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The backwaters of Kerala

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27 June 2012

Wexas Product Manager, Steve Gilchrist, gives us a flavour of Kerala on a day-by-day run down of his recent trip through this beautiful region of south India.

Day 1: Fort Kochi (Cochin)

I arrived in Kochi after a direct evening flight from Delhi and transferred to Brunton Boatyard to spend the night. The hotel is a period building in the colonial style, built on the site of a Victorian shipbuilding yard on the historic harbourfront of Fort Cochin. High ceilings, large hanging fans and portraits of famous explorers adorn the public areas. The occasional ships' horn in the night reminds you exactly where you are.

Day 2: Cochin and Kumarakom

After having breakfast on the terrace overlooking the swimming pool and harbour, I dropped in at Malabar House, a Relais & Chateaux property and part of the ‘Malabar Collection' group of hotels. A small boutique hotel, Malabar House was once a warehouse owned by the Dutch and has been beautifully restored to offer luxurious accommodation and fine dining in the heart of Kochi.

I then set off on a half-day city tour of Fort Kochi. First up was St. Francis church, originally built in 1503 and the largest European church in India. Services are conducted on Sundays and the church is open to visitors on weekdays, evidence of Kerala's significant Christian population. Then it was off to the Santa Cruz Basilica, an imposing lemon-coloured building with a marine-blue, outdoor alter.

We then visited the Jewish synagogue which was built in 1568. The floor is covered in hand-painted tiles, each of them a slightly different design, and glass lanterns and chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Nearby Jew Street is where you'll find all of Kumarakom's spice stores and souvenir shops.

Spice market

I then went down to the harbour to see the fishermen who bring in their catch using the famous Chinese fishing nets, a technique in use since the 12th century. The fishermen let me have a go at lifting up the nets which are a marvel of innovation.

There are stalls all around the harbour front where you can buy some fresh fish which can then be cooked for you at a nearby restaurant. I tried some local river fish, which was marinated in Keralan spices and grilled along with some crayfish, coconut rice and fresh coconut juice.

Finally, we finished the tour with a visit to the Dutch Palace, where I marvelled at the old palanquins, made using ivory and gold. The highlight here, however, was the Hindu artwork; there are amazing murals of Hindu deities including Krishna, Vishnu and the goddess of destruction - Kali. Another fascinating mural appears to depict the evolution of man, hundreds of years before Darwin's theory!

Before leaving Kochi, I visited Vivanta by Taj Malabar, a 5-star hotel on Billington Island. Here there is the option of staying in the original ‘Heritage Wing' or in the new ‘Tower Wing', which is more contemporary and offers commanding views from the upper floors.

St Francis

I then set off by road to Kumarakom which took just under two hours, passing through small villages, swaying coconut palms and finally the lagoons which indicated we were entering the Kerala backwaters.

It is the ubiquitous coconut palms that earned the state its name - Kerala means ‘land of the coconut'. At the jetty I transferred onto a boat for the short trip to Coconut Lagoon, where I would stay for the next two nights.

Coconut Lagoon is part of the CGH Earth group of hotels whose ethos is firmly rooted in nature and the environment. The hotels are built to blend with the natural surroundings with minimal impact.

Coconut Lagoon was no exception, with its bungalow style accommodation, some of which is built with materials recycled from traditional Keralan dwellings.

The property is located on the largest lagoon in the state and many canals run through the hotel itself. The food here was exceptional and after watching a red sunset over the lagoon, I dined on a delicious prawn biryani while the staff played some traditional music in the restaurant.

Ambassador Kochi

Day 3: Kumarakom

After an early night I woke to birdsong and to take advantage of one of the resort's many activities, most of which are included in the rate. I went for an early morning yoga session surrounded by the paddy fields from which the resort harvests its own organic rice, served with evening meals.

After my first ever yoga session, I had a traditional Indian breakfast of masala dosa, which was the best I'd tasted in India. I then spent a few hours visiting the Vivanta by Taj Kumarakom, Kumarakom Lake Resort and The Zuri, all good 5-star hotels fairly close to each other in the area.

On my return to Coconut Lagoon the chef served me with a delicious, traditional lunch, presented on a banana leaf and eaten with the hands.

I then went on a tour of the property, which was led by the resort naturalist, Geetu. She took me to the processing plant, the water filtration plant, recycling unit and the biomass digester, which makes rich soil from garden and kitchen waste. I then went to the kitchen to enjoy another of the free activities on offer at the resort, the daily cooking demonstration.

The chef made a local Kerala prawn curry, which is fried in coconut oil and uses kokum, which is similar to tamarind and for which he gave us all the recipe. I chose a Kerala fish curry for dinner tonight, which was again accompanied by some local music.

Coconut Lagoon

Day 4: Houseboat

After another early morning yoga session and breakfast, it was time to leave Coconut Lagoon for an experience I'd been looking forward to - the backwater cruise in a houseboat.

The houseboat picked me up from the resort and after waving goodbye to the fantastic staff and meeting the houseboat crew, we set off across the lake and towards Alleppey.

Houseboat cruises can last anything from one night to a few weeks through the extensive backwaters, but this was an overnight cruise and a great taster of the local life on the rivers in this lush part of India.

No longer had we set off than I was served a large lunch by the boat crew. A lazy afternoon was spent in the lounge area of the houseboat cruising along waterways past villages and pretty, pastel-coloured houses with children playing on the banks and women washing clothes in the river.

We made a stop at the imposing Catholic Syrian church of St Mary's in the riverside village of Champakulam, which dates to AD457. Back on board we continued down the river and eventually stopped at a bend which was to be our resting place for the night.

I then watched a dramatic sunset from the front of the houseboat while the crew prepared dinner in the boat's kitchen. Just after dark, the crew served another delicious dinner of local fried fish, chicken, vegetables and salad and a very welcome cold beer. I then spent the evening reading and stargazing before turning in early for the night.


Day 5: Kovalam

We rose at seven am when the crew served breakfast, before setting off for Alleppey, where a car and driver were waiting to take me on the three-hour drive to Kovalam, the final stop on my itinerary.

En route we passed a religious procession making their way to a local Hindu temple. It was interesting to see several young men engaged in ‘Kavadi', the practice of inserting hooks and spears into the body to show tolerance and suffering in the name of God.

After arriving in Kovalam I checked into the Taj Green Cove Resort and enjoyed a delicious late lunch of grilled mahi-mahi in Keralan spices in the resort's ‘Bait' restaurant on the beach.

Taj Green Cove is one of several 5-star hotels in Kovalam and has a good location on the coast, not far from the centre. After seeing the different room types, I'd definitely recommend the sea view rooms. For a small supplement on the garden view room rate, you get a room in an elevated position with commanding views of the Arabian Sea, which is well worth it.

That evening I took an auto-rickshaw down to Lighthouse Beach, the focal point of Kovalam. Restaurants and craft shops line the beachfront and the scent of freshly grilled seafood and local spices fill the sea air.

I dined on grilled red snapper in a local restaurant which was very good and very cheap. Kovalam is a great place for a beach holiday in its own right, but makes a perfect end to a typical Keralan itinerary such as I've described. From a base in Kovalam there are lots of things to do in Kerala other than the beach, including visiting national parks and spotting wildlife, including tigers.


Day 6: Kovalam

After breakfast I set off to look at three other hotels, starting with Surya Samudra. This hotel is approximately 15 minutes drive north of Kovalam in a quiet area. There is no such thing as a private beach in India, but the beach at Surya Samudra is practically private, due to the rocky outcrops at both ends of the bay where the hotel is situated.

The stand-alone villas have been constructed with recycled materials from former traditional Keralan houses and built in the local style. There is a feeling of calm throughout the whole property, from the scents in the ayurvedic spa to the yoga platform close to the sea. Perfect for privacy and relaxation.

I then headed back to Kovalam and visited a relatively new hotel called Turtle on the Beach. This is a good value 5-star hotel for those who want to be close to the action in Kovalam and offers great sea views from the Arabian Sea View rooms.

Finally I headed to The Leela, a 5-star deluxe hotel option in an enviable location on a rocky promontory beside the lighthouse on Kovalam beach.

Here we recommend the Club Wing which was added later and is very contemporary and luxurious. Unfortunately the outdoor Sky Bar which I was looking forward to seeing was closed due to a downpour just before I arrived, but the views were stunning nevertheless.

The hotel is about to refurbish its standard and garden rooms, so we definitely recommend the Club Wing until this refurbishment is complete.

I ate in the buffet restaurant where you can sample delicious cuisine from all over the subcontinent and indulge in almost endless dessert options. 

Day 7: Trivandrum-Delhi

My taste of Kerala had come to an end and it was time to fly back to Delhi for my onward flight to the UK. It's such a lovely part of India and so different to the north that I'll definitely be back to explore more of what this beautiful state has to offer. I now see why Kerala is known as ‘God's Own Country'.

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