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Kerala

Snapshot

The Indian state of Kerala is one of the country's most treasured tourist regions and is renowned for its sleepy backwaters - a magnificent network of lagoons and rivers. Kochi (Cochin) is the main centre and its historic Fort area enjoys a picturesque setting by the Arabian Sea. The busy coastal towns in the south west offer traditional sun and sand holidays, whereas further north on the Malabar coast the coastal landscapes are less touched by development. Inland, lies Munnar's tea country - a spectacular mountainous area with a host of outdoor pursuits. Wayanad, on the edge of the Western Ghats, offers wildlife and wilderness.

Don't Miss

  • A languid trip down Kerala's backwaters
  • The historic centre of Fort Kochi
  • Popular beaches in the south west and unchanging lagoons further north
  • A wildlife safari at Wayanad or Periyar
  • Trekking, boating and fishing amid Munnar's refreshing mountain scenery
  • Traditional festivals and sumptuous cuisine

Getting There

Kerala, a coastal state in India's south west, is perfectly placed for a combination holiday with Sri Lanka or the Maldives. There are no direct flights to Kerala from Europe but Kochi (Cochin), now one of the busiest airports in India, connects to the major Indian hubs as well as Sri Lanka, the Middle East and Far East. Trivandrum (which now goes under the virtually unmanageable name of Thiruvananthapurum) also offers good India links.

Historical Background

Kerala came to prominence as ships from the East came in search of spices, gems, gold and silk. Trade links were first fought over by the Cheras and the neighbouring Cholas, who were repelled by the end of the 11C. The Europeans, led by the Portuguese general Vasco da Gama, arrived in India in 1498, followed by the Dutch and the British. All brought new ideas, lifestyles, religions and cuisine which remain a part of Kerala's heritage. The majority of the population is Hindu but up to a quarter of Kerala's inhabitants are Christian and there is also a sizeable Muslim population.

Food and Drink

Kerala boasts the richest and most varied forms of cuisine in India. In the north, Moplah cuisine has Arabic influences - a favourite is the aromatic Malabari Biriyani - whilst Syrian Christian recipes also predominate. Vegetarian Ayurveda cuisine is also on offer. With an abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables, an array of juices and leafy cunji is available at any time of day. Seafood is also common – from the mackerel and sardines which are part of many people's daily diet to the tuna and seer fish sought out in top hotels. Desserts are typically sweet, none more so than halwa – a sticky sweet made from rice flour, coconut milk and sugar with nuts and dried fruit – and often garishly coloured. Alcohol is widely available in hotels.

Shopping

Fort Kochi has narrow cobbled streets and small shops offering antiques, objects d’art, tapestries, silk shawls and jewellery. Cheaper souvenirs can be found along Vasco da Gama square. Most genuine heirlooms are long gone, but for Keralan products check Chalai Bazaar in Trivandrum and main shopping areas in Kollam and Alappuzha (Alleppey). Coconut oil lamps – nilavilakku – are a regional speciality. Rosewood, sandalwood (although rare these days) and soap stone carvings are also found. The classic Keralan sari is made not from silk but unbleached cotton. Rag rugs – made from recycled clothing – are excellent value. Murals are a traditional Keralan art form – and Vishnu and Krishna the most popular subjects. Bartering recommended in tourist areas.

Climate

Kerala has a similar sub-tropical climate to the west coast of Sri Lanka. The best time to visit is between late November and mid-March when you can expect lots of blue skies and modest humidity, but this is not the only option. From mid-March onwards, humidity levels rise, but the weather is still predominantly dry. From May, the early part of the month generally mixes intense heat with heavy showers then, normally, in late May the monsoon begins for real. Expect June and July to be wet. The shoulder season, in August and September, offers improving weather (although there is still some rain) and lower prices than peak season. Then the north-east monsoon – less disruptive than its predecessor – again brings rain in October and much of November. Munnar, in the hill country is cooler: 20-35C at the hottest times of year, 10C-20C in peak holiday season, with its spectacular waterfalls losing intensity from January to May.

Sights

There is so much to enjoy in Kerala, all outlined in detail in our Experiences section. A boat journey on Kerala’s tranquil backwaters is one of India’s most rewarding experiences. Kerala’s houseboats have now become a popular accommodation option. Fort Kochi has some of best-preserved examples of early colonial buildings. Thrissur claims to be Kerala's cultural capital and is the best centre for Kathakali dance. Kannur is the place to see the ancient spirit-possession ritual of Theyyattam. Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram), Kerala’s laid-back capital, is set on seven low hills in the deep south and is close to Kovalam’s golden beaches. Varkala, boasting white-sanded beaches backed by dramatic red cliffs, has grown in popularity in recent years Munnar, a one-time colonial hill station, has sprawling tea plantations, gushing waterfalls, and untouched wilderness with exotic flora and fauna, making it a great destination for trekking, mountain climbing, bird watching, boating, trout fishing, and cycling. There are wildlife opportunities, too. Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary attracts 300,000 visitors a year. Other national parks include Wayanad in the far north of the State, Eravikulam National Park, near Munnar, Parambikulam and Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary; there are bird sanctuaries at Kumarakom and Thattekad.

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