Even in a country that dazzles as much as India, the Keralan Backwaters stand out as special. These waterways, among the subcontinent’s most startlingly beautiful and tranquil places, are where lovers can escape into an intimate world of their own.
The mirroring waters reflect a thick fringe of arched, nodding palms framing a brilliant central ribbon of blue sky. Coconut trees shade the water on either side of you as you glide along the canals on your narrow houseboat-made-for-two, constructed from wood and woven coconut leaves. Kerala’s flood like network of limpid lagoons is linked by kilometre upon kilometre of canals and channels, both constructed and natural, which stretch almost the entire length of Kerala state. Known as the backwaters, they are a place where people live almost on the water: on either side of you there are strung-out villages, temples hung with bright prayer flags, people doing their washing and children on their way to school. This is one of India’s most peaceful places, but it’s also vibrantly, thrillingly alive.
Your graceful, homespun craft is a kettuvallam, a long type of traditional barge that was once used for cargo. These days, they have been converted into tourist houseboats of all degrees of comfort and size. For the utmost privacy, you can hire a one-bedroom boat and chug gracefully around the waters, mooring up under the firmament of stars overnight. The crew cooks you meals on the boat, so you can choose what you’d most like to eat, then enjoy candlelit dinners watching the night’s reflections dance across the water.
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For a boutique experience, try Discovery, the Malabar House houseboat, which combines contemporary design with the curves of the traditional boat and is decorated in white linens with blazing bright silks. The boat is narrower than most, so it can slip down channels that are inaccessible to larger craft. Not only does it have eco-friendly electric engines, but they are silent, so you can float quietly through the reeds.
Drifting along the vast, tendril-like waterways is one of India’s most romantic experiences – you could stay here for days, exploring the countryside and being lulled to sleep under the stars.
-Eating a Keralan curry, made from fresh fish and spiced coconut milk, on your houseboat underneath the stars.
-Taking an open canoe boat to glide around the narrower waterways.
-Witnessing daily life around the waterways: coir-making, toddy-tapping and bird-watching.
-Getting slippery with oil via a traditional fourhanded Ayurvedic massage.
-Visiting the historic spice port of Kochi (Cochin); and watching the cantilevered Chinese fishing nets at work as the light turns pink at dawn or dusk.
-Exploring a jungle-like, luxuriant spice plantation and stocking up on fresh spices such as cardamom, black pepper, nutmeg and ginger to take home.
Coconut, Spices and the Coast
What will you eat on the boat? You’re in for a treat. Keralan cuisine is fragrant and delicate, using the natural resources of India’s lushest state. The region is rich in plantations; cardamom, ginger, black pepper, curry leaves, thyme, basil, mint, bay leaf, coriander and sage grow profusely, scenting the regional cuisine. Other major crops are coffee, tea and cashews. With such a long coastline, fresh fish is a staple of the diet. Coconut milk mellows the flavours, and almost everything is cooked in coconut oil, making the cuisine much lighter than the ghee-based dishes of the north.
All about Ayurveda
The term ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit ayu (life) and veda (knowledge), and it’s an ancient form of medicine. Its philosophy sees us as having three doshas (elemental humours): vata (air), pitta (fire) and kapha (water/earth). Treatments aim to bring these three into balance, helping to avoid illness. Such treatments include massage, diet, steam baths and purification medications. Some of these, such as the internal purification and intense detox of panchkarma, are not for the faint-hearted, but the traditional ayurvedic massage, which leaves you slithery with oil and is often performed by two masseurs, is a unique and eventually relaxing experience.