Travel to Ernakulam, Ernakulam Cochin
Ernakulam is Kerala's most cosmopolitan town by a long way; a stage here is a must for anyone who wants to get the most out of the state's cultural and cuisine. Despite not being the largest or most populous city, vibrant Ernakulam certainly feels like this is where the action is. Whether it is the history, shopping, sightseeing or food that you are here for, the city delivers.
In fact, that should be 'cities'. The conurbation formerly known as Kochi is made up of two separate towns, Kochi an Ernakulam. The reason for this rather odd situation is the topography: underwater Malabar mud banks divided the place aquatically, resulting in a natural harbour.
Most cross-town journeys involve a leg ferry, which adds to the leisurely ambience. Perhaps as a consequence of being bisected by glorious blue waters, the two towns feel relatively free of the dirt and dust that beset most Indian cities.
Besides its unusual geography, the town gets its character from the layer upon layer of cultural influence. For over 500 years, foreigners have been pitching up in this part of Kerala, which could be considered the West's gateway to the whole country.
Fort Kochi was where colonial Europe first stuck its flag into Indian soil, and the place gets a mention in the Chinese books predating even that. The Portuguese, who ruled during 16th century and half of the 17th century, were followed by the Dutch and finally by the British Raj. All left their indelible stamp on the place.
Throw in Jew Town and some Chinese fishing nets (of which more later), and it starts to become clear why Kochi is such a compelling architectural and cultural hybrid. The various nationalities that have trundled their way through town are responsible not only for many of Kochi's attractions, but also its sophisticated gastronomic scene; the town can definitely stake a convincing claim to offer the best food in the state.
At the centre of the action is Ernakulam, part of the mainland. The rest of the conurbation is made up of a confluence of small islands and peninsulas divided by Vembanad Lake.
Of greatest interest to the visitor will be the stretch of land that hosts Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Jew Town, steeped in history and atmosphere and home to some of the main attractions. Willingdon Island, which sits between Ernakulam and Fort Kochi, contains some of the metropolis's more exclusive accommodation.
Most tourists come to Kochi for its urban attractions, rather than the beach. As a working port, tankers ply the waterways continuously, so this is not the place for a serene dip in pristine seas. However, the rocky and rough-hewn Fort Kochi Beach can be found 2km form the boat jetty at Ernakulam.
Surrounding the beach are the usual complement of coconut trees and a few places to get a bite to eat. Athletic Kochilites often indulge in a spot of beach cricket and volleyball. If you're exceptionally lucky with your timing you might spot a dolphin. A more certain sight is the Chinese fishing nets that pepper the coastline. Another pleasant beach 'Cherai' can be found over on Vypin Island.
Things to See and Do
As Kerala's most cosmopolitan city, art lovers will find plenty of places to browse and buy. Here are a few of the best in the area.
Dravidian Art and Performance Gallery
South of customs Jetty
Tel: 0484 3096812
Showcases local art and hosts concerts in high season at 6pm.
Kerala Lalita Kala Academy
(Kerala Academy of Art)
Durbar Hall Road
Off M G Road
Usually 10am-8pm daily
Hosts temporary exhibitions of modern art, copies of antediluvian works and royal paraphernalia.
Kashi Art Gallery
Tel: 0484 2215769
10am -12.30pm and 2-6pm daily
Displays local work and is also home to a pleasant cafe.
Durbar Hall Art Gallery
(Open 1101)- 1800 hrs) Right in the middle of Ernakulam city is the grand Durbar Hall Grounds. The museum also houses a collection of coins, bronzes, copies of murals and megalithic relics of Kerala.
A popular hangout, this scenic stretch offers a spectacular view of the backwaters and the Kochi Harbour. Packed with shopping malls, cinema halls, restaurants, cafes and supermarkets, the Rainbow Bridge is another attraction of Marine Drive.
In Fort Kochi
Chinese fishing nets
These extraordinary looking contraptions are probably the most distinctive symbol of Kochi. Large, shore-operated lift nets, they work through a complicated system of counterweights and ropes. Despite their considerable size (they are typically more than 10m tall and the nets 20m, the cantilever system nets only a few fish, but with the whole process taking just few minutes, there can be repeated catches throughout the day, depending on the tide.
It is thought that is was 14th-century Chinese explorer Zheg He who introduced the nets to the city-hence the name- and Kochi's role as a hub of the spice industry lends some credence to the possibility. Picturesque at any time, the nets are particularly pretty at sunset, but the most interesting sight to see is the teamwork and mechanism when they are in use. You can see the Chinese nets in Fort Kochi and at other points around Vembanad Lake.
Somewhat confusingly, given the name, this medieval site was built by the Portuguese in the Kerala style, and presented to the Raja of Kochi in 1555. The Dutch renovated it over a century later, hence its moniker. You might also hear it referred to as Mattancherry Palace.
Its chief draw is its fabulous murals, dazzling depicts of Hindu gods, whose detail is quite astounding. Other rooms play host to portraits of the city's rajas (in a somewhat incongruous European style), an impressive-looking palanquin and various other royal paraphernalia. It is all accompanied by informative English captions. Official guides are on hand if you're interested in further explanation. 10am-5pm Sat-Thur, closed Fri.
Santa Cruz Basilica
Atmospheric chanting, ornate statues and murals-including a large Last Supper scene at the front- lend this church its t impressive atmosphere. Don't forget to look up for the crucifixion scenes on the ceiling. Originally built by the Portuguese in 1505, the current building is over a hundred years old. An English speaking custodian is sometimes on hand to fill visitors in on the history. 9am-1pm and 3-5pm daily
St Francis Church
India's oldest European church, built in 1503 by the Portuguese, is a bright, attractive venue, with simple chandeliers and stained-glass windows. Famed Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, who died on a visit to Kochi, was buried here before his remains were repatriated. 9.30am-1pm and 2.30-5pm Mon-Fri 2.30-5pm Sat, closed Sun
Kochi is the centre of Kerala's spectacular dance-dramas-the kathakali. Authenticity may have been sacrificed at the altar of tourist appetites (in its traditional from performances could go for several hours-for visitors it has been condensed to just under an hour), but it would still be travesty to come to Kerala without experiencing this spectacular form of entertainment.
Kerala Kathakali Centre
Opp Brunton Boatyard
K B Jacob Road
Tel: 0484 2215827
6pm daily Admission charge
Kochi Cultural Centre
Tel: 0484 2356366
6.30 pm daily Admission charge
Hill Palace Museum
Tripunithura, south east of Ernakulam
Tel: 0484 2781113
The Kochi's royals' old pad now hold their memorabilia, some 19th century art and other regal knick-knacks.
Kodanad Elephant Training Camp
Elephant ride and other pachyderm-related fun. Get there at 8am to assist with bath time. 7am-6pm daily No admission charge except for rides; guides appreciate a tip.
Taking a Break
Tel: 0484 2215461
Enviable harbour views make this cafe-bar a lovely spot for afternoon chai (choose from an impressive selection of teas) and home-made cake, or have a beer and watch the world go by.
Jew Town Road
Tel: 0484 2223346
The upstairs cafe at this antiques shop serves up sandwiches and soups as well as more traditionally Indian fare. There is also a range of refreshing drinks including milkshakes and some rather tempting cakes. Choose one of the three tables on the balcony-if they're free-and watch Jew Town go by while you eat.
The Avenue Regent
M G Road
Tel: 0484 2377977
Until 01.00 daily
Coffees, pastries, breads, snacks and light lunches are served until late in this stylish hotel cafe.
Tel: 0484 2351677
Part of popular chain with a handful of outlets throughout the state-as the deliberate misspelling suggests, this place brimming with youthful attitude.
Kashi Art Cafe
Tel: 0484 2215769
Enjoy coffee, cakes and other tempting light bites with the arty sent in Kashi's lushly pleasant garden. A daily changing menu keeps things fresh.
Corner of Princess St
Near Children's Park
Tel: 0484 2217807
It can take a while to get served, but the large number of tourists that make this the case are testament to its popularity. Watch your seafood being cooked on the outdoor grill, or play it safe with foreign favourites like Italian, Chinese or classic Indian dishes.
Behind the Post Office
Tel: 0484 3115672
8.30am-10.30am, 12-3pm and 6-11pm daily
A little piece of Europe in India, this upstairs Mediterranean hotel-restaurant apes Italian style in a big way, right down to the red-and-white check table clothes. Take a break from curry and choose from a range of reasonably priced pizza, pasta and salads. The restaurant does not currently serve alcohol but may get a licence soon.
Tel: 0484 2215461
Drawing on the cuisines of the various traders who have wended their way through Kochi over the centuries, this heritage hotel restaurant offers a melange of Dutch, Syrian Christian, British, Indian and Kerala fare, using historical recipes. Meanwhile, the morning's catch is served in its stylish Terrace Grill.
The Avenue Regent
M G Road
Tel: 0484 2377977
Clubbing opportunities are practically non-existent in Kerala, so anyone yearning for a spot of late-night action can get their fix in the state's first-ever designer bar. Plenty of trendy glass and form-over-function type furniture seal its cool credentials. Music varies from chill-out to Michael Jackson.