Boating on the backwaters of Kerala

by fiona.duncan

You may think you've tried the best kinds of floating holidays - but nothing's quite as magical as drifting into a whole new dimension on Kerala's lakes and canals


I've long been addicted to relaxing on water. Nile cruisers, Turkish gulets, Kashmiri houseboats and French canal boats - I've done them all. But none has had quite the magical effect of a few days aboard Oberoi Hotels' new cruiser on the romantic backwaters of Kerala.
The whole experience was not unlike meditation or being treated to an Ayurvedic massage in the most natural yet luxurious spa you can imagine (appropriately, the ancient Ayurveda system of wellbeing in body, mind and spirit has its roots in Kerala).
In fact, the floating feeling began before I even stepped on board for a two-night cruise. After the frenzy of Bombay, I could sense Kerala's muted, otherworldly air the moment we disembarked at the modern airport of Cochin. From then on, my time in this exotic sliver of southern India, hemmed in by the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghat mountains and coloured like a parrot's back, seemlessly glided by.
We began with a tour of Cochin, with its many echoes of the past. In the streets of Jew Town, where we visited the charmingly hotchpotch Pardesi Synagogue, we were diverted by some cavernous antique and spice shops, in which we could browse in peace and emerge weighed down with cashew and cardamom, coloured lamps and carved elephants. En route to the countrified central market, its stalls heaped with strange fruit, strange fish and even stranger cuts of meat, our ebullient guide described a long history of learning to live with outsiders (Portuguese, Dutch, English), religious tolerance (Keralans are roughly equal parts Hindu, Muslim and Christian), and the best rates of literacy, healthcare and cleanliness in India.
In the district of Fort Cochin, the pace slows to that of a sleepy English village, and indeed it has a village green, surrounded by fine Portuguese, Dutch and English houses. In one corner stands St Francis, the first European church in India and the site of Vasco da Gama's original tomb (his body was later returned to Portugal). Along the sandy beach you'll find perhaps the most memorable sight in Cochin: a row of elegant Chinese fishing nets, their tall wooden poles arranged like several graceful daddy-longlegs.
And so to the boat. "Just you wait," said our Cochin guide, "it is beyond any dream." I wasn't sure I would agree. Would the only tourist craft on the backwaters that isn't a traditional rice boat, with its chefs and flunkies and eight air-conditioned double cabins tricked out with TVs and DVDs, jar uncomfortably with its surroundings? Rice boats that have been converted into houseboats, with one or two cabins for tourists, may be rudimentary, but at least they are authentic.
I was wrong. The double-decked MV Vrinda blends easily into its surroundings, and the interior is restrained rather than flashy. It's locally made, using teak, coconut and bamboo (the builder was there to greet us along with the chefs and flunkies, all charming Oberoi employees, faultless at their jobs). On the lower deck are the refreshingly cool cabins, dominated by big beds piled with huge pillows, plus plenty of storage space, stylish shower rooms and all the extras you would expect to find in an Oberoi hotel. On the upper deck is a veranda set with tables and chairs and the air-conditioned dining room, with picture windows.
Best of all, though, is the flat, coconut-matted roof. It was here, lying on a thick towelling-covered mattress and pillow and cooled by the breeze, that my mind and body gradually slowed to the gentle rhythm of life in the backwaters. Even the heavily muffled engine noise makes a soothing background accompaniment. (Danger lurks in odd places, though: I was nearly garrotted by a passing power line the first time I hauled myself to a sitting position.)
The first day aboard Vrinda is spent drifting along huge, coconut-fringed Vembanad Lake and into the Alleppey canal before returning to base. I spotted two types of kingfisher, brahmani kites, cormorants and pond herons; waved back at wildly waving children; glimpsed churches and temples between the palms and coconuts, an elephant being trundled along in a cart, a Bollywood film set, a gondola packed with passengers and their bicycles, umbrellas up.
As dusk fell, wonderful smells from the galley began to scent the air and we drifted off to our cabins to prepare for dinner. (One caveat: four cabins have peaceful lake views when the boat is on its jetty each evening; the other four, though, look out on to buildings and parked cars.) Breakfasts, lunches and dinners - with plenty of choice at each course were superb, and included the best gazpacho I have tasted. We had subtly-flavoured curries, delicate fish dishes and irresistible warm chocolate brownies and ice cream; and the head chef was on hand to cater for any special requests.

We were busier on the second day, transferring, with a guide, to Oberoi's own rice boat (kettu vallam) to explore smaller waterways than the Vrinda can manage. Lolling in cane chairs and sipping chilled lime sodas, we passed paddy fields and duck farms, humble shacks and fine Syrian Christian houses, games of cricket and fishermen selling from their boats to knots of gaily dressed housewives. At Chambakalam we walked, shaded by umbrellas, to St Mary's Church, its painted interior a riot of merrily clashing styles. We saw, too, the village's pride and joy - its 131ft-long champion racing snake boat (chundun vallam), manned during the annual Nehru Trophy race by 110 rowers and 10 singers to keep the oarsmen in time.
Everything in the backwaters, we learnt, has its place and its purpose. "This is a screw pine; it makes sleeping mats that prevent rheumatism; this is a plant from which we make slippers for healthy feet," our guide told us. The coconut tree, every part of which has a use, is revered above all else. "Each morning without fail we rub coconut oil into our skin - it's part of our preparation for the day. When we pray, we ask God to make us more like a coconut: hard and strong on the outside, bright and truthful on the inside."
I spent the third morning dreaming on the roof, as Vrinda paced the lake for a final time. It was just like having an Ayurvedic treatment, though the pleasure this time was marred by the knowledge that it would soon end and I would be sent packing, back to reality.



Cox & Kings offers tailor-made packages to Kerala, including accommodation at the Trident, in Cochin, and two nights aboard the MV Vrinda, operated by Oberoi Hotels and Resorts. As a price guide, two nights at the Trident, Cochin, including breakfast and a guided city tour, two nights aboard the MV Vrinda, including full board, and a further night at the Trident, plus return flights on British Airways via Mumbai, including transfers, costs from £1,845 per person.


After two years spent cooking on charter yachts in the Caribbean, followed by a career in magazine journalism and publishing, Fiona became a freelance travel writer, producing many travel guides and launching, with her husband, the Charming Small Hotel Guides, still going strong after more than 20 years. In 1998 she contributed her first travel article to the Sunday Telegraph and since written many features for that paper, travelling all over the world. For the last three years she has written an influential weekly column, Hotel Guru, in the Sunday Telegraph, reviewing British hotels.