Alappuzha is 85km (53 miles) S of Kochi; Kumarakom is 95km (59 miles) S of Kochi

Kerala's backwaters comprise a web of waterways that forms a natural inland transport network stretching from Kochi, the northern gateway, to Kollam (or Quilon, as it's been renamed), the backwaters' southernmost town. At its heart is Vembanad Lake, on the eastern shores of which lie the top-notch resorts of Kumarakom and its Bird Sanctuary, and on its south bank, the little town of Alappuzha, the unofficial capital of the backwaters. Inland, just 12km (7 1/2 miles) east of Kumarakom, is Kottayam, the bustling town described by Arundhati Roy in her Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. Located at the foot of the Western Ghats, it has two historically significant (but ultimately missable) early Syrian Christian churches. But, then again, you're hardly here to visit monuments and attractions -- you're here to lap up a blissfully melancholic way of life, and witness daily bucolic dramas played out upon the waterways and among the coconut groves.

Kumarakom has the most luxury accommodations, all strung along the shores of Vembanad Lake, but unless you're a dedicated birder, there's not a great deal to do here. Indulge in Ayurvedic therapies, and laze under the tropical sun -- that's about as busy as your day is likely to get; then board a houseboat cruise, where the passing scenery and languid pace (and, should you be paying for luxury, discreet service) is enough to lull you into a comfortable coma. Between November and March, the local Bird Sanctuary becomes home to numerous migratory flocks, many of which fly in from Siberia. Regularly seen here are little cormorants, darters (or snake birds), night herons, golden-backed woodpeckers, tree pies, and crow pheasants. Given its exclusivity and sublime setting, Kumarakom does not offer accommodations for budget-oriented travelers; for that you'll need to look farther south to Alappuzha (pronounced Ala-pur[d]-ha, or Alleppey if you can't be bothered), also the focal point of backwater cruise operators, and the only backwater town worth spending a few hours indulging in a bit of retail therapy.

The entire backwaters region is a tranquil paradise and sustains a delightfully laid-back way of life that has endured for centuries -- perfect for sultry, idle, do-nothing houseboat adventures that take you into the heart of Kerala country life. Despite the massive increase in traffic from the tourist boom, floating along these waters will be the highlight of your sojourn in south India.

Snake Boat Races -- Every year Kerala's backwater canals host the world's largest team sport, when scores of streamlined 30m (100-ft.) chundanvalloms -- commonly known as snake boats because their prow looks like the raised hood of a snake -- are propelled across the waters at impressive speeds, cheered on by an exuberant audience. Typically, snake boats are manned by four helmsmen, 25 singers, and up to 100 oarsmen rowing in unison to the terrific rhythm of the vanchipattu, or "song of the boatman." The oldest and most popular event is the Champakulam Moolam Boat Race, held in monsoon-soaked July, but the most famous water battle is undoubtedly the Nehru Trophy Boat Race, held on the second Saturday of August on the Punnamada backwaters of Alleppey in conjunction with Kerala's important Onam harvest festival. Tickets for the event, which features at least 16 competing chundanvalloms and attracts thousands of excited supporters, are available from the District Tourism Promotion Council office, but best to ask your hotel or houseboat operator to arrange these. If you're not visiting during the rainy season, you'll be glad to hear that a rerun of the event -- organized with the tourist season in mind, so be warned -- happens in February.