The Perfect Trip: Kerala, India
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 beachesAll good Indianstories start with a queen. In the princely days before Independence, Kovalamsstory starred a quiet fishing beach, an unassuming maharani (queen) who foundthe area pleasing and a clifftop palace built for her to while away themonsoon. Years later, locals followed the queens lead, with picnics, andhippies werent far behind. Now paths run through palm-tree groves toguesthouses, beachfront restaurants serve up the morning haul andbeach-umbrella wallahs offer shade and lounge chairs.Hawa Beach, near the candy-stripe lighthouse on the headland, may be theliveliest. Here, little boys slurp ice lollies from the ice-cream rickshaw,toddlers sit in their underwear at the waters edge and teenage girls dressedin salwar kameezes (traditional outfits of tunic and trousers) hold hands inthe water, giggling and shrieking with every wave. Further down the beach, twobest friends sit apart from their software engineer colleagues playing cricket,sifting the sand through their hands as they talk about their new husbands andtheir lives back in Trivandrum.JeffyPaulose, one of Kovalams lifeguards, points to the fully clothed beachgoers ininch-deep water nearby: We Indians dont study swimming in school, so everyonestays close to shore, he says. The beach here has such a communal feel thatlifesaving quickly becomes a group activity. One person starts flailing, saysJeffy with a good-natured chortle. We go to help, then everyone comes to help,and then everyones flailing.Kovalam is also a working beach town with an ancient fishing culture. At PoovarBeach, which is located a mile or two from Hawa, lights from hundreds of boatsblink on the horizon at dawn, while men hike up their lunghis (garments similarto sarongs) to sit and wait for the work to come in. When the colourfullystriped boats arrive, teams of men pull them in, along with the gargantuannets, singing as they do so. Everything from catching, hauling, cooking andselling fish here involves the whole family; most people start young, learningfrom their parents, and continue the job for life.Itsdifficult to imagine just how close these families are to the sea. However, youcan see it on the faces of elderly men who, too old to work, still come toPoovar each morning, just to be near the water.Further informationGet started with toeatLocal families makethe trip to Trivandrum for Ariya Nivaas, which serves an exquisite vegetarianthali an all-you-can-eat meal with rice and several small dishes, sides andsoups to go with it in simple surrounds (thalis 80p; Aristo Junction,Manorama Road; 00 91 471 2330 789).Where to stayThe traditional cottages at Surya Samudra have teak four-posters, modernbath gardens and heaps of charm, and are set in expansive gardens. Many ofthem overlook the resorts crescent beach regarded as the best patch of sandin Kovalam (doubles from 195).Alappuzha: Best for backwatersOn a quiet night, the joints in the rice barge houseboats bamboo framecreak with the current and a crowd of stars shines on the upper deck. Every nowand then the waves lap a little faster on the side of the boat as fishermen ina dugout canoe pass by. Wind blows through the palm and banana trees onshore,tapping and clicking the leaves together, while the sound of chanting floatsover from a far-off Hindu temple.Keralans never used these rice barges as houseboats much less those withluxury bedrooms and personal chefs. Known as kettuvallams, the traditionalbarges were first built to bring rice and spices to Kochi via 560 miles ofinterconnected 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 watersedge then hang the wet clothes over twig fences to dry. Kids still play in thewater and farmers herd ducklings to feed in paddy fields. Men punt small boatsweighed down with cargo or anchor them and dive for mussels. And toddytappers glide along the water early each morning to palm trees along theshore, which they milk for sap used to make Keralas favourite traditionaldrink: palm wine.Biju Puthenpurayal has tapped palm wine the aforementioned toddy for 20years. Tapping requires a machete, a deer bone, a clay pot and lots of skill all while at the top of a palm tree. Toddys good for you, he says, so Ihave 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 governmentshops; the wine, which tastes vaguely of coconut and bread, gets stronger asthe day wears on. Its a good living, but he never knows what kind of yield hesgoing to get: Each tree behaves a little differently just like humanbeings.Further informationBrowse backwaterroutes and a history of the Alappuzha area at to eatAt the RaheemResidency, a charming heritage hotel on Alappuzhas beach, rooftop restaurant Chakara serves up subtly spiced dishes that combineKeralan and European flavours (mains from 9).Where to stayMuthoots houseboats have comfortable rooms that feel like they could be on land if itwerent for the 360-degree water views through their wide, open windows. Someboats have upper-storey lounges that catch the breeze as they meander along(from 205).Kochi:Best for historyWhen I was young,there was no-one here in Jew Town who wasnt a Jew, says Reema Roby Salem who,with her husband Gumliel, is among the 10 remaining Jews in Kochis historicneighbourhood the aforementioned Jew Town, tucked away in the Fort Kochidistrict. Now, its like Non-Jew Town! she laughs.Once hometo three synagogues and thousands of Jewish people, Jew Town will likely vanishafter its mostly elderly residents pass away. First the population was hit hardby Portuguese persecution in the 16th century, then many fled to Israel in1948. As Gumliel explains, The birth of Israel was the death of Jew Town.However,Keralas coast has had a strong Jewish community since at least the first century,and probably earlier. The maharajas, explains Reema Auntie, were very goodto 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, sincethe times when places had names like Mesopotamia and people went crazy forKeralas spices, which seemed exotic, aphrodisiacal and, for the Egyptians,suitable for mummification. In any given century, the region teemed withtraders from around the world Arabs, Romans, Moors, Chinese and Portuguese,among others. The stories they brought home, of street bazaars overflowing withspices, silk and gold, made this coast world-famous. Warehouses, forts andmansions in styles borrowed from traders and settlers home countries werebuilt to hold it all in, while imports like Chinese fishing nets, modified bythe Portuguese, took their place on Kochis riverfront.Kochi is nolonger an international trading post of exotic goods and traders from farawaylands, 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. TheEuropean-era bungalows, with their terracotta roof tiles, and butter-yellow ormint-green faades, are still there, as are the waterfront spice warehouses, StFrancis CSI Church (Indias oldest European church), Paradesi Synagogue andMattancherry Palace. And as the sun goes down on River Road, fishermen tidy uptheir 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 aftertheir work is done, just as they have for centuries.Further informationFor moreinformation, see and cochin.org. Read about the history of Jewishpeople in Kerala at to eatThe Old Courtyarddoes fine pasta and fish dishes, its catches coming from the Chinese fishingnets down the road (mains from 4).Where to staySet in a restored19th-century shipbuilding facility and full of colonial antiques andreproductions, The Brunton Boatyard Hotel is Kochis best place to stay fortime travel. Rooms, some with tall antique four-poster beds, overlook theharbour and pool and have balconies from which to imagine ancient sea journeys(from 328).Munnar: Best for teaIn Munnar, the palmtrees, sunny paddy fields and lazily flowing waters of Keralas plains give wayto rushing waterfalls, mountain forests and moody weather. Roads are lined withpendulous white flowers known as angels trumpets, and tall trees draped invines and mist host Malabar squirrels. The overlapping hills of teaplantations, which seem to go on forever, are covered in an electric-greencarpet of bushes that look like fluffy clouds.Munnarproduces about 10 per cent of the countrys tea, often served black, itsflavour subtle and nuanced. The British made this area a summer retreat beforerecognising its suitability for tea production due to its weather, elevationand terrain (hills must slant at 45 degrees, among other things). With Tamilworkers, the British broke through the forest to plant tea and lay a mountainrail line. More than 100 years later, most plantations are run by the KananDevan Hills Plantations Company, a co-operative owned by 12,000 worker-shareholdersincluding Lilly Pushpam, a tea plucker.We drink a lot of tea here, Lilly says. Its so cold, you have to! Herfamilys single-room apartment is in a long row of houses, each a differentshade of purple. Like many tea workers here, Lillys family is Tamil, and shestarted working when she was just 12. Plucking involves removing only the budsand 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 bestfriend, Maria Packiam, who works at the neighbourhood crche, objects: Pluckingis the best work! You get water, electrical, medical, childcare! The two laughand 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 informationFind tea, spicesand history at to eatThe restaurant at Blackberry Hills, along Bison Valley Road in Pothamedu, has Keralan and North Indiandishes served with phulka the traditional Keralan roti (mains from 2).Where to stayThe 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 cottageshave balconies overlooking the Chithirapuram valley (from 98).Wayanad: Best for wildlifeWhen a sambar deerthinks its about to be killed by a tiger, it makes a piercing noise between ashriek and a burp. But this deer is frozen as she stares at the Royal Bengalslinking past dry shrubs nearby. Shes lucky: the tiger is licking his chops,which means hes just eaten, and is now only looking for a spot to take a nap.RoyalBengal tigers are endangered and many people visit Indias wildlife reserveswithout spotting one. Yet their numbers here have been steadily climbing sincethe Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve was created in 1986. The sanctuary spills acrossKerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, and has been relatively successful inpreserving the areas many endangered creatures.Nilgiricomprises six protected areas, from the forests of Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary,with its teak, sandalwood and eucalyptus groves, to the dry meadows of itsKarnatakan neighbour, Bandipur National Park. Its common to see peacocks,families of spotted deer and gray langurs, wild boar, monitor lizards, greymongooses, kaleidoscopically coloured birds, and some of the reservesthousands of elephants.Tiger andleopard sightings are for the lucky, and only one black panther has beenspotted. The reserve was designed to create a sustainable equilibrium betweenthe flora, fauna and local population, and more than a million people live inthis area.NBKuttappan Sudesan, an ornithologist and guide in Bandipur, grew up in anindigenous community in Tamil Nadus Mudumalai National Park. When I was aboy, he says, my friends and I used to kill birds and eat them. Wed settraps made with sticks. As he grew older, learning about wildlife became moreinteresting. A director at a wildlife camp I went to said we cant livewithout birds theyre essential to our ecosystem and something changed inme. I just couldnt kill them anymore.He canreplicate the calls of many birds, but the tiger is his favourite animal: Iveseen 68, he says. The population is increasing nicely. The reserve isworking.Further informationFor information onwildlife and indigenous peoples, see is good for information on Bandipur and Nagarhole.Where to eatAt the Tranquil resort, Western and Keralan dishes, and coffee, are served buffet-style.Where to stayThe Tree House at Tranquil hastrunks growing through it, birdsong all around, engrossing treetop views fromits wraparound balcony and all the amenities. Regular rooms have homey touchesand a communal porch for comparing the days animal sightings (Tree House 249,doubles from 192). The article 'The perfect trip: Kerala' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.