The days in Kovalam pass quickly. The hotel is situated above a fabulous beach, which we enjoy despite the hawkers and being dumped unceremoniously in the big surf. The hotel is fill of interesting characters. At breakfast we think we have spotted a group of youngish Russian women. We base this on hearing their accents and our experience with early James Bond movies. One is the spitting image of Juliet Barnes from Nashville. But they’re actually from the Ukraine. There’s another large group from Israel who are in Kovalam studying Mindfulness. We catch the tuktuk to Lighthouse Beach, the most famous part of Kovalam and eat a restaurant called Lonely Planet. Although a cyclone off Sri Lanka flicks its tail at us, the weather is generally mild and sunny and we relax.
Then we are off to Allepy where part two; the more tranquil part of the trip begins. Soon after midday we board our houseboat that will be our home for the next 20 hours as we cruise the backwaters of Kerala. The houseboat is impressive, far more so than I imagined. It takes its shape from the traditional rice barge and appears to be held together with knotted cord. Inside it belies its tilt to history as it has three large double bedrooms with ensuites, (although we are the only guests), and the bedrooms are excellently appointed with crisp white linen, air con and a ceiling fan. I had visions of us sleeping on the deck under a swaying palm leaf with a plastic toilet seat suspended over the stern.
We have a staff of three; captain, engineer and chef, and within 30 minutes of leaving the dock the chef is serving up lunch; grilled lake fish with sensational veggies, sambar and a vermicelli pudding with coconut and fruit. It’s going to be a long 20 hours. We chug slowly along the river that is the backbone of the 900kms of canals and waterways that make up this area. It’s very reminiscent of the bayou, but without the bugs. After that wonderful lunch the effect of the water, and the palm trees slowly gliding past is extremely soporific. We look down onto the endless rice paddies that sit, three or four metres below the river level that is contained by a system of ancient levies. Local farmers live along the riverbank and the system contains hundreds of islands, some small enough for a single house, some so large that the rice fields disappear into the distance.
Around the cocktail hour we disembark into a canoe with some other tourists from other houseboats and explore the narrow waterways that our houseboat can’t reach. Locals are washing and fishing in the canal, preparing dinner and carrying out their daily lives.
As we near our overnight mooring point, the storm that’s been crackling around us all afternoon explodes with tropical ferocity and the crew lower the shutters on the boat. In the near darkness of the storm, we share a bottle of local wine and enjoy another sensational dinner from the small galley at the stern. Oh, I lied about that last bit. Not the exceptional meal, but the alcohol. Kerala is no better than Tamil Nadu! Since 2014 the state of Kerala has been going dry, aiming at full prohibition within 10 years. To date they’ve closed over 700 bars. The very best the crew could offer was a $40 bottle of bootleg Indian wine. $40? Indian wine? My liver will be so clean it won’t know itself by the time it gets home!
After dinner we learn that our chef, Ajesh, spent four years in Qatar cooking for the Qatar Royal family after the Sheikha met him on a houseboat in Kerala. His breakfast is equally wonderful and mid-morning we are dropped on the opposite side of Vembanad Lake from where we embarked. This has been a great experience. We’ve always said the the Rocky Mountaineer was the slickest tourist experience we’ve ever had. The houseboat on the Kerala backwaters comes a very close second, although you really need two or three nights to do it justice.
We stay for one night at the Zuri Resort, a large, upscale resort with a man-made 5 acre lagoon which connects to the lake. Zuri is a very nice resort, but it could be anywhere in Asia, Florida or FNQ for that matter. It’s a day of doing nothing so we spend it by the pool, but from the time we arrive by the pool, until the time we leave, we are the only guests taking advantage of the sunshine.
When we leave next morning, I am again dismayed by the sign that indicates the Kerala Government has declared yet another effing “dry day”. I remark to madam that while this might be good for the government, (my liver), and their alcohol related issues, it does nothing for the profitability of the hotel operator for whom alcohol sales must be an important part of their mix. We drive east for nearly four hours, and as we climb higher, tea plantations emerge and eventually dominate the landscape. After visiting a spice planation, we arrive at our accommodation nestled in the cardamon hills. I’m surprised, that as we’re seated for dinner, the waiter offers an extensive drinks menu given the fuss at the Zuri Resort, but I’m equally delighted when the bill arrives and I find I’ve been charged for two “banana smoothies”.
In the mist and cold grey light of dawn next day, we take a small cruise on the Parambikulam dam in the wildlife sanctuary of the same name. This is foremost a tiger sanctuary and we putter along in the crisp morning, both wishing we’d brought an extra layer. The reserve is beautiful, the water level is low, so on either side of the lake there is extensive grasslands for the tigers, elephants, wildebeest etc to graze. We see a couple of wild boar, a handful of birds and a log that looks like a dog. We don’t see any tigers, elephants or wildebeest. Across from us, a French tourist re-reads his itinerary. On the front of it is a large picture of a tiger. Clearly he was expecting more than just a kingfisher and a pig.
Before dinner we go into town for an introduction to the Kathakali, a story acted out in dance, mime and music. We arrive early and watch the character on the left being dressed. It took over 30 minutes. When performed properly, Kathakali is a little like Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It commences at 6pm and continues until 6am. Our introduction fortunately only lasted an hour. We’ve enjoyed our two nights in Kumily. The hotel is nestled in a cardamon plantation and was very comfortable. There was a family from Saudi with at least six kids and the children were having high jinx in the pool while the women sat nearby in their hijabs. There was also a huge Indian family who were all speaking perfect English. When we came home for dinner the father was loading them all into a small bus. They were going out for pizza. He said Hi and I commented he seemed to have enough family for a cricket team. “With one to spare”, he remarked sagely.
And now we have arrived in Munnar, high in the Western Ghats. All around us are tea and yet more cardamon plantations. In an hour we’re meeting for a plantation walk and later we’ll dine in the resort’s restaurant. Vino, our driver, told us this morning that today was another “dry day” in Kerala. We’re a long way from anywhere so I’m rather hoping this restaurant will also be serving “banana smoothies”.