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Kovalam is 1,216km (754 miles) S of Mumbai

A mere 16km (10 miles) south of Trivandrum, Kovalam has been a haunt for beach tourism since the 1930s, but its fame as a coastal idyll has wrought the inevitable. Discovered by hippies and then by charter tour groups, it is now home to a virtually unbroken string of holiday resorts, its once-virgin charm plundered by low-rise concrete hotels. Even so, Kovalam's three crescent-shaped sandy beaches, flanked by rocky promontories and coconut palm groves, remain quite impressive. You can watch fishermen ply the waters in so-called catamarans (derived from the local word kattu-maram, these are simply a few timbers lashed together) as they have for centuries, at night assisted by the red-and-white lighthouse that beams from Kovalam's southernmost beach.

Lighthouse Beach is, in fact, a guiding light to the charter types, and where you'll find the bulk of cheap (mostly unashamedly ugly) hotels, restaurants, and bars, with fishing-net-strewn Hawa Beach and less-crowded Samudra Beach lying to the north. After the rigors of India's crowded cities and comfort-free public transport, budget travelers are lured by the easy, comfortable (and high) life offered here, often staying until money (or good weather) runs out. You can rent umbrellas and watersports equipment along the beach, or hop aboard a fishing boat for a cruise out to sea. Stalls sell colorful fabrics, pseudo-ethnic hippie trinkets, and fresh fruit, fish, and coconut water; music wafts from shack-style cafes, and unofficial bars survive strict liquor laws by serving beer in ceramic mugs and teapots. (Party animals note: The vibe at Kovalam is far, far tamer than Goa's.)

Immediately south of Kovalam is Vizhinjam Beach, the site of the erstwhile capital of southern Kerala's first dynastic rulers and, between the 8th and 13th centuries, a major natural port for local kingdoms. Now a poor fishing hamlet of thatched huts overlooked by a pink mosque, Vizhinjam is an interesting contrast to the tourist hubbub of Kovalam; swimming here, however, is dangerous, no doubt the reason for its relatively untouched atmosphere. A number of shrines are found in Vizhinjam, including a rock-cut cave enclosing a shrine with a sculpture of Dakshinamurthy; the outer wall of the cave includes a half-complete relief depicting Lord Shiva and his consort, Parvati.

Farther south, the Ayurvedic resorts that can still lay claim to the beach idyll that put Kovalam on the map dot the coast. Visitors staying at any of these should seriously consider a day trip that takes in Padmanabhapuram Palace, on the way to Kanyakumari, India's southernmost tip, where you can enjoy one of the most interesting cultural experiences on the subcontinent.

Note: In Kovalam, visit the Tourist Facilitation Centre (tel. 0471/248-0085; Mon-Sat 10am-1pm and 1:30-5pm) near the entrance to the Leela resort (it's just beyond the security check post). Besides giving information, the center assists with tour bookings, car hires, boat rides, and lodging -- enthusiasm is not their strongpoint, however. Note: Consider any recommendations for government-owned accommodations very carefully -- they tend to be poorly managed and often run-down.