This marvellous drive takes the traveller through the very heart of Kerala’s beach-and-backwater belt and ends at the southernmost tip of coastal India to savour the spectacular waterscapes of the confluence of the Indian Ocean with the waters of the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal. There’s the added promise of enjoying a traditional Ayurvedic Spa experience along the way. Having soaked yourself thoroughly in Kochi’s historical offerings it’s time now to hit the beaches and cruise along palm-fringed backwaters at leisure. Even the crazy road hogs on the highway cannot take away your zest for exploring this legendary coastal swathe of verdure and golden sands along the Arabian Sea. Pack some essentials like mineral water, snacks and cold drinks and make sure the car is fit to go. Since most signage is in Malayalam communication can prove to be a bit hairy…Best to get over the road drive before nightfall. Leave Kochi early to avoid the crush at the Toll Booth and the bridge to the mainland. Follow NH47 (heading through a narrow swathe between Vembanad Lake and the Arabian Sea) steadily all the way to Kanyakumari.
Your first impressions of bewitching Alappuzha, lingering by the Arabian Sea with its ancient lighthouse bleached by countless storms and a punishing sun, can be even more heady than what all the enticing tourist brochures predict. Steeped in its old-world atmospherics of colonial homes and administrative structures, the township is faithfully reflected in the glittering waters awash with kettuvallams or houseboats (nice stay option for a night) and tiny fishing boats heading out for the day’s catch. The battered old jetty, lined with the offices of the numerous backwaters agents is a hive of activity, with tourists and residents of the township intermingling in a frenetic mass of humanity. Alappuzha – lined onshore with a slew of hotels and resorts both great and small, has all the allurements of a traditional Kerala experience… the backwater boat ride, the Ayurvedic massages, forays to the nearest beach head and of course that yummy cuisine chased down by fresh coconut water.
Alleppey Beach is accessed by the shabby Raj-era 1,000 ft long pier on the western end. During the snake-boat race season there’s not a houseboat or boat to be had for love or money, for Alappuza is at the very heart of this thrilling annual festivity marked by the celebrated Nehru Trophy Boat Race (which used to be called the Punnamada Boat Race), which starts from the Punnamada Kayal, in the second week of the month of August, during the annual Onam festivities. It’s Kerala’s most well-known boat race, featuring boats of all sizes – sometimes with sweating, gleaming 100 rowers. Once you’ve settled in you might want to wander around the town looking at the heritage structures, the women at work on coir – an important engine for commerce. Follow the canal road leading to the beach (once a major hub for trade activities of rubber, tea and produce brought down from the nearby hills). But the ‘wow’ factor at Alappuzha is definitely the backwater boat rides along the network of six navigable canals emanating from Vembanad Lake.
The Alleppey Boat Jetty is located on the Punnamada Backwaters. The backwater cruise opens up the heart of the river life lining the canals – dinky villages, women doing their laundry, vapour rising from cooking pots making the midday meal, kids catching the local boat to school, toddy tappers drawing the sap for the heady local brew.. The District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC) office arranges cruises on the state-run boats, but there are also plenty of private agencies lining the jetty. Bargain hard for a good rate as it’s highly competitive. If you are a birding enthusiast you might want to head for one of the tiny islands offshore which host all kinds of avifaunal wealth. You can also indulge your taste buds with the most delicious seafood on sale at the locale stalls here. Before heading out of town you might want to shop for the region’s legendary pepper and other spices, sandalwood items and stationery, for this area is well known for its paper trade.
If beaches are ‘your thing’ the drive to spice-scented Kollam (which in Sanskrit means pepper) brings you to some of the nicest stretches of sun and sand on the western coast. Marco Polo who visited here in the 13th century and wrote not only of her commercial offerings, but also spoke highly of her natural beauty. The beautiful seaside town is adrift emerald verdure studded with colonial- day architecture. Thangaserri, once known as Dutch Quilon, has a beautiful beach (just five kilometres out of town) where you can unwind at leisure. At the beach head down for gorgeous views of the sea from the sturdy lighthouse, a much venerated gift in 1902, from the British who ruled these shores.
Thangaserri’s Portuguese fort, built in 1517, lies in ruins now. About six kilometres from Kollam, there’s another nice little beach at Thirumullavaram. It offers you grandstand views of the rock known as Nyarazacha Paara out at sea during low tide. On the beach visitors also pay obeisance to the Mahavishnu temple believed to be consecrated by Parasurama, by tradition the creator of Kerala. It features images of both Vishnu and Shiva in the sanctum. Kollam’s gorgeous eight-cornered Ashtamudi Lake is always a bustle with the holiday crowd who arrive in droves for boat rides and picnics. Whether its under a cloudless blue sky by day, or awash with the silvery light of the moon, Ashtamudi is magical.
Kollam’s backwaters are also a magnet for houseboat rides in the network of canals off the lake. Catch one of the popular sunset cruises if you are planning to spend the night here. Contact the tourist office (DTPC) for bookings. There are several resorts which offer grandstand views of the Ashtamudi Lake and its backwaters Thiruvananthapuram, the state capital presents you rewarding shopping experiences and an opportunity to visit the legendary Padmanabhaswamy Temple, dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The magnificent over-2,000 year-old temple lies in the protective embrace of the ancient Trivandrum Fort. At the Kuthiramalika Palace, situated in close proximity to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, there’s a fine collection of old musical instruments and arms of the king. This 19th century structure was commissioned by Swathi Thirunmal, one of the composers of the trinity of Carnatic music; the other two legends of this discipline were Thyagara and Muthuswamy Dikshitar. Step into the popular 19th century Napier Museum renowned for its wonderful collection of Raja Ravi Verma paintings housed here along with the works of Svyatoslav Roerich in its Sree Chitra Art Gallery. Don’t miss the beautiful exteriors of the Kanakakunnu Palace, located just across the road. Pick up souveneirs made from rosewood and sandalwood, and coconut husk before heading out of town for the 13 km drive to Kanyakumari.
As you are driving down the highway to Kanyakumari (marked by lush fields, lotus-filled lakes and distant hills in a blue haze) in Tamil Nadu, opt for the detour to the Padmanabhapuram Palace, India’s largest wooden palace, 55 km from Thiruvanathapuram, off the Thuckalay Junction. The palace can be reached via Neyyantinkara, Parassal Junction and Kuzhittura. Resplendent in its stunning woodwork, this ancient seat (16th-18th CE) of the Travancore kings is a fabulous example of vintage Kerala architecture, with its teak and granite work. Check out the king’s bed – it is made of 64 different varieties of medicinal timbers. The arrival of the monsoon, as viewed from Kanyakumari, the southernmost junction on the Indian mainland from where you can witness the confluence of the Indian Ocean with the Arabian Sea and the waters of the Bay of Bengal, can be pretty dramatic.
Boat rides to the Thiruvalluvar statue on one of the twin rocks offshore and the nearby Vivekananda Rock Memorial are the other major highlights here. The township has a sizeable number of temples (the unmissable Kanyakumari Amman Temple raised to the Goddess Parvathi, set along the shoreline of the confluence of the seas, is one of them) and several churches along with a couple of forts to explore. A ritual dip in the triveni sahngamam, the point where the three waters meet is customary before entering the Kanyakumari Amman Temple. Tradition has it that it was consecrated by Parusrama, the creator of Kerala. The temple can be found at the end of the Beach Road near the jetty by the shoreline.
About the author
Kirat Sodhi loves to travel, read and is a theatre enthusiast. You can contact her on twitter @KiratSodhi.