As we Brits seemingly missed a summer your thoughts may be turning to the next opportunity to disappear. Well, Kerala is about as good as it gets: palm trees galore, seriously good nosh, a perfect climate, heavenly beaches, top qual nature, cool hills, warm service, Ayurveda, the source of so many spices and even decent Indian wine. Are you sold yet?
It’s not such an easy place to go on a tight budget; it can be quite resort led. If you work on about £70 a night you’ll be in the lap of relative luxury. Forget the 5* resorts of Leela and Taj et al, they’re just not worth it when the mid-range is so, so good. Just frequent the top league for their bars in the evenings. It’s not Goa and definitely not Thailand when it comes to the night time. Some other top tips:
Beliefs & Politics
Kerala is India’s only Communist state: the hammer & sickle crops up everywhere. They also have a high quality of life and the highest literacy of all states – good parallels.
If you’ve experienced any trauma in life, or even feel a bit frazzled, this will get you back on track. Some treatments are so intensely relaxing it can be a bit much – but you’ll find your level. Whether you want to wing it on an ad hoc basis or sign up for a full month long course you’ll return home a new (wo)man.
Keralan food is extraordinarily good, remarkably different to northern cuisine. Ghee is swapped for coconut and fruit so it’s lighter and brighter. Your cardamon, pepper and untold spices come from the swathes of the hills around. Take every opportunity to learn how to cook here, you’ll be very popular when you get home.
Pictures of the backwaters look seductive – all that messing around on boats amongst the coconuts. You really don’t want to be signing up for a week long residential trip; keep it to an afternoon. You’ll spend plenty of time around the water, there’s no need to incarcerate yourself.
Beer & Wine
Heavily taxed. Unfortunately the local – but decent – wine is good but not a cheap option. And if you want to get a few beers for the beach, get in line at the .gov off license. They’ve got a handle on it in this state!
Here are a few recommendations for where to go and stay. It’s also worth mentioning the very strong home stay network – too many to mention but these B&Bs offer a great contrast to hotels and guest houses for budget options and personable experiences.
Cochin is a curious city – plenty of charm, history and things to see. It’s the best spot to arrive and acclimatise. It has a surprising and active Jewish community that goes back centuries. And this is where the Syrian Christians landed many moons ago, bringing all those culinary influences that have made Keralan cuisine all the more rocking. IF you could possibly tire of Keralan food then check out Dal Roti on Lilly Street which offers robust Punjabi dishes. It’s an unfussy and faintly cool little spot.
Best to stay in the old town which is actually brimming with luxury heritage hotels that have been fastidiously restored. They have prices to match but are always good for hanging out in the evenings, and it’s always worth approaching them discreetly to see if you can pay to hang round the pool during the flaming daytime heat. These are the big player hotels:
Koder House – an unusual Jewish hotel and restaurant
Below, the eternal image of the Chinese fishing nets in Cochin.
IN THE HILLS & FAR AWAY
How to choose between Munnar, Kumily, Murikaddy or Thekkady? See what national parks are nearby.
Thekkady’s Shalimar Spice Garden is composed of a number of cottages cascading down a hillside. The grounds are really established so you can have a good nose about without even going to a spice plantation. There’s a great, smallish pool to laze about – invariably quiet as most people are doing active things out and about. You’re well placed to explore the Gavi National Park for elephants, toucans and all manner of furry things squabbling in the canopy. There are good walks straight from the hotel through different plantations. The hotel will do their best to fulfil any request and Wifi is available in the reception area. Ask where the best spot is to see fruit bats – ahh those beautiful exotic beasts of the sky.
Yes they are truly beautiful, but…there’s something of the M1 about them. Boat after boat with frankly rather bored looking residents. Try it out for a couple of hours, see how you get on. You’ll take in plenty of routes and curios in that time.
Casa del Fauno – is on the backwaters. I believe this is what they call barefoot luxury. The mature, Italian proprietor is an architect who clearly connects deeply with her adopted country. This is her second venture after Shalimar above, and it hits the spot in terms of a quality chill out. A low-rise white washed villa houses about six airy rooms which come as a refreshing change from the vernacular of heavy woodwork and coir. Dinner is served on long social tables or alone – as you like. It’s a toss up between Italian or Keralan, but don’t go expecting any pizzas here – I really don’t think paneer is a suitable mozzarella substitute anyway. They will be happy to organise a visit from the guru du jour or a car to visit the throng of Alleppey for the backwaters.
Philip Kutty’s Farm, near Alleppey is only accessible by boat. A very decent place with large rooms and plenty of animals to *wake you up at dawn*. Good cooking classes.
The heart of resort-ville. Don’t expect nice atmospheric streets lined with restaurants, it’s a strip with one large hotel falling off towards the beach after another.
Bethsaida Hermitage – This is enormous but it doesn’t matter when the garden is so spectacular with plenty of open lawns, nooks and shaded areas. Two huge, crystal-clear pools swallow people up. Some rooms are a little old fashioned and the buffet goes with the territory. But who cares when the views are so good.
If you need to breakout of the Bethsaida inertia, struggle over to the Surya Samudra Hotel just next door. It’s madly bonkers expensive to stay but the bar and restaurant is less so. The proprietor procured and restored an entire ghost village of traditional Tharavadu timber cottages.
Coconut Bay is a simple, perfect little resort hotel – highly recommended. The best service I think I have ever encountered in my entire life. An exceptional Ayurvedic centre.
The Leela Hotel – the place to come if you really cannot compromise on your 5* fetish. But really, it’s too much like Ibiza: you’re all on show, whether at the bar or round the pool. It is undeniably great for drinks being the only place you can get a proper cocktail. But do yourself a favour and save the rupees by staying somewhere else.
Poovar Island Resort – heading south Poovar is pretty cut off. Despite that it feels like the kind of place groups are shipped off to. But it does have some great backwaters and a long sandy spit you can explore, and have the place to yourself. Row out to the spit n’ sawdust floating restaurant for seafood.
Great swathes of bamboo where the fruit bats kip during the day in Munnar.
Get in line for drinks.
Thiruvananthapuram – or Trivadrum is the capital of Kerala. It’s a little dusty but has plenty to occupy you. Durons is the go-to tailor. Napier is an exquisitely faded natural history museum.
Recommended hotels and guest houses:
Tall Trees ££
Coconut Lagoon £££
Kalari Kovilakom £££
A Beach Symphony ££££
Neeleshwar Hermitage ££££