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Monday, 25 April 2011

Kerala: 'God's Own Country'


I wanted to visit the Indian state of Kerala, also referred to as 'God's Own Country', for a fourth time...but, on this tour, experience areas of the wildly diverse region that nudges the mountains of the Western Ghats, a place I'd not before seen.


Preparation


One thing I’ve learned from previous trips is that preparation is a vital ingredient when planning travel to tropical regions if one is to squeeze every last drop of pleasure from the country selected.

Kerala doesn't experience extreme variations of weather, except in the monsoon season (June-Sept) when it rains constantly, but the prices charged by hotels and resorts do reflect long-established beliefs that there are indeed three clearly defined periods, with Nov-Jan bring most popular and pricey. Armed with this published data, I decided to 'overlap' seasonal periods to seek lower prices and thus maximize both comfort and flexibility while minimizing my daily outlay. The strategy worked perfectly and I can most certainly recommend potential visitors to Kerala to follow my example and secure a fabulous deal.


My planning followed this scenario:


First, I set the dates....the third week of February through to the middle of March. Twenty-one days in total spanning the end of high season and the beginning of low.


Second, I researched hotels and resorts, which fell into my budget category (3 Star+) and selected two from each area I wished to tour...Cochin – Munnar – Thekkady – Alleppey and Varkala.


Next, because the distances between the chosen areas were considerable and that Kerala is not renowned for wide, smooth surfaced roads with little traffic, I opted to engage the services of an Indian Tour Operator who would be willing to undertake the tasks of 'meet & greet', all road transfers, negotiate even better rates with my selected hotels and provide an English speaking driver of an air-conditioned car for the entire length of my stay.


There are many hundreds of Tour Operators in India and selecting one at random is certainly not recommended. I could have grabbed a brochure from a travel agent's shop and picked from the beautifully illustrated pages of hotels, all of which are sited in fabulous locations and praised highly for service and accommodation, but I doubt I would have enjoyed the best available experience. Opting for the Package Deal invariably means no flexibility, a 'cattle-herding' mentality, strict and so often inconvenient timetables, no choice of airline (or flight times) and little or no opportunity to 'wander' or merely 'savor'. Of course, there are still a substantial number of tourists who take the simplest of options.


To avoid this catastrophe of disappointing guiding, it is necessary to dedicate time and effort researching the many operators and their reviews.  Homework completed, I chose one named Red Dot Tours, noted for their Sri Lankan expertise now operating in India.


My research paid off. From my first enquiry through to the hours prior to boarding my return flight to the UK, Red Dot Tours’ organization could not be faulted. Its communication was clear; its staff were professional and its care and attention to detail were quite unprecedented in my experience. That the Indian manager, Rajiv, kept in constant contact was an added feeling of security and was much appreciated.



Getting There


Kerala has two international airports – Cochin and Thiruvananthapuran (the latter more commonly known as Trivandrum). Trivandrum caters to charter airlines flying direct from Europe, while Cochin is truly the international hub for many of the world’s scheduled carriers.


The differences are quite marked. Anyone who has experienced ten or more hours crammed in a chartered aircraft will certainly not rate it as a leisurely or enjoyable experience. The carriers are mostly allied to Tour Operators where the wholesale cost of a package deal, including flights, must be cut to the bone to maximize profit.

The alternative is to choose one of the many scheduled airlines that operate to Cochin. The main difference here is that they all include a stop en route of around two hours. If avoiding that is not important, then flying by a scheduled airline has benefits such as more legroom, superior (and free) food and beverage, much more flexible timetables and often newer aircraft. Many ticketing agents are adept at negotiating substantial discounts. For this tour, it only took three telephone calls to obtain a return fare with a scheduled carrier, on exactly the dates of my choosing, at the time of day I wanted to fly and at a cost 15% cheaper than most advertised charter fares.


Just do some digging and make your choice. It always pays off.



The Tour & Hotels


My planned tour began in Cochin, a city of two parts, really. The quickly expanding mainland section and the historical area named, Fort Cochin. The former has little or no interest for tourists but the Old Fort area certainly has. The old city area is known the world over for its Chinese Fishing Nets and for being at the center of the Oriental spice trade, but this is for you to experience yourself.

A couple of days is usually enough time to 'see the sights' of Cochin. The choice of hotels range from one to five stars with many 'Home Stays' available as well. I had selected what can best be described as a Guest House cum Hotel, called Victory Dawn.


Victory Dawn is, in fact, a converted home. Many of the original features have been preserved. The rooms are large, the bed comfortable and the staff willing and friendly. Its location made it easy to walk to most of the interesting areas like the promenade, the many restaurants, the myriad of hawker stalls, shops and to the popular venue where traditional Kathakali Dance can be experienced in close-up. The only meal served is breakfast but even that menu is very limited. However, as a place to lay one's head for a couple of nights at a reasonable price, then, it was more than acceptable.


My rating...5/10


The drive in the car from Cochin, at sea level, to Munnar, at an altitude of almost 5000 feet, was really spectacular. I soon realized that John, my driver, was extremely flexible; with no time restraints or deadlines, I could, and did, stop to admire and photograph the scenery or to use a loo whenever I wished. Over the coming weeks, I would learn much more about him and benefit from his uncanny willingness and ability to introduce me to people and places not normally available to Package Tour members.


Upon arriving at Munnar, I checked into The Windermere Estate Hotel Nestled among the high, manicured mountains of tea shrubs, this place must rank as one of the best located hotels in all of Kerala. Truly stunning!

DSC 0282


Accommodation is in semi-detached bungalows. Each is beautifully furnished and very comfortable. Balconies allow uninterrupted and spectacular views; bougainvillea and other exotic plants are in abundance. Small paths meander here and there through the estate, which, when taken, afford the walker surprise view after surprise view.


The hotel's restaurant can only be described as 'brilliant'. No à la carte dinner menu. Instead, Keralan delicacies were served by attentive waiters. The chef was highly qualified and insistent that food should always be freshly cooked and served at the moment it was ready; not a single guest argued with his point of view and we were all more than satisfied with our culinary experiences as well as being treated as honored guests. My overall impression of this hotel was one of complete satisfaction. Hard to find these days, but so welcome when come across.


My rating...9/10


As we left Periyar's altitude, descending toward sea level, the scenery changed markedly. Tea shrubs gave way to pineapple plantations, rubber trees, bananas and coconut palms and the air temperature went up to 33°C. Water was visible at all points of the compass as we entered the magical region of Kerala known as the Backwaters. Traffic increased and our progress slowed but that allowed me to witness more aspects of the Indian way of life.


Along an ever narrowing series of minor roads, we emerged from the trees to be confronted with Vembanad Lake, a 2033 km² mass of fresh water. Tributaries spiral off it at numerous locations, giving life to this watery landscape and its indigenous population. A number of tourist resorts and hotels are dotted along the shores, but are far enough away from each other to seem exclusive.


From many resorts, it is possible to sit and watch the diverse activities of the boats which plied this way and that, some so overloaded with local reed, that one could be forgiven for believing that giant floating haystacks knew how to navigate without human assistance.


An hour's evening cruise on a six seat motor boat at the end of my first day certainly set the pace of my internal clock a number of notches slower. In every direction new sights and sounds were there to wonder at. This really was witnessing how the people of Kerala make full use of the canal waters.


The Punnamada Serena Spa Resort did not disappoint. Comprised of twenty-six villas situated with care and a common aim – seclusion and tranquility. My villa faced the lake, allowing me to savor the magical light that infuses the place at sunrise and sunset. Furnishings and facilities are top notch – some air-conditioning units are even solar powered.


The resort’s swimming pool was in high demand with temperatures soaring. I did overhear a few complaints from guests as to the number of sun-shielding parasols. However, as at all well run establishments, the Front Office Manager, Sanjay, listened attentively to my quiet 'word in his ear' and more 'magically' appeared.


During my three night stay, pre-dinner entertainment was featured on an outside stage where local dancers displayed their exquisite talents to the guests. Guests normally dined either in the air-fanned restaurant or at tables outside on an adjacent patio. For those of a more romantic nature, a nod in the right direction earlier in the day and a table would be laid on the lawn aside the lake, lit only by candlelight at no extra charge.


DSC 0324I was beginning to get used to my inactivity; lazing around, floating in the pool, listening to the birdsong and over-eating; but I had to make a move. Not much of one, as the next phase of my tour was a twenty-four hour stay on one of Kerala's world famous Rice Boats, and all I had to do was step aboard, wave goodbye to the lined-up staff of the resort and put myself in the hands of a capable captain.


My rating...8+/10



Evergreen Tours (Houseboats)


There are many companies based around the Kerala Backwaters, that offer Houseboat Cruises for periods of usually one, two or three nights. All function in a similar way with full board, and a start time around noon on day one, ending at around ten a.m. on the final day. There is a wide variety of one, two and three bedroom boats to choose from.


However, all companies do not offer the same standard of facilities. For example, some boats are powered by quite noisy outboard motors, many of which are somewhat underpowered and so are worked to capacity. Others are fitted with inboard diesels, which are better suited to both the environment and the comfort of guests. The reputation of companies regarding customer service also varies widely, as does the interaction of the crew with their guests.


All I can do to steer you in the right direction is prompt you to study the internet postings on sites such as Trip Advisor, or you could follow my recommendation.


In cooperation with the Indian operator, Red Dot Tours, we agreed that the long-established company Evergreen Tours based at Alleppey would be my best bet.  It was a great choice, with absolutely no regrets on my part.


The one bedroom boat with A/C (operational between 8.30 p.m. and 8.00 a.m.) was perfect, although I'm sure that I could have slept soundly without it. The furniture and fittings could not be faulted in any area of the boat. It was well maintained, clean and very efficient.


Pottering along the backwaters – some wide, others narrow – gave me a fantastic opportunity to capture many pictures. Life really is fascinating to observe and the local population strung along these watery byways would always return a wave, emphasized with their beaming smiles.


The three-man crew were a delight to be with. The Captain, who I christened Captain Ahab, allowed me to take the helm under his watchful eye. The complete lack of communication between us, he speaking Malayalam and I speaking English, was unimportant. Mere head nods and sparkling, toothy grins when I got things right were sufficient.


His second in command did the cooking – all mouthwatering local dishes. On close questioning coupled with expressive hand movements, I learned that his mother had schooled him extensively before he was even allowed to apply for the post. Well done, Mum, you did a fine job!


When we tied up at the Company's headquarters a little before 10 a.m., I did feel a tinge of regret. In the twenty hours, a kind of 'bond' had been formed (at least on my part) and Shakespeare's words 'parting is such sweet sorrow...' came to mind.


My rating...9/10


Another air-conditioned car complete with an English speaking driver named Sebastian were awaiting my appearance. My luggage was loaded and moments later we left the boatyard and turned south onto Kerala's main highway NH47 for the hundred plus kilometer journey from where I'd disembarked the houseboat to the small, coastal town of Varkala and the nearby beach, Papanasam.


This was no meandering sojourn. We encountered the madness of Indian driving conditions. Vehicles of every conceivable type twisted, shunted, weaved and hooted, all obeying the country's one and only road traffic law...'Get to wherever you are going and ignore everything else.' Somehow, it works. Eventually the car you're sitting in moves forward, perhaps for as far as half a km, more often just a few car lengths. Crazy – mad – unbelievable – a bit like 'The Charge of The Light Brigade.'


Because Kerala's beaches have become popular with tourists, particularly the beaches of Kovalam and Marari, my decision to spend a week at one can be understood. Having experienced both those and noted the changes, I thought it best to select one of the lesser known resorts being advertised. I narrowed my choice down to one in the region of Varkala.


After arriving and taking a brief wander around the hotel's immediate surroundings and a half-hour 'recce' of the beach and adjoining roads, I came up with an addendum to the name Varkala. It is...'Varkala, the Land of Linear Litter'. It was appalling to witness such filth and rubbish everywhere I looked. The beach was strewn with it, including piles looking a bit like unlit UK bonfire stacks on 5th November.


A semi hidden stream (if one could call it such) made its way from the local surrounding homes and businesses, downwards to empty into the sea at a point directly opposite the hotel. Closer viewing of this 'stream' showed it to be almost black in color, foul smelling and carrying with it the detritus tossed into it by the local population. One can only imagine the effects of this kind of pollution day after day, year after year. It was little wonder that the beach sand was streaked with black. Only once did I observe two European tourists venturing into the waves. One wonders how their health is now?


Bringing this dreadful state of affairs to the notice of the General Manager of Hindustan Beach Retreat, Mr. Rajkumar Varma, I was told that despite numerous pleadings to the Varkala Municipality, nothing was ever done. I promised to contact both that Municipality as well as the Kerala State Tourist Authority and present my findings.


The state of the surrounding area aside, my stay at Hindustan Beach Retreat was overall a pleasant one. All twenty-seven rooms face the sea and have uninterrupted views to the west. The hotel is only eight years old, so its infrastructure is still crisp and functional. I found the rooms to be of a much higher standard than expected for the class and price advertised. Hand crafted hardwood featured in all areas and guest room floors were laid with beautiful quality marble, as opposed to the usual ubiquitous carpet.


The hot water was hot, showers were powerful and the mini bar was functional. Room service was among the fastest I had ever experienced and the bed one of the most welcoming. The staff were a happy bunch, no doubt due to the 'laid back' nature of the hotel's Mr. Varma. Nothing was too much trouble either for him or his workforce.


Meals could be taken either on the ground floor near the swimming pool or on the fourth floor terrace where dining was accompanied by a view out over the Arabian Sea. Dozens of bobbing lights dotted the horizon from the local fishermen’s canoe type boats.


The hotel swimming pool was indeed first class and it too overlooked the sea. Kept spotlessly clean by a full-time attendant who couldn't do enough to ensure guests enjoyment, the pool was a sanctuary for those not venturing into town. I took full advantage whenever my crammed itinerary would allow.


My rating: On this occasion I need to split it between the hotel and the location.


Hotel...8/10
Beach and location...1/10


On the last morning of my stay, my original driver John was sitting patiently outside the hotel at 8.30 a.m. He'd left his home in the middle of the night so as to be ready for my departure from Varkala. Ahead of us was a five and a half hour drive north to Cochin Airport where I had reserved a room for my last night in Kerala. Knowing the distances involved and the inevitable slow progress of traffic, it was a sensible choice.


The Abad Airport Hotel is perfectly placed a five minute drive from the departure terminal. I arrived in the early afternoon, giving me the opportunity to unpack all my belongings and sort them in preparation for my journey home.


Having stayed at many such 'airport' hotels around the world, what I found here was not the norm. It did not have the feel of a transient hotel, one of mere convenience and basic facilities. Instead, it was fresh and welcoming, had a large swimming pool, a fantastic restaurant, top class furnished rooms and a helpful staff. Courtesy cars were parked ready to ferry guests to and from the airport at five minutes notice. It was a slick operation that worked efficiently. Being Muslim owned, the hotel did not serve alcohol, but in no way did that detract from the overall ambience and comfort of the place.


With a wake-up call the next morning, a cup of strong coffee, a smooth check-out and the brief drive to the departure terminal, I was ready to return home.



©Brian W Fisher


Published in in-depth

When we arrived at Thiruvananthapuram’s (also known as Trivandrum) airport near the southern tip of India our driver, Arun, was magically waiting for us even though we’d given him the wrong arrival time and flight number. Arun works for SITA and was very personable, spoke English well, and was the source of great conversation throughout the trip. I told him we wanted to do a bit of sightseeing in town before heading out to Varkala beach, so we stopped to look at Sree Anantha Padmanabha Swamy Temple (non-Hindu’s cannot go inside) and then explored the city palace museum which had some beautiful ivory pieces including a basinet made entirely out of ivory, some nice paintings, and a large throne-like chair adorned with huge crystals from Slovakia.

Published in in-depth

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