Open the pages of any glossy travel magazine, and, if it mentions India at all, it will likely be gushing over the state of Kerala. Few places on the subcontinent (or the planet for that matter) offer visitors the variety of adventures and sights as does this southern Indian state, with its emerald green tea plantations, groovy surf towns, temples, nature preserves and scenic backwaters. And because it has the highest literacy rate, and one of the best economies, in the country, the version one gets of India here is a kinder and gentler one.
Do the Planning Yourself: Because public transportation within Kerala can be unreliable and slow (busses primarily) many normally independent travelers turn to travel agencies to set up a car and driver, and in doing so, hand over the planning of the entire vacation to these entities. The problem with doing so is many India specialists add on hefty surcharges and make the assumption that Western travelers will only be pleased with the most luxurious (read: pricey) of accommodations.
To save money, and stay at arguably more interesting properties, do the research and booking yourself. Then, once the reservation is made, ask the staff at the hotel you’ve chosen to help you find a car and driver from your last destination to them. All will eagerly do so, and even in the cases when this will entail a 4-hour-plus car ride, the price will inevitably be lower than what you’d be quoted by an agency. Alas, foreigners aren’t allowed, by law, to rent a car themselves in India, so it’s either a driver or public transportation.
Mix It Up: Kerala is a state that lends itself to road trips, simply because it has so many different types of adventures in a (relatively) small area. So don’t be shy about adding a few nights up in the Ghats (hills) on a tea or spice plantation to your stay at a beach resort. And then throw in a visit to a famous temple, or a couple of days in the colonial beaut that is the city of Cochin. The more varied your experiences, the better the better the trip when it comes to Kerala.
Know Your Travel Style: Some of the “signature” experiences in Kerala aren’t for everyone, like the increasingly famous overnight cruises through the backwaters of the state.
A bit of background first: Kerala is one of the few places on earth where farming is done well-below sea level; a series of dikes hold the water in place, upon which the homes of the people of this area are perched. And between those dikes, repurposed and very elegant “rice boats” glide, allowing visitors to see the handsome scenery and life of the area in style. For those who love luxury and who just want to relax while a private crew waits on them (most of the overnight boats hold 2-4 people) this is all so much travel catnip. Others (like myself, quite frankly) will find the experience rather dull. Yes, the scenery is lovely, and it’s interesting to canoe into the smaller canals where you can see the life of the people up close, but after a few hours of floating through very similar vistas I was ready to get off the darn boat. Alas, the experience lasts 24 to 48 hours in most cases.
The same types of issues pop up in the tea-laden hills, where you’ll be urged to take a daylong tour to see all the sights. Many of these tours consist of hours of driving broken up by 15-minute stops at one scenic vista after another. We learned, by dayarea. So don’t be shy about adding a few nights up in the Ghats (hills) on a tea or spice plantation to your stay at a beach resort. And then throw in a visit to a famous temple, or a couple of days in the colonial beaut that is the city of Cochin. The more varied your experiences, the better the better the trip when it comes to Kerala.
(The tea plantations of Munnar, Kerala)
Before Going Natural, Make Sure the Nature is Still There: Sometimes tourism can save a nature site, other times it destroys it. Unfortunately, some of the nature preserves of Kerala have become places where you’re more likely to see busloads of tourists than an elusive tiger, or even an interesting bird. Do your research before you go to make sure you’ll actually get a “nature” experience in a nature preserve.
Bring loose clothing: Not only can Kerala be hot and humid, but the food is so spectacular—largely vegetarian and coconut oil drenched, consistently good wherever you go—you may find you need extra room in your waistband.
Just go: Despite the warnings above, Kerala remains a region of great beauty, spirituality and welcome. I doubt you’ll regret visiting. I certainly don’t.