This world-famous trio of beaches in Kerala, southern India, has working fishermen, a laid-back lifestyle and a varied selection of hotels from the basic to the super luxurious.
Kovalam is only 10 miles from Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), the capital of Kerala – but in those few miles you get the chance to unwind and adapt to the very laid-back southern Indian lifestyle. The more frenzied, chaotic atmosphere of northern India does not penetrate this far south. You are very near the southern tip of the subcontinent where the Indian Ocean, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea meet up.
Kerala's lush countryside is threaded through with waterways and lagoons replenished by the rains. The monsoon lasts from May through to November, with frequent downpours during this period and intermittent showers the rest of the time, producing a languid and peaceful subtropical climate. Here, you are on the same latitude as southern Thailand and Sudan.
The three beaches
Kovalam itself has three beaches – Samudra, Hawah and Lighthouse Beach. Of these, Samudra Beach – to the north – offers two hotel resorts with spectacular views over the ocean and working fishermen on the sands. The KTDC Hotel Samudra (+91 471 248 0089, www.samudrakovalam.com) is a three-star with its own grounds, a bar, swimming pool and restaurant where you can relax in surroundings removed from the tumult of Kovalam at the height of the season. Over Christmas and New Year, prices quadruple and western tourists flock in for celebrations that go on well into the New Year.
On the headland between Samudra and Hawah Beach is the five-star Leela Kempinski - www.kempinski.com/en/kerala Tel: +91 471 248 01 01 - with swimming pools, a dedicated health spa, air-conditioned luxury and sunset views to die for. You can also book your own south Indian massage here, which will relax and unwind even the most stressed traveller thanks to a heritage of knowledge that stretches back some 5,000 years.
The great charm of Kovalam is that it is still a working fishermen's beach – though they are getting older, with few young recruits due to the laborious nature of their work, hauling in great nets that are taken hundreds of yards out to sea and slowly brought back in with their catch. You will be welcomed if you assist in this arduous task – and if you are feeling particularly active, you can help the fishermen launch their large canoe-like boats into the beating surf.
The most popular beach with independent budget travellers is Lighthouse Beach – stretching 300 yards between rocky promontories, with a lighthouse at the southern end. Right in the middle of the beach, next to the Coral Reef Café, you will find the reasonably priced Jeevan Ayurvedic Beach Resort. Here you can discover the joys of Ayurvedic massage, using oils and all the skills of the hotel's highly trained practitioners. Skills are passed on from guru to pupil in the traditional Indian manner.
At Chowara, five miles south of Kovalam, the Somatheeram Ayurvedic Beach Resort offers prize-winning medical treatments and yoga courses. At the height of the tourist season in December and January, Kovalam itself is not that quiet – so this is the place to head if you seeking a more relaxed and peaceful environment.
Tips to avoid drowning
At each end of Lighthouse Beach are dangerous rips that take unwary swimmers out to sea – which would happen much more often, were it not for the three lifeguards provided by the Kerala government. They rescue both Westerners and Indians, many of whom can hardly swim at all. If you stick within the flags marking the safe part of the patrolled beach, you are likely to be OK.
No deaths have been reported recently, but the lifeguard I spoke to warned that if you are not a strong swimmer, the fierce tow from the breaking waves can draw you out of your depth. Make sure you swim only when the lifeguards are present.
If you do get caught in a rip, try to swim diagonally across it – not directly against it – until you reach calmer water. Most drowning is caused by panic; just relax, and you will float on the surface. If you are dragged under, you are highly likely to be brought back up to the surface within two minutes by the current.
Adapting to the lifestyle
It takes a few days to realise how rural Kovalam is, despite its proximity to the capital. At first you are distracted by the rows of beach cafés and restaurants, and the ever-present hawkers of trinkets and fruits. Part of Kovalam's charm, however, is that you can easily be absorbed into the local scene. Behind the beach are paddy fields, while a game of volleyball among the nations of the world could start up in the late afternoon when the heat begins to dissipate.
Curious Indians tend to stand and gawp at female visitors, who to them seem shockingly unclad. This is the case all over India, and it's an experience you will soon get used to. Come the evening, there are no nightspots in Kovalam, just a great crescent of lights from the cafés and restaurants as people get down to the serious business of eating locally caught fish and ruminating over the day.
The backwaters of Kerala
Spend some time exploring the surrounding area. One idea is to take a taxi to the southern tip of India at Kanyakumari. Alternatively, if you take the road back towards Thiruvananthapuram and turn off at the first bridge, you can hire a canoe boat with your own "gondolier". He will take you round the lagoons and backwaters, stopping off at one of the places where they make feni – the local alcoholic brew, derived from coconut juice. Be warned, it has the kick of a mule!
The villagers here live in a lush paradise, as they themselves seem to be aware. They move gracefully and slowly, laugh a lot – and you will find the women and children happily washing in the waterways as you pass.
The sheer exuberance of their surroundings is reflected in their clothing, while they themselves exude a hint of the further mysteries of the Orient just around the tip of their 2,000 miles of coastline. Southern India is different, far different, from the northern states. Here, the old traditions live on.