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Ideally you will combine a night or two at one of the resorts or guesthouses we've recommended with at least two more on a houseboat. Most of the top luxury resorts are strung along the eastern shores of Lake Vembanad; the exceptions are the top-rated Privacy, Olavipe, and Green Lagoon (all reviewed in this section), all of which lie on backwaters on the northern end of the lake. You can reach most of them by car, but many prefer to pick you up from a prearranged jetty, which heightens the sense of escape. Some, like Coconut Lagoon, Philipkutty's Farm, and Green Lagoon, can in fact only be reached by water. In short, this is one area you should plan and book in advance regardless of season, so that the necessary transfer arrangements can be made. Alleppey is the only town worth exploring at any length, and perhaps a better contrast to a lakeside resort; there is also a good guesthouse here -- Raheem Residency (reviewed later). Note: Taxes usually run 15%; do check whether it's included when asking for rate quotes. From May to September, rates are generally half those of the peak season, which is December and January (also when the influx of tourists really undermines the experience of being here in the first place); September is a particularly good month to visit for houseboat excursions. Unless you're staying at one of the smaller places, don't even think about coming here between Christmas and early January -- prices skyrocket and the atmosphere will be anything but relaxing.

Hiring the Best Houseboat

Take this cruise at the right time, and it will possibly be the highlight of your holiday in Kerala, so book during shoulder season, and make sure you hire a good boat. Kettuvallam houseboats are available at various levels of luxury, and may be rented for day trips or for sleep-in journeys of several days; we recommend that you spend 2 nights on board, since it takes one to realize how relaxing the process is, and the major attractions are watching the setting sun turn the lake orange before settling down in the middle of the lake for the night (all boats must be moored or anchored by 6pm for the fishermen to cast their night nets), and witnessing the activities of households on the smaller backwaters at dawn and dusk (only possible on the second day). Most houseboats feature solar-panel power and heating, biotoilets, and an average cruising speed of 8 to 10kmph (5-6 mph). Although the facilities might strike some as rather basic, you'll be spoiled rotten by your private team -- minimum of two, a cook and pilot -- who work hard to make your experience unique and exceptional (and discreetly manage to leave you to experience the backwaters in peace). Meals are authentic Kerala fare -- if you're curious about Kerala cuisine, you're welcome to observe proceedings in the tiny kitchen at the rear end of the boat. With the huge increase of traffic on the backwaters, don't expect exclusivity -- try to avoid booking over the peak season. September is to our mind the best month, when the water is high, harvest is due, races are scheduled, and tourist numbers are relatively low.

One of the simplest and most sensitive conversions of the kettuvallam has been done by Spice Coast Cruises (House Boats, Puthenangadi, Alleppey; tel. 0484/266-8221 or 0478/258-2615; spicecoastcruise@cghearth.com), who have cleverly increased the number of "awnings" (for views as well as breeze) and created a comfortable sun deck "bed" with white bolster cushions on the elevated section of the boat up front -- perfect for lounging around with a book (though the "captain" steers from the front, you soon forget his presence); just behind is your coir-carpeted dining room, furnished with unpretentious antiques. The tiny bedroom comes with A/C (running at night only), and in our experience staff struck just the right balance between attentiveness and discretion. Rates are 290€ to 380€ double during high season (Rs 7,730 in the off-season), all meals included; while a two-bedroom (sleeping four) costs 475€ to 535€, or Rs 10,825 per night in low season.

Three more reputable companies, each with huge and reliable fleets, are Lakes & Lagoons (tel. 098-4705-1566; lakes_lagoon@satyam.net.in), Rainbow Cruises (tel. 0477/224-1375; www.backwaterkerala.com; reservations@rainbowcruises.in), and Soma Houseboats. The latter specialize in boats with a separate elevated viewing platform; for this luxury make sure you book one of its "Upper Deck" houseboats (tel. 0471/226-8101; www.somahouseboats.com); prices vary according to season, number of bedrooms, and the length of your cruise, but you should be able to get a basic, air-conditioned one-bedroom houseboat for as little as Rs 9,250 during the season (much less if you chose a quieter period). Both Rainbow and Soma have earned Gold Star classification from the state government and are considered the top of their class.

If you prefer to go with sentiment, you can also investigate TourIndia (tel. 98-9560-5243; www.tourindiakerala.com), the company that pioneered the houseboat concept and were then imitated by countless others. They've stuck to their guns, though, and now operate 12 boats.

But if you don't mind forgoing the traditional kettavallam design, the best houseboat experience is aboard Discovery (tel. 0484/221-6666; www.malabarescapes.com). Launched in late-2006 by Malabar Escapes (Kerala's much-lauded boutique hotel chain, responsible for The Malabar House in Fort Cochin), this is a gorgeous modern interpretation of the houseboat concept, with a large upper deck where you dine and sunbathe (furnished with dining table and loungers), a comfortable and stylish bedroom (though no reading lamps), large shower room and dressing area, and a separate, spacious lounge -- all A/C. The team works hard to create routes where you won't come across other houseboats, but the likelihood is slim these days, and you will probably dock your final night at Privacy, one of our favorite backwaters villas, from where you start and end your journey. The only drawback, besides the hefty price tag (350€-450€ per night, including all meals), is the early morning "check-out" -- you're required to be off the boat by 10am -- no doubt another great reason to top and tail your houseboat tour at Privacy. You can also opt for a 3-night package on board the boat, with 2 1/2 full days spent getting a better understanding of backwaters life; you'll visit a market, dine in an authentic village home (one of the best meals you'll have), and watch kathakali in it's spiritual context in a temple. Discovery has an edge of modernity and style that makes it our personal pick as far as houseboats go.

Another top option if money is no object is the small fleet of well-equipped houseboats belonging to Kumarakom Lake Resort -- they're among the most luxurious on the lake, and highly recommended. They are also slightly cheaper than Discovery; Rs 15,000 to Rs 22,500 one-bedroom, Rs 25,000 to Rs 35,000 two-bedroom, Rs 2,000 extra person. In addition to all meals and taxes, these rates include access to the facilities at the Resort, too.

But for 100% luxury and genuflecting service from India's best-trained hoteliers, the top-of-the-range choice is of course the Vrinda.

Lake Vembanad & Surroundings

A stay on the backwaters has become an essential stop on any Kerala itinerary; small wonder then that there has been a surge in development on the eastern shores of Vembanad Lake, with its spectacular sunset views to the west. In fact, there's a daunting array of options hereabouts -- spanning the gamut from bustling resorts to splendidly intimate, well-run homestays. In truth, there's something to satisfy all tastes and budgets, and there are small, relatively untouristy spots far from the maelstrom, too.

Moderate -- Far less luxurious than some of the resorts we've reviewed, but offering lake-facing rooms at a fraction of the price, is Whispering Palms, where a lake-facing cottage (make sure you specify "lake," not "lagoon") costs only Rs 8,500 double with all meals included (tel. 0484/238-1122; www.abadhotels.com; 15% tax extra). The downside is less-than-riveting accommodations. Better-looking, but situated near Alappuzha (on Vembanad Lake but without the sunset views), Punnamada Serena Spa Resort (www.punnamada.com) offers a handful of lake-view rooms that are charmingly decorated with four-poster beds, straw curtains, and massive picture windows framing the lake, and a real bargain at Rs 10,500 to Rs 15,000 double in high season. Make sure you specifically bag one of these rooms, since other accommodations suffer from some crazy design flaws (in fact there are odd, distracting touches throughout the resort). There's a large pool, a round-the-clock Ayurvedic center, and now a brand-new spa (open since Oct 2009), which has prompted a name change (this was formerly more plainly called Punnamada Backwaters Resort). Clearly they are aiming very high indeed; they have their own houseboat, too, with well-priced packages that combine a night on the water with another on shore.

But neither of these resorts has the intimacy of the Backwaters' increasing number of well-run homestays, including a few that feel just like classy little guesthouses. One such place is the very attractive Anthraper Gardens Home Stay (tel. 0478/281-3211; www.anthrapergardens.com) in Chertala (40 min. from alleppey and 90 min. from Cochin). This historic family home is perched just a few steps from the water's edge and set amidst 557 sq. m (6,000 sq. ft.) of landscaped gardens (some might find them a bit too cultivated compared with the jungle-style wilds normally associated with the Backwaters). With wraparound verandas, large rooms, high ceilings, and period furniture, the home affords some gracious living, together with most modern conveniences (there's even a TV lounge, if you really can't help yourself). Bedrooms (the best of which even have air-conditioning; Rs 5,850-Rs 8,100) are attractively renovated and great natural light. While you get to interact with your helpful hosts and feast on authentic Keralite food, there is some sense that this is first and foremost a business (you're charged for cooking demonstrations and yoga and even access to the pools at nearby resorts, and there's a large banquet room where lunches are laid on for coach loads of tourists), so it doesn't quite compete with the warmth and personality (or personalities) that you'll find at a thoroughly humbling homestay like Olavipe.

Mararikulam: Top Beachfront Options

The best beachfront options are found in an area known as Mararikulam, and provide an excellent alternative to being directly on the backwaters, while you always have access to them. Of the places we've reviewed, Marari Beach Resort offers the most by way of facilities, and comes with excellent, warm service -- it's also relatively large (although well spread out, so perhaps not the best choice if you're looking to get away from it all. To do that, look no father than A Beach Symphony (also reviewed), which is the absolutely fabulous reworking of a series of fishing cottages set back from the beach, and luxuriously remodeled for leisure-loving vacationers like yourself. Consider these, particularly if you like a vacation that moves at your own pace.

It's a Homestay, But That's Not All... -- Visitors to Motty's Homestay Villas tend to fall in love with their hosts, Motty and Lali, and many return time and again to experience the warmth and authentic Keralite welcome to their Syrian Christian heritage home in Alleppey. There are four spacious wood-floor rooms, with family heirlooms (Motty is a collector), antique beds (although mattresses and pillows could be better), and private veranda (Rs 6,000 double with breakfast and dinner). Lali is a guru in the kitchen, preparing awesome Keralite feasts and sharing her recipes with you before you leave; Lali will even show women how to don a sari so they can look the part. This couple seems to genuinely love having you around, and Motty regularly bundles guests into the car for a short orientation of the town. Children are well looked after and treated as part of the family. Besides the Alleppey homestay which is just 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the beach, Motty also has a stake in A Beach Symphony (reviewed), four wonderfully renovated fisherman's cottages at right on Marari beach -- perfect if you're looking for a more independent, escapist vibe. Then, for the complete Kerala Backwater's experience, you can top off your visit with a night aboard Motty's houseboat, manned by a duo that also cooks up a storm (Rs 5,500 double, including all meals; A/C extra). Although as of this writing his website was still a bit of a muddle, you can check it all out at www.alleppeybeach.com -- click on "Stay with Host," for the homestay -- or call Motty at tel. 0477/224-3535 or 98-4703-2836.

Kollam

The official southern end of Kerala's backwaters (1,220km/756 miles south of Mumbai) is focused on lovely Ashtamudi Lake, lined with Chinese fishing nets and coconut groves. Far less touristed than either Alleppey or Lake Vembanad, the area spreading around Kollam is often bypassed altogether. Which, right now, may be the area's strongest selling point -- this part of the backwaters may offer the chance for real tranquillity and escape, even during high season. For too long there has been a lack of quality accommodations, though with new projects in the works, there is no doubt that this area -- still delightfully undiscovered -- is worth keeping an eye on. We suggest you keep checking with Malabar Escapes (www.malabarhouse.com) on any new developments with their upcoming property here; when it opens, it will be far and away the finest place to stay (you have our word on it).

You'll find a contemporary, upbeat outlook at Club Mahindra Backwater Retreat, Ashtamudi (tel. 0476/288-2357; www.clubmahindra.com), the result of a far-reaching overhaul of another resort. Accommodations are in double-level whitewashed cottages arranged along the edge of Ashtamudi Lake, and the entire resort is altogether more neat and presentable than Aquasserene. Here, interiors have been fashioned to resemble modern holiday homes, so they have up-to-date appliances and comfy furnishings, without resembling the standard bland hotel look too much. Since Club Mahindra is first and foremost a destination for its members, it can get completely packed with vacationing Indian families -- that could mean you'll battle to get a room.

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.