Travelling in Kerala is as easy and rewarding as a glide through its backwaters. In this excerpt from an article first published in Lonely Planet Magazine, we give you the highlights from coconut palm-lined coasts to elephant and tiger reserves.
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.
Learn more: get started with kovalam.com.
Where to eat: local families make the trip to Trivandrum for Ariya Nivaas, which serves an exquisite vegetarian thali in simple surrounds (thalis 80p; Aristo Junction, Manorama Road; 00 91 471 2330 789).
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.
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 and men anchor small boats 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.
Learn more: browse backwater 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; raheemresidency.com).
Kochi: best for history
Kerala’s coast has had a strong Jewish community since at least the first century, and probably earlier. 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.
Kochi is no longer an international trading post, but the air remains thick with history and the smells of cardamom, pepper and ginger for sale in the spice shops. 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.
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; oldcourtyard.com).
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. 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.
Learn more: 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; blackberryresorts.com).
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.