In August 2018, floods devastated Kerala. Many around the world for the first time found themselves staring at a small corner of South India, wondering how all of this could have gone so wrong. In the wake of the worst flooding in a century, Kerala’s travel season began in October. Local groups, the authorities, donations from other provinces and the world, and even tearjerker videos from travel and luggage companies have all tried to come to Kerala’s rescue. All of them have the same message: Kerala is back.
On a recent whirlwind trip through Kerala, this traveler can attest that much of the infrastructure travelers will need is up and running. The monsoon season was unkind to Kerala, and evidence remains. But, for the most part, and for the better part, Kerala is ready to receive tourists for the high season.
Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve
For the naturalist, wildlife lover, and photographer, the first freshwater port of call should and will be Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary. The drive from the commercial capital of Kochi is a long one, measuring about four to five hours – longer with the road work still ongoing from monsoon season. When one thinks of Allappuzha and Kochi, the mind conjures flat, still backwaters and the calm inland of the Arabian Sea, but Periyar is in the clouds – a much cooler alternative to the land below.
Before getting into the specifics of this natural tiger haven, it’s important to note that there are few luxury accommodations in this mountainous region, but those that exist are quite comfortable. For those who’ve taken the more than four-hour drive through the mountains, the most appropriate accommodation is found at Spice Village from the eco-conscious folks at CGH Earth. The villas are well appointed, the staff are welcoming, and the environmentally friendly resort is packed with wildlife.
Speaking for only one night and a morning on the property, this reviewer spotted black-tailed langurs, giant squirrels, and the omnipresent red-faced macaques. For birdwatchers, the twitching never ceases, and there is an on-site naturalist to keep nature lovers informed.
Of the varied venues at the property, the Woodhouse Bar was a personal favorite – perhaps even a highlight of the trip. Named after the region’s first forest ranger under British occupation, a Mr. A.W. Woods, the quaint bar is simple on liquor and hard on history. The walls are covered in centuries worth of photos, and there is a classy little book to explain the curious handshakes and weapons adorning the walls. For design, the Woodhouse Bar is a triumph in which one might sit outside and watch the monkeys make trouble or sit inside, whiskey in hand, and play a game of snooker on the 150-year-old table. Ask the smiley Mr. Francis for lessons, and he’ll show you a few trick shots.
The reason to go to Periyar is, of course, the Periyar National Park and Tiger Reserve. As any veteran tiger spotter will attest: don’t get your hopes up; there are only about two dozen of the beasts in the park and they are famously shy. However, nature lovers will be pleased to see cormorants along the submerged trees, deer, guar, and, with a little luck, elephants.
The waters are calm along Periyar Lake. A quick boat ride around the waters, marked by dead trees and almost manicured-looking grass, is the highlight for most travelers who prefer to stay out of the jeeps and off the trails.
There is, however, a decent luxury accommodation actually in the park, Lake Palace. Boasting less wildlife than Spice Village but with a view to larger fauna, Lake Palace is overseen by the government authorities. From the comfort of the grounds, guests can look out to see sambar deer, elephants, and guar, an idea spot for the sketcher and the photographer to relax.
Periyar is one of the finer but lesser known Kerala pleasures, and the drive in and out could very well be the highlight of the journey. Often covered in a mystical fog, the surrounding region is dotted by churches, tea fields, and hidden waterfalls on winding mountain roads.
Houseboat on the Backwaters
Kerala is perhaps most well known for its houseboats on the backwaters. The curious design born from the rice barges of the past has drawn interested travelers and celebrities that like to relax and watch South India go by from the slow comfort of a houseboat.
Coming in all different shapes and sizes – the houseboat is an excellent vantage from which to see the backwaters, but if one is driving from Periyar or heading straight from the Kochi airport (which is quite far from Kochi proper), then one might want to bed down and relax. For that there is the CGH Earth property Coconuts Lagoon. Reachable only by water, this is the most luxurious accommodation in the region, and the peaceful sunset cruise allows for a nature-filled end to the day, with the birds flying from shore out for their night feeding. The accommodation here is by villa, but travelers can also opt for a “mansion” room, which features to two-floor layout with the bed upstairs and the outdoor bathroom downstairs.
Making one’s way to the houseboats, though, is the most common goal of any trip to Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey. The backwater landscapes range from church-lined canals filled with people washing their clothes to empty, still waters and the flooded rice crop from the destructive monsoon season. Connecting Kumarakom to Kochi, this experience is a Kerala travel must.
The Kerala houseboat is calm, quiet, steady, and most of all very, very green. There are no waves and the ride is smooth – so smooth in fact that many choose the deck of a houseboat to figure India in pencil and watercolors. Travelers can get a honeymoon houseboat for two or join a larger group for a week-long adventure.
If one prefers a shorter tour, those can be arranged and one might easily spend the night in one of the many beach hotels lining the Arabian Sea. There are quite a few luxury options along the way, but one may want to stop by Marari Beach – if not for the flat, expansive grounds then for the photogenic fishing boats on the empty beach.
Finally, there is Kochi, formerly Cochin, the commercial, cultural, and financial hub of Kerala. Planet Earth warred for the spices further inland, and it was in Kochi that those spices found their way to the West. Today this booming hub of activity is a haven for culture vultures, photography enthusiasts, and, of course, shoppers.
But, before all of that, travelers should avail themselves of the waters around the city. The sunset cruise from the Brunton Boatyard is a nice way to spend a few hours of the evening, checking out the ships from around the world and the stand-out buildings, including the Taj Malabar Resort and Spa. By far the most popular of the sights are the strange Chinese fishing nets, which operate on system of weights and are controlled by fishermen walking out on the thin planks to drop the nets. Few fish are had, but it’s one of Kochi’s most iconic sights.
The Brunton Boatyard makes for adequate luxury accommodation; the building itself is new but the rooms and the exterior design are definitely more in the vein of a colonial heritage hotel. For dining, you can’t beat the varied venues of Brunton Boatyard, and they make an excellent Jangaar. Fair warning: the Brunton Boatyard is in, shock, the boatyard, so use the provided earplugs for the noisy boats in the morning if you are a light sleeper. For the right guest, though, that seafaring charm is what draws many.
Lovers of history will want to head to the Mattancherry Palace, a 16th century building filled with history: portraits, swords, and unfinished murals. While much of the architecture in Kerala can seem aggressively though strangely Western compared to the North, the murals in this Dutch fortress are magical. Photos are not permitted in certain areas of Mattancherry Palace. Also for history buffs is the St. Francis Church, an early 16th century building, which held the remains of the great Vasco Da Gama for fourteen years. The structures that held him are etched in stone in the church today.
For shoppers, there is “Jew Town” just south of Mattancherry Palace. The history of the Kochi Jews, or Malabar Jews, is simply fascinating: filled with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of years of history well worth the study. It’s said Judaism here goes all the way back to King Solomon. But, for the shopper, there is everything one might hope to find in this area: spices, textiles, statues, and carpets.
This is a small part of Kerala. It’s tigers. It’s backwaters. It’s history. It’s Chinese fishing nets and wildlife found nowhere else on earth. For anyone to say they’ve seen the whole of Kerala is madness. As you ride by the busy streets you can still see houses with water mark stains halfway up the walls. The odd mountain road has been washed away by the cruel monsoon season. Some of the things that were lost will take a lifetime to replace. The lives that were lost will never be replaced.
As October finally kicks off the high season, and in the wake and midst of floods and protests, Kerala needs and deserves travelers. Those who go will see a different type of India, a resilient land of jungle adventures and backwater daydreaming.