Almost two weeks ago, when I landed at Trivandrum Airport, I had no fixed itinerary in mind, except that I wanted to travel up the coast of Kerala. I headed to Kovalam first, just south of Trivandrum. I checked into a cosy homestay, tucked a little away from the popular Light House Beach, yet had the most gorgeous view of the ocean. I spent almost half a day just mooning over this view. Of course, my ecstasy was jinxed later that night when I spotted two lizards waltzing on my wall. Long story short, the lizard situation was tackled by the home owners and I ensured to never leave cracks open for lizards to creep in. This was my day one in Kerala and I could imagine Murphy wryly chuckling in his grave. The days ahead will have many incidents, not all of which I’m going to log here today.
Of course there’s a huge bright side to my new location independent lifestyle. My days, for instance, are packed with long walks and slow days, which is sheer contrast to my life back in the metropolis. Coastal Kerala, with its slow pace, pristine waters, beautiful palm studded landscape and the sumptuous cuisine has given me enough time to “be”. I spend long hours working or reading at quaint little cafes, trying out every possible variant of coffee and regional food. I leave for Rajasthan tonight, and I already know I am going to get myself more of Kerala’s tropics again.
Let me take you through what I have been up to in Kerala:
I loitered A LOT in Kovalam. There are places to see, and then there are places to be. Kovalam to me is latter. As my plane entered the skyline of Trivandrum, I peeped out of my window and smiled to myself as I looked down upon the landscape of this little town – coconut trees scattered all over the coast, tiny winding lanes, small villas and abundant ocean. Some people like to compare Kovalam’s chilled out vibe to Goa, save for the fact that there is almost no party or nightlife scene in Kovalam. The shacks and restaurants here close by 10 PM tops. Beer is served here at all restaurants – but obscurely – in ceramic mugs. Mary J does not linger in the air, neither does trace. This is a town where you spend your days slow, relaxed and acid free and then turn in early at night. Or go surfing when you need the adrenaline rush. If you are like me, you will love the easygoing days here that end with reflections, yoga and beach walks as opposed to drinking late into the night.
I stayed at a smallish cosy home in Vizhinjam, just minutes of walk from the beach, but overlooking the coast and lighthouse. There is no dearth of homestays here for any budget. Leela’s resort is just a short walk away and sunsets are beautiful seen from their restaurant. The other beaches are not far from here, but I found Light House Beach the most vibrant of all. Having said that, I wish there were more options for “authentic” Kerala food in the area. Although most restaurants serve Malabari cuisine here, it is far from authentic. For instance, I had the worst Karimeen Polichattu (Karimeen Fish Spiced and cooked in banana leaf) at Malabar Cafe. Crab Club had the most unappetizing seafood rice. Coconut Grove served decent stir friend prawns and Spice Garden’s Kerala Fish curry was good enough too. I have heard good reviews about Lonely Planet Vegetarian Restaurant too, but on the day I went there, it was closed.
Then I loitered some more in Varkala. If you’re not quite done with the easy breezy beach vibe of Kovalam, head to Varkala – just a few kilometers and a short train ride north of Kovalam. This was not my first time in Varkala, and I knew the place like the back of my hand. I had no hopes of getting bonafide Kerala food here either but Sky Lounge restaurant surprised me with their sumptuous Fish Moilee; and the portion was perfect for one, so it saved me the guilt of wasting food when traveling solo.
Varkala as a town has more or less the same air as Kovalam, but this town is set atop a cliff that overlooks the ocean, so the water appears all gleaming turquoise. The cafes and shacks are lined along the cliff and offer great view of the ocean. You can spend your whole day reading, working, sipping beers (again from the ceramic mugs) or just watching the blue waters from the edge of cliff. Evenings are particularly spectacular from the cliff. There are many yoga and classes and ayurvedic treatments you can opt for. Last year in Varkala, I met a group of people who were raving about a “sound therapy” session they had attended and how it made them feel connected to their body. I thought it was an interesting concept, but I believe in practicing yoga and meditation as a lifestyle than buying into fads and sessions that provide a certain experience. But that’s just me. I do know people who have actually benefited from these therapies.
I thoroughly explored Alleppey and it’s backwaters. Of all the backwaters of Kerala, Alleppey stands the most popular. But to be honest, I was seriously turned off by the backwaters in Alleppey. Make no mistake, I loved the sleepy and laid-back flavor of Alleppey as a town – the planned architecture, the spic and quiet lanes, the dearth of restaurants (since most people prefer cooking and eating at home), the cute little churches hidden in alleys, and walking around the town. But I was greatly disappointed by the sorry condition of backwater canals (read clogged and stinky) in the region. I was so saddened waiting for my boat at the ferry station that I developed huge misgivings about the backwaters on the whole. But turned out, as the boat maneuvered away from the center of the town and INTO the villages, the sights got prettier, the waters got cleaner and the birds sang better songs. It was so beautiful that I booked myself a full day cruise of backwaters on a shikara for the next day. This was, without a doubt, one of the highlights of my days in Kerala.
Food-wise, Alleppey won me over. I had the best Kerala meals there. The popular Thaff restaurant near the boat jetty serves delicious seafood, but if you’re up for some Arabic flavors try Halais Restaurant, another favorite of the crowd. I loved the ambience at Avocado Restaurant, but the food? Not so much. For the price point, the food served was a tad disappointing. But this restaurant will spin up cocktails for you in a minute’s time, although it will be more on the lines of flavored alcoholic slush. If you want cheap, tasty and no frill food, try Indian Coffee House. Mushroom restaurant is another popular one – although both times I went there, they were serving only biryanis. For me, the food best of Alleppey food has to be a small helping of stir fried clams (Kakka Irachi Ularthiyathu) I ate at the beachside and the coconut toddy (palm wine) I has in the deep of backwaters.
I shopped and worked my ass off in Kochi. On a train to Alleppey, my backpack which contained few basics like flipflops, phone chargers, scarves, toiletries et al was stolen (remember Murphy?). It was a bit of hassle that I couldn’t replace these things in Alleppey since the market there is quite modest. So the first thing I did as I arrived in Kochi was go shopping. Did you know Kochi’s LuLu Mall is India’s largest shopping mall? I also went to an open market called “Broadway”, popular for touristy things such as spices, oils etc. I bought myself a gorgeous Arabic fragrance (you’ll see a good deal of Persian/Arabic influence in Kochi) from this outlet called Khalifa. Indicative of Jewish History in Cochin is the Jew Town and Paradesi Synagogue in Fort Kochi.
With my Malabari taste buds already satiated in Alleppey, I was not in the most gastronomic state of mind in Kochi. So I spent my days here in art cafes and galleries – which are the essence of Fort Kochi. From brunch till supper, I spent my time at Kashi art cafe‘s corner bench just doing my own thing. The waiting staff here is very courteous and the food is great too. They have some interesting juices – my favorite was tender coconut, pineapple and spinach. Oy’s cafe soon became my second favorite (again found myself a corner bench, lucky me). I quite enjoyed spending a quiet afternoon reading and sipping many iced teas at David Hall‘s backyard garden cafe. One evening, when I was too lazy to leave my hotel room for dinner, I ordered in from Zomato, which is operational in Kochi.
Before long, it was time to leave Kerala and there is no doubt that my time here was worth all that came with it – the heat, the humidity, sunburns, several mosquito bites, lizards and stolen bags. And I haven’t nearly had enough of the Malabar coast yet.