Today’s post is a guest post written by Louise Heal. She has travelled to India on several occasions and shares with us her highlights of Kerala. You can read more about her travels or see more of her photos on her own site www.louiseheal.com.
Think Kerala and you think beaches and chilling out. But Kerala is more than a beach resort. There are wildlife sanctuaries, acres of backwaters and centuries of history. There is also stunning local culture and wonderful food. So turn the dial to ‘slow’ and take a wander through the state that they call “God’s Own Country”.
Getting around Kerala is fun. Nothing moves very fast and, whether you’re on the coast or in the hills, the scenery is always wonderful. Travel is usually easy, but do expect delays during the monsoon.
Train services are frequent and best suited to short hops along the coast. From Thiruvanthapuram, it’s 30 mins to Varkala, 3 hrs to Alleppey and 4 hrs to Kochi. Buses are useful where there’s no rail network (e.g. Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary).
Auto-rickshaws are perfect for trips around town or for a day’s sight-seeing. Some train stations have fixed-price rickshaw ranks, otherwise agree a price before you set off.
A mere 20 mins from Thiruvananthapuram Airport, Kovalam is a great introduction to Kerala. Life here revolves around the beaches and starts early. Head out before breakfast to photograph the local fishermen and buy fruit from the beach traders. Later on, climb to the top of the lighthouse for spectacular views up and down the coast. Then finish your day with a sundowner and grilled fish at a seafront restaurant.
From Kovalam, it’s an easy trip into Thiruvananthapuram. The Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple is off-limits to non-Hindus, but you can tour the Puttan Malika Palace. And, as my guide said: “Never mind Madam, same God outside as inside”.
Just north of Kovalam, Varkala is another beach resort. With dramatic cliffs and a religious site, it has an altogether different vibe. During the day, the beach is given over to sunbathing, swimming and impromptu cricket games. In the evening, everyone retires to the cliff-top restaurants.
There are two important temples close to Varkala. The 2000-yr old Janardanaswamy Temple is is a Hindu temple (open to non-Hindus). Nearby, Sivagiri Hill is altogether different: it has a philosophy of “One Caste, One Religion, One God” and is truly non-denominational.
If history is your bag, take a rickshaw to the village of Anjengo. The 17th Century Fort was built at the start of British involvement in Kerala’s lucrative spice trade.
When Vasco da Gama landed near Calicut in 1498, he kick-started an era of European trade that was headquartered in Kochi. His grave may be seen in St Francis Church in Fort Kochi. The Dutch and British followed the Portuguese, and they left behind seafront mansions and clubs. They are all long gone, but the spice trade remains: head to Bazaar Road to stock up on pepper, cloves and other spices.
At the bottom of Bazaar Road is Mattancherry Palace, the Rajahs’ former residence, is open to visitors. Have a look round, and then go behind the palace to Jew Town: a 16th Century synagogue and a few houses are all that remains of a once large Jewish community.
Back at Fort Kochi, join local families for an evening stroll along the seafront and take a (mandatory) snap of the Chinese fishing nets. You can eat a fish supper (“You buy, we cook”) at one of the stalls. Then finish up your evening at a performance of Kathakali (traditional dance-drama) or Kalarippayattud (martial arts).
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary
Nestled in the Cardamom Hills, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is centred around a large, artificial lake. It’s a beautiful place and a great way to escape the heat. There are two ways to see the park: boat trips on the lake (crowded and noisy) and guided walks (quieter and more personal). You probably won’t see leopard or tiger, but have a good chance of spotting elephants, wild boar and sambar.
Spices grow everywhere here, whether it’s black pepper vines or cardamom plants. You can also visit spice farms and tea plantations. Either take a rickshaw tour or, if you’re feeling energetic, hire a bicycle.
Backwater cruises are everywhere in Kerala, and everybody will try to sell you a cruise on a converted rice barge. Most tours start from Alleppey, Kochi or Kollam.
If you’re short on time, take a half or full-day trip in a traditional wooden canoe. You’ll get off the main rivers into a network of narrow canals and see village life close up. With no engine, this is also an eco-friendly option.
The villagers in the backwaters make their livings from a mixture of subsistence farming, coir-rope making, fishing and boat-building. You will undoubtedly be taken to a rope-making demonstration – this is where the ropes for Keralan fishing nets are made.
Don’t forget to bring sunblock, a hat and small change (for tips and snacks). Many villagers live at subsistence level, so gifts for children or purchase in the shops (even if it’s only a few cups of chai) are much appreciated.
Food & Drink
Kerala is blessed with fantastic local ingredients – seafood, spices, coconuts, rice and more. So expect ultra-fresh and tasty cuisine wherever you are.
For breakfast, try Idlis (dome-shaped rice pancakes), Idiyappam (string hoppers) or a Masala Omelette. At lunchtime, copy the locals and settle down for a thali. You’ll sample multiple dishes, chutneys and rice, all served on a banana leaf. If you fancy fish or seafood, then a Mollee (with coconut gravy) or Biriani will hit the spot. The flaky Kerala Paratha is an alternative to Naans or Chapattis.
The Masala Dosa – a crisp lentil-flour pancake, served with vegetable curry and samba (coconut dip) – is the perfect evening snack. Once tried, never forgotten!
Finally, if your sundowner beer arrives wrapped in newspaper or is served in a teapot, don’t be alarmed! This is only to circumvent local licensing laws.
If you are interested in visiting, check out our Kerala homestay collection.
Find out about the homestay experience and don't forget to check out our ideas on things to do in India or browse our India homestays.