Backpackers head for the budget hotels on the fringes of Kovalam's beaches, which, during peak season (Dec-Jan), are completely overrun by tourists and relentless hawkers. With the notable exception of The Leela, most lodging in Kovalam is less pleasant than cheap, and you're likely to be at the constant mercy of blaring music from the beach and its sprawl of cafes. Note that these cafes are fine for a snack, but each should be judged according to the number of customers. The rule of thumb is: If it's empty, the food has been standing around too long.
The resorts we've reviewed have been chosen because they are situated away from mainstream Kovalam and offer peace, tranquillity, and charm, as well as some of the world's most pristine stretches of coastline. The prize for top location still goes to Surya Samudra; if you haven't opted to stay here, it's definitely worthwhile taking a drive out to dine at Surya Samudra's open air restaurant (tel. 0471/226-7333). The semicircular terrace is perched high above the ocean and palm-fringed beach and cooled by the fresh sea breezes. Presuming the menu hasn't changed too dramatically by the time it reopens, you can assume that seafood will be the order of the day: Don't miss the superb grilled tiger prawns or the fish curry (succulent pieces of white fish in a spicy red sauce; order with chappatis). Vegetarians can opt for the vegetable theeyal (spicy gravy), this time with Kerala paratha (flatbread). And for the truly unadventurous, there is a selection of Western dishes.
Another very pleasant dining venue is The Leela's loungy beachside restaurant, Tides (tel. 0471/248-0101; noon-3pm and 7-10:30 or 11pm), which does a feisty selection of Malaysian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai dishes, best appreciated under the stars in the alfresco section (there's a covered option during the monsoon); in winter there's also a great barbeque where you can choose from a selection of freshly caught seafood (fish Rs 1,500/kg, tiger prawns and lobster Rs 3,000/kg) dusted with mouthwatering organic lemon-butter; Rs 1,600 gets you a feast-sized seafood platter served with naan bread. Top it all off with chocolate samosas, or water chestnuts in coconut cream.
Note: During the season, there's entertainment most nights -- try avoiding the live bands cranking out Western covers, but some nights there are Kerala martial arts displays or, better still, Indian classical music.
In & Around Kovalam Beach
Not as great on location as the Leela, but worth a mention is the Taj Green Cove Resort (tel. 0471/248-7733; www.tajhotels.com), offering 59 rooms in a number of blocks set amid 4 hectares (10 acres) of tropically landscaped gardens on the Kovalam Cliffside (some 300m/984 ft. from the beach). Cottages have traditional Kerala-style thatched roofs and are hidden among palm trees -- maintaining privacy from the outside, but still offering good views. Rooms aren't as beautiful as the handsome open-plan lobby-lounge area promises, but they have large picture windows framing either the sea or garden views. Make sure to ask for a sea-view room -- at Rs 14,000 a mere Rs 2,000 more than a standard garden view unit (but both much more expensive during the hectic period between Christmas and mid-Jan). Both of the Taj's restaurants, Jasmine Bay, an alfresco space at the edge of the hotel's popular infinity pool, and Curries, serve good food, but the place to dine (in season) will be at the new seafood restaurant on the beach. The resort also has a great-looking non-Ayurvedic Jiva spa, but it's not nearly in the same league as the fabulous spa at The Leela Kempinski, nor as personal as the "light" Ayurvedic treatments on offer at Lagoona Davina.
Chandra, Surya & Vizhinjam
When Klaus Schleusener, a German professor who was based in Chennai in the '70s and '80s, first laid eyes on these aptly named beaches (Chandra means "moon," for the moonrise; Surya means "sun," above where it sets), he knew he had to own the cliff promontory that divided them. Naming the property Surya Samudra, Klaus built the original octagonal "Sea Front Deluxe" unit as his personal getaway. Alarmed at how centuries-old carved wooden cottages from villages around Kerala were being torn down to make way for modern homes -- he came up with the inspired idea to transplant them, and so created a trend that helped set Kerala's huge tourism industry in motion. Today he's moved on (his enchanting new Green Lagoon in the Backwaters, is reviewed), but the resort he created survives, albeit now under differently minded businessfolk who, according to some, are intent on diminishing its appeal.
Located on the other side of Surya Samudra, on Chandra beach, is the very basic Bethsaida Hermitage resort (tel. 0471/248-1554; fax 0471/248-1554; www.bethsaidahermitage.com). This collection of thatched bamboo and stone beach cottages was begun by a local priest who wanted to start an eco-friendly endeavor that could be used to aid a local orphanage. It's looking a little run-down at present and not worth booking unless you can reserve one of the most recently built "sea-view" rooms (60€-90€) behind the pool. These rooms are spotless, spacious, and close to the beach. Hot water is at the mercy of an occasionally moody electrical system, and you need to bring your own toiletries. Don't arrive expecting luxury and you'll feel good knowing that your room's rate (slightly overpriced, considering) contributes to the welfare of some 2,500 children. We have had reports from regular guests of the generally wonderful staff getting drunk on the job and then taking a few days to recover -- the result being absolutely no service whatsoever for the next few days -- rather a daunting prospect. That incident happened over the Christmas-New Year period, however, but we'd strongly advise that you investigate fully the current status of management before booking here.
Out of sight, but not far from here, is Coconut Bay Beach Resort (tel. 0471/248-0566; www.coconutbay.com), one of the most efficiently run resorts on the coast, with an unpretentious and low-key atmosphere and a very serious focus on Ayurveda. It's small (only 27 units), but -- as is the norm hereabouts -- accommodations (which are pretty ordinary, with ugly furnishings) are in a variety of categories, scattered around a hodgepodge of lawns and coco palms strung with hammocks. In its favor, it's right up against the beach, with a truly mellow atmosphere. If you're a solo traveler, the best units are one of only five non-air-conditioned beach rooms (tel. 098-4706-9654; 46€-71€ single, depending on season, including all meals), which are off to one side and right above the beach; book room 301 and you have a semiprivate veranda area with the best view at the resort. Great views, too, from deluxe beach villas 203, 205 and 206 (109€-153€ double with all meals) and superior deluxe villa 201 (152€-190€ double with all meals). As with all the Ayurvedic resorts (and this one, too, is Green Leaf accredited), the specialty here is on long-stay treatment packages, so check the website for the lowdown on all the deals.
Located below the small village of Chowara, within verdant cliffs towering along it, this long stretch of powdery white sand is located 12km (7 1/2 miles) south of Trivandrum and 30 to 40 minutes from the airport. Chowara Beach is not only very pretty (the same cannot be said of most of the accommodations here), but the sea here is usually rather tame -- hardly surprising then that it has several resorts strung along it, some would say too many resorts, in fact. However, you're unlikely to end up staying here unless you've come for a fairly stringent Ayurvedic program (which is the raison d'être for most of these places anyway. The exception is Travancore Heritage, which -- despite having the most sophisticated-looking Ayurvedic center -- has a slightly more leisurely approach; trouble is their best accommodations are a bit of a slog from the beach. Besides the places we've reviewed, one other option is well-priced Nikki's Nest (Azhimala Shiva Temple Rd., Pulinkudi, Chowara; tel. 0471/226-8821, -8822, or 0471/226-7822; www.nikkisnest.com; 90€-125€ double with air-conditioning, including breakfast, 15% tax extra), which unfortunately suffers from interminable early morning temple noise that kicks off each day at 5am. If you can endure the unexpected wake-up or are an early riser, it's not too bad a choice, with a fairly welcoming staff and on-hand owners to make your stay feel quite comfortable. Accommodations are in slightly dark thatch-roofed cottages (rooms 203 and 204 are closest to the beach) or in restored traditional wooden Kerala houses (202 is the one to book here; alternatively, 201; 105€-125€ double); half are air-conditioned, and they're neat and tidy but (like Coconut Lagoon) ultimately rather kitsch and with rather unhandsome finishes (bathrooms are really quite hideous, with massive frosted glass sliding shower doors). Again, the reason you're here is for the Ayurvedic treatments; like Somatheeram, this place has Green Leaf accreditation, and after your massage you can trundle down to the beach or spend hours daydreaming at the restaurant, which has equally spectacular views and heavenly fresh fruit juices.
Note: All of these "resorts" offer a wide variety of packages that include specified or personalized treatments and therapies, often based on stays of between 2 weeks and 1 month -- this is their big draw. In fact, these resorts exist more as centers for Ayurvedic patients than as vacation retreats. If you're not interested in Ayurveda -- or perhaps yoga -- the best options here are Thapovan and Travancore Heritage, which are less congested by robe-wearing guests wandering through the grounds in a post-treatment daze.
Kerala's southernmost resort destination (40 min. from Trivandrum), at the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu on a remote stretch of river lagoon, provides a taste of the backwaters, with palm-fringed rivers, together with the ocean views of a beach resort. The sea here is rough, so it's not a great place for ocean swimming, and with the proliferation of resorts in a relatively small area in the past 7 years, its tranquillity has been compromised. Before the building frenzy began, Poovar Island Resort was the pace to be, but don't be fooled by the glossy brochures and designs, which fail to mention the ongoing sewage problems of their romantic "floating cottages." Best of the five biggish resorts here is Isola Di Cocco (tel. 0471/221-0008; www.isoladicocco.com; standard doubles from Rs 5,500 in high season, breakfast included), mostly due to the fact that it takes its Ayurvedic treatments and packages very seriously at very good value. Not only that, but there's some semblance of a style that's fitting with the whole lagoon-cum-beach vibe of the area. Accommodation is perfectly comfortable if a little unimaginative, with no personal touches or design forethought (or, more tellingly, sea views), but everything is spotless and spacious, and there've been some extensive refurbishments as recently as 2009. If you choose to stay here, opt for one of the 10 lake-view rooms (16, 17, and 53-60), which fall in the Heritage Category (Rs 4,000-Rs 7,000 double with breakfast, depending on season). Service is friendly, and the Indian food is good.
Right next door to Isola, with more of a concrete hotel resort atmosphere and extensive facilities, is Estuary Island (tel. 0471/221-4355; www.estuaryisland.com), which does afford views towards the sea (although, as with all the Poovar resorts, you don't see the ocean but rather a lovely beach that divides the lagoon from the ocean). While the rooms are exceptionally bland, they're well stocked with amenities, and if you don't mind forgoing the estuary view from the cheaper standard units (Rs 4,000-Rs 9,000 double), you can get a much larger and more private Estuary Premium cottage (Rs 6,000-Rs 10,000 double, including boat transfers) in a secluded section behind the main block. There's plenty here to keep children busy (including a kids' pool and park), and the beer parlor built over the water is a good place to sit with a pair of binoculars and see what the fishermen are up to. Green Leaf-accredited Ayurvedic treatments are available, and there's a fleet of assorted boats (with or without motor).
However, if you really have the spirit of adventure in you, there's only one place you want to be: Friday's Place (reviewed in this section).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.