Kozhikode & the Wyanad Rainforest
Archaeological evidence suggests that civilizations inhabited the fertile forests of the Wyanad around 3 millennia ago. Today pockets of tribal populations still practice time-old rituals and eke out a simple existence in harmony with nature, but the wonderfully temperate climate and almost permanently sodden soil has also meant that the region supports a sprawling network of coffee, cardamom, betel nut, pepper, and rubber plantations, stretching over the undulating hills in every direction. And between the cultivated hills, there's a dense rainforest, studded with splendid rocky outcrops and easily accessible Neolithic caves.
Malabar trade, which is still largely focused on spices and textiles, once centered on the teeming coastal town of Kozhikode, the unofficial capital of the North. Until recently known as Calicut -- incidentally where the term calico (or white, unbleached cotton) originated -- this is where Vasco da Gama was first welcomed in 1498; at the nearby village of Kappad, a commemorative plaque memorializes the spot where the Portuguese explorer is said to have landed. Still famed for its old spice market, Kozhikode can be an interesting, if offbeat, place to explore between Ayurvedic treatments (available at the Harivihar Heritage Home, reviewed below) and shopping for textiles or gold and silver. To most, however, the city is more of a go-between point for journeys farther south or north, or inland to Kerala's highest rainfall region, the Wyanad Hills. One of India's last true wildernesses, the hills are home to some truly soothing get-away-from-it-all accommodations, including Tranquil, where you can bed down in a luxurious treehouse surrounded by a 160-hectare (400-acre) working coffee plantation.
Kannur & Kerala's Northernmost Coast
Kannur -- previously known as Cannanore -- is a pretty coastal town predominantly inhabited by what is locally known as the "Malabar Muslim." Unlike North India, where Islam was more often than not established through violent conquest, here it arrived initially through trade, and grew through love; Arab sailors coming to Malabar in search of precious spices married local women, establishing the Mappila (or Malabar Muslim) community, which in turn developed its own Arabi-Malayalam songs and poems and the "Mappila Pattu." This oral record of the unique history of the broad-minded Calicut rulers stands in stark contrast, for instance, with that of the intolerant Portuguese tyrants. Immediately south of Kannur, are the harbor towns of Thalassery (formerly Tellicherry) and Mahé; the latter once a French enclave, now a union territory still legislated from Pondicherry and best known for the availability of cheap fuel, liquor, and other goods unlikely to be of much interest to you.
Tourism in this northerly region of Kerala is only recently coming into its own, which has distinct advantages if you're looking to get away from the crowds. Besides beaches of considerable beauty -- where you're more likely to run into fishermen, villagers performing their toilet rituals (not necessarily something you want to witness), or nesting Olive Ridley turtles than vendors, restaurant shacks, or signs of tourism -- the region is famed for the abundance of its theyyam performances, compelling socioreligious ritual dramas executed in elaborate costumes and masks and culminating with special blessings bestowed upon the spectators. Kannur is a major center for theyyam, but if you'd rather discover a far less commercial guise of the art form, head farther north, where not only does one of the best new hideaways in the state, Neeleshwar Hermitage, nestle alongside a virgin beach, but you can also visit soul-stirring ashrams and check out the view from Kerala's largest fort.
If you're traveling into Kerala from Karnataka or other regions farther north, don't be tempted to race through this beautifully untouched part of the state. Nowhere else will you find beaches in such perfect condition, villages as unaffected by tourism, and such unhampered places to visit.