From coconut palm-lined coasts and rolling hills of tea to elephant and tiger reserves, travelling in this slender Indian state is as easy as a glide through its backwaters.

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.

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 beings.”

Further information
Browse backwater routes and a history of the Alappuzha area at

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 (from £205).

Kochi:  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.

Once home 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.”

However, 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.

Further information
For more information, see and Read about the history of Jewish people in Kerala at

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 (from £328).

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.

Munnar 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.”

Her best 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.

Further information
Find tea, spices and history at

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.

Royal 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.

Nilgiri 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.

Tiger and 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 this area.

NB “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.”

He can 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 working.”

Further information
For information on wildlife and indigenous peoples, see 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.