Kerala: the part of India whose beauty entices honeymooners, backpackers and solo travellers, and now I know why. She provides a dreamy introduction to India by giving you all the very palatable bits along with a fews hints of the crazy uniqueness to leave you intrigued.
Flying into Kochi, we headed straight down to Varkala via train. In Varkala, we stayed in a beautiful cottage sat on a clifftop just 10mins walk away from the commercial tourist area with cafes, yoga spots and stalls of harem pants and trinkets. The cottage is sat back from the cliff edge as set by government regulation due to unstable rock (all others not abiding are in serious breach - a little insight into some of the challenges in India) and was managed by a wonderful caretaker, who welcomed us and set out all of our delicious and love-filled home cooked meals by his wife, always consisting of a bread, rice and a curry. Varkala beach is a huge stretch of sand but there are plenty of little coves to find your own private beach too. From the owner’s suggestion, we went to Babu Farm to get an authentic local lunch experience. After being seated in the air conditioned section, we were offered grilled whole fish and a spicy crab along with the unlimited rice and various dal, veggie thoran and sauces that come when you eat off a banana leaf. Don’t expect pleasantries, this is a no fuss restaurant without many smiles but it’s delicious, genuine and the staff are helpful and generous.
Long distance travel by train in India is by far the most economical method but keep in mind, the more you go inland, the more this isn’t possible. Also be aware that India being India, delays are often expected so don’t leave schedules too tight - this goes for any type of travel really though! Register on the IRCTC site or app (https://www.irctc.co.in/nget/train-search) to book and avoid any agents which can cause more confusion with the conductors. A few train tips to remember:
You will need to pay the foreigners fee to open an overseas IRCTC account
Print out the ticket or have it available on the phone AND your ID for ticket inspection on the train
The trains are long! When you get to the station look for the board with sheets of paper pinned up - these show the train details, passenger names and their coach number for the booking aka “position from engine”. Knowing which direction the train is going in, as it pulls up into the station you need to literally count the coaches. The trains generally wait for a while in each station but give yourself plenty of time to navigate all of these different points to make the experience more enjoyable. I promise it can be!
Definitely try the chai onboard from the chai wallers! This is probably the best chai you’ll get on your travels!
From here, we drove quite the journey to Munnar - the tea and spice plantation hills that show off just how lush and green India is. The 6 hour taxi journey is unlike any car journey in the UK, there aren’t any monotonous routes of pure concrete but instead spells of buzzing colourful villages, animals on mopeds to look out for and endless shades of green to marvel as you wind your way up the hills. If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see some astounding waterfalls close up! We stayed at the Dream Catcher Resort nestled in its own plantation high up. Because of the altitude, the climate is much cooler and wetter so pack a light, long sleeve top as it’s a bit of a shock after coming from the beach! This is a place to get away from the bustle and hang out by the pool so bear this in mind as a trip down to Munnar town isn’t a short stroll away, more like a windy pre-arranged car ride down. Staying here though means you get your own private tour of their huge plantation on foot, seeing all of the teas, fruits and spices they grow with fantastically knowledgable tour guides. The food here is, again, so delicious with some alternative Keralan dishes including a spiced and charred chicken dry fry that was equally crispy and tender; it was all too moreish we ordered a second immediately. I’d recommend staying in the hotel itself as the lush views are the same, rooms a little less damp in feeling and quite a bit cheaper than the private cabins and cottages. Also to bear in mind, the hotel doesn’t have an alcohol licence so for any avid drinkers, you’d be best to bring your own supply for the room.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Kerala without going to one of the great National Parks. We next headed south to Periyar National Park to happily partake in their All Day Bamboo Raft Tour, run entirely by the Periyar Eco Tourism board. Meeting at 8am, you’re guided by one of the original tribesman of the park who had the most impressive knowledge you could come across. He so naturally spotted squirrel monkeys right up in the canopy, and pointed out indistinguishable vegetation including the difference between leaves for ginger root suitable for consumption and then those for only medicinal topical purposes. Some of the most astounding parts were the animal tracks he would spot, the best of all, the tiger claws on the side of the tree and tiger prints on our way back via the SAME PATH! The excitement and shudder of knowing the tiger had been where we were just hours before was both mind blowing and a little too real for comfort! The best part though, was aboard the bamboo raft and paddling away, our guide’s inspective eyes spotting elephants in the far side. Without a loud 4x4 to scare them off, our paddling on the waters meant we got incredibly up close to a family of three elephants in their very own habitat eating away. What could be better?
While in Periyar, we went fancy and stayed in Cardomom County hotel. Just on the outskirts of the park itself, it was just the right dose of high-end hospitality and gorgeous facilities without any stuffiness or overbearing sparkly white and marble decor. It felt grounding and nourishing. The hotel manager, Taniya, was the ultimate multi-tasking boss lady/carer who got things swiftly arranged and sorted with so much integrity and natural authority. I had to mention her because she endlessly helped us from the moment we booked the hotel (the night before saw many a WhatsApp message exchanged) until we left in a hotel pre-arranged taxi, co-ordinating with the owner of our next AirBnB and the taxi driver to ensure we got to the rural place without complications and language difficulties.
The restaurant onsite reflects the hotel’s qualities - authentic, a little on the nicer side and more expensive than the usual. As a major tourist spot, be prepared to be hounded by the store owners wanting to get you in to look at pretty impressive statues of the gods and animals. As ever, a polite no thank you will suffice but just be prepared to keep saying it!
Our last stop on our Kerala tour had to be the backwaters. The unbelievable scenes of still waters bordered with layers of lush greenery and tall, proud palm trees is not a lie - there isn’t much to photoshop to make them look better than the real deal. We stayed in a breathtaking home right on the backwaters outside of Alleppey, in a tiny village called Thazhuppu off a highway. The host, Manu, is an impressive young guy who manages the bookings for his family business always happy to help with rickshaw arrangements, local questions and just general inquisitive questions. His family run a simple restaurant onsite, which sees one meal offering each night consisting of a brilliant ever changing thali. If the fishermen did a good job, you might get some grilled local fish too. They also have onsite a free water filter which was definitely a godsend in the mighty humidity.
Once your stomach has acclimatised to a different country, I urge you to try all the different Indian fried snacks and breads on offer - the vada from one shop was so different in spice and aromatics to another, and the banana fritters still warm are caramelised and comforting even in the heat. Also, if you see a sugar cane stall on the side of the road, try it! Using a rickshaw motor, the cane is squeezed over and over to produce the most delectable and thirst quenching drink you could ask - even better if they have lime to squeeze into it!
If you’re around this area, a beach to visit is Marari Beach, which was a perfect addition for the end of our holiday. It’s pretty clean and very quiet, with fisherman walking back and forth to work. We ate at one of the beach stalls and as India assures, you will never have a bad meal! Their very limited facilities did not stop them from bringing out huge bowls of fluffy rice, a spicy curry with small and meaty fish laced in a thin red gravy and various veg to round it all off.
This particular stay is one of my all time favourites in India, not least because of the immediate jaw-dropping scenery each morning upon opening your doors but because of the easy integration with the local village. Here you get to see close up and without judgement or fear how a modest Indian village works and lives. Speak to the local school children on their way back home, smile at the locals who will more often than not turn their frown into a gentle smile, and allow yourself to indulge in the simplicity of it all.
Kerala, as explained to me by our backwaters boat tour guide, literally means Land of the Coconut which gives you an idea of how much the humble (to them - exotic to us) coconut and palm trees are an integral part of their life. It provides the base to nearly all of their dishes or at the very least, is featured as a chutney or grated garnish in every meal. It creates toddy for them; the coconut juice fermented to create cheap and very locally produced alcohol - look out for the simple toddy bars. It also enables them to build temporary shacks and roofs for boats out of the woven leaves on top strong bamboo structures.
For anyone wanting an adventure, a change in scenery and has willingness to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet, may I suggest you book your winter sun to Kerala this year.