I have a friend soon to depart on a cycling trip in Kerala, which is on the south west coast of India. I travelled there a couple of years ago, admittedly not cycling, but this gives me an excuse to re-live some of my experiences.
I arrived by train to Kochin 26 hours after leaving Mumbai. It immediately felt like a holiday destination and definitely a place to relax and enjoy the tropical weather. It was my first experience of a homestay and I wished I’d avoided hotels sooner. A smiling welcome host, lovely room with balcony and view over the garden and a little bit off the beaten track.
Not one to stay still for long I travelled to Periyar to visit the wildlife sanctuary, and then to Alleppey to spend a night on a houseboat on the backwaters. A few nights in Trivandrum and then back to Kochin for a final day.
It was a great end to my holiday, and my highlights were:
Kochin: a great place to wander about. I felt safe walking around the town and by Indian standards, there’s hardly any traffic – even in rush hour. For cycling purposes the roads were good, some deterioration outside the city, but lots of quiet lanes you can find. The Chinese fishing nets are iconic and the harbour area is a good place to hang out and watch the world go by, stopping for fresh fish dishes as and when you get hungry. I had my best meal at the Ginger House – an eclectic mix of antiques, natural beauty products and a restaurant: very gingery ginger beer and deliciously spicy food.
The Backwaters: it felt like ultimate luxury – a spacious houseboat, tea on tap and tasty meals. To add to this, an unexpected view of life from the river. There’s so much going on from herding ducks to hidden villages and school kids heading home from a day in the classroom. Once we had moved out of Alleppey, you can almost feel as if you have the river to yourself. There are a few bottlenecks where you see some other houseboats and you remember that you’re merely passing through and admiring a different pace of life, but mostly you can let your mind wander, enjoying the sun, scenery and gently flow of the river.
Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary: Worth a trip away from the cities. Not only can you enjoy the wildlife in the sanctuary, but also the spice gardens in the surrounding area. I took a boat ride on the lake at Periyar. I think there were two options: one more expensive and one cheaper but no noticeable difference. I went for the less expensive option and saw amazingly colourful kingfishers darting about the trees over the water as well as many other birds. The guides were also keen to point out deer that were hovering near the waters edge and anything else that caught their eye. Be sure to have your camera at the ready!
I was lucky enough to stay in a homestay which had its own spice garden and so I was lucky enough to have my own private tour of the different plants – who know allspice was one tree and not a mixture of all spices?! The flavours are easy to experience and you will benefit from them in the local cooking too.
Trivandrum: This is actually a great entry/exit point for Kerala as the airport is pretty close to the town. I was most impressed with the claim to fame that the zoo was the starting point for the book “The Life of Pi”. It was therefore a must stop for me and I wasn’t disappointed. In and around the park surrounding the zoo there are some other museums and galleries which are also worth a visit.
Culture: I saw a couple of kathakali plays and had demonstrations of local dances but my favourite cultural experience was a kalaripayattu show. This is a traditional martial art from the area. It’s a total mix of running, jumping and tumbling demonstrating a fantastic balance of speed, strength and suppleness. Add to this swords, daggers, fire, bows and arrows for the complete picture. It was a mega energy fest, and after the show the audience were invited to step into the arena and get a true sense of the athleticism required to manage the weapons.
Food: Try all the local dishes – especially the breakfasts. Coming from the UK, when you talk about curry you’re usually overwhelmed by too-hot spices and not much else. In Kerala you’re overwhelmed by gentle spices that give a punch but also add flavour. It’s a great fruit place too: more bananas than you can imagine. Eat as much as you can!
I travelled in November when there was sunshine and a dry heat, the scenery is stunning, the people are friendly and the food is excellent. If you’re considering it as a destination, why not?