If you have ever dreamt of spending a night on a kettuvallum (rice barge) houseboat, cruising the backwaters while an on-board chef prepares fresh barbecued fish or a succulent Keralan curry, you’ve already got the Kerala bug. But there’s a whole other Kerala lying north of Kochi that is only just starting to capture travellers’ imaginations.
The beaches, backwaters and wildlife sanctuaries in the southern half of the state are now established stops on the traveller trail, but those in the know are turning their attention to the north of Kerala, where the Arabian Sea beaches are just as gobsmacking, the wildlife sanctuaries just as teeming, the temple rituals even more mind-blowing and the impact of tourism is only just starting to be felt. Welcome to Northern Kerala, authentically Indian and far from the regular tourist trail.
Blissful beaches & backwater backwaters
When people talk about Keralan beaches, they usually mean Kovalam and the clifftop backpacker enclave at Varkala. Both are beloved and lovely, but touristy and crammed in the winter season, with wall-to-wall resorts, restaurants and souvenir stalls. But north of Kochi is an interrupted and virtually people-free stretch of Arabian Sea coast just begging to be explored, and not a trinket seller in sight.
The best and most accessible seashore is around Kannur. Just 8km south of Kannur city, Thottada beach is home to fishing villages and a growing number of charming, local homestays, where you can stay relatively cheaply with a local family and eat some of the best home-cooked meals India has to offer. If you like your beaches golden and deserted, other than the odd fishing boat being hauled in from the breakers, this is the place to stay - just endless sand as far as the eye can see and glorious sunsets melting into the ocean. Be warned though: the sand shelves steeply and rips are strong, so paddling rather than swimming may be the order of the day.
The north can’t really compete with the famous backwaters in the south, but the Valiyaparamba inlets near Bekal, fed by five rivers and fringed by palm groves, have the advantage of being almost tourist-free. Visitors can take their pick of the houseboats offered by Bekal Boat Stay, or unwind in a stilted bungalow homestay care of Valiyaparamba Retreat (touristdesk.in/valiyaparambaretreat.htm).
Travelling south of Bekal, you’ll find more Malabar coast beaches – including India’s only drivable beach at Muzhappilangad – before you reach tiny Mahé, surrounded by, but not actually part of, Kerala. Technically, this is an outpost of the Union Territory of Puducherry (Pondicherry), formerly part of French India. Today the riverfront promenade with its Parisian-style street lamps and whitewashed churches are the most obvious concessions to Frenchness, but the town is also exempt from Kerala's strict licensing laws, and every third shop is an open-fronted 'wine' store with giant brand-name signs catering to Keralan duty-free shoppers.
Tremendous temple rituals
The southern Keralan art form of kathakali - a highly stylised and elaborate form of temple dance, mime and theatre - is understandably renowned, but fewer people know about the equally absorbing theyyam, a unique and ancient temple ritual combining dance, religion, mysticism and just a hint of madness. Unlike the kathakali performances on show in Kochi, theyyam is not a show for tourists: it’s an experience felt deeply by all those watching and performing.
After hours of make-up, costume preparation and devotional ceremonies, dancers gather in kavus (sacred groves) and the mayhem unfolds. Amid frenzied dancing and wild drumming, participants slip into a form of trance, losing their physical identity and taking on the role of a deity. There are nearly 450 different theyyam characters, each with a distinct pattern of face paint and intricately crafted headdresses and robes.
Performances take place on auspicious occasions throughout northern Kerala, starting at dusk and often continuing until sunrise. From November to April there should be a theyyam performance happening somewhere in the Kannur region almost every night – local homestays can help you find it. As a visitor you’ll be welcomed if you follow temple rules and remain unobtrusive and respectful. A close second to attending a theyyam ritual is witnessing the Keralan martial art of kalarippayat, an acrobatic display of weapons, shields and fire-blowing leaps; some of the best practitioners of the northern school of kalarippayat trained at the CVN Kalari academy in Kozhikode.
Where the wild things are
From the northern coast, a series of serpentine roads wind up to the hills - the dizzying hairpin bends as you climb from Kozhikode offer spectacular views back to the plains. The highlands of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary easily rival the famous southern wildlife sanctuaries of Periyar and Neyyar for natural beauty, and this is the best place in southern India to spot wild elephants. Even from the roadside outside the sanctuary, elephants are regularly seen in the undergrowth, along with deer and monkeys; there are even a few rarely seen tigers.
The Wayanad Region covers a vast area of northeast Kerala, with the actual sanctuary forming a relatively small area on the borders with Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The rest of Wayanad is a peaceful mix of spice and tea plantations, rice paddies and villages, offering easily accessible hill trekking for active types. More sedentary visitors may prefer to check into one of Wayanad's remote homestays and eco-resorts to relax, surrounded by unspoilt nature.
The traditional route to northern Kerala has been from the south, but roads run south from Mysore, Bangalore and Ooty through Wayanad, offering a backroute to this Keralan backwater. Things will get easier in 2017, when Kannur International Airport opens. About 30km from Kannur town, this will be the biggest air-hub in Kerala, allowing travellers to fly directly into northern Kerala, avoiding long bus or train rides from the existing airports at Kochi and Trivandrum.
Homestays are nothing new in Kerala – owners of ancestral homes in Kochi practically invented the concept in India – but they are flourishing now in northern Kerala, both on the coast and in the highlands. They’re still very much family homes though, uncluttered, unaffected and where home-style cooking is guaranteed. See Lonely Planet's India guidebook for some top recommendations.