Keralans are the Kiwis of India. You won’t be in the state for five minutes before somebody tells you that you’re in ‘God’s Own Country’, a slogan that the natives have adopted, and employ enthusiastically.
And like the Kiwis, you can’t really fault them for it, as their homeland really is pretty spectacular. Lush and tropical with brochure-friendly beaches, the state is known for having the highest literacy and life expectancy in India. This is the India of honeymoons, yoga retreats and houseboat cruises, far from the pollution, chaos and masses.
There is a palpable change crossing over from neighbouring state Tamil Nadu as the landscape becomes greener, denser and cleaner. The air is thicker, the roadside tea stronger. On the bus three schoolboys make conversation in good English, buy me a bag of candy floss from a hawker in the seat in front, and wish me a nice stay in Kerala.
I am traveling with the help of Hotels Under 100, who have arranged a selection of their bargain boutique hotels across the state taking in many highlights and culminating in the city of Cochin. The first stop is Shalimar Spice Garden, located just inside the Keralan border in Thekaddy, at the edges of the Periyar National Park. There’s a tropical, Bali-esque feel here as the tasteful cabins fight against the ever encroaching spice gardens that make up the resort grounds. Over my first of many coconut-rich Keralan meals I make plans to visit the National Park the following morning.
The Periyar National Park is a Tiger Reserve with strictly controlled entry but my guide Saresh tells me that at most if I’m lucky I will see bison, deer or elephant. As it turns out I have to make do with warthogs, a mongoose and lots of leeches, which we combat with knee — high leech guards and tobacco powder. Tigers or not, however, it is a stunning park and when I spot boisterous (human) families disembarking one of the boat wildlife tours I congratulate myself for opting for the much quieter walking tour option.
Venice of the East
From here it’s a half-day journey to the famed Kerala ‘backwater’ system of canals and rivers, passing through gorgeous tea country and culminating in a short boat ride to my next stay — The Emerald Isle villa near the town of Allepey. The family owned property is a beautifully converted mill with just five rooms, and with (incredible) home cooked meals and personal service it has a home stay feel. While the owners can arrange for activities — including a sunset paddle boat ride and a performance from local singers (a must) — one of the highlights is exploring the area by foot and witnessing everyday life on the waterways. On one of my strolls on the maze-like connection of walkways and bridge I start chatting to 12 year old Elizabeth and her younger brother, who are fishing, and they invite me into their home for sliced banana and a chat.
I need to get to Allepey to catch a train to the coast, and I decide to combine transport with sightseeing by taking a boat ride to town. For about £1 I enjoy the serene domestic scenes of the lush region from the ferry, a trip that would cost at least 20 times as much on a private boat organized through one of the Allepey travel agents. From here it’s a scenic 2 hour rail journey to the popular clifftop beach town of Varkala.
Arriving at the cusp of the rainy and tourist seasons I am treated to diminished crowds and overall favorable weather, staying at boutique B&B Kaiya House. The 5-room property is run by American Debra, who has an impeccable eye for design and style (each room is carefully decorated to a different country theme) and treats guests like a visiting friend. With her help I enjoy an insider view of Varkala, a unique mix of small town meets sun-seeking hippies, where you can witness traditional life AND enjoy a decent espresso. Kaiya House is the ideal base and retreat for Varkala, and highlights of my visit include a pre-dawn beachside walk, followed by a rooftop breakfast of my choosing, a clandestine visit to the temple elephant to feed her bananas, and a memorable salad at a clifftop restaurant (after 2 months in India you truly appreciate a good salad).
Cooking in Kollam
I’m even further from the madding crowds at my next stop just a 15 minute rickshaw drive away, the Fragrant Nature resort in the backwater area of Kollam. This hotel is fully blown tropical resort luxury, complete with idyllic lakeside location. Enjoying a complimentary boat tour of the serenely gorgeous lake I am joined by the only two other guests on the property (thank you, low season!), a pair of Aussie ladies who can’t believe their luck.
“We organised our trip through an internet deal and never imagined it would be so amazing!”
Besides enjoying the benefits of being on secluded privately property by soaking up the rays in a bathers (a luxury you quickly realize is rare in conservative India), the extra-curricular activity that catches my eye is the Keralan cooking course, which I sign up for.
Being a fancy kind of place, I am pleasantly surprised at the authenticity of the course which is led by the Fragrant Nature chef but held at the simple home of one of the grounds staff. While everyone who’s had Indian take away will be familiar with the dahls, jalfrezis and biryanis of the North, in the South – and particularly in Kerala – pretty much every meal involves a new experience for your tastebuds. The day began with a trip to the local market, the expected cornucopia of colorful fruit and veg, where we pick up fresh supplies and fish — a staple of the Kerala diet. My Chef tells me: “A Keralan woman doesn’t consider it a real meal unless there is fish”, sharply contrasting to the largely vegetarian North.
Back in the very local kitchen of the gardener, his wife and the chef start whipping up a storm as I take notes and try to keep up. Within about half an hour the pair have transformed our ingredients into a Keralan feast — including fish curry, spiced yam, a shredded coconut and veg dish called thoran and even a chutney made from scratch. Time will tell if my versions will taste the same back at home.
Getting used to gluttony
The gluttony continues at Beach Symphony, my resort located at an isolated spot called Marari Beach, one hour south of the city of Cochin. I arrive at night after a long journey, and against the faint sound of waves I am led to my romantically lit, spectacularly furnished bungalow. There’s a personal espresso machine in the room, a private pool out the back, and I can tell just by looking at it that the statue on my bedside table is worth more than my life savings. Chef Beepu comes round to say hello, asks me how I’d like my fish, and gestures to the prepared table on my personal veranda. All meals are to be served to my room and eaten al fresco, and there’s not another soul in site. This, I think to myself, is how the other half live.
The next day in daylight I discover that the property — comprising 4 very private bungalows, an outdoor pool and no reception area — back onto a beautiful stretch of beach used by sunbathers and fisherman alike. Although activities can be arranged here — renting a bike proves a very pleasant way to explore the area and kill an afternoon — the whole point of the place is to relax, and in style. The European couple behind the property, Christell and Jan, are clearly perfectionists, and Jan enthusiastically showed me two more exquisite properties they are developing in the region. A Beach Symphony is the clear winner in the ‘Honeymoon’ category, however restless souls beware: there’s little in the way of things to do.
The way of Walden
Reluctantly leaving behind the idyll, things get a bit Walden as I head to a cabin in the woods called Periyar River Lodge. The lodge has just two rooms, no TV and no internet; entertainment options involve swimming in the river, a wildlife-spotting canoe trip and a visit to the nearby Thattekad Bird Sanctuary. Still, the best activity here is sitting on the swing bench on the porch and watching the sunset over the stunning scene, while enjoying the abundant hospitality of the host Luigi. Be warned that even if you are on your own there will be enough food for 6, and he will make sure you eat it all. The mango curry here remains a culinary highlight of Kerala.
One last rickety bus ride takes me to my last destination, and a completely different world. Cochin is a sprawling port city with a colorful past — having been historically settled by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Brits, a distinct cosmopolitan streak remains to this day. As far as cities is India go, this is great one to hang out in, and staying at the immaculate Tissa’s Inn hotel, located in the best part of what can seem a bafflingly spread out city, is the best way to enjoy it. The joys of Cochin are very modern — fantastic antique and clothes shopping, great fusion food, arty cafés — but as a way of easing myself back into urban life I find it the perfect ending place.
Just as I’m gearing to leave the tourists are starting to arrive — in a week’s time the hotel prices will be doubled and the café’s full. But I’m grateful to have had God’s Own Country as my own country.
A long thin sliver on the south western coast of the sub continent, Kerala is bordered by Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Over 32 million people live in the state and the national language is Malayalam. I visited early to mid September.
I traveled using public transport; a combination of bus, train and rickshaw, to keep costs down. While it’s safe and dirt cheap to travel this way in Kerala, it can be a headache at times with changes and connections, so the majority of foreign visitors hire a car and driver for ease and convenience.
My accommodation was organised by Hotels Under 100, who offer a selection of unique luxury properties, many well under £100 for 2 sharing.
In Kerala I stayed in:
Shalimar Spice Garden, Periyar
Emerald Isle, Backwaters near Allepey
Kaiya House, Varkala
Fragrant Nature, Kollam
A Beach Symphony, Marari Beach
Periyar River Lodge, Anakkayam
Tissa’s Inn, Cochin
TOP IMAGE: Traditional Kerala makeup (Ambadysasi/Pixabay)