I hadn’t been back to India since my wedding in 2012, so this year my husband decided it was time to go back and spend Diwali with his family in Mumbai. I had only one condition: this time we would visit Kerala.
Kerala is a state in the south-west of India on the Malabar coast; it is a long and narrow area facing the Lakshadweep Sea on the west, and bordering Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states on the north, east and south. It is a very popular tourist destination, not only for foreigners but also for Indian tourists from the north of the country. It is not hard to see why: Kerala is beautiful and diverse, with secluded beaches, palm-fringed backwaters, picturesque hill stations, lush forests, spectacular waterfalls, delicious food and welcoming people.
We managed to take a week off from our busy Mumbai schedule to visit Kerala. Six days are obviously not enough to see a state of nearly 40.ooo sqm, but it’s enough to get a taste of it.
Having had a bad experience in the past travelling around Rajasthan without a guide, this time I enlisted the help of a tour operator, Travel Spirit International. I chose TSI after meeting a company representative at a travel fair. I emailed my travel dates and proposed itinerary to the TSI agent and he sent back a tailor-made tour, complete with activities and suggested accommodations.
Initially I wanted to spend two days at the beach in Varkala, but eventually decided to skip it so that we didn’t have to rush every day. It’s a shame I couldn’t spend time on the beach but it was good to have a bit of leisure time to spend in Munnar and Fort Kochi.
Day 1: Kochi to Munnar
We landed at Kochi Airport and met our TSI agent, Philippe, who stayed in touch with us over the phone throughout the holiday. We also met our amazing driver Shamkar who drove us around Kerala for the whole trip. It takes around 3 1/2 to 4 hours to reach Munnar (including a quick lunch stop of curry and rice). The road is steep and winding, and as you get higher, the surrounding landscape disappears in a thick blanket of fog.
Munnar is situated at the confluence of three mountain streams, 1600m above sea level. Nowadays the land has mostly been converted to tea and spice plantations, which the main source of income for the local population.
We stayed at Shamrock Hotel in Pothamedu (20′ drive from Munnar), a guesthouse set amidst the tranquil tea plantations and forests. I loved waking up every morning, draw the curtains and take in the stunning view from our balcony, where we also had breakfast every day.
We spent the evening walking around the tiny town of Munnar, buying homemade chocolates and souvenirs and eating delicious veg food on banana leaves at Saravana Bhavan.
Day 2: Munnar
One full day is enough to see Munnar and the main attractions around the city. In the morning we drove to Mattupetty Dam, Echo point and up to the Top Valley Station (which is actually located in the state of Tamil Nadu).
Then back to Munnar for lunch and a visit to the KDHP Tea Museum. We did a tea tasting with the museum’s manager and learn the difference between black, green and white tea as well as the process of tea making. KDHP (formerly Tata tea) functions as a cooperative and 90% of the people working in tea-picking and productions also have shares in the company. The women working in the plantations earn as little as £3 a day (300 rupees), but get free accommodation, electricity, healthcare and firewood.
By this point we had already chosen our favourite restaurant in Munnar: Guru Bhavan! A no-frills eatery serving a Kerala dishes at ridiculously cheap prices. No wonder it was constantly packed with locals and Indian tourists. We went back three times but I wish we could have eaten at Guru Bhavan everyday of my Indian trip, it was that good! Especially the Chicken Curry with Kerala parotta (paratha)!
Day 3: Munnar, Chokkarmudi Trek
We booked a full day trek of the Chokkarmudi peak (2,200m) with an expert local guide. At 9am we started the hike through tea plantations.
The weather was foggy and chilly, but the experience of walking so close to the tea trees was incredible. Tea is a tree, not a plant, and it can grow as high as 20 meters! But it is kept short to make it easy for women to pick the leaves.
We followed the beaten track up to the ridge of the rocky mountain slope, where we could see beautiful views of the Idukki district.
From this point on, the trek became really REALLY hard! The track disappeared se we followed our guide through the “elephant track”. We were walking over bamboo branches and other plants that had been recently flattened down into some kind of path by elephants…the ground was wet because it’s monsoon season and FULL of leeches! We had protective covers for the feet / legs which the leeches cannot penetrate, but the experience of seeing the worms attached to your own body was nonetheless traumatising. I *may* have had a panic attack at one point and cried my eyes out…
The weather got really bad and by the time it started raining we decided to turn around and go back. It was not possible to complete the hike in the rain…and I was quite happy to escape the shola forest!
Day 4: Munnar to Alleppey
We left Munnar in the early morning and drove to Alleppey (Alappuzha) where we arrived around lunch time to start our backwaters cruise.
We also visited Dhobi Khana, where the members of Vannar community have been washing clothes since 1720 (they used to wash the Dutch army’s uniforms).
We then drove to Mattancherry (also known as Jew Town) where we visited the Dutch Palace and Jewish Synagogue. This is my favourite part of Fort Kochi, I loved the colourful streets of Mattancherry. Unfortunately it was also packed with tourists and I didn’t get the chance to spend enough time around there taking photos.
We spent the afternoon with an Instagram friend at Lulu Mall, a massive shopping centre in Ernakulam. It was worth the 45′ drive through traffic, just to get this lunch at Paragon restaurant (fish mango curry, Kerala paratha, chicken biryani)!