“Where’s that?” has been one of the most common replies from people learning of our latest holiday destination. Kerala is the smallest state of southern India, and is a popular holiday destination for hippie types and package tourists from the UK.
10 hours flight from London Gatwick gets you to the state capital, Trivandrum. The airport was the usual tedium, and we emerged at about 7am local time and got our first shock of the holiday, in finding out that the coach transfer to the start of our tour was going to take FIVE hours.
With a brief breakfast stop en route, we arrived in Kumarakom for two nights there. This turned into a not-so-free upgrade to the Radisson, since our expected hotel was full. “not-so-free” because our bill for two lunches and dinners was about three times what it would have been at the Backwater Ripples.
It was rather nice, though.
The tour included a so-called “sunset cruise” on the lake, but we were back before the sun actually set. At least it gave me a stationary position to take some sunset pictures from!
Yvonne’s review of the hotel, and the others on the trip, can be found on Trip Advisor – essential reading for any trip!
This stop was our introduction to the bizarre alcohol licensing that exists in Kerala.
Officially it’s a “dry” state.
The bottle shops are run by the government.
It’s very difficult for hotels and restaurants to get a liquor licence – hence even at the Radisson the bill showed “Open Food” for the drinks. Other places had the beer bottles left on the floor under the tables wrapped in newspaper, beer served in coffee mugs, and even brought to the table in teapots! Various bills showed “Special Soft Drinks”, “Pop”, or something similar. Suffice to say it wasn’t a problem getting a few beers with dinner!
Once we’d recovered from the travelling, we get back on the coach for another five hour journey, heading east into the foothills of the Western Ghats, the mountain range that marks the boundary between Kerala and the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu.
The destination was Thekkady, and after some impressive driving (I wouldn’t like to drive a 50 seater bus up those narrow roads), we arrived safely at the Cardamon County Hotel. From here we visited the spice gardens, rode an elephant, and went to the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary.
We didn’t see any tigers – there are just 43 of them in the reserve, and they’re largely nocturnal. But we did see wild elephant, lots of birds, and a playful otter family.
The next leg of the trip was possibly the slowest – taking 2 hours to travel the first 40km (25 miles or so) over the hills from Thekkady to Munnar. At an altitude of 6,000 ft with rolling hills, Munnar is called the “Scotland of India”.
Not much of the Scottish glens are covered with tea trees, though! The taller trees dotted around are white oaks – which provide shade and a natural windbreak for the crop.
Yvonne surrounded by tea – some might say a tea-drinkers paradise. Personally I can’t stand the stuff!
Tea picking is still a largely manual activity. These fields are owned by TATA, a huge Indian company who own Tetley tea in the UK. It might be hard work, but 80% of the profits go to the workers.
After Munnar, we drove back to the coast to the city ofCochin, home to the oldest Jewish Synagogue in the Commonwealth, and got treated (and I use that word in its widest sense!) to a display of Kathakali dancing. It might be an ancient tradition, but it bored me silly and the dancers looked like pantomime dames!
The highlight of Cochin for me was the Chinese fishing nets on the beach there – some of these have been handed down through the same family for 500 years, though I suspect a few running repairs might have been made in that time!
We also saw a snake charmer on the streets of Cochin. While Trivandrum is the capital, Cochin is the more cosmopolitan city and more industry oriented. The legacy of the spice trade is clearly visible – it’s still the home of the Pepper Exchange, where the world price of this valuable commodity, known as the King of Spices, is still set.
The shortest day’s travel took us to Alleppy to board our houseboat for the next night. 15 years ago, some enterprising soul converted three rice barges to houseboats to take tourists around the backwaters. There are now 650 of them, and another 200 in construction – my advice is to get there before they build too many more!
One slightly bizarre sight on the route was this duck farm – thousands of them covering the waterway from bank to bank!
Sunset over the backwaters was stunning!
The final leg of the trip was down to Kovalam for our stay at the Leela Kempinski hotel there. The beaches at Kovalam were something of a disappointment after the clean golden sand of Goa – here they were covered in dirty-looking black mineral deposits and not as welcoming. The weather was also something of a disappointment during this week – it rained every single day, sometimes for as much as 7 hours without stopping. At one point it was raining so hard we walked back to our room in our swimwear!
The weather did break enough to allow us to venture out to the restaurants along Lighthouse Beach – excellent dinners and decent toasties for lunch, and a fraction of the price of the hotel food.