Spice world: Kerala's heady mixture of sights and scents

Fun in the sun isn't all about the beach. In southern India you get exotic food, wildlife watching and glorious landscapes, too, says Harriet O'Brien
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The Independent Travel

Turmeric and cardamom and pepper and cinnamon: the combined aromas teased the taste buds and induced a welter of anticipation. Lunch was in the making as we embarked and explored our quarters.

We had boarded a kettuvalam, a traditional-style Keralan rice barge with an all-enveloping mantle of woven bamboo. Since the early 1990s these vessels have become a tourist attraction, adapted and fitted out as small floating hotels with en-suite bathrooms and spacious dining and lounging areas. Ours, a deluxe model, had just the one large bedroom leading up to a sundeck. From on board, the beauty of the area unfolds as the houseboats serenely ply the myriad canals and lagoons that make up the backwaters of India's prettiest southern state. The palm-fringed waterways were constructed to link villages with far-flung rice fields, although you might be forgiven for thinking they were created purely with aesthetics in mind.

Our rice barge sauntered slowly from the fishing town of Alleppey and stopped by a lagoon-side rice field where we finally sampled the lunch that so tantalised us: vegetable curry and prawn masala with lacy rice pancakes. That evening Reji, the chef and chief of the three-man crew, gave us a cookery demonstration, producing fish curry with overtones of tamarind and coconut; avial, a traditional vegetable goulash with grated coconut, snake gourd, turmeric and cumin; and dhal with a subtle kick.

Kerala's dishes reflect the complex combination of cultures (Hindu, Muslim, Christian of numerous persuasions, Jewish) that for centuries have cheerfully co-existed in the region. For example, biriyani came from the Islamic Mughals of the north, while string hoppers (steamed ribbons of rice-flour dough) were introduced by the Portuguese. Most of all, though, the cuisine of Kerala is a celebration of a wealth of natural produce: notably coconut, fish and spices.

The spices, particularly, intrigued. So when our boat trip ended we headed up to plantation country, the source of these pungent flavours. First stop, the rubber estate of Kanam. There an old colonial plantation house, dating from the days of the Raj and aptly named Serenity, is now a sublimely peaceful boutique retreat with yoga master and on-site elephant who takes guests for rides. The retro atmosphere is almost palpable. Every effort has been made to preserve the authentic decor of the 1928 house. The ebullient young staff take enormous pride in their surroundings, enthusiastically recounting the history of the house and showing you the spice and herb garden they have carefully planted with nutmeg, pepper, tulasi (a type of basil), ginger, chilli and more. We dined outdoors on some of the fruits of their labours - spice-infused prawns with piquant salads of green banana and papaya.

Onwards and upwards to the Western Ghats range of mountains. About five hours' drive north of Kanam, the slopes around the little town of Munnar are coated in tea. At an altitude of 5,000ft and more, the area also offers conditions in which many of Kerala's spices thrive. In the midst of the trim tea plantations is a 66-acre cardamom estate on which the owner has lovingly developed a wonderfully comfortable hotel with stunning views. The 15 rooms at the Windermere Estate are in chalet-style buildings gently suffused with the scent of cardamom, which is processed in nearby drying chambers. A new central dining area was being completed when we were there, with a separate kitchen where, due to popular demand, cookery demonstrations take place.

The two-hour plantation tour was pleasantly gentle, but for serious exercise we opted to take a two-day trek in the area. It is a spice-land rich in wildlife, and even before we reached our trek's starting point near the Manupatty Reservoir we passed a quartet of wild elephants feeding in meadows near the roadside. That night, as we camped at a remote edge of the Western Ghats bordering Tamil Nadu, our guide concocted a vegetarian spread of spicy cabbage, piquant beans, cauliflower with coconut, potato with turmeric and more. Magicked in the dark from a tiny kerosene stove, it was an astonishing feast and an unexpectedly glorious mix of Keralan flavours.

Harriet O'Brien travelled with Wildlife Worldwide (0845 130 6982; wildlife worldwide.com) on a tailor-made trip through Kerala. A two-week holiday around the state, staying at Serenity in Kanam and the Windermere Estate at Munnar as well as taking a backwater cruise from Alleppey, costs from £2,195 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, accommodation and transfers. For more information on Kerala go to www.keralatourism.org

1 Kayaloram Lake Resort

WHAT IS IT? A beautifully devised lakeside hideaway and Ayurvedic centre with 12 bedrooms in wood-panelled tharavads - ancient Keralan houses that have been transported and reconstructed here (00 91 477 223 2040; www.kayaloram.com).

WHERE IS IT? Right on Kerala's famous backwaters: just outside Alleppey on the shores of Lake Vembanad.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? The relaxing atmosphere and a superior on-site Ayurvedic centre.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Doubles from around Rp3,500 (£44) full board.

2 Surya Samudra Beach gardens

WHAT IS IT? An eco-friendly beach retreat. Accommodation is in 23 cottages and houses in palm-filled grounds (00 91 471 226 7333; www.suryasamudra.com).

WHERE IS IT? In the far south, on a small cliff above a beach. About 18km from Kerala's capital, Trivandrum, and 8km from Kovalam.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? The excellent Octopus restaurant specialises in seafood, plus local dishes and homemade bread.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Rp500 (£6) for dinner - dear by local standards.

3 Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

WHAT IS IT? Southern India's most popular wildlife resort (00 91 4869 224571; www.periyartigerreserve.org).

WHERE IS IT? Set in the middle of the Western Ghats, 4km from Kumily.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Wildlife walks and a bamboo rafting day trip around the park with trackers (and an armed guard), who will help to find deer, wild pig, giant squirrel, wild elephant and bear.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? A full day's guided tour costs around Rp1,000 (£12) including a picnic lunch of curried chicken.

4 Kestrel Adventures

WHAT IS IT? An adventure company offering activities and treks in the Western Ghats - and providing excellent outdoor meals (00 91 944 703 1040; kestreladventures@mail.com)

WHERE IS IT? Trips take place in remote reaches of mid-eastern Kerala.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? From clipped tea estates to jungle-clad hills, the landscapes are stunning, while the enthusiastic knowledge of the guides is remarkable.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Treks cost around Rp2,500 (£30) per person per day including all meals, equipment and guidance.

5 Windermere Estate

WHAT IS IT? A small and wonderfully comfortable hotel on a working cardamom estate (00 91 484 425 237; www.windermeremunnar.com).

WHERE IS IT? In the midst of tea country, about a 15-minute drive from Munnar, which is the commercial centre of the local tea industry.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? The views of plantation country are staggering - there's also a lookout point with a telescope

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Doubles start at $125 (£69) per night for two full board.

6 Cochin Spice Market

WHAT IS IT? Extensive bazaar with wandering goats and other such local colour, where chilli, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and other spices are sold both wholesale and in smaller quantities.

WHERE IS IT? Just north of old Cochin's major attractions - the Synagogue and the Dutch Palace.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Somewhat incongruously, in the midst of the dusty bazaar is a sleek contemporary art gallery with an outdoor café. The Kashi café serves teas and cinnamon toast.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? A bag of spice costs no more than a few rupees.

7 Bangaram Island

WHAT IS IT? A tropical island haven set in the Lakshadweep archipelago. Accommodation is in 30 luxury beach huts (00 91 484 266 8221; www.cghearth.com).

WHERE IS IT? Accessible from Cochin: you fly to Agatti island and take an 8km boat trip from there.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? It's the ultimate get-away-from-it-all retreat.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Full board from Rp12,000 (£148) per night for two sharing a hut.

8 Kathakali Dance

WHAT IS IT? Kathakali is a form of dance, which translates as story-play. The dance, which originated in the 17th century, has evolved from one of the oldest classic dance forms of the region and enacts episodes from the Hindu epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. This is done with the help of amazing costumes, make-up and rolling eye movements.

WHERE IS IT? Performances take place at the Sri Vallabha Temple Tiruuvalla near Kottayam in southern Kerala.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? It's rare that non-Hindus are allowed into temple areas.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Rp100 (£1.20).

9 Pardesi Synagogue, Cochin

WHAT IS IT? The south-western coast of India was settled by Jews in the first century. In 1524, they fled to Cochin,

driven out by the Moors. The synagogue was built in 1568, but was destroyed in 1662 by the Portuguese, but rebuilt two years later under the Dutch.

WHERE IS IT? In an area known as

Jew Town at Mattancherry near

Fort Cochin.

WHAT'S SPECIAL? The interior is bedecked with gilt, floor tiles imported from China in the 18th century and ornate chandeliers.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Admission Rp2 (3p). Open Sunday to Friday 10am-5pm.

10 Green Magic Nature Resort

WHAT IS IT? An extraordinary eco-resort with three tree houses (with flush loos) and six thatched lodges (00 91 471 233 0437; www.tourindiakerala.com).

WHERE IS IT? In a little-trodden part of northern Kerala, 8km from Vythiri and 65km from Calicut (or Kozhikode).

WHAT'S SPECIAL? Getting back to nature in style - elegant vegetarian meals are served on plantain leaves.

HOW MUCH DO I PAY? Lodges from $110 (£69), treehouses from $180 (£112) per night full board, based on two sharing.

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