Kerala backwaters cruises

Exploring the backwaters of Kerala is often the highlight of a visit to India’s southeast state, with some 900km of waterways and lakes forming a landscape that can perhaps be best compared to the atmospheric bayous of the USA. The Kerala backwaters stretch from Kollam in the south to Cochin in the north, and comprise the state’s ‘rice bowl’, hence you will usually be sailing aboard a kettuvallam – a converted rice barge.

Most cruise trips begin in Alleppey, known as the ‘Venice of the East’ for its extensive network of canals, with routes that depend on your embarkation and disembarkation points, the depth of the backwaters, and the number of nights you’re spending onboard; trips are tailor made so you could be cruising for anywhere between just one night and a week.

What will I see?

Cruising typically takes place in the mornings and afternoons, the boats moving slowly along the waterways as they cover around 20km each day. You’ll see village markets, coconut plantations, bird sanctuaries, beaches, churches and shrines, with the option of as many shore excursions as you want. You may also take to a canoe, to traverse narrower routes, but really as these are tailor made itineraries, how you choose to spend your days is pretty much entirely up to you. Only one thing is for sure: photography opportunities abound as you pass one evocative scene of river life after another.

While traditional industries in this region are sadly in decline (responsible tourism here can contribute to their survival) you may be able to visit some village workshops to watch craftspeople at their labours, such as making products from coir, the husk of a coconut. Escaping more touristy waterways you will see fewer other vessels, but catching sight of a traditional snake boat – up to 42m long and revered by the villagers that race them – can be a very special moment.
This region is especially known for its biodiversity, so keep your eyes open for kingfishers perched on branches, cormorants and terns, as well as otters and the occasional turtle. These cruises can, of course, easily be combined with longer tours of India, such as to hill stations, the famous Golden Triangle, or around South India by rail.

Life aboard ship

You’ll travel aboard converted kettuvallams, traditional barges once used to carry rice from the fields along the rivers. They are made of wood, bamboo and sometimes coir, with thatched roofs and Western-style toilets, and can often be quite luxurious. The barges are a unique feature to Kerala, once used by Indian royalty in fact, and there are around 2,000 of them, ranging in size, sailing the backwaters.

Boats are always exclusive rather than shared with others. They might have one, two or three bedrooms, with air conditioning (always at night, sometimes 24-hours). Shower rooms are heated by solar power and most boats have an open lounge / dining area with comfortable cushions and mattresses.
A typical cruise has only a small crew, usually two boatmen and a guide/chef. The boats are motorised but travel slowly, making cruises a pleasingly relaxed affair. All meals are cooked aboard, with ingredients sourced in local markets – expect ethnic home-cooking, often from recipes handed down generations, such as curries made with fish caught from the boat. Usually possessing a grasp of English, the chef will also be able to act at a guide and arrange shore excursions for you.

Our top River cruising Holiday

Kerala houseboat holiday, India

Kerala houseboat holiday, India

Set yourself afloat along the quiet Keralan backwaters on a one-bed crewed houseboat

From £1020 7 days ex flights
Tailor made
Travel Team
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Best time to cruise the
Kerala backwaters

Cruises are tailor made and as such can be taken at any time of year. Temperatures tend to be fairly stable all year round, in the region of 27°C to 29°C, but the European winter is the best time to go, as water levels are lower, keeping more route open, and you’ll avoid monsoon. The freedom to build your own itinerary according to your own interests also extends to boat sizes; couples, families and larger groups can be accommodated, sometimes on different boats sailing in convoy.
Diana Syrett from our supplier Kerala Connections on the flexibility of river cruises in Kerala:
“Everything we do is tailor made so we can arrange trips of all different lengths. There are boats with one bedroom, two bedrooms and three bedrooms, so we can accommodate groups or families. A few years back we arranged a large group who went out for a wedding. We booked many boats of different sizes and they all cruised together. People stepped across to one of the larger boats to cruise during the day and returned to their own boats to eat and sleep.”
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Hans A. Rosbach] [Intro: Kerala Connections] [What will I see?: Kerala Connections] [Life aboard ship: Kerala Connections] [Best time to cruise the Kerala backwaters : Kerala Connections]
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