August 11th, 2014
How to Visit Kerala’s Famous Backwaters

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Mention India to someone who’s been and you’re just as likely to hear about swaying palms and mirror-still canals as desert forts and ancient temples. Kerala’s iconic backwaters have become one of India’s most popular tourist experiences, and for good reason.

India’s most southwestern state consists of a magical patchwork of electric green rice paddies, carpets of undulating emerald tea-fields, towering coconut palms, and of course, the formidable network of backwaters that lie just inland from the Arabian Sea. Stretching north from Kollam to Kochi, the tangled backwaters cover over 900km of canals, lagoons and lakes. Plenty of species of fish, frogs and crabs call the waters home, and the skies above host over 300 species of birds, including a few types of the country’s beloved kingfishers.

More than just wildlife depends on these waters, though. The people of Kerala have incorporated the backwaters into their lives for as long as history can remember. A ride on one of the state’s 44 rivers yields scenes of local women slapping sudsy laundry on flat stones on the water’s edge, men herding ducks into riverbank pens, one-man canoes creeping along the shoreline selling seafood for the day’s meals and even majestic snakeboats, over 100 feet long, brimming with just as many powerful rowers practicing for one of many important local races, like the Nehru Trophy Boat Race held every August during the Onam holiday.

You’ll also see plenty of kettuvallam – traditional covered barges once used for transporting local crops like rice, fish and coir (coconut husk) before trucks were more efficient. In fact, you’ll probably be on one yourself. The boats are now most popularly used as houseboats and have become a favourite attraction for tourists in Kerala, if not the state’s number one pull.

Kettuvallam were traditionally made from all natural materials including bamboo and coir and no nails at all were used – not even to hold together the hull. This may still be true in some cases today, but most often the most important factor in building a barge today is comfort. Boats for rent for tourists usually consist of one or more bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, plenty of living space and a kitchen, where your crew of three will concoct local Kerala delicacies at the snap of your finger. Some boats offer air-conditioning in bedrooms and/or in closed in living spaces, while others rely on nothing more than the backwater breeze for air circulation. Some boats even have a second floor, balancing somewhat precariously at the top of your floating palace.

About that mouthwatering Kerala cuisine, though – it’s worth a trip down south all on its own. If you’re a seafood lover you’re in luck. Both fresh and saltwater catches like kingfish, tuna, karimeen and impossibly sized freshwater prawns are commonly cooked up with local masala spices and vegetables, steamed in banana leaf parcels or doused in spicy coconut-milk curries. And the rockbottom price-tag for all of this seafood will have you considering relocation, stat.

The most popular place to hop on a houseboat is Alappuzha, known as Alleppey in the past, located about 1.5 hours south of historic Fort Kochi and plotted near the banks of the state’s largest lake – Vembanad. Crisscrossing off this lake are multitudes of canals ripe for exploring and though houseboat business soars during the state’s high season and water traffic can halt to a gridlock around Alleppey, there’s almost always a canal nearby where your boat can float in solitude.

Step foot in Alleppey and the houseboat industry will seemingly slap you in the face, though. Your cab driver wants to set up your houseboat. Your hotel wants to set up your houseboat. Your waiter wants to too, and don’t even try walking down the block unarmed. Houseboat slingers basically line the streets and they each want to book you on theirs. The competition for business is fierce and, unfortunately, can sometimes end in unsatisfactory experiences for customers.

Some on the Internet advise that, especially during the low season, it’s best to show up at Alleppey’s main jetty and pick your own boat. To check them all out, negotiate your price, grab your things and board for the night. But having witnessed the staggering differences in the quality of boats, and the knowledge and friendliness of the crews, we recommend sorting out your details before arrival and using one of a few businesses that have become well-known across guidebooks and forums for quality, service and, most importantly in India, value.

Our Pick

Lakes and Lagoons was our editor’s company of choice for a one-night houseboat stay during a recent trip to Kerala. The well-reviewed company offers several levels of luxury houseboats – all come with AC, conscientious staff, a flawless check-in and transfer process and delicious, heaping portions of food. A fruit basket awaits you when you board at noon, closely followed by a feast of a lunch including chicken, fish and vegetable dishes, fresh bread and plenty of rice. Dinner is even more indulgent, especially if you stop off at a local seafood shop to pick up massive freshwater tiger prawns. After all of that you won’t be hungry for breakfast in the morning, but your choice of cereal, omelet, toast or all of the above will be waiting for you when the clock strikes 9:00am.

Each boat has small variations but even the most basic of the boats, the Deluxe, has a spacious covered living room, comfortable and spotless bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, and plenty of space at the bow of the boat to spread out on a cushion and relax as the watery world passes you by. Don’t pass up the chance to take an hour-long canoe ride before tucking in for the evening – a local man pulls up to your houseboat and beckons you aboard, offering the opportunity to enter much smaller canals than your 13-foot wide houseboat can navigate.

Houseboat stays are generally one or two nights, but Lakes and Lagoons offers packages to help you make the best of Kerala’s surrounding attractions before and after your floating holiday, including visits to tea plantations in Munnar and the jungle in Periyar. For popular one night stays, guests check in and board the boat slightly before noon, stop off at a local village for a short walk and a visit to a local church around 4:30, tie up at Lakes and Lagoons’ field site for the night around 6:30 and return to Alleppey at 9:30am after an hour and a half of cruising the next morning.