Ashlee Starratt explores the idyllic backwaters of ‘God’s Own Country’ in the riotously vibrant south Indian state of Kerala.
To travel to India is a rite of passage, and to embrace it fully is to give oneself over to an assault on the senses. From the cacophonous clatter of horns amid the controlled chaos of its traffic, to a neon rainbow of saris, fruit-stands and shops crammed chock-a-block, to the sizzle, scent, and spice of roadside vada vendors and tea-stalls, and the haze, heat, and humidity offset by the deluge of its monsoon rains.
Welcome to Kerala, the land of coconuts – God’s Own Country. Long a favourite of backpackers to India’s south, it’s a retreat away from the throngs of Mumbai or the hedonism of Goa for those seeking the restorative properties of its yoga ashrams and ayurvedic tradition. Its size is such that with a good week to 10 days intrepid wanderers can cover a lot of ground for sight-seeing. While most opt to fly into the larger and more northerly city of Kochin, travelers shouldn’t overlook the advantages of touching down in Trivandrum, the state capital further south. It’s a prime jumping-off point to access some of the state’s most gorgeous beaches and ayurvedic retreats.
Just a 25-minute drive from Trivandrum International Airport and you’re in the beach-side tourist hub of Kovalam, with its long sandy stretches of unspoiled coastline, dotted with small, stand-alone resorts and hotels, restaurants, shops and the like. You won’t find any of the large-scale hotel chains here in Kerala – so doing your research ahead of time for accommodation is key.
We stayed in the Udaya Samudra Beach Hotel – the second largest property in the area after The Leela Kovalam and, while it was an older resort, it’s rustic esthetic still managed to charm – as did happy hours by any one of its three pools, along with the healing properties of its traditional ayurvedic spa.
For city explorers, Trivandrum itself offers up some notable landmarks for visitors such as Padmanabhaswamy Temple – the golden Hindu shrine dedicated to Vishnu, the Napier Museum and its surrounding botanical gardens which also house the Trivandrum Zoo, or hop in one of the many auto-rickshaws and take in the colonial architecture of the city centre as you pass along its congested streets.
Day-trippers who want to hire a driver can head out to explore nearby Kanyankumari. A three-hour drive from the capital in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, it’s the southernmost tip of the subcontinent and marks the point where three bodies of water meet – the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. Considered a holy place, people flock to watch the sunrise and sunset over its island temple, which is presided over by a 133-metre tall stone statue of the Tamil scholar Tiruvalluvar.
No trip to Kerala is complete without experiencing its iconic backwaters by houseboat. A chain of channels, estuaries, lagoons, and lakes located in the state’s Alappuzha District that once marked the heart of the region’s trade routes, it’s a traditional way of life for those who live by the shores of its waterways. To navigate the backwaters on a houseboat is to be transported to a simpler time – the sheer beauty of sky, palm trees, and water, and the snapshots of life along their banks.
All houseboats come equipped with A/C, showers, and all mod-cons, while the onboard staff will prepare what’s most likely to be some of the best Keralan cuisine you’ll have on your trip – think rich sambars, sweet pineapple pulisseri, fiery fish and prawn curries, piping-hot dosa and succulent coconut chutneys. This is Kerala’s heart on a plate.
Finally, no trip to God’s Own Country would be complete without making the trek to the hill stations of Munnar to drink in their sweeping vistas and wander the iconic tea plantations. Located in the Western Ghats mountain range about a five-hour drive from Trivandrum, Munnar was a former resort area during the Colonial period for the British Raj elite. Today, it continues to draw visitors seeking breathing space against a backdrop straight out of a fairy-tale.
My favourite place- Varkala Beach. A 90-minute drive from Trivandrum, head to Varkala in the off-season of March or April, when no throngs of tourists crowd its cliffside shops, bars, restaurants, and resorts. You’ll have the beach practically to yourself to take a dip in its sacred waters. It’s said those who bathe here will have their sins washed away with the tide.
Highlights- Visit mid-August to take in the state-wide Hindu Onam festival celebrations, head to Poovar for a mini-boat excursion along its Arjuna backwaters, and scale the Vizhinjam Lighthouse for one of the most breath-taking views in all of Kovalam Beach.
Lowlights- Travel from June onwards and you’re edging into monsoon season. Expect power outages, flooding, and flight delays. Also, the mosquitoes are relentless – and, while malaria is still considered low-risk in Kerala it’s best to take simple precautions such as the use of bug-spray and prescription anti-malarials.
Souvenirs- Traditional elephant carvings or Kathakali masks, intricate sari fabrics, gold bangles, and a bag of Kerala’s ubiquitous fresh banana chips!
Getting there- Oman Air flies daily to Trivandrum and Kochin. Once in Kerala navigating can be tricky. While there are auto-rickshaws aplenty, language barriers can sometimes be an issue. For day-trips and longer journeys it’s recommended to hire a driver – this can be done through a travel agency or tour operator through your hotel.
Where to stay- The two largest resorts in Kovalam are The Leela Kovalam and Udaya Samudra Beach Resort; there’s also a Radisson Blu in Alappuzha. And, while all hotel categories are available, it’s best to do your research online before booking – Trip Advisor and Booking.com are good places to start.
1. Explore the Thekkady region’s Periyar National Park, a wildlife refuge for tigers and elephants.
2. Try the spicy fish-head curry from one of the local toddy shops along the river while house-boating in Alappuzha.
3. Wander the historic district of Fort Kochi and its melting pot of cultural influences – Indo-Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Jain, and more.
4. Eat with your hands. Try it – you’ll be surprised. It’s the Keralan way and your food tastes better when you have a connection to it.
5. Climb the Ponmudi, or ‘Golden Peak’ hill station, and navigate its 22 hairpin turns.