Brian W Fisher

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Tasting Kerala

India is big – very big. So big in fact that choosing a holiday destination in such a multi-faceted country is difficult, to say the least. It may be that prior ‘homework’ has narrowed a traveler’s choice on the grounds of climate, time of year, cultural interest, architecture, flora and fauna or even a yen to sample the days of the Raj.

Like so many before me, I read as much as I could about the sub-continent, realised that my diary dictated a February departure and so chose the tropical destination of Kerala to ease the ubiquitous winter blues.

Preparation is little different to that for any visit to the tropics as far as medical precautions, but travel to India has one irritating disadvantage – that of visa requirement. Just why the country’s government places such a high hurdle before prospective British tourists is a bewildering fact. However, having obtained mine through one of the specialist London agencies, albeit at a cost, I was ready to plan my trip.

Getting there! Two main ways were open to me. The first by opting for a ‘package’ featured in one of the many tour operator’s brochures offering Kerala as a single or multi-centre destination, or by going down the DIY route. So what did the choices mean in practical terms and what were the differences I should consider?

By far the majority of recognized tour operators use charter airlines, which arrive in Trivandrum after a fuel stop at one of the Arabian Gulf states. Seating on these aircraft is invariably configured to maximize income at the expense of passenger comfort (six-footers take very careful note!) The actual airfare is impossible to calculate and compare with those charged by scheduled airlines, as the ‘package’ invariably includes hotel accommodation and surface transfers. Naturally, the choice of hotels and duration are limited to those stated in their brochures; meaning flexibility is virtually non-existent.

The alternative was to first seek a scheduled airline whose timetable and fare structure was acceptable, then simply contact selected hotels to confirm prices and reservations. Both these tasks proved to be painless and extremely simple. Obtaining ground transport between resorts turned out to be surprisingly easy – and cheap! With the planning completed, e-mail confirmations to hand and an airline ticket in my possession, I relaxed and waited for departure day.

I did however, use the interval to make a detailed comparison of costs as well as standards of accommodation and ‘civilized’ versus ‘middle of the night’ flight times. Travelers have a good choice these days to obtain the best prices for ‘Flight Only’ journeys. The Internet is an easy source of information, provided one is prepared to trawl the numerous pages and make an infinite number of comparison calculations. Another way is to circumnavigate that irksome task and let someone else do it for you, like for example, a company named Flight Centre, who have opened walk-in shops in many towns and cities across the UK…just sit there and smile while their staff find you the best current offer. I’ll reveal the savings and differences I made by going down this route, later.

Emirates was the airline finally decided upon for three main reasons. First, its modern Airbus cabins are well configured and offer very acceptable legroom, second, the flight times were civilized and convenient and third, the arrival airport was to be the city of Cochin, the centre point of activity and geographic location for Kerala.

Having flown with most of the world’s major airlines, I was curious to compare Emirates with them, which was a further reason for my choice. It turned out to be a good one indeed and I have to admit that it ranked even higher than most. The service on the ground and in the air was impeccable, the aircraft ‘crisp’ and comfortable, not to mention the fact that all departures and arrivals were on time. That a couple of hours whiz by at Dubai’s superb duty-free airport is actually a bonus rather than an irksome wait en route.

Would I choose Emirates again for long-haul flights? Simple answer…yes! And would probably be my first choice.

I wanted to begin my experience of Kerala at a slow pace.

About an hour’s drive south of Cochin is the beautiful area of Marari, where a resort of the same name nestles loosely along a shoreline of powdery white sand and swaying coconut palms. It took only a few minutes after exiting the airport, for the local travel agent I’d engaged by previous e-mails to meet and greet me before climbing into an air-conditioned car. ‘My driver will be at your beck and call,’ Janish, the manager of Krishna Holidays told me, his smile beaming and no doubt genuine. I learned that the car was available at all times of my choosing and would transport me to and from my pre-booked accommodation throughout the trip. I’ll tell you the cost later.

Accommodation at the Marari Beach Resort is good – in fact better than good for a beachside resort. Cleverly designed bungalows with huge polished-wood verandas blend with the abundance of trees and well-kept gardens. The a/c works, the valuables safe is a welcome feature, a mini bar can be filled with items of guest’s choice (a nice change) and who can complain at the end of a fulfilling day, when one’s bedspread is adorned with frangipani and orchids?

People I meet consider food to rate high on their priority list. I never heard a single complaint in nearly a week! When indigenous live music was played in the background during dinner, appetites, for whatever reason, seemed to sharpen and attitudes mellow – well - OK, mine did!

Other features attracted popular use, a sparkling pool and comfortable hammocks under palms by the beach, a well-equipped Ayurvedic health centre, accompanied village walks, convenient taxis and resort staff whose sole purpose was to please guests while treating them to yet more beaming smiles. My time there was certainly too short.

Marks out of ten? A positive nine!

My driver (remember him?) arrived before the appointed time and I checked-out with mixed feelings. There had been little to find fault with here but what about my next planned adventure – twenty-four hours aboard a converted Rice Boat, plying along the backwaters of Kerala?

Off we went in his highly polished car - me in the passenger seat firing questions and getting all the right answers. He was turning out to be a mine of information indeed!

Weaving in and out of motorized rickshaws, whilst miraculously avoiding bullock carts and throngs of people, made me thankful that I wasn’t driving, as we arrived at Alleppey. Instead, I could soak-up the sights and sounds in comfort as we negotiated the narrow streets heaving with human activity. Without warning, a single left turn and the car stopped alongside another world – a water world.

Stretching into the distance, the bows of a hundred Rice Boats nodded in sleepy unison with the rise and fall of the water’s surface. Vijay grabs my case and with a wobble of his head as a signal for me to follow, sets off along the quayside like a homing pigeon. Before I know it, I’m waving goodbye again with one hand and shaking three, much more gnarled ones, as the crew welcomes me aboard.

No amount of prior reading could have prepared me for what was to come. There are no clichés to describe the journey adequately, so the words I use here will just have to do.

Totally relaxing?…certainly. Peaceful?…absolutely. Interesting?…I’ll say it was. Educational?…one would have to be a total agnostic to disagree. A memorable experience?…without doubt. The world just seemed to float by and invade my senses.

Five-star luxury it wasn’t but who cared? Mouthwatering dishes were served-up by a dedicated cook, the captain steered a perfect course and his ‘number two’ doubled as waiter, anchorman, house-boy and entertainer, particularly after sunset, when I uncorked a bottle of Johnny Walker and the four of us celebrated the fact that understanding one another’s language between shipmates is irrelevant.

The mention of ‘sunset’ reminds me of those magical minutes before that massive orange orb slipped slowly over the horizon at the western end of Vembanad Lake. A seemingly endless stream of birds skimming low over the surface as they headed purposely for their night’s roost. Gaudy coloured parrots, black and white mynah birds, waders and multitudes of fowl, all silently following an inherited instinct – it was indeed a sight to behold.

The whisky had its usual effect upon me. I slept like a log.

By some second sight the crew must have heard me scrabbling about for my razor, for the moment I emerged from my bed and trotted expectantly to the forward lounging area, ‘number two’ began laying plates of delicious fresh fruit on the table and asking me how many eggs I would like?

Late morning and the vastness of the lake behind us. Ropes were spiraled ashore at a private wharf, where my suitcase was passed to waiting hands and I stepped ashore to be welcomed at Coconut Lagoon. So much had happened in the past twenty-four hours, that the experience had left me somewhat bemused on the one hand and delightfully satisfied on the other. Even months later, the image of the three barefoot crew in a line on the boat’s gunwales, three sets of white teeth set in dark chocolate faces and three of the most genuine smiles ever received, can be recalled at moments of depressed feelings to lighten my mood.

Marks out of ten? Need I say?

With two down and more to go, was this run of good choices going to continue?

Coconut Lagoon is another of the CGH Earth hotel chain, with which I had solicited information prior to departure. Whoever was responsible for the resort’s design, sympathetic ecological environment, architectural style and demeanor of staff, as regards to interaction with guests, deserves the highest accolade.

What I found here was unexpected, not like any ‘hotel’ previously experienced in over thirty years of travel to tropical destinations. Everything was geared to dovetailing the beauty of nature with the comfort and stimulation of the limited number of guests. Little ‘canals’ wove through the immaculately (but natural) kept grounds. From the mainland, supplies (and people) came and went on lovingly cared-for boats reminiscent of Thames launches right into the reception area of the resort. Just standing on one of the bridges ‘gongoozling’ was a pastime enjoyed by many. The more resourceful stepped into one of the available dug-out canoes and paddled off down one of the nearby tributaries and within minutes, were entertained by the activities of the locals on both bank-sides or amazed by the abundance of wildlife in and out of the water.

The Ayurvedic Centre proved to be a great hit with guests. A haven of peaceful relaxation immersed in oriental perfumes and tradition. I tried (then had more in the days ahead) what was described as ‘simple oil massage’ followed by a steam bath. What a combination! A couple of hours of bliss as my muscles began to relax, the music soothing my inhibitions and the two masseurs working in unison to well-honed perfection.

Evenings were just as rewarding. The dinner buffet seemed to stretch to infinity, loaded with eastern delicacies and defying gravity. Alcohol was available for even the most modest pocket but with fresh juices to tempt palates, I’d say that the consumption was self-limiting. The proof was, I suppose, that what began as an ice-cold gin and tonic at the start of a magnificent and enthralling Kathakali Dance programme held under the stars, went untouched until the very last moment…and had turned warm!

It was time to leave. Hugs and fond farewells are not the norm in my experience – but they were here moments before I stepped into a launch. That action brought me to eye-level with the knees of every one of the staff with whom I had come into contact A waving line of friendly faces stayed in view until the helmsman steered his craft out of the narrow canal and onto the lake. Coconut Lagoon soon blended into its surroundings as I gazed astern – a tinge of nostalgia already forming.

Marks out of ten? Most certainly ten!

My next destination was the area around Kovalam. I’d visited it some ten years earlier at the time it was ‘discovered’ by a few tour operators and wished to compare the differences. I wished I hadn’t! Gone were the sleepy, laid-back atmosphere and cozy guesthouses, the small local homes, few shops and shy, big-eyed children.

I made the most of the journey south by having Vijay stop at numerous villages and roadside establishments (the beauty of having one’s own exclusive driver). Enjoying snacks, chatting with locals, seeing at first-hand the farmer’s way of life, entering cool cavernous temples and Christian churches – and sitting under the shade of a banana tree nibbling chunks off a fresh pineapple. Compare that with a tourist coach if you can?

Dropping down the steep hillside into Kovalam and letting Vijay take a well-earned sleep on the back seat while I explored, I found a juxtaposition of litter-strewn, warren-like paths winding this way and that to hotels, guesthouses, tacky shops and touts competing for the tourist dollar. The beach wasn’t enticing and being pestered constantly to ‘hire’ a deck chair was irritating in the extreme.

Such ‘first impressions’ shouldn’t allow one to ignore everything else and so, to be fair, I determined to ‘look behind the façade’ for a glimpse of ‘yesteryear’. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it. The magic had disappeared – the ambience destroyed – the resort a mere shadow of its former self. There were plenty of European faces to be seen admittedly and some of the beachfront bars were being patronized but is that what Kerala should be renown for?

Using an alias, I ‘presumed’ upon a number of hotel management personnel and undertook guided tours of their establishments – some purporting to be four star – others less pretentious. All though, looked jaded, staff seemed bored, pool areas that had seen better days did not entice and food menus which had drifted east by a few thousand miles were in evidence.

Fortunately, I thought to myself, my homework should stand me in good stead.Why was that? Well, certain ‘articles’ in UK publications, had listed and described a number of hotels just a few miles north of Kovalam and I had been inclined to accede to their judgement and opt to stay at a small ‘boutique’ establishment, located at Pachaloor.

‘Lagoona Davina’. Sounds divine? The description I’d read back home certainly made much of that adjective. ‘Intriguing cottage-style rooms,’ it said, ‘decorated in local materials and style, dedicated butler service, à la carte home-cooked food, superb location, British owned and personally run, evening entertainment’…who would not have been eager to book?

When Vijay turned off the main road and bounced along the earth track, I had a sense of anticipation that I was soon to be deposited somewhere unspoiled, tranquil and select. I was in for the biggest shock of my professional life.

The car eventually stopped when the track ceased to exist. Tall trees provided the shade for the chickens and cattle that roamed freely. They also hid the animal’s droppings. Vijay went off on foot to explore the route to the hotel and solicit information. I awaited his return with some trepidation, having been left to endure the overpowering smell of human sewage and dog excrement, which pervaded the air.

My ‘butler’ appeared, accompanied by a much subdued looking Vijay, who, for reasons not yet known to me, quickly relinquished authority over my luggage and sped away with undue haste, only stopping long enough to confirm his return four days later. What had he witnessed?

My ‘intriguing cottage room’ turned out to be a box. Not just any old box but a box nevertheless. The ‘local style decoration’ inside the box was unidentifiable, unless the red-painted toilet cistern was trying to tell me something? A small basin balanced precariously on a rickety wooden frame – the main appliance delivering water (sometimes), unless the showerhead that deluged the primitive WC pan each time an attempt was made to employ it, could be described as an addition to hygiene. No mirror adorned the wall above the basin, so shaving memories of my army days had to be dragged screaming into life. – No, I didn’t cut myself!

Air conditioning? Never heard of such a thing at this ‘Divine Location’. But – there was a 12-inch wall-mounted fan at the side of the ‘hard-as-nails’ bed. Ah well I thought, that will do I suppose. With sweat running down my back, I struggled to change into shorts and T-shirt as I reached for the fan’s switch. A whir, an instant rush of air then…clang -screech – rattle – whang, as the three-bladed contraption flew off its spindle and shot across my vision like some Whirling Dervish, nearly decapitating me in the process.

My verdict on the ‘boutique’ room? The best description I can come up with, is that ‘Hot Box’ suffered by Alec Guinness in the film ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’. That says it all!

I did try my level best to blend in with the other parts of the establishment but found that unless one had (or was prepared to adopt) a certain London Square accent, then one was outside the normal clientele. Bewildered, I came to the conclusion, that those of that ilk, must have thought it ‘quaint’ to endure a primitive, ‘back to nature’ ‘see how the other half live’ existence for a week or so as some form of penance for past misdemeanors.

I did stick with it for the four scheduled nights. I shouldn’t have done but ‘having made my bed’ I slept on it.

Marks out of ten? One…for the location.

It was still dark when I climbed into the car alongside Vijay who was unusually pensive but with the ‘Divine Location’ now well behind us, I engaged him in light conversation.

His smile returned and the car’s headlights picked-out other early risers as we headed for Trivandrum railway station. Even at 5.30 am the concourse was a hive of activity and a turbaned ‘porter’ eagerly grabbed my luggage. Vijay drove away and I strolled casually behind my suitcase, which now spanned the ‘porter’s’ head.

I’d decided to make the journey north to Cochin by train, not having before traveled by that mode of transport in India. Before first light – and exactly on time – it pulled out of the station. For less than £3.50, I was embarking on a four-hour journey in a superbly air-conditioned carriage, in a comfortable reclining seat and not a scrap of litter in sight.

By the first stop, dawn had lit the sky and with it the first real surprise. The windows (having drawn the curtains) were clean and clear. Scenes reminiscent of Victorian England were appearing at each station, if one could mentally substitute skin colour and anticipate the taste of spice-filled patties instead of a stale cheese sandwich.

The luxuriant countryside changed hue as the morning wore on. Almost all of Kerala’s agricultural activity was unfolding like the bellows of an accordion, each squeeze and release revealing something different as the train sped on its way. All too soon, it slid smoothly into Cochin’s lively station and disgorged its passengers in a hubbub of excitement.

Surprise number two of that morning came as I, now alone in the carriage, pulled my luggage from behind my seat, only to see its handle grabbed by none other than Vijay. The fact that he had driven hard for some 80 miles just to be waiting for me was astonishing, but it seemed to him to be a perfectly normal thing to do. We chatted like two old friends as he took me to the old city sector of Cochin where I had decided to end my tour.

I had chosen well. This part of the city is crammed with interest. Old fort ramparts, the ancient Jewish area with its 16th century synagogue, spice warehouses almost identical to those surrounding Gloucester docks, huge, balance-operated Chinese fishing nets taller than a three-story building, not to mention the oldest Christian church in India, that of St. Francis.

Where did I stay? Back in the UK, I had wrestled with the choices, not on price but on gut feelings, after much ‘reading between the lines’ of hotel descriptions. I had narrowed the search down to two. Either the famous Brunton Boatyard Hotel (another CGH Earth Group establishment) or one more intimate, the Malabar House Residency (once a private house). I elected to stay at the latter and did not regret it.

As is my usual bent however, I arranged with the management to tour the former and was given every opportunity to make an appraisal. Brunton Boatyard is a prestigious property built on a prime waterfront location. Every possible luxury is evident in both the bedrooms and the public spaces. The staff is smartly presented, the restaurants ooze class and the hotel is invariably fully booked. I took my time – I sampled – asked questions – mixed with guests and was afforded hospitality. On leaving, I struggled to come up with a simile to best describe it. But had to, so this was it… ‘Like an enticing meat & potato pie in a butcher’s window, its crust golden brown with wisps of savory steam rising from the holes, only to find at the first bite, that the cook had left out the salt!’ Marks out of ten? If it’s cocooned luxury you want – this is it, so with the meat pie in mind…nine plus.

The Malabar House Residency was delightful - small enough to care, large enough to cater. The few rooms were beautifully equipped with fine furniture and antique carvings but that’s not to say that they lacked modern amenities. A courtyard was the hub of activity (relaxed I must add), which surrounded a small, deliciously cool swimming pool. Snacks were available during all daylight hours but at night the whole atmosphere changed as oil lamps were lit, tables were laid for dinner and a group of local musicians began the entertainment.

Stepping outside found guests looking across an expanse of open recreational ground the size of Wembley stadium. At any time of the day, teams of enthusiastic local youths vied for superiority at cricket amid supporters and those waiting patiently for their turn to participate. Tourists were invited to join in (yours truly trying a few off-spinners) but that left those Europeans not of English stock, totally bewildered and seeking solace at one of the nearby eating establishments.

Authenticity was everywhere. Buildings reflected a bygone era, shops were crammed with goods of every kind, 1950’s Enfield motorbikes with their distinctive sound and chrome-work gleaming were not an uncommon sight, their riders delighted to have you as a pillion passenger for a ‘quick flip’ around the old quarter but absolutely refusing to accept a penny for doing so. What a charming difference to experiences much closer to home.

Earlier, I promised to reveal the costs of my 20-day tour of this part of Kerala. Adding my airfare to the price of the hotel accommodation worked out some 30% less than the best 14 day ‘package’ I could find offered by the majority of tour operators in the UK. Therefore, adjusting that figure for the 6 days extra, the actual percentage saving was more like 50%. My surface transport costs (remember Vijay?) were charged merely on the number of days of actual travel, with a reduction for the shorter elements, so the average came to less than £18 per day. At five days of actual use, the total came to under £100. The grand total showed a percentage saving of 41%.

Will I return? With so much more of Kerala to see, like the inland mountains and Periyar National Park, not to mention reunions with some of the friendly faces I encountered – the simple answer is yes!

I titled this piece ‘Tasting Kerala’. My appetite was whetted and the main course is tantalizingly out of reach – for now!

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