Gold and green dominate you first impressions of Kerala. Most of the travellers arrive by plane, landing at Trivandrum or Kochi.
A flash of vivid golden sand brings the ocean to an abrupt end, giving way to a carpet of vegetation: bands of shaggy coconut palms interwoven by tangled rivers, canals, lagoons and water-logged rice paddy that stretch to a horizon bounded by forested mountains.
The lower slopes of the Western Ghats, less than 100km inland, are the source of the spices that drew traders from across the world to the shore known for the centuries as the Malabar Coast.
An important tourist hub of Kerala is the former colonial trading port of Kochi. Facing the modern metropolis of Ernakulam from across the harbour, the time-worn backstreets of Fort Cochin, lined by old Portuguese, Dutch and British houses, provide the main focus for visitors, with a broad choice of homestays and heritage hotels, and atmospheric little restaurants, cafes and art galleries.
Fort Cochin is fronted by a channel that's still busy night and day with maritime traffic, the iconic Chinese fishing nets are the defining feature of the waterfront, but you'll see dozens more of these quirky contraptions dangling from riverbanks in the backwaters to the south.
Boats and punted canoes ferry sightseers out of Fort Cochin each morning to typical lagoon-and-river-side villages where life, dominated by inshore fishing, crab farming and coir production, seems little affected by the presence up the highway of a major city.
For tours deeper into the famous Kuttanad's backwaters, however, the market town of Alappuzha, a couple of hours' drive south of Kochi, is the best springboard, particularly if, like tens of thousands of visitors each year, you want to explore the region in a converted rice barge.
A fleet of nearly 500 handsome old kettuvallam, capped with elegant coir canopies, waits on the outskirts of whisk passengers over the glassy expanse of Vembanad Lake or along the network of palm-fringed canals and rivers crisscrossing this densely populated rice-growing area.
For a more hands-on experience, you can also jump on one of the clapped-out local ferries connecting Kuttanad's myriad settlements, or stay a few nights in one of the many heritage homestays occupying antique, gable-roofed tharavadu houses.
The southern gateway to Kuttanad is the old spice port of Kollam a popular stop for travellers en route to from the nearby beach resort of Varkala, with its spectacular red cliff and famous temple.
Kovalam and Trivandrum
Kerala's capital city Trivandrum is in the far south of the state where a large number of foreign tourists arrive.
The state's other main resort, Kovalam, further south, is looking a little jaded these days, but serves as a convenient base for day-trips into Trivandrum, where you can shop for traditional Kerala metalwork, admire the elegant lines of the old palace and temples, or browse some of the region's best museums.
Rising alluring inland, the forested hills around the reservoir at nearby Neyyar Dam offer an easy retreat when the heat becomes too much.
Wildlife and Hill Stations
Running in a virtually unbroken line along the length of Kerala, the mighty Western Ghats encompass a region that's radically different from the coastal plains, with vast tea gardens and coffee plantations wrapped around the flanks of jagged, grass-topped mountain peaks.
Wild elephant, tigers and rare lion-tailed macaques, to name but three of the seventy or more species of mammals to be found in the Ghats, inhabit more remote tracts of forest.
A former royal hunting reserve centred on a man-made lake, the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary has long been the first stop of visiting wildlife enthusiasts, but its burgeoning popularity has lately encouraged more discerning travellers to explore forest zones further north in the range, around the spectacularly situated tea stations of Munnar, or the hidden valley of the Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary.
Arts and Festivals
To reach Prambikulam you'll have to cross the lush paddy fields of the Nila region, dominated by the holy Bharathapuzha River. This is the heartland of the state's traditional culture, kathakali, and its predecessor, koodiyattam, originated, along with the female classical dance form, mohiniyattam.
Performances of all of these are a regular feature of life in Thrissur, seat of the former ruling dynasty, although this prosperous town is better known for its annual Pooram festival in May. Thrissur also celebrates Kerala's colourful Onam festival (Aug/Sep) in style, with the astonishing Pulikali, or tiger dance, in which thousands of masked, painted men descend on the streets in a raucous celebration.
Malabar-Wayanad, "theyyam", Valiyaparamba and Bekal
Insulated from the tourist enclaves of the south Kerala by an eight-to-twelve-hour train ride, northern Kerala and its unofficial capital Kozhikode (Calicut) see comparatively few visitors. But the region holds enormous potential for independent travel, with its own distinctive, Muslim-influenced atmosphere and some superb heritage homestays and ayurveda spas.
For most foreign travellers, however, the main incentives to venture up north are the extraordinary Hindu spirit-possession rituals known as theyyam, held in villages throughout the winter around the coastal towns of Kannur (Cannanore).
While you're in the region, other destinations worth extending your tour to reach include the wonderfully un spoilt Valiyaparamba backwaters, Bekal and the exquisite Wayanad Hills, which holds some of the southern India's finest rainforest and mountain scenery, and some superbly situated eco-resorts.
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