A holiday in Kerala is a perfect escape from the European winter with its panoramic tea plantations, palm-lined backwaters and sunny beaches. Situated in the deep south of India, Kerala boasts a tropical climate and rugged landscape of dramatic mountainous jungle and cliffside beaches.
Its high rates of education and literacy means English is widely spoken and it’s laid-back vibe makes it an easy introduction to the chaos that is India. My time in Kerala was a highlight of my India trip and my plan to stay a week two easily stretched into into three. It’s convenient system of trains and buses also makes it easy to navigate.
My journey started in Cochin, where I was struck by the green trees forming a canopy over seaside roads. It’s a place where people walk slowly, take it easy and you can feel comfortable doing the same as you meander through the tourist attractions of the town:
Chinese Fishing Nets
These nets are the iconic image of Cochin. They arrived in India via traders over 500 years ago. Arguably they have more economic potential as a tourist attraction than for actually fishing as they require the labour of four men to operate.
St Francis Church & Santa Cruz Basilica
These churches were built by the Portuguese colonists in Kerala. You will find that architecture of Cochin attests to the Portuguese influence, which is personified in the famed explorer, Vasco De Gama, whose name you’ll see across hotels and restaurants in the city. He was the first European to sail to India around Africa, opening a new trade route and array of economic opportunities which undoubtably resulted in immense suffering for the locals. Peace-loving St Francis would not have been impressed:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. – St Francis of Assisi
The tension between appreciating colonial architecture and influence, while recognising the harm it resulted in is difficult to grapple with throughout travels in India.
Cochin’s beach is nothing special aesthetically (particularly after the tsunami damage of 2004) and not somewhere you’d want to go for a dip unless you enjoy swimming with litter. Nonetheless it’s a nice place to relax and wind down after a day of sightseeing. The gorgeous sunsets bring out families and groups of youngsters making it a great place to people watch both tourists and locals alike.
Mattancherry is the old bazar district of Cochin and was once a centre for the spice trade but is now full of (mostly tacky) souvenir shops.
Mattancherry Palace is worth a visit, although the term palace is definitely an exaggeration. This European mansion was given to the Raja of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma, by the Portugese to foster the relationship between the two powers. The murals depicting stories of the Hindu gods and the carriages once used to transport important people were highlights. It also gives a feel of the colonial relationship with Europe.
Fascinatingly, Jews settled in this part of India as early as the 12th century AD and although most have moved to Israel since 1948, the influence is still felt. Sadly the Synogogue is only open Sunday to Thursday and so I was unable to visit. This historical building will be on my list for my next trip to Cochin.
Where I stayed: Costa de Gama Homestay. It gave me what I needed to recover from the long journey.
Fave place to eat: Dal Roti
After two nights in Cochin, I took a local bus from Ernakulam Station (250 rupees for a Rickshaw from Fort Cochin) to Munnar. My stomach did not enjoy the 5 hour journey inland through jungle covered mountains on perilous cliffside roads, but the spectacular view of Munnar’s sweeping green hills of tea plantations were well worth it.
You can’t visit Munnar without going on a trek to explore the tea plantations. The hostel organised my trek which was 600 rupees for 6 hours of trekking and breakfast. I’m sure you could find cheaper options if you shopped around or missed high season.
The town of Munnar is enjoyable with its busy fruit and veg market and some scrumptious South Indian bakeries. I was lucky enough to be there on the day of a festival so the streets were full with a parade of women in colourful saris and men tooting on pipes and banging on drums.
Where I Stayed: SMM Cottage in Old Munnar – about 1km south of the main town and much quieter.
Fave eats: Rapsy Restaurant, SN restaurant, Sree Mahaveer
From Munnar I took another local bus to Alleppey, known as the venice of India for its access to the backwaters of Kerala.
The town itself isn’t much to be impressed with and there isn’t much to do except for the backwaters. You have a variety of options for exploring the backwaters:
- House boat – 5000 rupees for two people
- Tourist cruise – 400 rupees
- Canoe tour – 400 rupees
- Local boat – 16 rupees
I took the local boat to Kottayam on the recommendation of another traveller. So much cheaper but also a more local and authentic experience of the backwaters. The only downside of this was the old boat which had an extremely loud motor which gets pretty old after two hours drilling into your head so bring earplugs!
I met a lovely Indian family on the ride who wanted to know all about life in Australia so we gladly shared stories along the way. Luckily I was only in it for the ride and didn’t actually want to go to Kottayam as after about an hour of going along we were told that the canal was blocked and we would be turning around.
Fave eats: Kream Korner Art Cafe
From Alleppey I took the train to the wild beach town of Varkala. The dramatic cliffside towers above the sand and seas like a scene from Jurassic park. The seawater is lovely but be warned that the rough Arabian ocean makes a swim more of a workout playing in the waves than a peaceful paddle.
While it cannot be considered untouched by any account, it certainly doesn’t attract the party crowds of Goa, making it perfect for a more relaxed trip. The town is compact and mainly consists of the path along the cliffside which consists of restaurants, souvenir shops, Ayurvedic treatment centres and yoga studios. The relentless shopkeepers trying to coax you inside will drive you mad, but they’re good people just trying to get by, so try to maintain civility with them.
My days in Varkala generally went like this: Yoga in the morning, followed by breakfast and some reading, then an afternoon swim. I’d come back for a chai or smoothie while watching the sunset. The evenings were for meeting hostel friends for dinner and drinks, or quietly doing some writing and reading.
Most days I didn’t feel the need to venture further afield, but I did make it to Kappil Beach, which was easily the most scenic beach I saw in India and it was almost empty save for a handful of surfers and a few local fishermen.
Where I stayed: Heavenly Breeze Resort (200 rupees for a dorm bed). Although this dorm room was extremely basic, it was also one of my favourite places I stayed in India. I met some lovely fellow travellers, everyone was super friendly and the hostel’s manager Alsin was extremely helpful and happy to sit down for a beer and a chat on a sunny afternoon.
Fave eats: Most of the places along the cliffside have more or less the same menu and are on par in terms of tastiness, but there were a few that stood out from the crowd.
ABBA – this bakery and restaurant was busy every night and understandably so.. the food was so delicious, the wifi usually worked and the menu was extensive.
Trattorias was another highlight. This multi-cuisine restaurant had a more varied menu offering Japanese food as well as the usual options.
Coffee Temple has a superb reputation for its western-style coffee but also has a great selection of smoothies. The tacos I had here were so delicious but not so cheap. The couple sitting down from me were vocal about their dislike of the fact that I’d spent 250 rupees on them (Piss off it’s only $5 and it was delicious, and it’s my life bitches).
Also If you’re a seafood fan, you’ll love the fresh fish available every night displayed out front of the restaurants.
So it can be said that a holiday in Kerala will give you all could wish for, from green mountains to untamed beaches. It’s a softer, more gentle India and well deserving of a few weeks of your life.