Kerala is what we would call the gateway to India for first-timers. Stretching over 590kms along the Arabian Sea, this alluring Indian state has it all. From secluded beaches, relaxing backwaters to tea plantations, there is something for every sun lover to enjoy.
Tourism is mainly focused in the south of Kerala where the capital city, Thiruvananthapuram or easier known as Trivandrum, is located. This is also where some of Kerala’s more popular beaches are. You’ll also discover plenty of museums, palaces and the 16th-century Padmanabhaswamy temple filled with hidden treasures in its chamber.
Head upwards around 150kms along the coast and you will reach Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha). This is where you’ll find the gateway of Kerala’s famous backwaters – made up of a network of rivers, lakes, lagoons and canals. A little further up north is the busy port of Kochi (formerly known as Cochin). The charming colonial quarter of Kochi, Fort Kochi, lies on the northern end of the peninsula and draws many tourists in.
Kannur is the northernmost district of Kerala and this is where you’ll find less tourists due to its remoteness. However, things are about to change with the soon-to-be open Kannur International Airport in December 2018.
The spice trade brought in many foreign traders and settlers to Kerala. You’ll see some distinct Chinese, Portuguese, Arabian, Dutch and British influences all around the state in architecture, religious beliefs and cultural heritage. Hindus, Jewish, Muslims and Christians have been living in harmony here for centuries. However, the Hindus have largely contributed towards the most vibrant aspects of Kerala’s cultural life.
The traditional and locally known Kathakali dance originated during the 17th century. It uses refined gestures and ornate singing to convey the story instead of dialogue. You’ll probably come across this dance at your hotel or tourist venues throughout your time in Kerala. If you’re after something equally as enchanting but less commercialised, check out the performance called Theyyam. There are numerous Hindu temple festivals throughout the year around Kerala with elephants being the center of attention. The most spectacular temple festival is the annual Thrissur Pooram, which takes place during April or May.
KERALA TRAVEL GUIDE
KERALA’S TOP BEACHES
Kerala’s most popular beaches are found in the south. Situated just 16kms south-east of Trivandrum, Kovalam has three major beaches along its coastline : Lighthouse Beach, Hawa Beach and Grow Beach. Lighthouse Beach is the longest and most popular strip with plenty of affordable beach resorts, cafes and restaurants. Hawa Beach is known for its laid-back atmosphere and white sand. Grow Beach houses more upscale resorts and you’ll find fishermen bringing in their nets almost every morning.
Varkala Beach (Papanasam Beach) is one of Kerala’s best cliff beach. The landscape surrounding this golden sand beach is truly breathtaking with towering red laterite cliffs bordering the beach. Perched atop the cliffs are beach resorts, ayurveda spas, restaurants and cafes. There is a very hippie vibe to Varkala Beach which reflects the laid-back charm of this area.
Just 20kms away from Cochin International Airport is Cherai Beach. Imagine over 10kms of soft golden sand, warm sea water with paddy fields and coconut groves behind. Cherai Beach is one of the cleanest beaches in Central Kerala and attracts mostly local tourists who only come for the sunset and to have an evening swim. For sun seekers, this is the perfect beach to work on your tan during the day in total tranquility. There are various accommodation options as well as numerous restaurants along the seaside.
For something different, why not drive right on Muzhappilangad Beach – Kerala’s only drive-in beach. Approximately 7km from Thalassery in Kannur, there is a 4 km stretch of sand that you can literally drive on as you take in the views of the beautiful Malabar Coast. Surrounded by black rocks, this beach is protected from the strong ocean currents of the Arabian Sea, making it safe to swim in.
Bekal Fort Beach in Kasaragod is undoubtedly one of the cleanest beaches in North Kerala. The view of Fort Bekal on the right corner makes this beach a popular sunset-watching destination. During the day, the wide sandy beach is deserted whereas during the evenings, it tends to get crowded, especially with the children’s play area and sunset camel rides. There is a small entry fee of 10INR (0.12€/ USD$0.14/ £0.10) for ages 5 and above.
Known as “Venice of the East” because of its waterways, Alleppey has the peculiar geographical feature of having the water in level with the land. This gives the advantage of getting a closer look at the village life on shore while on a backwater cruise on board a houseboat. The houseboats you find in the backwaters of Alleppey are in fact a modern version of the Kettuvallams of olden times. Kettuvallam is a Malayalam word, ‘Kettu’, means living structures and ‘Vallam’ means boat. In the olden days, kettuvallam or a boat with a thatched roof that covers over wooden hulls was used to carry rice and spices. These days, the houseboats are fully equipped with air-conditioned bedrooms, a lounge area, kitchen and modern bathrooms. You can rent houseboats for a day trip or an overnight experience with a personal chef cooking up local food for you. However, the most rewarding experience on a cruise through these waterways is seeing a part of rural Kerala that is inaccessible by road. You drift along canals lined with coconut trees, paddy fields and local houses.
Spice Routes offers its guests a truly luxurious experience on board their houseboats with well-planned routes to get the best out of your cruise.
Unlike Alleppey, Kumarakom is even more rural but is filled with a wide variety of flora and fauna. This sleepy backwater village on Lake Vembanad houses the famous Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary that spreads across 14 acres of land. You’ll see many migratory and local birds including the Siberian stork and the blue kingfisher. On a houseboat cruise, you’ll be greeted by lush mangrove forests, paddy fields and plenty of coconut trees while enjoying the cool breeze from the lake.
For those who want to spend more time on land than in a houseboat, Kumarakom offers a range of hotels and resorts around. Among the accommodation options is Coconut Lagoon Resort. This charming eco-friendly resort sits on the banks of Lake Vembanad and is the perfect place to get away from it all.
TEA PLANTATIONS & SPICE FARMS
Munnar was the favoured summer retreat of the erstwhile British rulers in the colonial days who introduced tea to Kerala in the 1890s. Today, it is South India’s largest tea-growing region. Head up north to the town of Munnar for walks among the rolling hills and discover how tea is processed. At an altitude of about 6000 feet, you’re up above the clouds surrounded by lush forests, waterfalls, valleys and mountains.
The cool climate in Munnar is also where Kerala’s spices thrive. You can collect various spices from here like ginger, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, coffee, clove, nutmeg and more from the spice farms around the area.
FORT KOCHI & SURROUNDINGS
The harbour city of Kochi was once a major trading point for spices and has been drawing traders, explorers and travellers in for over 600 years. The Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, Italians and Portuguese helped Kochi emerge as a bustling centre of commercial activity, connecting the mainland to the rest of the world. As such, you’ll find glimpses of Kochi’s glorious past through its massive Chinese Fishing Nets, Jewish Synagogues, Portuguese Forts, Dutch Palaces, ancient mosques and British colonial homes all in one place.
Right in the heart of Kochi lies Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi is a lovely seaside town made up of quaint cobblestone streets, vibrant markets, trendy cafes and old stately houses that have been converted into restaurants and boutique hotels. Steeped in history, the St Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was originally buried in 1524 and the British-built Cochin Club of the early 1900s can also be found in Fort Kochi.
If you’re searching for a proper fort, you’ll find none in sight here. Fort Kochi is neither a walled city nor does it have a fort of its own. However, it was a fortified city back in the days before the walls started crumbling and some eventually dismantled.
In the 16th century the Raja of Kochi gave sanctuary to Jews fleeing Portuguese persecution in Goa. This is why you’ll see traces of Jewish legacy around Mattancherry including a Jewish Synagogue decorated with Chinese tiles and Belgian chandeliers. A favourite haunt for antique buyers, Jew Town is a narrow street lined with shops offering shoppers a variety of spices, clothes, trinkets and curios. However, most of the Jewish community have long since decamped to Palestine and the area is now filled with Kashmiri traders.
The Mattancherry Palace, also known as Dutch Palace was originally built by the Portuguese. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana.
Bolgatty Island is a picturesque island located close to Fort Kochi. The island was made popular by its quaint palace that sits on the southern end of the island. The Bolgatty Palace was built by a Dutch trader in 1744 and eventually taken over by the British. Overlooking Lake Vembanad, this is one of the oldest Dutch palaces outside of The Netherlands.
The Kochi International Marina is also situated on Bolgatty Island. It is the only marina of its type in India and can host up to 34 yachts providing water, electricity and sewage pump-out facilities.
A new addition to Bolgatty Island is one of the bext luxury hotel’s in Kochi: Grand Hyatt Kochi Bolgatty. Perched on 26 acres of plush green land on the island, this luxurious waterfront urban resort overlooks the backwaters of Lake Vembanad.
HOW TO GET TO KERALA
Kerala has four international airports.
Cochin International Airport (COK) serves the city of Kochi and is the busiest and largest airport in Kerala with domestic and international flights. Commercial airlines that fly into Cochin International Airport are: Air Arabia, Air Asia, Air Asia India, Air India Express, Alliance Air, Emirates, Etihad Airways, flydubai, GoAir, Gulf Air, IndiGO, Jazeera Airways, Jet Airways, Kuwait Airways, Malindo Air, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Scoot, SilkAir, SpiceJet, Sri Lankan Airlines, Thai Airways and Vistara.
Trivandrum International Airport (TRV) serves the southern district of Thiruvananthapuram and nearby cities. It is the first ever airport in Kerala with domestic and international flights. Commercial airlines that fly into Trivandrum International Airport are: Air Arabia, Air India, Air India Express, Emirates, Etihad Airways, flydubai, Gulf Air, IndiGO, Jet Airways, Kuwait Airways, Maldivian, Malindo Air, Oman Air, Qatar Airways, Saudia, Silk Air, SpiceJet and Sri Lankan Airlines.
Calicut International Airport (CCJ), also known as Karipur Airport, serves the northern Kerala cities of Kozhikode, Kannur, Palakkad, Wayanad and Malappuram. Commercial airlines that fly into Calicut International Airport are: Air Arabia, Air India, Air India Express, Etihad Airways, Gulf Air, IndiGO, Jet Airways, Oman Air, Qatar Airways and SpiceJet.
Kannur International Airport (CNN), will serve the northern district of Kannur. It is scheduled to open for operations on 09 December 2018.
Kerala has more than 200 railway stations, connecting major cities as well as small towns around the state. There are direct trains to various destinations in Kerala from major Indian cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and Kolkata, among others. Kerala’s local railway network runs from Kasargod in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south.
Kerala is connected to most nearby states via National Highways 17, 47 and 49. Luxury overnight buses, some with built-in bathrooms, are available from destinations such as Alleppey, Kannur, Ernakulam, Kottayam, Thrissur, Kozhikode, Palakkad, Wayanad and Thiruvananthapuram to other cities across the state. There is also Uber, Uber Intercity and Ola for those who prefer a safer, trackable option to get around.
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We hope that our Kerala Travel Guide will help you plan your sun-seeking trip to the tropical land of coconuts. Let us know if you have any other places you’d like to recommend in the comments below.
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