The city of Kochi (formerly Cochin) is a wonderful cross-section of Kerala’s multi-cultural history. In the atmospheric Fort Kochi and Mattancherry neighbourhoods, people have left their mark on the city they once called home. There are the emblematic Chinese fishing nets – best seen as a silhouette against the setting sun – a 16th-Century synagogue, the Portuguese-built and Dutch-renovated Mattancherry Palace and a handful of relics of rule of the British Raj. You can watch a colourful Kathakali dance performance, dine on fresh-as-it-gets seafood seasoned by Kerala’s famed spices, and spot street art that enhances otherwise crumbling façades.
There’s nowhere on earth like the backwaters; miles upon miles of canals, rivers and lakes make up this famous wetland environment which is used by hundreds of houseboats and smaller, more rustic crafts. Vembanad Lake is lined with heritage resorts and family-run homestays – our recommended spot if it’s complete tranquillity you’re after. You can spend your days cruising the quiet canals that radiate away from the lake shore before returning to your waterside retreat for an evening of comfort and great food. Alternatively, spend a night or two on one of the converted thatched-topped, wooden-hulled kettuvallams, which once carried grain and rice, and make your way through the wider canals, and disembarking on to smaller crafts to explore the narrower waterways.
Travel west away from the coast and backwaters and it won’t be long before you start ascending into the foothills of the UNESCO-listed Western Ghats, a mountain range that outdates the Himalayas, the Alps, the Andes and the Rockies. The crisp air in the hill stations of Munnar, Madikeri and Thekkady provide a welcome break from the tropical heat of the coast and the rolling hills with their evergreen cover will leave you in an almost constant state of awe. Sip on locally grown tea, stay in thatched cottages in a spice garden, follow mountain trails on foot or head into Periyar National Park in the wildlife-rich Cardamom Hills.
With a coastline of over 300 miles, it’s no shock that Kerala has its fair share of coastal landscapes and beautiful beaches. The state’s most famous and lively resort is Kovalam, our go-to relaxation spot following an immersive Northern India adventure. The town and its bays and beaches are just a short hop from Trivandrum airport so you won’t have to wait long before you’re wandering along the golden sand or relaxing by the pool with a cocktail in your hand. The resorts along this stretch of coast tend to reflect the destination with Keralan-inspired architecture and Ayurvedic spas; they have a different vibe from India’s other famous beach retreat, Goa which is has more of a Portuguese influence. Closer to Cochin and the backwaters you’ll find Marari, a wide stretch of sand lined by a handful of hotels. These are set back a couple of hundred metres from the palm-lined shore, are wonderfully rustic in style and perfect if you want to spend a few days by the sea following a private or small group tour of Kerala.
Like the architecture of Cochin, the cuisine of Kerala has been shaped by the people who have passed through or settled in the state. Spices are an important component in almost every dish you’ll try, from the Arabic-influenced Thalassery dum biryani to fish moilee, a fish stew flavoured with coconut milk, turmeric and red chillies. Expect dishes enhanced by cardamom, cloves, pepper and nutmeg and plenty of fresh seafood landed in the morning and on your plate by lunchtime. Vegetarians are well catered for here – sadhya is a feast associated with the Hindu festival of Onam and consists of boiled rice and an extensive meze of veggie dishes served on a banana leaf.