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Trip Report Trip Report Kerala: Backwaters & Beach (DEC 2013)

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Overview:
The southern rural province of Kerala is very different from India's urban centers: it is uncrowded, clean, with a relaxed pace - a great place to unwind, eat fresh seafood, swim in warm winter waters (Arabian Sea), and enjoy the nature and local Keralite culture.

Photos (scenery, hotels, food):
http://glentara.smugmug.com/Kerala

For background on us, please see our first trip report here:
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/sri-lanka-in-7-days-highlights-lessons-learned.cfm

Itinerary:
As our four-day trip was short, we flew into Kochi airport and flew out of Trivandrum, to avoid driving back.
DAY 1 - Backwater cruise from Alleppey, across Lake Vembanad, to Kumarakom
DAY 2 - Drive down coast to Varkala Beach
DAY 3 & 4 - Beachtime

Tips:
- Pack mosquito repellent, sanitizer wipes, soap flakes, Imodium (in case!) and flashlight (power outages are frequent if brief)
- Most universal plug adapters do not fit, so bring an India-specific one
- Drink bottled water. If sensitive stomach, use bottled for teeth brushing
- Service charge is often not included on bills, we left 10 - 15%
- Exchanges are closed Sundays, however ATMs are easy to find

Details of places visited to follow ...

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    DAY ONE: BACKWATERS

    We'd heard much that a houseboat cruise gliding slowly through Kerala's network of backwaters is not to be missed. Very true!

    Traveling in with my husband and two friends, we hired a private one-bedroom houseboat, opted for a day cruise (11am-5pm) rather than an overnight stay on the boat, due to stories of water creatures possibly joining on board when moored in the swamp-like canals at night.

    Ideally you'd need two days to fully take in the backwaters, which stretch out all around Lake Vembanad - one of India's largest lakes, which itself takes hours to cross. Not wanting to miss the Alleppey side, which is considered the most scenic, but preferring to stay at Kumarakom, a lakeside resort town, we requested boarding at Alleppey and drop-off at Kumarakom.

    Our flight arrived at Kochi airport around 4am, and the drive to Alleppey took just over an hour (in the daytime it would probably take longer due to traffic and slow roads). Our driver Manej, recommended by a fellow expat friend, used to work in Abu Dhabi where we currently live, and was a great guy & safe driver. His phone is: (+91) 956 7834442.

    First order of business: BYOB. Stopped at a roadside stand and bought a dozen bottles of the national beer (Kingfisher) and stored it in an icebox on the boat. The two-man crew consisted of a captain and a cook. Standard practice in most tours is to stop at a fish market to buy seafood for lunch (cooked & served on board). Of the fresh catches available, we bought 'blue scampi' giant river prawns and small river fish (photo link above). Also bought and drank king coconuts, hydrating and fresh-tasting, perfect for the weather.

    After lunch, the sun, the quiet nature sounds, the slow glide of the boat sent us into deep three-hour naps. Slept through as the boat crossed over the lake, woke as we docked at Kumarakom. Would have loved an extra day to see more of the backwaters, especially the narrower channels, since half our time was spent catching up on red-eye sleep debt!(but then, vacations are about lazing ...)

    Checked into Taj Vivanta, a resort on the lakeside with spacious, well-tended grounds. Most rooms were in separate pavilions reached by a footbridge. The basic double was huge by usual standards of this room size, the best feature being an outdoor bathroom with an open-air rain-style shower and a bathtub, enclosed by walls and tall plants which provided privacy. Favorite hotel bathroom to date!

    The resort offers a free sunset boat ride on the lake, followed by serving masala chai tea. Afterward, at dinner at the hotel restaurant, we shared a variety of curry dishes with naans & rotis. None were stand out for us, and though the others didn't mind it, I disliked the taste of ghee pervasive in all the dishes. We did better the next days, sticking to day's catch seafood and requesting non-ghee curries.

    All in all, we had a lovely relaxing day. If short on time, I'd recommend the backwaters over the beach, as it's a unique signature landscape in Kerala.

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    DAYS TWO-FOUR: VARKALA BEACH

    The drive from backwaters region to the stretch of beaches further down the Keralan coast took 5 hours on the slow roads. We passed through Kovalam, the bigger beach town, to quieter Varkala, arriving mid afternoon.

    Varkala has a lively public beach by the cliffs as well as private strips at the hotels. Palm Tree Heritage, where we stayed, was one of the best on offer, though nowhere near resort quality. The hotel beachfront was minimal, without lounge chairs etc., but we just spread out towels on the sand, which was an interesting ash-gray hue and felt like soft wet cement. The Arabian Sea waters were warm even after the sun had set and good for swimming.

    In the mornings, fishermen laid out their nets right out front of the hotel to sell straight to the restaurant: various local fish including the tasty pomfret, as well as tiger prawns, squid, and blue scampi.

    We ate at different cafes of the dozens which line the cliff, and all serve seafood the same way, asking you to choose how you want it dressed and cooked. My favorites were grilled with tandoori spices and baked in banana leaf with ginger garlic butter. With every meal we had naan(instead of rice) and veggie curries such as marrow, potato-cauliflower, coconut.

    Varkala reminded me of Berkeley, in its laidback vibe (and herb-friendliness), with mostly backpacker types or people on long tours of India. We spent all our nights on the cliff, where in addition to the lively cafes, the strip is dotted with Ayurvedic massage parlors, hostels, and souvenir shops. Didn't find any distinctive handicrafts, instead bought colorful graphic tees with stencil designs of Hindu gods, Hindi script, Kingfisher logo, etc.- kitschy yet wearable- about $3 each after haggling.

    The most memorable aspect of Varkala for me was seeing the 'emerging economy' visibly in action in the town's local economy. All young Keralites spoke decent English and you see innovative touches in the cafes and businesses.

    One hotel staffer told us, "To see Kerala you need a month, and to see India at least two years." With the tiny bit we saw of this province, and previous trips to Bangalore and Delhi, not even scratching the surface of what there is to see in this great vast nation, I fully agree!

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    Thanks for writing about the backwaters trip and sharing your experience. Did you use any tour operator to book this trip or booked it yourself?. Can you please share?

    We are considering taking a houseboat booking from Iris Holidays based in Kerala and was wondering whether it is a good tour operator

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