Serene Kochi has been drawing traders, explorers and travellers to its shores for over 600 years. Nowhere else in India could you find such an intriguing mix: giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj.
Kerala's Western Ghats
The Western Ghats form a mountainous spine in southern India, roughly along the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu. In Kerala the highest peak is Anamudi at 2695m but the average elevation is closer to 1200m. This region is thick with national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, excellent trekking and spice and tea plantations.
The Malabar Coast from Kozhikode (Calicut) north to the Karnataka border features a string of coastal villages and dazzling beaches far less touristed than those in the south, although the area around Kannur is fast developing. To the east the hills of the Western Ghats rise sharply to the beautiful Wayanad district.
The rolling hills around Munnar, South India's largest tea-growing region, are carpeted in emerald-green tea plantations, contoured, clipped and sculpted like ornamental hedges. The low mountain scenery is magnificent – you’re often up above the clouds watching veils of mist clinging to the mountaintops.
Alappuzha – most still call it Alleppey – is the hub of Kerala's backwaters, home to a vast network of waterways and more than a thousand houseboats. Wandering around the small but chaotic city centre and bus-stand area, with its modest grid of canals, you'd be hard-pressed to agree with the 'Venice of the East' tag.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary, Periyar, also called Thekkady, encompasses 777 sq km and a 26-sq-km artificial lake created by the British in 1895. The vast region is home to bison, sambar, wild boar, langur, 900 to 1000 elephants and 35 to 40 hard-to-spot tigers.
Once a calm fishing village clustered around its crescent beaches, Kovalam competes with Varkala as Kerala’s most developed resort. The touristy main stretch, Lighthouse Beach, has hotels and restaurants built up along the shore, while Hawa Beach to the north is usually crowded with day trippers heading straight from the taxi stand to the sand.
Perched almost perilously along the edge of 15m-high red laterite cliffs, the North Cliff part of Varkala has a naturally beautiful setting that has steadily grown into Kerala's most popular backpacker hang-out. A small strand of beach nuzzles Varkala’s cliff edge, where restaurants play innocuous world music and stalls sell T-shirts, baggy trousers and silver jewellery.
Kollam (Quilon) is the southern approach to Kerala’s backwaters and one end of the popular backwater ferry trip to Alleppey. One of the oldest ports in the Arabian Sea, it was once a major commercial hub that saw Roman, Arab, Chinese and later Portuguese, Dutch and British traders jostle into port – eager to get their hands on spices and the region’s cashew crops.
Northern Kerala's largest city, Kozhikode (still widely known as Calicut), was always a prosperous trading town and was once the capital of the formidable Zamorin dynasty. Vasco da Gama first landed near here in 1498, on his way to snatch a share of the subcontinent for king and country (Portugal that is).
Many Keralans rate the elevated Wayanad region as the most beautiful part of their state. Encompassing part of a remote forest reserve that spills into Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, Wayanad’s landscape combines mountain scenery, rice paddies of ludicrous green, skinny betel nut trees, bamboo, red earth, spiky ginger fields, and rubber, cardamom and coffee plantations.