South India’s most serenely beautiful state offers travellers a soul-soothing amble a world away from the frenzy of the rest of the country.
Atrip to Kerala can be viewed as the Indian equivalent of coming up for air. While the rest of India is rarely anything less than mind-blowing, the nation’s more challenging aspects (bureaucracy, lack of personal space and pollution to name three) can grind down even the hardiest of traveller.
It’s not like that in the nation’s southern idyll. Sure, the cities of Trivandrum and Kochi are plenty buzzy, but the rest of this lush state exists in its own laid-back, tropical continuum.
From the beaches of Varkala in the south to the historic colonial charm of Fort Cochin and the cool mountain enclave of Munnar further north, the state abounds with natural beauty and possesses one of India’s most developed infrastructures for tourism.
1. CHARTER A HOUSEBOAT TO EXPLORE BEAUTIFUL BACKWATERS
For many visitors, the highlight of a trip to Kerala is an exploration of its beautiful backwaters: A 900 km network of palm-fringed channels and lakes that run parallel to the Arabian Sea coastline.
This luminous waterworld, teeming with wildlife and dotted with agrarian communities where inhabitants till the earth and harvest the depths for a living, is best experienced by chartering a kettuvallam (converted rice barge) for an overnight stay.
The often-luxurious vessels keep guests fed and watered with coolers full of beer and wine and Keralan banquets. Indeed, if you are lucky enough to get a talented chef, these fragrant coconut-rich feasts enjoyed while drifting past villages, shrimp farms and other signifiers of rural local life will live with you long after you leave.
Among the most respected operators is Rainbow Cruises, whose fleet of luxurious floating homes are consistently rated highly by visitors. Constructed the traditional way from local Anjali wood, woven palm and bamboo, the Elitaire (the highest category in Rainbow’s fleet), embraces modern comforts and luxuries.
Guest bedrooms come lavishly appointed with a king-sized bed, attractive furnishing and spacious bathrooms. However, the wow factor is strongest in the boat’s public areas. An outdoor/indoor lounge offers comfortable loungers and scatter cushions, perfect for reclining and observing the lush scenery.
2. SAMPLE SOME OF INDIA’S BEST BANQUETS
Kerala’s history as a key staging post for trade with European and Arab powers has bequeathed it with some of the world’s finest spices.
Its rivers, 600 km of Arabian Sea coastline, and paradisiacal expanses of brackish backwaters are home to myriad fresh-and saltwater delights.
Throw in a tropical bounty that makes it rude not to stir ingredients such as coconut, milk, jackfruit, and mango into the pot, and it’s easy to see why many consider this to be one of India’s most exciting cuisines.
Incredible food can be sampled everywhere in the state – from down-home family-run venues to beachside shacks. For an upscale introduction to the local culinary manna, make for Rice Boat, the showpiece restaurant at the swish Taj Malabar Hotel.
Arguably the fanciest restaurant in the state, Rice Boat is where politicians, big-ticket draws from the thriving local movie industry and sporting celebrities come to dine. The experience more than lives up to its billing.
Fist-sized tiger prawns are elevated to superhero status courtesy of their tender flesh and a smoky infusion of curry leaf, garlic, and ginger. A fish molee features delicate red snapper and a turmeric-tinged coconut milk gravy that could easily be bottled as a beverage.
The food goes down especially well with a few of the restaurant’s signature Malabar Mules: A blend of vodka, Kingfisher beer, fresh ginger, lime juice, and ginger ale.
3. TREK THROUGH TEA PLANTATIONS
The emerald peaks that undulate around the town of Munnar comprise one of South India’s most beguiling tableaux.
While some people opt to simply kick back, enjoy the cool mountain air, and indulge in ayurvedic massage (another Kerala speciality) at one of the luxury resorts dotted around the hills on the outskirts of town, more substantial rewards can be reaped by getting active.
Kerala’s trekking capital, Munnar offers scope for everything from day-hikes to multi-day epics. The prized scalp among the peaks that surround Munnar is Anamudi, at 2,695m, the highest mountain in South India, but other hills including Chokramudi and Palkulamedu offer equally inspiring manna.
Sloping tea gardens carpet the rolling hills while the multi-hued butterflies and equally luminescent birds that flit around the plantations could double as escapees from the Garden of Eden.
For post-trekking creature comforts, nab yourself a room at Windermere Estate. Perched at an elevation of 1,600m on a former cardamom plantation, the luxurious property offers beautifully realised villas and planters’ cottages: Wooden floorboards and terracotta tiles imbuing each one with a warm, homely feel.
4. EXPLORE KOCHI’S EMERGING ART SCENE
With a state-wide literacy rate of 93 per cent – the highest in India – it’s little wonder that many Keralans pride themselves on their worldliness. This sophistication is reflected in a cultural climate that is as febrile as any in India.
The centre for much of this creativity is Kochi, the state’s most populous city. As well as being a hub for the vibrant Malayalam film industry and birthplace of many of Kerala’s most towering literary figures, the city has nurtured one of India’s strongest art scenes.
It even has its international art jamboree in the shape of the highly respected Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which will be curated by Singapore-based writer and artist Shubigi Rao for its 2020 edition.
Much of the action is centred upon Fort Kochi, the oldest part of the city. Here, amidst a patchwork of churches, laid-back cafes, colonial-style buildings and grassy palm-shaded areas hosting impromptu games of cricket and football, it’s easy to take a walking tour around some of the city’s most exciting galleries.
Highlights include Kashi Art Gallery, a key staging post on the art map which shows works by international figures and leading Keralan artists such as Bose Krishnamachari and Arun KS.