Located on the Malabar Coast, overlooking the Arabian Sea, the Indian state of Kerala is known for its world-class beaches, inland interlocking rivers and lakes, and green valleys and mountains. The region’s physical beauty has earned it the title: one of the “ten paradises of the earth.” Kerala even promotes itself as “God’s Own Country.” Susan Geringer, Indian Subcontinent travel specialist, shares her thoughts on visiting the region.
FarewellTravels: From the way it’s been described, Kerala sounds like some fantasy land, a bit of heaven on earth. Let’s start with the beaches. Are they really that spectacular?
Susan Geringer: Yes, they (specifically Varkala and Marari) are spectacular with their dense palm grove background. They're very pristine, clean and uncrowded and the water is calm. They are away from the crowds, with no vendors. And they have beautiful sunsets!
FarewellTravels: What if you’re not a beach person? What other areas of Kerala should you go to?
Susan Geringer: I recommend taking an overnight cruise on the backwaters of Kerala, which is a chain of lagoons. These trips are wonderful because they take you past villages that line the banks, giving you a chance to peek into the lives of local people. There are private boat companies and hotel-owned houseboats whereby you travel with a captain, cook and butler. Private boats have between one and three bedrooms. Most of the hotels have one or two houseboats that have a capacity of three to five couples. These are all privately hired depending upon the number of people. You do not go on the boats with people you do not know.
In addition to the backwaters, I recommend visiting some of the hill stations. These areas include tea, cardamom and coffee plantations which are cooler than the rest of India, offering a nice escape and opportunities to walk or hike. There are also plantation tours and, in Munnar, a tea museum which explains the evolution of the process of tea making with photographs, machines and other curios.
Visitors should also spend some time exploring the attractions in Kochi, which is the gateway to Kerala. There are palaces, temples, a synagogue and churches plus the famous Cochin Spice Market. For centuries, Kochi was the center of the spice trade. While in Kochi, Kathakali dance is a must. But you have to arrive one hour early to watch the performers apply their make up which becomes their mask. An amazing experience!
Kerala is famous for its ayurvedic treatments. This is a must and a wonderful way to relax at the state's resorts.
FarewellTravels: Are there any wildlife sanctuaries and game parks worth visiting?
Susan Geringer: Yes, absolutely. These include Periyar, Chinnar and Wayanod. At the latter, you can stay in a jungle treehouse. All three offer wildlife and birding opportunities and are good for seeing elephants. Other places that offer excellent birding experiences are Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary and Thattakad (Salim AliBird Sanctuary).
FarewellTravels: The different regions of India all have distinctive cultures. In the case of Kerala, how can a visitor appreciate it?
Susan Geringer: Life in Kerala is much slower than most of India. It was originally influenced by Davidian rulers so what you first notice is the simplicity. The state is predominately Hindu, but there are also many Christians and the literacy is the highest in the country. The performing arts are very big here including two unique dance forms. And you can also find one of the oldest forms of martial arts (Kalaritayathu) in Kerala.
FarewellTravels: Are there any unique festivals or celebrations we should know about before deciding when to come?
Susan Geringer: The most famous festival in Kerala is Thrissur Pooram in the spring, which is a two-century old temple festival with spectacular processions of decorated elephants and percussion performances. In August, the Nehru Trophy Sanke Boat Race is an unbelievable event of beautiful hand-made boats. In late August or September, is a 10-day festival honoring the homecoming of King Mahabali. Here you can watch local games, see the exotic Kaikottikali dance among other traditional performances.
FarewellTravels: Weather-wise, when is the best time to visit Kerala?
Susan Geringer: November through February is generally considered the best time to go. That said, I’ve heard many people say they loved being there in July/August and the beginning of September, which is traditionally the monsoon season. That time of year is beautiful. Everything’s very lush, flowers are blossoming.
FarewellTravels: How long would you recommend staying in Kerala and would you combine it with visiting elsewhere in India?
Susan Geringer: I’d plan on at least a week, allowing time to take in the sights of Kochi, visit a hill station, do an overnight backwater cruise and relax at the end of the trip at a resort. An itinerary can combine a visit to Kerala for about one week with other parts of India or you can visit Kerala more in depth by spending your entire vacation there.
Photo Credits: All Kerala photographs are by Susan Geringer. From top to bottom, local residents on the backwaters; a Kathakali dancer; women picking tea leaves.