Cruising the Backwaters
Reset your watch to a rhythm of life that has gone unchanged for centuries by boarding a kettuvallam, the long, beautifully crafted cargo boats that ply the waterways with cargo (if you don't mind being referred to as such). An engineering feat, a kettuvallam is made from lengths of ironwood, anjili, or jackwood, and not a single nail is used in the construction -- it's joined with thick coir (from the outer shell of a coconut) ropes, and sealed with fish oil and a black caustic resin produced by boiling cashew kernels.
The houseboat experience allows you to aimlessly drift past villages, temples, and churches and be thoroughly exposed to the rural lifestyle of the backwaters. As if you're on the very large set of a reality TV show (with a huge dollop of the Discovery Channel thrown in), you can watch as women, unperturbed by your drifting presence, wash their long ebony tresses or pound away at laundry; children play at the water's edge and men dive for mussels; and elephants and water buffalo wade at will. Fishermen suavely holding umbrellas above their heads suddenly drift by, while floating vendors using single-log canoes and other modest craft deliver commodities such as rice and coir fiber. On the shore, toddy tappers whisk up palm trees (note that you can ask to stop at a village to buy unforeseen necessities like beer or coconut toddy). And when the sun sets, the sky lights up in magnificent shades of orange and red. Gliding past the rural communities that cling to the banks is without a doubt one of the most relaxing and romantic ways to witness a timeless lifestyle, where people rely on impossibly tiny tracts of land to cultivate subsistence crops and keep a few animals, using slender jackfruit wood canoes to get around, deliver goods, and do a spot of fishing. And of course it is always rather marvelous to be waited on hand and foot by three servants.
The original concept of turning cargo boats into tourist cruise vessels was the brainchild of Babu Varghese of TourIndia (an outfit that incidentally fell into temporary disarray since Varghese employed a hit man to punish his partner -- high business drama, India-style). Varghese transformed the kettuvallam into a livable houseboat by expanding the original size to include two or three rooms, a flush toilet, a shower, and a small viewing or sunbathing platform. With designs that owe some allegiance to the Chinese junk but that more closely resemble a small Sydney Opera House, these beautiful crafts were initially propelled by pole but now more usually by a small (and it is hoped quiet) motor. In 2007 the state government finally started taking action against those engines that pollute, and not a minute too soon: 8 years back there were perhaps 15 houseboats operating out of Alappuzha; today the figure is in excess of 650 -- all the more reason to be careful with whom you book, and to seriously consider coming in the off-season.
While the general idea is to wind your way aimlessly through the waterways, one of the most popular stop-off points for visitors is Champakulam, where 500-year-old St. Mary's Church shows definite traces of Hindu influence -- from the small statue of Christ assuming a pose typical of Krishna, to the custom of leaving one's footwear outside. Another stop worth scheduling is at the Amritapuri Ashram (tel. 0476/289-6179 or -6278; www.amritapuri.org), home of the world's most famous female guru, Amma, who is endearingly known as the "Hugging Mother." The Mother is today a global phenomenon -- some call her a living god -- and is said to believe in physically manifesting her love and compassion for humanity -- she has embraced thousands of devotees, literally; if she's not on tour, this is exactly what she will do to you! If this sounds a little too touchy-feely, visit just to wander the ashram grounds and have lunch with those residing there; the Raheem Residency organizes visits here from Alleppey (2 hr. away by speedboat).
Note: Two more stops worth considering (reached this time by vehicle) are the Elephant Orphanage, where you can get up close and personal with the elephants (usually including at least one baby) that are cared for here, as well as Mannar and Aranmula, towns famous for their metal icons and mirrors respectively.
Cruising Kerala on the World's Smallest Luxury Liner
Leave it to Oberoi to take the traditional backwater cruise to new heights with the MV Vrinda -- not exactly a liner, but the ultimate in luxury on Kerala's backwaters, and very Agatha Christie. After all, only on board the MV Vrinda can you find yourself watching life along the river from a comfy rattan chair on the breezy upper-deck lounge, or from your plush settee in the air-conditioned dining room while staff keeps a watchful eye out for a raised finger. On the first night, after a scenic 4-hour cruise on Vembanad Lake, you dock at a jetty for dinner (a thoroughly elegant affair accompanied by Kathakali dancers), then bed down in one of only eight smart cabins, each decked out with luxuries like TV and DVD, en-suite showers, and lovely king-size beds. The following day, the boat makes its way to Lake Pamba, where you can climb aboard a small rice boat to explore the narrower backwaters; the following day another rice boat excursion takes you to see an 18th-century church and century-old Hindu temple at Nedumudy, with a qualified guide. Three nights later you wend your way back by road to Kochi. Typical of the Oberoi, food is outstanding (there's an a la carte menu but you can pretty much get what you want) and you are treated like royalty -- perfect if you prefer to travel in a somewhat sanitized manner, ensconced in a luxurious cocoon. The 3-night package runs from October to April and costs Rs 95,000 for two, including all meals, excursions, and Kochi airport transfer. To reserve your berth, contact Oberoi Hotels & Resorts at tel. 800-11-2030 or 011/2389-0606 (www.oberoihotels.com); children under 12 are not permitted.
Scrambling for Their Tipple
For generations, agile young village men have been clambering up coconut palms to tap into the sweet sap known as toddy, or kallu, which is collected from the flower pod. Like their fathers and their fathers' fathers, these "toddy tappers" have made a good living over the years harvesting the sap to drink right away (sweet and refreshing, but definitely an acquired taste) or to ferment into an alcoholic drink. The morning's toddy is already a heady tipple by evening -- by the next day, it's prodigiously potent.
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.