Words AISHWARYA MENON
The houseboat cruises down the river, gently making its way through the hundreds of lily pads that blanket the water on the eastern banks of the Vasishta River, a tributary of the Godavari near Palakollu in Andhra Pradesh. Just short of embracing the mighty Bay of Bengal, it flows at a languid pace, setting the tone for life along its banks. The setting sun paints the sky in orange hues and, in the light of the magic hour, the world is transformed. It’s all part of the welcome extended by the Sterling Godavari in Palakollu.
A small city in coastal Andhra Pradesh, Palakollu has been occupied over the centuries by the British and the Dutch. Its greatest draws are the glimpses it offers into unspoilt rural life in this part of India and the many untouched islands formed as the Godavari splits up on its approach towards the sea.
As the sun goes down, the boat manoeuvres its way carefully through the roots of the lush green mangroves sticking out of the water to draw oxygen from the air. Soon after, it docks at Sivakodi Lanka, an uninhabited island. The guide points out a couple of paw prints on the sand, indicating that langurs have come visiting recently. When you step onto the sands, a feeling of being far removed from civilisation envelops you soothingly.
Traditional Andhra fare awaits for dinner, an array of dishes you’re unlikely to find outside the state – pandugappa vepudu (deep-fried sea bass or barramundi, marinated in local spices), rajula pulao, chitti muthyalu (rice with chicken and prawns) and Sterling Godavari’s signature dish – manda peethala pulusu (crab cooked in a tangy onion-tomato gravy) along with fried okra, rice, sambar and curd rice with a simple tempering. Each dish is a gastronomic journey in itself that unfolds in the solitude of the resort’s in-house restaurant.
On the itinerary, too, are experiences of village life. Morning trips to nearby paddy fields are organised, so guests can watch local farmers go about their business, and even join in, if they wish (pay heed to the warning, there are leeches in the ankle-deep water). Sugarcane is the other major crop grown in the region; jaggery farms are sited just a little distance away from the fields of paddy, where you can watch piles and piles of sugarcane being juiced, boiled and cooled to form enormous slabs of cane jaggery, which make their way to all corners of the country. Jaggery is important to the local cuisine and signature sweets of the state – make sure you try the pootharekulu (a wafer-thin layer of rice starch stuffed with jaggery, dry fruits and nuts) and mamidi tandra (mango jelly). Venture a little further to Atreyapuram, a village 65km from Palakollu, for an authentic taste of these sweets.
Local crafts, particularly lace work, are also well known. About 20 minutes from Palakollu is the Narsapur Lace Factory, where you can see how the lace is made and bring some home
Further immersion into local culture mandates a visit to the Sri Ksheera Ramalingeswara Swamy Temple, one of the five temples dedicated to Lord Shiva. The tallest in the state, the 120-ft temple was built in 9 CE during the reign of the Chalukya Dynasty; the architecture is magnificent and worth a visit, even if you don’t count yourself among the faithful.
A weekend in Palakollu is the perfect getaway for anybody who calls a big city home. The rural scenery, way of life and the friendly locals transport you to another world, far from hustle and bustle of the modern urban routine. There might be only so much to discover, but you’d want to go back just for the peace.