23 December 2019 by Rui Ribeiro
The RV Vaikundam is a newly renovated river boat operating seven-night cruises through an area National Geographic recently referred to as the 'Green Venice of the East'. From spotting wildlife from the upper decks to exploring rural villages and grand temples, its journeys are both adventurous and relaxing, showcasing a different side to India away from the tourist traps of its major landmarks. I had a wonderful time onboard, and would highly recommend the experience to anyone seeking something a little off the beaten track.
At just 18 feet long, this jewel of the Kerala backwaters offers an intimate onboard experience, accommodating just 18 guests across nine cabins on the lower deck. Every cabin offers air conditioning, fixed twin berths and private en suite facilities as well as large floor-to-ceiling windows for watching the world go by. The forward-most cabin has a double bed and spans the entire width of the front of the boat. The look and feel is traditional, with wood panelling and authentic Keralan decor throughout.
Open sun deck onboard
One of my favourite places to spend time was the forward sun deck, complete with comfortable seating and of course, spectacular views. There's also a lounge and bar area onboard, and an intimate dining room. A cruise on RV Vaikundam includes all meals, which are served buffet-style. The food was delicious – a mix of southern and northern Indian favourites, predominantly vegetarian, with occasional meat and fish dishes on the menu. The chefs are flexible – one of my favourite parts of small boat cruising is the personalised service – so if you have dietary requirements or preferences they can be easily accommodated. A highlight was the morning masala omelette and tea. Additional snacks, including homemade cookies and banana chips, were laid out in the lounge area or out on the sundeck each afternoon.
Cochin fishing nets
I started in Fort Cochin, staying two nights at the Taj Malabar Hotel, with guided tours around the city as a welcome introduction to the local way of life. The boat sails from Alleppey, close to Cochin, for seven nights – unusual in a region where two or three night cruises are the most common. A strengthened hull and infrastructure allows the boat to sail across Lake Vembanad, to expand the route and offer a longer, more scenic experience. You'll spend your time slowly sweeping through the backwaters, pausing to wander through charming local villages or take short bus trips to nearby temples and churches.
Sunset at Alleppey, Kerala
One of the reasons people visit this region is the wildlife – specifically the birds. I was not prepared for the diversity of birdlife that I saw, including bee-eaters, kingfishers, cormorants, terns, teals, Indian Shags, moorhens, egrets, herons, and the spectacular Brahminy kites. You might even be lucky enough, as we were, to spot large fruit bats overhead throughout the day, or a water snake gliding across the river.
Bee-eaters in Kerala
The RV Vaikundam's design allows it to navigate the narrower tributaries, and there were times when we didn't see any other tourist boats for days, which was refreshing. We also squeezed under bridges and cables, in some case by mere inches – which added to the sense of adventure. And, each day, we shored up among palm trees, leaving the ship behind to discover ancient temples and shrines and visit remote villages and markets. Everything was accompanied by a local guide, who was on hand to answer any of our questions and to point out the species of birds and wildlife we saw. I found the locals to be warm and friendly, especially when I attempted the regional greeting ‘namaskaram’, which always resulted in a smile.
Indian temple in Kerala state
Our excursions included visits to traditional craftmakers, such as weavers, painters, rubber tree tappers and mirror makers. I also watched a local dance performance of the Kathakali, which included a behind-the-scenes visit to see the performers preparing their elaborate make-up and costumes. We also sailed the spillway preventing water from flooding the local paddy fields, which in some cases are below sea level. A highlight for me was watching the sun set over the Arabian Sea at the beach in Kuttanad.
Wetlands at Kumarakom
I also found our sailing across Lake Vembanad particularly fascinating. We took a smaller boat to Kumarakom's wetlands and lagoons, skirting the bird sanctuary, before coming ashore to take a walk through the jungle. We got up close to plenty more wildlife and birds, and I loved seeing the vibrant pink water lilies dotted across the water. One of my enduring memories of the trip was standing on the bow of the boat, with parakeets flitting through the palm trees above me, while the floating hyacinths parted in front of us – very picturesque.
Local Elephant Festival, Kerala
Throughout the trip, the captain adapted the itinerary to suit local events, stopping at an elephant festival and pausing so we could join in the celebrations at a local wedding. We also saw an authentic Kalaripayattu display, the martial art of Kerala involving various weapons like clubs and swords. And, although the food onboard the ship was delicious, we visited Malakkarethu House in Aranmula for a traditional lunch, served on a banana leaf, and paused at Philipkutty's Farm for a home-cooked dinner.
RV Vaikundam at Philipkutty's Farm
I think the magic of this cruise was having the luxury of seven days to explore every corner of Kerala's winding backwaters. We were able to go down smaller, lesser-known waterways to places most tourists couldn't, which made it feel particularly special. I highly recommend it, especially if you're seeking adventure and relaxation all in one trip.
If you're feeling inspired by Rui's Kerala cruise review, see the full itinerary here.