Kerala marches to a slower beat than most of India. The lush landscape, palm-fringed beaches and waterways lazing past paddy fields create a soothing refuge from the hectic pace common to much of the country.
Coconut palms flourish like weeds throughout Kovalam, Kerala's most popular seaside town. The huge trees hug the hills leading down to miles of beach. Fishermen wearing lungis, colourful cloth wraps tied at the waist, and shirts with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows chant as they pull their nets onto the shore. Their voices harmonize with each tug on the coconut-rope nets. After hauling in the catch, they push the slender wood boats back out to sea, a process repeated throughout the day. All the nets my husband and I saw contained only about a dozen fish.
Beachside hotels with contemporary furnishings, pools, fully equipped gyms and open-air restaurants resemble those in Florida, except that in Kerala, Indian classical dancers perform at the nightly shows and, on the sandy beach, tailors work in small wood stalls. A made-to-measure lined blouse cost $6.
Kovalam is 16 km south of the capital, Trivandrum. The home of Kerala's main airport is a small clean city still housing many Victorian-style buildings erected by the British. White bricks trim the doors and windows of the stately redbrick buildings. More exuberant is the seven-story high Vishnu temple festooned with hundreds of elaborately carved statues. The life-size stone sculptures depict scenes from Hindu mythology. The interior is closed to non-Hindus.
Houseboating through Kerala's backwaters is one of the region's unique attractions. The 900-km network of rivers, lakes, lagoons and canals were once the only roads through the interior. We drifted along the placid waterways in a converted rice barge made of logs lashed together with coconut-fiber ropes, the only sound, a low hum of the engine.
Lazing on the wicker chairs in the open-air living/dining area, we passed school children walking home on the ribbons of land bordering the canals. Housewives stand submerged in water up to the waist, washing dishes. Their houses edge waterways overhung with coconut and mango trees. Fishermen troll the water, moving their flat-bottomed boats with wooden paddles and bamboo poles.
Our houseboat's three crewmembers included an engineer, a chef and the captain who sat on a small kitchen chair at the front of the boat. Although equipped only with a four-burner stovetop in the open-air kitchen, the chef managed to prepare a delicious spicy chicken dish, beans, cabbage salad, dhal, rice and for dessert, banana fritters.
We docked beside a rice paddy at night. The crew slept at the back of the boat while we luxuriated in an air-conditioned stateroom with a double bed and private wood-paneled washroom with shower.
A short cruise next morning brought us to a dock where a car drove us to one of the area's backwater resorts. The individual cottages at the Golden Water Resort near Kumarakom straddle the canal flowing through the grounds. We fished right off our balcony, catching the local delicacy, the small flat karimeen.
Many Germans and Swiss come for the Ayurvedic treatments but since the treatments are spread over seven to 14 days, my husband opted for a massage, but had to see the Ayurvedic doctor first. The doctor's analysis of his personality determined the best oils to use. Lying down on a wood board, Les closed his eyes as two men poured oil over his head. Then, for the next hour, they each massaged one half of his body. "It was invigorating," he said.
Chinese fishing nets made from bamboo and wood hover like a praying mantis over the waterfront of Kerala's historic Fort Cochin. The nets, introduced by the Chinese in the 14th century, are lowered and raised by an ancient pulley system.
Tiny Fort Cochin with its narrow streets and buildings protected by high walls retains remnants of all the conquerors that came here searching for spices, particularly "black gold" or pepper.
The Portuguese built India's first Christian church here in 1516. One tombstone inside the yellow stucco-walled church commemorates Vasco de Gama who was buried here first. Later, his remains were returned to Portugal.
The Dutch destroyed nearly all the Portuguese-built churches except for St. Francis which they converted into a Dutch Reform church and constructed the adjacent cemetery. During the British reign, the church became Anglican.
In the Santa Cruz Cathedral built in 1901, a mural depicting Jesus' life decorates the ceiling. Gaudy blue and yellow tiles frame the arches and the façade. About one in four Keralans are Roman Catholic.
Cumin, coriander and other spices scent the tiny shops congregating along the narrow alleyways in Jewtown. The centre of Cochin's spice trade is also home to the Pardesi Synagogue. Destroyed by the Portuguese, then rebuilt by the Dutch in 1664, the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth glitters with a gold pulpit, hand-painted blue-willow-pattern Chinese floor tiles and crystal chandeliers. Jews first arrived in AD 52: only a handful remain.
The historic sites along with the beaches and backwater houseboating explain why National Geographic Magazine rated Kerala one of world's 50 must-see destinations.
Mary Ann Simpkins is a frequent contributor to the Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Citizen, Spa Life, North American Inns, and also Fifty-Five Plus, Grit, Rolls Royce Diary & Fodor's Travel Guides. She is author of Travel Bug Canada & Co-author of Ottawa Stories. Mary Ann is a member of TMAC & SATW.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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