Newsletter for November 2008
Welcome to the Indian Panorama Newsletter for November. Our aim is to keep you up to date with news and places of interest and other information to help you when the time comes to plan your next trip to India.
In this instalment of our newsletter we are aiming to share some of our favourite places in Kerala with you, as well as giving you our tips on how to make the most of your time there.
We have continued to add images to our Photo Gallery where you will find some special photos, taken during our travels around India. These now include photos of Kerala -Backwaters, Beaches, Plantations and Cochin. We have also included two general albums, Elephants of India and Wildlife & Nature of India. These pages will be regularly uploaded from our extensive library of photographs, so keep checking back for updates.
Kerala is south India's premier tourist destination and has attracted a huge amount of interest from around the world over recent years. This small state in the south west of India is internationally famous as home to some of India's best beaches, spectacular mountain scenery, sprawling tea and spice plantations, historic cities and, of course, the truly unique Kerala Backwaters.
In September, Cochin played host to the biennial Kerala Travel Mart where accommodation providers from throughout the state gather to display their wares. We were there and spent many days afterwards visiting some old favourites as well as checking out a host of new discoveries. The weather over the northern winter months is at its absolute best in the south of India - what better time to plan a spur-of-the-moment trip than right now?!
Kerala has some of India's most celebrated and iconic beaches - fringed with palm trees, lapped by tepid, azure waters and backed by an almost endless expanse of rice plantations, these precious strips of golden sand have been a magnet for holidaymakers for decades.
The first area to be discovered by travellers was the famous area around Kovalam in the extreme south of Kerala. While the original Lighthouse Beach is now a little overcrowded with package tourists and run of the mill accommodation, the area immediately north and south of the main beach maintains the quiet charm of years gone by and both Chowara Beach and Poovar remain as idyllic a place for a beach holiday as anyone could wish for. At Chowara we particularly recommend Somatheeram and Thapovan - both outstanding Ayurvedic Resorts- and Travancore Heritage, a place of amazing atmosphere and traditional beauty. Nearby at Poovar – where the beach and backwaters are literally side by side- two outstanding places to stay are Isola di Cocco and Estuary Island.
A little further north is the up and coming beach resort of Varkala. Consisting of a series of small crescents of golden sand backed by spectacular cliffs which themselves are topped by restaurants and markets, the setting could hardly be more appealing. This is the way Kovalam used to be - sand-floored huts serving simple but delicious food, local people going languidly about their business (it's too warm for anything to happen at a particularly frenetic pace), and the tepid waters of the Arabian Sea lapping at the shore. Varkala is a superb place to take a few days break during your Kerala (and Tamil Nadu) adventure while its location just 45km from Trivandrum international airport makes it an ideal base at the beginning or end of your trip. Our top recommendation here is Hindustan Beach Retreat- situated almost on the beach at the southern end of Varkala - every room has a superb ocean and beach view, and there is a large pool and multiple outdoor sitting areas should you need a break from the endless golden sand.
Somewhat surprisingly the beaches near to Cochin are not widely developed for tourism with one major and long established exception being the famous Marari Beach Resort. On our travels recently we discovered a new and very exclusive resort on this same gorgeous stretch of beach called A Beach Symphony.
Owned and operated by a Belgian couple this place has only 4 cottages set close to the beach and surrounded by coconut palms. Each delightfully private cottage has sitting and dining areas of its own, while large common spaces are provided to enable guests to mingle if they wish. Cochin is only around an hour's drive away and many other major attractions of Kerala are within close reach- A Beach Symphony is a lovely place to stop on the way to or from the backwaters.
In the north of the state are some of the finest beaches to be seen anywhere (apologies to our Australian readers!) and these are slowly being developed for tourism.
Around Thallasery and Cannanore, to the north of Calicut, are some simple, homestay-type accommodations which provide access to these near private beaches, which may in a few years feature on the mainstream tourist circuit but for now remain the preserve of those who bother to take the time to visit this part of Kerala. Easily reached by day time train from Cochin or by car from the fabulous Wayanad region, these beaches are hidden gems waiting to be discovered. We recommend Costa Malabari and Kannur Beach House- simple but comfortable and both excellent bases from which to explore the northern parts of Kerala.(click here for photos of the beaches of Kerala)
Unquestionably a highlight of any trip to southern India is time spent on or near the backwaters of Kerala. There are several ways to incorporate the Backwaters into your visit. The most famous and popular way to experience this unique region is by taking an overnight houseboat cruise. This is a marvellous way to unwind, and to see something of the life of the people who live around the backwaters. If you have limited time in this region, there is the option of a lunch cruise from Alleppey or Kollam, taking 3 hours and offering a glimpse of the backwaters.
An overnight houseboat cruise is quite unforgettable - the backwaters are quite simply one of the most relaxing and tranquil regions of India and life here seems to move at a much slower pace than elsewhere. Cruises begin at noon and of the three crewmen on board, two are there primarily to attend to your every need and whim throughout your time on board.
After a welcome drink and some time on the water to seek out a quiet spot, they will ply you with food - simple but utterly delicious traditional Keralan fare cooked fresh on board the boa t- before the serious business of relaxing begins. The afternoon will likely drift past in a bucolic haze as the warm tropical air envelops you.
Cruising down the canals of the backwaters you will see scores of local people as they go about their daily activities - trading fish, vegetables or coconuts from their canoes, doing their laundry, children swimming or playing a game of cricket on the riverbank - life around the backwaters is charming and relaxed. The houseboat will moor around dusk. As the quality of the houseboats on the backwaters varies enormously, we are constantly monitoring the boats we use to ensure you are comfortable and well looked after during your cruise.
Another way to enjoy this unique area is a night or two beside the backwaters at one of the many properties below - these range from some of India's most luxurious resorts at Kumarakom to a series of inexpensive Homestays and guesthouses, most of which are still in the hands of the families who have owned them for generations.
Staying beside the backwaters - particularly at a Homestay or guesthouse alongside one of the smaller channels of the backwaters - allows you to get an even closer view of life in these parts. In the top-end resort category it is hard to go past Kumarakom Lake Resort and Coconut Lagoon, both of which are near to Kumarakom. Around Alleppey, Maria's Heritage Home, Akkarakalam Memoirs, Emerald Isle and Nelpura Heritage Homestay are all blessed with serene and beautiful locations alongside the backwaters.
From any of them you can walk or ride a bicycle along the paths which line the canals, streams and rivers of the backwaters. Or for an even more intimate view of life in this extraordinary region, a local fisherman will row a small "country boat" (dugout canoe) into places where few tourists venture.
The villagers on these small canals are much more likely to want to interact with tourists than their neighbours on the larger waterways who see many boats every day. Walking along the small paths which line the banks of the backwaters is just as rewarding- you will meet local children who love to talk to visitors and interact to practice their English.
Another of the intriguing things about Kerala is its long and convoluted history of interaction with other cultures. Relatively isolated from the rest of India by the high mountains which border the state to the west, Kerala has been rather more influenced by sea-faring empires from both east and west. The main trading port of Kerala throughout this time was at Cochin - a massive flood having destroyed a nearby port at Kodungallur in the late 14th century. Cochin - now known officially as Kochi - has maintained its status as south India's premier seaport for over 600 years and is now a major naval base as well as the second largest city in Kerala.
Of most interest for visitors to the city is the historic area universally known as Fort Cochin- the name has stuck despite the last vestiges of the Fort having disappeared long ago. The city of Cochin is situated across a number of large islands which flank the vast natural harbour- Fort Cochin is situated at the northern end of one of these islands and many places around the Fort area have excellent sea and harbour views.
Each of the major trading and conquering groups which had involvement with the Cochin region during the last millennium has left a mark here and the iconic remnants of each are among Cochin's most famous tourist attractions. The Chinese came first and brought with them fishing nets of a type which are very common in parts of eastern Asia but in India are found only around Cochin. Watching the teams of fishermen at work as they haul the nets (hopefully teeming with fish) out of the waters is a popular pastime along the waterfront in the centre of Fort Cochin.
Of all the European powers which brought their influence to bear in Cochin, it is perhaps the Dutch who left the most obvious and long-lasting impression, with many of the most impressive colonial period buildings dating to their occupancy of the area. Chief among these is the Mattancherry Palace - universally known as the Dutch Palace. This impressive building (with its totally unrepresentative entry charge of 2 rupees- about 5 US cents) houses many paintings of the rulers of Cochin as well as being an impressive reliquary for mural paintings dating back hundreds of years which depict scenes from the great Hindu epics the Ramayana and Mahabharata . The Portuguese influence on Fort Cochin can be witnessed in the form of several grand Catholic churches, most notably St Francis Church where the explorer Vasco de Gama was originally buried. More surprises await in the Jewtown, an area of narrow lanes and tiny shops which leads to India's oldest synagogue. Although the Jewish community of Cochin is now very small, the synagogue is still beautifully maintained. The shopping area around Jewtown is packed with fascinating antique and curio shops (as well as excellent book stores) and it is easy to 'lose' half a day here without really trying.
A new addition to the tourist scene in Fort Cochin which we visited recently is the Greenix Village. This excellent venture draws together aspects of Kerala's performing arts, crafts, musical traditions and cuisine all under one roof, and right in the heart of the Fort area. An impressive display of costumes used by performers Theyyam, Kathakali and other traditional dances is one notable feature, but most people will come to see demonstrations of Kalarippayattu (Keralan martial arts), and several forms of dance which are all peculiar to this part of India.
There are all too few places of this type in India where visitors can see a variety of arts all under one roof and with comfortable facilities (there is a cafe on site as well) and this should be a must during your time in Cochin.(click here for photos of the Cochin).
Plantations of Kerala
With rich soils, plentiful rainfall and a range of climatic conditions, the lush slopes of Kerala's Western Ghats mountain range are the perfect site for the production of a huge variety of spices and coffee as well as some of the world's best teas. Pepper and other spices brought traders to the Kerala coast for centuries as they sought out the original "black gold", and later the British desire to wrest control of the world's tea production from China saw the slopes around Munnar transformed into a series of tea estates. In modern times the list of crops grown in the plantations of Kerala is long and varied. You can see coffee, cardamom, pepper, vanilla, nutmeg, clove, pimento and many more - alongside tropical fruits such as banana, mango, jackfruit, mangosteen and pineapple which grow in profusion.
Another important crop is rubber which thrives at lower altitudes closer to the coast. And best of all, many of the families which operate these plantations welcome guests to come and stay in their homes. This Homestay experience is another unique and unforgettable part of any visit to Kerala and something which we recommend enthusiastically as a way to get even closer to the 'real life' of people in this part of India. One such place is Mundackal Homestay, where Jose and Daisy will welcome you into their home with warm and genuine hospitality. Upon arrival, you will be offered a homemade passionfruit juice and later laden with scrumptious Keralan food to your heart's content.
The area around Munnar is worthy of special mention as it contains many of the best elements of Kerala's hill country in one location. Not only is it close to Chinnar and Eravikulam National Parks, but also affords superb opportunities for trekking, is handy for plantation visits and has some of the best accommodation in the entire state. Special mention must be made of Windamere Estate and Ambady Homestay as two places where a warm welcome, exceptional hospitality, excellent food and breathtaking views from your room are all part of the package.
There are as many as 300 places in Kerala which are listed as Homestays and while we haven't visited every one of them, we only use those of which we have first-hand knowledge and/or personal or client recommendation. Among the most enjoyable aspects of the Homestay experience is being able to interact with the family and share many aspects of their daily lives with them. Every Homestay is as unique as the family which owns and runs them and this individuality is part of the experience. Many hosts will welcome you to watch (and sometimes even join in with) the preparation of meals, while almost all will take you on a tour of their garden and estate (the profusion of plants will astound you) and probably take you on a drive around the surrounding area as well. Some of the special things which can be arranged include time with a working elephant, visits to local schools and churches, village tours, seeing apiarists at work as they collect honey from wild hives, demonstrations of rubber tapping and a lot more besides.
There are plantations throughout Kerala but the greatest concentration of Homestays is in the hills between Periyar and Cochin, making a night or two in one of these very special places a convenient stop during your trip. There is also a wide range of price options within the various Homestays, meaning this is an option regardless of your budget.(click here for photos of Plantations of Kerala)
Nature and Wildlife of Kerala
Kerala is known for its natural beauty and the Western Ghats mountain range which dominates the state's landscape is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. The combination of a number of large and accessible National Parks, superb mountain and coastal vistas and unrivalled trekking opportunities makes Kerala one of India's top destinations for outdoor pursuits. (We avoid using the over-hyped term 'eco-tourism' as many of the places which use this description fall short of a true environmentally friendly ethos).
If you are interested in seeing some of India's most iconic wildlife, there are many places in Kerala to do so. Indeed in parts of the state, you don't even need to leave the main highway to see troupes of monkeys, herds of deer and even the occasional family of elephants making their way along the roadside. The state's most famous Wildlife Sanctuary is Periyar Tiger Reserve - 777 square kilometres of preserved forest in the hills east of Cochin which offers a huge range of habitat types and is home to a similarly vast array of wildlife. From the main base town, Thekkady, visitors can tour the reserve by jeep, by boat or on foot. Overnight camping is available in several areas and this is one of the best ways to experience the wilds of Kerala up close.
Close to Mundackal Homestay Plantation, it is possible to take a day trip to to join the mahouts at the nearby Kodanad Elephant Training Camp as they first put their charges through some training exercises before humans and elephants alike process down to the edge of the Periyar River for a long and languorous bath (for the elephants at least- humans require a fair amount of elbow grease to give the elephants the coconut shell scrubbing they desire!)(click here for photos Elephants of India)
For those with limited time, or who don't want to walk too far, a 3-hour nature walk from the main gate of the park is an excellent option. We've been on this walk ourselves a number of times and while you don't venture far enough into the park to sight the bigger animals often, elephants are sometimes sighted on these walks. Many smaller animals are frequently spotted, among them Malabar giant squirrels and Nilgiri black langurs- a very handsome long-haired monkey which is only found in the Western Ghats. Walking through the reserve, rather than being in a jeep, allows you to explore at a more leisurely pace and without the inherent noise of a vehicle.
If you have more time, a full day or overnight camping trip is really rewarding. It often feels difficult to get into truly remote places in India but in Periyar the wide open spaces are surprisingly isolated and the sense of being a long way from the crowds which dominate towns and cities is outstanding. Longer camping and trekking trips are also possible.
Another wonderful place to experience the great outdoors of India is around Munnar. Known as the tea-growing centre of southern India, Munnar lacks unaltered the natural environments of Periyar, but at least matches that region in terms of scenery. Spreading like an enormous green blanket across the hills as far as the eye can see, the tea plantations of Munnar are a truly beautiful sight. There are many wonderful places to stay along Bison Valley Road just outside the town of Munnar and from here you can walk for an hour or a whole day through plantations, not just of tea but also coffee and cardamom. Near to Munnar are 2 excellent National Parks - Chinnar and Eravikulam. At Chinnar there are jeep safari and walking options similar to those at Periyar (the park is about 60km from Munnar so best experienced as part of an entire-day tour) while Eravikulam is known as one of the last refuges of the highly endangered Nilgari Thar - a mountain goat endemic to these hills. For the ultimate outdoor experience in Kerala, you might want to consider an 8 day/7 night trek from Munnar to Periyar!
(click here for photos of Nature and Wildlife of India)
Further north is the region of Wayanad - tucked into the top corner of Kerala and adjoining the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Wayanad is as close as Kerala gets to a remote corner- there are still small pockets of tribal communities in parts of Wayanad. Here the Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary is earning a reputation as one of the best places in the south of India to see wild elephants- indeed it is not uncommon to see small herds on the approach road before you even enter the park itself. Bordering on the much larger Nilgiri Biosphere area which is compromised of several major National Parks in the area straddling Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, Tholpetty is one of several gateways to Wayanad and definitely worthy of consideration for your wildlife experience.
Deeper into the Wayanad region are some very interesting places to visit and explore. At Edakkal there are caves hidden near the top of a steep mountain which are home to some of the most ancient rock carvings in Asia. (An approach road takes you to within a 10 minute walk of the cave entrance!) The provenance of these carvings is still the subject of much conjecture, but most experts put their age at between 4 and 6 thousand years. If you are able to visit the caves, try and imagine how difficult they would've been to reach when the original rock carvers dwelt in them - Wayanad today is not exactly 'on the beaten path' and at a time when all of south India was a giant swathe of jungle, the perils of reaching this place would be almost unimaginable!
Trekking in Wayanad is a wonderful way to explore the area. Two of our picks as the best places to stay in region also have the benefit of being located right alongside fantastic areas for day walks. Aranyakam Homestay is in the south of Wayanad and while you would be justified in spending your time here admiring the views and being thoroughly pampered by your wonderful host Rajesh and his family, there are also some fantastic walks in the valley below the property.
Places this tranquil and serene are a godsend in India and if you have spent some time in the bigger cities, then a few days at Aranyakam could be the perfect antidote. Another place with superb trekking options is the newly opened Banasura Hill Resort. Located in the west of Wayanad on the slopes of Banasura Hill - the second highest peak in Wayanad- this resort will rapidly become the number one choice for visitors to this region. Every detail has been carefully thought out, with no effort spared as the developers of the resort strive to make their entire enterprise as holistic as possible. Nature is prevalent here and the resort is as unobtrusive a presence on the landscape as one could hope for. Not only is Banasura Hill Resort well placed for all the major sites and activities of the Wayanad district, but the enticing prospect of a day climbing the nearby peak is surely worth adding an extra day to your stay here.