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Carefully through Kerala

I wanted to visit the Indian state of Kerala for a fourth time…but, on this tour, experience areas of this wildly diverse region that nudges the mountains of the Western Ghats, that I’d not before seen.

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. As usual, this is what I did.

When to go? Should it be in the low, middle or high season and what influence would weather have on which to choose?

Kerala doesn’t experience excessive variations of weather, except in the monsoon season, but the prices charged by hotels and resorts do reflect long-established beliefs, that there are indeed, three clearly defined periods. So, armed with this published data, I decided to ‘overlap’ seasonal periods, seek lower prices and thus maximise both comfort and flexibility, whilst 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.

So, 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 but, as said earlier, spanning two ‘seasonal hotel rates’…the end of ‘High’ 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. Naturally, all had published internet prices, which made life somewhat easier, when it came to negotiation and final selection.

Next, I had decided that, 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. Of course, there is still a substantial proportion of British tourists, who take the simplest of options. Enter a High Street travel agent’s shop, grab a brochures and pick from the pages of beautifully illustrated hotel features, all of which are sited in fabulous locations and praised highly for service and accommodation. Unfortunately, that proportion of tourists hardly ever enjoy the best available experiences.

Opting for the Package Deal route 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 ‘savour’.

Homework completed and having solicited quotations and recommendations from a number of Indian based companies, I chose one named, Red Dot Tours, noted for their Sri Lankan expertise but also now operating in India.

What a stroke of genius that turned out to be. From my first enquiry contact, through to the hours prior to boarding a flight back to UK, that company’s organisation and attention to detail on my behalf, could not be faulted. Its communication was clear, its staff were professional and its care, quite unprecedented in my experience.That its Indian manager, Rajiv, kept in constant communication was an added feeling of security and much appreciated.

Well done Red Dot, you certainly deserve this accolade and an extra ‘pat on the back’ for using your influence upon hotel managers to be competitive.

Getting There

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

The differences are quite marked. Anyone who has experienced ten or more hours crammed into 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 maximise profit.

The alternative is to choose one of the many scheduled airlines that operate between the UK and 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.

The fare differences are not as often surmised. Many carriers offer competitive fares at all times of the year and UK based ticketing agents are adept at negotiating substantial discounts. For this tour of mine, 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

Of course hotel standards feature as a priority consideration for any tourist and I am well aware of that. Thus, whenever any of my readers peruse the descriptions and ratings I give for hotels or resorts, they can be certain of reading the true facts, good, bad or indifferent.

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.

I’m not going to describe the many interesting facets of this old city area, known the world over for its Chinese Fishing Nets and for being at the centre of the Oriental spice trade, this is for you to experience.

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

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.

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. 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 more than reasonable price, then, it, along with others similar, are more than acceptable.
My rating…5/10

The Windermere Estate Hotel, Munnar.
The drive in the a/c car (remember Red Dot Tours?) from Cochin at sea level, to Munnar at an altitude of almost 5000 feet, was really spectacular. I soon realised that John, my driver, was as flexible as Rolf Harris’s piece of plywood. With no time restraints or deadlines, I could, and did, maximise every experience. Stopping to admire and photograph the scenery (or to use a loo?) was never a problem. Over the coming weeks, I would learn much more about this guy and use his uncanny abilities to introduce me to people and places not normally available to the Package Tour member.

Anyway, what about 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!
Accommodation is in semi-detached bungalows. Each is beautifully furnished and very comfortable. Balconies allow uninterrupted and spectacular views. No swimming pool, but so what? Bougainvillea and other exotic plants are in abundance. Small paths meander here and there through the estate, which, when taken, afford the walker to surprise view after surprise view.

The hotel’s restaurant can only be described as ‘brilliant’. No à la carte dinner menu. Instead, dishes of Keralan delicacies served by attentive waiters. The chef (who I did chat with) was indeed highly qualified and was 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 were more than satisfied with their culinary experiences.

Ever member of staff treat the guests as ‘honoured’. This manifested itself over and over, irrespective of how difficult or complicated a guest’s wishes were. If it could be done…it was!

My overall impression of this hotel was one of complete satisfaction. Hard to find such these days but so welcome when come across.
My rating…9/10

Shalimar Spice Garden Resort, Periyar
Three nights passed and John began the slow, winding descent down mountains and through valleys, which, as soon as the early morning mist lifted, a verdant green of lush flora and meticulously clipped tea plantations glistened and shimmered. The hours just went-by uncounted until we reached the lower altitude of 2500 feet, where the town of Thekkady is perched on the side of its own mountain. A short drive away, is the area known as Periyar. With the descent had come an increase in temperature to 26 C.

John eventually braked to a stop at the arched entrance to the Shalimar Spice Garden Resort. This place really was a surprise. A salute from the uniformed ‘gateman’ coincided with the seemingly miraculous appearance of a porter. Together with John, they hoisted my cases and led me under the arch and onto a bamboo bridge that spanned the fifty metre wide valley and onwards to the hotel entrance.

I was met by Betty Solomon, the resort manager, offered a cooling and welcome ice-cold fruit drink and a scent-infused flannel.

We talked a little and agreed to meet again after I’d been escorted to my accommodation and had ‘freshened-up’, when she would then escort me around the public areas and facilities.

Once that had taken place and photographs taken, I changed into swimming trunks and let the cool water of the pool turn my thoughts to what I’d been shown.

The whole estate was surrounded by trees of many genus. Spices and fruits grew in their natural habitats, the accommodation (bungalows) just seemed part of the mix. Wherever one walked, the feeling was of ‘being in the middle of a private jungle’.

My bungalow’s large balcony, was furnished with cane chairs plus a large, full length, sofa bed. Lying prone, neck supported, G&T within arms reach, I could ‘cat-nap’ to my heart’s content and let the sounds of mynahs, woodpeckers and other birds, mix harmoniously with the calls of cicadas.

All the expected accommodation amenities were evident and working perfectly. It would be difficult to fault any of them.

Whilst here, I sampled the Resort’s Ayurvedic Centre. This one is about as good as it gets. Spotlessly clean and staffed (in my case) by a very experienced practitioner of the art indeed. He found tiny knots of tense muscle that I had long since forgotten about. The hot oils worked into most parts of my body, doing their work in concert with appropriate and soothing Indian chants.

Guests were few in number (season overlap…remember), so the pace was even slower than usual, allowing the staff to devote more time and attention to those who were present.

The restaurant did not quite match the standard displayed by all other features of the hotel. Although the menu was extensive enough, the actual dishes lacked the taste expected. Of course, I cannot say whether, because of the entry into the ‘Low’ season, chefs had been changed.

However, all the food was acceptable and properly cooked. It did not spoil my overall pleasure of staying at the resort.
My rating…7/10

Punnamada Serena Spa Resort, Alleppey
As we left Periyar’s altitude, making for sea level, the scenery changed markedly. Tea shrubs gave way to pineapple plantations, rubber trees, bananas and coconut palms and up went the air temperature to 33 C. Road traffic increased and our progress slowed but that allowed me to witness yet more different aspects to the Indian way of life. Water was evident at all points of the compass because we were entering the magical region of Kerala known as The Backwaters.

Along an ever narrowing series of minor roads, we emerged from the trees to be confronted with Vembanad Lake, a 2033 kilometre square 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 here and there but far enough away from each other to seem exclusive.

The one I had chosen did not disappoint.

Twenty-six villas had be sited at the resort with care and all shared a common aim – seclusion and tranquility. Mine faced the lake, which allowed me to savour the magical light that infuses the resort at sunrise and sunset. Furnishings and facilities were top of the range – some air-conditioning units even solar powered (a great idea – congratulations!)

All had balconies, the perfect place 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 seater motor boat at the end of day one, certainly set the pace of my internal clock a number of notches slower. Whichever way the steerer took us, 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 resort has a cracking swimming pool, much in demand in such high temperatures, so much so, that 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.

Guests normally dined either in the air-fanned restaurant or at tables sited outside on its 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…and at no extra charge…nice eh?

During my three night stay, pre-dinner entertainment featured on an outside stage. Local girl dancers displayed their exquisite talents to the guests. Some appetiser!

I 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 Punnamada Serena Spa 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. The basis is always Full Board, with a start time around noon on day one, ending at around ten a.m. on the final day.

There is also a wide variation of boats on offer, from one single bedroom, one double bedroom, two and even three bedroom. Of course the size and facilities will depend upon which boat is required for the number of guests travelling.

However, I need to issue a word of warning at this juncture. It is that 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, as regards to their 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 (no pun intended – honest!), is prompt you to study the internet postings on sites such as Trip Adviser, and, I hope, have ears and eyes for what I describe, having had first hand experience.

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

The one bedroom boat (a/c operational between 8.30 p.m. And 8.00 a.m.) was a bonus, 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 fantastic opportunities to take many digital pictures, both movie and still. Life really is fascinating to observe and the local population strung along the these watery byways, would always return a wave with one of their own but emphasised with beaming smiles.

The three-man crew were a delight to be with. Captain Ahab (I Christened him that) even allowed me to take the helm under his watchful eye – and the complete non-understanding by me of his native language, Malayalam, was unimportant…mere head wobbles and sparkling, toothy grins when I got things right, were sufficient.

His number two (mid twenties) did the cooking – all local dishes – all mouthwatering. 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 finally tied-up at the Company’s headquarters a little before 10 a.m. I did feel a tinge of regret. In the twenty hours I’d known these guys, 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 its English speaking driver, this one named Sebastian, were awaiting my appearance. Luggage was loaded and moments later we left the boatyard and turned south onto Kerala’s main highway NH47 for the hundred plus kilometres journey from where I’d disembarked the houseboat to the small, coastal town of Varkala and the nearby beach named Papanasam.

This was no meandering sojourn. This was 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.’ What a maxim! 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’… cannons to the left, cannons to the right etc.

Because Kerala’s beaches have become popular with British Tourists, in particular, those at Kovalam and Marari, my decision to spend a week at one, can be understood. Having experienced both those named and noted the changes, I thought it best to select one of the lesser known resorts that were being advertised. I narrowed my choice down to one.

Hindustan Beach Retreat, Varkala
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.

Hot water was hot, showers powerful and the mini bar worked. Room service was the fastest I had ever experienced and the bed one of the most welcoming.

The staff here were a happy bunch, no doubt due to the ‘laid back’ nature of the hotel’s General Manager, Rajkumar Varma. Nothing was too much trouble either for him or his workforce.

Meals could be taken either on the ground floor near to the swimming pool or on the fourth floor terrace, where dining was enjoyed as one looked out across the Arabian Sea, where dozens of bobbing lights dotted the horizon, those of the local fishermen’s small canoe type boats.

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

So, after reading all these good things about the hotel, was there any downside?

Unfortunately, there was and it is a real biggie. After only a few minutes walkabout 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 one looked. The beach was strewn with it, piles, looking a bit like unlit UK bonfire stacks on 5th November were not uncommon. 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 colour, foul smelling and carrying with it the detritus tossed into it by the local population. This event was a 24/7 one, year on 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 Mr. 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. What a shame. The hotel staff try their best but all to no avail, it seems.

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


Beach and location…1/10

John (remember him?) was sitting patiently outside the hotel at 8.30 a.m. on the last morning of my stay. He’d left home in the middle of the night so as to be ready for my departure from Varkala. Ahead of us, was to be a five and a half hour drive north to Cochin Airport, where I had reserved a hotel room for my last night in Kerala. Knowing the distances involved and the inevitable slow progress of traffic, I’d deemed it wise not to bear such a journey immediately prior to boarding an aircraft for the return flight to the UK. It was a sensible choice.

The Abad Airport Hotel is perfectly placed some five minute drive from the departure terminal. I arrived in the early afternoon, which gave 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, one of just basic facilities. Instead, it was fresh and welcoming. Had a large swimming pool, a super restaurant, top class furnished rooms and a willing 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 distract from the overall ambience and comfort of the place. It certainly was, ‘Fit for Purpose’.

A ‘wake-up call’ the next morning, a cup of strong coffee, a slick check-out and the few minute drive to the departure terminal and I was ready for home.

Had this latest tour of Kerala lived up to expectations? With a few exceptions, the answer is, yes. Some things had changed for the worst (as is often the case when venues become over popular) but Kerala is a beautiful place to visit. Citizens call it ‘God’s Own Country’ and in many respects it is justified.

Compiled March 2011.

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