From the moment I arrived in Cochin, despite it being the middle of the night, I felt the cultural shift of being in India. A truck drove past me with an elephant swaying on board, not a sight you see everyday in the UK! I found Cochin an interesting city to explore, including the Old Dutch Palace and the 450-year-old synagogue.
I like the Fort Cochin area, made up of a melange of Dutch, Portuguese and British Raj-era architecture – it had a lively atmosphere with lots of people-watching and arty cafes. The emblematic Chinese nets on the Malabar coastline are part of Cochin’s culture – although these days catching fish is more for show, as most fisherman head out in boats to fish in the Arabian Sea.
Stay: Old Harbour
There’s plenty of choice of accommodation in Cochin, but I really liked Old Harbour with its lush gardens and refreshing pool. The design is traditional in keeping with its 300-year-old history, but with some contemporary flourishes. Although the superior rooms are spacious with views overlooking the Chinese nets, a better choice might be the Garden Cottage rooms with open-air showers and pretty terraces that open out onto the pool area.
In just over an hour and a half from Cochin, I made a stop in Thattekad, an area immersed in nature, wildlife and greenery, set alongside the Periyar River. I’d recommend this as an alternative to the slightly more touristy Munnar.
The main draw here is the Thattekad Bird Sanctuary, the first bird sanctuary in Kerala, founded by famous ornithologist, Dr. Salim Ali. Take a three-hour guided walk through tropical and deciduous forests to see birds in their natural habitats such as the Malabar parakeet, white-bellied blue flycatcher and the Malabar grey hornbill as well as smaller mammals like mongoose and otter, although I was surprised to discover there are no crocodiles in Kerala.
The area around the river is also a good spot for getting out in nature whether that’s a paddle down the Periyar River by kayak, hiking with a naturalist guide or a bike ride.
Stay: Windermere River House
The perfect retreat after a hard day’s sightseeing, Windermere River House is a small property with just five bedrooms. A long lawn reaches from the two-storey colonial-style building to the river’s edge, where the pool awaits, perfect for a dip while you watch the swirling waters of the Periyar drift by.
Periyar National Park
For a nature lover like me, stopping at Periyar National Park was another opportunity to immerse myself in Kerala’s biodiversity and huge wealth of wildlife. Either by boat on the Periyar lake or on foot, you can track and observe animals such as elephants, boar and deer who roam in the tropical evergreen forest and marshy grasslands. You may even see tigers.
If you want to feel further connected to the forest, I recommend a stay at Periyar Forest Bungalows – a basic but authentic homestay that is deep in the jungle. This magical experience is far from other tourists and surrounded by nature, you will see wildlife stroll past and hear the exotic squawks of the jungle at night.
Stay: Spice Village
Located right on the edge of Periyar National Park, Spice Village is an excellent place to stay, not only because of its proximity to the park, but because of the high quality of the expert naturalist guiding on walks. The thatched cottages are traditionally furnished with polished teak wood and I thought the food was excellent – I dined on fish from the river.
Kerala’s backwaters, made up of a series of watery channels, greenery-clad canals and wildlife-rich lagoons are the reason many travel to Kerala, full stop. Bearing this in mind, it can become touristy and it’s important to choose the right way to visit, so you can relish in its peaceful charm.
In my opinion, I’d think twice about a houseboat trip as their size tends to limit them to solely the larger waterways. To ensure a kitchen, some of the vessels can be quite cramped and the more spacious ones without kitchens mean you have to disembark at night. I think the best way to experience the backwaters is to base yourself at a comfortable, riverside lodge where you can take smaller boats away from the main river routes for day trips. You can also explore local villages and focus on quieter pleasures like birdwatching. This is the way to get off the beaten track in Kerala.
Stay: Coconut Lagoon
Located on Vembanad lake, Coconut Grove is sensitively built among the channels of the lake, demarcated by narrow waterways and palm trees. Intricately built cottages, remodelled by skilled artisans to give new life to old mansion houses, Coconut Grove has a feel of heritage home while at the same time offering an authentic experience in nature – visit the butterfly garden, spot myriad birds and kayak the tranquil backwaters at dawn.
In my opinion, all good holidays should end on the beach, and this trip is no exception. The undulating coastline of Kerala reveals sandy coves backed by palm trees and lapped by the wild waves of the Arabian Sea. After your explorations in Kerala, you can certainly justify some downtime here.
Marari beach is part of Mararikulam, a sleepy fishing village and the beach is perfect for long walks, admiring the colourful fishing boats and their daily catch. I also liked Cherai beach for a day visit, north of Marari which was perhaps even more laid back with some lovely cafes for lunch.
Stay: Marari Beach Hotel
Enclosed by nature, this beachside hotel also benefits from its verdant surroundings; here you can enjoy the beach plus discover wildlife – the on-site naturalist will take you on a morning walk identifying hundreds of different butterflies, birds and endemic plants.
The cottages with private pools are particularly comfortable – perfect for that end-of-holiday treat.
Just Back From... Kerala, India
Rob Milverton takes a trip round the cities, nature reserves, beaches and backwaters that make up Kerala, discovering authentic stays, ways to avoid the crowds, insider tips…and how to avoid the conventional houseboat experience.