On the tip of the south-western Malabar Coast of India lies a tiny piece of green heaven. Self-titled, “God’s Own Country,” and rightfully so it is the state of Kerala. Bounded by the blue Arabian Sea to the west and the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats to the east, the state has many treats for the visitor.
One of Kerala’s most exquisite features is the vast network of natural waterways, canals, lagoons and rivers that criss-cross the state. They stretch from Kochi to Quilon. The backwaters of Kerala have always been a source of livelihood for the natives. Their transportation, agriculture, fisheries, culture and entertainment are derived from these waterways.
These picturesque, serene and languid backwaters provide a superb backdrop and means of seeing a rural and otherwise untrammelled Kerala. And the best way to truly experience the magic of the state is to take a languid houseboat cruise through these waterways. Places bearing exotic names like Alappuzha, Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kollam and Kuttanad drift by as you enjoy the fabulous and spicy cuisine from the comfort of your cushioned water palace.
The Malayalee word for houseboat is kettuvallam, which can be hired from a number of private operators, through travel agents, hotels and also the Kerala Tourism Department.
There are several options to the tours. The State Water Transport Department has half day and one day budget cruises between Alappuzha and Kollam and from Kochi with several departures during the day. Then there are the more upmarket, leisurely and luxurious tours. You could choose from a wide range of time-tables, budgets, routes and destinations.
The choices could range from as short as a day to a week. But keep in mind that monotony and boredom on the longer trips can be a hazard. Two days (or 48 hours) is probably the best length of time – enough for you to take in most of the various sights and scenes along the way.
The houseboats are rather large barges that can vary in length from 80 to 110 feet. You will have plenty of space to lounge and stretch your feet. The houseboats’ capacity can vary from two to a family size with multiple bedrooms with many being quite exotic. They have living rooms with onboard kitchen facilities. Many are also air-conditioned! You can get fresh-cooked meals and drinks.
Here is a sampling of some of the dishes that you could on your cruise. While not watching the passing scenery you could get your fill of Kerala’s unique foods, many served on traditional banana leaves.
Karimeen Pollichathu: A fish offering baked with a paste of chillies, spices and curry leaves.
Fish Molee: Sear fish cooked in coconut milk and seasoned with spices.
Appam & Mutton Stew: Appams are soft-centred, lacy pancakes to be had with mutton, banana, or mixed vegetable stew.
Fresh Coconut Water: The best drink in Kerala.
So depending on the length of the cruise, the number of people and the boat facilities the prices can range from US$80 to almost US$300. You can generally hire a houseboat without too much notice or advance booking except during the tourist high season.
The high season runs from December to the end of January when the weather is relatively cool and dry. March to May is very hot and humid – so an air-conditioned boat is a good idea. Doing a cruise during the monsoon period has its own magic but the monotony is terrific as it can rain non-stop and visibility may be rather limited.
The houseboat cruises is a brilliant and delightful way to slowdown and relax from a hectic travel schedule all the while experiencing a visual and scenic paradise.