Travel

How To Spend One Week in Kerala, India and What to Visit

3rd December 2015

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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)!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The city of Alleppey is surrounded by a large network of lakes, lagoons and fresh water rivers known as the backwaters. Taking a cruise through the narrow canals is the ultimate Kerala experience. You can choose between short tours of a few hours or overnight cruises, like the one we did with Evergreen Tours. You’ll skim past palm trees, water lilies, lush paddy fields, coir villages, rustic homes, ancient temples, churches and coconut groves. It’s a wonderful experience!

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We had lunch, dinner and breakfast on the boat, and spent the rest of the time relaxing on the deck, reading a book, admiring the view and taking photos (at night were were also eaten by mosquitos, sigh…). Lunch on the boat was particularly delicious, as we had the traditional “Kerala Meals” with fried fish, curry, Kerala rice, pappadom and chutneys.

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Day 5: Alleppey to Fort Kochi

The boat docks overnight and departs shortly after sunrise to make its way back to the city. We had breakfast on board and reached Alleppey around 9am, and our driver Shamkar was waiting to take us to our hotel in Old Kochi.

Fort Kochi is a region of the big city of Kochi (Ernakulam). Kochi is on the mainland, while Fort Kochi is surrounded by water and is reached by ferry or through bridges. It is counted among the major tourist attractions in Kerala and it is the city with highest concentration of Western tourists I have ever seen in India.

We had the day off (no tours), so we spent a few hours at Pepper House Cafe where we had lunch. There are many cute cafes and shops in Fort Kochi, check out Kashi Art Centre and Teapot. We dinner in the garden of the Old Harbour Hotel, to the sound of live tabla, it was a beautiful setting.

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For a similar experience you can visit the nearby hotel Malabar House. If you don’t want to spend hundreds of pounds on hotels, there are 500 homestays (B&B) in Fort Kochi. They often offer homemade food and also cooking classes. The most popular one is Nimmy & Paul.

Kerala is renowned for ayurveda, a lifestyle which combines medicine and philosophy. It’s also the oldest healthcare system in the world. My husband and I booked a one hour massage at Dr Veena’s Ayurmantra and can vouch for this studio to be very professional. Before the treatment the doctor will ask you what your main health concerns are, and based on that he/she will choose which essential oils to use during the massage. Obviously just one treatment cannot cure a disease and ayurveda is usually based on 21-day courses. If you buy ayurvedic medicines in Kerala remember that nothing is going to work in one day, you need to follow a cycle and let the body heal (Dr Veena recommends using Ayurvedic oils and powders, rather than tablets which are less effective).

Day 6: Fort Kochi

The next morning we woke up early to walk to the harbour and watch the fishermen working with the Chinese fishing nets. These structures are 10m high and operated by 5-6 men who have to pull up and push down the net every 5 minutes throughout the day. It’s hard work and they don’t catch a lot of fish. The fishermen are happy to pose for photographs or asked my husband to help pulling the ropes (we left them a tip afterwards).

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Afterwards we did a tour of Fort Kochi with a local guide, again this was booked through TSI and we were driven around by our driver (though most of the tour was done on foot). We started from the (not particularly pretty) beach and walked towards the harbour where we had been already in the early morning.

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Since Fort Kochi was under the possession of the Portuguese, Dutch and British at different points of time, the region still bears a European influence in the names of streets and churches and in the architecture. We walked past the Parade Ground, where the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British had once conducted military parades, and reached St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India (and where Vasco-da Gama had been buried).

St. Francis Church

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).

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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.

Mattancherry, Fort Kochi (Kerala, India)Mattancherry, Fort Kochi (Kerala, India)

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)!

Lunch Paragon Kochi

In the evening we watched a Kathakali show at the Greenix cultural art centre in Fort Kochi and I would definitely recommend it.

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Kathakali is Kerala’s best known art form, a unique blend of dance, drama, music and literature. The actors wear elaborate make up and costumes, and tell the story through intricate gestures and facial expressions, to the sound of drums playing live.

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We had dinner at Dal Roti where we ordered kati rolls, not a traditional Kerala dish (it’s from Kolkata), but at this restaurant they make the best ones I have ever had!

The next morning we had our last Kerala breakfast with puttu, a roll of steamed rice and coconut with can be eaten plain with a chickpea curry or served with ghee, sugar and roasted bananas. So tasty!

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One week passed by really quickly and it was soon time to board the plane and wave goodbye to Kerala, God’s Own Country!

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