There are limitless ways to travel the cornucopia of colour and sensual overload that is south-west India, but perhaps the most magical method of all is Houseboating in Kerala – along its magical tropical waterways.
***This article was created in partnership with Incredible India***
Mindfulness. It’s what we’re all desperately searching for right now – a way to quiet our minds, still our bodies and simply soak in the wonder of the world. And just as, back in the hippie days, seekers from the West flocked to the northern hills of India to learn the sitar and the gentle art of meditation, now a different breed of Western travellers has discovered the ancient quietude and seemingly infinite calm found by cruising through the canals and lakes of Kerala.
The cities of India may bustle and hum, but the rhythm of life by the waters of Kerala is older, simpler. Kettuvallam (literally boats tied by rope) have plied the waterways here since about 3000BC, transporting rice, spices and anything else the merchants of this flat-as-a-dosai pancake, coconut palm-fringed land provided. The houseboats these days are designed much the same, though in varying degrees of luxury, depending on your budget. Whether you prefer a teak-timbered masterpiece, staffed by chefs and attentive hosts, or a humbly woven, coconut-fibre and bamboo picture of simplicity.
Now, travelling by water gives you a unique opportunity to see everyday life up close and candid, with a voyeur-like silence broken by plenty of friendly waves and smiles. You’ll see working elephants ambling the roads among the impossibly stacked-up motorbikes, women waist-deep in the waters doing the laundry in jewel-toned saris tucked up, men casting fishing nets as their forefathers have done for generations, and children skipping the paddy field paths with pets and wooden toys on rest days, or textbooks and stiffly starched uniforms on school days.
There are literally hundreds of houseboats awaiting hire in Alleppey, the main departure point for the Keralan backwaters, although some also operate from Kochi and other local ports. Many of the bigger resorts in the area have their own houseboats and can package up a cruise with a stay on land, but for the most immersive experience, front up and chat with the houseboat operators in Alleppey’s ‘Finishing Point’ area directly (though peak season may call for advance bookings). Don’t be afraid of plenty of good-natured bargaining here, and take the opportunity to inspect the boat before you rent it. Look for good-quality bathrooms, working electrical sockets and included towels and bed linen.
Air-conditioning is available on some boats and not others, and will affect the price, as will an upper deck for lounging, some personal space and the best photography opportunities. Boats come in different sizes, and some offer a shared cruising experience; others, exclusive use of the boat and staff. All boats should come with a captain, an engineer and a cook or chef. Most prices will include freshly made food and drinks – check that filtered water and ice is available if you are not carrying a filtering water bottle yourself.
– If you’d like to drink alcohol, either bring along the duty-free or ask your booking agent to organise it for you in advance.
– Bring clothes for canoeing, but since you’re travelling through more rural areas, covering decolletage and thighs is a polite way to show respect for the culture here.
– Bring insect repellent and mozzie coils – the mosquitos do love the waterways too.
– Like any other small cruise, gratuities for each crew member are appreciated.
– Invest in a good zoom lens if you’re into photography: between the bird life, the scenery and the fascinating sights on shore, you’ll be capturing some beauties.
– A daytrip or even a single night is never enough. To truly unwind and go beyond the tourist trail, give yourself more time. Two nights is popular, but houseboat rentals can go for up to a week or more.
– Choose your holiday season with care: December and January is peak season, with prices rising accordingly. March through to May can experience high humidity, so air conditioning is a must for bookings, while the monsoon can bring hidden benefits, such as cooling rains in the afternoons and great discounts on hire prices.
– Visiting India is now particularly easy with the e-tourist visa, done completely online.
For more information on Houseboating in Kerala see: Incredible India
NB: Australians can now apply for an e-Visa for India, meaning you’ll no longer have to hand over your passport at an embassy, if you are eligible. To apply, head to indianvisaonline.gov.in (and beware of third party websites).