Kerala is South India’s most serenely beautiful state. A slender coastal strip is shaped by its layered landscape: almost 600km of glorious Arabian Sea coast and beaches. Besides its famous backwaters, elegant houseboats, ayurvedic treatments and delicately spiced, taste-bud tingling cuisine, Kerala is home to wild elephants, exotic birds and the odd tiger. It’s hard to deny Kerala’s liberal use of the slogan ‘God’s Own Country’.
This season being the most favourable to visit the state; let’s take a glance over the best places to visit in Kerala.
Kerala’s capital – still usually referred to by its colonial name, Trivandrum – is a relatively compact but energetic city and an easy-going introduction to urban life down south. Do not merely spring-board from here to the nearby beach resorts, for Trivandrum has enough sights – including a zoo and cluster of Victorian museums in glorious neo-Keralan buildings – to justify a stay.
Once a calm fishing village clustered around its crescent beaches, Kovalam competes as Kerala’s most developed resort. The touristy main stretch, Lighthouse Beach, has hotels and restaurants built up along the shore, while Hawa Beach to the north is usually crowded with day trippers heading straight to the sand. Kovalam is a convenient place to have some fun by the sea, there are some promising waves, and it makes a good base for ayurvedic treatments and yoga courses.
About 16km southeast of Kovalam, almost at the Tamil Nadu border, Poovar is the gateway to a region of golden sand beaches, estuaries, villages and upmarket resorts that comprise the ‘mini backwaters’ of Kerala’s far south. Numerous ‘boat clubs’ and operators along the Neyyar River or backwater canals will take you on 1½- to two-hour cruises through the waterways visiting the beach, bird-filled mangrove swamps and forested Poovar Island.
Perched almost perilously along the edge of 15m-high red laterite cliffs, the North Cliff part of Varkala has a naturally beautiful setting that has steadily grown into Kerala’s most popular backpacker hang-out. Varkala is a great place to watch the days slowly turn into weeks, and it’s not hard to escape the crowds further north or south where the beaches are cleaner and quieter. Despite its backpacker vibe, Varkala is essentially a temple town, and the main Papanasham Beach is a holy place where Hindus come to make offerings for passed loved ones.
Alappuzha – most still call it Alleppey – is the hub of Kerala’s backwaters, home to a vast network of waterways and more than a thousand houseboats. Wandering around the small city centre and bus-stand area, with its modest grid of canals, you’d be hard-pressed to agree with the ‘Venice of the East’ tag. Head west to the beach or towards the backwaters and Alleppey becomes graceful and greenery-fringed; float along and gaze over paddy fields of succulent green, curvaceous rice barges and village life along the banks. This is one of Kerala’s most mesmerizingly beautiful and relaxing experiences.
The rolling hills around Munnar, South India’s largest tea-growing region, are carpeted in emerald-green tea plantations, contoured, clipped and sculpted like ornamental hedges. The low mountain scenery is magnificent – you’re often up above the clouds watching veils of mist clinging to the mountaintops. Wander just a few kilometres out of town and you’ll be engulfed in a sea of a thousand shades of green. Take tour of open-to-public tea factories and taste the freshly brewed beverage.
Serene Kochi has been drawing traders, explorers and travellers to its shores for over 600 years. Nowhere else in India could you find such an intriguing mix: giant fishing nets from China, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and the crumbling remains of the British Raj. It’s a delightful place to spend some time and nap in some of India’s finest homestays and heritage accommodation. Kochi is also a centre for Keralan arts and one of the best places to see Kathakali and Kalarippayat. While mainland Ernakulam is the cosmopolitan hub of Kochi, the historical towns of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, remain wonderfully atmospheric – thick with the smell of the past.