Houseboat heaven in Kerala

by Clare.Jones

Try a very different kind of cruise and enjoy the silence of southern India. You might not get all the glitz of an ocean-going vessel but you won’t need to fight for a sun lounger

You can sit back, relax and enjoy a totally different kind of cruise when you step on board an Indian houseboat. Forget all-you-can-eat buffets, sun loungers and cabaret; on this kind of cruise a converted rice boat is the craft and the silent backwater canals of Kerala the destination. 
 
When it comes to Kerala you will hear the title ‘God’s Own Country’ rolled out time and time again. Rapturous appreciation is, however, what this state, a lush, green, vibrant finger of land bordering the Arabian Sea and stretching for 550km on India’s southwest coast, evokes. And it’s not without merit. 
 
Life on the backwaters
 
Nestling behind a strip of idyllic beaches and sandy bays are Kerala's famous backwaters, an intricate network of canals, lagoons and lakes, which take you into the heart of the ‘rice bowl of India’, where paddy fields abound. Sink into the deep cushions of a wicker chair on deck and cruise the waterways, where swathes of palm trees, vast rice fields and small villages line the banks and life can slip idly from one day to the next. 
 
These luxury Keralan longboats, or kettuvallam, were once used to transport rice from the surrounding fields. Today they allow you to effortlessly journey through a landscape that has barely changed. From children splashing in the shallows to the women doing the weekly clothes wash and field workers cultivating the same lush lands as their forefathers, smiling faces greet you at every corner. 
 
On board, you can laze out on the raised cushioned deck at the front of the boat, a perfect viewing platform. Inside, a curved, palm-plaited roof provides a shady covering, which leads to the bedroom and kitchen areas. As you slip through this serene landscape the delicious smell of fresh fish, seasoned with a blend of local spices, cooked by your crew for a dinner on board, is probably about the only thing that will stir you into activity. 
 
Canals and coconuts
 
According to legend, the state was formed when the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, Parashuram, was looking for a virgin land in which to perform yoga. When he threw his axe into the sea the water retreated, forming this labyrinth of waterways. 
 
Narrow canalways, backed with thick dense trees, lead to the open vistas of Vembanad Lake, the biggest fresh water lake in India. Plantation farms growing cocoa, coconuts and mangoes sit alongside small mud brick villages, churches, mosques and colourful Hindu temples. Here and there, even narrower channels, wide enough only for dug-out canoes, branch off and lead further into this intricate maze. 
 
One of the islands on Vembanad Lake offers even more relaxation. The Coconut Lagoon Resort is less ‘resort’ and more ’retreat’, hidden amongst palm trees on an abandoned coconut plantation. A few days' stay here in a timber and tiled ‘Heritage Villa’ is a great way to end your houseboat journey. If you aren’t already relaxed enough you can certainly top-up your wellbeing by experiencing an Ayurvedic treatment, a holistic medical system found across India, but particularly dominant in Kerala. You can be massaged, pummelled and scrubbed clear of any lingering stresses. 
 
Cultural mix
 
This popular backwater area is known as the Kuttand and extends for 75 km from Kollam in the south to Kochi or Cochin in the north, the most common arrival destination for visitors to Kerala. Here you can begin to get a feel for the vibrancy of this state, which has been attracting visitors in search of spices and sandalwood for the last 2000 years.
 
Kerala’s coast was known to the Phoenicians and the Romans and later the Arabs and the Chinese long before it was ‘discovered’ by Vasco da Gama in 1498. These diverse influences are still reflected in the sights and sounds of the city. Take a stroll on the northern shore of Fort Cochin in the early morning and you will still see the ancient Chinese nets being lowered and raised by teams of local fishermen searching the bountiful waters for a catch. In the evening catch a Kathakali performance, the state’s unique art form combining dance, storytelling and mime. 
 
Slipping through the waterways, the pace of life will slow right down in this verdant, laidback bit of India. It's houseboat heaven.
 

Getting there

British Airways fly to Kerala, and Trans Indus is a specialist operator offering packages to the area.

Clare.Jones

Clare Jones is a travel writer and photographer who loves a good adventure and has been lucky enough to make this her work travelling across the globe for a variety of magazines and newspapers. She is co-author and photographer of the international best-selling BBC books Unforgettable Things to do before you die, Unforgettable Journeys to take before you die and the recently published Unforgettable Walks to take before you die. She has also co-authored the AA titles, Extreme Places and the flagship Key Guide to Spain. She has been on assignment in over 50 countries and five continents exploring them on foot, by kayak, under sail, by mountain bike as well as skiing and climbing. One of her most testing adventures was a three-month sea-kayaking expedition from Vancouver to Alaska, as part of the first British all-female team to undertake this 1000-mile epic journey. She is a Winston Churchill Fellow and was honoured with the Mike Jones Award for accomplishing this journey. She is also sponsored by Salomon. Her work has been featured by a variety of publications, including the Sunday Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, The Scotsman, and The Herald, USA Today, Geographical, Health & Fitness and Traveller. Clare is also an assistant television producer and has worked on several BBC documentaries.