Last year, our family had an amazing three days in Kerala, which sells itself as “God’s own country”. It is a favorite holiday destination for Prince Charles and Camilla. Houseboat tours through the backwaters are the most popular tourist attraction of the area and one of the main reasons we chose to travel to Kerala. These boats, traditionally called kettuvallams were originally used to transport rice and occasionally as living quarters for royalty. The boats have more recently been converted to accommodate tourists for day and overnight leisure trips, complete with a staff to drive the boat and prepare meals.
Located in South India, Kerala has been known for exporting spices such as pepper, cardamom, turmeric, cloves and ginger for at least five thousand years. It is baffling to think of a single region known for one trade for that long and no surprise that the food is glorious. Literally, every bite of every meal was perfection. The spice trade brought Portuguese traders to Kerala in the 15th century and paved the way for the Portuguese colonization of the area. As a result of the Portuguese influence, Christians in Kerala comprise almost 20% of the population, compared with a mere 2.3% in the entire Indian population.
Many Indian travel companies require payment in local currency or a physical credit card and therefore cannot make advance bookings from the outside of India. Arrangements for our flights, hotels, driver and houseboat tour were all made locally through Atlas Hoppers, but we understand that Atlas Hoppers can accept electronic payment and make advance bookings for foreigners.
We hired a driver named Kiran who picked us up at the airport in Cochin (also known as Kochi) in a specially requested six-passenger vehicle and stayed with us for three days while we explored Kumarakom, Alleppey (also known as Alappuzha) and Cochin. A private driver may seem like a major indulgence – especially on the smaller, more rural roads, but it was really a necessity on this type of trip.
Kiran not only transported us safely from place to place but also served as our guide. He pointed out local sights, flora, cashew nuts trees, roadside coconut stands, jewelry emporiums and even a local temple elephant. He did not quite understand my need to take the boys to the Arabian Sea, but he took us to the beach nonetheless. We thoroughly enjoyed our time with Kiran, who tailored our trip according to our preferences and made sure we did not miss the very best parts of Kerala.
Kumarakom and Alleppey
We spent two nights at the spectacular Vivanta by Taj – Kumarakom and absolutely loved the property. This lakeside retreat featured luxury rooms, a private lagoon, boats, bikes, a playground and even bunnies. The guest rooms were separate cottages situated around the lagoon, so we needed to walk through the beautifully manicured grounds to reach it. Our room had a wonderful view of the pool, which we had to ourselves the entire stay. Except for our houseboat excursion, we ate all our meals at the resort and generally enjoyed the activities provided by the resort, evening entertainment and scenery.
Most people travel to Alleppey to tour the backwaters on a houseboat. Day or overnight trips are available, and we booked a five-hour tour through Lakelands Cruise. There are a wide variety of boats, ranging from pretty basic boats to those tricked out with satellite receivers and air conditioning. Each boat is staffed with a captain to steer and a chef who prepares traditional Keralite meals. Even though every meal we ate in Kerala was superb, our lunch on the boat was the absolute best.
Our boat had covered deck with a large chaise lounge swing and dining table at the front of the boat, an air-conditioned bedroom with an attached bath in the middle and a kitchen at the back. The front was definitely not baby-proof, so we had to be careful not to let our daughter near the low railings. I spent most of my time onboard lounging on the swing with our daughter relaxing on my lap. We also retreated to the enclosed bedroom a few times so that she could run around.
While traveling the backwaters on a houseboat is pretty amazing in itself, the real excitement for us was really getting a chance to glimpse into the lives of some of the villagers who live on or near the water. There was constant activity on the river banks as the villagers went about their lives. We saw many locals bathing, washing clothes and utensils in the water. For who definitely take modern plumbing for granted, watching people wash in the river is the first thing both boys remembered about this excursion.
We also saw workers on the rice fields, children walking to or from school, people boating in the river and riding their bikes along the banks. When we docked by a rice field, the boys got to explore the riverbank, examine the rice plants and see the various states of processing the crop goes through before rice makes it to the plate.
In this region, many men wore a traditional wrap cotton sarong called a mundu. Mundus are usually white or cream with a simple border and are worn folded by laborers and as a symbol of masculinity. With very high temperatures while we were there, it is also a very practical attire.
We also saw some beautiful birds along the river, including cranes, egrets and kingfisher birds.
I admit that I thought five hours was going to be way too long to spend on the houseboat with three young kids. At the beginning of the trip, I worried it might be an exhausting day wrangling our daughter. Luckily, she was very happy to sit with me on the swing and thoroughly enjoyed the excursion. I found myself more and more relaxed throughout the day and thought we could have enjoyed another hour or two when we docked. Nevertheless, I was glad that we chose not to spend the night on the houseboat with young kids and much preferred our overnight accommodations at the Taj, which were far more luxurious.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Alleppey Beach . I really wanted the kids to have a chance to see the Arabian Sea. They really do love beaches and not so surprisingly, they needed to dip their toes in the water. Alleppey is known more for its backwaters than its beach, and this one was almost empty during our visit.
After our second night in Kumarakom, we headed back to Cochin along the Malabar Coast. We stayed at the Vivanta by Taj – Malabar, an exceptional hotel on the harbor. The highlight of the room for the kids was glass walled bathroom with a privacy blind that raised and lowered electronically with a switch, but they also enjoyed the view from or room. We had a scrumptious dinner and breakfast at the hotel. Although, after a busy few days, all three kids fell asleep before dinner was over (a first!). The outdoor grounds of the hotel were lovely, and our son enjoyed a swim in the pool in the morning.
Before colonization, Cochin was a fishing village. The major tourist attraction of the area are the Chinese fishing nets, which are located at the Cochin Beach and symbolize the history and culture of the region. These nets were erected in the area starting in the 13th or 14th century and each operated by about six fishermen. While they have been replaced by modern fishing techniques, they are open for tourists to experience first-hand. Local fisherman are even happy to allow tourists to raise and lower the nets. My kids absolutely loved our hands on experience pulling up the net. We visited Cochin beach in the evening and were treated to a beautiful sunset as we wandered through the nearby fish market.
The nearby farmers’ market offered fresh catch, mostly from boats rather than the nets. We enjoyed souvenir shopping at the stalls nearby.
We also enjoyed a Kalripayattu martial arts performance and were the only members of the audience. Kalripayattu techniques include combinations of steps and postures and use a variety of swords and blades. At the end of the show, the boys got a chance to participate with the performers.
We had a luxurious and truly spectacular vacation in Kerala. Although we enjoyed seeing the tourist sights, I hope to spend more time relaxing at the beautiful resorts next time we visit.