One of the finest ways to discover Kerala. Within a few hours out of Cochin you can be cycling through spice and coconut plantations, along the banks of the River Periyar with birds and butterflies that you can only have dreamed of, following you along the route. Cycle through small villages, staying at homestays, small guesthouses and eco lodges along the way. And relax those cycling muscles en route with a traditional Ayurvedic massage.
Many people have no idea Kerala exists beyond Cochin and the backwaters. The former spice trading hubs of the north have beaches that are galloping past the old favourites of Kovalam in the south in terms of being bliss out zones. Check out Bekal, Kannur or Neeleshwar. It does take more effort to get there, but beauty rarely come easily, right? And it means they are a lot less touristy.
You might not think it is for you, if privacy is what you want on holiday, but it really is worth spending at least a couple of days of your trip in a homestay. Most of them are small working farms, and Keralites are warm generous hosts, making you feel at home almost instantly. By far the best way to learn about real Kerala cuisine too, with hosts using their own organic ingredients.
Helped along by Rick Steins’ recent cookery programme on India, Kerala cookery is certainly on the up. But celebrity chefs aside, the minute you taste real local food, you will be hooked. Local people still have to wake up to the possibilities of the growth of all things gourmet, but a quick lesson with your homestay host will be unforgettable, and a useful additional source of income for them too.
Although houseboats are still the most popular way to get around the backwaters, kayak trips are the new way to go on the water, enabling to you escape the bustling channels full of tourists. In a kayak you access Kerala’s rural heart, where duck rearers, toddy tappers and fishermen welcome peaceful paddlers. Your bags are transported for you so that you can moor up, and stay at homestays or villas along the way.
Few people associate Kerala with mountains, the Himalayas monopolizing the western desire for elevated landscapes. Kerala’s Western Ghats range is rapturous for most hikers and bikers, however. Named as one of the world’s Biodiversity Hotspots, it’s a daily festival of flora and fauna here. And no snow either in winter. A good starting point is the Raj town of Munnar, with the backdrop Anamudi, Kerala's highest peak at 2695 m.
The colonial quarter of Kochi, on the northern end of the peninsula, with the sea on one side and Lake Vembanad on the other. It is a charming area of the harbour city to chill out in, with rickshaws water taxis and ferries to get you around. Check out the shops, as well as its old Jewish quarter, Chinese fishing nets, and a wonderful collection of restaurants and hotels, from grand to boutique.
You have not ‘done’ the south of India by just going to Kerala. Consider combining your trip with a few days in neighbouring Karnataka or Tamil Nadu to get a truly three dimensional picture of what south India is. Such as the The Mudumalai National Park in Tamil Nadu’s Nilgiri Hills or Bandipur National Park in Karnataka, not forgetting the historical hub of Mysore.
Although located in beautiful Western Ghats, and famous for its tiger reserve, it certainly feels as if the amount of visitors outnumbers the number of wildlife sightings. You can only hike here with an official Park guide, and the lake cruises feel a bit more like party nights on the Thames. Although still worth a trip, just don’t raise your hopes for sightings. Go for tranquil bamboo rafting option instead of the cruise, but in peak season you need to book well in advance.
Started as a hippy hangout in the seventies, but just like Goa or Bali, flower power grew into dollar power, and overdevelopment kicked in. Overcrowded and dirty, there are a lot of vendors hassling on the beaches and it is far from the peace and love vibe they were once idolized for. Head north or further south for beach bliss to places like Kasaragod, Neeleshwar or Marari.
Although stunning and totally Kerala it has, sadly, with the influence of tourism, become rather clinical and cynical. Originating in the 17th century it uses refined gestures and ornate singing to convey the story instead of dialogue. Traditionally performed from dusk til dawn, it is now done at resort hotels in enough time for guests to drink a sundowner. Check out the less commercially exploited ritual of Theyyam instead.
The government went on a massive marketing spree to push Kerala as an Ayurvedic destination which means that it is attached to every spa going now. Although many are accredited and highly recommended, remember that this is a real way of life for Keralites, and a highly respected and all-encompassing way of living, with people visiting Ayurvedic hospitals and consultants. Not just a girls’ day out. Check out the government star ratings of Olive Leaf and Green Leaf Ayurvedic Centres for more guidance.