Category Archives: Kerala

Offbeat Kochi with Ramada Resort Cochin

The rains had given us the slip for most of our time in Alleppey, but the day we chose to drive to Cochin, the skies turned grey and a light drizzle cloaked the landscape in mist. We had spent a wonderful two days at Ramada Alleppey and now it was time to enjoy a quintessential resort holiday at Ramada Resort Cochin.

Colourful umbrellas for sale at Fort Kochi
Colourful umbrellas for sale at Fort Kochi

And while we did see the quintessential Chinese fishing nets and Kochi’s backwaters, we also discovered new things to do in and around Kerala’s scenic capital. Read on for more.

Lakeside cottages and pool

Ramada Resort Cochin

It was my second time in Cochin but my first in one of a row of stilt cottages that curved along an impossibly long lagoon overlooking the Vembanad Lake. Inside, the cottages featured everything that five star rooms do and a balcony that offered a wonderful view of the pool and the shimmering lake beyond.

The view from our balcony
The view from our balcony

The only eyesore was an upcoming building on the other side of the lake but that’s the price of development. Swimming at sundown and floating along the canal instilled a deep sense of serenity in our travel-loving souls. Of course, we also created a racket playing with the beach balls (bring a Frisbee too if you own one!).

Wining and dining

A lavish meal of local delicacies at Fennel, Ramada Resort Cochin
A lavish meal of local delicacies at Fennel

The Ramada brand is known to cater extremely well to guests’ culinary demands and this resort was no different. Fennel is their multi-cuisine restaurant and we enjoyed excellent lunches and dinners here, consisting of authentic Kerala cuisine (such as avial and appams) as well as other Indian delicacies. A live band and magician kept us entertained on many of those occasions.

Coconut pannacotta at Pearl Spot
Coconut pannacotta at Pearl Spot

Pearl Spot is known for its seafood but we being vegetarians, posed a challenge to the chef. And he more than rose to the occasion. While the pineapple rasam and numerous paneer and mushroom-based dishes bowled us over, the winner of our meal there was the unimaginably delicious coconut pannacotta with its numerous textures and real coconut water jelly nestled within the layers of creamy pannacotta. We also enjoyed great Mexican cuisine at The Mexicana.

Club 11 Hundred
Club 11 Hundred during the day

Club 11 Hundred is their bar with lots of character and signature cocktails that pack a punch, not to mention great starters.

Spice shopping

Different varieties of cinnamon sticks
Different varieties of cinnamon sticks

On our first day in Cochin, we were too late for the city tour (but you can read more about Cochin here) but there was no way we were going to skip shopping for spices. Fort Kochi’s spice markets are THE best and you’ll find the largest cardamom pods, supremely fragrant cloves, special varieties of black pepper and cinnamon and the most flavourful tea masala, not to mention various flavours of tea itself. While there are many inside Jew town, we found our treasures in a little shop near St. Francis Church, which is the first European church built in India.

Kathakali show at Cochin Cultural Centre

Kathakali performance
Kathakali performance

From evening until night, we sank back in our seats and allowed ourselves to be enraptured by the performers on stage at the Cochin Cultural Centre. An educative session on the various expressions, gestures and sounds used in Kathakali, the signature performance art of Kerala, was followed by the actual thing, accompanied by live music by a vocalist and instrumentalist. Before the performance, we had also been lucky enough to see the artists getting into their fearsome on-stage avatars. The Kathakali performance re-enacted a scene from the Mahabharata where Lakshmana has an altercation with Surpanakha.

An artist gets ready for the Kathakali show
An artist gets ready for the Kathakali show

This was followed by a kuchipudi dance performance by a young danseuse and an electrifying display of kalaripayattu, the artistic martial art form famous in Kerala by several sinewy youngsters. The audience consisted predominantly of foreigners who seemed quite impressed by it all. At the end of the show, we took pictures with the talented performers, as did many others in the audience.

Posing with the performers
Posing with the performers

Kodanad Elephant Training Centre

We were up at 5 AM on our second day in Cochin but sleep was but a small sacrifice for the morning splendours of Kodanad Elephant Training Centre. The centre opens at 8 AM but we were there by 7:30 AM on that rainy morning and spent half an hour looking for a loo and the ticket vendor.

Walking through the Kodanad Elephant Training Centre
Walking through the Kodanad Elephant Training Centre

At 8, we were allowed inside and our walking trail through the forest on the Southern banks of the Periyar River began. Signboards led us to the area where the elephants were being held.

Kodanad Elephant Training Centre

We were early enough to see them being fed in their enclosures and it was most glorious to see two tusked elephants waving their heads while a caretaker filled their buckets. Further ahead, we spotted two deer enclosures holding sambhar and chital deer respectively.

Spotted (sambhar) deer at Kodanad Elephant Training Centre
Spotted (sambhar) deer

We also spotted clusters of red sandalwood and other plants and trees in the orchards. The centre is a 90 minute drive away from Ramada Resort Cochin and a great way to get closer to nature. It is open until 5 PM on weekdays (we aren’t sure of weekends).

Ayurvedic spa

We’d already tried abhyangam, the full body massage that’s the most popular option among Ayurvedic treatments at Ramada Alleppey. So we decided to be more adventurous this time – Ankita went for a Kizhi treatment, which is done using herbal pouches, and Mohit tried shirodhara, the nervous system soother done by dripping oil on the forehead. Both our treatments were uniquely relaxing and rejuvenating. The herbs in the Kizhi treatment had a wonderful odour that almost smelt edible! The pouch contained curative fried fresh herbs, rock salt and Ayurvedic powders.

Ayurvedic spa at Ramada Resort Cochin
Ayurvedic spa

Mohit had a hard time washing off the litres of oil that had been poured on his forehead but the deep sleep he went into after the treatment made him feel like a new person. Whatever the treatment, it always includes a head and face massage as well. Milk is added to the oil used on the head, while Eladi oil is used for the face. For the body, the therapists use Dhanvatantaram or pinda tailam with karpuradi (camphor). But the best touch in our opinion, is the rasnadi powder they rub on the hair after the treatments to prevent cold and fever due to excess oil.

Speed boat ride

Need for speed: View from the speedboat
Need for speed: View from the speedboat

We’ve saved the best of this trip for the very last – if there’s one reason why you should go to Cochin and stay at Ramada Resort Cochin, it’s their speedboats. It’s the most hair-raising experience you can have in the backwaters, whizzing past fishermen, beneath bridges and fishing nets with the water working up a storm in your wake and the wind whipping through your hair.

Mohit pretends to drive the boat
Mohit pretends to drive the boat
A local man fishing in the Cochin backwaters
A local man fishing in the Cochin backwaters

The boats are very stable so you can stand and enjoy a 360 degree view of the Vembanad Lake as your boatman navigates expertly. The rides last for 30-45min and ours was the final one before sunset. Look out for a video of the ride on our Youtube channel soon and subscribe so you don’t miss out!

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Romancing the Punnamada backwaters with Ramada Alleppey

Ramada Alleppey is a hotel with a resort-like ambience, so you get your swimming pool, luxury Ayurvedic spa, stunning backwater views and leisure games at the price of a five star business hotel (upwards of Rs 5000 per night). We spent two nights here last month, where the days were windy and cloudy and yet, the Rain Gods spared us their unfettered wrath. It was the perfect weather to lie back and enjoy the gentle rhythm of the backwaters on a wooden houseboat. Of course, we did a lot more than that but this post is dedicated to the splendours of Alleppey or Alappuzha and the various ways in which Ramada Alleppey helped us soak in the joys of God’s own country better.

View of Ramada Alleppey from our boat, at sundown
View of Ramada Alleppey from our boat, at sundown
After a refreshing pear and guava-based welcome drink,
After a refreshing pear and guava-based welcome drink,
We checked into our spacious Junior Suite
we checked into our spacious Junior Suite
Junior Suite at Ramada Alleppey
that came with an inviting bathtub
and a gorgeous view of the backwaters.
and a gorgeous view of the backwaters.

We divided our time in Alleppey between the hotel, the backwaters and the city itself. The top three highlights of our stay at Ramada Alleppey would be the outstanding food, the wonderful spa and proximity to the Punnamada backwaters. Ankita even shed her shyness to sing in public after a long time during the karaoke night at the poolside shack. There’s also a swimming pool and a few outdoor games at the hotel (again reinforcing the resort-like ambiance) but we remained immersed in the natural pool of paradise beyond the banks. The staff is ever-gracious and makes you feel at home.

The manager of the hotel told us that around 60 rooms at Ramada Alleppey are reserved for Club Mahindra members, which is around half of the total accommodation. With three banquet facilities that can accommodate a floating crowd of 1200, the hotel is a great choice for events and weddings as well.

Experiencing the backwaters

Posing from the kettuvallam
Posing from the kettuvallam

The beauty of the backwaters is best expressed in verse:

We swish by at a serene pace
No wish to win any godforsaken race
The birds, the breeze and the sky are ours
And the water that quivers with banana leaves and fallen flowers
The clouds gather as the day matures
Whispers of an impeding storm reach these windy shores
Now we’ve left the trees behind and we’re in no man’s land
So it’s time to depart from this expanse so grand.

Backwaters cruise in Alleppey
Paddy fields, smaller fishermen’s boats and long canoes full of school children passed us by
Backwaters cruise in Alleppey
as our boatman kept us floating along at a gentle pace.
We'd lie down on the wooden boat and gaze at the coconut treed sky or dangle our legs on the side and let the water tease our toes.
We’d lie down on the wooden boat and gaze at the coconut treed sky or dangle our legs on the side and let the water tease our toes.

From 1 to 4 PM, the hotel also operates a ‘lunch on cruise’ that anyone can sign up for. In the near future, shikaras (long narrow boats that can go into narrow inlets and canals, unlike the larger houseboats) will also be available for use. We didn’t try the jet skis and speed boats but you definitely should!

Food and drinks

World in the Pot, as the name indicates, is a multi-cuisine restaurant attached to their Chinese restaurant China Town. We tried both local Kerala cuisine and Chinese dishes on various occasions and came away highly satiated. Funnily enough, the ground floor bar Pegs n Pints was deemed to be too unsafe for us due to the predominantly male, and on rare occasions, unruly crowd. It’s priced more attractively than the swankier roof-top bar, Venice, which also happens to offer stunning views of the entire coastline. The design and vantage point of the outdoor terrace surrounding the bar makes it the perfect spot to watch the annual boat races (the Nehru Trophy race begins on 12th August, so maybe you should pick up the phone and book your spot right now!).

Heavenly cream of tomato soup to kick off lunch
Heavenly cream of tomato soup to kick off lunch
Puttu with kadala (not seen here) for a traditional Kerala breakfast
Puttu with kadala (not seen here) for a traditional Kerala breakfast
Dinner at China Town, Ramada Alleppey
Vegetarian sizzler for a hefty dinner
Tripping on cocktails and delicious starters at Venice, the roof-top bar
Tripping on cocktails and delicious starters at Venice, the roof-top bar
The luxurious interiors of World in the Pot: Who wouldn't want to dine here?
The luxurious interiors of World in the Pot: Who wouldn’t want to dine here?

Abhyangam treatment at the spa

The four-year old Essence Spa at Ramada Alleppey is probably the best the town has to offer. We both chose the full-body Ayurvedic massage, called Abhyangam, on the advice of Dr. Shiny. Our therapists Diana and Arun used neela bhringadi oil for the head massage, dhanvataram oil for the body and the highly celebrated kumkumadi tailam oil for our faces. No part of our body was left out during the wonderful 90 minute massage (including shower time). The advantage of Ayurvedic massages is that they employ powerful oils and herbs, whose effects often last much beyond the therapy room. Currently, the rooms are separate for men and women but Dr. Shiny told us that they are planning to build a couple spa room. The seasonal karkidaka treatment routine is also an excellent option for those seeking relief from monsoon maladies.

Essence Spa at Ramada Alleppey
Therapy room at Essence Spa

Practical information

We’d definitely recommend Ramada Alleppey for a complete experience of Alleppey and its backwaters. And while we’re working on another post where we tell you about other attractions in the city, why don’t you take a look at this (Alleppey will be celebrating the 65th year of boat races in 2017):

Nehru boat race at Ramada Alleppey

Bookings: reservations@ramadaalleppey.com | ramada-alleppey.com

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The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal

The rugged abandon of a beach and the secret serenity of the backwaters come together in one of Kerala’s most exquisite resorts – The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal. Spread across a magnificent 26 acres on the Bekal coastline at Kasaragod, the resort is resplendent with lush coconut trees, vibrant birdsong and luxurious villas and suites with private Jacuzzis.

The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal: Ethereal at dusk
The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal: Ethereal at dusk

From one of the towers at Bekal Fort, I spot various locals practising rowing on slim, long boats typical of Kerala’s rivers and beaches. This is Bekal Beach, not as ferocious as Kappili Beach back at The Lalit but not exactly gentle either. The rowers instantly remind me of Kerala’s famous boat races and I get excited. But Joy, in charge of sports and leisure at the resort lets me in on an even more interesting revelation – boating is a family pastime in Kerala. And all members participate in the rowing of a longboat. At just 9km away from the resort, Bekal Fort treats me to a variety of fascinating sights like little boys dragging miniature boats on the coastline, waves crashing against gigantic rocks into millions of soap suds and couples nestled in the gaps of the walls. The fort is the only reason I spend an entire morning away from the resort. Obviously, it had to be compelling.

Kerala boat race practice at Bekal Beach, seen from Bekal Fort
Boating is a family pastime in Kerala

I arrive at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal in time for lunch, after a pleasant flight with Jet Airways to Mangalore Airport and a two-hour drive during which I cross the Karnataka border and find myself in the charming green environs of Kerala. It’s my third visit to one of India’s most beautiful states but the first to Bekal. I have to admit, there is only a minor shift in landscape when I cross into Kerala. Mangalore was much the same with its engorged rivulets, dense foliage and little brick paths and cottages. It feels refreshing to find myself in the unrivalled beauty of Southern India, after spending many of my previous holidays in central and northern India. The staff at The Lalit welcomes me with two large coconuts harvested from their own trees. This has to be the best welcome drink I’ve ever had – the water is cool, sweet and delicious.

A room with a Jacuzzi

The veranda of the deluxe suite at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal
My veranda overlooks the woods and the backwaters in the distance

My deluxe room is on the first floor of a two-storey unit and comes with a spacious bedroom, veranda and bathroom. I am overjoyed to see JBL speakers in the bedroom, an inviting Jacuzzi in the bathroom and a tranquil view of the Nombili River backwaters from the veranda. And how can I forget the welcome chocolates, cookies and fruits in the entrance area? The room is ideal for 2-3 people as there is a comfortable sofa alongside the double bed which comes with a fancy pillow menu.

The deluxe room at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal
My spacious room with a comfy sofa

So you can choose between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ pillows although frankly, they are all equally good to sleep on! There are three other varieties of rooms at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal with minor differences. The luxury suite is situated on the ground floor and comes with an outdoor Jacuzzi, the spa suite comes with its own garden and the private villas accommodate four people and have their own swimming pools. All rooms are fitted with a mini bar including wine and beer.

Kerala cuisine and more at Nombili Restaurant

Nombili Restaurant at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal
The interiors of Nombili Restaurant

Named after the Nombili River running through the entire property, the restaurant has both indoor and outdoor seating and is located right next to the gorgeous infinity pool. I am to have all my meals here, so it’s a good thing that I like the décor. Other dining options at the resort include the Nombili Bar next to the restaurant (serves wine and beer) and an upcoming snack bar overlooking the beach. The restaurant serves a selection of local, north Indian, fusion and continental cuisine.

An exquisite meal comprising a cottage cheese steak and biryani served with tangy sauce
An exquisite meal comprising a cottage cheese steak and biryani served with tangy sauce

Over several lunches and dinners, I sample Allepey vegetable curry prepared with Malabar spices; ulli theeyal, a tangy shallot curry with a hint of coconut; the flaky and layered Malabar paratha, fluffy appams, paneer makhani with generous portions of paneer, a decent brownie and ice-cream dessert, an exquisite meal comprising a cottage cheese steak and biryani served with tangy sauce, vegetable pizza, garlic naan that could have been better, good old roti and a spectacular tender coconut panna cotta.

Breakfast and a rainy exploration of Bekal Fort

I wake up early after my first night at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal and enjoy a tranquil cup of coffee in the veranda. I haven’t brought my telephoto lens along, so I have to be content with listening to the peacocks and feasting my eyes on birds I cannot name. A lavish buffet breakfast awaits me at Nombili Restaurant before I head to Bekal Fort. I gorge on warm and fluffy idlis and masala dosa with coconut chutney and sambhar, vermicelli upma, spongy carrot cake, sweet and juicy watermelon and filter coffee. There are north Indian delicacies such as parathas, chole bathure and puri bhaji on offer as well.

The garden at Bekal Fort
The garden at Bekal Fort

Bekal Fort is only a short drive away and includes a pretty garden and several towers with stunning views of the coastline. It is the largest fort in Kerala and spreads across 40 acres. As I walk along the snaking path, a sudden downpour descends on me, soaking through my clothes in seconds. I run for cover and stand shivering, under a little hut. But then, I am surprised by a frantic phone call from the driver sent with me by The Lalit. He comes all the way from the car to the interiors of the fort just to hand over an umbrella! That’s one of the nicest instances of hospitality I’ve ever experienced. The best part of the fort is an outcrop that stretches into the sea, accessible by a winding path hewn into the hillside. From here, I have a closer view of the seawater colliding with the rocks and the sandy shores of Bekal Beach.

The best part of the fort is an outcrop that stretches into the sea
The best part of the fort is an outcrop that stretches into the sea

The beach, backwaters and pool

Boating on the backwaters of Nombili River at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal, Kerala
Boating on the backwaters of Nombili River

It promises to be a water-filled day for me. I have the beach, a boat ride on the river and a session of splashing around in the outdoor pool ahead of me. Post lunch, I head to the placid Nombili River. Here, it is quiet and green and time seems to stand still. I don a life jacket and hop into a medium-sized boat with a swarthy boatman. Coursing through the river’s olive green expanse is an experience accompanied by the rhythmic lap-lap of the oars. The dense clusters of coconut trees cast their beauteous shadows on the water, as my boatman rows with all his strength. Boat rides and other water-related activities are offered free of charge to guests at the hotel. And the best part is the ride continues, come sun or rain.

Kappil Beach at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal, Kerala
The ferocious Kappil Beach

After the short boat ride, I walk down to the beach (there are several cycles on the property for use as well) and drop down on the soft sand, several metres away from the boisterous waves. You cannot go into the sea because the waters are too choppy but this stretch of the coast is always deserted and there are beautiful little shells strewn across the sand, for those who enjoy collecting them. Sometimes, you can see a bunch of boys playing a game of basketball. Once I’ve had our fill of the sea, I head back to my room to recharge my batteries. The outdoor infinity pool shuts at 7pm so I make sure I get there by 6. Swimming around is made more fun by the sudden downpour of rain – I am surrounded by water from all directions!

The outdoor infinity pool at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal, Kerala
The outdoor infinity pool

Bespoke dining by the pool

Bespoke dining by the pool at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal, Kerala

After the exciting and activity-filled day that I’ve had, a candle-lit bespoke dining experience by the pool is just what the doctor ordered. The excellent staff at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal has set up a beautiful table for me in a secluded alcove overlooking the glimmering swimming pool. All that’s missing really, is some live music. I dine on the aforementioned ulli theeyal, appam, paratha and tender coconut panna cotta. It is with a heavy stomach and light heart that I head back to the room.

The magic wand of the ‘bath butler’

Jacuzzi at The Lalit Resort and Spa Bekal

But I’m not off to bed immediately. The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal offers a mysterious sounding service called ’The Bath Butler’. Before I left for dinner, I had heard the butler bustling around in the bathroom, setting up the Jacuzzi for me. But the sight that greets me on my return leaves me completely spellbound. Mellow candles, essential oils, fragrant bath salts, rose petals and flowers have been artfully arranged around the Jacuzzi for a supremely sensual experience. The water temperature is just right when I slip in and the relaxing soak takes all my worries away.

Ananthapura Lake Temple

Ananthapura Lake Temple, Kerala

It’s my third day in Bekal and I really don’t want to leave. Time is never enough in a place like Kerala – its unearthly beauty and the omnipresent rivers and foliage offer a natural embrace unrivalled by any other. But there is a silver lining to my cloud – the famed Ananthapura Lake Temple lies en route to the airport. Apart from its wondrous location in the middle of the lake, the temple’s unique feature is the resident vegetarian crocodile fondly named Babia.

People try to catch a glimpse of Babia the crocodile
People try to catch a glimpse of Babia the crocodile

Legend goes that Babia is the guardian crocodile of the lake and a new one appears every time the crocodile dies. A cluster of ardent devotees are gathered around the lake awaiting Babia’s appearance. I join in after clambering barefoot over several slippery rocks but Babia isn’t in a mood to meet us today. Thereafter, I head to the temple for the magical Aarti with its hypnotic sound of conches and bells. Ananthapura Lake Temple is open to people of all faiths but men are required to remove their upper garments while entering the sanctum.

I return home with A R Rahman echoing in my ears – for he is the preferred choice of music for all the Malayali drivers of The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal!

Good to know

Man-made lagoons add to the allure of the property
Man-made lagoons add to the allure of the property
  • Mangalore Airport is the closest airport to The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal. The flight time is 1.5 hours and the drive to Bekal takes 2 hours.
  • Alcohol is prohibited in Kerala but allowed in five star restaurants. However, The Lalit serves only wine and beer. You are free to bring alcohol of your choice if you wish.
  • This is an all-year round property. Heavy rainfall can put a dampener on your plans but the monsoon also adds to the allure of the river and the beach.
  • There is a luxurious spa that you can utilise for Ayurvedic, weight loss and beauty therapies among others. There are facilities for gaming (billiards, table tennis) and a gym as well.
  • Rooms begin at Rs 15,000 per night, exclusive of taxes. For bookings, visit http://www.thelalit.com/the-lalit-resort-spa-bekal/.

I am blogging about my luxury stay experience for an activity at BlogAdda in association with MakeMyTrip.

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A glimpse of Kerala as I saw it

I love the sea. I don’t know if it has something to do with being born in a coastal city like Mumbai or if it is just the endless alternating calm and turbulence that calls out to me. But it was the sea that I inevitably sought when I landed on the shores of Kerala.
 
God’s own country, they call it. Is that an exaggeration or a justified eulogy? A whirlwind trip of four nights and five days hardly qualifies me to answer that. What I will do, however is tell you the story of the secret getaway that is Varkala. 

Tucked away in Southern Kerala, four hours away from Cochin, is the tiny temple town of Varkala. The town is nothing much to speak of but if you’re in the know, you know exactly where to head. Hidden beneath a majestic cliff is the untouched beach of Varkala, a haven for European tourists and an unparalleled delight to witness. Accustomed as we were to the murky waters and littered sands of Mumbai beaches, my friend and I were spellbound by the bright white water of the Varkala sea. In the peak of the sunlit day, the sky lent an azure glow to the water and under the starlit night, the beach became completely deserted, save for a daring soul or two who ventured for a moonlit walk by the dark, impenetrable sea.

We merely caught a glimpse of the beach on our first evening in Varkala. The next morning, we arose at the crack of dawn to partake of a delicious breakfast of coconut pancakes and Kerala coffee at one of the picturesque cafes atop the cliff overlooking that magnificent sea. The elevation afforded us a breathtaking view and the serenity of sitting there in the cool morning air, sipping rich filter coffee with the comforting lapping of waves in my ear, is something I will never forget.
 
The cliff was dotted with massage and health centres, cafes and vendors of beachwear, music and Ayurvedic medicines, all of which catered to the predominantly white clientele. We were possibly the only Indians there, save a couple who passed by in the evening. Even the owners of the eateries were rarely of native descent. One such coffee shop, Coffee Temple, owned by a British fellow, captured our fancy. The owner and the restaurant managers were all chatty and welcoming and we spent more than one pleasant evening there, sipping on their creamy mochaccinos and being regaled by tales of their Bohemian lives. Philip was an ex-army man who had served in Afghanistan for most of his tenure while Daniel had quit his job at Google USA after six years to go backpacking around the world. Neither of them was certain about how long they would spend in Kerala. Those were men who truly lived life on their own terms, with nothing to hold them down and no care for the challenges of tomorrow.
 
In the evening, we lazed on the glorious beach, surrounded by the sculpted, bronzed bodies of incredibly fit European men and women. Not a single one of them ever littered the beach or the water, making us wistful with their admirable civic sense. Why is it that most of us Indians have to be punished and pushed into displaying a semblance of civic sense? Why can’t we respect our environment and commit ourselves to cleanliness the way humans everywhere else in the world seem to effortlessly do? We found ourselves confessing guiltily that perhaps it was a good thing such few Indians frequented the Varkala coast. Such unparalleled beauty and virginity deserved to be maintained, whatever the cost.
 
***
 
It was with a heavy heart that we bid goodbye to Varkala in the wee hours of the morning. I saw much more of Kerala in Fort Kochi than I did in Varkala. And for that reason, I enjoyed this leg of the trip as much, despite the disappointingly messy and over-crowded beach. Fort Kochi was most memorable for its spice markets, relics of Dutch colonialism and the quaint Jew Town. But before I begin, a word of caution about procuring alcohol in Kerala. The state government exercises complete monopoly over the sale of alcohol and we were hard put to find a single shop in the tiny town of Varkala. When we did find one discreetly tucked away into a by-lane after an hour of fruitless searching in the unyielding Kerala sun, it turned out to be unfit for female presence. I waited by our bike on the other side of the road while my friend braved the serpentine queue of thirsty men in various states of intoxication, even though it was only 11 in the morning. After all that pain, the alcohol wasn’t too cheap either.
 
The early morning train ride to Ernakulam, the closest station to Fort Kochi, was gratifyingly pleasant, in direct contrast to the gruelling five-hour journey we had endured from Cochin to Varkala in the afternoon heat. It is advisable to schedule a trip to Kerala in the winter or the monsoons only. If you happen to travel between February and June, ensure that the majority of your travelling is completed before noon. Varkala had exceeded our budget as we succumbed to the charms of luxury. But in Fort Kochi, homestays are the norm and we paid a mere 500 per head for a frill-free non AC room that was actually very comfortable and airy enough. Real estate in towns like Fort Kochi is extremely cheap and several own two-storied, terraced bungalows that can easily host half a dozen guests at any given point in time. For many, the tourists are the primary source of income. Our host was a retired seafarer who extended us gracious assistance in terms of navigating around the place and recommendations on places to dine at.
 
Fort Kochi teemed with temples, mosques, synagogues and churches, a glowing testimony to the religious diversity of Kerala. All is not always well in the Southern hinterland, however. The day we arrived in Kerala, we were unable to board the train to Varkala from Aluva, the nearest station and had to go to the next one instead, because the BJP had called for a strike at Aluva. The reason? A few Muslims had held a conference in the premises of a Hindu temple. The secularity of Kerala is but a thin veil for the religious undercurrents that are generously stoked by political parties with vested interests. Nevertheless, I spent a glorious time admiring the architecture of the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town, the Saint Basilica Church on Fort Kochi beach and the scores of temples along Palace Road.
 
A long walk along the seemingly endless Palace Road brought us to the famed Jew Town, a mini township that attracts Jews from all over the world. Strangely enough, most of the purportedly Jewish artefacts were being sold by Kashmiris. Our homestay owner had warned us beforehand that everything the Kashmiris sold was overpriced and we were better off buying from natives. Nevertheless, those ornate carpets and indescribably beautiful objets d’art tugged at my heartstrings.
 
I was on my own during my last day in Fort Kochi as my friend had an early flight. For those precious few hours, I indulged in my fantasy of writing by the seaside, with the breeze and the foreign tongues in the air providing more than enough stimulation. I inhaled the fragrance of organic spices and essential oils at one of the myriad spice boutiques and walked out with handmade soaps, spiced and chocolate-infused tea, the country’s spiciest pepper and best quality cinnamon. I walked for hours, combating the unrelenting heat with copious amounts of fresh coconut water and buttermilk. And I never encountered any eve-teasing or even excessive staring which is routine in Mumbai despite its justified reputation as a safe haven for single women. On my flight back to the city, I bumped into an old classmate who looked exactly the same as she did years ago! As the aircraft descended upon the star-studded city of Mumbai, I was struck by the difference in landscapes. Where Kerala had boasted of lofty mountains and dense green cover, Mumbai spoke of unapologetic opulence and prosperity. Will Pondicherry have a different story to tell? I shall find out, on the 28th of March.
Practical information: Kerala is connected by two airports and several railway stations. Kerala tourism infrastructure is fairly advanced and your choice of accomodation depends on your budget. Read about my luxury stay at The Lalit Resort & Spa Bekal.
 
(Photos: Ankita Shreeram)