Houseboats of Kerala, Backwater Hotels
Boats in Kerala Backwaters is a very typical image that represents the tourism in Kerala
Boats Kerala - Local Ferries
Kettuvallam (house boats in Kerala) may offer the most comfortable way of cruising the backwaters. But you'll get much more vivid experience of what life is actually like in the backwaters by jumping on one of the local ferries that serve its towns and villages.
The most recommended is the 29km trip in Alappuzha backwater from Alappuzha to Kottayam which winds across open lagoons and narrow canals, through coconut groves and islands. Arrive early to get a good seat with uninterrupted views.
There are numerous other local routes that you can jump on and off, though working your way through the complexities of the timetables and Malayalam names that can be difficult without the help of the tourist office.
Good places to aim for from Alappzha include Neerattupuram, Kidangara and Champakualam; all the three are served by regular daily ferries. But you may have to change boats once or twice along the way, killing time in local cafe's and toddy shops (all of which adds to the fun, of course).
Services are outlined on the State Water Transport Department's website, but always check in advance that your chosen ferry is running-timetables are being scaled back each year as the road network is extended.
Most of the backwaters hotels in Kerala offer cruises in different of kinds of boats. Either hotel has its own boats or some kind of arrangements with houseboat operators.
Boats Kerala - ATDC/DTPC Tours and Cruises
The most popular excursion of the entire Kuttanad region is the full-day journey between Kollam and Alappuzha. All sorts of private hustlers offer their services, but the principal boats are run on alternate days by the Alleppey Tourism Development Co-operative (ATDC) and District Tourism Promotion Council (DTPC).
The double-decker boats leave from both Kollam and Alappuzha daily, departing at 10.30am (10am check-in); ticket cost Rs 300 and can be bought in advance or on the day at the ATDC/DTPC counters, other agencies and some hotels. Both companies make the three stops during the eight-hour journey, including one for lunch, and anther at the Mata Amrintanandamayi Math at Amritapuri around three hours north of Kollam.
Although it is by far the main backwater route, many tourists find Alappuzha-Kollam too long, with crowded decks and intense sun. There's also something faintly embarrassing about being cooped up with a crowd of fellow tourists, madly photographing any signs of life on the water or canal banks, while gangs of kids scamper alongside the boat screaming "one pen, one pen".
One alternative is to charter a four-six seater motorboat through DTPC and ATDC. Slower more cumbersome double-decker country boats are also available for hire.
Boats Kerala - Village Tours and Canoes
Quite apart from their significant environmental impact, most houseboats are too wide to squeeze into the narrower inlets connecting small villages. To reach these more idyllic remote areas, therefore, you'll need to charter a punted canoe. The slower pace means less distance get covered, but the experience of being so close to the water, and those who live on it, tends to be correspondingly more rewarding.
Individual guides have their own favourite itineraries. You'll also find more formal "village tours" advertised across the Kuttanad area, tying together trips to watch coir makers, rice farmers and boat builders in action with the opportunity to dine in a traditional Kerala village setting.
Boats Kerala - Onam Snake Boat Race
Of all the crafts native to the Kuttanad backwaters, none is more majestic than the mighty snake boats - chundan vallam - raced each year in around a dozen different locations at the start of the Onam harvest festival. Up to 130 rowers crew these slender, 70m-long vessels, which are distinguished by their graceful cobra shaped sterns and beautiful brass studwork.
The striking design evolved five centuries ago after a local ruler ordered a warship to be built that could absorb the recoil of a canon. Nowadays, the position of the big gun on the firing platform is occupied by two drummers whose job it is to beat out the rhythm for the oarsmen to follow, aided by a choir of 25, whose job it is to drive the crew on with rhythmic vanchipattu, or boat songs. The strongest rowers sit at the front to set the pace, while the vessel is steered by six helmsmen at the rear.
Intense competition surrounds the annual races. Numerous religious rituals are performed and the oarsmen eat a special strength-building diet alternated with fats. They also have to abstain from alcohol in run-up to races. Alappuzha's Nehru Trophy is the main meet of the year, but similar, more traditional races are held on waterways across the Kuttanad region for the duration of the monsoons; the main ones are at Champakulam and Aranmula.