The serene backwaters Exploring Kerala

| April 10, 2013

Following on from Elizabeth Weller’s blog on The Lakshmi Kutir Camp for the Kumbh Mela, she tells us about her first visit to Kerala, somewhere she had been wanting to go for over 25 years.

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After eight hours of travelling from Varanasi via Mumbai to Kochi (Cochin), I arrived exactly on time. The first bag on the conveyor was mine and there was the beautifully dressed Cox & Kings guide to greet me as I was ushered to another gleaming white comfortable Toyota Innova. The knowledgeable guide was talking about the city and offering valuable information.

This lovely seaside city is the gateway to explore Kerala and its backwaters in south-west India. The Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese have all left a cultural mark on the city and its world-class port. Old Kochi refers to three islands – Mattanchery, Willingdon and Fort Kochi.

Kochi has the only Jewish settlement in India, with only eight members of the faith still left in the city. Kochi also still uses the original Chinese fishing nets for catching fish. St Francis Xavier’s Church, built by the Portuguese in 1503, is the oldest European church in India. Nearby is a memorial to the local people who served in the first world war.

After an hour’s drive from the airport, a gracious arrival was extended by Brunton Boatyard Hotel. This charming 21-room property is located directly on the water’s edge. A quick freshen up and then to dinner. The restaurant has an outdoor terrace, which is a must and reservations are recommended for the wonderful alfresco dining. I had a delicious supper of local white rice, large grilled prawns and grilled vegetables.

The lobby of the hotel has a series of pankhas – large fabric fans dating back to as early as 500 BC – as well as two very large urns from times gone by used to store pickles, prior to the modern day methods of refrigeration. A large room with a terrace overlooking the Arabian Sea proved to be the perfect place to watch the local birds, including two sea eagles feeding on freshly caught fish.

Breakfast the next morning was divine: fruit cut to order and again overlooking the Arabian Sea. Charming, cheerful staff.

It was then time to be ready for collection by the Cox & Kings driver at 10.30am for a two-night stay at Coconut Lagoon, the same company that owns Brunton Boatyard. Exactly to time, Shabir arrived to escort me to the backwaters.

A most interesting drive through green and tropical landscapes, dotted with lakes and waterways. We passed two working elephants along the way. I was excited on arrival at the jetty to await the boat to take me the short distance to Coconut Lagoon as I had waited 25 years to visit the backwaters.

The boatman was very knowledgeable in identifying the various birds in this beautiful bird sanctuary. Arrival at the Coconut Lagoon is via a small waterway channel and a gate rises to let the resort’s boats in. It was a truly memorable arrival in the warm sunshine with a flautist playing in the lobby to welcome guests.

I was escorted to my Heritage Bungalow sitting directly on the water’s edge and with its own private swimming pool. The bungalow had a large drawing room with old colonial style furniture, a good-sized bathroom and a very comfortable bed.

The afternoon was spent sitting by the private pool and taking a stroll in the gardens, where many plants and trees are named in their English and Latin names. It was also interesting to watch the traditional rice boats passing by.

I had a delicious fish supper in the resort’s fish restaurant alongside the water. This part of the world is famous for its fish. The restaurant manager was very obliging and informative, letting me know the fish was caught that day; he told me many foreign guests prefer brown rice to the local rice, which I found a bit strange.

After a good night’s sleep I was up early to prepare for a motorised canoe ride at 8am to see the region’s birds feeding. Kerala has more than 471 species of birds. The purple heron is especially majestic, the gracious pond herons, pure white egrets busying themselves, drafters, cormorants, ospreys and moor hens to name a few. The local villagers were fishing in the waters, washing their clothes, as they have done for many centuries. Clear blue skies and fresh warm air prevail.

After two magical days at Coconut Lagoon, it was time to move on to join a houseboat for a night on the backwaters, so it was back to the jetty in the resort’s boat, after waving goodbye to the management team.

The trustworthy and efficient driver, Shabir, was there to greet me with my sun spectacles. The specs had become damaged on the trip and new lenses were required. In just two days the optician in Kochi was able to make them and fit them into my favourite frames. The cost in London would have been three times the amount with a delivery date of two to three weeks.

After an hour’s drive through the Keralan countryside to Alleppey, I joined a houseboat for the night. River Escapes has a flotilla of eight boats, but there were only three in our party. This was a dream – just myself with the boat driver, waiter and cook. Again, a delicious and beautifully presented lunch was served, pomfret, white rice, vegetables and beetroot yoghurt.

The boats are not permitted to sail in the dark so we pulled up at about 5pm with two other boats and then took a large canoe, not the size of Kerala’s large snake boats called Chundan Vallam, to enjoy the smaller tributaries of the backwaters. Two particularly jovial Australian gentlemen, halfway through their 27-day trip in India, joined the five of us. We passed little villages where all the residents waved and again all the birdlife was outlined.

A delicious local supper was served of chicken, rice and vegetables. Prior to joining the boat, guests were asked if they would like hot food, which we declined. While dining, with the sun setting, the only noise was the sound of the local birdlife.

We were up early to see the sunrise, which was simply magical. Off we then set, after a delicious breakfast. The fruit in this part of the world is simply exquisite. At the small dock there was again the efficient Shabir. An hour’s drive back to Kochi and Brunton Boatyard followed by an afternoon sightseeing in Kochi.

The best time to visit Kerala is between October and March. Emirates Airlines flies to Kochi, via Dubai, with excellent connections.

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