What’s one of the best places to visit in South India? Heck, all of India? Kerala. Languid backwater boat rides, Euro-Asian colonial towns to stroll through, and a dramatic beachside town with eclectic classes – Kerala is the perfect travel anecdote to intense North India and provides a variety of experiences with relaxed vibe and progressive way of life.
My Big Trips to India have all included Kerala as a destination and it’s one of my favorite places in the world.
Any South India itinerary needs to include this state and stops in Fort Cochin, Alleppey and the Backwaters, and Varkala. I’ll take you through an itinerary that includes stops at each and advice I would give a friend who wants to experience a very lush, green, and laidback spot of India.
- Fort Cochin –4 days to tour the quaint town and a day excursion to Cherai Beach.
- Alleppey and Backwaters – 2 days to do one night in a houseboat or do an afternoon boat ride and spend some time on the beach. Check out my other blog post on “Three Things to Do In Alleppey Besides the Backwaters.”
- Varkala – 3 days to body surf in the waves, chill at the cafes, and shop along the cliff side.
Good Times (My Favorite Kerala Experiences)
Biking Through Fort Cochin
Fort Cochin, or Fort Cute-chin, is, I found, the only place in India I can every imagine having a relaxing bike ride – there’s well-paved streets, cool sea breezes to push you along, and no crazy traffic. I visited Fort Cochin after Mumbai and it was like someone had stopped my spinning traveler’s top and said, it’s ok, you’re here now, this bike ride will restore you to sanity.
My new travel friend Brook and I harnessed bikes from one of the several bike shops in colonial Fort Cochin and set off. We careened on well-paved streets, visited a Portuguese church filled with newly released school children, road over lush canals, and stopped for cool ice cream. Feeling adventurous, we jumped our bikes on the seaside trail and rode past the Chinese fishing nets and towards the horizon. I’d say it was one of my favorite experiences in all of South India.
At least one boat ride through the backwaters of Kerala in Alleppey
Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m a backwaters junkie. I cannot get enough of the boat rides through the lush canals and fishing villages. I’ve been a guest on the tree types of boatrides available in the backwaters – canoe, motorboat, and houseboat.
Canoeing and the motorboat are an afternoon trip and leaves one the flexibility to see other parts of Aleppey – for instance the town has lovely beaches and excellent South Indian food. The canoe ride is in the morning, before the boatman has to jostle with waves and actual-house-sized houseboats. There’s a stop for tea and a coconut drink on both types of rides. In the canoe, I liked being at “daily life” level, seeing the women pound laundry on stone steps, men paddle by in narrow canoes, and kids dunking and soaping up in the morning water.
Now Alleppey is more than the backwaters, check out my other article on “Three Things to Do In Alleppey Besides the Backwaters.”
The motorboat is in the afternoon. My travel friends and I went further out than the canoe could and into one of the large lakes. We swished past villagers while sipping on some well-hidden Kingfisher beer (really what else do you do on an afternoon boat ride in the hot sun?).
The backwater’s houseboats are what Alleppey is famous for and they do not dissapoint for a comfortable cruise on the bigger backwaters. I went with a traveler friend group and it was a perfect setting for a little bit of party and little bit of relaxing in this great Kerala setting. I didn’t like that I felt separate from the backwaters, but taking a large tourist cruise through them is not really an authentic experience. It’s great for a group and one night in Alleppey and to see what all the backwater’s fuss is about.
Sunset at Cherai Beach
Fort Cochin is on the water, but lacks a good beach. And if you’re a water baby like me looking for relaxation, this is something to find and enjoy. Not to fear, one is a small (and adventurous!) excursion away – Cherai Beach. I left by ferry, bus, and rickshaw in the late morning from Fort Cochin and was treated to a calm afternoon, relaxing day at an easy beach. There were not hoardes of anyone – Indians or tourists in this out of the way Kerala spot- just the soft, steep waves and comfortable wooden beach chaises. I read into the early evening and just as I was about the leave, the hotel worker (renter of the chaise lounges) said, “stay for the sunset.” So I did and was rewarded with this:
Cooking Class with Khan in Varkala, Kerala
In Varkala it’s easy to get into a routine: wake to sound of palm trees rustling, relax on veranda with chai, walk the shops along the cliff, body surf in the afternoon sun, and chill out in the evening. I was feeling a little more inclined to do some activity so I found Cooking Class with Khan.
Khan is a trained chef and thorough teacher. In three hours, he had us frying pakora, blending curries, and sauté-ing chicken biryani. The mysteries of South Indian cuisine were laid out before the small class of travelers. There really are a ton of spices and steps South Indian cooking– Khan kept a great pace and wove in steps from one dish with the other. The best parts: we tasted along the way and attempted to make our own parotta breads with actions similar to an Italian pizza chef.
Tips & Tricks
- Kerala is nicer and slower than North India. I’ve seen a lot of tourists come to Kerala straight from Delhi and they are hard and jaded. They’ve been scammed by too many rickshaw drivers and tour operators and are sick of it all. Shedding that veneer is hard, but in Kerala, believe that it’s all about a good, relaxed time and you can use your North India stories to bond with other travelers.
- You can book a houseboat, canoe or motorboat ride through any hotel or tourism office. Look on online message boards for recommendations and expect what you pay for – customer service, meals, and a cruise through the backwaters. If you want AC or extra rooms, it will be extra and bargain accordingly.
- There is no ferry from Fort Cochin to Alleppey. To get from Fort Cochin to Alleppey, take the ferry to Ernakulam and then take a bus from Ernakulam to Alleppey.
- Mumbai to Cochin – I’ve done this route twice: Kingfisher for $70 and Go India for $110. Both trips were pleasant, but the Go India one was late by several hours (noticeable because I had food poisoining that day and just wanted to get to bed). The Cochin airport is easy and a taxi ride to the Fort Cochin is about one hour and 900RS.
- Fort Cochin to Alleppey – I took a ferry from Fort Cochin to Ernakulam and then caught a bus to Alleppey. I think the total was about $12 at the time.
- Alleppepy to Varaka – There’s a 3:30 train every day from Alleppey to Varkala. Pay 70 RS at the ticket window – no need for reservations – and grab any seat in sleeper class. A rickshaw from the Varkala train station to the cliff should be no more than 100RS.
- Again, there is no ferry from Fort Cochin to Alleppey. To get from Fort Cochin to Alleppey, take the ferry to Ernakulam and then take a bus from Ernakulam to Alleppey.
Food Not To Be Missed (outside the cooking class)
- Dosa and vada at Uduppi’s and lunch thali at Hot Kitchen in Alleppey
- Pizza at the Chill Out Lounge in Varkala
- Coffee and cake at any little cafe in Fort Cochin