Story and Photos by Dave Stamboulis
While India gets a lot of bad press for its crowds, hassles, and other impediments to the discerning traveler, the state of Kerala in the south is a far departure from this, and actually home to one of the world’s greatest escapes, the amazing “backwaters” of Kerala, a spot that is in fact even worth putting on that “50 places to go before you die” bucket list. Actually National Geographic did just that, naming the backwaters in their “50 destinations of a lifetime” list in their millennium collectors’ edition.
The backwaters are comprised of a chain of lakes, canals, and lagoons that lie just off the Malabar Coast and Arabian Sea, fed by around 40 rivers that snake their way out of the Western Ghat Mountains down to the ocean. One could say it is like an Indian Bayou, except that these backwaters are home to a thriving lifeline, as thousands of people live surrounded by water and have shaped their lives to living above the flow.
The area of the backwaters most often visited is that around the towns of Alleppey, Kumarakom, and Kottayam, with ferries plying the larger routes, small boats navigating the smaller canals, and beautiful luxury houseboats cruising through the most scenic parts. Even Kerala, with its high literacy, history of foreign trade, and welcoming traditions, can be crowded and chaotic, thus nothing can compare with sitting back in style and silence, watching the water flow by and taking in the lush green canals without a care in the world.
The kettuvallams, as the houseboats are called, are traditional rice grain barges that were formerly used to transport rice from the wetland paddies to the coast. Made with thatched roofs and over 25 meters long, the boats are quite elegant, and used to be the preferred way of merchant travel prior to the coming of paved roads and motorized vehicles. These days, they are a huge tourist draw, as although motorized, they languidly drift throughout Kerala’s labyrinthine system of lakes and canals, where visitors can enjoy plenty of birdlife, with kingfishers and cormorants being some of the more common sightings, or focus on the cultural aspect of the backwaters, such as the coir industry, in which coconut husk fibers are used to make ropes fishing nets, and other local products that the native Keralite people use in their daily lives.
Better yet, it’s just as pleasant to do absolutely nothing except sit out and enjoy the backwater scenery with ones feet propped up in an armchair drinking a cup of Indian chai or even a cold Kingfisher beer. The houseboats come equipped with all amenities; fans and air-conditioning, western toilets, televisions, showers, and period piece dining rooms and bedrooms. Additionally, they are staffed with cooks and attendants, and just about every whim and nuance is catered to, ensuring a journey of bliss.
Most of the houseboats do a bit of canal touring before dropping anchor in one of the large freshwater lakes that dot the area, and spending a night under the stars. While there are huge numbers of houseboats to choose from, it is recommended to make reservations in advance, especially in the November-February high season, and this also assures getting a boat and operator of one’s choice. One of the best ways to go is to book a boat through a resort, which gives some accountability as well as getting some five star treatment both on and off the water.
The Kumarakom Lake Resort, (http://www.kumarakomlakeresort.in/) perched on the banks of the serene Lake Vembanad, is the best place to stay in the area. Awarded as India’s Leading Resort by the World Travel Awards, this hideaway under the coconut trees has beautiful lake view villas with plunge pools, a restored traditional Keralan restaurant, and a superb spa that offers Ayurvedic massage and healing treatments. The resort also specializes in packages that offer a combination of houseboat overnights combined with a night relaxing at the resort.
Sailing along like royalty on a Keralan houseboat is about as close to bliss as one can get in terms of pampered travel, and a trip one will be savoring for years afterwards.
Go: All of India’s major airlines as well as numerous world carriers fly into Kochi (Fort Cochin) International Airport, which is just an hour’s drive from the backwaters.
Do: In addition to an overnight on a houseboat, canal tours on small dugout canoes are also recommended for seeing village life on intimate and slow terms. If you happen to be in Kerala in August, the Nehru Trophy Boat Races are a must see, as locals race traditional “snake boats” (crafted wood longboats in which 100 oarsmen can sit) through the backwaters.
Stay: The Kumarakom Lake Resort is the best in the region, offering houseboats and private villas on the shores of Vembanad Lake. Tel: 00 91 481 2524900 or toll free out of India: 1 800 425 5030