An Indian winter: A festive season in Kerala

Christmas is exactly two months away – but what if you'd prefer to skip the turkey this year?

The plan to spend Christmas in India came about because we were invited to a wedding in Mumbai of the son of some dear friends. Wonderful, of course – except that the ceremony was just before Christmas, and meant we would arrive back in London late on 24 December. The thought of getting a turkey out of the freezer and trying to pump up Christmas spirit in a grey London after the colour and warmth of Mumbai was a bit daunting. Then the penny dropped: why not stay on in India? The result was about the most memorable, interesting and utterly guilt-free Christmas we have ever had.

The first decision was where. We could have stayed in Mumbai, which would have been fine. I find myself liking and admiring India's largest city more and more. It is something of a human jungle, but it is also harmonious, hard-working and humane. But after the wedding, anything else would have been an anti-climax. That left two obvious options, the two most Christian states in India, both accessible from Mumbai: Goa and Kerala.

Goa is nearer, an hour in a plane. The trouble is that it is the fashionable place to go for Christmas, both for Indians and foreigners. As a result, it was eye-wateringly expensive to find anywhere to stay, even booking three months in advance. Besides, we had been there before, and found that it can bring out the worst in both foreign and local visitors.

Cochin, the old trading port in Kerala, is only another half-hour in flying time. It is perched on the 10 degree line of latitude north of the equator and manages the trick of being at once relaxing, engaging and – by the standards of Indian cities – adorable.

Fort Cochin, or Fort Kochi as it is now called, is on an island a mile or so offshore, now linked by bridges to the mainland. It has been a trading centre since Roman times, and there has been a Jewish community there since AD600. But what you see now was developed first by the Portuguese (from 1500 to 1660) and then by the Dutch, until the British took over in 1795. So the little streets in the centre, with their two-storey houses, feel like an old village in the Netherlands, and there is a village green overlooked by St Francis Church, which you could half-imagine to be in Surrey.

We stayed on the mainland, in the modern city of Ernakulam. There are three places to stay in Cochin. In the fort itself are high-quality boutique hotels and smaller guesthouses. It is lovely, sleepy and calm. It is, however rather a slog to get there, with a long taxi ride from the airport. Option two is to stay on Willingdon Island, between the fort and the mainland, where there is a luxury Taj hotel but not much else aside from the commercial port. But on the mainland you have all the colour and bustle of real India, and the Taj Residency hotel is only five or six minutes' walk from the ferry terminal where you get the 20-minute ride to the fort.

So Christmas Day started with the 8am ferry, then a stroll over to St Francis Church for the 9am English-language service. This church is the oldest in India: built by the Portuguese in 1516, then run by the Dutch, who added its present gabled façade, then passed to the Anglicans and then to the Church of South India, which joined the Anglican Communion in 1949. It is a somewhat austere building, given additional interest by the fact that it was Vasco da Gama's burial place before he was returned to Portugal; a small memorial remains.

We cantered through matins and communion, heard a rather sensible sermon, sang "Oh Come All Ye Faithful" and a number of other suitably uplifting Christmas hymns, and were out in the sunlight in less than an hour. It was a curious mixture of the familiar and the exotic.

Christmas lunch was less familiar, but exotic in the sense that it was a series of fish platters and local beer. The Malabar House Residency is an 18th-century colonial house, built round a courtyard, with a shady restaurant area overlooking a small pool. You sit in wicker chairs as fish in yet more elaborate guises arrive. Then a snooze in the sun and you are ready for the next delight.

That was to go down to the old Jewish quarter with its synagogue built in 1662. Few Jews still worship there, and the centuries-old community seems likely to disappear. It was moving and sad in its way.

We finished the day with something quite different: kathakali, a curious mixture of mime and music. Actors are anointed with elaborate make-up and costumes and perform stories: hero meets girl (played by a man), evil suitor tries to steal her away, hero fights and wins – that sort of thing. Not quite a nativity play. Then it was the ferry back to the hotel for a barbecue by the pool and a nightcap.

Boxing Day was spent on the backwaters, Kerala's unique canals and lakes. This huge area of brackish water has just two exits to the sea, and you potter along in houseboats at about three knots, looking at the birds and the little farms. You can spend a night or a week on them; I think we found a longish calm day was enough. We departed the next day.

Of course, two days are not nearly enough. Kerala is a remarkable state, with a Marxist government but one of the highest living standards in India. It has the highest literacy rate in the country and about the best health outcomes. As a way of celebrating Christmas far from home, Kerala was very comforting, though to begin to properly understand the society would take much longer.

Pitfalls? Not many. My main concern was the aggressive driving. Get a hotel car to meet you at the airport; it costs a little more than a taxi but for safety and piece of mind it is well worth it.

Delights? Aside from the points outlined above, I would add the people. Many small courtesies made us feel welcome, such as being shown where to buy ferry tickets or making sure we had the time of the Christmas service right. There are lot of good people in Kerala, and it was good to be reminded of that at Christmas time.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Kerala. Cochin/Kochi can be reached on Jet Airways (0870 910 1000; jetairways.com) from Heathrow via Mumbai; Etihad Airways (0870 241 7121; etihadairways.com) from Heathrow via Abu Dhabi; Qatar Airways (0870 770 4215; qatarairways.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester via Doha; and Emirates (0870 243 2222; emirates.com) from a range of UK airports via Dubai.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).

Staying there

Taj Malabar, Willingdon Island, Cochin (00 91 484 266 6811; tajhotels.com). Doubles start at Rs6,670 (£81), including breakfast.

Taj Residency Hotel, Marine Drive, Ernakulum (00 91 484 237 1471; tajhotels.com). Doubles start at Rs6,325 (£76), including breakfast.

The Malabar House, Parade Road, Fort Cochin (00 91 48 4 221 6666; malabarhouse.com). Doubles from €253 (£211), including breakfast.

Red tape & more details

British passport-holders require a visa to visit India. These are now obtained either by post or in person through one of VF Services' five visa application centres, located in central London (Clerkenwell and Victoria), Hayes, Edinburgh and Birmingham. Single-entry tourist visas cost £39.04 (0905 757 0060, calls £1 per minute; in.vfsglobal.co.uk).

India Tourism: 020-7437 3677; incredibleindia.org

'Tis the season to be... elsewhere

25 December: for me, it feels just like Christmas and my birthday all at once. That's because it is. But whether or not you share a birthday with Isaac Newton, Humphrey Bogart and Jesus Christ, a good way to make the most of the Yuletide climax is to travel. Britain gets progressively more sclerotic as 25 December approaches, and on the day itself transport – along with most other human activities – shuts down more-or-less completely, with normality returning only in the New Year.

Yet many long-haul flights depart as normal on Christmas Day; the complex schedules cannot be disrupted. Indeed, 25 December is a fine time to fly. It is the one day of the year when using Heathrow approaches a pleasure. Fares are sharply reduced compared with the preceding frenetic days, and many planes are half-empty. Better still, if Christmas simply isn't long enough, you can stretch the day by up to eight hours. Board Air New Zealand flight NZ1 at Heathrow at 3.45pm. Having had Christmas lunch in London, you can enjoy another in-flight over Iceland a couple of hours later. Then, somewhere above the Rockies, expect Christmas dinner – followed, as you touch down in Los Angeles at 7.30pm, by Christmas dinner again in California. I recommend a picnic on Venice Beach (above), a 20-minute ride from LAX airport.

If you escape the UK for Christmas, then you will be pleasantly surprised to discover that, in most countries of the world, life continues largely as normal on 25 December. Most long-distance trains in Europe will be running; many attractions will be open; and the sorts of restaurants that open on Sundays will be pleased to offer you dinner. In the developing world, Christian or not, normal life does not skip a beat on 25 December. Fifteen years ago, I found myself celebrating in the Thai resort of Krabi. The two big advantages Thailand had over the UK: everywhere was open, and the (predominantly Buddhist) people knew the words to Christmas carols far better than the average backpacker.

It may be, of course, that you want to avoid Christmas completely. Once again Air New Zealand provides the solution: book a ticket to Auckland via Los Angeles for 24 December. Christmas Eve will be stretched to 36 hours, which takes you right up to the International Date Line – whereupon the day skips to 26 December. You land on Boxing Day, having lost that Christmas Day completely. A good way, if your birthday is on 25 December, to stay young.

SIMON CALDER

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