Kerala entirely lives up to (and even exceeds) its reputation. A world away from the fascinating but frenetic cities of Delhi, Mumbai and Jaipur, this area of stunning natural beauty almost feels like a different country in its own right. The region’s overriding serenity is epitomised in the calm of its famous ‘backwaters’.
Your saunter through Kerala is likely to start in the historic port city of Cochin, but from there a decision presents itself... Will you head east inland on the classic route to the tea plantations of Munnar, the wildlife of Periyar National Park, and the backwaters of Alleppey? Or does the north beckon, home to the lesser-visited rural scenery of Wayanad, the historic trading port of Tellicherry, and the little-known Malabar Backwaters?
If you feel unsure about taking on the behemoth that is modern India, perhaps due to travelling with younger family members, or are simply craving something different from previous India holidays, with time to relax and regroup at the end of a longer journey, then look no further than Kerala.
Our favoured routes in all directions take in some less-visited gems, and an increasing number of local families in this area are opening their ancestral estates to visitors for boutique stays. If we had to pick one ‘must do’ for Kerala, it would be to spend a few nights in one of these properties. Explore plantations of fruit, spices and rubber, cycle through small villages, learn Keralan home cooking from a master, and maybe even learn to milk a cow...
Begin your exploration of Kerala with a few days wandering the tranquil streets of Cochin, also known as Kochi. An important center for the spice trade, and the first European colony in India, the city’s varied cultural influences are evident in its eclectic architecture. The Dutch Palace, named such after being renovated by the Dutch, was originally a gift from the Portuguese to the King of Cochin, while the 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosque, and St Francis Church display the wide range of Cochin’s religious influences.
The city’s historic sights, open spaces and art galleries are best explored on foot or by tuk-tuk, with frequent stops for chai or coffee in contemporary cafes. The area is rich in local culture; take in some traditional Kathakali, a fusion of dance, opera and storytelling characterised by a mixture of complex techniques, elaborate costume and vivid makeup (it’s worth being prepared for a lengthy performance!) Alternatively, spend an early evening on a boat cruise across Vembanad Lake at sunset, looking back towards the harbour at the huge fishing nets cast in silhouette against an orange sky...
Two or three days at the Dewalokam Homestay - a serene, organic farm in the Kodikulam region, surrounded by jungles and spice plantations - is an ideal way to lean into the relaxed pace of Keralan life. Wend your way up to the rolling hills and verdant plantations of Munnar to explore the tea fields, visit a tea factory, and savour an all-important tea tasting. Head across to Thekkady, the spice hub of Kerala, to immerse yourself in Periyar National Park’s impressive landscape, and spot elephant, sambar deer, langur, gaur (Indian bison) and nearly 150 species of orchid. A small population of tigers also inhabit the area, although it’s only fair to say you’d be extremely lucky to spot one!
Complete your ‘loop’ back towards Cochin at Kerala’s most well-known asset: the scenic backwaters. One or two nights navigating the shallow, palm-edged lakes and narrow canals on a private houseboat (often a converted rice barge), passing small villages and soaking up the evocative scenery, is an iconic way to delve deeper into the region. Perhaps squeeze in a stay at Philipkutty’s Farm, before finishing on slow-paced Marari Beach for long walks on the sand...
We’re always drawn to Kerala’s less-trodden paths that offer the same superlative scenery and warm hospitality with even fewer tourist-centric trappings. At the welcoming Kandath Tharavad, wander into the village for morning tea at the chai stall before trying your hand at ‘toddy tapping’ (collecting sweet sap for palm wine). Take a long but scenic drive to Wayanad, a tranquil landscape of coffee and cardamom plantations, rolling rice paddies, and forested mountains, with a nearby wildlife sanctuary excellent for spotting elephants. At spice-rich Tellicherry, near the Malabar Coast, enjoy a night or two at Ayesha Manzil, where husband and wife team Moosa and Faiza take pride in showing guests their slice of Keralan life. Learning a few of Faiza’s culinary secrets is a highlight of any stay.
And don’t worry - taking the road less travelled won’t mean missing out on the backwaters and beaches. Malabar’s Tejaswini River region offers scenic waterscapes, best explored aboard converted rice barge ‘The Lotus’, a traditional, private houseboat that cruises at a leisurely pace through narrow canals, passing lush islets, small villages and painted temples. Finish up on Neeleshwar’s stunning beach for mile upon mile of soft, golden sand.
Kerala is no one trick pony and we like to show off its full repertoire, this means taking you on, and off, the water. For the price of £1,890US$2,090 per person (not including international flights) we have recommended 2 nights cruising the backwaters on your private houseboat, complemented by 2 nights in Fort Cochin, 2 nights at a rural homestay, 2 nights amongst tea plantations, 1 night alongside Thekkady National Park before finishing on the sands of Marari Beach for 2 nights.
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Explore the ‘Land of Kings’. Studded with a legacy of elaborate forts and palaces alongside colourful cities, this region is teeming with history, excitement and chaos.