Traveller's guide: Kerala

Whether you want to cruise the backwaters, sip tea in a plantation, or relax on a beach, this alluring Indian state has it all and more, says Harriet O'Brien

In the local language, the word keralam translates roughly as "land of the coconut tree". From the golden coast of the Arabian Sea to the jungly hills of the Western Ghats, this lush ribbon of a state presents patchwork images of idyllic India.

Just some of its components are flamboyant festivals, spice-scented markets, glinting lagoons and waterways, and palm-fringed beaches. The rich mix of Kerala's colourful trading history; its ayurvedic medical traditions (complete with forcefully administered massages); its tolerant culture; and its charming undercurrents of mild eccentricity add intrinsic appeal.



Kerala features on the map of India as a thin strip stretching about 590km along the south-western seaboard, just above the tip of the subcontinent. In the east its rugged mountains and deep gorges support a great variety of wildlife and abundant flora. Its few big towns lie in the coastal plains of the west.



Tourism is mainly concentrated in the south, although a few hotels have recently opened in the north and more are currently under construction. The capital, Thiruvananthapuram, is more easily known by its less daunting colonial-era name of Trivandrum (which is what we call it here). The city is located in the far south, close to some of the most-visited beach areas.



About 150km further up the coast is Alappuzha (still also called Alleppey), the principal gateway to the network of canals and rivers that form Kerala's fabled backwaters. About 70km north again is the great port of Kochi (formerly Cochin), where the old colonial Fort Kochi is a magnet for visitors.



The quest for spices brought foreign traders and settlers to Kerala – among them Chinese, Portuguese, Arabs, Dutch and British who left their marks through architecture and religious heritage. Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians have coexisted amicably here for centuries. It is, though, the Hindus who contribute the most vibrant aspects of Kerala's cultural life. Local temple festivals take place throughout the year, with elephant processions and much pageantry. The most spectacular is arguably Thrissur Pooram celebrated at Vadakkumnathan temple in the city of Thrissur during April or May. Meanwhile, traditional Kathakali dance-dramas, complete with amazing make-up, are performed (largely for tourists) at a host of venues across the state.



Like several other Indian states, modern Kerala was formed in 1956 on the basis of a linguistic group – in this case speakers of Malayalam (which is not dissimilar to Tamil). It incorporates the three former princely states of Malabar, Kochi and Travancore. Their rulers were, latterly at least, benevolent patricians who did much to establish a strong tradition of education. Today, Kerala enjoys a high rate of literacy (around 90 per cent) while many of its younger population have one if not two degrees. The academic achievement reflects a history of progressive thinking: Kerala was the first state in India to introduce family planning, has the highest life expectancy in the country and, according to a 2005 survey conducted for Transparency International, the lowest corruption rate.



In 1957 Kerala became the first place in the world democratically to elect a Communist government (with its first chief minister a high-caste Brahmin). The Communist Party of India continues to dominate the state's Assembly today.



For visitors, all this translates into an intriguing place where English is widely spoken. It is also accessible. Trivandrum and Kochi are fairly easily reached from the UK via the Gulf – for example on Emirates (0844 800 2777; emirates. com/uk) via Dubai and Etihad (0800 731 9384; etihadairways.com) via Abu Dhabi. Or take one of a range of airlines to Mumbai and connect to Trivandrum or Kochi on Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com) or Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com).



A number of UK companies offer tailor-made packages to Kerala. I travelled with W&O Tropical Locations (0845 277 3310; WandOtravel. com), which offers tailor-made and escorted trips to Kerala. Its 14-day Journey through Kerala tour takes in the backwaters, tea gardens, spice plantations, and Kochi. The price, if you book before 15 January 2011 is £1,535 per person (based on two sharing). It includes Emirates flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Kochi via Dubai, accommodation, driver and car in Kerala, sightseeing guidance and some meals.



Beach beauties



The most popular of Kerala's beaches are in the south. Kovalam, about 15km south-east of Trivandrum, is a coastal village turned gently bustling resort. Over the last six or years Kovalam has seen a big increase in resort hotels. For chic luxury, try The Leela (00 91 471 305 1234; theleela.com; doubles from 11,000 rupees/£155 per night without breakfast) dramatically perched above Kovalam's two main beaches. Or for simple good value head to family-run Rockholm (00 91 471 248 0306; rockholm.com; doubles from 2,000 rupees/£28 without breakfast) just off Lighthouse Beach.



Other mainland beach options include the small resort town and Hindu pilgrimage destination of Varkala, about 55km north-west of Trivandrum, and Marari Beach a few kilometres from Alappuzha. But for a picture-perfect haven of white sands and turquoise waters, head to the tranquil Lakshadweep Islands. This little-developed archipelago offers barefoot luxury at Bangaram Island Resort (00 91 484 301 1711; cghearth.com; doubles from 8,500 rupees/£120). Note, however, that you need a special permit to visit the islands (arranged by local tour operators or hotel) and that flights can be expensive: Indian Airlines (00 91 22 2758 0777; airindia.in) and Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com) offer services from Kochi to the archipelago's only airport, on Agatti Island, that take 80 minutes and cost typically 72,000 rupees (£170) return if you book well in advance and travel off-peak.



Ferries to the islands run from Kochi and Kozhikode to Kavaratti (the name of both the main island and the capital city). Journeys take from one to two days. Tickets, typically costing from 1,600 rupees (£23) each way, can be bought through Coastline Holidays (00 91 484 231 1466; coastlineholidays.com).



Shimmering backwaters



Kerala's backwaters comprise a dreamy network of myriad canals, lagoons, rivers and lakes a short way inland from the ocean. They have traditionally served as boat routes linking villages with markets, fishing grounds and far-flung paddy fields.



This maze stretches back from the coast principally between Alappuzha and inland Kottayam. The joy of a journey through these waterways is in seeing a part of rural Kerala that is inaccessible by road. You drift along canals fringed with coconut palms and pandanus shrubs, the banks dotted with wooden houses. You watch iridescent kingfishers dive into the water and you gaze at bright white egrets stalking the shallows.



In the early 1990s old barges, used to transport rice, coconuts and more, started being converted into houseboats, and there are now many hundreds of such vessels available to rent. Too many, some would argue: in the high tourist season of December and January, parts of the backwaters become overcrowded and strewn with litter. The trick is to get well away from the main canals and meander along the smaller and narrower water passages.



Houseboats can be rented locally through outfits such as Alleppey Tourism Development (00 91 477 226 4462; atdcalleppey.com). But an appealing alternative is to stay at a waterside hotel and take day trips in smaller wooden boats that can navigate the very narrowest stretches.



Among the accommodation options is a new gem: Purity (00 91 484 221 6666; malabarhouse.com) is an exquisitely devised boutique hotel set on the shores of Lake Vembanad. Part of the Malabar House group, it opened last month. Along with a fabulous outlook, it offers six bedrooms and a state-of-the-art spa. Doubles cost from €168.75, including breakfast.



Northern ventures



Stretching up beyond the coastal town of Kannur, the northernmost area of Kerala has barely been touched by tourism. So the long, golden beaches here remain all but undiscovered, while just a small number of boats offer cruises through the unspoilt rivers nearby. The few visitors that arrive in the region may well find themselves invited to colourful Theyyam trance-dance rituals at temples, which mainly take place between November and May.



The one drawback of this area is access. The nearest airport to Bekal and Neeleshwar is at Mangalore in Karnataka (served by most domestic airlines across India). The drive from there takes two to three hours. Train travel is slow: the journey from Kochi to Neeleshwar station, for example, takes seven hours.



Unexpectedly given the remoteness of the region, a treat of a hotel opened two years ago just outside the town of Neeleshwar. Set in large gardens that back on to a long, empty beach, Neeleshwar Hermitage (00 91 467 228876; neeleshwarhermitage. com; doubles from 8,100 rupees/£114 including breakfast) is a small, serene resort. Twelve villas provide beautiful accommodation with outdoor courtyard bathrooms while facilities include a spa with ayurvedic doctor on hand, a dreamy infinity pool, and two restaurants. The enthusiastic staff offer cookery courses and arrange river cruises – and given the isolation here, you feel a pioneer tourist when you step outside the gates.



Further north, developments are in progress at Fort Bekal. The red-stone fortress is one of Kerala's major archaeological sites and excavation work is ongoing. Several resort hotels are under construction by the nearby beaches. A 73-villa Vivanta by Taj, for example, is due to open within the first six months of 2011.



Plantation stations



Tea was introduced to Kerala by the British in the 1890s – and thrives today, with great swathes of uplands to the west cultivated by the Tata group. Make for the misty hills around the town of Munnar for walks among the estates. At an altitude of about 1,500m, the area also offers conditions in which many of Kerala's spices thrive – cardamom, pepper and more. In the midst of the trim tea plantations near Munnar, the Windermere Estate is both a working cardamom plantation and a charming chalet-style hotel (00 91 484 2425237; windermeremunnar.com; doubles from 5,100 rupees/£72 including breakfast).



Trading riches



For a vivid insight into Kerala's absorbing mercantile past, head for Kochi. Within this sprawling harbour city, make for the southern promontory and the districts of Mattancherry and Fort Kochi.



Set among ancient spice markets, Mattancherry was home to the Raja of Kochi whose atmospheric palace can still be visited (entrance 5 rupees/7p). In the 16th century the raja gave sanctuary to Jews fleeing Portuguese persecution in Goa. Their synagogue (entrance also 5 rupees/7p) is a serene building, its interior adorned with multicoloured glass oil lamps, its floor covered with 18th-century Chinese tiles. Around it is old "Jew Town". But most of the Jewish community have long since decamped to Palestine and the area is now the colourful haunt of Kashmiri traders.



About 3km to the west, Fort Kochi contains a wealth of elegant colonial architecture, from St Francis church, where Vasco da Gama was originally buried in 1524, to the British-built Cochin Club of the early 1900s. Many of the finest buildings are now boutique hotels. Set in a gracious property formerly housing Grindlay's Bank, Malabar House (00 91 484 221 6666; malabarhouse.com; doubles from €168.75 including breakfast) was the first such establishment, opening in the mid-1990s. It is a haven of antiques and charming service.



Wild worlds



Kerala's most celebrated reserve is the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, a well-protected area the size of Anglesey about a two-and-a-half-hour drive south-east of Munnar. Although there are some tigers here, sightings are rare. But you may well see elephants and bears, long-tailed macaques and giant squirrels.



The range of activities here includes bamboo rafting, guided nature walks and adventure camping. But you don't have to stay in a tent: there is a wide choice of accommodation around the nearby town of Thekkady, from the upscale resort of Cardamom County (00 91 484 650 3044; cardamomcounty. com; doubles from 7,000 rupees/£98) to homestays such as Periyar Heaven (00 91 984 63000; thekkadyhomestays.com; doubles from 2,000 rupees/£28 including breakfast).



Off the beaten track in north-west Kerala is Muthanga Reserve in the Wayanad district. This forested area backs on to two reserves in the neighbouring state of Karnataka and presents good opportunities for seeing herds of wild elephant.



Half an hour's drive away, Tranquil Resort (00 91 994 7588507; tranquilresort. com; doubles from 6,000 rupees/£84) is a family-run establishment on a coffee plantation. Accommodation is in eight bedrooms and two treehouses.

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