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.
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.
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.
Get started with kovalam.com.
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.
A lot has changed here, but women still wash dishes and laundry by the water’s
edge then hang the wet clothes over twig fences to dry. Kids still play in the
water and farmers herd ducklings to feed in paddy fields. Men punt small boats
weighed down with cargo or anchor them and dive for mussels. And “toddy
tappers” glide along the water early each morning to palm trees along the
shore, which they milk for sap used to make Kerala’s favourite traditional
drink: palm wine.
Biju Puthenpurayal has tapped palm wine – the aforementioned “toddy” – for 20
years. Tapping requires a machete, a deer bone, a clay pot and lots of skill –
all while at the top of a palm tree. “Toddy’s good for you,” he says, “so I
have some every day. Even kids drink it – just a tiny bit with dried fruit.”
Biju taps his trees in the morning and takes the product to the government
shops; the wine, which tastes vaguely of coconut and bread, gets stronger as
the day wears on. It’s a good living, but he never knows what kind of yield he’s
going to get: “Each tree behaves a little differently – just like human
routes and a history of the Alappuzha area at alappuzha.com.
Where to eat
At the Raheem
Residency, a charming heritage hotel on Alappuzha’s beach, rooftop restaurant Chakara serves up subtly spiced dishes that combine
Keralan and European flavours (mains from £9).
Where to stay
Muthoot’s houseboats have comfortable rooms that feel like they could be on land – if it
weren’t for the 360-degree water views through their wide, open windows. Some
boats have upper-storey lounges that catch the breeze as they meander along
Best for history
“When I was young,
there was no-one here in Jew Town who wasn’t a Jew,” says Reema Roby Salem who,
with her husband Gumliel, is among the 10 remaining Jews in Kochi’s historic
neighbourhood – the aforementioned Jew Town, tucked away in the Fort Kochi
district. “Now, it’s like Non-Jew Town!” she laughs.
to three synagogues and thousands of Jewish people, Jew Town will likely vanish
after its mostly elderly residents pass away. First the population was hit hard
by Portuguese persecution in the 16th century, then many fled to Israel in
1948. As Gumliel explains, “The birth of Israel was the death of Jew Town.”
Kerala’s coast has had a strong Jewish community since at least the first century,
and probably earlier. “The maharajas,” explains Reema Auntie, “were very good
to the Jews.” The rajas and their predecessors were good to a lot of people:
this stretch of coast has welcomed traders and refugees for millennia, since
the times when places had names like Mesopotamia and people went crazy for
Kerala’s spices, which seemed exotic, aphrodisiacal and, for the Egyptians,
suitable for mummification. In any given century, the region teemed with
traders from around the world – Arabs, Romans, Moors, Chinese and Portuguese,
among others. The stories they brought home, of street bazaars overflowing with
spices, silk and gold, made this coast world-famous. Warehouses, forts and
mansions in styles borrowed from traders’ and settlers’ home countries were
built to hold it all in, while imports like Chinese fishing nets, modified by
the Portuguese, took their place on Kochi’s riverfront.
Kochi is no
longer an international trading post of exotic goods and traders from faraway
lands, but the air remains thick with history and the smells of cardamom,
pepper and ginger for sale in the spice shops that still line the streets. The
European-era bungalows, with their terracotta roof tiles, and butter-yellow or
mint-green façades, are still there, as are the waterfront spice warehouses, St
Francis CSI Church (India’s oldest European church), Paradesi Synagogue and
Mattancherry Palace. And as the sun goes down on River Road, fishermen tidy up
their Chinese nets, coconut wallahs serve up the sweet water from their carts,
kids play with pinwheels and women in bright saris sit on park benches after
their work is done, just as they have for centuries.
information, see ernakulam.com and cochin.org. Read about the history of Jewish
people in Kerala at cochinsyn.com.
Where to eat
The Old Courtyard
does fine pasta and fish dishes, its catches coming from the Chinese fishing
nets down the road (mains from £4).
Where to stay
Set in a restored
19th-century shipbuilding facility and full of colonial antiques and
reproductions, The Brunton Boatyard Hotel is Kochi’s best place to stay for
time travel. Rooms, some with tall antique four-poster beds, overlook the
harbour and pool and have balconies from which to imagine ancient sea journeys
Munnar: Best for tea
In Munnar, the palm
trees, sunny paddy fields and lazily flowing waters of Kerala’s plains give way
to rushing waterfalls, mountain forests and moody weather. Roads are lined with
pendulous white flowers known as angels’ trumpets, and tall trees draped in
vines and mist host Malabar squirrels. The overlapping hills of tea
plantations, which seem to go on forever, are covered in an electric-green
carpet of bushes that look like fluffy clouds.
produces about 10 per cent of the country’s tea, often served black, its
flavour subtle and nuanced. The British made this area a summer retreat before
recognising its suitability for tea production due to its weather, elevation
and terrain (hills must slant at 45 degrees, among other things). With Tamil
workers, the British broke through the forest to plant tea and lay a mountain
rail line. More than 100 years later, most plantations are run by the Kanan
Devan Hills Plantations Company, a co-operative owned by 12,000 worker-shareholders
including Lilly Pushpam, a “tea plucker”.
“We drink a lot of tea here,” Lilly says. “It’s so cold, you have to!” Her
family’s single-room apartment is in a long row of houses, each a different
shade of purple. Like many tea workers here, Lilly’s family is Tamil, and she
started working when she was just 12. Plucking involves removing only the buds
and top two leaves of the tree. “We like to harvest with our hands,” she says,
“but we have to use the shears, which wears our shoulders out.”
friend, Maria Packiam, who works at the neighbourhood crèche, objects: “Plucking
is the best work! You get water, electrical, medical, childcare!” The two laugh
and bicker before Lilly serves the tea, sweet and served in little glasses,
which everyone savours for a few minutes before getting back to work.
Find tea, spices
and history at munnar.com.
Where to eat
The restaurant at Blackberry Hills, along Bison Valley Road in Pothamedu, has Keralan and North Indian
dishes served with phulka – the traditional Keralan roti (mains from £2).
Where to stay
The Windermere Estate is a family-owned cardamom plantation perfectly situated for trekking.
Little paths wind through its gardens, and most of the large rooms and cottages
have balconies overlooking the Chithirapuram valley (from £98).
Wayanad: Best for wildlife
When a sambar deer
thinks it’s about to be killed by a tiger, it makes a piercing noise between a
shriek and a burp. But this deer is frozen as she stares at the Royal Bengal
slinking past dry shrubs nearby. She’s lucky: the tiger is licking his chops,
which means he’s just eaten, and is now only looking for a spot to take a nap.
Bengal tigers are endangered and many people visit India’s wildlife reserves
without spotting one. Yet their numbers here have been steadily climbing since
the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve was created in 1986. The sanctuary spills across
Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and has been relatively successful in
preserving the area’s many endangered creatures.
comprises six protected areas, from the forests of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary,
with its teak, sandalwood and eucalyptus groves, to the dry meadows of its
Karnatakan neighbour, Bandipur National Park. It’s common to see peacocks,
families of spotted deer and gray langurs, wild boar, monitor lizards, grey
mongooses, kaleidoscopically coloured birds, and some of the reserve’s
thousands of elephants.
leopard sightings are for the lucky, and only one black panther has been
spotted. The reserve was designed to create a sustainable equilibrium between
the flora, fauna and local population, and more than a million people live in
“Kuttappan” Sudesan, an ornithologist and guide in Bandipur, grew up in an
indigenous community in Tamil Nadu’s Mudumalai National Park. “When I was a
boy,” he says, “my friends and I used to kill birds and eat them.” “We’d set
traps made with sticks.” As he grew older, learning about wildlife became more
interesting. “A director at a wildlife camp I went to said we can’t live
without birds – they’re essential to our ecosystem – and something changed in
me. I just couldn’t kill them anymore.”
replicate the calls of many birds, but the tiger is his favourite animal: “I’ve
seen 68,” he says. “The population is increasing nicely. The reserve is
For information on
wildlife and indigenous peoples, see nilgiribiospherereserve.com. Sanctuaryasia.com is good for information on Bandipur and Nagarhole.
Where to eat
At the Tranquil resort, Western and Keralan dishes, and coffee, are served buffet-style.
Where to stay
The Tree House at Tranquil has
trunks growing through it, birdsong all around, engrossing treetop views from
its wraparound balcony and all the amenities. Regular rooms have homey touches
and a communal porch for comparing the day’s animal sightings (Tree House £249,
doubles from £192).
The article 'The perfect trip: Kerala' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.