The undisputed highlight of a trip to Kerala is travelling through the 900km network of waterways that fringe the coast and trickle inland. Long before the advent of roads, these waters were the slippery highways of Kerala, and many villagers still use paddle-power as their main form of transport. Trips through the backwaters traverse palm-fringed lakes studded with cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, and wind their way along narrow, shady canals where coir (coconut fibre), copra (dried coconut kernels) and cashews are loaded onto boats. Along the way are isolated villages where farming life continues as it has for eons.
The popular tourist cruise between Kollam and Alleppey departs from either end at 10.30am, arriving at 6.30pm, daily from July to March and every second day at other times, though it may start running later in the season. Generally, there’s a lunch stop and a brief afternoon chai stop. It’s a scenic and leisurely way – the journey takes eight hours – to get between the two towns, but the boat travels along only the major canals – you won’t have many close-up views of the village life that makes the backwaters so magical.
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If the stars align, renting a houseboat designed like a kettuvallam (rice barge) could well be one of the highlights of your trip to Kerala. It can be an expensive experience (depending on your budget) but for a couple on a romantic overnight jaunt or split between a group of travellers, it’s usually worth every rupee. Drifting through quiet canals lined with coconut palms, eating delicious Keralan food, meeting local villagers and sleeping on the water – it’s a world away from the usual clamour of India. Houseboats cater for couples (one or two double bedrooms) and groups (up to seven bedrooms!). Food (and an on-board chef to cook it) is generally included in the quoted cost, as is a driver/captain. Houseboats can be chartered through a multitude of private operators in Alleppey, Kollam and Kottayam.
Village Tours & Canoe Boats
Village tours are an excellent way to see the backwaters at a slow pace by day. Village tours usually involve small groups of five to six people, a knowledgable guide and an open canoe or covered kettuvallam. The tours (from Kochi, Kollam or Alleppey) last 2½ to six hours and include visits to villages to watch coirmaking, boat building, toddy (palm beer) tapping and fish farming. The Munroe Island trip from Kollam is an excellent tour of this type.
If you want the local backwater transport experience for just a few rupees, there are State Water Transport (www.swtd.gov.in) boats between Alleppey and Kottayam (₹15, 2½ hours) five times daily. The trip crosses Vembanad Lake and has a more varied landscape than the Kollam–Alleppey cruise. Other ageing boats operate from the boat jetty at Alleppey, ferrying locals around to backwater villages.