The perfect trip: Kerala, India
Fishing boats return to shore in Kochi, India. (Associated Press)
Travelling in Kerala is as easy and rewarding as a glide through its backwaters. From coconut palm-lined coasts and rolling hills of tea to elephant and tiger reserves, this slender state has a lot to offer.
Kovalam: Best for beaches
All good Indian stories start with a queen. In the princely days before Independence, Kovalam’s story starred a quiet fishing beach, an unassuming maharani (queen) who found the area pleasing and a clifftop palace built for her to while away the monsoon. Years later, locals followed the queen’s lead, with picnics, and hippies weren’t far behind. Now paths run through palm-tree groves to guesthouses, beachfront restaurants serve up the morning haul and beach-umbrella wallahs offer shade and lounge chairs.
Hawa Beach, near the candy-stripe lighthouse on the headland, may be the liveliest. Here, little boys slurp ice lollies from the ice-cream rickshaw, toddlers sit in their underwear at the water’s edge and teenage girls dressed in salwar kameezes (traditional outfits of tunic and trousers) hold hands in the water, giggling and shrieking with every wave. Further down the beach, two best friends sit apart from their software engineer colleagues playing cricket, sifting the sand through their hands as they talk about their new husbands and their lives back in Trivandrum.
Jeffy Paulose, one of Kovalam’s lifeguards, points to the fully clothed beachgoers in inch-deep water nearby: “We Indians don’t study swimming in school, so everyone stays close to shore,” he says. The beach here has such a communal feel that lifesaving quickly becomes a group activity. “One person starts flailing,” says Jeffy with a good-natured chortle. “We go to help, then everyone comes to help, and then everyone’s flailing.”
Kovalam is also a working beach town with an ancient fishing culture. At Poovar Beach, which is located a mile or two from Hawa, lights from hundreds of boats blink on the horizon at dawn, while men hike up their lunghis (garments similar to sarongs) to sit and wait for the work to come in. When the colourfully striped boats arrive, teams of men pull them in, along with the gargantuan nets, singing as they do so. Everything from catching, hauling, cooking and selling fish here involves the whole family; most people start young, learning from their parents, and continue the job for life.
It’s difficult to imagine just how close these families are to the sea. However, you can see it on the faces of elderly men who, too old to work, still come to Poovar each morning, just to be near the water.
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Where to eat
Local families make the trip to Trivandrum for Ariya Nivaas, which serves an exquisite vegetarian thali – an all-you-can-eat meal with rice and several small dishes, sides and soups to go with it – in simple surrounds (thalis 80p; Aristo Junction, Manorama Road; 00 91 471 2330 789).
Where to stay
The traditional cottages at Surya Samudra have teak four-posters, modern “bath gardens” and heaps of charm, and are set in expansive gardens. Many of them overlook the resort’s crescent beach – regarded as the best patch of sand in Kovalam (doubles from £195).
Alappuzha: Best for backwaters
On a quiet night, the joints in the rice barge houseboat’s bamboo frame creak with the current and a crowd of stars shines on the upper deck. Every now and then the waves lap a little faster on the side of the boat as fishermen in a dugout canoe pass by. Wind blows through the palm and banana trees onshore, tapping and clicking the leaves together, while the sound of chanting floats over from a far-off Hindu temple.
Keralans never used these rice barges as houseboats – much less those with luxury bedrooms and personal chefs. Known as kettuvallams, the traditional barges were first built to bring rice and spices to Kochi via 560 miles of interconnected backwater rivers, canals and lagoons. Roads made them obsolete, but visitors later realised what a nice ride they were.