Kerala, India – A Cruise on the Backwaters

The following is a guest post written by Carl Grooms, author of the island-focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines™. I haven't been to India (yet) but Carl's words have really inspired me to visit this exotic corner of the world someday.



The greatest rewards in travel come to those who fly a little farther, research a little deeper, maintain greater flexibility, dine with more courage and interact with cultures far different than their own. Such rewards are abundant to the traveler who ventures to Kerala, India.

Named one of National Geographic Traveler‘s “Top 50 Places of a Lifetime,” Kerala is nestled on India’s southwest coast facing the Arabian Sea. Kerala is the most modern Indian state, with the finest roads, the highest literacy rate at over 97%, modern airports and a level of cleanliness not found elsewhere in this magnificent country. There is a plethora of things to do and see in Kerala. After nearly three weeks in the region I barely scratched the surface. The largest attraction is to cruise the backwaters on your own traditional kettuvallam houseboat. This region of India is perfect for a family vacation, even with young children. A one-year family trip around the world with my wife and children, who were eleven and twelve at the time, is what brought me here. We were photographing for our book, Portraits of Our World which we now sell to build schools in Africa. All too often, people put off amazing trips like this one and use children as the excuse. If you want to raise smart, well-adjusted young people you need to show them the world. Forgo a trip to Disney’s Jungle Cruise and take a Kerala Backwater Cruise instead.

A kettuvallam house boat ©2011 Carlton Grooms

You will likely fly to Thiruvananthapuram, India (or Trivandrum for short.) If you fly the popular routing using Emirates through Dubai (both from LAX and JFK) you’ll arrive mid-morning and be tremendously tired. The town of Alleppey, where you will embark on your backwater cruise, is 100 miles north of the airport and too far for your first day. You should instead journey 30 miles north to Varkala on the coast, a more manageable 1 1/2 hour drive. Although Kerala has some of the best roads in India, you will not average 60 mph. Plan on 30 mph and you will be more accurate and far less stressed. Vans with drivers are easy and cheap to hire, but avoid older vehicles. I recommend the Gateway Hotel in Varkala, a former Taj property, for around $55 per night. Don’t miss going to the beach for sunset. As you walk into town toward the beach you will also be treated to the Janardanaswamy Temple‬, your first chance to pull out the camera. Please ask first and be courteous when you shoot.

A colorful festival ©2011 Carlton Grooms

After a good night sleep, drive to Allepey, the starting place of your backwater cruise. There are many choices of places to stay and boats to hire here. At last count almost 200 kettuvallam boats were based here. We choose the quiet Kayaloram Lake Resort situated right on the Vembanadu Lake. Your body clock will still be challenged so stay at the resort itself for a night or two prior to getting on the boat. The idyllic setting and slow pace will allow you to acclimate. The food is all-inclusive and you will be astonished at the quality. At each meal you will be asked what you would like for the next meal. They then send the staff into town to buy fresh ingredients. There is a small pool to cool off in and the charming, old-style rooms are very comfortable.

Food in Kerala is very different than what you will find in much of India. First you will find much more meat, including beef and pork. The coconut, which grows everywhere in the region, is used in its many forms and the spices are very hot. Rice is also served in greater quantities. I should note that water quality is much better in Kerala, which should help you avoid any stomach ailments and concerns.

©2011 Carlton Grooms

Finally, the day arrives for you to venture out onto the lake and the myriad waterways that constitute the backwaters of Kerala. You won’t have to go far, as the Kayaloram resort will have your boat brought right up to the edge of the property. When you first catch a glimpse of your kettuvallam, you’ll know that the extended flight was worth it.

Kettuvallams (in a simpler form) worked these waters as cargo vessels for countless years. The word kettu means knot and vallam means boat, meaning these boats are constructed with knots, not with traditional nails, bolts or other common construction methods. When the Kerala Tourism authority made a major push for visitors, the kettuvallam house boat was born. Our boat had two bedrooms with full working bathrooms. We had a crew of three: a master in charge, a cook and an apprentice.

The boat was very clean, the bedding comfortable. The food was shockingly tasty and plentiful considering the small onboard kitchen. This is a good thing because your days underway consist of sleep, eat, watch the world go by, eat and repeat. I have never accomplished and experienced so much while being so lazy.

An Indian Tuk Tuk ©2011 Carlton Grooms

The allure of this trip is to get a glimpse of local life along the water, a voyeuristic peek into another culture. Your boat moves no faster than a few miles per hour. You leave no wake and make no noise. You will sit for hours mesmerized by each face, each smile, each wave of the hand in greeting. You lose yourself as if you were staring at flames in a campfire.

Not everything you do will be on the boat. The master will recommend various places to stop and will take you for a walk inland to visit a temple, or say hello to a local family. The crew will also stop to buy you some local hooch called “Kallu” from the flowers of Palm Trees, not good but worth trying. You will shoot thousands of pictures and you will pray that you capture enough of this experience so you never forget.

©2011 Carlton Grooms

Kettuvallam cruises can be taken for as few days as one, or stretch to as many as you wish. Most boats conform to a similar standard; they just differ on the number of rooms. You can expect to pay around $250 per night. That will include time at the resort as well as on the boat. All food is included in this price.

When your kettuvallam cruise is over you will leave refreshed and alive. Your body clock will have largely adjusted by now. You will have enjoyed a good amount of sleep without feeling guilty that you are missing out on why you have traveled all this way. Now that you are done with this phase of your trip, keep exploring. The next stops will definitely take much more energy and patience.

Nets in Kochin, India ©2011 Carlton Grooms

My recommendation is to head east to the tea plantations high up in 5,000-foot mountains around Thekkady. After a few days in the cool air of the higher elevation, head to the coastal city of Kochin for the sunset. Marvel at the Chinese fishing nets as they dip into the channel and visit the oldest Jewish settlement in India a few blocks away.

On all of your journeys you should return home feeling a little different, a little changed, a little more alive. Kerala will do that for you. Now that you have experienced India “light,” start planning your next journey to the north. You will be ready and I am sure you will embrace the next experience more fully.

Carl Grooms is the editor of the island-focused travel blog, Coastlines & Tan Lines™.  He produced his latest book, Portraits of Our World, after a one-year trip around the world.  He is the founder of Conch Republic Bikinis, as well as a former Naval Aviator. Carl led the business development of all of the Hong Kong Disney hotels and restaurants for Walt Disney Attractions.  At last count, Carl has visited 52 countries. He has run with the bulls in Pamplona, braved the world’s highest bungee jump in South Africa and is an ultra-marathon runner.  He holds an MBA from the Wharton School at The University of Pennsylvania.

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