaches. If you want to be in the thick of the action, package holidaymakers and independent travellers all head for the backpacker vibe of Lighthouse Beach, the most built-up area that’s named after the landmark candy-striped lighthouse on the headland. No-frills hotels and tatty souvenir shops tumble down to the sands, where a raised beachfront boardwalk lined with fish restaurants displaying their glistening catch of kingfish, seerfish and metre-long barracuda makes the perfect place to wind up the day here and acquaint yourself with the local food that is one of the great delights of a trip to Kerala.
If you’re after a seriously somnolent time in a less developed area, push on north around the headland and you come to gorgeous Hawah Beach, while further still are snoozy Kovalam Beach and Samudra Beach.
North of Alleppey on the coast west of Vembanad Lake around the village of Mararikulam is Marari Beach, where tourists share a stunning strip of white sand with fishermen. There is no resort centre as such, just a couple of luxury resort hotels, such as the Marari Beach Resort hidden among the palms – ideal for an away-from-it all break.
Also chasing its share of the tourist rupee is Varkala, a rather dog-eared but likeably laid-back resort around 55km north of Trivandrum. Most of the accommodation and bamboo and palm thatch restaurants perch dramatically on the rim of a sheer red cliff face. Hindu pilgrims come to scatter the ashes of their deceased on the white sands of Papanasam beach below, while fishermen set out to sea in primitive dugout canoes. Still popular with a young backpacker crew, this former hippy hangout is now heading upmarket with developments such as the five-star Taj Garden Retreat.
A word of warning: always check with your hotel whether swimming is safe on the local beach – wherever you stay on the Keralan coast, there are perilous currents and undertows that drown the unwary and unlucky each year.
KERALA – CRUISING THE BACKWATERS OF THE KUTTANAD
The Kuttanad backwaters are a unique region of South India where ancient customs and a way of life that you’ll see nowhere else in the country are holding out against the encroachments of the rapidly-developing modern world. The labyrinthine network of rivers and streams, lagoons and lakes stretches around 80km from Kollam (Quilon) to Cochin.
The best way to penetrate this captivating world of palm-fringed canals is on board your own houseboat, known as a kettuvallam. These traditional rice barges are the HGVs of the waterways, though not many are used for carting rice around these days – tourists are the lucrative cargo of choice for today’s skippers. As you slide through the lush green-dappled tangle of watery passageways, you’ll get an insight into a world where people wash clothes and bathe outside their front door, dugout canoes ferry children to school, waterborne worshippers head for pastel-washed churches and gaudy temples, and snowy egrets peck insects off the backs of placid water buffaloes in emerald paddy fields. It’s another green world here, hidden away from the frenetic noise and bustle of towns. Alleppey is the main hub for houseboat operators – an endearingly ramshackle town that merits a short wander at the beginning or end of a cruise. Its claim to be the ‘Venice of the East’ is pushing it a bit, but there are interestingly tatty colonial wharfside warehouses to poke around, or you could join the crush on a water bus and go for a chug along the canals for a few rupees.
The kettuvallam I boarded in Alleppey was a curvaceous vessel with a canopy of woven palm and coir that reminded me of a being set adrift in a snake charmer’s basket. With sisal matting underfoot and rattan chairs to lounge in, it was the height of colonial chic and with a smiling crew constantly plying me with ice-cold beers and the most amazing freshly-cooked food, you couldn’t ask for a more perfect platform to view the scenes along the riverbanks.
At Champakulam we moored to visit a resplendently gaudy church built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and to see the village’s ‘snakeboat’. When these huge racing boats with a high stern like the head of a rearing cobra compete in races during the summer monsoon season, over a hundred rowers sweating in back-breaking unison are needed to power them along. The day’s cruising wound up to the accompaniment of the backwaters’ sunset music – plaintive shrieks of waterbirds, chirruping frogs, and the woodsmoke scent of village cooking fires. The crew then set to work in the galley, serving up heaped platters of delicious Keralan dishes – absolute bliss, or so I thought until black clouds of mozzies descended like a biblical plague. If there’s one essential tip I can give – pack plenty of jungle-strength repellent.
The following day, the narrow canals opened into the vast shimmering expanse of Lake Vembanad. On this huge inland sea, the graceful houseboats were transformed into comically clumsy basketwork shanties wobbling across a mirrored surface. Spreading along the lake’s southern shore is a strip of upscale waterside resort hotels in lush grounds, popular with honeymooning Indian couples. You could hole up for a day or two here to recharge the batteries while reading Arundhati Roy’s novel The God of Small Things, which is set among the surrounding canals and lakeside villages.
COCHIN – THE JEWEL IN KERALA’S CROWN
History is infused into every stone of the austerely strait-laced Dutch mansions, flouncy Portuguese churches, and British Raj-era pomp in old Cochin. The European colonial powers fought to control the port’s rich spice trade from the 16th century onwards, and have all left their mark on this important trading post.
Cochin’s major sights lie within convenient walking distance of one another on the central peninsula in the districts of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. Just as important as seeing the heavyweight historical stuff, the gabled churches and grandiose tea traders’ mansions, is losing yourself in the tumultuous tangle of handicrafts shops – you’ll turn up with a mixed bag of funky odds and ends, tatty trinkets and rather classy – and expensive – colonial-era antiques if you’re in the market for more serious retail therapy.
To immerse yourself in the sights and smells of Cochin, walk south from Fort Cochin into Mattancherry along the riverside road – aptly named Bazaar Road. Start at the Chinese fishing nets on the beachfront walkway by the crumbling bastion walls of the Portuguese Fort Emanuel. These elegant spidery contraptions are probably Cochin’s most enduring image, but they are not used in the daytime – return when the sun sets to see the daddy long legs devices being put through their paces – largely, it must be said, for the benefit of strolling tourists – by teams of men heaving on ropes and pulleys with huge boulder counterweights.
Bazaar Road still seethes with trade, to the point where you have to keep your wits about you to avoid death beneath the worn-out wheels of psychedelically-painted lorries overloaded to the point of collapse with sacks of tea, garlic, dried chillies, rice and onions. The heavy air washes over you in pungent waves of coriander, cumin and exotic essential oils sold in tiny hole-in-the-wall dens, as well as the less seductive stench from decaying mounds of refuse where the street goats feast.
A half-hour stroll brings you to Mattancherry Palace, the number one sight in Cochin. The Portuguese built it to curry favour with the Raja of Cochin in the 16th century, and spared no expense on the extravagant interior. Sumptuous coffered rosewood ceilings look down upon room after room of murals depicting scenes from the epic Ramayana mythology, including intriguing erotic scenes of Krishna pleasuring 16 shepherdesses with his 8 arms (and two feet).
The wharfside area of Mattancherry was once the hub of the massively lucrative Malabar spice trade, and home to a large community of Jewish merchants who had traded in India since Roman times under the protection of the local Rajas – in fact, the knotted streets around the Pardesi synagogue are still known today as Jew Town. The synagogue was built in 1568, a serene, airy place, floored with blue and white Cantonese tiles and festooned with oil lamps made from Flemish and Murano glass. Most of the Jewish families emigrated to Israel after the Second World War, but a few remain – look for their names above the shopfronts. These narrow lanes are the best place to haggle for souvenirs in Kerala, but don’t expect any bargains – the traders know they can keep prices high with the endless flow of wealthy tourists.
Back in Fort Cochin, be sure to visit St Francis church, the first European church built in India. The Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was once buried here before his venerable bones were shipped back to Lisbon. Fascinating tombstones dating from the 16th century line the spartan interior. In a wonderful throwback to colonial times, the congregation is still kept cool by hand-pulled punkah fans. Nearby, the wall-to-wall pastel frescos in Santa Cruz basilica offer a more colourful take on Christian worship, Indian-style.
KERALAN CULTURE AND HISTORY
Wherever you visit throughout Kerala there are plenty of palaces, churches and temples to see. Don’t miss the following:
Tear yourself away from Kovalam’s beaches for a day in Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum. The tonsil-torturing official name Thiruvananthapuram means ‘City of the Holy Serpent’. Its unmissable sights are: The Puttan Malika, or ‘horse’ palace, named after a magnificent row of 122 carved rosewood horses surging from the eaves. It’s a deliciously gloomy, atmospheric place full of the ghosts of long-dead maharajas. Among the dusty exhibits and glowering oil paintings, you’ll find magnificently incongruous thrones made of carved ivory and Bohemian crystal. Next door is the Shri Padmanabhaswamy temple, a towering seven-storey Dravidian-style behemoth slathered with elaborate carvings of Hindu religious scenes. Make sure to visit also the excellent Napier Museum, which houses a superb collection of Indian artefacts in a hallucinogenically gaudy Victorian-era Indo-Saracenic pavilion. Organised excursions to Trivandrum often take in a hop over the border into neighbouring Tamil Nadu state to visit Padmanabhapuram Palace, the former residence of the Kings of Travancore. The oldest part of this masterpiece of Keralan pagoda-style architecture built in teak and granite dates from the 16th century and is decorated with exquisitely-carved rosewood ceilings and columns of jackwood sprouting sculpted cobra heads and banana flowers.
If you find yourself in the Kumarakom area of Lake Vembanad after a Kuttanad backwaters cruise, make sure to see the ancient Mahadeva temple in Ettumanoor. I’d heard about some splendid 16th-century murals here, but couldn’t find them anywhere. When I asked I was sent off to poke around behind the piles of junk and temple paraphernalia stacked in pavilions flanking each side of the main gateway, where I found a pair of Kerala’s most revered religious murals languishing in the gloom and dust. Vibrant oxblood red, ochre, gold and jade green images depict Shiva festooned with cobras and flowers trampling a demon into the ground, while a band of deities plays a tune on flute cymbals and drums. Non-hindus aren’t allowed to visit the shrine itself, but you can admire the huge brass oil lamp whose flame has burned continuously for several centuries at the entrance.
Nearby Kottayam is famous on two counts: it claims to be the first place in India with 100% literacy, and its two fascinating 13th-century Syrian Orthodox churches, the Cheriappali and Valliapalli – meaning ‘small’ and ‘large’, respectively, which hold artefacts showing the earliest evidence of Christianity’s arrival in India.
While you’re blissed out under the palms on the coast to the west of Vembanad Lake, take time to visit St Andrew’s Forane church, an incongruous Victorian Gothic hulk rising from the coconut groves. Inside is a surreal hybrid of Christian saints and biblical figures painted in the garish hues of a Hindu temple. Tucked behind is a tiny 16th-century chapel built by Portuguese jesuits.
KATHAKALI IN KERALA
Cochin is a great place to catch a colourful performance of Kathakali, the traditional South Indian ritual theatre. Most shows are (perhaps mercifully) shortened and tailored to tourist tastes, definitely a good thing since the authentic recitals go on all through the night. Most people would find it difficult to sit through a full show when – to the unpracticed eye – not a lot happens for hour after hour. On the plus side, the costumes and elaborate make-up are remarkable, transforming men into gods and demons. The shows are hypnotic – for the first half hour. Then you may start to lose the will to live. Actors come and go, adopt contorted poses and strange facial expressions, utter bizarre cries and squeals from time to time, while the musicians thrash away with rattling drums, jangling cymbals and bells. If you’re wondering what the hell is going on, here’s a quick ‘Bluffer’s Guide to Kathakali. Just look what colour the character’s face is: red is a baddie, green is a good guy, and yellow is a spiritual character. See – it’s easy really! At the show I saw in Cochin, despite very clear notices asking people not to use flash photography during the show, the audience spoilt the performance with an unrelenting barrage of camera flashes. WALKING AND WILDLIFE IN KERALA
Walking in Kerala is in its infancy compared to other parts of India, but there is plenty of potential – a specialist tour operator should be able to fit a spot of trekking into your plans – try Exodus or Walks Worldwide for starters, or the website of the Association of Independent Tour Operators. The rugged Western Ghats mountain range divides Kerala from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. Valleys of wild tropical forest plunge from the rocky peaks to slopes swathed in perfumed spice plantations and tea and coffee gardens. The altitude varies between 1000m–1800m – not so high as to make you breathless when walking, but high enough to evaporate the debilitating sticky heat of the coast and lower the temperature dial down to comfy – ideal, then, for walking.
One place that’s started to tap into the region’s hiking potential of hiking is the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, the former hunting reserve of the Maharajahs of Travancore. This wilderness of jungly forest and grassy savannah embraces a vast artificial lake built by the British in 1895. With over 800 square kilometres of the Cardamon Hills area of the Western Ghats to roam around in, you’re not going to bump into many other two-legged creatures. If you sleep easier knowing that your hard-earned cash benefits local people, you’ll be pleased to know that local Manna villagers guide the walks, a variety of easy to moderate trails lasting from a half-day ramble to a more serious 3-day ‘Tiger Trail’ trek. Yes, the blurb tells you that tigers and leopards roam the sanctuary, but they are very elusive – even if you visit in the dry season (April and May) when animals are drawn to the lake to drink, the chances of seeing a big cat are slim to none. Elephants are another story, however, and you should have a good chance of spotting tuskers all year round.
My walk in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary was a half-day taster that got going at bleary-eyed dawn. Kitted out against an army of six-legged nasties in long trousers – don’t even think of wearing shorts – and slathered in SAS-strength insect repellent, backed up by knee-length gaiter socks handed out by the guides to keep out leeches and sundry pests such as ticks, I disappeared into the mist-shrouded forest mocked by the cackling laugh of a Malabar grey hornbill. The walking was hardly arduous in the cool shade of the deep forest although the mercury shoots upwards when you cross expanses of open grassland. With over 300 species of birds to look out for, including spectacular giant hornbills, parakeets and flameback woodpeckers, twitchers are in their element here, and one of the great delights of walking in Periyar is the backing track of whistles and whoops of exotic birdsong. As the day went by, we saw jet black Nilgiri langur monkeys, Indian giant squirrels the size of a fat cat, sambar deer, wild boar and a family of otters gambolling in the lake. No elephants though – although heaps of their cannonball-sized dung were an easy trail for guides to pick up, and showed us that they were there somewhere in the secretive forest.
The less energetic option for wildlife spotting in Periyar is to take a boat trip. Yes, it is touristy, and the boats can get quite crowded, but I saw lots of animals along the lake’s shores, including good close-up sightings of elephant. Munnar – Walking in Tea Country
Kerala’s best walking potential, as yet largely untapped, lies among the peaks of the High Range mountains looming above the emerald tea plantations in the area around Munnar, a dusty crossroads bazaar town. You can base yourself in lovely Raj-era bungalows on the Victorian tea estates, and, on the simplest level, just pull on your walking boots and set off from your estate bungalow through a sea of neatly-clipped flat-top tea bushes, where ladies in bright saris pick tender young leaves along the terraces. More ambitious treks needing a guide, food supplies and possibly overnight sleeping arrangements can be arranged locally or – to avoid disappointment – sorted out in advance through a specialist tour operator. You could, for example, take on the 2695-metre summit of Ana Mudi, the highest peak in South India, or explore the Eravikulam National Park, home to the Nilgiri tahr, a rare mountain goat whose trusting and unsuspicious nature made it easy prey for hunters before it acquired protected status.
KERALA – AYURVEDIC TREATMENTS
India’s 5000 year-old system of holistic medicine and health care, known as Ayurveda, has become a big-bucks business in Kerala.
Western tourists are generally aiming for the weight loss, pampering and beauty end of the market – ayurveda-lite, you might say – typically comprising a feelgood course of massage, healthy-eating diets and healing herbal treatments that deploy a whole arsenal of herbs you’ve probably never heard of. Warm and fragrant herbal oils are used in massages; other treatments use oil, medicated milk or butter that is dripped or poured onto the forehead or into a cap fitted on top of your head. Ayurvedic treatments can become as lengthy and involved as you want them to – you’d have to be pretty hardcore to go for medicated enemas, but, hey, whatever floats your boat. The majority of holidaymakers tend to stop short of more full-on treatments, such as the aforementioned enemas, purgatives and nasal cleansing that are used in the purgative cleansing process called Pancha Karma.
Finding a pukka centre with properly-trained and qualified practitioners and good hygiene is the key to ayurvedic nirvana. You’ll see ayurvedic this and that advertised all over Kerala: as a rule, the best centres are in swanky resort hotels with their own ayurvedic spas offering packages of yoga and meditation sessions, detox diets and rejuvenating massage. The small beachside shacks you’ll commonly see in tourist resorts may or may not be staffed by properly qualified practitioners, and you can only guess what their standards of treatment and hygiene may be like. If you’re serious about giving ayurveda a go, talk it through with a specialist tour operator to make sure you go to a reputable centre that ticks all your boxes. The Kerala Tourism website lists accredited ayurvedic resorts on its website. Note that strictly speaking, mixed-sex massage should not happen in serious ayurvedic practice, and is definitely a bit dodgy.
I was persuaded to try an ayurvedic massage while I stayed in the Marari Beach Resort to get a taste of this venerable tradition. I’m not a pampering sort of chap, so my scepticism was compounded with a loss of dignity when told to strip off and put on a paper g-string nappy! Then a team of two masseurs worked me over vigorously with hot oil for the next hour or so – quite a tiring and slithery experience, so it helps if you’re passably fit to start. Afterwards, one of the masseurs asked with a beaming smile ‘Now you feel good energy sir?’ I hadn’t the heart to tell him I felt in urgent need of a shower, ice-cold beer and a lie down – without being rubbed down energetically by a brace of masseurs this time.
SPICE OF LIFE – KERALAN FOOD AND A COOKING LESSON
If you love Indian food – and who doesn’t? – Kerala’s cuisine is a real treat. The cornucopia of fresh locally-grown spices that goes into South Indian specialities makes for light and subtly flavoured dishes.
As you will discover if you take a trip to a spice plantation, turmeric, ginger, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon, cardamoms and cloves are all grown in Kerala, and make richly fragrant dishes when combined with big dollops of fresh coconut milk, curry leaves and chillis. You might not believe your eyes when you see beef curry on the menu. Beef? in the land of sacred cows? Well, yes and no. Christian Keralans love their beef curry for breakfast, but neatly sidestep the outrage of their hindu neighbours by making it with water buffalo meat, so what you’re getting is ‘buff’ rather than beef – it’s not such bad news for the sacred cow after all.
Breakfast kickstarts the day with appam (a sort of squidgy rice pancake), vada or iddli (rice flour dumplings) soaked in soupy lentil dhal and spiced up with sambar, a fiery chilli broth, and tangy coconut chutney. At lunch, you could try a ‘ready meals’ restaurant where you pay peanuts for a belly-busting all-you-can-eat array of (usually vegetarian) curries served with rice on a banana leaf or a round steel tray called a thali. It’s normal to eat with your fingers, but if the food ends up dripping from your ears and shirt, there’s no shame in asking for a spoon. For dinner, you have to try fish molee, a delicious curry often made with firm meaty kingfish. Another must-try dish is karimeen pollichathu, fish fillets marinated in spice paste and steamed in a banana leaf. The local Keralan ‘red’ rice is quite addictive too – it’s plump, fibrous grains are far more interesting than the plain white stuff. I arranged a home cooking lesson in classic Keralan dishes with Mr Motty Matthew and his wife Lali in their lovely traditional wooden Keralan house in Alleppey. We kneaded and rolled out the dough for puris and chapattis, made breakfast palappams, then a succession of curries, beef – the Matthews are a Syrian Christian family, so the beef, or rather ‘buff’ is not taboo – chicken and fish all perfumed with coconut, coriander, ginger paste and cardamoms. Making puris is endlessly entertaining as you watch the almost magical transformation of flat discs of dough become puffed balloons of bread when flipped into sizzling oil. For dessert we made paisam, a rich concoction of vermicelli noodles boiled in milk and butter with sultanas, cardamons and roasted cashews. This is not cuisine for the weight conscious. Then after a morning slaving over a hot stove, we tucked in to the sumptuous freshly-cooked banquet we had just made. You can arrange to staythrough Kerala Travel Centre www.keralatravelcentre.com http://www.alleppeybeach.com/
Great Backwaters will fascinate with the 8 Lakh fans of God’s Own Country from world over. 44 rivers, a vast network of lakes, 1500 kms of labyrinthine canals, snake boat races, over 300 species of birds, floating markets… showcasing the magnificence of Kerala backwaters reaching out to travellers and nature lovers from across the world.
KERALA RECOMMENDED HOTELS
Marari Beach Resort, Mararikulam, Kerala. A luxurious beach resort complex where palm-thatched villas are spread among 40-acres of coconut groves along the Malabar coast. At the Marari Beach Resort, ducks paddle around in lotus ponds, hammocks are slung from the coconut palms fringing the white sand beach, and if you’re in the market for a bit of wellness and pampering treatment, it has its own upmarket ayurvedic spa centre. Then there’s the excellent alfresco seafood and Keralan restaurants. Just the place for de-stressing, then. You can flake out in a curvy rattan chair on the verandah of your thatched bungalow at the end of a hard day on the beach or being pummelled by the ayurvedic masseurs. Inside, the rooms are capacious and come with outdoor bathrooms so you can shower among tropical plants – just watch out for the squadrons of mozzies when you pop out for a nocturnal call of nature! You’re a million miles from backpacker India here among a clientele of is mostly well-heeled, middle-aged cosmopolitan couples and honeymooners.
Travancore Heritage, Chowara, Kerala. The Travancore Heritage at Chowara, Kerala – stay in a traditional antique Keralan timber bungalow in this upmarket resort hotel
Picture the scene: the Arabian sea surges endlessly against a beach that fades into the haze on the horizon. A statue of Christ looks from a rocky crag over the wooden boats strewn along the sands. And perched among the coconut groves on cliffs surveying this timeless scene is the Travancore Heritage resort. The centrepiece,where reception and various public areas are located, is a 120-year-old ‘Nalukettu’ mansion. Gorgeous rooms are mostly in antique wooden houses relocated from Keralan villages, set in 15 acres of lush tropical gardens, with a huge curvaceous pool and there’s a sumptuous ayurvedic spa centre for pampering and wellness treatments. Some rooms are in a modern block called the Beach Grove at the foot of the cliff on the beach, so if it’s a heritage house you’re after make sure you’re not in this annexe, nice though it is. Super-attentive staff anticipate your every need, food is excellent – go on – push out the boat for this one – it’s worth every penny.
Tel: 91-471-2267828/2267829/2267830/2287831/2267832 Fax: 91-471-2267201. Email: email@example.com
Tallayar Estate Bungalow, Munnar, Kerala. Time seems to have stopped in the 1930s at this heritage plantation bungalow on the Tallayar tea estate
You’re in for a true time warp tea planter experience, complete with Royal Doulton sinks, Victorian claw foot baths and the scent of beeswax polish at the Tallayar Estate bungalow. The faded colonial charm of this estate feels like the owners just walked out in the 1930s and never came back. The bungalow sits high on a hillside at around 1600m among the working tea gardens of the Tallayar Estate, in fact you can arrange to spend the morning picking leaves, take them off to the tea factory and they will be processed, packed and delivered to you in the evening. Walkers can set off from the door in the fresh invigorating air that must have made the original Scottish planters homesick for the mists and glens of their homeland. When you arrive back after a day’s exertions, dinner is served at a communal table in an informal dinner party ambience with the other guests, so it helps if you’re the gregarious type.
Tel: 91-9495447748/91-9486951198/91-4865-257314. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Old Courtyard Hotel, Cochin is a lovely historic heritage hotel in the centre of Old Cochin a short stroll from the iconic Chinese fishing nets on the seafront
The Old Courtyard is a gorgeous 400-year old Portuguese colonial mansion built around an arcaded courtyard with ribbon friezes of Andalucian-style azulejo tiles beneath the arches. Eight bedrooms have foot-wide polished teak floorboards, vaulted teak ceilings, antique furniture and are bursting with character. On the downside, some rooms are a touch dark, and facilities are less than state-of-the-art. Staff are outstandingly friendly, and this is a perfect romantic place for couples. As the courtyard is a busy restaurant in the evening (and highly recommended) with live Indian music, go for one of the best three rooms on the upper floor to avoid noise disturbance.
Tel: +91-484-2216302/2215035. Email: email@example.com
KERALA – USEFUL INFORMATION
Recommended Guidebook: Rough Guide to Kerala ISBN 978-1-84353-853-0
Time difference GMT+ 5hrs 30 minutes
International dialling code to India 00 91
Exchange rate £1 = 86 Indian Rupees (rate on 15/11/12)
When to go Xmas and New Year are peak season when hotel prices hit the roof. Kerala is at its best from late December to early March, when humidity is not too strenght-sapping and clear skies can be expected. But Kerala is so green because it rains a lot, so you might get caught out by a short drenching downpour at any time. You’ll see lots of Keralans carrying an umbrella whatever the weather, since they never leave the house without one as a shield from the blistering sun, and it’s there for the next sudden shower. The heat builds steadily from March up until the monsoon unleashes its biblical deluges in June
Alcohol Kerala is a ‘dry’ state, strictly speaking, but alcohol is widely available in tourist resors, hotels and restaurants
Health The situation regarding jabs and malaria prevention is frequently updated so discuss the current state of play with a specialist travel clinic or your GP at least 6 weeks before departure
What’s in a name? Confusingly, many towns and cities in Kerala have two names. The official name in Malayalam – Kerala’s state language – is often a tongue twister, while the alternatives are easier-to-pronounce versions left over from colonial times. For example, Trivandrum is officially, Thiruvananthapuram, Alleppey is Alappuzha, Quilon is Kollam, Cochin is Kochi. You can use either – no-one will be offended, in fact most Keralans routinely call places by their traditional names when speaking English.