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North of Trivandrum: The Red Cliffs of Varkala

A 55km (34-mile) drive north of Trivandrum (1 hr. by train), the seaside resort of Varkala draws numerous Hindu pilgrims who come to worship in the 2,000-year-old Sri Janardhana Swami Temple and ritualistically cleanse themselves in the mineral spring waters that gush from Varkala's ruby-red laterite cliffs. The cliffs overlook the aptly named "Beach of Redemption." Varkala attracts scores of backpackers searching for an untouched beach paradise -- and a decade ago, they might have found just that. Over the years, hawkers and shack-dwellers have drifted in and set up shop along the tops of the cliffs; the coconut palms have been replaced by cheap guesthouses and open-air cafes; and children flog cheap jewelry, yards of cloth, and back-to-nature hippie gear.

Nonetheless, being a holy beach, the sand at the base of the cliffs stays relatively free of human pollution -- it's neither a convenient public toilet facility nor a waste-dumping ground. Instead, devotees of Vishnu attend to earnest puja sessions, offering banana leaves piled with boiled rice and brightly colored marigolds to be carried away by the ocean. Usually, the sand is soft and lovely, and you can find a quiet cove for sunbathing without the crowds that are inescapable in Kovalam. In fact, you can find relative peace and calm if you restrict your beach activities to the morning; by lunchtime the gawkers (female bathers are advised to be discreet), hawkers, and dreadlocked Europeans start to file in, and it's time to venture back to the hotel or guesthouse.

Other activities for visitors here include Kathakali demonstrations, elephant rides, village tours, and backwater trips. You can also take a pleasant evening walk (or auto-rickshaw ride) to the cliffs to visit Sunset Point. If you don't want to walk back, keep the rickshaw for your return trip (round-trip around Rs 50-Rs 60; more if you want to go farther up the cliff).

Where to Stay & Dine

Varkala has plenty of accommodation choices, virtually all below par, with the predominant market clearly more the backpacker or budget end of the spectrum. Bucking this trend is the classy Villa Jacaranda (reviewed in this section).

If you prefer hotels, your best bet is the Hindustan Beach Retreat (tel. 0470/260-4254/5; www.hindustanbeachretreat.com), which looms hideously over the southern end of Varkala beach. An unattractive five-story hotel it may be, and certainly the stuff of any eco-enthusiast's nightmares, it affords the best proximity to the beach, and has a pool (albeit one that's likely to be inundated with shrieking kids). Rooms, all with views of the Arabian Sea (not to mention puja being performed on the shore), are comfortable and bathrooms spick-and-span, but it's all a bit sterile; on the other hand this is the closest you get to the beach, lined with casual restaurant-shacks and flaunting a wannbe-hippie vibe, so you could spend the day with your toes in the sand pretending to be a beach bum and then retreat to your middle-class box. Standard doubles go for Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000, depending on season, and rates include one meal; executive rooms cost Rs 500 more.

The two best places to eat in Varkala, with clean kitchens, good food, decent atmosphere, and great views, are Clafoutis (Clafouti Heritage Beach Resort, above Papasham Beach, North Cliff; tel. 0470/260-1414) and Café Delmar (Hill View Beach Resort, North Cliff; tel. 0470/645-1566). Both serve good fresh fish and seafood. Café Delmar offers a hodgepodge of Indian, Italian, and even Mexican cuisines -- and they do real espresso (from an extensive coffee menu), jaffles (toasted sandwiches), and pizzas. The chicken tikka biriyani is considered a top choice, and we definitely recommend the lassi here -- simply excellent. If you're unsure about what's what, the Indian menu items at least come with fairly meaningful descriptions. Clafoutis also has a bafflingly extensive menu with Indian, Thai, Italian, and Chinese options, and a huge list of mixed drinks. The real reason to come, though, is for the sunset view from the upstairs deck; it's probably the most mesmeric scene in Varkala -- with the waves crashing somewhere far below, you almost feel yourself adrift over the ocean. Sink back into your seat and, cocktail in hand, meditate on the sinking sun.

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.