The undisputed main attraction of a Kerala trip is a Kerala houseboat tour through the 900km network of waterways that fringe the coast and trickle inland.
Long before the advent of roads, these waters were the slippery highways of Kerala, and many villagers still use paddle-power as their main form of transport.
Trips through the backwaters traverse palm-fringed lakes studded with cantilevered Chinese fishing nets and wind their way along narrow shaded canals where coir (coconut fibre), copra (dried coconut kernels) and cashews are loaded onto boats. Along the way are isolated villages where farming life continues as it has been for hundreds of years.
Kerala Houseboat Tour
The popular backwater tours Kerala between Kollam and Alleppey departs at 10.30am, arriving at 6.30pm, daily from August to March and every second day at other times. Generally, there is a 1:00 pm lunch stop (with a basic lunch provided) and a brief afternoon chai stop. The crew has an ice box full of fruit, soft drinks and beer to sell. Bring sunscreen and a hat.
It is a scenic and leisurely way to get between the two towns, but the houseboats in Kerala travels along only the major canals - you won't have many close-up views of the village life that makes the backwaters so magical. Some travellers say they found the eight-hour trip boring.
Another option is to take the trip halfway and get off at the Matha Amrithanandamayi Mission, the incongruously pink ashram of Matha Amrithanandamayi. One of India's few female gurus, Amrrithanadamayi is also known as Amma (Mother) or 'The Hugging Mother': because of the darshan (audience) she offers, often hugging thousands of people in marathon all-night sessions.
The ashram runs official tours at 5:00 pm each day. It's a huge complex with about 2000 people living here permanently-monks, nuns, students and families, both Indian and foreign. It offers food, ayurvedic treatments, yoga and meditation, as well as souvenirs-everything from books to postcards of Amma's toes. Amma travels around for much of the year, so you might be out of luck if in need of a cuddle.
Visitors should dress conservatively and there is a strict code of behaviour. With prior arrangement, you can stay at the ashram for Rs 150 per day (including simple vegetarian meals) and pick up an onward or return cruise a day or two later. Alternatively, you can take the free ferry to the other side of the canal and grab a rickshaw to Karunagappally, 10km away, from where you can catch buses to Alleppey.
Other places you can find a Kerala houseboat tour near Alleppey are Kumarkom and Cochin. Most of the Kumarakom houseboats are operated by resorts there. Cochin backwaters Kerala also has a number of houseboats.
Village Tours and Canoe Boats
More and more travellers are opting for village tours or canal-boat trips. Village tours usually involve small groups of five to six people, a knowledgeable guide and an open canoe or covered kettuvallam.
The tours (from Kochi, Kollam or Alleppey) last from two and half to six hours and cost between Rs 300 and 650 per person. They include visits to villages to watch coir-making, boat building, toddy (palm beer) tapping and fish farming. On longer trips a traditional Kerala lunch is often provided.
The Munroe lsland trip from Kollam is an excellent tour of this type. The "tourist desk" in Ernakulam also organises recommended tours. In Alleppey, rented canoe boats offer a non-guided laze through the canals on a small, covered canoe for up to four people - a great way to spend a relaxing afternoon.
If you want the local backwater transport experience, there are State water Transport boats between Alleppey and Kottayam depart Alleppey at 7.30am, 9.35am, 11.30am, 2.30pm and 5.15pm: they leave Kottayam at 6.40am, 11.30am, 1pm, 3.30pm and 5.15pm. The trip crosses Vembanad Lake and has a more varied landscape than the Alleppey cruise.
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