Insider's Guide to Kerla

Insider's Guide to Kerla
January 2020

In India’s southern state of Kerala, life moves at a languid pace. Candy coloured churches dot every village, lush tropical vegetation arches over winding country roads lined with coconut palms and banana plants. A patchwork of rice paddies is quietly tended by local farmers, while buffalo wallow in the shallows. Blessed with abundant natural wonders, Kerala’s diverse landscapes range from the mountainous Western Ghats to glorious golden beaches, endless canals and waterways and wildlife rich grasslands and forest. It’s a timeless destination that never fails to charm.

KOCHI

Formerly known as Cochin by the British, and still by locals today, Kochi has a long and colourful history. An important port town since 1341, the city has attracted traders, explorers and travellers for more than 600 years and the influences of Arab, Chinese and European settlements can be witnessed today in its architecture, art, music and multi-cultural cuisine. The Old Fort is the most alluring place to stay with its shady tree-lined streets, Dutch architecture and the sculptural Chinese fishing nets.

DO

Dawn Cycling

Rise early when the streets are quiet and pedal your way around Fort Kochi before the traffic builds. First stop is the old Dutch laundry, the Dhobi khana, where the washing is still pounded by hand on stone slabs before being hung out to dry and pressed with old coconut charcoal irons. Continue down streets shaded by spreading rain trees to St Francis Church, former burial place of Vasco da Gama, the Parade Ground and the Dutch cemetery. 

Kathakali

Kathakali is one of the oldest dance forms in the area. Take time out to see the elaborate make-up process before the show, then watch this unforgettable art form which combines classical dance, theatre, opera and pantomime to tell stories from the Hindu epics.

Ramble through the Old Fort

The Old Fort is perfectly explored on foot. Soak up the dreamy tropical vibe and the faded colonial elegance as you stroll the narrow streets where bougainvillea tumbles over crumbling walls, past pastel coloured houses to the cantilevered fishing nets which are a legacy of the Chinese and are built from teak and bamboo. Pause to watch as the nets are raised and the catch unloaded. They are at their most photogenic at dusk!

Kochi Contemporary

Art lovers should plan a trip well ahead to ensure it coincides with the Kochi Biennale which is next hitting town 2020-21. It is India’s largest contemporary art event, the last exhibition representing 90 artists, local and foreign, in a variety of venues across the city, from heritage buildings and galleries to open air spaces and cafés. 

SHOP

Cult Modern

Expect chic and timeless in this luxury lifestyle boutique where old school design is reimagined. Alongside beautiful objets d’art and tropical modernist furniture are shirts and pants in muslins and linen, fine voiles and basket-weave cottons, hand-stitched bags from Nappa Dori, wraps from Kashmir Loom and other desirables.

Cinnamon

This boutique treasure trove stocks clothing and accessories from a range of Indian designers. Seek out block-printed cotton dresses, breezy muslins, elegant silk stoles as well as traditional textiles, homewares and one-off handcrafted pieces of jewellery before sitting down for a chai in the delightful café next door.

Pepper House

This glorious renovated waterfront property, formerly a warehouse for the storage of pepper, comprises two old Dutch buildings with a grassy central courtyard. It houses a gallery space where regular exhibitions and performances take place, a lively café and library plus a design-led store selling jewellery, clothes, books and crafts from across the country.

STAY

Brunton Boatyard

For harbour views and a plum location, this boutique hotel is a perfect recreation of the classic Dutch and Portuguese architecture Fort Kochi is renowned for. Its lime-washed walls and terracotta floors with bedrooms featuring antique four poster beds give it 19th century charm fused with modern comforts.  Cool off in the harbourside swimming pool and dine alfresco at the Terrace on some of Kochi’s tastiest seafood.

Forte Kochi

Situated in the heart of Fort Kochi, this new heritage hotel has a coveted location in the middle of Princess Street. Painted an eye-catching shade of yellow with arched doorways and stained-glass windows, it was once the home of a wealthy Jewish merchant and has been meticulously restored to offer just 27 airy rooms styled with four poster beds, period furniture and beautiful tiled floors which evoke the era of the Portuguese. After a day exploring the endless fascinations of Kochi, the inner courtyard and pool beckon.

DINE

The Malabar Junction

For innovative Keralan cuisine with a Mediterranean influence, Malabar Junction is the go-to Kochi eatery. Housed in boutique hotel Malabar House, beside the old parade ground, guests dine outdoors at candlelit tables by the pool on such delicacies as tasty fish pollichathu wrapped in banana leaf, Malabar pork vindaloo, Indian Ocean sea bass followed by chocolate samosas or banana stuffed pancake flambé. Then pop upstairs to Divine wine lounge for a night cap.

Qissa Café

For the best coffee and chai in town, head to Qissa on KB Jacob Road. Frequented by Kochi’s cool crowd, take your place at the bar under the acid yellow pendant lights or at one of the assorted tables dotted throughout the cheery, but compact, space. Put in your order for coffee and homemade cakes, omelettes, fresh juices and pasta dishes. Smashed avocado has even made it to Kerala.

BACKWATERS

Kerala is justifiably famous for its backwaters, a network of canals and waterways which stretches for 1,500 kilometres, inland from the Arabian Sea following the line of the coast. The backwaters are the very lifeblood of Kerala, traditionally relied upon for transport, fishing, and agriculture. Today the palm-lined waterways, small villages and churches are a captivating backdrop for locals and visitors alike.

DO

Slow boats

The iconic kettuvallam is quintessential Kerala. These shallow-drafted barges made out of jackwood and coir with thatched rooves were once the principal mode for transporting rice and other goods throughout the region. Today these eye-catching vessels have been converted to house boats for travellers to motor leisurely up and down the canals. Vessels come fully crewed for overnight journeys with comfortable cabins, en suite bathrooms and a chef dishing up the tastes of Kerala.

DINE

Philipkutty’s Farm

This delightful farm in the heart of the backwaters is accessible by water only. A country boat delivers guests to a warm welcome by charming owners Anu and her mother-in-law Aniamma. Join them in a relaxed demonstration of traditional Kerala cooking using fresh produce from the farm and signature spices. Sit down afterwards to a delicious alfresco lunch tasting the farm fresh cuisine - kozhi ishtoo (chicken curry), thoren (coconut vegetables), curried prawns, fried fish and coconut soufflé. Don’t take our word for it though, Rick Stein rated Philipkutty’s food amongst the finest he’s had in southern India!

STAY

Kumarakom Lake Resort

On the scenic banks of Lake Vembanad nestled under swaying palm trees, this 50-room resort perfectly captures the allure of Kerala. Its teak villas reconstructed from ancestral homes are dotted throughout the grounds, some opening on to a meandering swimming pool and others to the verdant gardens. Craftsmen demonstrate pottery making and weaving in open air workshops and early morning yoga by the lake is a must. Ayurvedic treatments at the spa come highly recommended.

MUNNAR

With plantations as far as the eye can see, the rolling hills of Munnar are South India's largest tea growing region. First established in the 1880s, the tea estates today make up the commercial centre of some of the world’s highest producing estates. Dating back to the era of British hill stations, charming plantation bungalows beckon and the scenery of the Western Ghats dazzles. 

DO

Tea Immersion

Enter a world of tea, from plant to pour, in the Munnar plantations. Hear from an expert about the complete process from leaf plucking and processing to packaging and pouring. Visit the tea gardens, see the plantation workers and their villages and taste the various grades at the Lockhart Tea Factory.

STAY

Windermere Estate

Gaze over endless tea plantations set against the backdrop of the dramatic Western Ghats at this old-world plantation retreat deep in the hills of Munnar. Stay in traditional comfort in one of the 18 rooms and cottages enjoying misty mountain views and bracing walks through the estate. More boutique home stay than hotel, you’ll be welcomed like part of the family.